An American in Paris

Paris is a special place. It’s filled with architecture, history, people… lots and lots of people… so many people that I can really only handle a few days there at a time.

Although I may not like the crowds, there is something that I really love about Paris: each time I go there, I reunite with someone. Whether it’s family or friends, someone I’ve seen recently or someone I haven’t seen in ages… I’m never alone in Paris!

It was the first real French city that I ever visited, after getting off the ferry in Cherbourg, dropping off my extra luggage at the train station in Caen (thanks for helping out, Jonathan!), and then finally stepping off the train.

Since then, I’ve been back several times.

Although I’ve had to go to deal with visa issues, paperwork, or passport stuff most visits, I make the most of each time I go.

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Michel especially loves (making fun of) Paris. Ha!
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I picked up my friend Amber in October 2014 from the Paris airport. We spent a few days there and then spent time in Lille and Belgium. It was her first trip to Europe, and her first time taking a plane!
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Three weeks ago, I met up with my childhood friend, Kate. We were reunited after several years of not seeing each other!
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I’ve met up with Baylor study abroad friends several times in Paris. Three weeks ago, we celebrated our friend Flo’s birthday – three of us came in from Lille, London, and Brussels!
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A few years ago I met up with my friend Heather, who was traveling in Europe at the time.
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Two weeks ago, I met my parents in Paris to spend a few days there (and in Versailles) before they stayed with me for a week in Cassel.

In July, I’ll meet up with my good friend Shane there, too!

So thank you Paris, for only being an hour and a half away by train, and for serving as the official meeting point for me, my friends, and my family in France.

Stuck in the middle

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I’ve called Lille, or at least northern France, my home for the past three years. Although I’ve spent time living in Douai, Hazebrouck, Lille itself, and Cassel, I have always been a student or worked in Lille. It’s my favorite city in France. Full of culture, friendly people, great beer, and just a train ride away from other great European cities like London, Paris, and Brussels.

I live 12 kilometres from the Belgian border. We’re there at least once a month, whether it’s to drink a beer, go shopping, or pick up tobacco for M’s parents. I’ve visited Belgium more times than I can remember. (Luckily I have some documentation of my trips to Bruges,  Brussels, Bruges again, and Brussels again. But that’s definitely not all of my trips there.)

I fly out of Brussels International airport more than half the time I go back home to Texas.

The people who died in the horrific attacks that took place yesterday are like any of us: traveling to work, traveling to see family or friends, traveling to new places, out and about.

The images that I saw – and had been trying to avoid – on the news last night saddened and shocked me. I don’t know how else to describe the emotions I felt. Just shocked.

Not so long ago, we heard similar stories from Paris…

For lack of my own better words, I want to share this post from Rick Steves, a man whose guidebooks were the keys to my traveling success the first time I ever traveled Europe on my own.

Learning of today’s tragic attacks in Brussels, my first thought was of that city’s unique knack for celebrating life. It’s a city of great humanity, and great joy. In recent visits, I’ve been inspired by beer pilgrims who flew all the way from New York for a three-day weekend of sipping the world’s finest monk-made brews. After taste-testing decadent chocolates in a line of five venerable shops in a row, I’ve spied yet another shop…and popped yet another praline. And standing on the Grand Place, which was lovingly blanketed with flowers, I’ve enjoyed the best open-air jazz I’ve ever heard — forever giving Europe’s finest town square a joyful soundtrack in my mind.

Half of Belgium speaks French, and the other half Flemish — but, with a battlefield called Waterloo just a few miles beyond its suburbs, Brussels understands the importance of getting along. And, as city beloved for its cartoons, beer, chocolate, and buckets of mussels, it knows the rewards of cooperation are rich.

Brussels is the capital of Europe — an experiment in pluralism more open and determined than anywhere in the world. And not surprisingly, forces against freedom and pluralism have attacked it. In a world of soft targets, easy access to explosives, and vivid media, terrorism is here to stay. And our challenge to maintain a free and open society is here to stay, as well. Europe is strong. It will pursue both safety and the bad guys. And, as a matter of principle, its people will continue to embrace freedom. As a matter of principle, I will keep on traveling. How about you?

 

Brittany Winter School

After two weeks back at work, I still have Irish melodies constantly running through my brain. Let me just take a moment to say that these two weeks have been the best weeks at work that I’ve had in a while, due to many different factors, I think!

Back to the Irish music.

Two and a half weeks ago, we arrived at a vacation rental house with several (about 10, give or take) people; some we knew, some we didn’t. All of them were musicians, and it was fun to have live Irish music happening on a regular basis. We came from all over France to spend a week at the Brittany Winter School, which is a 5-day Irish musical festival full of concerts, master classes, and more.

The first day, M went to the flute master classes while I hung out with Ma and Mu, rested, and listened to my housemates jam out. On Thursday night, M and his group played at the open stage to compete to play for the opening act of the big concert on Saturday night to close out the festival. They practiced for most of the day together, so I walked around Le Bono with Ma and Mu. The Britches were the first to play that night. Although they were rather nervous, they did a great job! One of M’s band mates ended up winning the opening spot with another group that he plays with.

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Exploring Le Bono with Ma and Mu
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The Britches live on the open stage

The violin player in M’s group used to give me lessons last summer. I joked to him about how I was disappointed that I didn’t have the level to take a master class, and he told me, oh contraire! They actually offered three levels of master classes for each instrument, so I signed myself up for the last two days of classes for beginner violin.

Little did I know, the classes were taught by absolutely amazing Irish musicians who were there for the festival. The teachers were so nice and helpful and I ended up learning a lot. I left after two days with tons of recordings – I don’t even have the names for all of the songs I learned – and great memories of working with such talented musicians.

Paul O’Shaughnessy taught the first morning and the second afternoon of master classes. He’s been playing for a long time and has a style that is very approachable. He has a fondness for tunes from Donegal, which are known for their quick tempos and fiery tones. He was witty and interesting and made the class worthwhile! He even convinced me to take the third-finger tape off of my violin. That was encouraging!

Antóin Mac Gabhann, also known as Tony Smith, gave the first afternoon of classes that I took. He was so incredibly friendly. He’s been playing for years. The stories he told us were amazing. Back in the day, he would have to pay, along with his music buddies, for a room to rent to play sessions in because the bars didn’t want any Irish music inside. He laughingly told us that now he knows musicians who refuse to play if they aren’t paid. You can really tell he loves the music. Even when we asked him about his favorite pieces or his favorite players, he said he “loves all of the tunes equally” and that his favorite players come from all over and are not necessarily well-known.

Mairead Fitzgibbon taught the second morning of classes. She was so easy to learn from. Her style was so clean and she had such a wide knowledge of so many tunes. She even explained some simple techniques to help embellish the tunes we were learning.

I didn’t even look up any information about the teachers before getting home on Sunday. I’m glad I didn’t, or else I would’ve been super intimidated!

Since then, I’ve been practicing at least four days a week. We’re already looking at festivals for this summer…!

 

La belle vie en Bretagne

As I described in my last post, work has been pretty rough lately. Thank goodness for the French school system and two weeks of holidays in February.

Holidays came right when I needed them to this time around. The first week all I did was crochet, clean, cook, and cuddle the bunny and puppy. It was rather therapeutic.

The second week, M took holidays as well and we headed out to Bretagne, or Brittany as us Anglophones call it. Neither of us had ever been, and we had two great reasons to go: our two amazing neighbors from back in Wazemmes (let’s call them Ma and Mu) recently moved to Brittany and we missed them like crazy, and the Brittany Winter School Irish music festival was happening in a town called Le Bono, also in Brittany. So off we went!

M was extra happy to take this 7.5 hour road trip with me, because this time I could finally help him drive!

Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, we spent some quality time with Ma and Mu. Now that they’ve been living in Lochmariacher for a little over 6 months (and vacationing there for even longer!), they knew exactly where to take us to show off their new region.

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Ma and Mu’s backyard
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Mu and M heading out to fish for clams
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The town of Lochmariacher seen from the docks

The first day, we walked around their town via the beach. Lochmariacher is on the inside of the gulf, so the climate is usually calm. In the afternoon, Mu took M and I clam fishing at his favorite spot. M and I have both been vegetarian for a few years now, but for our own reasons, we decided to eat the clams that we responsibly fished and oh-so-lovingly prepared on our own!

Day 2 was another sunny day so we made good use of it by spending it at the beach! In the morning we visited the town of Trinité sur Mer, with its enormous dockyard and adorable hilly streets. We even got a personal tour of the atelier of an artisan and former Navy man who restores sea-related treasures. After a yummy lunch at a crêperie in the cute little town of Carnac, we wandered around the beach and played on the rocks at the beach on the peninsula called Quiberon. On the way back, we stopped at one of the naturally preserved – yet free to visit! – sites of menhirs, which are basically large rocks that have been placed into formations thousands of years ago. We don’t know why, but it is rather impressive.

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The docks at la Trinité sur Mer
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Menhirs
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M playing on the rocks at the beach

On Wednesday, the Brittany Winter School started. It’s the tenth year of this Irish music festival, and it was a blast. Famous musicians from all over Ireland come to play with musicians from all over France – and other countries! – to play in sessions, show off their instruments, give masterclasses, and more. Since M was rehearsing with his group for the open stage session later that day, I headed off to Vannes in the afternoon with Ma and Mu to visit the city. That night, we enjoyed the first of many sessions in a local bar.

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Session #1 of many at Le Vieux Pont Bar

The festival merits a post on its own, so check back later this week to hear all about it!

Up on the hilltop

Once again, it’s been months since I’ve last posted here. I’m still Haley, I’m still in France, but my goodness, it’s been busy around here. I need to remind myself that I enjoy keeping this blog up and will enjoy looking back on it one day! I even started another blog, Pepper & Cream, to post recipes using all of the amazing local ingredients we get around here at the markets. (I’ve done just as bad of a job keeping up with that one as well!)

So, thanks for sticking around. Here’s what’s new!

Our move to Cassel last June has changed our lives for the better. We have a dog now! His name is Benji and we picked him out from the local shelter. He’s about 2 years old and has become best friends with our bunny, Violette.

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We’ve had several of our “out-of-town” – ha! – friends stay over for a weekend to get the whole Cassel experience: walking around the ramparts, eating at a local estaminet, enjoying our guest bedroom.

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M works from home 2 days a week and I take the train into work every weekday. It allows time for me to grade some papers or take a well-deserved nap.

Most importantly, our little family is rather happy here. And I think we’ll stay in this area for a while!

One developing situation is whether or not I’m destined to be a high school teacher here. I started working full time at a new school this year. It’s a very good high school centrally located in Lille, full of mostly boys as it’s a school focused on scientific studies. I’ve had some problems with classroom management – although this really is not due to the fact that I have mostly boys in class – and it has made me question whether or not I would be happier teaching at a university level rather than in high school.

France is big on recruiting native speakers to teach engineering students and business students. M has some connections in those areas, and a little birdy told me that some schools are already recruiting English teachers for the next school year.

It would be a big decision to make. My teaching certificate, unlike the American versions, is only valid while I teach. I can only take one year off of teaching before it becomes invalid and my spot is given to someone else. (French teaching certificates are given out on a competitive, number-of-spots-based system.) So, if I did leave the secondary school world, I would not be able to teach there again later unless I retook and passed the certification exam.

I won’t say too much about it here (who knows how many of my students have already found this blog), but happy thoughts, prayers, or whatever it is that you do are welcome.

 

“Une Texane dans la ville flamande”

Yesterday, an article was published in L’Indicateur des Flandres – a regional newspaper for the Flanders / Northern France. The headline? Une Texane dans la ville flamande (A Texan in the Flemish city). It wasn’t necessarily an article about me, but more about how I was received in the city of Bailleul, which is in France, right next to the Belgian border.

When I first met Michel, he played in a band called Catsberg, which later became Hoffender. The group was started by his friend Nico, who is also a journalist for this newspaper. Nico reached out to me a couple of weeks ago and asked if I would like to spend the afternoon in Bailleul, testing how the city’s residents act towards tourists. Of course I was in.

The article was published in French, but for all my lovely readers, here is a very rough translation of the whole thing!

A Texan in the Flemish city

We tested the level of English in Bailleul… in stealth mode with the help of an American

I’ve already been told that I have the composure of a Brit. But my English accent being what it is, I would have a hard time passing for a foreigner in Bailleul. Especially in a city in which I’ve been working for ten years. No, I needed a real foreigner to carry out this experiment. With a real accent. That’s when Haley became part of the plan.

The young woman, 26 years old, comes from Dallas, Texas. She’s lived in France for 3 years and teaches in Lille: an ideal profile to test the welcoming of foreigners in Melusine city. Her first target: the Monts des Flandre tourism office. Haley has to speak exclusively in the language of Obama. “Ask what you can visit in the city this weekend,” I tell her. The blonde opens the doors to the tourism office. She comes out five minutes later, a smile on her lips and a few brochures in her hands. “When I started to speak in English, the lady shrugged her shoulders, a little surprised,” says our undercover tourist. “But she quickly took control of the situation and started responding to me in English.” Haley now knows that she can visit the school of lace and the Benoît-de-Puydt museum. They could’ve recommended more specific things to do or see, but I’ll make do with all of my brochures,” she notes.

We walk to the Benoît-de-Puydt museum. Haley crosses the threshold of the bourgeois house and finds two men, totally unsettled by her speaking English. “Oh! No, no, no…” they let out with a certain fear. Our Texan fakes some bad French. “Les heures, hmm… time,” she says, pointing to her watch. The men are able to execute and tell her the operating times of the museum. “They were super nice; they did everything they could so that I would understand,” says the American.

The café owner wants to drive her to the train station

We continue the journey to the area near City Hall. New mission for Haley: ask how to get to Bailleul’s train station. She heads over to the parasols of a nearby café. The boss doesn’t get flustered – he speaks in French to a Belgian client who speaks English. Haley almost gets caught in her own trap when the owner offers to drive her directly to the station. “We’ll be there in two minutes!” he insists. A little embarrassed, our accomplice finds a way out. “My train is in an hour, I still have a little time,” she lies.

Next, I send Haley to the front desk of the Mayor’s office. Ten minutes later, I see her come out of the building with a lady gesturing how to go somewhere. I hide so they don’t see me. Haley comes over to me, laughing: “It’s so funny to do that! The lady was like ‘oooooh la la’ when I started speaking to her in English. I said ‘train’, she said ‘SNCF’… it was very hard to communicate verbally but she was really nice. It’s not really her job to give directions to a foreigner.”

We finish the experiment in the main square. Haley, still alone, stops passers-by to ask them how to get to the train station. Out of four people, only a high schooler is able to easily express himself in English.

Haley’s assessment is quite positive. “Each time, the people were nice. Everyone helped me. At the tourism office, the level of English wasn’t amazing, but I still got the information I needed.”

-Nicolas de Ruyffelaere

Thanks for including me in this experiment, Nico! It was so fun to play the role of “innocent American tourist who speaks no French”. It’s been a while since I’ve gotten to do that, so I must say I enjoyed it.

Michel and I went to the market in Bailleul last night and one of the farmers we like to buy from recognized me.”Didn’t I see you in the newspaper today…? Ah yes, the Texan!”

:)

Les nouveaux casselois

As of Wednesday morning, a hazebrouckois and an américaine who had been lillois for about a year and a half became the newest casselois. And let me tell you, the change was a big one.

We went from a 500 square foot apartment (plus large terrace and basement) in the popular Wazemmes neighborhood of Lille to an 800 square foot house (plus terrace and backyard, sans basement) in the village of Cassel, population 2,300. We had one bedroom, now we have two. We also went from being woken up on Sunday mornings by the loud bass coming from the bar across the street – they often stayed illegally open all night and continued the party at 8am on Sunday morning – to being woken up by the sounds of birds coming from the uninhabited land behind our house. In Lille, customers of the bars across the street used to gather in front of our 1st floor apartment window, allowing us to listen to their deep conversations. In Cassel, the only people who will walk in front of our house are perhaps our neighbors. We went from having to walk 5 minutes to our rental garage in Lille to being able to park directly in front of our house.

The entry to our house in Cassel. There are two houses on either side of ours that share the parking area with us.
The entry to our house in Cassel. There are two houses on either side of ours that share the parking area with us.
The sliding glass doors in our living room open up to a nice patio area. Wooden stairs lead down to the backyard, which is just big enough!
The sliding glass doors in our living room open up to a nice patio area. Wooden stairs lead down to the backyard, which is just big enough!

We went from being able to hop on a bike to go to work (and getting there within 15 minutes) to having to drive 3 minutes to the train station to take a 40-minute train into Lille (and having to walk / take the metro a few stops) to get to work. We used to walk to the grocery store; now there’s a 13km drive to get to the nearest “big” supermarket. This has been the biggest change for me. I don’t mind the train or the short drive to get to the station; it’s a straight shot there with no stop signs or lights. However, learning to drive a manual car has not been easy.

Now that I have no choice but to drive myself around, I’ve already had my fair share of embarrassing moments. M is in Portugal this weekend on a work trip, so I’ve had to drive myself around a few times: home from the train station on Friday after work (made it all the way home and then stalled while trying to park in front of the house), to Hazebrouck and back to pick up Bunny Boo from M’s parents’ house (didn’t stall the whole way there and then stalled on the way back after waiting on a very slight incline for a train to pass), and to get groceries yesterday morning in Hazebrouck. This was by far the worst experience ever.

The way there was okay – I only stalled once in a very small roundabout – but the way back was miserable. I took a different way home and, while trying to enter a large roundabout on a very, very slight incline, I stalled. Several times. To the point where the cars behind me were pulling up around me on the curb to pass. I had my hazards on, and was trying desperately to get moving. The lady in the car behind me came up to see what was wrong. After seeing me in my state of panic, she told me not to worry, to take my time, and that she would wait behind me. (I stalled again at a stop sign later, once again encouraging those behind me to pass me.) I believe I’ll be taking a break from driving today… Sunday is the day of rest, right?

We can still go out for a drink in Cassel, but most of the restaurants on the main square are closed during the week and open Friday – Sunday. Just like in Lille, we can still walk home from the main square and not have to drive everywhere.

We were apartment owners in Lille. M bought the place back in November 2013. We tried to sell it, but after two months with no offers, we reviewed our budget to see if we could manage keeping the place and renting it out while we rented our house in Cassel. Thankfully, it worked. We have a young couple that will rent out our apartment in Lille while we go from owners to renters ourselves in Cassel.

I’ve already vacuumed twice and mopped once, so I think it’s safe to say that we are settled in.

Living room and dining area
Living room and dining area
Kitchen
The kitchen, where we can now both be in there at the same time