The Finish Line

Anyone who knows me well enough knows that if I don’t have a goal set in my mind that I will without a doubt achieve, I have no purpose. So even during my “gap year”, almost immediately after I got to France I pounced on the opportunity to register and train for the Semi-Marathon de Paris, 21.1km through the streets of Paris that I completed last Sunday along with nearly 40 000 other participants. All the training through snow, rain, rain, rain, snow, disgusting blisters and ugly injuries was worth it as I found myself thoroughly enjoying racing against my own clock as I ran along the banks of the Seine watching Notre Dame come in to view in the distance. I’ve never ran a race I didn’t love doing, and this one was no exception. Other than the insane adrenaline rush that comes from being cooped up in a gate next thousands of other bodies an hour before the start and the voices of strangers screaming “Allez” as I ran through a city that was no longer foreign to me, I also had a stellar two hours in the brilliant sunshine to reflect on my time as an au pair as this stage in my year comes to a close. 

After crossing the physical finish line of the race after what wasn’t just a couple hours of running, but literally months of preparations, I am now preparing to cross the metaphorical finish line of my time as an au pair at the end of this week, after six months of living here, in addition to the preparation and anxieties that went into the trip from months prior. I won’t be getting super nostalgic or anything, because there’s so much to look forward I don’t have the time or energy to look back- just yet. Instead, I can reflect on some of the things I’ve learned (if reluctantly), not just while being a young girl in a foreign country, but specifically while being an au pair.

1. I now know way more about the English language than I’d ever thought I didn’t already know. Coming to France has taught me much more about my own language and connection to my culture than the French language. Who knew that we were taught so poorly in school about verb tenses, conjugations, etc. I didn’t realize what a big impact me speaking English with E would have on her life as well as mine. I’ve not only been teaching English to her and answering her questions about the language, but also answering the queries of my host parents, as well as those of my French teacher and the friends I’ve made from places such as Sweden, Germany & Austria. A few months ago, I could barely tell you how the conjugate the verb “see” in the past tense third-person. Another fun question I got used to answering: What’s Canada like? Suddenly my identity wasn’t made up of my parents, my friends, my school or my religion; I was Canadian, and that was that.

2. I now know how critical my own schedule is in my life. Living and breathing someone else’s routine for 6 months can be frustrating at best. Living with your bosses and sleeping in your “office” means that finding a balance between work and leisure at “home” can be challenging.

3. My love affair with cheese has bloomed into an everlasting relationship. A meal now feels incomplete if I don’t get a giant chunk of creamy goodness to cleanse my palate and make my tummy smile. 

4. Dr. Seuss are the best books to read aloud.

5. Hugs and bises from a 3-year-old who (sometimes) loves you unconditionally (on a good day) are the best kind.

6. Finally: French. Not just grammar. Texting in French and making sure what I’m saying is really what I mean; sending formal emails, making appointments, talking over the phone or discussing important matters with my host parents; translating children’s books from French while reading them for the first time; challenging myself not to hit the “translate” button online; eavesdropping on rushed metro conversations.

Thousands of kilometres (travelled, but mainly run), 4 European capitals (so far), hundreds of questions, backaches, headaches, bellyaches (due to cheese and chocolate), lots of new friends, sufficient amounts of laughter, an acquired taste for coffee and escargots, a sufficient amount of tears, more than a dash of homesickness, thousands of pictures, and finally a new language and culture not just surrounding me but finally seeping into me as well, have all made up the last six months. It’s weird to think I’ve got no idea what’s coming next. I can’t really say à demain, so à bientôt will have to do.

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Post-race
Ya, that’s a castle behind me

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With very few hours and very little money

Thank goodness I went to Amsterdam, because these posts were getting rather dull. After dispensing no more than 12 euros (return) for night buses between Paris and Amsterdam, me and two very excited au pair friends set off after a day of working Friday for a weekend escape with very little money in our pockets, but two full days that we planned on filling right up.

Amsterdam’s got a great reputation: a city of tolerance, a city with a rich history, a beautiful city, and of course a city full of drugs and prostitutes. It lived up precisely to its reputation, and we were astounded by the way the city was so clean and fresh, and the people were so friendly and welcoming. Not only that, but for some reason (in my naive brain) I’ve always thought of Amsterdam only in the spring, full of tulips in bloom and bikers all over the place. Of course, geographically we did go a little bit north from Paris, but I was not expecting the huge amounts of snow we received over the weekend. It in fact made the city even more beautiful, and although we ditched our original plan of renting bikes for the sake of our own lives, no amount of snow stopped the intrepid Dutch.

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After our arrival at 6:30 in the morning, we had exactly 40.5 hours to squeeze in and actually absorb all that this fabulous city had to offer. We not only fit in (to name just a few): the moving and informative Anne Frank house and museum, the amazing and astoundingly impressive bathtub-shaped modern art museum, the sex museum, a rather underwhelming but well-worth it cheese museum (1 euro to see a store basement full of photos of cheese, and not to avoid feeling guilty sampling every cheese in the store), a walk in the park in a vinter vonderland (as the Dutch might say), and a free walking tour, but we managed to do it all with impeccable timing. We didn’t wait in line for a single museum or entry, but never felt at all rushed to get any where in a hurry. I guess when you’ve got less time, in the end you use way more, turning our two-day trip into one we’ll remember forever, even when we’re respectively back in Sweden, Canada, and Australia.

Apart from the cultural benefits of the trip, experiencing it with two of the closest friends I’ve made here has reminded me how spectacular it is that we can find people we can make connections with all over the world; no matter what continent or hemisphere, we’re just young girls borrowing each other’s clothes, complaining about money and work and our bodies and our bosses, and mainly discussing our next meal. Ok, and maybe we frequently discuss everything from how the trash pick-up system works in our respective countries, the education system, what our traffic lights look like, how we get around, our parents, our friends, and of course what we eat, but our differences can bring us closer because in the end we can all agree that we’re not French, and we like it like that.

Living on a salary that rarely gets me through to my next one in one of the most expensive regions in the world, I painstakingly packed away a few extra euros in my “bank account” (a money pouch on a shelf) at the end of each week coming up to the weekend. Me and my friends had earlier decided we would pack our own food from our host families, and avoid eating out entirely. Little did I know that food costs literally half the price in Amsterdam compared to Paris. And so, I managed to spend no more than 8 euros on food the entire weekend, while still sampling Dutch stroopwaffles, Dutch chocolate, Dutch cheese, Dutch fries, and Dutch vending-machine fast-food (it’s a thing!). From using our shirts as towels in the hostel, packing food from the free breakfast for our lunch, buying a family pass as a museum entrance (18 is still a child in the Netherlands!), and signing up for a “free” walking tour, we made every euro count, and every one was worth it.

A lesson in frugality, friendship, history, culture and freedom in the least, I’d say this was two days I’ll have trouble forgetting.

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Thinking outside the circle

Living in the suburbs has its advantages, few as they may be. I’ve gotten the chance to explore not just all that Paris has to offer, but I also spend a fair amount of time in the towns around where I live, occupied mainly by bourgeois families living in “discreet opulence”, as the newest edition of the weekly news publication L’Express suggests.

I had not yet though, taken the time to really explore what lies just outside the exclusive périphérique of Paris: the “bois” (woods). The Bois de Boulogne just to the west and Bois de Vincennes just to the east of Paris are both large, green (I wouldn’t say woodsy, as contrary to what the name suggests, these “bois” include roads, crosswalks, and the occasional traffic light) areas of land, perfect for a relaxing day steps away from the big city (and the metro!)

This weekend, with the sun nervously peeking out from behind looming rainclouds, I took the opportunity to explore both sides of the outside. I explored Bois de Boulogne by foot with a friend on Friday, mainly frequented by well-off families from the bordering suburb of Neuilly and the 16th arrondissement, although it being the dead of winter, and the constant threat of rain in the air, it was rather deserted.

The race that me and my friend Hanna will be running in March takes place mainly in the Bois de Vincennes, and we thought it would be a cool idea to check out the route with another friend, but this time by bike.

Even after all our research online about the vélib rental bike system, it still took multiple tries to figure out how to purchase a ticket, make a deposit, (while ensuring our credit cards weren’t actually getting charged 150 euros) and withdraw a bike all before the system shut off and we had to start all over again. Eventually, we managed to withdraw three bikes, and with fresh picnic supplies that had been bought at the market that morning in our baskets, set off on a rather wobbly start into the woods.

We passed a beautiful and very old looking castle (turns out this was Chateau de Vincennes, we’re not really sure at all about its history), and rolled over bumpy cobblestone paths until we were united with the many families, runners, rollerbladers and bikers taking their Sunday promenades. Although the sun was shining and the birds were chirping, we were rather deceived by the weather. After cycling around the same beautiful three little lakes about 4 times, we finally decided to stop for our picnic. Unfortunately, our fingers were frozen in handlebar formation, and our knees creaked while trying to sit on the bench. Cutting up the delicious cheese and avocado for our baguette sandwiches took way longer than necessary, but it was definitely worth it.

Our limbs sufficiently frozen & bellies sufficiently full, we biked for about two more minutes to make use of the final half-hour we knew we would be charged for anyways, before we did what any frozen Française would do, and headed into the nearest café to thaw out.

So maybe we were fooled by a sun that finally decided to give us some light but no warmth, but a dry day is a good day and this was still the most pleasant Sunday I’ve had in quite some time. It may have been the first time I’d been on a bike in more than 5 months, and whether or not I feel any more fit for the race, I’m not so sure, but it was a nice change thinking outside the box –or circle, and seeing that other side of this city that has so much to offer.

Snow… et, alors?

Yes, for the past few days it has been snowing almost non-stop here. Although there’s currently maybe 10-15 cm on the ground, the amount of inconveniences it’s caused have been severely disproportionate to  this meagre number. Personally, I’m not that into snow. I’m used to it, it comes (eventually) every winter, even if it doesn’t stay long. It’s good for skiing, and for keeping my brother in an eternal good mood. That being said, it could not have been more welcome after weeks and weeks of non-stop , dreary, chill-to-the-core-of-your-bones rain. The air has finally transitioned from chilly and damp to dry and fresh and altogether just puts me in a better mood. But alas, Parisians with their metropolitan mentality similar to that of any other big city citizens in the world, experience a personal anger at this change of weather that inconveniences their daily lives and may in fact cause them to walk a little less slowly down the street (the horror…) It’s not that it doesn’t snow here; it does. Just not often, and not a lot. Nobody likes rain, but at least people are prepared for it, used to it, and accustomed to it. They are not accustomed to snow, and this leaves everybody on their most peculiar behaviour.

As I left for my long run this morning, I was equipped in my winter running gear, the same outfit I have been wearing to run in the snow for the past 5 years. Before I left, my host dad felt the need to remind me “It’s snowing.” Yes, I was aware. But this is normal, I didn’t think the snow could get in the way of me and my run, because it never really has before. The one thing I didn’t think about was that maybe even if I was ready for the streets, they weren’t exactly ready for me. It had been snowing all night, but nothing serious. That is, if snow-plows or salters worked at night or on Sundays. I found myself traipsing through the snow that buried my shoes, walking up hills because there was no salt to get a grip with, and watching far too many cars spin-off the sides of roads, or get stuck in the middle of a steep incline, their tires fruitlessly spinning whilst spewing brown slush all over my legs. At the same time, I had other drivers and pedestrians congratulating me for running in the snow. At the beginning I thought this was ridiculous, but after two hours running on untouched sidewalks, I decided it was well-deserved.

So maybe I’m used to this kind of snow, but no one else here is. Most people have been walking around with umbrellas and in rain boots while beautiful thick flakes of snow float down around them. The buses have not been running. My host mom seems to think that neither me nor E will be going to class tomorrow (keep in mind it stopped snowing early this afternoon). I have not seen a single salting truck or snow plow, and have seen only one person shovelling in front of their house. I got redirected on the France weather site because “due to weather problems” it wasn’t working. I saw grown men building a snowman all by themselves. I didn’t risk going into Paris today because the internet claimed there were traffic disruptions on every train line.

balcony's looking a little different than back in September

balcony’s looking a little different than back in September

I mean I’m not complaining; it’s kind of pretty. But let’s clean up the roads so I can get back to my runs.

Edinbrruh

My exciting vacation time continued on after my family left on New Year’s Day, when I left the next morning for the fascinating city of Edinburgh. I never would have given any thought to visiting here if it weren’t for my English friend Katherine suggesting it as a trip we do together over the holidays, which I’m so grateful to her for! (It was her fifth visit, but we still were awe-struck together). As my mom pointed out, it’s the first place I’ve been (so far) where neither of my parents have been first, which is an accomplishment according to my globe-trotting (sans children) parents.

We spent an excellent 3 nights in the city, firstly with a warm welcome from a family friend, and the last two where I spent my first time in a pretty great hostel. We spent our days doing a copious amount of tours, some paid for, some free, and one of which we managed to tag along with….

I would definitely recommend the Sandeman’s free walking tour which I think is offered in many major cities in Europe, and is tips-only. It was an extremely long 3 hours but because the city is so small we actually walked around the old town about three times! By the end of it, I knew absolutely everything there is to know about the city, the country, and its wacko history. That is, until we visited an abandoned underground neighborhood on another tour, and the Edinburgh castle, and took part in a literary pub tour. Now I am seriously an Edinburgh genius, and could possibly return to run a tour there myself. As long as you bring up Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Burns, and ghosts, people will think you know it all!

On top of the ridiculous amounts of walking, I also got to try some well-known Scottish staples such as haggis (ok, it may or may not have been vegetarian, but even the real one wasn’t served in a sheep’s stomach!), shortbread, and my favourite, chips & curry. No, whiskey was not on the agenda but I did taste some ales that were way too dark.

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Haggis, neeps, and tatties

Another highlight was walking up to Arthur’s Seat. It was nice to be surrounded by some green for a change, in January, and get a view of the beautiful city and the sea beyond from a natural elevation instead of from the many different monuments that tower over Paris.

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Of course, the trip wouldn’t have been complete without a visit to the café where J.K. Rowling first wrote Harry Potter. It’s not surprising that with a beautiful view that looks out onto the castle and a beautiful private school, her vision of Hogwarts was formed here.

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If I never come home it’s because I now go to Hogwarts. So don’t worry, (all) Bubbie(s), I’m still getting an education.

Aside from the extremely lengthy travel days on either end thanks to budget airlines and my own keenness for being way too early, the biggest difficulty in Scotland was the language. You may think they speak English there, but alas you would be mistaken. I literally had more trouble understanding store clerks, waiters, and bartenders with their crazy accents that I have understanding French people (in FRENCH). It’s back to the grind (if you can call it that) tomorrow morning, but at least I’ve got a toddler that missed me crazy amounts to wake up in the morning. Maybe she’ll be more grateful and respectful now that she’s barely seen me for 2 weeks? Well, a lass can hope.

The New and the Same-Old (but better)

The title refers to food, mainly. Family too, I guess.

My winter holidays commenced with my first ever Christmas eve, which I celebrated with my host family in our apartment. It was an intimate, calm affair; so laid-back in fact that our evening meal lasted from 9:30-11:30pm. It wasn’t just the baby tree in the corner of the apartment or the French christmas carols playing softly in the background that made this a big day. In fact, in one day I tried foie gras, escargots, and oysters. The foie gras was decent, although it is fat goose liver and I just can’t get over that. The oysters tasted like when you choke on a wave swimming in the ocean, but maybe something slimy got caught in your throat at the same time– not my thing. But the escargots were in fact fantastic. I could eat snails all day. After exchanging the last of four kisses with each of the grandparents that came over, I went to bed on Christmas eve knowing a group of people more special than Santa were flying over to see me that very night.

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When I met my family for the first time in nearly four months Christmas morning, it immediately felt like we had never been apart. I don’t need to write about this week in detail as, well, it was the same old. Some highlights include:

-My dad expanding his French vocabulary by seven whole words: “café allongé avec un gout de lait”

-losing Isaac on the metro

-Indulging in unbelievable food every day, 3 times a day (at least) that in the past few months I have only been able to stare at enviously through café windows

-Said unbelievable food not always being edible (ex. ordering a “seafood plate” in Normandy and receiving a giant plate of cold shells filled with gigantic slimy somethings)

-Each member of the family trying a different flavour of macaron from a different Patissier every day in order to “compare and contrast” 

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-My dad’s successful driving trip around the l’Arc de Triomphe roundabout 

I didn’t even realize how comfortable I am in this city until the people I am most comfortable with came to experience it with me. I always picture my home life frozen in another time zone, and it was as if my mom, dad and brother stepped out of their freeze-frame for a moment to join me in my movie, where they met the cast of my family here and I took them all over the set.

The only part that felt less than surreal was the mini-road trip we took to Normandy, as we had suddenly left my stomping grounds and I felt like a true child again. I finally got to fall asleep in a car (more than once), have my parents decide where we were going, how we were getting there, and what we were going to see, and I was more than happy to go along for the luxurious ride (in a tiny Citroen).

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The beach in Normandy where the first of the boats of the D-Day mission reached France on June 6, 1944.

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It was an amazing week filled with the usual family spats, but with way more rich food, countless hugs, and the usual unnecessary advice.

“Rachel, when you go to Edinburgh, remember your passport.” -Lorne Berman

The Festival of Lights in the City of Lights

Me and my friend Dayna freezing our butts off

Me and my friend Dayna freezing our butts off

 

The blog I wrote for camp George this week: http://blogs.rj.org/george/2012/12/14/celebrating-hanukkah-in-france/

We may have to continue lighting the candles every night next week, or temper tantrums could ensue

We may have to continue lighting the candles every night next week, or temper tantrums could ensue

Soaking it in

The unbelievable amounts of rain that have graced the streets of Paris this week haven’t stopped me from soaking in some culture without getting too wet. From photo exhibits, to French films and TV, I’ve really done it all this week. After stumbling upon a brochure at the Hungarian Institute a couple of weeks ago for Mois de la Photo à Paris, I learned that for the month of November (with many exhibits stretching into December or the new year), there would be special photo exhibits and displays all over Paris in various cultural centres, museums and galleries. I quickly went through the list, arranged by arrondisement (area) circling the ones which were free, whose titles looks intriguing, and those that were open at a time I wasn’t working. Three times this week, I chose an area of the city, and with my map book, brochure, and (sometimes) a friend in tow, set off to discover some modern photography, as the renaissance paintings of Jesus were getting old. 

From a homesick-inducing visit to the centre culturel canadien– where francophone photographers were exhibiting their photo series from Montreal and the surrounding area– to the Maison de l’Amérique Latin, to various independent galleries around the wealthier parts of the city,  I think I visited 7 or 8 exhibits in total– not bad. 

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“Electric Mountains” at the centre culturel canadien. Skiing: Missing out on the one thing I can stand about winter.

After going to the movies a couple of times with friends here to watch films in version original (read: English with subtitles) I decided it was time to venture into unknown territory: The French film, sans subtitles. A recently released romantic comedy was the call, Populaire. It turned out to be a surprisingly pleasant viewing; we laughed and awwed along with the rest of the audience, occasionally quietly sharing with each other an idiom or two we picked up on that we remember learning about in class. Yes, there were those awkward moments when me and my foreign friends turned to each other with blank looks on our faces while the rest of the audience giggled, but for the most part it was enjoyed by all, as was our sweet popcorn. (You get a choice: sucré or salé, and butter is not an option!)

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Got strange looks for taking this one..our first French movie out must be documented.

Along with French films, of course comes French TV. Without a TV at my disposal, I’ve taken to watching French TV online, my current obsession being Le Meilleur Patissier (The best pastry-maker). It makes me way too hungry when I’m staying up too late catching up on macaron-making competitions. 

Finally, after another afternoon at the Hungarian Institute meeting St. Nicolas, I ventured back to the Canadian cultural centre, where Margaret Atwood was coming to do a bilingual reading and discussion on her latest book of poetry to be translated in French. (Which was in fact published in the 1970’s- The Journal of Susanna Moodie). It was really awesome to be in such a quaint space with the famous writer, who in a presentation of that sort in Canada would have been speaking to a packed auditorium. Instead, a mish-mash of Canadian exchange students, French poets, and who knows who else were in a small back room, listening to Ms. Atwood struggle with her French (even though she had her translator there, she preferred to translate answers to questions herself). I was especially fascinated when looking at the English poem next to the French translation, to see what meanings of which words were used to convey the same emotions. 

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My babe with St. Nicolas

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Margaret Atwood and her translator/interpreter

A week packed with rain, French, and a little bit of home has warmed me from the inside, but unfortunately the weather today has me breaking out my parka (that took up half of my suitcase) for the first time. At least I’ve got Christmas lights, and Hannukah candles soon, to keep me cozy.

Education and School

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=y_ZmM7zPLyI#!

Not hating on school,

But this reminds me of the education I’m receiving here every day.

Mercredi

So it’s pretty great living in Paris, but some might forget that I actually work here as well. And although I’m probably taking care of the cutest child in the entire world, childcare is childcare, no matter what continent you’re living in, or language you speak. So to touch on another aspect of my life, let’s talk about Wednesdays in France.

Nearly a swear word in most au pair circles, Wednesday night is THE night to go out in Paris if you’re looking to pick up sad, tired au pairs. Let me explain. Some genius at some point in time decided that it would be a cool idea for French kids to only have to go to school 4 days a week, leaving Wednesday as this awful void in the middle of the week for parents to cram their children’s schedules with sports, extra tutoring, language classes, arts & crafts, etc. I’d say this is 85% why having an au pair is so common here, because although kids only have school 4 days of the week; parents work the appropriate 5.

Because E goes to a private school, this system is a little bit more flexible. I drop her off at 9 am Wednesday morning, and embark on my 4 hours of free bliss before going to pick her up (this bliss could mean coffee with a friend who’s also fortunate enough to have wednesdays partially free, or time spent back at home mentally preparing myself for the afternoon). At 1pm, me and my minion make our way to Paris on the RER (high-speed trains that serve Paris and its suburbs) on our way to our first activity; Story Hour at the American Library! After a train ride, a bus ride, and a lot of walking, we venture into the uncomfortably hot back room, “the children’s library” crammed with nannies, parents, and restless children, where I attempt to squat for an hour while leaning against bookshelves listening to the various english accents floating around the room, and observing how little ‘story hours’ have changed since I used to attend them with a nanny. Although they call this story “hour”, it always seems to last just a little too long, which means I’m dragging E’s unfinished Arts & crafts project (and E herself) to the next bus stop, making our way to the Hungarian Institute for her weekly dose of maternal culture and my weekly trip to Never-Never Land. There, I’m suddenly transported somewhere between Transylvania and Teribithia, and it is the only place I find myself asking others to speak to me en français, since they all but assume I can speak Hungarian.

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Wednesday afternoons at the bus stop have their advantages

Here, E partakes in a “secret session” (that’s what I call it anyways, I literally have no idea what goes on in there when I send her into this auditorium for 45 minutes and she comes out speaking Hungarian and holding some sort of art project). Next, she is the tiniest participant in a Hungarian dance class while I sit on the parquet floor away from the other moms and bribe her with Hungarian cookies to keep dancing (or else by this time, she is so tired she will refuse, and who wants a scene when communicating with people in this place can be quite challenging?)

On this particular Wednesday, E had an absolutely terrible cold. I’m used to getting looks on public transport when E raises her voice above a whisper, or even people straight up telling me to get my kid to be quiet (or telling a friend loudly next to them instead), but this was the first time I experienced the judgemental looks of French strangers as E coughed like crazy throughout our metro ride to her dad’s office at the end of a very busy day. I wasn’t going to apologize to these stressed, unfriendly people for a sick child.

Turns out our day was just about too much for E, for we got home to the discovery that she now has a fever, and won’t be going to school at all tomorrow. I guess the trade-in for a crazy wednesday is a Thursday day off, in preparation for two nights of babysitting ahead of me.

So yeah, the Eiffel Tower’s great, food’s extravagant, people are cool and the weather is occasionally nice, but with a mini-pack of kleenex permanently in my coat pocket, my fingers always sticky from the hand that clings to mine, and a newly discovered knowledge of children’s toys and books, you now know what my life is REALLY like Le Pecq (and Paris…)