eet’s ah-preel!

It is April, and this year is flying by, as usual.

In February, M and I spent a week in Brittany attending the Brittany Winter School Irish music festival, reuniting with old festival friends and meeting new ones, playing at and enjoying different sessions, and making the most of the unexpected beautiful weather in Arzon, France. I met a woman who sells violins who absolutely loved my crocheted violin toppers and I may be selling them through her this summer. How fun! I’ll also be bringing some with me when M and I head to Ireland on Sunday.

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My high school’s Erasmus + project is really starting to develop. I accompanied, along with three other colleagues, thirteen of our high school boys to Gosport, England for a week in March. The students spent the week with 26 other high schoolers (a mix of British and Germans) working on their international theater project that will be performed in April and May 2018 in all three countries. This week long meeting, surrounded by the German theater team, really inspired me to start working on my German skills, again. Thanks, Duolingo. Now I know how to say things like “Ich bin Haley. Ich habe ein Hund. Er ist schön.” Very useful. But, progress is progress!

Gosport is a small, residential city of about 80,000 people. It’s located on the southern coast of England. Even though we were supposed to have cloudy, rainy weather all week, something went wrong and we had 5 days of beautiful sunshine. Yes! Our teaching team, due to the shortage of hotels in the city, stayed at the local trailer park. It was awesome. The first night, I saw a fox that I nearly took home with me. There was a bar/restaurant in the middle of the park where we could meet up with the others, and it was only 10 minutes walking distance from the school. We did have one day in London to explore the Imperial War Museum, but only saw the city center from inside the bus.

Something I noticed about being in England was the different way that British people reacted to my accent. In France, whenever I speak to (almost) anyone who doesn’t yet know me, the question nearly always comes up. “Ooh, you have a little accent… where are you from?” Now, now, curiosity is only natural, and obviously my American heritage is so exotic that it needs explaining. And once I answer the question with an “I’m from Texas,” I really don’t mind the question being asked in the first place, because the accent comment is far less offensive than what usually comes next.

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Texas?! Ooh, George Bush.

Texas?! Do you have a ranch?

Texas?! Home of the racists! (Yes, I promise, this comment is real.)

Obviously, not everyone reacts in such a way here in France, but I’d say that 75% of the time, they do.

It had been a while since the last time I went to England. I think it was something like four years ago with M, but that seems too long ago. As I chatted with locals in Gosport, usually the reactions went something like…

Texas?! I have an uncle who lives there!

Texas?! I love Austin, I went there last year.

Texas?! Wow, that’s great.

I don’t really know what the difference here represents. That the American and British cultures are more similar than American and French, so we have less stereotypes about each other? I don’t know. Or that we have to rely less on stereotypes to feel more comfortable with each other? That since more British people have been to Texas, less of them have stereotypical ideas about the state? That a lot of French people only really “know” about Texas through series like Walker Texas Ranger and Dallas? That an American is more exotic in France than in England? That when you’re less “exotic”, people don’t just zoom in on the one thing that makes you interesting to them (when you first meet)?

I knew I wasn’t alone when a post about this very topic showed up in a Facebook group called “American Expats in France” this week. The discussion that followed really entertained me, even after nearly six years living here. Fellow Americans talked about how sometimes their accents are commented on almost in a spectator-sport nature. How if they’re not white, the question comes even faster. How people feel proud when they identify the accent first! Hahaha.

I’m hoping that projects like this Erasmus + exchange will encourage young people to steer away from stereotypes, to get to know each other, and to learn each other’s languages in order to better exist together. There’s still much work to do – and I saw the problems from the point of view of a chaperone (omg, I’m a chaperone now) – but they’re on the right track. And that’s exciting.

 

 

Bonjour, 2017!

Well, look at that. Yet again, 6 months have passed since my last blog post. I really am getting worse and worse at keeping up with this thing. However, I refuse to delete it, or stop, because even if my life here seems more and more normal, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things worth sharing in more detail than I might on Facebook.

For this long overdue post, I’ve decided to start by picking up where my last post left off: Irish music festivals!

Last summer, M and I went to our second Irish music festival. We spent a week in the Alps and I loved every minute of it. In three weeks, we’ll be heading to the Brittany Winter School, an Irish festival that takes place in Arzon, in the region of Brittany. I’m so excited to go to the fiddle workshops, reunite with festival friends, and actually be able to play in a session or two. It’s such a huge change from last year, where I almost didn’t even bring my fiddle with me. One of my goals for 2017 is to record myself playing a tune every week from the Online Irish Academy of Music in order to see myself progress throughout the year. You can check out my Instagram if you want to follow along.

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My fiddle is ready, with its very own sheep cosy.

Other travel plans for this year include a week in Gosport, England at the end of March with my school, a week in Belfast in April with M, and some time in Dallas in August to celebrate our wedding (in July, in France).

I’ve had the chance to participate in the planning and realisation of an Erasmus + exchange project between our high school, a German high school, and a British high school. Over two years, 13 students from each school will work together with theater professionals to learn about WWI history and create a theater piece based on their reactions and feelings about the event and its relation to the current state of political affairs. After an international meeting in Lille in November, we will all head to England in March (and then to Germany in the fall) to finish the research and planning of the piece, which will then be performed in public in all three countries. It’s pretty fun to watch the students work together, mixing languages and personalities. It’s also nice to do something other than teach. Extracurricular activities do not take place at school in France; it’s up to the students to sign up for clubs or lessons outside of school.

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Our trip to Belfast is just an idea floating around right now. We have yet to buy tickets or book anything, but Northern Ireland and Ireland are so affordable to travel to from France that we’re not too rushed. Hopefully we’ll be flying into Dublin, driving up to Belfast, and then driving through a few other cities in Ireland, like Donegal and Sligo. We shall see!

Luckily, M’s parents agree to keep our dog Benji for us every time we travel. He really is one lucky dog. This next trip, however, they will only be keeping Benji for us, and not our dear rabbit Violette, who unfortunately died in December. We miss her so, so much. The impact that an adorable little ball of fur can have on someone’s life is incredible.

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Best bunny ever.

For our big trip to Dallas, however, we will have to find someone to keep Benji Boo for us, as Michel’s parents will be traveling to Dallas as well. We are so excited to be able to have our civil wedding here in France surrounded by close friends and family (including my immediate family who will be here!), and then to be able to celebrate with a blessing and reception in Dallas with even more friends and family who we see much too rarely. It’s going to be a busy month filled with excitement!

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Photo taken by Pierre Clément, all rights reserved.

I have a feeling things will go by very quickly up until then. I’ll keep you posted – or at least, I’ll try to!

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?

 

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