Amsterdam: “I want to struggle….sort of….kind of….maybe….?”

My two week traveling adventures started in the ever so intriguing city of Amsterdam. This city both solidified and broke the stereotypes I had in mind before traveling a few days throughout the city. This is both wonderful and rather agitating.

Stephanie and I arrived by overnight bus very early in the morning, around 6am. The bus stop was, of course, in the suburbs of the city. So, we had to take the tram into the city center. Now, we were both exhausted (having not slept very well on the bus), cold, and rather confused, not really fully understanding the Amsterdam tram system nor any Dutch. So, I believe I ended up paying twice as much as I should have for two tram tickets into the city center, which, of course, neither of us can really be sure of because neither of us speak Dutch!

However, pushed forward we did, because we weren’t going to let that ruin our trip that just started. No, sir! Besides, we were strong, independent travelers. We could figure it out (and technically did) despite the little frustrations.

Anyways, we arrived at the main tram/train station in Amsterdam and upon exiting, what else do we do but indeed smell the marijuana. See, I have been told things, things regarding the legal and completely acceptable use of this drug. However, it was a completely different experience smelling it and smelling it heavily in a public place and then seeing that no one cared. Of course, I had come to Amsterdam knowing that cannabis is completely legal, but I was quite overwhelmed by the prospect of that legality (as well as the smell) of it. First solidified stereotype: check. However, the Dutch don’t seem to go crazy about it either, something that I came to pick up on throughout our time there. It just tended to be the tourists who were all crazy about it. First stereotype broken: check.

Now, I had written down directions from google maps from our bus stop to our hostel. Or course though, the streets were wildly confusing, and of course, it was 6am! So, it was still dark, and we were, like I said, very exhausted. Something that greatly surprised me were the amount of humans still walking about at 6am, on a Sunday morning nonetheless. Apparently they were not done partying….? If that’s the case then the Dutch really have no shame and do whatever they absolutely please. There was also trash strewn about completely everywhere, with street cleaners dodging wandering folk as if it were not a big deal and was actually quite routine. First completely new reality of what Amsterdam is actually like: check.

After walking around for a bit, we finally found our hostel, but since it was 7:30 am we were not yet able to check into our room (which was a 20 person mixed dorm, which wasn’t completely terrible, but it definitely was not ideal. Oh well, such is the traveler’s life when you are trying to travel as much as possible on the smallest budget ever). Thankfully though, we were able to store our bags in the hostel so that we could go explore the city for a bit.

Unfortunately, it was cold and rainy, and the fatigue was starting to get to me. However, I was in Amsterdam for crying out loud, so I sucked it up and dealt with it. Stephanie and I just went sightseeing for the most part that first day, and what a sight it was. How beautiful is that Amsterdam canal?! Gloriously beautiful I tell you. Second stereotype solidified: check. I was completely amazed at how much the canal is completely a part of the city itself and the city life. I absolutely loved it. I loved walking over the bridges, seeing all of the different boats, and just generally standing by the water. That definitely outweighed the irritation from the fatigue a little bit.

By the time the afternoon rolled around we were able to check into our hostel, and I had one of the most epic naps that I have ever encountered. Having been able to change, get warm, and sleep for a couple of hours was absolutely glorious. All of that also made me a much better person, not to say that I was being a horrible person because I wasn’t, but I do know that I was a little agitated and not very interesting to be around at all.

After our nap, we were both ready to continue sightseeing and making the most of our day. It just so happens that our hostel was very close to the Red Light District. Now, I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t at least a little interested in seeing the Red Light District because the whole idea of prostitution being legal is quite bizarre to me. Again, the Dutch apparently have no shame because there we were, just walking, and we just happened to walk by a window that had a mostly naked lady in it. It was actually quite awkward, and I wasn’t sure how to react other than to look away and keep walking. The further we walked though, the more pornographic shops, mostly naked ladies, and lingerie stores we happened by. Again, the Dutch have no shame because all of this was not only completely legal but also completely legal on a Sunday. Third stereotype solidified: check.

To be honest, the whole prospect of the Red Light District kind of appalls me as well. (It’s an odd feeling, feeling both intrigue and disgust at the same time.) Anyways, it kind of breaks my heart that the sex industry in Amsterdam is treated just like any other job. Sex workers are not only viewed just like other workers, but they are also paid and treated like other workers. There is even a sex workers union in Amsterdam! Don’t get me wrong. Worker equality is fantastic and should be that way, however, it normalizes the whole of it. This to me is absolutely insane! I think that sex should be a private thing between two persons that love each other very deeply, so of course, prostitution being legal kind of frustrates me and kind of disgusts me too. However, wanting to be a true traveler and expand my horizons as well, I can’t help but to question. Why is prostitution legal in Amsterdam? What is it about prostitution that, for the Dutch, has become a publicly acceptable way of life that does not have any shame tied to it, or rather does not necessarily need to be a private matter between two persons? Does it indicate anything further about the Dutch culture itself, not just the culture of Amsterdam? To be honest, I actually don’t know that much about the history of Holland or the Dutch people. That is definitely, perhaps, something that I should do research on. I really want to understand this thing that I find to be so appalling and slightly frustrating and disgusting. I want to understand where the Dutch are coming from. Unfortunately, I do not have any answers to the questions that I am asking right now. Perhaps, when I’m home from traveling and when I have some free time, I will investigate, because I do truly want to understand. I think the only way I’m going to become a true traveler and the only way that I’m going to become a true global citizen is to try to understand cultures and cultural values that differ from mine, whether or not I agree with them.

Moving forward, I won’t share every single thing that Stephanie and I did, but I do feel I need to share the important things, especially because I know that this particular blog post is already going to be on the long side (sorry!).

Anyways, the second day, Stephanie and I decided to go to the Anne Frank house. Stephanie and I both being huge history buffs really enjoyed the Anne Frank house. Even though we learn about Anne Frank in school in the United States, we don’t really learn that much about her or her life, just the impact she had on history. Not only was it absolutely fascinating to learn about who she was and about what her life was like while in hiding in this house in Amsterdam, but it was extremely powerful and moving as well. It must have been super terrifying to be living as a Jewish person during Hitler’s regime, and it must have been extremely difficult to remain in hiding for two years straight with 7 other people, always being short on food, never being able to bath all the time or necessarily with hot water, and to have to share your space and your time with those 7 other people. I cannot even begin to comprehend such a life. I was almost brought to tears knowing what her life was like and then having it be put through even more suffering and eventually death in a concentration camp, at the mere age of 15 nonetheless. I cannot even begin to comprehend. This house made me appreciate my life, as lame as it might seem from time to time, so much more. It has made me grow as a person, even if that growth was ever so slight. It makes all my travel whining seem quite obsolete, don’t you think?

After the Anne Frank house, we did some more sightseeing, spent some time in some parks, and even went to the Tulip Museum, which I was not so keen on going to in the first place but am very thankful that I did. I always used to think that the tulip was an ugly flower, but now that I know the history of it and the different types of tulips, I find that I appreciate it so much more and even find it beautiful. Fun fact: it turns out that tulips are not originally from Holland at all but rather are from western Asia/central Asia/where the Ottoman Empire used to be. I’m learning new things every day. I also discovered that there are quite a good amount of churches in Amsterdam. Second completely new reality of what Amsterdam is actually like: check, and they were quite beautiful churches too.

As for other stereotypes, yes, there are bikes literally everywhere! Hundreds of bikes everywhere! There were more people riding bikes than there were people driving cars or riding the trams! Though I was not surprised at that, it was still completely different seeing it all in person.

Overall, my time in Amsterdam was quite rewarding and terrific. I definitely enjoyed my time there, despite some frustrations, one of which included that apparently using my French bank card was extremely difficult. There was either an extremely high minimum for card usage or places just didn’t take it at all. Our last night in Amsterdam, I tried to use my card at a grocery store, and once again, they didn’t take it. I was beyond frustrated about the whole thing at this point, and on our walk back to the hostel, this frustration spurred a conversation with Stephanie about the struggles of traveling and being an expatriate. On the one hand, I do kind of want to struggle, with the language, with the culture, with communicating with other people, etc. because the struggle is what makes you grow, makes you a better person. It’s the struggle while traveling that pushes you to be more flexible, to have better problem solving skills, to budget your money wiser, to endure discomfort and pain with less outbursts of anger and frustration, etc. However, on the other hand, it’s like, no one likes struggling or being uncomfortable because it’s really not fun and makes things quite less enjoyable. Just like being a native English speaker brings both good and positive things. It is great because it makes traveling slightly easier because in most places they speak English well enough to communicate what needs to be communicated (Amsterdam is absolutely no exception. We found that we did not have any trouble at all), but also, being a native English speaker means that I have to try less when I’m traveling. I don’t have to push myself as much to understand the local language or culture (not that I’m going to learn Dutch in 3 days because I’m definitely not), but I didn’t even think to look up some Dutch phrases before we went because I knew that being an English speaker, I’d be fine. This is the exact mindset that I’m trying to beat out of other people, especially other Americans, and here I was, reverting to that mindset while I’m traveling. I feel so ashamed of myself. I wonder what it’s like being someone who has to learn English as a second language. I’m sure it’s frustrating and extremely difficult, but I believe it’s probably also rewarding, being able to speak at least two languages if not more.

So, moral of the story is this: “I want to struggle….sort of….kind of….maybe….?’’ (with a question mark because I don’t think I’ll ever out right say that I want to struggle) because even though struggling is extremely uncomfortable and sometimes the absolute worse, the struggle makes me and is making me a better traveler and a better person. I need the struggle. I really absolutely do.

So, there lie the thoughts of a struggling expatriate struggling (I mean, traveling) across Europe

Until more struggle stories next time…

A plus mes amis

The expat life

This past week, I finally started actually teaching in all of my classes. Yes, it took almost three weeks since I moved to France for me to actually begin teaching, and truth be told, I really rather enjoy it, for the most part.

The first part of the week, on Monday afternoons and Tuesday mornings, I work with my middle school students, and this week, the teachers wanted me to prepare something about Halloween. Halloween is not as important in France as it is in the United States. It does happen, sort of, like they have some costume stores maybe and they understand it sort of…..maybe…? But anyways, so, I had to come up with a lesson plan where they would learn some typical Halloween vocabulary. So, I decided that a good ole American game would do, so I created (with the help of a friend. curse you Microsoft Word formatting), a Bingo game using Halloween words. I felt extremely proud of myself because the students loved it. They are all 11 years after all. So, I finished at my collège on Tuesday morning, and I couldn’t help but smile. I was actually scared at lesson planning and teaching to French students, but I had proved to myself that I can succeed!

However, I suppose that I had patted myself on the back too soon, for Thursday afternoon, when I had my first official lesson with one of the high school classes, it failed miserably. There I was standing up at the front of the classroom trying to get these French sophomores to respect me, in English nonetheless, and I was failing horribly. Students were talking over me and looking at me like I was stupid, and worst of all, I only got through half of the lesson that I prepared with the teacher. I felt utterly ashamed and embarrassed.

My lessons that followed ended up going well, but I could not get the failure of that one class out of my head. My fears of failing as an English teacher with French high schoolers had come true, and I have to admit that I’m feeling rather down about it.

That feeling of failure paired with having been in a foreign country away from everyone and everything I know for almost a month have both weighed really heavy on me. I’m starting to feel a little depressed. I’ve realized that being an expatriate is not as adventurous as most people crack it up to be. It’s actually extremely difficult. Yes, there is definitely some adventure involved, but basically it’s about you stumbling around in a culture that you might not fully understand, speaking a language that you sort of know trying to be an adult about things and trying to make well-educated adult decisions. Sometimes, you fail, you fail really big, and it makes you just want to curl up in a ball and sleep forever. I had to fight that feeling this past week. It’s not a feeling that I particularly care for, and living by myself has made it that much more of a challenge to force myself to go out and be with friends and actually have a life and ignore the feeling of wanting to close myself off from the world. All I want to do is sleep.

In the meantime though, while I’m attempting to live as a real expat, I’ll be traveling for the next two weeks through Amsterdam (from where I’m currently typing this), Cologne, Berlin, Prague, and Krakow. I’m very excited about the adventures to come and also very nervous about running out of money, but alas, *sigh*, such is the expats life.

Until next time….à plus mes amis!

“Are you single?”: French boys are too bold.

Truthfully, my emotions are quite a roller coaster, which was to be expected of course, but yes, they are indeed. I’ve been feeling lonely and out of sorts the past couple of days, but to focus on the positive, let’s talk about this past week.

This past week, from Tuesday evening to Thursday morning I was able to return to my French home, Nantes. I had a required orientation that I had to attend as English assistant in the Académie de Nantes on Wednesday. It was an 8 hour long session regarding information necessary for an immigrant in France to know, such as opening a bank account, immigration paperwork, enrolling in social security, etc etc and some tips regarding being an assistant in a French classroom. Though all of that information was quite useful and at some points, interesting, it was a bit of a drag. Most of it I already knew, so it was mostly just a refresher.

However, because of this required orientation, I was able to return to Nantes. As soon as I stepped off the train, I immediately felt it in my heart: I was truly in my second home. Of course, in typical Nantes fashion, it was chilly and raining. However, I welcomed the rain with open arms because this was France for me. Better yet even, I was able to stay with my host family from when I studied abroad and have dinner with them both Tuesday night and Wednesday night. I feel so incredibly blessed to have been able to see them again. It was almost as if I had never left. I love them all so very dearly, and I hope to see them multiple times while I’m in France for these next 7 months. I was also surprised at how well my French was coming out of my mouth, because let’s be real here, sometimes, the struggle is all too real. ( For example, my French failed me at the grocery store yesterday while I was checking out. The cashier had to speak English for me. It was kind of embarrassing.)

Unfortunately, I was not able to spend a lot of time walking around Nantes to all of my favorite places from when I studied abroad, but I did get some snapshots. I also met up with a former IES Abroad friend who is also a secondary English assistant in the Académie de Nantes, also in Nantes for the same orientation. Lexi and I walked around for a bit, and we decided to hit up an old favorite: le Nid. Le Nid means ”the nest,” and it’s a bar on the very top floor of the tallest building in Nantes, la Tour de Bretagne. Eggs with cut outs form the seats, and there is a long bird that encircles the entire bar, its back end being the part where you order your drinks. Le Nid has a balcony and overlooks the entire city of Nantes. It’s absolutely breathtaking, and I can say that it is definitely one of my favorite places in the city.

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Me overlooking the Cathédrale in Nantes from the balcony. What a beauty!

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Lexi and Me at Le Nid!

Unfortunately, I was not able to spend a whole lot of time with my host family because of how long my orientation was and because I had to head back to Laval on Thursday morning in order to get back to work on time. I was able to meet the student that they are currently hosting though, and it definitely brought back some memories talking to her about her classes at IES and the different activities she does. It’s hard for me to believe that 2 and half years have passed since that time. How different of a person I am and how many different experiences I’ve had since then!

Though my time in Nantes was short lived, it was definitely lovely, and I’m definitely going to go back multiple times before I head back home to the states in the Spring.

Onward to my classes at the high school. I started my classes at the high school on Thursday afternoon. I mostly just answered questions that the students had, introducing myself, telling them about myself, and telling them about my country. It really was an amazing experience to see what sort of questions they had for me and what sort of things they were interested in learning about me and my country. I really felt like they were engaged and actually curious, for the most part. There were, of course, a few who couldn’t care less, but I expected that. I absolutely loved it, being able to tell them about the differences in the United States and the American culture. I loved being able to shock them with different facts that either confirmed or broke the different stereotypes they had about my home culture. Most of them were also quite bold and confident in their English speaking skills, which I marveled at. However, of course I couldn’t scrape by without some awkwardness. In every single class, at least one 15 to 16 year French male decided that he was going to put all of his energy in pronouncing in the best English he possibly could “are you single?” *facepalm* Well, then. At least we got that out of the way. Good to know that high school boys are high school boys everywhere in the world. At least I know a little bit better now what to expect.

So, all 8 (yes, 8!) classes that I had at the high school were very fulfilling. I’m already starting to come up with lesson plan ideas and to write the actual lessons. Even though it’s been nice basically being on vacation, I’m ready to get back to work. I’m very excited to actually start giving lessons, teaching the students at both the middle school and the high school. I also found that I didn’t feel scared at all. I felt really confident about all of it, just being there and answering their questions. I’m very thankful for this opportunity and the experience that it will bring me.

As to other things going on, having my own apartment is both glorious and a curse. I love being able to manage my home and do whatever I’d like, whenever I’d like. However, it does get very lonely at times. However, this is where the growth comes in. I’ve set aside goals for myself during my time here in France, and one of them is to grow in independence. I think living alone will definitely push me towards that, and I’m thankful for the opportunity. I just wish that the loneliness monster wasn’t knocking at my door every so often.

Also, I finally built up the courage to try to go to a church today that I found online. However, when I went on their website to double check the address and the time of service, I discovered that the church has moved to a place that is a 45 minute drive north of Laval. I was extremely disappointed. I then tried to find another Protestant church online, and I discovered that most of them are at least an hour’s walk from my apartment or there is no information on them whatsoever online. There are also so few. I have kind of picked up on the fact that Laval is very heavily Catholic and that there are few churches in general, let alone Protestant churches. This I have known about France, being an extremely secular country where religion is heavily a private matter, however, I couldn’t help feeling frustrated yet again with the culture. That culture shock just keeps swinging. So, I went back to sleep feeling defeated and rather sad. My bought of courage was for naught, and I’ll be gone on vacation the next few weeks. So, I won’t be able to try to find another church for next week or the couple of weeks to follow.

I do hang out with my friends that I’ve made here at the foyer, but sure, go on ahead and come in and stay for awhile loneliness monster. I suppose that part of personal growth is suffering through at least a little bit of discomfort.

In the meantime, I’ll be trying to focus on doing my lesson plans for school (I’m working on Halloween bingo for my middle school kiddos, and I’m quite excited about it.). Hopefully my next post will be a little more uplifting.

Until then….à plus mes amis!

Vous êtes américaine?! (You are American?!)

Today, I finally started officially working. Well, I guess you could call it that. Again, things tend to move quite slowly here in France. I finally went and observed two of the four classes that I will be teaching in at the middle school at which I was placed, however, that’s mostly what I did: observe. I won’t actually start teaching until next week probably but again key word: probably. However, in one of my classes, I had the opportunity to introduce myself and answer questions from the students that I will be teaching. They are really kind of adorable. I’m teaching the lowest level at the middle school, known as sixième in the French school system.

quick side note: So, just to teach everyone back home and everyone who is interested, here is the basic break down of how the French school system works. A child usually starts going to school around the age of three. They are thus in primary (or elementary school as we call it in the U.S.) school from age three until the age of 11. Then from age 11 to age 15, they are in middle school, which is slightly different from the U.S. school system. Sixth grade as we call it in the U.S. is known as sixième in France, which also means sixth. That’s the same, but then it gets a little tricky. Instead of going up like we do in the U.S., they go down in number. So, for example, what would be seventh grade in the U.S. is cinquième, which means fifth. Then 8th grade is quatrième, which is fourth…..You get the point, I’m sure. One other slight difference though, the last year of school, which is known as 12th grade/senior year of high school in the U.S., is known as terminale in France (terminal year). So, in all, French students spend four years in middle school and three years in high school.

Anyways, back to it. So, here I was standing up at the front of this classroom full of French 11 year olds, and firstly, I couldn’t help but to feel how adorable they were trying to ask me questions in English. Secondly, most had assumed that I’m English, because I speak English and because I’m living in Europe. So, when I told them that I’m American, I’m pretty sure their eyes doubled in size. They were so fascinated by my nationality, and then I realized that as I looked around the classroom, the students had notebooks, pencil bags, and pencils with the American flag all over them (They had stuff with the English flag on it, too. My eyes were just drawn to the American flag because it was really surprising to see). This really fascinated me because seeing the United States as ”cool” or ”hip” seems off to me, but then I also realized that we do the same thing with France. We put the Eiffel Tower on everything we possibly can, and it sells like crazy. Why do we do that? Why is it that other cultures/countries fascinate us so much, or rather, why is it so hip and trendy? I think it’s great that these kids are really interested in my country. However, I have to wonder, are they really interested in learning about my culture, my country, and myself, or is it just because the United States is so exotic to them? I feel the same way about people buying things with the Eiffel Tower on them. Are those people really interested in the country of France and its people or the romanticized picture of France that our culture has painted? I have to admit that sometimes, I refuse to buy things with the Eiffel Tower on them because even though the Eiffel Tower is a beautiful piece of architecture and a wonderful piece of French history, that’s not France to me. It doesn’t really fully symbolize what France and its people have come to mean to me and my life. It’s just one tiny, tiny corner of it. I can only hope that I can show these students a part of my culture, of my home that will help them to see the American flag in a whole new way.

I loved being able to tell them about myself though, about where I’m from (I said Indianapolis because giving a big city that I live near is much easier for them to comprehend than a small, country town like Pittsboro. Also, they struggled hardcore with pronouncing Indianapolis. I felt bad because it is kind of a hard word to pronounce to a non-native speaker.), about how old I am, what kind of music I like to listen to, what food I like to eat, etc. It felt strange being seen as this exotic, cool being to these French middle schoolers, but it was kind of fun to tell people about my country and myself and have it be seen as something new and different. It felt refreshing. I can only hope that I get to know my students as well. They do seem to be sweet little things.

When I was actually observing, some things definitely caught my attention. French classrooms apparently don’t tend to have decorations such as posters, calendars, etc. on the walls. The walls are almost completely blank and white. This is grossly in contrast to American classrooms, which are completely decked out with posters, information, colors, etc. every where. I wonder why that is. Is it to help the students focus on the lessons? Do the schools not want their students distracted so that they can put all of their attention into lesson learning? Also, the students learn British English, which comes as no surprise since that’s the closest English-speaking country to France, but I’m wondering what it’s going to be like teaching them because some of the terminology and phraseology in American English is definitely different than British English. I’m not sure that I’m going to remember to use the British English, which why would I since I’m not British, but still, I guess I just want to be conscientious of not confusing them, especially because they are young and because they are only learning basic English right now. The pronunciation of some words are definitely different for sure. I’m actually legitimately afraid of confusing them because my accent is completely different and my pronunciation and vocabulary are both very different as well. I suppose I’ll just have to see how the kids respond to me, accent and all.

Given this slight fear though, I’m really excited to finally be starting in the schools, even if it is just observing for now. I’m excited to teach these kids about my culture and language and to learn about their culture and language. It’s kind of overwhelming, in a very, very pleasant way. As I was walking back to my apartment after I class, I couldn’t help but to have an out of body experience. Here I was, walking in France, coming home from prepping to be an English teacher, teaching French students. This is truly a dream come true, a dream that I am achieving much more smoothly and with more confidence than I had ever initially anticipated (In fact, I feared absolute failure, to be honest). Not many get a chance to achieve such a dream, so it is thus that I am extremely grateful for how truly blessed I am. I’m so thankful that I have acquired the confidence, the means, and the support to pursue this dream full steam ahead.

Loving this life despite the constant roller coaster of emotions, and loving telling my story. Thank you all for listening (or rather reading) in.

Grands bisous et à plus mes amis….