TAPIF: One Year Later

At the beginning of October 2014, I began my year in Compiègne with the Teaching Assistant Program in France. One year ago.

I was supposed to arrive at the end of September, but plane engine issues coupled with airport strikes in Paris (Ah, la joie des grèves françaises!) delayed my arrival in France by 10 hours. However, I arrived. And what a year I had!

When many people describe a profound experience, they say it “changed my life.” This often implies that something (a quality, an idea, a person) was missing before the event took place. My seven months in Compiègne were not life-changing in the sense that I became someone I wasn’t. Rather, I changed because qualities that lay dormant in me were revived and strengthened, and even some faults were diminished. I begin to think that growth is not so much an addition or subtraction as it is a refinement of spirit. If God formed us fearfully and wonderfully, He must have given us everything we need to go through life, and sends people or experiences into our lives accordingly to draw out and refine these different qualities in us.

I’m not going to write a “listicle” for this topic because it’s too simple. Rather, I’ll just share two of the most poignant lessons from my time in France, hopefully in a semi-coherent manner.

I’ll be honest: I’m no expert on children.  I took a babysitting class in middle school, but there were never any kids in my neighborhood to babysit, and my youngest cousins lived far away. I never took a pedagogy class in college. So no, I didn’t really know what I was in for when I accepted a position teaching middle school English. Since I returned home, I’ve gotten a lot of messages from prospective teaching assistants expressing the same fear: “I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve never taught anyone anything! How am I supposed to teach them for a whole year?” To those assistants who might be reading this post: you don’t need a long resume of teaching experience to do this. You just need to be a resource.

On January 7, 2015, the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were attacked, and many of France’s prominent political cartoonists were killed. The next day, I walked into my weekly conversation club with a lesson all ready. One of my students raised his hand and said, “Miss, can we talk about Charlie Hebdo?” I could see the fear and pain in the eyes of my 12- and 13-year-old students, so I agreed. We spent the whole hour discussing the event (in English) and I said very little. The class carried the conversation all on its own. My only remark was at the end of the lesson: “There are many people in the United States who are thinking of you and who support you.”

Kids are used to adults not taking them seriously. It used to infuriate me when I was younger, and I’m sure it was the same for you. The best thing you can be for any child is a willing listener.

Outside from teaching, I became bolder. I learned bite the bullet of fear and take chances, especially when it came to meeting new friends.

There is a stereotype that the French are not as friendly and open as Americans are. In my experience, this is only partly true. Most of the French people I met were very friendly and open, especially once they found out I could speak French well. But it was not the same smothering friendliness that you often see from Americans. It was a reserved politeness that slowly, organically developed into friendship.

I found out about the Communauté Chrétienne des Étudiants (Catholic community at the local university), a week or two after I arrived. It took me another month to work up the courage to attend a meeting. What sort of community was this? What if they never had an international student before? What if my French wasn’t good enough? And was I even allowed to join because I wasn’t a student?

God makes swift work of our doubts when we trust Him and take a leap of faith. I attended my first CCE Mass and dinner in November, and my only regret was not going sooner! In this community, I found warm, welcoming people from all over France and the world who cared about me and made me feel at home. Some of my best memories of the year come from this community. It was so wonderful to make real French friends!

And of course, I can’t forget the other language assistants I met from all over the world, an eclectic little family of expats that supported one another exploring a new country. And abundant kindness flowed in from my roommates, my coworkers, my students and their families, and even the everyday compiègnois. Most greeted me with a kind bonjour and smile, and many went beyond the call of politeness, inviting me to dinners and parties, or taking me on excursions to tourist sites in the area. It was truly heartbreaking to leave a place that had become like home in less than a year.

Toward the end of my stay, I thanked as many people as I could in person for their welcome and hospitality. One friend responded,  “It was nothing. You were so dynamic and happy that you fit right in.”

Goodness attracts goodness. You don’t have to be an outgoing or extroverted person to find friends in a strange land. You just need to be present, be open, be kind. There will be times of loneliness and homesickness, and that’s OK. But if you have courage enough to reach outside of yourself, you will make a home wherever you go.

Merci à tous qui m’a très bien accueillir pendant mon séjour à Compiègne. And bon courage to all the new language assistants in France this year.

À bientôt!

– Vicky

15 Surprising Symptoms of Reverse Culture Shock

I’M BAAAACK!

After a whirlwind of goodbyes, packing, my host sister’s wedding, and jet lag, I returned to the United States about a month ago. Leaving Compiègne — I can finally say the name of the town on here! — was heartbreaking. I was blessed with some wonderful friends, coworkers, and students who showed me so much love and patience throughout the year. I miss them all and have kept in contact with a few since coming home.

The past month has been full of family and best friend reunions, job applications, and a weekend in my favorite American city, Boston. I’ve also gotten a heaping dose of reverse culture shock. Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t the first time I’ve had to re-adjust to American culture after being away. However, I noticed that this time around, culture shock was not this ever-present sense of not being in the same country, but this little nagging feeling that sneaked up on me when I least expected it.

I understand that my case is pretty mild since I’m coming from a Western country and returning to another Western country. Culture shock must be much more, well, shocking to people returning to the U.S. from other parts of the world. But, I still think culture shock is a fascinating subject because you learn which aspects of both cultures you take for granted and miss after they’re gone.

So without further ado, here are 15 unexpected instances of reverse culture shock that I’ve experienced in the past month.

1. Getting off the plane in the U.S. and preparing to ask the tough-looking Brooklyn-born security guard, “Pardon, madame, les toilettes sont où?

2. Doing a double take when you see an American flag.

3. Getting a weird look when you talk to salespeople in French.

4. Scouring the clothing racks in vain for a size 40.

5. Wondering why the sign in the dressing room is in English and only English.

6. Accidentally putting your bread on the dinner table instead of on your plate.

7. Being completely disappointed with yellow American cheese.

8. Getting your first restaurant bill and reminding yourself that you need to leave a tip.

9. The horrible realization that American money is really ugly.

10. Needing $1 and looking in the change pocket of your wallet.

11. That weird feeling when someone gives you a hug instead of la bise.

12. Not participating in Mass because you only remember the French responses.

13. Meeting a native French speaker, getting really excited, and hearing him say, “Please, I need to practice my English.”

14. Messaging all your French friends because YOU JUST WANT TO SPEAK FRENCH.

15. Talking like a robot for the first week because you still don’t really believe you have to speak English here.

So there you go — a summary of my life in the past month. I think I’ve mostly assimilated back into American culture, though I’m still disappointed in American cheese.

Look out for more Hundred Word Reviews and regular antics coming your way.

À la prochaine!

– Vicky

Question of the Week: What’s your most surprising culture shock moment? Tell me in the comments!

 

 

Hundred Word Reviews: “A Year in Provence” by Peter Mayle

Challenge No. 4: A Book Set Somewhere You’ve Always Wanted to Visit

“A Year in Provence,” by Peter Mayle, finished May 3. It’s set in France. Of course I want to go there.

Hundred Word Review: In the late 1980s, Peter Mayle and his wife, Jennie, left the corporate rat race of England behind and bought a 200-year-old farmhouse in the sprawling countryside of Provence. This memoir details their first year in the village of Ménerbes, where they encounter bitter winter winds, moochy summer tourists, and laissez-faire construction workers. But there’s also mouthwatering regional cuisine, interesting new friends, and stunning scenery. It’s clear why this book is a classic piece of travel writing. If you love France, food, and richly detailed, funny writing, gobble this book up and wash it down with a glass of rosé.

Check out PopSugar’s challenge and let me know in the comments if you have a book recommendation for one of the categories. And if you want to do the challenge yourself, let me know what you’re reading!

Next up, “a nonfiction book.”

Happy reading!

Vicky

Learning to Love the American (My Accent is Weird, Part 2)

Wow! I don’t think I’ve gotten this much online and in-person feedback on a post in a long time. I recently wrote about why I think my American accent is really unattractive, and I got a surprising number of comments, messages, and people coming up to me to talk about it. Though my intention was to write a lighthearted commentary on accents in general, many readers didn’t take it as such. In light of this, I decided to write a follow-up in which I addressed some of my readers’ concerns and tried to make peace with my Yankee accent.

A few months ago, I accompanied my students on a field trip to see an English-language play. All of the actors except one were British- or American-born. At the end of the show, there was a Q-and-A session. They called on me, and I spoke slowly and distinctly so my students could understand the question. One of the actors, who was from Chicago, said, “Wow, we have a bunch of Brits over there!” I laughed, but I was thinking, “Really, dude? You can’t recognize one of your own?”

In talking about my accent, I think of this story because it shows that while I’ve been fleeing my American roots in some respects, I’m still taken aback whenever mistakes me for anything but American. I can’t blame Mr. Chicago for the confusion; my accent is especially weird around my students. Many of the French teachers I work with learned British English in school, not American, so their pronunciation and vocabulary lean heavily toward that side of the Atlantic. Though American English is becoming more widespread thanks to Netflix and the Internet, most French students learn British words before American ones.

As such, I’ve had to adjust my vocabulary and accent so my students understand me: “Please write your homework in your diary. Make sure you revise for your test. Put up your hand. Don’t eat chewing-gum. No mobiles in class.” I’m sure many of you American readers are thinking, “I’d never say it like that!” I’m not even sure if British people talk like this. However, as anyone who has ever studied a language knows, learning from a textbook is very different than having a conversation with a native speaker. I’m sure if any of my French friends flipped through my high school French textbook, they would laugh at the awkwardness of the French sentences I’m expected to learn. I didn’t think I was so proud of American English until I caught myself saying, “Well, in America, we say ______,” on a daily basis.

As much as I love to critique and poke fun at American culture, it’s the one I was raised in. It formed my identity whether I wanted it to or not. It’s a hard-earned privilege to be able to speak a foreign language well in a country that doesn’t put nearly enough emphasis on learning languages (another rant, another time.) I’m still amazed that I can walk into a store and ask the salesperson a question without them immediately switching to English. Every encouraging comment — “Tu parles très bien français!” — feels like a blow to the obnoxious American tourist stereotype. And since busting stereotypes and glass ceilings is one of my favorite hobbies, I feel all the force of the compliment.

With this newfound encouragement, I’ve been trying to appreciate my accent. Even if I don’t like it, some French people may find it endearing, and many can and are willing to listen past it. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the wonderful friends I’ve made in France for being patient as I struggled to form a complicated sentence, for gently correcting my mistakes, and for taking the time to get to know me. I wouldn’t be at the level of French I am today without you. Merci mille fois.

To anyone who also feels insecure when speaking a foreign language: An accent means you’re trying. That’s the most important thing.

À la prochaine!

– Vicky

Thank you to everyone who took the time to comment on my last post! Any other thoughts about accents? Leave me a comment!

The Liebster Award

Bonjour, mes amis!

On a lighter note than my last post, I’ve been nominated for the Liebster Award by my dear friend Emily. I haven’t done an about-me post in a while and I’ve gotten a bunch of new commenters and followers in the meantime. So here’s a little fun diversion until the follow-up to my last post (coming soon, I hope).

The Liebster Award is an award given from one blogger to the next – a total of their favorite blogs – with fewer than 200 followers.

Rules:

  • link back and thank the blogger(s) who nominated you.
  • answer the 11 questions they give you
  • tag up to 11 bloggers who have 200 or fewer followers
  • ask your nominees 11 questions and let them know you tagged them!

So I may be biased because we’ve been friends for almost six (six?!) years, but Emily’s blog is amazing. If you love anything having to do with movies, TV and pop culture in general, you have to check out her blog. Oh, and did I mention you can find her writing for Elite Daily? Thanks for the nomination, girlie. Keep being awesome. I miss you!

OK, let’s see what we have here …

1. If you could have tea with any one person from history who would it be?

There are just so many! For a tea-drinking buddy, I’ll go with Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, mostly so I could just bask in her saintly awesomeness. I haven’t read her autobiography yet, but I took a trip to Lisieux a month ago and it made me love her even more. Anne Frank is also on that list, but instead of having tea, I’d rather have a sleepover where we read girly magazines and spill our souls until 5 a.m.

2. Who is your favorite pop culture vampire?

DRACULA. Nobody beats the original and the best. Dracula will never not be scary, and he will never, ever sparkle.

3. What was the first chapter book you remember reading?

There were probably others before it, but the first I distinctly remember reading was “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I’m an old soul, I know. Mary Lennox just fascinated me, probably because I was more of a Sara Crewe kind of girl. I specifically remember reading the chapter where Mary enters the garden for the first time. That was such a magical and exciting moment, and I don’t think I’d turned a page that fast before.

4. What’s up next in your Netflix Queue?

Nothing at the moment, because I’m in a country with spotty Netflix. But I do have “Lawrence of Arabia” and “The Virgin Suicides” from the library.

5. What is your favorite word?

You’re really making me pick just one?!

OK, for the purposes of this question, I love snarky in English, chamallow (marshmallow) in French, and squillare (to ring, like a phone) in Italian.

6. Which member of the Scooby Gang is your favorite?

Velma. She was always underrated, but to me, she seemed really awesome.

Oh wait, wrong show …

7. What is your favorite, ‘so bad it’s good’ movie to watch?

I had to really think about this one. I’ll have to go with Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen’s “Passport to Paris.” No, this movie is NOT the reason I love France, because that’s just insulting. I always watched this movie at the dentist’s office because I never owned it. It’s enjoyably over-the-top and silly, and living in France has debunked many of the stereotypes in that movie for me. On a side note, if the American ambassador to France doesn’t know what French fries are, he’s doing it wrong.

8. What music album changed the way you listen to music the most?

Vanessa Carlton’s “Be Not Nobody” was the first album I listened to and loved all the way through. This was back in her “A Thousand Miles” days — don’t lie, you still know all the words. It was the first time I had ever heard a hit song by a new artist and loved it so much that I wanted to buy the whole album. And guess what? I still love her. She’s still making music. Her best songs are not on the radio, which is a dang shame. Oh, and she just had a baby.

9. What house do you think you would be sorted into at Hogwarts?

Huffleclaw. Or Ravenpuff.

10. What is your favorite Broadway musical?

“Into the Woods.” Easy.

11. Which celebrity death will you never really get over?

It’s not really a death, per se, but I don’t think I’ll ever get over the Civil Wars breakup. Ever. That was just one of the most beautiful and perfect duos of all time. Chemistry like that doesn’t come around that often, and I’m sorry it didn’t work out for them. However, Joy Williams just released a new single and it’s awesome.

Whew, I did it! Amanda Livingston, Adventures of a Sunbeam, This M Word, No Money for a Compass, The Horseshoe Crab March, Confessions of an Aspiring Journalist, Bohemian Nerd, Dave’s Corner, THE FASHION MARIONNETTE, Curious Comet, and noveltreks, you’re up.

1. What’s one piece of advice you would give yourself five years ago?

2. Describe your dream place of residence.

3. What’s the worst book you’ve ever read?

4. Which song or artist in your music collection are you most embarrassed about?

5. What would you do if your blog had 1 million followers?

6. Which language would you most like to learn and why?

7. Finish this sentence: I could be happy without ____________.

8. If you could give a TED talk on any subject, what would it be about?

9. Which movie deserves a sequel?

10. If you could only eat one dessert for the rest of your life, what would it be?

11. Name one thing you did in the past week that you’re proud of.

Again, thank you Emily for nominating me. New nominees, go wild!

À bientôt!

– Vicky

My Accent is Weird, Part 1

A few weeks ago, I was in an organic market in town buying ingredients to make a red velvet cake. I had my shopping list with all the items written out in French so I could find them easily. I found everything except the buttermilk. I had written two possible French words for this one, so I confidently went up to the cashier and asked where the buttermilk was.

She stared at me blankly. I tried the other word. No good. As I was about to end the conversation, she signaled one of her coworkers to come over, saying, “Je ne parle pas anglais.” 

Mortified, I quickly paid for the rest of my stuff and left. I haven’t gone back since.

***

Many French people have told me that I speak very good French, and I’m always genuinely flattered by it. When someone makes a concerted effort to not just speak their language, but to speak it well, the French appreciate it.

However, I have never made it through more than a minute of conversation with a new French acquaintance without that person asking, “Where are you from?” or saying, in true matter-of-fact French fashion, “You have an accent.”

As an avid traveler, I’m constantly worried about falling into the “obnoxious American tourist” stereotype. I feel like I always have to prove that I’m trying to speak the language well and learn about the culture and not just ask where the nearest McDonald’s is.

It’s probably all in my head, but I hate the sound of my northeastern U.S. accent trying to finagle its way around all those beautiful French vowels and not-so-beautiful nasal vowels. It’s even worse when I make a grammar-related faux pas.

Last night, I walked home with two French friends from a meeting at the aumônerie. It was very cold and the wind blew my hood right off. What I should have said was, La capuche ne m’aide pas,” or “This hood isn’t helping me.” What I said was, Le capuche ne m’aide pas,” using the masculine instead of the feminine pronoun.

I quickly corrected myself, but one friend caught the error, laughed, and said, “It’s cute. It makes you charming.”

UGH.

I don’t think that’s the right response to a compliment, but instead of feeling flattered, I was frustrated that I had accidentally let my American freak flag fly again. Why? Is it because Americans have a bad reputation as tourists? Or do accents have the same effect as listening to a recording of your own voice?

Since then, I’ve been trying to answer the age-old question: why are foreign accents so attractive? I’m not just talking about people with accents being sexually attractive; admit it, even an accent you find grating or annoying catches your attention at first. The best answer I can come up with is that it’s an immediate conversation starter. Humans are curious beings. When someone speaks differently than you, you automatically ask yourself, “How did this person learn to speak like that? Where are they from? What’s their story?” Plus, you avoid the awkward moment of thinking of a conversation topic, because it’s ringing in your ears.

So if my American accent speaking French is “cute” and “charming,” why do I resent it so much? Perhaps it’s because I’m trying to assimilate as much as possible into the French culture, and my accent is one thing that immediately gives me away as not French. So much of our identity is engrained in the organs that allow us to speak, including the language centers of the brain. Even if I lived in France for the next 40 years and learned to speak perfect French, I might never lose that certain American something in my voice that the French would be sure to notice. Sometimes I feel like people hear my accent and not the words I’m speaking, or they see an American rather than me, Vicky.

It’s true that it takes some getting used to when you’re not familiar with a regional accent. But next time you meet someone with a different accent than you, I’d encourage you to listen carefully to their words, not just hear their voice. An accent is just a small part of a person’s identity. Differences should be celebrated, not fetishized.

Oh yeah, for the record, a sexy accent doesn’t necessarily indicate that this person is boyfriend/girlfriend material.

Good. Glad that message rang loud and clear.

À bientôt!

– Vicky

Question: Why do you think people find different accents attractive? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

A Functioning Roman Catholic, Among Other Things

Bonne année a tous! Happy New Year, everyone!

For those of you who are new to this blog, especially my fellow participants of Blogging U.’s Blogging 101 class, bienvenue! I hope you’ll comment on this post so I can get to know all of you!

Recently, I reached 50 followers on this blog. I know it doesn’t sound like a lot, but for a blogger whose most frequently used tags are “Catholic” and “God,” I am very grateful. Thank you so much to everyone! I also apologize for my “En Avant Pour L’Avent” series falling through. :/

So about me: I’m Vicky, short for Victoria. (You’d be surprised at how many people don’t make the connection.) I was born and raised in New Jersey. Despite my lack of French heritage, I’ve been obsessed with France for as long as I can remember. I started studying French when I was thirteen years old and double-majored in writing and French in college. I’m spending my first post-grad year teaching English to French middle schoolers in a small town about an hour north of Paris. My idea of paradise is a secondhand bookstore with a coffee shop. I text in full sentences using proper grammar. I’m either an outgoing introvert or a shy extrovert — I can’t decide. I have a head full of useless and random information. I laugh a little too hard. I love to bake and travel, but mostly I love to write. One of my life goals is to get a book published. It doesn’t have to be a bestseller; I just want a hot-off-the-press copy in my hands, none of this e-book nonsense.

Oh, and I’m also Catholic.

So why did I leave that part till the last? My faith is extremely important to me, but it’s not the only thing that makes me me. When I tell people I’m Catholic, they seem to lump me into a sort of homogenous box of people wearing beige sweaters and praying the Rosary. While I do love a good Rosary, I’m not some supreme holy being; I’m a human being. If anything, Catholics are a bunch of messed up, broken and very different people that know we need a Savior, Jesus Christ.

I do want to talk about my faith on this blog, but I also want to talk about other things I love, namely literature, France, travel, and (gasp!) feminism. My hope is that someone who isn’t Catholic will read my blog and think, “OK, this girl seems pretty normal. Maybe Catholics aren’t as crazy as I thought.”

I will look at Catholicism with a critical eye and a funny bone if need be; hey, Stephen Colbert has made a career out of taking shots at the Catholic Church, and he’s a devout Catholic! In fact, the title of this post comes from a segment about Lent on The Colbert Report.

Keep in mind that I am not an expert on anything. My opinions are my own, that of a 22-year-old (barely) functioning Roman Catholic still figuring it all out.

Thank you so much for reading! I can’t wait to meet all my fellow Blogging 101 people!

À la prochaine fois! See you next time!

Vicky

Question of the Week: What’s a question you’ve always wanted to ask a young person of faith? Tell me in the comments! I may answer it in an upcoming post.