Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Wizard of Oz Kids

My Level 2 Kids

On Monday afternoon we greeted our first campers, two groups of 5th graders from Grenoble. One group was from an international school, so we had a good amount of ex-pat kids who spoke perfect English. Like Andrew, our kids had to first pick new American names from a pre-approved list. Let me say that the list wasn't pre-approved by me, and maybe it should have been, because we got in trouble later for naming kids "Skidmark" and "Redneck." I find it especially mean when the kid has no idea what the name means but the counselors let him/her choose it anyway. After getting a "passport" with their new name, and their new surname, which matches our theme of the week, Wizard of Oz, (either Dorothy, Tinman, Lion, Wicked Witch, or Lolli Midgets) the kids converted their money into US Dollars to purchase items at the General Store (Oreos! Dr. Pepper!) and then they passed through customs where I searched their bags for candy and electronics. After customs, students were escorted to their state and city (the state being the bedroom, like California, and the city being their bunk bed, like Sacramento).

Mola, who was so sweet, Chewbacca, who was a pain in the butt, and Mop Top, on whom I had a crush

Tuesday morning started with English class. I took the level 2 (5 being the highest level) kids, the biggest group, whom nobody wanted. I loved them! They were polite, respectful, participatory, even if they didn't speak a lot of English. That's one thing I don't like about the counselors; they don't know how to communicate with the kids, so they complain and call them stupid. Geez, how much Spanish/French/German did they know when they were 10 and had only been studying another language for one year??? All the other counselors fought over who got to have the bilingual kids, because they wanted to be able to "talk" to their students. I can tell you, I had great conversations with my kids, and I'm positive they understood 90% of what I said, because I used simple language, repeated a lot, and spoke slowly. The other counselors just talk like they're speaking to other Americans, no one what level they are teaching. My kids were really cute. I had Bam Bam, Mercedes, Mola, Strawny, Chocolate Starfish, Otis, Bob, Ding Dong, Schappelle, Crabby, Pepper, Chewbacca and Gizmo. For the first day, we discovered America by finding their states on a map and learning the Pledge of Allegiance.

Strawny, who was so cute I wanted to adopt him

The second day of classes, Wednesday, was Earth Day and we played Bingo, made recycling posters and learned a recycling song, which my kids performed for the whole school. Thursday was Hit Music Day, so they listened to songs by Michael Jackson, Madonna, Britney Spears, and Elvis Presley. They then had to write a desription of each artist and everyone else had to guess to whom it referred. They also created their own bands and designed album covers. The last day was Graduation Day and the kids designed their own caps.

Overall it was a fun experience, though I *hate* doing cheers and songs. The cheers don't even make a lot of sense, and the kids are bored by them. The skits are fun, though being a newbie meanes that the oldies all jump on the prime roles and don't explain the skit before making me choose my part in it. A typical planning meeting goes like this:

Counselor 1: Let's do the Captain Planet skit!
Me: (Huh?)
Counselor 2: I'll be the Stinker!
Counselor 3: I'll be the dolphin!
Me: What's the skit about????

So I either don't get to do anything or I get the sucky roles.

After saying a tearful goodbye to our kids, the counselors all left town, some going camping, some to Grenoble, and the rest of us to Lyon. Being the only French speaker in our group of five, I handled all train, bus, and metro tickets, all hotel reservations and restaurant orders, I played tour guide, negociated hitchhiking rides, and spent a lot of time helping with random things, like helping Ivy exchange her train tickets and finding soup for Fuzzy. I didn't mind so much, and the others were definitely appreciative, but it did mean that I didn't accomplish everything I wanted to in Lyon (buy new shoes, visit St. Jean, go to the supermarket, etc.) because anytime I suggested we split up, everyone panicked a little. Still, it was nice to be in Lyon again, though it was a long day and required a lot more hitchhiking than I was comfortable with. 9 out of 10 times we rode with really nice people, but of course it was always up to me to make conversation, and the last ride of the day which we got from someone we actually knew (this guy at the nearby bar) was really creepy and I made him stop the car and let us out because I didn't like the vibe he was sending. It wasn't a great situation, and I'm really grateful my friends weren't alone, because they wouldn't have understood what was happening and I'm so glad I took those self-defense classes; if nothing else it taught me to be firm even if I felt I was being rude. The guy was really pissed that we got out of the car, and followed us for a while trying to get us back in the car, but I stayed calm and told him to go away, which he eventually did. I can't wait until Andrew gets here. Then I won't feel so alone.

We have a three day weekend because Monday is some sort of holiday, so we're relaxing at camp and enjoying the beautiful weather. Our next group of kids come on Tuesday, and I'm excited to meet them!

Mountains of Fun

And now... a rare post by Andrew

As you may have read, Nicole and I are at different camps. You've read about her gullibility, now it's time to read about me!

I arrived at the train station, after a longish 7 hour trip from Lyon. I was wearing my camp t-shirt and one of the other counsellors immediately approached me and offered to help with my bags. He's a very nice guy from Mississippi/Tennessee now named Yetti. Like me, he was an English assistant, working near Toulouse. From the train station, we rode a bus to the nearest village to the camp and as we got off the bus, we met two more counsellors, Wegee and Boondock (we are required to have nicknames). We got picked up and taken to the camp. Wegee and Boondock have been working at this camp since March, so they're pretty experienced. Yetti and I got a tour of the camp, sheets for our beds (we're roomies), and chilled. We met the female counsellors at breakfast the next day: Tootsie Roll, Arizona, Cupcake, and Kazoo. They asked my name. What was I to tell them? I like trees, how about Redwood? And thus was my nickname created.

We've had a lot of fun this week. On Sunday, we had to prepare for the kids coming, so I made a human-sized Statue of Liberty cardboard cutout that took all day and was pretty amazing if I do say so myself. We used it for a skit, to be explained later.

On Monday, the kids came. I was a teensy bit nervous until I saw the kids, they were sixth graders, just a year older than my oldest kids in Orleans, so something manageable. We sent them through immigration where they got passports, converted their money, and had to go through customs (little liars. Do you have any food or sweets? No. May I look in your bag? Oh what's this? Chips, cookies, candy...). We even found three bombs!!! (fake dynamite sticks planted by Cupcake). After immigration, the kids got a tour of the camp, a little evaluation to identify their level to split them into four groups, an introduction to the counsellors where we had a talent show (mine was juggling... one ball) and then after dinner, a campfire where we had s'mores! I got to dress up as a caveman to help explain the history of smores.

The next day, I got to teach my first English class for Discover America day. It was a bit boring, but they learned a lot about the geography of the US, and baseball. I played dodgeball with them after lunch, and then they played baseball in the afternoon. We did the skit with the Statue of Liberty: she's on stage, a tour guide faces the audience and begins to give info about the statue, a bandit comes and steals it, the tour guide calls Obama, who calls Sarkozy, who calls a detective who is sent to search for the statue. He goes to Philly where he gets beaten up by Rocky Balboa, then to Texas where he get's bucked off and trampled by a bull, then to Hollywood where he falls in love with Lady Gaga and gives up the search. He calls Obama, who says don't worry, we'll just put up a Hotdog of Liberty (Relish your Rights!). Sarkozy is offended by this and demands that the statue be found. Fortunately, Lady Gaga offers to do a concert to raise money to buy the statue from the bandit. She does a dance with all the kids for aerobics, then they see the bandit with the statue, who gives it back for an autograph and kiss from Lady Gaga. Confused yet? I played the detective.

Wednesday was Wild West day and we had a lot more fun in English class. We played a couple games, danced like Indians to drums, and learned some vocabulary. They got to sing Ring of Fire. I did a cheer that goes: "Cowboy's got the beat, uh huh. Cowboy's got the beat, oh yeah. Cowboy's got the beat that makes you wanna *clap clap* move something." It's funny when you know that 'beat' in French means dick. The skit was a showdown between a cowboy and cowgirl doing a chubby bunny contest. It was hilarious.

Thursday was Hollywood day. I had my kids act out the verbs in English class. Then they had to come up with their own skit, which they performed in the afternoon. My kids decided to do a talent competition, Texas vs. LA. The Texas girls danced to Cottoneye Joe and the LA girls sang the opening lines to I've got a feeling. The Texas girls one. It was really funny when the LA girls pushed through the Texas girls and said, "Los Angeles is beautiful. Los Angeles is perfect... just like us *hair flip*." We tie-dyed t-shirts in the afternoon. During the spectacle where the kids performed their skits, we counsellors did other little intermissions so the kids could get into costume. I was in a ninja contest where three of us had to try to make each other laugh. One tried to tickle me with a feather, with no success. Another tried to deflate a balloon behind me, making a farting sound, with slightly more success. I swept the stage with one word: titmouse. Another counsellor went on stage and ate an entire apple. Another counsellor had students come up to build him a house, two for walls, one door, a table, then a fire. He had all the students say what they were, and when he got to the fire, he screamed: "Oh my God, there's a fire in my house!" and proceeded to extinguish the fire with a glass of water, soaking the student. It was really funny (even the soaked student laughed). Another skit was the counsellors and one student sitting down to dinner, boring at first. Then the director (me) yells, "CUT!" and has them redo the scene as a romance, serious, comedy, zombies, old people, kung fu, etc. The student got really into it. Apparently it was a life changing experience for the boy, Picasso, who was not very popular until that moment. After the spectacle, there was a dance party that lasted until 11:20, yikes. The girls wouldn't dance with me :( I've never been rejected so many times at a dance. Oh well, I have thick skin. Thankfully, the other counsellors like to dance.

The final day was Graduation, where students made graduation caps and decorated them. We had to sign a lot of t-shirts. A lot of students cried as they left, especially Picasso, the boy we had all grown close to. Like me, he associates more with adults than his peers. Sad to see them go, but nice to have free time again. A typical work day starts at 8:15 and ends at midnight.

Today, I walked from a nearby village, Arreau, with Arizona and Cupcake. It was a lovely walk, with mountains and meadows, rivers and wildflowers. Arreau is a cute village. Ooh, I forgot to explain that my summer camp is in the Pyrenees, close to the Spanish border, in the mountains. It was cold on Monday and the mountains were covered in snow. One week later, a lot of that has melted, but it's still gorgeous.

I miss Nicole a lot, but haven't had a lot of time to talk to her. Only one more week, then we'll be together.

The food is good. We had some awesome duck, chicken wings, and shish kebabs. (The name of the duck dish was Donald Duck. I loved it. I got to say I was eating Donald Duck!) Next week I get to look forward to Gaga for Goat Cheese salad. Mmmm

That's all folks...

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Summer Camp: First Impressions

My summer camp is located near Vienne, which is about 20 minutes south of Lyon by train, and when I arrived on Saturday afternoon I was greeted (more like grunted at) by a shady-looking character who didn't really speak English or French. During the course of the 30 minutes journey from Vienne to Tour de Buis, I was convinced I was being kidnapped. My camp director, Ishta, the one who had picked me up, told me in very, very poor English that he was Egyptian, that he had crashed the car on this stretch of road the year before (which I believed because he drove like a maniac), that Armenians were bad and steak was good. I arrived at camp a little shaken and very worried, where I was greeted by the other counselors who had been there for a couple of weeks. They commiserated with me, saying how difficult it was to have a director they couldn't communicate with. One girl, Taylor, punctuated every sentence with a "that's so cute!," regardless of what we were talking about, and the other counselor, Harry, said they were going to a nearby village to see a Renaissance Faire. I decided to go with them, only to find that the village was about 10 miles away, and they were planning to hitchhike. Since I was the only French speaker amongst us, I negociated both rides we managed to pick up on these small country roads.

We finally arrived at Revel-Tourdan, where we saw that it wasn't so much a Ren Faire as a village heritage celebration. We saw a couple of performances and took a tour of the village before meeting up with two other counselors, Adam and Mojo. Mojo is deaf, and communicated by signing and writing in a little notebook. Mojo is the sister of Ishta, and at least "speaks" better English than he does, but still makes mistakes. When she wasn't looking, Adam and Taylor made fun of her behind her back, saying that it gets really frustrating having to read everything she writes in her poor English and how they didn't really like her. I found them really cruel, especially when they would play pranks on her like stealing her pen, throwing her notebook in the bushes, and imitating her when she wasn't looking.

Ishta came to pick us up from Revel-Tourdan, but his car only had one seat besides the trunk, so Mojo and another counselor, Ivy, climbed into the trunk for the 20 minute trip back to camp. Shocked is the least of my expressions at this point.

At dinner that night, I saw how cruel and possessive Ishta was over Mojo. He would yell at her, force her to serve others food before herself, and no one stepped in to make sure she was treated fairly. I decided I would email the camp coordinators and see what I could do about this problem. That evening, after dinner, we held a team meeting. Mojo went up to the board and wrote:

"HA HA, you've been punked!"
And then in an Australian accent, she said, "I'm really sorry, but I'm not deaf. And Ishta's real name is Paul and he's from California."
I was furious and relieved and embarassed all at the same time. I'm not sure how to feel about this whole thing. Taylor, Adam, Mojo, Ivy, Harry and even Paul are all really cool people, but I still feel a little offended that they pulled such a prank on me. I'm also really impressed that they managed to keep this up for over 7 hours! To be fair, I wasn't the only one taken in, as the other two counselors who arrived yesterday were also prey to this practical joke. But they arrived much later than me and didn't have the same immersion as I did.
Otherwise, camp is a little more disorganized than I expected. My room was filthy when I arrived, because two counselors had just left that morning and the cleaning staff is off duty on weekends, and no one seems to be able to tell me what I'm supposed to be doing with the campers tomorrow, but I hope to find out tonight.
It sucks being away from Andrew, but I know he's having a good time, too. I know for sure that I'll be here for two weeks, and then afterwards hopefully we'll be reunited here or at another camp. Again, no one seems to really know what's going on.
The other counselors are all really great, but much younger than me, less serious, enjoy drinking a lot and staying up late. I don't *quite* fit in, but then again, I can't think of a time in my life when I ever did, even before I was old and married. I've just never liked partying. They all decided to hitchhike to Vienne today, which is about 30km away, pretty far, and I didn't feel like going because I'm worried about being stuck half-way with no way back to camp, in the pouring rain, in the middle of the countryside. I feel like a stick in the mud, but I wish the counselors were interested in the same stuff as I am.


Lyon is a city in the Rhône-Alps region of France, only two hours southwest of Geneva. I've wanted to go to Lyon for a long time, mostly because I was intrigued by the fact that Lyon is the second oldest and the second biggest city in France, and the gastronomical capital of the country, and some say even Europe. Ironically, the only thing that disappointed me about Lyon was the food.

We once again took advantage of the couchsurfing network and contacted Antoine, who had a wonderful apartment right on the Prèsqu'Ile, or "almost island." In addition to giving us free lodging and lunch, he took us on a walking tour of Lyon. Score!

We saw Old Lyon, the two hills of the city, one of which used to be the silk-weavers quarter of town, the other of which housed the wonderful Basilica Fourvière. After months in France, I had been sick of churches, cathedrals, and basicilias. This basilica restored my faith, so to speak. It's a more modern cathedral, built around 1870, but the inside is gorgeous.

Lyon is a big city, with lots of interesting architecture on every corner. It's a lot like Paris, but cleaner and less stressful. For dinner, we ate in a traditional bouchon. Lyon is known for its meat crazy food. Tripe, blood sausage, brains, and feet are some of the specialities of the region. We decided to try something a little tamer, and Andrew had leg of lamb, though he unintentionally ordered diced sheep feet as an appetizer. I had a breaded pike served in a lobster sauce, which was very, very rich and not really to my liking. I had the Lyonnaise salad for an appetizer, which is a plain salad with a poached egg on top. Again, not really my thing.
There are many Roman ruins in Lyon, including this amphitheatre, where Andrew snapped a picture of me mid-jumping jack.
The next morning, Andrew left early for his seven hour ride to the Pyrenées, where his summer camp is located. I spent a little more time in Lyon and visited the Lumière Museum, where the brothers Lumière lived in Lyon and where they shot the first motion picture ever. The house was very pretty, but unfortunately I didn't have a lot of time to visit because I had to catch a train to my summer camp that afternoon.

Going through Switzerland to get back to France...

After parting ways with Dijon and its horrible weather, we took a train to Geneva, Switzerland to visit two of Andrew's friends, who are Scottish but used to live in Berkeley, and now live in France but work in Switzerland. Confused yet?

When we arrived in Geneva we then took a train back into France to Ségny, at the foothills of the Jura Mountains, where Avril and David Quarrie live. We were welcomed warmly, despite the fact that Andrew hadn't seen them for eight years. We had our own bedroom, a huge bathroom, and all the food and alcohol we could consume. Avril had lunch waiting for us, and after we took a short walk around the village, stopping to buy some delicious cakes, before rain forced us back inside. At dinner that night we devoured the abovementioned cakes, which included some interesting flavors like raspberry balsamic vinegar and olive oil from Provence. It may sound weird, but as you can see from the before and after pictures, pretty much everything in France tastes delicious.Our second day in Ségny started with a trip back to Geneva to visit CERN, where David works on the particle reactor that almost destroyed the world. Wait, was that a Dan Brown book or not? It was interesting, though too scientific for me.

We then took a very long car ride into the Alps to the town of Gestaad, a Lake Arrowhead-esque village in the middle of nowhere full of expensive shops (Cartier!!!). The weather was dismal, so we shivered our way through the village, not even able to take refuge in the shops, as they were all closed due to the Ascension holiday that had shut everything down in France (and obviously Switzerland) for the third weekend in a row (there were also holidays the last two weekends). Who says France is secular??

I found the Alps very beautiful, very green, and a little nauseating. I don't do well in long car rides.
What I enjoyed most about this trip was spending time with Avril and David, who spoiled us like we were there grandchildren. It really made me homesick for my mom and grandma. Avril even looked a little like my Nana at times.


The best part of Beaune was the Hospices, which was a charity hospital in the XV century. Again, you see the glazed tile roofs, and the inside was quite beautiful as well. It definitely seemed like a cool place to recover from a life-threatening illness.

We also did a wine-tasting. For a measely 10€, we were given a silver tasting cup, pushed into a dark cellar, and told we had 45 minutes to try 15 different wines. We made our way through the dark cellar, stopping every time we came upon a candelit barrel with a bottle of wine on it. Andrew definitely got his money's worth, but I only took small sips after the first four wines. Three were whites, which made me very happy, but nothing really struck a cord with us. We find reds too dry, too tannic, for our tastes. We much prefer lighter, fruity whites that don't leave you begging for water after the first sip. We spent quite a bit of time explaining this to the very knowledgable sommeliers there, who convinced us to try a Chardonnay that wasn't too bad. I think they thought we were cretins for not appreciating the subtle flavors of red wine, but they were nice enough about it.

We walked around the town a bit, and contemplated doing a tour of the mustard factory, but didn't have enough time nor inclination (Andrew hates mustard). Instead, we took the train back to Dijon, where David was waiting to take us to an antique book viewing for an upcoming auction. Where he thinks to put those books in his apartment is a mystery to me.

Dijon, Land of Mustard and Crème de Cassis

After a quick transfer in Paris, we took the train to Dijon. We were lucky enough to find a free place to stay with a couchsurfer named David. His apartment was tiny, and located on the 5th floor, but uncharacteristic of France, there was an elevator! David was born in So. Cal, but has lived in France since the '70s. He literally owns every single book ever published about Dijon (he lost track after a thousand) and appears to have a catalogue in his head that tells him where each one is located in his miniscule apartment. David is a translator for dance companies. Cool, huh?

Unforunately, the weather wasn't ideal, and we got caught in many a downpour during our two days there, but we didn't let that stop us from exploring the town. The most interesting thing about Dijon is the glazed tile roofs, fittingly enough, in mustard yellow. On one of the churches in town, there's also a bronze owl hidden in a corner, that supposedly brings you good luck if you rub it with your left hand. The presence of this owl, whose origins are unknown, has installed it permanently in Dijon as the town's mascot. When you walk around town, you follow little owls all over the city to interesting historic and cultural sites.

Our first stop was the Museum of Burgundian Life. There, creepy wax figures demonstrated local dress and customs. Andrew's favorite part was standing in front of the glass cases in such a way that it looked like the mannequins were wearing Converse sneakers. I personally liked, and was frightened by, the hair-dresser's stall in the museum. Looks like a form of torture to me!

While in Burgundy, we ate boeuf bourgignon, but I found my recipe better. :) We also had escargot, another speciality of the Burgundy region, and of course, Burgundy wine. The other advantage to staying with couchsurfers is that we also had access to a kitchen, so our last night there I was able to cook for us, significantly reducing our food spending. Our second day we took a short train ride to nearby Beaune. More to follow in another post.

Au Revoir, Orléans!

Our teaching contracts ended April 30th, but we decided to stick around so we could see the Joan of Arc Festival, a yearly event honoring the young maiden who liberated Orléans from the English after she started hearing God's voice telling her to go to war. As you may know, she was eventually burned at the stake for being a witch and wearing men's clothing, but in Orléans she's very much remembered. Joan of Arc

Every year for ten days, a young high school girl from Orléans is chosen to portray Joan of Arc. They dress her up in armor, put her on a horse, and parade her around town. There was also a sound and light show right outside our apartment which gave the history of the English invasion and Joan's rise to fame. Sound and light show outside our apartment

One day there was a provincial parade, in which different cultural regions of France displayed their local dances, songs, and costumes.

There was also a military parade, a medieval market, and yet another sound and light show, this one projected onto the cathedral. It was actually kind of impressive! Andrew's favorite activity was watching the jousts and sword-fights, which were much more realistic than any other Ren Faire I've seen.

Andrew also reaffirmed his desire to own an Irish Wolfhound one day, even after hearing that they eat about 2.5 lbs. of food a day. We also ate ostrich from a spit. Yum.

Our last week in Orléans was a whirlwind of activity, between visiting the festival, saying goodbye to friends, and packing our lugagge. My friend Sandrine took us to Beaugency for a huge fair on the 1st of May. Her son Léo played on the rides and I ooohed over the tiny poultry they had for sale.

Sandrine and Alex

On May 10th, we packed up our things and left Orléans for the last time. I really loved this city, and I'm so happy I got to live there for seven months. I hope someday to come back.

Pierre and Catherine, with whom we stayed during the Festival

Now for the Love

Despite it's many problems and consistent attempts to get me to leave its borders, France is a beautiful country full of beautiful people and I will be very sad to leave it. While this post might not be as detailed as my previous rant, the good things far outweigh the bad. Here's some examples of things I love about France.

1) The French! Who would have thought, with all the stereotypes and propaganda out there, that the French are really lovely, warm people? Maybe it's because we speak French, maybe it's because we aren't tourists, but we've had very few bad experiences with individual Frenchmen. I've found that a simple "Bonjour" goes a long way toward making people friendly toward you. The other day we were in Beaune, a small town near Dijon, eating lunch in a little sandwich shop. We ended up chatting a little with the couple next to us, and before we knew it, they had written down their address and phone numbers with the insistence that we come stay with them, should we need a place. I'm not convinced this would ever happen in the States. Example #2: Just today some colleagues and I wanted to go to a village pretty far away, and since there wasn't any public transport, we decided to hitchhike (sorry, Mom!). Within minutes someone had stopped and took us about halfway, where it wasn't long before we got another ride the rest of the way. In addition to the relationships we've had with strangers, there is of course the everyday French friends and co-workers we associated with, who never ceased to amaze me with their kindness and generosity. You may remember Sandrine, who invited us for Christmas dinner with her family, threw me a birthday party, and always made sure to include us in any interesting things happening in our area. There was also Catherine and Pierre, who helped move us out of our apartment and into their house, and who put up with our comings and goings and general stress for over a week. In short, French people are amazing!

2) The Food. Pain au chocolat. Café. Foie gras. Baguette. Cheese. Need I say more?

3) The countryside. France is a beautiful, beautiful country. It's full of beaches, mountains, caves, valleys, farms, forests, and cliffs. I feel I could never get my fill of the natural beauty that exists here.

4) Monuments, museums, and other points of interest. France has a wealth of things to do. It has so much history! It's a nice change after being in America, which is such a young country, and being in Africa, which, while old, doesn't have much to show for it.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


I'm not convinced that anyone reads this blog anymore, so I feel no shame or guilt in taking this opportunity to vent and analyze some of the feelings I've been having about France. :)

Our contracts as assistants are at an end, and it's been an interesting ride. Our relationship with France can best be described as one of love/hate. Suprisingly, the things we once thought we'd hate have since been reversed. As Andrew points out, "It used to be that we loved France but hated the French; now we hate France and love the French."(In all honesty, I never hated either, but there is a certain stereotype that Amercans hate the French. My step-father once told me, "Why would I want to go to France? There are French people there!")

It feels, much like it did in Mali, that France did everything in its power to make us hate it. Most, if not all of our problems came from administrative issues and not from interactions with individual people. Here's a brief synopsis of our experience to date:

1) The Assistant Program that placed us here initially placed us in two separate regions of France, despite the fact that we not only indicated on the application, as requested, that we were married, but we chose the same regional preferences, and mailed our applications in the same envelope. Obviously, we initially worked that one out, but not without a lot of complaining and stress.

2) The School District took it's sweet time paying us our salary. We started work on October 1. I don't think we were paid until the end of November.

3. The CAF or the housing subsidy to which all other assistants are eligible, refused to pay us this subsidy because we're married. Explain that one to me, please. Most volunteers, all of whom have roommates, and some of whom even live together as a (unmarried) couple, pay between 80-150€ a month in rent. We pay about 275€ each. The real kicker is that the CAF didn't tell us we were ineligible for six months. They just kept asking for different forms, none of which were demanded with the initial application, until finally they ran out of bureaucratic shit to distract us and just said no. A typical interaction with the CAF would go like this:
Us: Why haven't we received our subsidy yet?
CAF: Oh, you're just missing your 2007 tax form/visa photocopy/pay stub/other random paper.
Us: Uh, why haven't we been told we needed this before?
CAF: (Insert completely bogus excuse, one of which being that we were obviously incompetent)
Us: Ok, here you go.
CAF: Great! everything should be fine. You'll get your money within a week.

Repeat every month or so.

Finally we received the final NO, and after begging others to intervene for us, we were told, "Yes, we know it's not fair to you, but that's the way it is." At least they admitted their incompetence. So there goes 2,000€ we'd been counting on.

4. The MGEN or supplemental health insurance, has been another pain in the neck. We opted to buy the additional coverage because French health care only covers 70 % of our costs, and it seemed like a good investment at the time because we planned to visit the dentist, get new glasses, etc. Well, the MGEN never issued us our health cards, which meant that we had to pay all costs upfront and then submit receipts to be reimbursed. This resulted in us never being reimbursed. The first time Andrew visited the doctor, the MGEN lost his forms, so they never reimbursed him. He had to send them twice before they gave him 50% back. The second time, they reimbursed him only 30%. Now, the French system is supposed to automatically give him 70%, so at least he should've gotten thatl. When we finally got a hold of someone at MGEN, she said she had no idea what the problem was, and that she'd look into it. Cue Jeopardy music. My experiences are similar. I did get reimbursed one time, but the first time they also only gave me 30% because the date my document was signed was technically after my appointment since the doctor didn't have the appropriate forms on hand and I had to return later in the week to get it. Since it was my first appointment, it counted as though I had seen a doctor who was out of my network range since he wasn't officially registered as my doctor. Touché.

5. The University, where Andrew got a part time job teaching, just informed him that although he finished his last class weeks ago, he will not be paid until mid-July, at the end of the semester. Of all the things, this is probably the most infuriating, non-sensical and unjust thing that has happened. Andrew has talked to everyone he knows to help him out, but there doesn't seem to be a chance in hell. They have a "very strict pay calendar." In what world can you get away with paying your professors only twice a year??? Goodbye 800€ that was to be used in Italy. Looks like we'll be credit-carding it all until July, when he should be paid. My biggest worry is that if he's not here to fight with them, they might decide to not pay him, knowing that he'll be out of the country and can't do anything about it at that point.

6) Our landlady is the only person we've had a particular problem(s) with. First, she seemed really nice. Her name is Leroy-Dragon, or "The Dragon-King" (no joke) and we affectionately call her (behind her back) "The Dragon." When Andrew arrived in France, he convinced her to let him stay in the apartment before it was technically ready for us, and she didn't charge us for the couple extra days we were there before the start of the month. That was probably the last nice thing that she did for us. After that, she never got our buzzer fixed, which meant that anyone visiting had to call us on our cell phone and we had to go down 4 flights of stairs to let them in. We also never got packages delivered because the buzzer didn't work. In addition, she had us under her own electricity counter, and then never received the bills, and once she did, we always ended up paying half, even though her apartment is 2x the size of ours, and the electricity was always being blown because she had every light in her apartment on and we couldn't even turn on our electric stove. In January she finally put us onto our own counter, for which we have to pay 65€, something we just found out yesterday (isn't that what landlords are supposed to do???) but the power was even less than before, so that we had to turn out all the lights to turn on the oven. We learned to cook by candelight real quick. When we complained, she said to call the company and ask them to come out and raise the power. Well, it cost a fortune to call them (no such thing as 1-800 numbers in France!!) and when we finally got a hold of someone, they said it was 30€. We grudgingly made the appointment, but they never turned up, and we couldn't get a hold of them for a long time. Finally, they said they hadn't sent anyone because the counter was still in The Dragon's name, not ours! We *thought* we then changed it into our name, only to find out months later it had never happened. In the process of moving out, we confessed to the Dragon that we'd been under her name, not by choice, obviously, and she then had a fit and demanded all this money. Andrew was able to read our counter and multiply the kwh used by the rate of the electricity company to determine how much we owed, but she wouldn't believe that. And of course none of us can reach the company by telephone to figure out our bill, so she's ready to just keep our whole deposit. The worst part is that even if we pay for our electricity now, she refuses to return our deposit for three months. The other assistants received their deposits when they left. Again, bye-bye 450€ that we'll probably never see again. Another bad things about the Dragon: she offered to buy our Netbook, so we saved it for her though there were others who wanted it, then she gave us the money and the next day said she didn't want it anymore because the print was too small. It's a Mini HP, what did she expect??? So now we're screwed because we leave in a couple of days and don't have the time or the contacts to re-sell it.

I do have a lot of positive things I want to say about France and the French, but I'm gonna wait a couple of days because I'm so steamed up right now!