Joyeux Noel: Christmas in Nantes

I have many homes, places where I’ve lived, places that I’ve felt a part of or a deep connection with. I know I have found one of my many homes when I feel that deep feeling of belonging and comfort, that feeling where you understand everything even if you understand nothing. That feeling you get where you aren’t afraid to be away from everything that you knew before. Even if you are a foreigner, in this place, that really isn’t the case, maybe in your language barriers, your cultural understandings and your accent but not in your heart. You’re no longer just a foreigner but a foreigner that happens to also have some level of a sense of belonging. This is the feeling I get when I go back to Nantes, especially when I see my host family from when I studied abroad.

Unfortunately, I was not able to fly home for Christmas. Unfortunately, money does not grow on trees (though that’s probably a very good thing), but alas, I was not far from home after all. I stayed with Les Dufourqs, the French family that I lived with while I was studying abroad, and it felt like I had never left to begin with. Every time I go back, they treat me like one of their own family members. They even tell me that I’ve become une vraie française now. I find extreme comfort in this.

I arrived on Wednesday morning, and my host dad picked me up from the train station. When I got back to their home, I was able to stay in the room that I lived in while I studied abroad because the American from this semester had left already. It was glorious. I felt right at home, and I even saw books on the bookshelf that I had left there before I left to go back home  to the states at the end of my semester abroad. It really made me smile to know that I had left my mark, despite having been their 16th student. With Les Dufourcqs, I never felt like just another student that stayed with them. I am a part of their family now, in the transient, international way that I can be. This I know: I will always be welcome in their home with open arms, for this I am extremely thankful.

Not only was Christmas made wonderful by staying with my French host family, but I also was able to see for the very first time how Christmas is celebrated in France. Quelle chance!

Instead of a giant ham, fish and duck fill their Christmas Eve and Christmas dinner tables. Champagne and wine all around at every meal. Clementines instead of cranberries. Mass late on Christmas Eve. Though I am not Catholic, l have now gone to three masses (all three in France), and I can honestly say that I truly appreciate a good Catholic mass. I can admit that I don’t understand what is going on 100% of the time, however, I find some parts of it so spiritual. This, I love. Also, something else that I noticed that was different is that they don’t put baby Jesus into the Nativity scene until after the Christmas Eve mass. I’m not sure if this is a Catholic tradition, a French tradition, or a French Catholic tradition. Either way, I found it fascinating, because baby Jesus is in our nativity scene all December long. For me, it didn’t bother me being at a mass because the Church, no matter what denomination, is always God’s house, and all Christians, no matter what denomination or nationality, are my brothers and sisters in Christ.

My host family also made me feel a member by getting me Christmas gifts, which I definitely was not expecting at all. I felt thankful just being able to be with them on this holiday, but it was quite lovely to feel even more a part of the family by this gesture.

Most of the time, I just hung out. I read books, played games, watched movies (in French of course!), ate amazing food, drank amazing wine, and listened to old school American rock and soul music with my host dad. Kind of a lazy few days, but it was nice to relax and be with people I care deeply about.

I also did have the chance to Skype with all the various members of my family and watch them unwrap the gifts that I sent them. I miss them terribly so, but I’m coming home May 6th. So, alas, 4 and a half more months left here in France, and I’ve now reached the point where I’m satisfied with being here. Frankly, I definitely don’t want to leave any time soon.

Being here, away from my family but with my host family, I’ve come to realize that home is what you make it and family is what you make it. Yes, I’m sad that I’m away from my real family, but I’ve made a home for myself here, one that I am sure that I can always come back to. One of the unfortunate realities that I’ve had to come to accept is that my many homes will never really become one, but I’ve also realized that Heaven is my true home. So, I might as well make as many homes on Earth as possible until I get there. The more homes, the better, that way, I’ll always have a place to go, no matter where I am in life. For this also,  I am thankful.

Living that expatriate life always and loving it always.

Until next time….

A plus mes amis….

 

 

Guten Tag: the beginning of a new language journey and reflections of the self

Since I am officially on Christmas break for two weeks starting today and since I am stuck in Laval until the 23rd, I decided to finally pursue one of the many goals that I’ve laid out for myself while I am abroad: learning a new language.

I love French. French will always be my second language and my love, but I have had a strong desire to learn a third language, especially one that I find as intriguing as German. Today, I embarked on a walk to the city center just to be out and about, and there it was: the bookstore, beckoning me, calling my name, much as it always does. I promised myself that I was just going to look and that I wasn’t going to buy anything, because after all, I really don’t need any books (actually scratch that, as a bookworm, I can never have enough books), but as I was browsing, I came across the language section. In the passion of the moment, I did it. I picked up a beginner’s German book, or two, and I didn’t even think twice about it. I was going to buy those books. I wasn’t even going to give myself enough time to second guess my decision. I was going to buy those books.

So, I left the bookstore, books in tow, with nothing but an everlasting grin on my face.

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You may be asking why I’ve chosen German and not Spanish. That, my friends, is a very good question. Simply, it sounds more intriguing to me, and honestly, I think Spanish will be the fourth language I learn (I had to hold myself back from buying beginner Spanish books too). I also love Germany and would like to someday travel throughout more of Germany and to Austria. I do not feel as though this will be my last time in Europe, so, I felt that learning German is not only something that I’ve been wanting to do for awhile but think will be very useful in my travels to come.

So, today, I started. I spent two hours learning the alphabet and learning how to pronounce it, using the books I bought and videos on YouTube. My mouth hurts. My brain hurts, but I am satisfied. I haven’t felt this challenged with a language in a very long time. Of course I still have moments where I struggle with French. Of course I still have moments when I say things incorrectly in French, but challenging my mind in such this way, doing something that I’m passionate about (learning languages) brings me so much joy, and I haven’t done it in a long time. So, the fatigue and the pain is more than worth it.

Taking on this new project, I’ve reflected on what this decision means for my life and how I’ve come to understand it. Here are my conclusions:

  1. You never stop learning, no matter how old you are or what you do with your life.
  2. You are in control of your personal learning. I’ve heard many people tell me: “Oh you speak another language?! That’s so cool! I wish I spoke another language. That would be amazing.” I’m glad you are impressed by me, and I encourage you to learn another language. However, if you really mean what you say, then you should decide to do it, and you have to decide to do the work. It’s never just going to happen. My brain hurts, and it will continue to hurt for many years to come, especially if I end up learning Spanish, too.
  3. This line of thinking doesn’t only apply to learning another language but also to almost anything in life. I did something today that I haven’t done in a very long time: scoured endless pins on Pinterest. Pinterest is both great and terrible. It’s great because there are many good ideas that you can use for your own life, but it’s terrible because it makes you envious of others. Despite both of those things, it makes you realize some of the things you are passionate about and what you might want to do with your life. Instead of letting it get you down, admiring the lives of other people, start doing the things you want to try or to make a living out of or learn. I started journaling when I was in college, and I fell in love with writing, with telling a story. At the time, I was only telling my story to myself, but I adore this concept. So, that’s why I’ve decided to really pursue writing and becoming better at it. This blog is not only to share what I’ve been up to with everyone back home, but this blog is my sketchbook, my rough draft that I personally get to critique and analyze myself on my writing. I’ve also come to start writing poetry on the side, feeling that poetry is such a powerful form of literature. I would not claim to be a good writer, but I would claim that I’m getting better and that I’m a decent writer. I want to pursue writing, mostly poetry and creative non-fiction, as a side career eventually. Now is the time to practice and start making stuff happen.
  4. When you learn a new language, you open yourself up to learning about a whole new world and its people, to becoming more open-minded, to gaining the ability to travel to places where you can understand that language, and to have conversations with friends in their native language (I have 2 German friends and an Austrian friend).
  5. Having all of this free time has given me the opportunity to experiment with different hobbies, and even if you don’t have a lot of free time, you can do the same. It just takes a little bit every day. I don’t want to continue to succumb to the constant attention that I give to Facebook, Netflix, and Instagram. As much as I love those things, none of those things are really helping me to advance as a person and to advance my intelligence and my mind. I’m forcing myself to study, to read, and to write.
  6. My mind will thank me. As I become older, my mind will start to deteriorate, just like everyone’s else. However, it has actually been proven that those whom study and practice another language are less likely to get Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.

Living in France, speaking another language, traveling, and meeting new people from different countries has inspired me to be the best version of myself that I can be and to learn more about the world. I hope that my stories have done the same for you, and I just wanted to thank all of my readers for taking the time to read through my sometimes crazy and confusing life stories. It brings me so much joy, and I encourage you to get out there and do something that you love, even if you don’t feel that you have the time or that you aren’t any good at it or that you aren’t up to it. Do it anyways.

For the next few days, I’m just going to hang out in Laval, and then I’m headed to Nantes for Christmas. I’ll look forward to sharing all of that with all of you soon. Until then….

A plus mes amis….

The most wonderful time of the year: a tour of French Christmas markets with tales of adulting and continually battling up against the teacher question

It has been a couple of weeks since I posted last, and I must be honest. I have honestly forgotten about this blog here. As I have settled here in this quaint, small city of Laval, France, I have developed a routine, oft forgetting that I have a story to tell. Not only am I a rather forgetful person, but sometimes, my life is so extraordinarily normal that it does not come to mind to tell people about it, but alas, here I am, telling it, knowing that many of you back home are wondering what I’m up to and how this whole France adventure thing is working out for me.

So, here’s what I’ve been up to the last few weeks: teaching, mostly. I have discovered how difficult this profession is sometimes, and I am just an assistant. If it’s this difficult while I’m just assisting, I can only begin to imagine how difficult it must be for actual teachers. I find myself constantly head to head with the teacher question, that question that lurks around in the back of my mind every time I give a lesson or I assist a class, the question that makes my heart soar while simultaneously making me want to pull my hair out, that question being, ”am I making a difference?” Well, I guess it’s a series of questions because I also find myself asking: ”Am I doing this right? Is this lesson going to be too difficult for my students? Are they going to be able to follow? How do I make a lesson plan that will equally keep the attention of the students that are a little more advanced than the rest but also allow the other more average students the ability to follow along? Are my lessons interesting enough? Are they actually learning anything about my native language and my native culture from this lesson? Am I actually succeeding at this job? ”

Sometimes, the answers to these questions are an epic, absolute win, and sometimes, the answers to the questions are nothing but an epic fail. You would hope that the wins come more often than the fails, but to be truthful, it’s about 50/50, which can be discouraging at times. I suppose that’s the main reason that I’m here though, to push that 50/50 more towards a 100/0. It definitely is going to take some more practice though. Thank goodness I’m contracted to do this job for another 5 months.

When I’ve not been in class or lesson planning, my books, my journals, and Netflix have been my best friends, along with my first round of actual sickness. Now, something I’ve discovered about myself is that I miss my mother more than I initially realized. Now, my mother, whom I’m sure is reading this, is probably saying, ”oh you miss me, and you are just now realizing that? Well, geez thanks! *slight sarcastic tone*” Yes, mamma, I miss you, and sometimes, I still need you around. Living by myself is a fantastic experience. I’m finally learning what it’s like to be independent, truly independent, how to budget, how to discipline myself, and how to motivate myself. However, this past week, being sick, I have longed for my mother’s presence more than I care to admit. Living alone is great, until you get sick, and then, it’s really not so great.

It first started as slight light-headedness and body aches. I thought I needed to eat (as I hadn’t eaten yet that day), but upon eating, I realized that no, I’m actually getting sick. Then the body aches progressed to headaches, chills, more light-headedness, more body aches, a runny nose, and sneezes. All I could think was ”oooooh no.” I really didn’t want to have to deal with this by myself, but alas here I was dealing with it. Next came a fever that made me feel like I was on fire, a sore throat, coughing, congestion, sinus pressure, and a lot of discomfort. Being sick really makes you realize how independent you are, or whether or not you are independent at all. I had to force myself to get out of bed to make myself tea, to lesson plan, to go to work (because let’s face it, I wasn’t puking, and I only work 12 hours a week. How ridiculous would it be if I missed work only working that much?), and to run errands like an adult. Usually, doing that is fine, actually no, it’s great. It makes me feel like I got this whole adulting thing down, but then, doing all of that while sick sucked big time. I found myself aching for my mother’s care, so maybe, maybe I don’t have this adulting thing quite down fully yet. The struggle is still all too real.

Being sick also made me realize how difficult it continues to be to live as an expat. Many people asked me if I had gone to the doctor or had gotten any medicine. My answer has been no, firstly because I just have a cold. Yes, it’s kind of an intense cold that’s lasted a whole week now (and I’m still fighting it.), but it’s still just a cold nonetheless. I don’t really like to take medicine to begin with, let alone for just a cold.

However, I must be also honest about the main reason I hadn’t done either of those things. Going to the pharmacy is such a struggle. I don’t yet have the proper medical vocabulary to describe my symptoms and to find what I’m looking for. So, I would not only have to force myself to go to the pharmacy, but I would have to look up the proper vocabulary beforehand and then hope that I found the right words to describe how I’m feeling. Next, I would actually have to use said vocabulary to describe how I’m feeling to the pharmacist while feeling sick and hoping that they understand me. You would think that I could just go and find the medicine that I would need if I were in the US, but my friends, it’s not that easy. Firstly, France doesn’t have all the same medicines, and then, some of the medicines that are over the counter in the US require a prescription here in France.

As for the doctor, I don’t have one yet because I haven’t needed one yet, and my health insurance hasn’t actually come through yet (yes, I’ve been here for almost three months, but welcome to French bureaucracy. Legal stuff takes forever). Well, I would have to go through the hassle of trying to find one and then hoping that they would take me in. See, especially for a small city like Laval, doctors are, many times, already full of patients, so I would most likely be turned away anyways, making it takes days or even weeks to find a doctor that would accept me. It’s a nightmare. So, do you blame me for not wanting to go through the hassle just for a cold, even an annoyingly intense cold such as this one when my body will probably get over it soon anyways? Again, the struggles of living as an expat.

Well, now that you have learned more about France and the differences in the French culture, I have done some fun things in between working and being sick. I took the liberty of going to a few different Christmas markets here in France. Christmas markets are a huge thing here in Europe, and even though they are just now starting to become a big thing in France (because they are normally more of a German thing), it was quite nice to see a few. It definitely got me in the Christmas spirit.

I first went with a few other assistants to Angers to visit the Christmas market there as well as the city. To be honest, the Christmas market itself was a little disappointing, but as it was my first of the season, I was okay with it. Besides, the lights were pretty, and the castle there is amazing.

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Pretty amazing, eh? Medieval architecture is pretty fantastic.

 

Where the Angers Christmas market failed me, the Strasbourg Christmas market more than made up for it almost 20 times as much. The Christmas market in Strasbourg is world renowned, and Strasbourg is known as the Christmas capital. I went just for a day with my friend Sara, another English assistant, and even though it took us about 12 hours plus to get there and back, it was totally worth it. We spent an entire Saturday there, and it was one of the best days. We had so much fun together, and there were 11 different markets all over Strasbourg, so we definitely were not disappointed. In addition to that, there were Christmas decorations and lights literally every where. It was amazing!!!! It legitimately took my breath away, and Strasbourg is already in my top 5 favorite cities in France list. The market and the lights mixed with the sound of the bells of the cathedral was magical, absolutely magical. There is no other word to describe it. I fell in love with Strasbourg all over again.

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These pictures do not fully capture the beauty, but you can at least get a glimpse.

Not only was spending time in one of my favorite French cities with one of my close expat friends so much fun, but seeing all of this was beautiful. It got me in the Christmas spirit and made me reflect quite a bit on the Christmas season. Despite the struggles and despite the fact that I am not, unfortunately, coming home to spend time with my family for Christmas, I am living a blessed life. For that I am extremely thankful. God has truly blessed me, and I am beyond grateful that I get to have this awesome experience despite the struggles, the homesickness, and the frustrations. It’s all pretty amazing. Sometimes, it just takes a bit of laughter and some pretty Christmas lights to remember that.

The last Christmas market I happened to swing by was the one here in sweet, little Laval. Being sick, I only went out when I was feeling slightly up for it one evening this past weekend. It was quite the surprise though. It blew my mind compared to the Christmas market in Angers, and with the lights, it made it super magical. My favorite part was the fact that there were booths to represent different countries and cultures, including the USA. Of course I went up to it! They were selling doughnuts and license plates with states on them (So random I know). Unfortunately, they only had California (which I get) and Virginia (this one stumped me), and I know because I asked the woman there. She asked me what I was looking for. Telling her that I was looking for Indiana and that I was an American, all she said was “Oh yes, I can tell!” In French, of course, and really? Is my accent that noticeable? Again, expat struggles. I can pass for being French, I’ve been told, until I open my mouth. Then, that’s where my façade is completely removed. Oh, tant pis as the French say. I guess I can never truly be French anyways, so might as well face up to the facts. Also, at least she didn’t switch to English! That, in and of itself, is a victory! Despite me being sick and slightly uncomfortable, it was a nice last Christmas market to go to. I love Christmas. It’s my favorite!

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Well, now that I’ve fully talked your ear off (well, if you were to imagine me actually talking to you), I must be off. Hopefully I won’t wait so long the next time to update you all on my French adventures.

Thankfully, I am not spending Christmas alone (in case any of you were wondering), but I will spending this wonderful day celebrating our Savior’s birth with my French family from when I studied abroad. I am thankfully still in touch with them, and I absolutely love them. I also get to spend some time in the city I consider my first French home, Nantes.

Well, I hope you enjoyed hearing about all of this despite the ridiculously long update, and until next time….

A plus mes amis….