Fête des Lumières in Lyon

After weeks of searching for lodging, communicating rapidly with other assistants, contemplating simply staying out all night and trying to convince myself that it was something could miss, we found a way. Take the first train Sunday morning and the last train Sunday evening. We would spend only a few hours in Lyon, but we would get to experience the city, even if only slightly, and with the early sunset in our favor, we could catch a few hours of the festival. Alex, another assistant, and I decided, yes, let’s do it.

We didn’t have to get up too early. The first train to Lyon was at around 9 AM and would get us to Lyon just before noon. Alex and I enjoyed a lovely chat for the 3-hour trip. Can I stop for a minute and just say how much I love trains? We rode throughout the beautiful countryside, enjoyed plenty of space for both, ourselves and our stuff, and got to face each other, so we could have a lovely conversation without strain.

Before long, we found ourselves at Lyon Part-Dieu, one of the train stations. Up until that point, I had nearly forgotten how small Clermont-Ferrand is, but it subtly and abundantly became clear how much bigger Lyon was than Clermont-Ferrand. We certainly saw it walking in circles trying to follow the signs to find the metro and/or bus station (literally right in front of the exit of the train station as it turned out). We saw it walking around the city with buildings several stories taller than what we were used to seeing in Clermont-Ferrand. The real kicker though was probably the presence of a Starbucks at the train station. (There are no Starbucks in Clermont-Ferrand, but there are a few McDonald’s. We are not entirely cut off from the rest of the world.)

The first thing we did, a habit I developed when traveling when visiting my brother in the Netherlands that continues to serve me well, was go to the tourism office. They were friendly and incredibly helpful – even in spite of the huge crowds, long lines and long hours they’d likely already worked. They set us up with a walking tour and directions to bouchonneries (the specialty of Lyon). We picked a couple of restaurants and decided to see what the wait would be.

Ha. Wow were we rookies. The first 3 places we went to were full – either booked well in advance for the limited seating or had an hour wait. We decided to try something a little outside of the city center in hopes that they would be less crowded (and less expensive). We were really hungry by then and had to use all of our willpower not to buy every delicious temptation along the way (beignets, churros, waffles, roasted chestnuts…even McDonalds was tempting). Finally, after inquiring at two restaurants, a third neither took reservations nor had an hour wait. We sat in a coat room for about 10 minutes and then were seated.

The restaurant was awesome. The style of the decor was like the Hapsburgs meets the 1970s. The wallpaper was a deep, scarlet red with an old-world design, but felt like velvet and the decorations were an eclectic mix of pop culture in black and white photos and baroque-style furniture. The food was incredible. We chose the 3-course fixed price meal and had a glass of wine each. Here is the menu:


Alex and I both picked different options so we could try everything. In case you want to drool:

It was all simply delicious. It was also incredibly filling, the kind of meal where you could just lay your head down on the table and sleep…

Wait, what’s an andouiette, you say? Funny you should ask because I didn’t (and I’m glad). Apparently, it is a sausage made of intestines. Bon appetit 🙂

After our scrumptious meal, we walked around a little and then headed back to the city center for our tour. We met our group and started on our tour. The English tour was sold out, so it was all in French…luckily I could at least manage by then.

The tour was nice. We saw the churches and learned a little about their history. We walked through one of the infamous passageways called a “traboule” and learned about medieval plumbing (yuck – no wonder disease killed so rapidly). We also learned about the influence of Italy and families like the Medicis. The tour ran over, so we left the group to go see the light displays.

“Festivals of lights” to me meant trees and buildings decorated in Christmas lights. This was so not that. The trees with lights were merely the appetizer. Instead, these displays would use buildings to display art, play games and fool your eyes. In theory, my favorite display was the disco ball that the basilica hung from their steeple on top of a hill – I always enjoy displays of humor from the Catholic Church.

In practice, my favorite was the “main attraction”, a combination of art, music and dance projected on the main city buildings. The description doesn’t do it justice. See for yourself in the video clip:

Another favorite included “eskimo minions” and a large video game. See below for “eskimo minions”:

It was wonderful, but we certainly didn’t get to see everything we wanted. Main culprit? Crowds and crowd control. Honestly, the barricades designed to conduct traffic were confusing and nonsensical. What should have taken 5 minutes took 20. Space was wide open and then packed. Several times we had to make a 10 minute or more detour to see an attraction that was 100 feet away from us. On top of that, just getting from one attraction to another took 2-3 times longer that it should have due to the crowds. Before we left, I met an old friend who is also an assistant in France. After fighting crowds, we talked briefly, saw the main attraction in the square and then had to catch the metro to make our train in time.

We walked to the metro station and were astounded. It was a mob. Not an angry mob, but a mob. Luckily we just decided to get an all-day metro pass so we got in the shortest line (at least 10 minutes of waiting). Everything beyond that was pretty smooth sailing except they closed exits in the metros. This meant that to get to a connecting train you had to leave the metro station, go down the block, find the other entrance to the station and go in that way. It made absolutely no sense and only added to the chaos and stress of making it back on time. (We decided to run because it made us feel better. So yeah, we were those tourists.) However, we made it back just in time to catch our train (which turned out to be a bus) that would get us back home in 6 hours (not 4 like we thought) because it had to traverse literally every roundabout between Lyon and Clermont-Ferrand (you haven’t felt motion sickness until…).

But we made it home, safe and sound, after a great day in Lyon.

Touissant Vacation: Visiting the Cathedrals

This post is long overdue. Before I talk about the cathedrals and some of the other things I did during my first break, let me explain a little about the schedule. All of the assistants arrived in France late in September for our October 1st orientation. Although many of us visited our schools during that first week, most of us didn’t have to work during the first half-week of October. We worked for the next two weeks and then we had a two week vacation for Touissant (All Saints Day).

I’m sure to most of you this sounds kind of ridiculous. However, I was so grateful to have those two weeks to complete many of the necessary tasks for immigration, banking, etc.: everything that needs to be taken care of when you move to a new country that I couldn’t get done while I was afraid of being homeless. Additionally, it provided me a great opportunity to see Clermont-Ferrand and learn more about the region, something that many others had already started doing once they had found housing.

In Clermont-Ferrand, there are several beautiful churches and cathedrals. During this break, I went with a group of assistants to tour two of them: Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption and Notre Dame du Port.

We went first to the Cathédrale. It was a brisk (for me, but cold for the less temperature averse) October morning with beautiful blue skies. We met at mid-morning and decided to immediately climb the stairs to the top of the cathedral to see the view before it closed over the lunch hour. We found the keeper of the keys for the tower, drew straws to see which unfortunate person would have to speak to him in French (I was one of the lucky ones), paid the fee and opened the door. In front of us were hundreds of stairs encased in a narrow spiral staircase that went on, well, as if it were ascending into the heavens.

We climbed. Although it did not take long, it was grueling. All of us were in at least “decent” shape and this was not fun. Approaching the top, the first of us in line, yelled “light!” to give hope to all those below still wandering in the dizzying climb. With an audible release of exasperation we flung the door open and kind of toppled out onto the observation deck. (Which was repeated multiple times by other groups that followed after us. We were glad to know that it wasn’t just us.)

The view was worth it. It was breathtaking. The mountain range was fully visible. You could see all of Clermont-Ferrand and the surrounding cities in the distance. We all tried to find our apartments and schools. Some did, some didn’t. What I thought was the most interesting was getting to see the weather in the cities around us. You could see rain clouds rolling in to one city and then the skies clearing in another.

We spent about 45 minutes up there, taking pictures, enduring the extreme gusts of cold wind, etc. before making the trek back down the stairs. Now for anyone who hasn’t climbed up narrow and questionable staircases to the top of a church in Europe, let me tell you, going down is worse than going up. For me it always starts with this image of me tripping and somersaulting down the remaining steps to my…demise. With that image in mind, I always step with confidence, not. When we opened the door to make our descent, there were no lights. We couldn’t tell if this was because our eyes had become accustomed to the bright sunlight or what. So we began going down in the dark. Luckily within a few minutes, someone discovered a lightswitch. Otherwise, we would have been sidestepping and hugging the wall slowly descending for an hour.

Once back in the cathedral, we walked around looking at the stained glass windows and statues trying to piece together Bible stories with what little we knew about medieval/renaissance art to identify the stories being told. For some windows, it was very challenging, but for others it was much clearer.

All in all, it was a beautiful cathedral, reminiscent of other gothic cathedrals I have seen in France.

The next day, we met and went to Notre Dame du Port, the romanesque cathedral located just miles from the cathedral. There isn’t really much to say about this church. It is beautiful and mostly we just wandered around in silence taking pictures. I’ll let my photos do the talking for this one.

Touissant Vacation: Puy de Dome (Part 1)

So this experience was a little more eventful than our visits to the churches.

We intended to meet around 8, but realistically we all found each other closer to 9. Learning that the restaurant at the top of the Puy de Dome might be closed, we decided to grab groceries at the closest Monoprix to bring with us to the top. From there we went to the bus stop to catch a bus to Royat, the only transportation that we were sure of to get us to Puy de Dome.

Are we there yet??

The bus ride was simple and we got off in Royat at the terminus of the bus route. We had some confusion then. One assistant ran off to stop a different bus that she thought we needed to take. Another assistant was waiting for an assistant who lives in Royat and was going to meet us there. The rest of us were trapped in the middle trying to figure out what in world was going on. One assistant did get the bus to stop, so we went over and told her that we were still waiting on someone so after all of that effort, we told the bus to go. Then, a group went to the local tourism office to ask which bus we needed to get to the Puy de Dome. They told us that there wasn’t one because the tourist season had ended, but there was a hike that we could do to get to the base of the mountain. We decided to do that.

Le moo.

Maybe it wasn’t a long hike, but if you want to enjoy the scenery and annoy your group by taking pictures every ten seconds of the beautiful landscapes in different light, then you tend to fall behind. The hike took us 1.5 hours. We went through the mountains (well, foothills maybe), hidden (and a little sketchy) villages, established petite villes with bus access on-demand only and farms. The landscape was beautiful and I was very much enjoying the hike.

WARNING! Mountain ahead. Oh wait, that’s for the speed bump.
(Literally the thought that went through my head as I was walking.)

Finally, we arrived at the base of the mountain. We had two options. We could continue to walk and hike up the mountain (likely another hour plus hike) or we could take the train up to the top. I’m not saying that I am a wimp, but I took the train. My feet were tired and I wasn’t sure if we were going to have to hike for 1.5 hours to get back to Royat. Our group split in half with part of us hiking and part of us riding the train.

The train ride was lovely. Even from the train, you see beautiful views of the countryside and the different mountains. It was very leisurely.

Aside from the ending, the rest of this story should be told with pictures. The view was exquisite and here it is:

Touissant Vacation: Puy de Dome (Part 2)

We have come to the end. The sun begins to set and we realize that we need to get down the mountain and head back to Royat. At this point, we aren’t exactly sure how we will get home. It is too late to take the trail back as all we would have for light would be the flashlights of our iPhones. We hope that there are taxis, but realistically we know that we are in small mountain villages. Our plan? We walk along the side of the road heading back to the trail. We are going to keep an eye out for taxis. If we don’t see any, we will find a restaurant or hotel in the village and ask them. Many were suggesting hitchhiking, but I can’t say that I was in favor of that. One of the assistants had the phone number of a taxi driver from Clermont-Ferrand, so we figured that we could always call them if we really needed to. Worst case scenario, I guess we walk along the road back to Royat. No matter what, we figured it was going to be a long walk.

We walked along side the road for about 45 minutes. It was a pretty walk with the sun setting behind the Puy de Dome.

We get back to the head of the trail (the way we came) to go back to Royat. With iPhone flashlights to guide our way, we knew that we needed another option. One of the assistants called the taxi company’s number that she had from Clermont-Ferrand and left a message. She said that she was sure they’d call back, but I think we were all a little less than optimistic.

We walked toward a village and decided that we would walk into a restaurant or something and ask them if they had a number for a local cab driver. In a parking lot, we saw a couple of gentlemen were walking towards cars. The assistant who spoke the best French was sent to speak with them to ask for the number of a cab service. However, the person offered instead to give us a ride. He ran one of the paragliding companies that launched from the side of Puy de Dôme and just happened to have 8 places in his van – exactly the number we needed. Perhaps I need to be more trusting, but accepting a ride from strangers always gives me pause. However, I figured that there were 8 of us and one of them and he seemed nice…plus we were probably in a more desperate situation than we realized at that point.

He was kind, polite and when he dropped us off at the city center of Clermont-Ferrand, he refused to accept any money. He said that the smiles on our faces were payment enough. Maybe a perfect ending to a great day.

Joni Ernst Part II

Recently, I had another student ask me about Joni Ernst. He remembered that I was from Iowa and wanted to ask me a few questions about her. Again, I was shocked. However the conversation and the questions this student asked me…I was impressed.

Perhaps I should pause for a warning. This blog post may contain political opinions disagreeable to people I know. I have friends and family on all parts of the political spectrum and I don’t want this to necessarily become a political forum, but rather I want to share a French student’s perspective and analysis of the election of Joni Ernst to Senate.

The student began cautiously by asking my opinion of her. After discussing how I felt, he explained to me his concerns about her election to the Senate. He was first concerned about her qualifications. Having only seen her ads (and I think pretty much just the one about castration), he didn’t understand how being a mother, soldier and farmer qualified her for office. Primarily though, he was concerned if her election signified a shift in political ideals in the United States. He had heard of the power of Iowa in presidential elections (I believe he was referring to the caucuses and the effect it had on Obama getting elected) and was concerned that if Iowans elected Joni Ernst to Senate then someone like her may have a better shot of being elected president. He said that who is president in the United States impacts them, such as with the current trade discussions between Europe and the U.S., so he felt that it was incredibly important to keep an eye on what happens in the United States.

With as many people as I meet in the U.S. who think Ohio, Idaho and Iowa are the same potato-producing state, I am so impressed when my teenage French students can have such in-depth political conversations with me…in English.

More kissing and other customs I don’t understand

Alright, so I am starting to get the hang of the kissing thing. However, there are still a few other things I don’t get.

1. Saying hello when you enter the room. In France, in the teacher’s lounge for example, when you enter, you must say hello. There is no “slipping in” here. When you enter a room, if you don’t say “bonjour”, you’ll feel your mistake in the awkward silence that follows. (They are all looking at you because you are rude. If you are like me in the waiting room at the doctor’s office you will be too oblivious to notice until the next person comes in and you look up to see that there are still people looking at you confused.) This is tough for me. I like slipping into rooms. I don’t like interrupting people in conversation. Most of all, it feels strange to announce your arrival in a room. It feels very self-important. Like, “HELLO! EVERYONE STOP WHAT YOU ARE DOING TO NOTICE ME. Oh yes and you can shower me with kisses now.”
I guess what I’ve started doing is just mumbling “bonjour”, in probably an inaudible voice, and smiling (you saw my lips move right?). I’m sure it is wrong still, I mean just about everything I do seems to be at least slightly off, but I don’t get the awkward silent judgement anymore.
2. A French goodbye. So I think you are supposed to kiss everyone on the way out of a party, etc. (I always make sure to at least kiss the cute boys…just kidding.) I often just play the American card (at least in my head, or that’s what I tell myself) and announce my goodbye to the room and the people I’ve talked to an if they go in for the kiss, then so be it.
I’m still not exactly sure who you kiss and when (it seems that for women it is everyone, every time, everywhere), but ultimately it may not matter if I simply offend everyone at the get-go each time I walk in the room and fail to say “bonjour”.
3. Bon appetit. Apparently this is to be said any time you walk past a person eating. I often eat lunch in the teacher’s lounge and every time I do, many teachers walk by (making copies, preparing for classes, etc.) and each time they say “bon appetit”. Teachers I’ve never met, seen, but not talked to, without fail, “bon appetit”. I must admit that I kind of love that food is so sacred here that one must always wish someone “bon appetit” whether eating a 3-course meal or snacking on a cookie.

Lost in Translation: Another Language Checkpoint Passed

As I sat recently at a language cafe (a language exchange), it sunk in just how much progress I have made so far with my French. Am I fluent? Absolutely not. However, I have progressed from “can you feel my eyes burning through your head like lasers from my high level of concentration in trying to discern even one word” to “I am maintaining socially acceptable eye contact with you”. In other words, I have gone from just picking out words here and there, praying that they are the important ones, stringing them together to form a general thought and then having to switch to English anyway to getting the gist of what is said and recognizing when there are words I don’t know.

So, I would say that my comprehension is on the right track. What I didn’t realize is that comprehension and speaking don’t just come to you all in one blow. No. While I may be able to better understand (and actually understand not just smile and nod), I still really struggle with speaking. Here are the top 10 things I wish French people knew when they speak to me:

  1. I’m not trying to be impolite. I just don’t know how to be polite.
  2. Please, please, please ask me a question. I’m much better at answering them than asking them.
  3. On the same token, I want to ask you questions and be conversational, but I just can’t seem to come up with any questions because I know that means I have to translate them into French. Plus I will have no idea what to do when you answer other than smile and nod awkwardly.
  4. If I don’t understand you, I’m just going to say yes. Feel free to call me out on it, but there’s a good chance that I’m not going to understand.
  5. In my head, I have an elaborate and eloquent response in English that will likely come out as “it’s good” in French or some other two-word, caveman grunt response.
  6. I have intelligent opinions and probing questions to ask, but when it comes down to it, all that comes out it “ça va?” (how’s it going?). Or “nice weather huh”?
  7. I’m embarrassed, disappointed and relieved when you switch to English.
  8. I’m not shy in my home country, but if you ask if I am, I’ll probably tell you I am because it is easier than explaining that I can’t speak the language. Plus, if I say I’m not, you will probably try to talk to me and I’m already pretty overwhelmed.
  9. I want to practice my French, but it is hard. Harder than I ever imagined. Because language isn’t just the spoken word, it is body language, the verbal sounds, the expressions…and I just can’t get it all at once.
  10. Don’t call me. I won’t answer. Phones are the most terrifying thing in a foreign language. Some days you’ll be lucky if you get even an “Idon’tknowIdon’tknowClick,” out of me.

My celebrity status in France

In case you hadn’t seen on Facebook, I am famous in Riom. Right before the Christmas break, the city of Riom held a reception to honor the language assistants and other volunteers working for the schools in Riom. It was such a kind gesture. They gave us nice gifts including free tickets to tourist sites in the region, tourism guides and a nice padfolio. The mayor also made a point of talking to each of the assistants personally and thanking us for our work. There was a reporter writing a story about the event. She was talking to my supervising teacher, who mentioned that I was there as were a few of my students (they volunteered in elementary schools) so she interviewed me and my students too.

And, of course, everything she wrote was a direct quote. My French improved dramatically right before Christmas break and then dropped off immediately after publication 🙂

See for yourself:

TAPIF – Meeting my students

I had a variety of experiences meeting my students, generally positive. I usually started with telling them my name and where I was from. (I made sure to point Iowa out on the map. I mean, Americans may have no idea where Iowa is or that it isn’t Ohio or Idaho, but my students were going to know where Iowa was!) Cedar Rapids was a word they had fun with as was Iowa. From time to time, students did actually know where Iowa was because the capital, Des Moines, is French. (They also got a kick out of hearing how we pronounce it, especially those outside of Iowa who pronounce the “s”.) I showed them pictures of my family, my home and the cities I had lived in.

Without fail, in each class, they were shy and reluctant to ask questions. Crickets, like straight out of Ferris Bueller?…Bueller? It would take a brave student, likely a popular student or maybe the class clown to break the ice. Typical questions would include what I studied in school and if I wanted to be a teacher. One student would inevitably ask how old I was (the rest of the class snickering like they were getting away with something) and I would always answer honestly. At least for that question, if they were brave enough to ask (and the teacher didn’t scold them for asking an inappropriate question), I would give them an honest answer. Particularly cheeky students (or when the class was all-female) would ask if I had a boyfriend. Again, I would answer honestly.

Being an English assistant puts you in an interesting position of juxtapositions. You are part teacher, part diplomat/cultural ambassador. For many of these kids, I am the first American that they have met. What I say, what I do and how I act will define their image/perception of the United States. That’s a much greater responsibility than I realized. It is a given to us (Americans) that the experience of someone in Iowa vs. New York vs. California would be different. How I may answer a question shouldn’t speak for all Americans, but for many of these kids, it will. Because of this, to some extent, I think that makes me responsible for answering all kinds of questions about the United States. At the same time, you have to create boundaries and hold the students accountable to giving you the same respect as a teacher. I’m also closer to the student’s age than many of the teachers, but I’m too old to be part of their peer group…so the lines seem a little blurred at times as to what is and isn’t appropriate. And if they are dying to ask a question about American culture regarding topics that may be a little taboo (like relationships or politics), I want them to ask. I don’t want them to only see the United States through the lens of the television series that make it to France.

I had one particularly bold class that enjoyed asking every controversial question they could. The teacher didn’t censor them, so I answered every one the best that I could. These questions included:

  • Do you have a gun?
  • What do you think about the legalization of marijuana?
  • Will Hilary Clinton run for president?
  • Do you really eat pizza, hot dogs and hamburgers?
  • Are there parties like you see on tv?
  • Are American high schools just like High School Musical? (cue the rest of the girls in the class singing “We’re All Een Zis Toogezher”)
All in all, I really enjoyed meeting the students. It was fun to answer their questions and see what was interesting to them. What got the biggest reaction? The fact that you can drive in Iowa with a school permit at the age of 14 (provided you have taken Driver’s Ed). That usually garnered a few, “I want to move to America”s. Cities they were most curious about and nearly unanimously want to visit (and wanted to know if I had visited)? New York City and Los Angeles (for Hollywood, of course).