18 June 2010


All right, I have itchy blog fingers.
I've been back to the US for the last five weeks and at first I wondered what I'd really have to write about, now that I'm not having daily cultural/linguistic/culinary adventures.
Answer: My life seems to be adorned with weird/interesting enough events even in the U.S. and I'm realizing I still have plenty of things to explore on my own turf!
So I am turning over a new blog leaf.

Upcoming posts:
My Pre-oil Adventures in the Gulf

ROUS's DO Exist, OR A Summer Roadtrip with Nicole

Disreputable Dog-sitting

Moab Mayhem

and, on the topic of my recent job-hunting efforts:
5 Jobs I Never Ever Want to Have. Like Seriously Ever.

Stay tuned for more adventures!

PS-Some photos: Me saying "Au Revoir" to the First Lawyer of Vesoul statue; a very still reflection of Aspens in a pond near Nederland, CO; and the top of Loveland Pass, my first week home in May... oh I <3 Colorado.

20 April 2010

Hotel California in España (You can never leave....) OR "You Shall Not Pass!

Recent events realated to the eruption of the Icelandic volcano have extended our stay in Spain considerably longer than was anticipated. We were originally due to fly out of Madrid on April 17, but it is now looking like April 23 is the closest likely date.
To sum up the last few days in six words:
Tired, lines, pay, hungry, metro. Again.
We have been several times to the airport to speak directly to customer service personnel, since phone lines and websites are too overwhelmed. We´ve checked into and out of our hostel 4 times. We´ve looked into taking buses and trains to get out of Madrid, but they are all incredibly expensive and already booked full. Now that we have accepted with some certainty that we will be staying here for several more days, things are a bit easier. We have taken a view of moving very slowly, since we no longer have the energy to be stressed or worried about travel arrangements.
Yesterday the weather was a little better (finally!!) and we wandered over to Madrid´s enormous Buena Retiro Park with some folks we met at the hostel and took refuge in the greenery. I had a terrific grass-flop nap and woke up feeling much calmer.
In a funny way, I am quite glad we have been forced to stay in Spain a bit longer. Our time in Valencia and the first part of Madrid was pretty rough for me. I've encountered more anti-american sentiments here than I've ever experienced and it's been humbling, frustrating, eye-opening. Traveling with my Mexican friend Pam has brought out some remarkable contrasts, at the level of our different languages, of assumptions others make about why we are traveling together, why we speak French together instead of English or Spanish (the simple reason being that she doesn't speak much English and I don't speak much Spanish). Traveling together is a bit like being in a huge social experiment, but we don't always have enough distance from our encounters to appreciate the irony. There are moments that are just weird, as when we ate at a restaurant where the wait-staff thought Pam was my hired tour guide instead of my friend and kept behaving in ways that were really awkward for both of us, kind of implying that we were of different social classes. Other times Pam receives a really warm reception and people ask all sorts of questions about her country, then they turn to me and, on hearing I´m from the US, they shut down completely. And there have been many variations in between these extremes. We've gotten to know to know some interesting people here at the hostel in Madrid, and it's great to be able to move beyond those first assumptions and stereotypes and see and be seen as human beings. 
This is what I remember loving about backpacking around England a few years ago, how the limited time and space encourage people to move past their normal barriers and politness and be more open with each other than they otherwise would be.
The first night you arrive in a place and put your stuff down. Maybe you are tired and hungry and you think "Ah jeez, the girl in the bunk under mine has left her crap all over the room and I can't climb up to my bed without stepping on it, GRRR." But by the second night you think, "Oh, that's so-and-so from Argentina" or whatever, you begin to have a much more human view, the smaller frustrations and first impressions fall away as you find out more about others' lives, why they are the way they are, why they are traveling...
I've had some incredible conversations in the last couple of days for which I am very grateful. I'm not really at the point to clearly articulate them, but they are all there churning away. I look forward to sorting them into a bit more order soon.

14 April 2010

Dreams in España

Okay, I´ve got some time here in the Home Hostel in Valencia to do some much-needed updating!
The last three weeks I´ve finally gotten to do some traveling! I was in York, Leeds, Scarborough and Cambridge, England with a group of my high school students for a week, then in Paris for a weekend before catching a flight to Barcelona on the 7th. I´ll have to work backwards I think, and update England and Paris when I get back to Vesoul.
So, Spain, here goes!
Barcelona, Day 1
Pam and I arrived in Barcelona on April 7th and found our hostel, Pension MariLuz, without too much difficulty. I was immediately struck by how beautiful Barcelona is, a lot like San Diego, with lush plants and colorful buildings. There was a huge feeling of energy and bustle around La Rambla, the huge central street that runs all the way from the city center down to the sea, and at first we felt drunk off that collective buzz of people: tourists with cameras, vendors selling postcards, checkered scarves and tiny songbirds like noisy jewels in cages that swayed in the seabreeze. The architecture is some kind of mad orgy of color and form from the last several hundred years, all whimsically smushed together. 
We wandered around for a while, exploring the myriad tiny winding streets off of La Rambla. We met the other two women sharing our four-bed dorm: Ema, an older Mexican lady who told us a long saga of how she´d moved to Spain 5 or 6 years ago to live with some friends who´d died a month before her arrival and she had been in and out of work since then. It seemed she was currently out of work, and while she seemed very friendly, we were a little wary of her. Later, I discovered she snored more musically and intricately than any other being (human, dog, cat...) I have heretofor encountered; she was a veritable orchestra of nasal whistles and gasps.
We also met Charlene, a very cosmpolitan young woman who spoke several languages and had lived in several different countries. She told us about a tango festival going on in Barcelona that weekend and I jumped at the chance to go dancing with her our first night. She even let me borrow her killer tango shoes.
We arrived at the milonga that night fashionably late at about 1am. People were very open and friendly and I got to dance with 5 or 6 people in about an hour. The bar was tiny and intimate and played traditional tango music. People kept bumping into each other and tripping over the tiled floor, but I was in heaven. It´s been over a year since I´ve danced and I was rusty as an old spoon, especially since most people were dancing close embrace, which I haven´t done much of, but it was still awesome. We were disappointed when the evening ended at the comparatively early hour (for Barcelona and tango) of 2:30.
We decided to walk back to the hostel and look for another bar or dance place on the way, but the only places open were very gross and touristy. We saw quite a few American frat boy types hollering at English girls in too-short skirts and heels that were too high for anything other than a lurching walk. The girls made me think of wounded gazelles from National Geographic documentaries and I tried to quicken our pace, since we were also attracting a lot of unwanted attention from the men in the street. Some guys starting following us and bothering us and there was a strong marijuana smell everywhere. It seemed like one of those situations where nothing would actually happen other than a lot of vulgar insults, but it was unnerving all the same. We were briefly lost trying to get back to our hostel in the tangled mess of medieval streets and Pam and I started looking at each other with that "" We should not be here right now" look. We made it back ok and downed cupfuls of tap water before heading to bed, just in time to witness our first performance of the Concerto of Snores in A flat.

Barcelona, Day 2
Day 2 came cold and rainy, so after a cramped breakfast in the miniscule hostel kitchen, surrounded by a group of disappointingly unfriendly Frenchpersons, Pam and I headed off to the legendary Sagrada Familia. This enormous plan for a church was begun in the late 1800s and gained mythical status after Antonio Gaudi took over the work as principal architect. Like most of poor Gaudi´s plans, the work was not finished before he died and only a few of the many towers have been completed. The church has no finished interior and there are some 300 workers and stone masons working on the temple at all times. Visitors walk around the construction zone with audio guides pressed tightly into their ears, trying to decipher the intricate carvings and sybolism Gaudi authored for the two completed facades, the Crucifixion facade (my favorite actually, with its very minimalist geometry) and the Nativity facade, overwhelming in its abundance of plants, sea creatures and animals.
We spent 4 and a half hours wandering around the site and still felt we had seen and understood only a fraction of Gaudi´s plans, which interweave religious themes with organic designs of plants and trees and allusions to math and science. He even invented a whole new way to work out the physics of the towers and arches using thread and tiny lead-filled sacks. Clearly, this guy was a genius, even if a slightly mad one.

Barcelona, Day 3
Day 3 was the day of Las Chicas Muchas Perditas. We basically spent the whole day getting lost and un-lost and lost again. We wanted to head over to the Gardens of Monjuïc, but took the bus in the wrong direction, to the opposite end of the city. An hour and a half later we stumbled into the heat of the square outside the Olympic Stadium on the back side of the gardens and wandered around looking for a restroom. We found a nice patch of green grass and flopped down to have a picnic of dry sandwiches and fresh fruit, followed by a very satisfying nap  in the nearly deserted Grecian gardens outside the stadium, high up over the city. The gardens  were lovely and modern with reflecting pools, fountains and straight, clean rows of columns. We felt peaceful and utterly safe for the first time in Barcelona and slept for over an hour, until the shadows started to creep around over us and I woke up disoriented and realized the half of my face turned toward the sun was bright pink.
To be continued...

22 March 2010

In which I eat too much, go to thermal baths, and watch Romeo & Juliet

Last night we finally had the dual birthday party for me and Thibault (Lupita's boyfriend who shares my birthday). After all the date changes, it was a very belated party, but very nice nonetheless. We squeezed 22 people into Thibault's parents' living room and ate for THREE AND A HALF HOURS straight, what with all the side dishes and salads people had brought, various cheese courses, quiches, charcuterie course (meat + meat), chocolate mousse, fruit salad #1, fruit salad #2, two birthday cakes, and then there were the beverages: spiked punch, limonade, corona, red wine and champagne (my head tells me this is not a combination for readers to try at home). After the massive meal, which had begun to walk a fine line between pleasure and a new torture method (like water boarding, just with food), we all played the French version of Cranium, which, as it turns out, is nearly impossible for foreigners to play, seeing as none of us grew up watching the same tv shows, and we have only a cursory knowledge of French music from the '70's (uh, Serge Gainsbourg, uh...). It was 3am before we made it back to the apartment and this morning I've enjoyed lazing about in my pajamas, reading Junot Diaz's awesome new short story in the New Yorker and watching Fado videos (I've recently become obsessed with Portugal, and I'm sad that I don't think I'll be able to travel there this time around). Here are two good ones so far:

 Mariza's Rosa Branca
The video itself is really lovely, and she's beautiful to watch...Here are the lyrics in English, though I'm sure it doesn't do the Portuguese justice:

From: http://lyricstranslate.com
White Rose:
With a rose at my breast on the dance floor
I danced with whoever was there
I danced so much
That the rose fell to pieces
Whoever has, whoever has
The gift of love
Picks the white rose
Puts it at their breast
Oh rose bush, little rose
Rose bush in my garden
If you love roses so much
Why don't you love me?
Whoever has, whoever has
The gift of love
Picks the white rose
Puts it at their breast

And this performance is incredible, though not for the faint of heart/ear:
Mariza Primavera

In other news this week, I got to go to a bain thermes (thermal bath) in Luxeil, which was fairly similar to the baths in Budapest, but with far fewer people (this was a Weds pm, though) and slightly newer facilities (the baths in Luxeil were built in the late 1800's, whereas the Rudas ones in Budapest were truly OLD). Here's a photo of the baths on the left; on the right, a photo of one of the many 19th century hotels built for the wealthy bourgeois crowds who came to take the waters, but are now falling into aesthetically pleasing disrepair (an interesting side note: the waters in Luxeil are supposedly renowned for curing "genital difficulties." VD? Fertility problems?? I don't know, but it made me feel kind of germophobic, I'll tell you that...).
The baths were very peaceful (and cold, unfortunately) with high ceilings above the jacuzzi, a hammam, and a heated pool with jets of all sorts grouped in different stations, allowing you to rotate to the foot station, the back station, etc. We all came away feeling decidedly more relaxed!
Also this week I got to accompany a group of kids to see a performance of Romeo and Juliet,  a special adaptation for three actors that was done by the European troupe Theatre en Anglais, who travel all over Europe performing English language works in English for school groups. I am normally pretty wary of watching Shakespeare's tragedies performed, since it seems really difficult not to overact those roles, but these three actors blew me away, they were incredible performers, and struck just the right tone for our high schoolers, keeping it light and funny in places, yet showing emotional depth. They highlighted R & J's youthful immaturity (and whining) balanced with the characters' enthusiasm--bravo!

12 March 2010

Birthday à l'étranger

Monday was my 23rd birthday, the first one I've spent away from family and chocolate cake.
All things considered, it passed quite pleasantly. It was very cold and windy, but sunny (which always helps). My classes went well. And I was touched by the messages and (e)cards you all sent!!
To celebrate, I made a reservation at a nice restaurant in Vesoul, le Caveau du puits (the cave of the wells? this would make sense since there is an old stone well near by). Pam, Kathrin, Elaine, Lupita and her boyfriend and I all got dressed up and braved the horrifically cold wind and cobblestones in heels. We were rewarded with a superb dinner in an old wine cave with fairy lights and slender branches hung over our heads from the arched ceiling. The food was simple and hearty: salmon with a creamy sauce, perfectly cooked steamed veggies and tiny roasted cherry tomatoes that we were all swooning over. We had some local wine, a pinot noir from the Franche-Comté region that was light and fruity and a bit bubbly like champagne. Much to my embarrassment my friends insisted on singing their countries' birthday songs in their various languages: English, French, German, and Spanish. The other diners were tolerant, then joined in, then grew pissy. At the end, someone from another table came over and offered my a glass of wine. I was pretty ready to crawl under the table by this point, but accepted graciously (I think).

Tuesday night there was a get together at another teacher's house for her 50th birthday. Kathrin and I set about making things to take for the potluck, battling with our Toaster Oven That Could, as always. Her quiche was tasty tasty and my artichoke dip wasn't bad (forgot the salt--oops!). A former teacher had crafted a tribute song for Marie-Anne, the birthday girl, set to the tune of "Hallelujah" and basically roasting her in a delightfully funny and sweet way. Lyrics sheets were handed around and we all sang to her. Everyone was rowdy and giggly and having a great time (it occurred to me at one point that the teachers were acting just like the students: telling bawdy stories and covering their mouths and snickering, pretty cute!). There is a visiting Artist in Residence for the school who has just arrived, a photographer with a quiet smile and very profound eyes. One of the art teachers had brought him along, but I think the poor man was overwhelmed by all of these crazy singing people!

Later in the evening the other teachers suprised me by singing to me and bringing in an incredible chocolate coffee cake oozing with rich chocolate sauce. They also presented me with a Crepe Maker, basically one of those hot plates that you use for pancakes, but with  circles for tiny, perfect crepes!
Kathrin and I tried the crepe plate out yesterday with enormous success. We made around 100 tiny crepe-lettes and filled them with spinach and cheese, fresh cream and strawberries, dates and honey. I think this will be a new favorite!! It's a genius idea for a dinner party, too, and since the plate is fairly compact, I will absolutely be bringing it back with me, even if I have to give away some shoes to fit it in my luggage!

04 March 2010

Ricelexia and Lists

I have never eaten a lot of rice or been particularly adept at making it (not like SOME people I know;). But the rice packages in French and the metric system (so logical and simple to understand, but so hard for me to grasp in actual quantities: what is 100g? A handful? two handfuls?) give me a further, significant handicap. I am ricelexic, unable to produce soft, fluffy rice that goes so well with curries and stirfries. This evening, for example, I was trying a new brand of basmati rice. As I read it, one needed 125g of rice with 1.5L of water. It was after several minutes of head-scratching that it occured to me that this was a great deal of water in a very large pot for a very little quantity of rice. In a panic, I grabbed the package and hastily tried to reread it--no, it definitely said 1.5. Were they crazy? How was all that water supposed to be absorbed in only 11 minutes?! Oh.
Oh, I see. Oh, it was 1.5 volumes of water for every one volume of rice. Oh dear. I quickly poured some of the boiling water into a measuring cup and drained the rice, then poured the correct quantity of water back in. It turned out to be my best rice-making attempt thus far, but I long for the day when I will effortlessly be able to produce my dream-rice. Perhaps I should look into buying a rice maker...

I have only seven more weeks of teaching, and two weeks of vacation before the end of my assistantship. With that in mind, I will make a tribute list of things I wish I had known before arriving:
1) I wish I had brought less STUFF. I am dreading the trip back with 3 luggage pieces. It was total folly to think I could toss three 60lb. bags through one of those super-narrow train doors one after the other and haul them through three different stations (none of which had escalators/elevators). I think I will be donating clothing and books to the local salvation-army type place!
2) In spite of the surplus of STUFF, I do wish I had brought more office supplies with me!! Buying basics like scissors, whiteout and pens has been a surprisingly huge expense, since nearly all office supplies are imported here, and yet it's generally been very necessary for my work.
3) How difficult it is to find English language books. I might have brought more books and fewer pairs of shoes.
4) Speaking of shoes, why did I bring three pairs of heels? I wish I'd known a bit more what to expect in terms of Vesoul and the, er, lack of social life. I have worn heels twice since I have been here.
5) Wish I had brought travel-sized toiletries. They don't seem to have them here. As a result I have bought toothpaste and deodorant in three countries now because I couldn't take my full-sized ones on airplanes.
Hmm. This list is depressing me. I think instead I will list things I am looking forward to doing while I am still here.
1) The market is marvelous, as always. Today one of my favorite vegetable vendors and I shared a moment over a particularly lovely lettuce. I am not kidding. She remarked, "Oh, but this one's beautiful!" in a very satisfied way, and we both stood there admiring it. I have become, without a doubt, a dedicated food-lover. I don't claim to be able to have special knowledge or skills, but my Lord. I love good food: good cheese, good bread, good wine, and of course, good chocolate. I have cooked more while I've been here than I have in the last 4 or 5 years probably, and even though I've had relatively few cooking implements, my roomies and I have managed to produce some pretty tasty things.
2) My birthday is next Monday and as Lupita's new boyfriend and I share the same birthday and I know virtually no one here, he has very kindly offered to share his party with me. The date has changed twice so far, but I think it will be one of the upcoming Saturdays. I have no idea what to expect, but if there is cake, especially chocolate cake, I shall be content. (Do they do candles here? I wonder...)
3) Our Easter vacation is coming up at the start of April and Pam and I are looking at making a trip to Spain and perhaps Portugal or Italy. We have already bought some cheap tickets to see Cirque du Soleil's Saltimbanca in Valencia, so we had better figure out a way to get there!! I am very happy to be traveling with someone who speaks Spanish. I'm sure in the bigger cities lots of people would be able to speak English, but memories of the withering looks we got in Budapest when asking for things in English is still fresh in my mind...
4) Teaching. Surprisingly enough, it is getting easier and more fun. There are a few groups of kids that I have stayed with for several months now, and we've got a kind of rapport, finally. I'm more sure of myself now and I have a better idea of what they can/can't (won't) do. I've also finally got an understanding of how to work with the other teachers. Unfortunately this basically consists of me doing my thing and them doing theirs and sometimes we say hello in the hallways, but that is still a lot better than me desperately emailing/trying to contact them to find out what they prefer me to prepare for the next class. They don't seem to care that much, and I have found that I am much happier when I am leading a class that's based on a theme/activity I came up with!

Here is a picture of me on a recently sunny day with the statue of the First Lawyer of Vesoul. I love this statue. It's not at all distinguished and I can't really imagine the historical First Lawyer would have been very pleased, but it makes me grin every time I see it. Well, that's all the news from Lake Woebegone!

15 January 2010

Everyday Adventures

Finishing the translation of Superman 
Tonight I finally finished translation work on a film from India, Superman of Malegaon. This is a huge relief! Our school librarian had originally asked me to do some translation stuff for the Festival International des Cinémas d'Asie, which starts next week, back in November. I'd excitedly agreed, envisioning myself smoothly and efficiently translating the film...perhaps finding a new career path...becoming the next Pevear or Volokhonsky...................huh. Yah.

As it turned out, the translation to be done was from English to French, and a far different scenario ensued. The film itself is great, a 50 minute documentary made lovingly and humorously about a small town in India where cinema is the rage. A group of local folks get together and regularly make their own films--usually remakes of popular Bollywood films, but put into the local language and context. This time, they decided to take on the Superman movies. The documentary crew followed them all over town as they endeavored to solve various (and generally hilarious) problems that arose, usually having to do with people not showing up to the shoot, grazing animals or interested townspeople getting in the way, and having a very very low budget. What I loved most were the ingenious ideas they had for overcoming budget problems. The cameraman sat on a bicycle while several people held onto the bike and ran forward to create a "zoom" shot, for example.

The film was originally in Hindi, with English subtitles. The subtitles weren't too badly done, but they were generally very vague and prone to simple, but obvious errors. "I feel very bad. I will now have to take pain coolers" was my favorite. Translating very colloquial language into French proved way over my head, especially when technical film terms, and very ambiguous subtitles were added in. Another of the English teachers gamely agreed to help me finish the work at the last minute, and we actually had a lot of fun doing it. I learned some great (and sometimes strange) French expressions "It's the foot!" for "That's the coolest!" and together we made what I think was a pretty darn good translation. The film will be shown in the festival next week, and I can't wait to go and see it with my friends!

Cooking biscuits and soup

I got a huge craving for Genie's (my grandmother's) biscuits a couple of days ago and, after finally managing to find the equivalent of baking powder (not the stuff I had bought to make sugar cookies!) I managed to make some pretty passable and tasty biscuits (special thanks to Paula Deen and butter) which I ate/scarfed with my second-ever Solo Soup effort, a potato and green lentil soup with carrots, bell pepper, and garlic in a chicken broth. Yay!

La Bonnefemme de neige...La madame de neige??

We've had a fair amount of snow in the last couple of weeks, very exciting for the two Mexican assistants who had never seen it before. So last weekend, Elaine, the other American assistant and I went up to the Motte with Pam, the other Mexican assistant in town and Astride, her French roommate. We padded slowly up the slippery, winding path to the monument, had a snowball fight--very difficult, actually, since the snow was wonderfully powdery--we really had to work to form the snowballs, (boules de neige).

Then we began forming a snowperson, very very carefully. The results were quite inspiring, actually. Astride got very into the decorations. Our snowwoman looks very mischievous in the first photo, rather wistful in the second. Apparently there is no way to say "Snowwoman" in French. Bonhomme de neige is used for Snowman, (kind of sexist, really) so we decided to coin our own term.

Les Soldes

Adventured to Besançon with Pam, in spite of the "strong perturbation" in the local bus system due to the weather. January and June are the only times of year when French retail stores are permitted to have sales--I think this is meant to standardize prices and prevent undercutting. This results in some very good shopping deals. We spent a very satisfying afternoon picking through the piles of sales clothes in the Galeries Lafayettes. I found a great trench coat. Once we were totally spent (hehe...ouch) from all that shopping, we found refreshment in a Salon de thé with some marvelous pastries--Coconut Flan for Pam, Chocolate and Banana tart for me! Rounded the day off at the fabulous Campo book store.
An aside: Kind of like BBS, Campo winds its way around several different buildings, with mezzanines and catwalks and atriums everywhere. A true book lover's haven, if only the sales staff were a little less---totally and completely bitchy!

The Kitchen reproduction

Lastly, more cooking adventures. Ever since Troy and I went to brunch at the Kitchen over the summer I've been dying to have what we ate there--exactly what we ate there. I managed to figure out what kind of sautéed mushrooms to use, and tonight I made a Serendipitous Omelette (you know where you start out with low expectations, you're like, "How 'bout scrambled eggs?" and then, miraculously, you find you are on your way to an omelette before you know it? Conversely, most times when I set out with the intention to make an omelette, it ends in disaster OR at best, a scromlette). Not only was this a Seredipitous Omelette, it happened also to be the Best Omelette I Have Ever Made Thus Far. I topped this off with a broiled tomato, very delicious. It was my first time trying to broil a tomato, and my little toaster oven did a very respectable job. All in all, a very satisfying breakfast-for-dinner endeavor.