Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Well-Deserved Break

After a strenous two and a half weeks of "teaching", we finally get a ten day break! Boy are we grateful. Actually, I'm a little bummed that I didn't get more time with my students. I didn't even get to meet them all before the break! The break is also oddly placed because I did a bunch of exercises on Halloween this week, and I'm supposed to do the same with the rest of the kids after the break, which ends November 5th. Isn't it a little strange to be studying Halloween in November? Apparently not.

For our break, we've mostly been lounging around, but starting tomorrow we should become a little more active. Last Saturday my Canadian friend Catherine introduced us to a very nice French couple who live in Orléans. Anne-Sophie and Pierre just returned from two years in Manchester, England, and have moved to Orléans to begin teaching careers. Both speak excellent English, and we're hoping to invite them over for dinner this week. They also gave us some tips on how to stay in France as "contractuel" teachers for the next school year. We're going to talk to some people about it soon.
Sunday was "E" day, and all the assistants brought excellent edibles. There was the expected plethora of eggplant; but also some emmental cheese, epice cake, and delicious eclairs. We're skipping this Sunday's dinner because Andrew and I are going to Paris to visit with Natalie, a Peace Corps buddy of ours from Mali who just moved to here. All the museums are free on Sunday, so we're going to pack in as much as we can.

Monday was shopping day, which was fun but a little depressing at the same time. We each geared up for winter in some new, fashionable clothes, and we sprung for a new comforter set as it's been getting quite chilly at night, despite the lovely clear skies and mild temps during the day. At one of the stores, we saw an interesting advertisement on all the panties and bras:

We're both going crazy for the beautiful changing colors that signals fall is here. It's been so long since we've seen red, yellow, and orange leaves on trees!

Tomorrow we're off to Beaugency to visit our friend Justine. We'll post more pics after Paris. Of course, you can see the rest of our photos at

Friday, October 23, 2009

A Good Day

I had a great day today. We did Halloween (for half the kids, our first class together), mostly 6-8 year olds, and another class of 9 year olds. For those students who I had on Tuesday, we re-sang Brother John, played the Listen,Be Quiet,Repeat game (I do the gesture, they say the word; I say the word, they do the gesture), and talked about their homework: ask their parents for English words in the French language, like week end and t-shirt. For all classes, we talked about halloween: what they do, what they dress up as, how to say Trick or Treat. I carved a jack o'lantern and showed that to them, explained how to make one, got them to say pumpkin and jack o'lantern. Then, for the young 'uns, I passed out a little pumpkin and told them "color the stem green, color the eyes, nose, and mouth black, color the pumpkin orange." For the older group I passed out a worksheet that had a wordsearch, a maze, an explaination of Halloween in French, and three jack o'lanterns to color. At the same time as the respective coloring activity, I went around with candy in a cauldron (brought back from Mali). They had to knock on the cauldron and say "Trick or Treat" to get the candy. In the older class, they had to pull a piece of paper out of my hat that said either "Trick" with a ghost or "Treat" with a pumpkin. If they got the pumpkin, they got the candy. With the ghost, they had to answer an easy question like "what's your name" or "what color is this" before getting the candy.
The teachers all loved it and some even took notes! My big problem is that I keep running over my time by about 5 minutes, and the kids don't want to go to recess, they'd rather stay in English class!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Last weekend we went to Bl-wah. Well, it's really spelled Blois, but it sounds so funny that we spent the entire weekend pretending to be vampires, running around the city saying "Bl-wah ha ha!" Gotta love French.

Blois is only about 45 minutes south of Orléans, and it has a beautiful château, or castle. We went with a group of 11 other assistants from the U. K., Australia, and the states. Needless to say, we were quite a conspicuous tourist group, but since we all speak French we were (maybe?) less annoying than others. For those who have never been to Europe, castles are cool. Europe, unlike the states, is old enough to have been controlled at various times by crazy monarchs who bankrupted the state by financing gorgeous castles and monuments and parks. Not so nice for the citizens of the time, but wicked cool for us 21st century tourists. There was a lot of cool sculptures and busts, including one of Gaston d'Orléans, the brother of Louis XII (who build the castle, I think). I really dug his goatee and very Frenchy nose, so I gave him a kiss.
There was a lovely Renaissance art museum inside the castle, but there was also some sort of modern photography exhibit on feet, so unfortunately the pretty paintings were ruined by the photos of ugly feet (one pair even belonging to the mayor of Blois, who, much to my surprise, did not look like the Count from Seasame Street). My favorite part about the museum was finding all the random porcupines throughout the castle. They're also spread throughout the city. Porcupines were the symbol of King Louis XII. Other than the castle, the city of Blois was very similar to Orléans, with lots of shopping/walking streets, a lovely riverfront view, and several beautiful old churches. Blois is also built on different levels, so the streets are winding. My favorite church was this beautiful old baroque style cathedral. I really liked the gilded walls and the brightness of it. It was very different than Gothic churches.

We also started sponsored dinner club. We are spelling the word "TEACH," so for the first day everyone brought something beginning with "t." I made chicken tajine in my lovely 3€ tajine.

Teaching is going well, though I am the only assistant in Orléans who has actually started teaching. Most are still doing observation. I'm really happy that I've already started and have my own classes. I've discovered that I really like teaching, and I have so little time with these kids that I wish we didn't have this break coming up so I could continue working with them. As it is, I only see most of my kids once a month! Each grade is divided into 5 groups, and then each group is divided in half, so that I don't get much time with any of them. It's really kind of sad. I also got a second job tutoring two high school boys on Friday evenings. It's only two hours a week, but an extra $50 a week is definitely welcome right now.

Language is coming along, though I seem to make one serious mistake a day. Usually that mistake leaves me feeling really dumb for the rest of the day, but I'm learning to deal with it. I've made several French friends and have some "playdates" for the holidays, which begin on Saturday and last til the 4th of November. No money means no traveling, so it'll be nice to eat yummy French food for free instead of moping around the house lamenting our lack of funds. To be fair, we're not that bad off, and we do plan on doing a little bit of traveling in the area, mostly to visit friends and see more chateaux, but we aren't doing a trip to Italy or Spain like a lot of other people are.

I'm already trying to find ways to stay in France longer. It's so lovely here, and I don't feel that seven months will do it justice. Unfortunately, our landlady just sold our apartment, so even if we find a way to stay, we'll have to move anyway by April 30th. But I wouldn't mind living elsewhere in France, but it's super hard for Americans to get a job here.

Comme toujours, there are more photos to be seen at

A tout à l'heure!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

There's Something Rotten in the State of France...

Friday was the first day that I regretted living downtown. Most of the time, it's awesome living right in the heart of Orleans, just a step away from the busy shopping streets, great restaurants, and access to public transport. However, on Friday afternoon when I tried to take an afternoon bus from Checy, a suburb about 20 km from Orleans, it took nearly two hours to get home because the whole downtown area was completely blocked off due to an agricultural protest.

The farmers (and every other Frenchman, it seems) want President Sarkozy to help the plummeting farming industry by giving government loans. Apparently food is too cheap for farmers to make a living, so they're demanding that prices be inflated for food, especially dairy products.
Since I happen to live just down the street from the mayor's office, not only were all the buses blocked, but once I finally made my way on foot toward my apartment, I had to navigate around burning piles of hay, mounds of potatoes and onions, and knee-deep sawdust. I smelled great by the time I made it home. There, I grabbed Andrew, our camera, and a plastic sack to join the French in rooting through the produce on the street for free veggies. Tacky? Maybe, but when in Rome, do as the Romans.

What amazed me is that the farmers were even allowed to do this. I believe that people have a right to protest, but do they have a right to block the streets with smelly manure, causing major traffic jams and huge clean-up costs? It took hours for firefighters to put the fires out and bring in tractors to move out the waste and then use high-powered hoses to clean the streets. They still smell. What's obvious is that the French love their protests, and feel that their high taxes justify the mess they make, since they're technically paying for it through taxes. This theory also explains why the French refuse to clean up after their dogs in public places; why should they have to when they pay heavy taxes which essentially pay for it?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

We've only been here three weeks??

Okay, I suck. I’m sorry I didn’t write last Saturday. Things have been a little slow and frustrating lately. We had a mini-crisis last week regarding, surprise ,surprise, money! Things are a little better now.

Anyway, on to fun stuff. I have started teaching at my schools already. On Mondays and Tuesdays I teach at Collège St. Exupery in St. Jean de Braye, a nearby suburb of Orléans. I teach two advanced English courses to 8th graders, one advanced course for 7th graders, two regular 8th grade English courses, and one 6th grade class. The students are sweet and their English is pretty good, especially compared to Mali. I don’t know if American French students could speak as much French after as many years of study as some of my students. Ironically, there are several Malians in my classes, and they are definitely the bravest, if not the smartest. I’ve been trying to come up with fun activities to play, since that is essentially what I am supposed to be doing. I’m not supposed to be teaching grammar or assigning essays ; my job is to get them to speak. This week we played « Who Am I ? » where the students had to ask questions to figure out who their secret identity was (Britney Spears, Harry Potter, etc.) They had a lot of fun. We also did some riddles/puzzles, but they were actually too easy for my advanced class so I need to come up with something else for next week.

I have Wednesdays free, and so does Andrew, which has been nice. On Thursdays and Fridays I work at Collège Pierre Mendès France in Checy, a suburb a bit further east of Orléans. Unfortunately, the bus ride there is annoying and long and indirect, so I either have to transfer, walk an additional 15 minutes, or make sure I catch the only direct bus, which only runs very early in the morning and late in the afternoon. I have three 7th grade classes, two 8th grade classes, and one 6th grade bilingual class, which means they are learning both English and German at the same time ! Can you imagine learning two foreign languages that young ?

All of my teachers have been so friendly and understanding. It’s been very comforting to know that there are so many people who are willing to help me out if I need it.

Andrew went to visit his schools last week and to observe the classes. He’s at two schools: Ecole Gutenberg and Ecole Michel de la Fournière. Gutenberg is a much bigger school than the other, but the students are just as cute. He still doesn’t have his schedule, but it looks like he’ll be teaching kids from K-4th grade. He went around with an English teacher, Sophie, on Monday and Friday to see exactly how he’s supposed to be teaching, and he had a good time. Sophie is a great teacher and taught at the French high school in LA on Overland. He’s gotten a lot more training than me, but maybe that’s necessary for working with such small children. When he introduced himself to his classes, and he told them he was from LA, all the kids started talking. Apparently, LA is the cool place to be if you’re French: you get to see stars every day, the city is clean, the architecture is amazing, great public transport, everyone’s rich, no homeless… We explained that France is usually a cool place to be if you’re from LA.

We went to a vide grenier, or flea market, this weekend. Among our spoils were :

  • A used bike for 10€ (about $15)
  • A Moroccan tagine for 3€ (less than $5)
  • A complete raclette set for 5€ ($7.50)
  • Harry Potter, books 1-4 in French for 5€
  • A crystal wine decanter for 3€

Now as a special treat for not posting last week, here are two French recipes for your enjoyment.

Bouillabaisse (Seafood Soup), serves 2-3 people, or 1.5 Andrews


An assortment of your favorite seafood (clams, shrimp, mussels, scallops, fish, squid)

2 onions

2 tomatoes

1 small branch of fennel

Olive Oil

Salt and pepper

Red pepper or cayenne powder, to taste

Dried thyme and bay leaves

Peel the tomatoes by dipping them in boiling water for about 10 seconds. For cooking, you can use a large sauté pan (3 or 4 qt.) Chop the onions and sauté them with the seafood until the fish is nicely browned and the other seafood is cooked through. Add salt and pepper, the fennel, the other spices, and the tomatoes. Add enough water to cover the fish and veggies and let simmer slowly for 45 minutes. Remove the bay leaves before serving.

And now for the second recipe:

Hachis Parmentier (French shephard’s pie), serves 2-3 people


1 pound ground beef

6 large potatoes

½ cup of milk

3 tablespoons of cream


1 onion

3 cloves of chopped garlic

1 shallot (optional)

Grated gruyere cheese ( you could possibly use cheddar or parmesan)

1 ½ cups breadcrumbs

Peel, cut, and boil the potatoes. Drain and mash, adding milk, cream, and butter. Brown beef, onions, garlic, and the shallot, seasoning with salt and pepper. Drain fat and pour into a casserole dish. Spoon the mashed potatoes on top of the beef and then sprinkle with cheese and breadcrumbs. Bake in the oven for 25 minutes at 400 degrees.

Bon Appetit!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

French Cooking

Orleans, as seen from across the river

Because we're poor right now, I checked out a French cookbook from the library and have been cooking regional dishes instead of eating out at restaurants. So far, things have been very tasty. Andrew made some smoked pork sausage sandwiches one night, and I followed up with ratatouille last night. Here's the recipe for ratatouille, for those interested (serves 2):

2 small Zucchini
1 medium Eggplant
2 Bell peppers
2 large Tomatoes
1 large Onion
6 gloves of garlic, finely chopped
Fresh or dried basil, parsley, and thyme
Grated parmesan cheese
Olive oil

1. Boil water in a saucepan. Drop tomatoes into the boiling water for a few seconds. When you see the skins start to peel, pull them out and run cold water over them. Peel the skin off and chop coarsely. Set aside.
2. Ideally, the zucchini, eggplant, peppers, and onions should each be sauted in oil in separate pans until they are soft. Set all the vegetables aside.
3. Add olive oil, garlic, spices, and tomatoes to a skillet or saute pan. Cook over medium heat for 30 minutes.
4. Add all vegetables to tomato puree and heat until everything is hot. Add salt and pepper to taste.
5. Add grated parmesan and serve!

Yesterday we had our first orientation as assistants. We got to meet all the other English assistants in this area, and made fast friends with other Americans, Canadians, Australians, and British living here. Both Andrew and I were amazed at how good our French is. Technically for this program you only need two semesters of French, but neither of us could have handled this level of French after just two semesters. It was really our time in Mali that solidified our French. Most of the day-long training was in French, and we understood 99% of what was said by our French counterparts. Vocabulary was the only thing that threw us off a couple of times. It was nice having that level of fluency.

Some more interesting tidbits about France:
  • That whole "everyone-walks-around-with-a-baguette" stereotype ISN'T a stereotype. Everyone seems to have a baguette in their hand, no matter what time of day it is. It could be because they're so cheap (about €0,30-0,80 a stick) or because they're just so darn good.
  • Shops are closed Sunday and Mondays, but restaurants are usually open everyday, though they don't start service til it's practically dark. As such, it's completely normal to walk around at midnight and see the outdoor tables brimming with people eating a full course dinner. It's a little weird for us. The other night we went out for dessert around 10pm, and the waiter seemed really surprised and kind of offended that we didn't want dinner.
  • Elevators don't really exist here. I guess most buildings are too old, but you would think that public areas, such as bus and train stations, would accommodate handicapped, luggage-laden, and lazy people. Nope. We live on the fourth floor of our building, and there isn't an elevator, which gets tiring, but it's probably good exercise for us.
  • Speaking French, or at least trying to speak French, makes French people instantly like you. More often than not, if they see you're struggling, they will throw in the few English words they know to make you feel better. And sometimes they are excited by the fact that you speak English, and want to practice with you. I've had many interesting conversations where I speak in French and the person responds in English. It's kind of sweet, especially coming from Southern California where I feel like most people would frown at a non-native English speaker who was trying to speak English but not really succeeding. Here, it's all about the effort.
  • Cheese is cheap! Not as cheap as wine, but still cheaper than in the states. I got a good-sized wedge of brie for €1. Eating a brie and honey baguette sandwich has become my new favorite French food.

Nicole at the festival, and the two of us in front of the statue of Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of Arc)

Andrew and I are debating what to do with our free time and how much money to spend during our time here. Our options are:
  • Tango lessons every Wednesday and Friday night
  • Cooking classes once or twice a month
  • Going to the gym several times a week
  • Installing a phone jack and internet at our apartment
  • Subscribing to a "mutuelle" which is really cheap insurance that would cover dental and vision in addition to the universal health care we have right now
  • Traveling all over the place
My preferences are, of course, traveling and cooking classes, while Andrew prefers tango lessons, gym, and internet. He seems to think we can do it all, but while we have a decent salary here, it's definitely not going to cover everything, especially since we now have to start paying back our student loans and we will eventually have to buy plane tickets back to the states when we're done with our job here. It's been really stressful. Things keep adding up, like the fact that we have to pay for laundry once a week, which is about €15! And for internet, since we don't have a phone jack and we're not planning on staying 12 months, it's really expensive for everything. But we want to be able to Skype and we can't really do that at the library.

We're also considering renewing our contract, but we'd only want to do that if we could stay here from May-October, which we wouldn't be able to do without having jobs, which our visas don't even allow. Also, it's apparently pretty difficult to renew. Either way, we'd have to go home in May and return in September to start all over again, which isn't very cost effective. We're looking into similar programs in Italy, so maybe we'll go there. Or maybe we'll come home and join the mad rush to be employed.

I'll actually start my job next week, so I'll post more when that happens.

Nicole and Andrew

P.S. If anyone knows a better way to post photos to Blogger, please let me know. It drives me nuts that it automatically puts photos at the top of the page and is a big pain in the butt to drag them to where I want them in the post (and it doesn't always do that). Thanks.