Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Livin' and Lovin' La Vie Francaise

Well I am about to head off again at the end of the week for another amazing adventure and thought it was about time to sit down with the latest updates on France before I am swept off to Zurich, Munich, and London on my second spring break.

The past few weeks here have been amazing, some of the most incredible in the history of my 23 years here on Earth. I picked my French life up much where I had left it after Amsterdam, but with an added degree of comfort and a pressing desire to throw myself into the French life. While the Americans I have been hanging out with divided themselves into two categories: those who love France and those who are barely surviving it, I found myself squarely in the middle... until last week. I am not sure what changed, if anything changed at all, if I was finally ready, or if I suddenly opened my eyes to something that had been there all along, but the verdict is in and I have absolutely fallen in love with France. I spent one long night in my room feeling like a failure for speaking as much English as I do here, wondering if I'll ever be anything other than an American slob here, and cursing everything I don't understand and could never be. And then I chose... I chose to step into my life here whatever that may look like and however scary it may be. I chose to force myself to speak French even though it's hard and there's so much I don't understand. I chose to live a French life, as best I could, even though I'll never quite fit in. I went to sleep, and I woke up in peace, my thoughts flowing easily in French. I told my American friends that I wouldn't be around as much because I want to let France happen to me, rather than carving out my own and different place here for the sake of comfort. All I had to do was choose, and the miracles started to arise...

Last week my friend heard about a poetry slam at one of our local bars and immediately I told her I wanted to go with her. How exciting to get to hear live French poetry! As a poet I had a secret thought in the back of my head that it would be the coolest thing ever if I could actually pull off writing and performing a poem in French. Never having performed my own poetry and never having written a poem in French, I had no idea if I would even be capable, but having thrown myself into this French life, I had to try. Anyone who has ever written poetry knows that you cannot simply sit down to write a poem and expect it to come. Poetry is gentle and you must be patient with it; it arrives in its own time. Sitting in class the day before the slam, I still had nothing, when suddenly my poem begins to birth itself. Trying desparately to multi-task, keeping up with my lessons and scribbling furiously on some scratch paper off to the side, I found my poetic voice in France, in French no less. I didn't want to try to write a poem to compete with the French in their own language, which I knew I could never do. I wanted to write something that was truly me, an American girl studying here, lost in French culture, simply trying my best to make sense of the world. Here is what I found:

Je ne parle pas bien le francais!

Je ne peux pas parler le francais.
J'essaie, mais c'est vrai.

J'ai beaucoup de choses a dire,
je vais commencer...

Ici, la France, c'est pas chez moi,
les etrangers sont tres differents.
Je veux, ici, etre a laise,
mais je ne comprends pas la vie francaise.

J'aime bien la nourriture,
les tres belle villes, les petites voitures.
La joie de vivre est vraiment reele
et je pense que les gens sont genial.

Mais moi, je ne suis pas francaise,
et je fait beaucoup de choses mauvaise.

Pardon, pardon, j'habite ici,
j'ai essaye,
mais je n'ai pas compris.

En fait...

Je parle trop fort
je souris toujours
je suis trop saoule
j'ai tort encore.

Je suis plus grosse que les femmes francaise,
mes vetements sont scandaleux.

Je ne veux pas vous offenser,
mais je ne peux pas vraiment changer.

Je veux apprendre a parler le francais,
mais tous mes amis parlent andglais.
Je ne connais personnes, les jeunes francais,
ils sont gentils mais plutot fermes

Je veux avoir des amis francais,
mais ce n'est pas facile de les rencontrer.

Je veux leur dire:
Parlez avec moi.
Soyez mes copains.
Je suis nouvelle en France
et je ne sais pas!

Je suis contente ici, a Rennes.
Je trouve la France assez bien,
mais d'etre americaine est ineluctable,
et tout le temps...
Je suis comme je suis!

S'il vous plait, aimez-moi la France!

and for those of you who don't speak French... (keep in mind that things don't translate exactly)

I don't speak French well!

I can't speak French,
I try, but it's true.

I have a lot of things to say,
I'm gonna start...
Listen up.

Here, France, it's not my home,
foreigners are very different.
I want, here, to be at peace,
but I don't understand French life.

I really like the delicious food,
the beautiful cities, the little cars.
The joy of life is truly real,
and I think the people are really cool.

But me, I am not French,
and I am constantly screwing things up.

Excuse me, excuse me, I live here
I tried,
but I didn't understand.

In fact...

I talk too loud
I smile all the time
I laugh too much
I'm wrong AGAIN.

I'm fatter than French women,
my clothes are scandalous.

I don't want to offend you,
but I can't really change.

I want to learn to speak French,
but all my friends speak English.
I don't know anyone, the young French folk,
they're nice, but rather closed.

I want to have French friends
but it's not easy to meet them.

I want to say to them:
Talk to me.
Be my friends.
I'm new in France,
and I don't know!

I'm happy here, in Rennes.
I find France pretty cool,
but to be American is inescapable,
and all the time...
I am who I am.

Please, love me France!

Terrified out of my mind, but equally determined, I stepped up to the mic not knowing at all what would come of it. I practiced night and day for the day and a half before the slam and wanted nothing more than to read my poem like I knew I could. I had asked the cute boy across the hall to check the poem grammatically and even showed it to a teacher for further imput. (She loved it so much she told me she made a copy for herself to keep.) Confident that it was at least solidly written, I stood there, not as a sad immitation of all the beautiful French poets performing that night, but as an American, a poet in my own right, trying her best to fit into this French world. I began and even as I had only spoken the title, the crowd began to laugh (not an easy feat in a French crowd) and though I was scared to death, my voice didn't tremble at all. I recited it like a true French poem, pronouncing the words differently as you would only do in songs or poetry, though with a bit of my unavoidable American accent. By halfway through my hand was shaking so much that the paper was moving inches up and down and I had to switch hands, but my voice stayed strong to the end. The crowd loved it... they laughed at all the right moments and hooped and hollered at the end. Every inch of my body was shaking as I walked back to my seat and collapsed into the arms of my American friends. I read it beautifully, like I knew I could. My first French poem, my first poetry slam, in France, in French.

After my reading, which was indeed a plea to the French to accept me, at least 4 or 5 young French people made the effort to talk to me. Amazing!! (It's almost impossible to get a French person to talk to a stranger.) My friends were so proud they were nearly in tears and sat around for the next few hours like proud parents talking about what I had just accomplished. My darling friend Dan, generally cynical to the end, told me that this is one of the stories he would tell to all his friends, "you won't believe what one of my friends in France did..." Breaking through his natural tendancy to be relatively unimpressed by everything, he said I better be as proud of myself as I should be and feel on top of the world because what I had just done was amazing! I was. On the way out I said goodbye to the bartender who we know fairly well. He told me that he has hosted a few of these slams and sometimes Americans try to read poetry at them but it never goes over very well. My reading, he said, was the best he'd ever seen of any American. To quote Loic: "You really worked your magic on them." It was incredible!

Since then, since stepping into France, since truly taking on my life here, every day has brought wonderful surprises. Every day I meet more and more French friends as I put myself out there in an effort towards immersion. On the way back from the market down the street the other day, I ran into three different French kids who I've recently made friends with and stopped to chat with each of them and do the petite bise (kiss kiss). I am excited to head off to Switzerland, Germany, and England where I am sure to encounter many more amazing things (my brain could truly use a short break from so much French), but I am even more excited to return here, home to Rennes, et ma vie francaise.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Contact Info

In case anyone was wondering how to get ahold of me, I now have a phone number through Skype (a program that lets me talk through my computer), so you can call me for free! Hooray! Call me anytime and if I'm by my computer I'll answer, otherwise you can leave me a voicemail. I'd love to hear from you! (Don't worry about time zones, my hours are completely weird here)

(916) 273-9336

If anyone wants to send me anything my address is:

Allysha Lavino
Cezembre 12
2, Rue d'Alsace
CS 51004
35010 Rennes Cedex, FRANCE

It would absolutely make my day to hear from any of you or even get some mail! *hint hint... send taco bell hot sauce and Kraft mac and cheese powder* hehe :)

Amsterdam and More

I don't even know where to start in describing my most recent adventures. To begin, France gets better every day. My experiences become deeper and richer as I come to know and understand life here. I have just had a wonderful week, my first week back from a fabulous vacation spent in Amsterdam. As I sit here writing, I am finding it difficult to switch my brain back onto English and keep thinking the French word first. (C'est tres bon, oui?) My spelling, which is usually nigh impeccable, has gone straight down the drain and I have to remind myself to capitalize words like American and leave out extra vowels which now just look right to me.

The French get two spring breaks (why didn't we think of that?), and while all of the French kids go home for the week, the Americans travel. My bags packed, my Eurail pass in hand, and an itch for adventure, I set off last week for five days in Amsterdam with my American friend Lindsay. This trip brought me right back to my first few weeks travelling around France reminding me of why I love to travel and why it is the most beautiful and difficult thing you will ever do. The city of Amsterdam itself is one of the most incredible places I have ever seen. Nearly every street has a canal running through the center and the several-storied attached houses and apartments that line the streets each have a unique look creating the most wonderful ambiance. We spent hours upon hours just wandering the streets of Amsterdam, admiring the beauty around us, and we felt, truly getting a feel for the city. We felt very lucky to be there in winter when it seemed the city could show her true face. With few visitors and bare trees, the city seemed naked and honest. We seemed to catch a glimpse of Amsterdam as those who live there must know her, apart from all the hustle and bustle of the summer.

Some of my favorite thing about the city came as a complete suprise. Amsterdam is the snack capital of the world. Okay not really, but it might as well be. They have entire stores dedicated to snacks (like the best AM/PM you've ever seen), and everything is delicious. We went crazy on these thin little waffle cookies with carmel in the middle like a sandwich. Mmm... stroopwaffels. I ate far too much while I was there, but France is not a country that's big on the snacks. It's a little bit rude here to eat between meals (maybe just a bit of baguette), so they don't have a lot of snack foods. Quite an adjustment from home where I eat throughout the day and practically live off snacks. Needless to say, Amsterdam and I got along quite well. I think she really got me.

Our hostel, which was one of Europe's top ten hostels, was right next to the huge and amazing Vondelpark and we spent our mornings strolling though the gardens while we discussed our plans for the day. Most of our vacation was spent simply wandering through the city, no destination or plan, stumbling upon new and interesting things all the time. We visited the Rijk's Museum, which was unfortunately half closed and the Van Gogh museum which we both adored. Van Gogh is my favorite painter, but unfortunately, we didn't go there until the last day and I was too tired to enjoy it like I feel I could have. My feet hurt terribly by this point from walking from dawn 'til dusk everyday, and I was so tired that when I stood up I was in pain and when I sat down I risked falling asleep in public. If I could change one thing about my trip I would have gone to Van Gogh sooner and spent the deserved hours mesmorized by his colors and vision. As it was it was wonderful, but at the time I would honestly have prefered a nap (sad story!).

Traveling with new people is always an adventure in itself. My travel buddy Lindsay and I discovered in about the first five minutes that we had very different styles of doing things. We were only saved by our commitment to constantly articulate these differences and attempt to compromise. To begin, To begin, Lindsay is six feet tall and a fast walker to boot. I, on the other
hand, am quite short and fond of wandering and walking slowly. In addition, when Lindsay is on a crowded street, her tendancy is to race ahead of anyone walking near here, while my instinct is just the opposite, slowing down to let others pass. The only compromise in this area left both of us running at an uncomfortable pace. I constantly felt like a child being lost in a crowd and struggled to keep up as Lindsay zoomed around the already fast-walking Dutch like Speed Racer passing on the left. While she, on the other hand, constantly fought anxiety when I simply could not go that fast and the crowds closed in. Watching her walk slowly with me was pretty hilarious. As my little legs took three steps to each of hers, she looked like she was walking in slow motion and I in double time. Somehow we managed to wander the beautiful streets of Amsterdam without losing or killing each other, but I was glad to return to Rennes where I refused to hurry at all for a week to make up for lost time.

Now, coming home to Rennes, it is nice to settle into a simple French (or semi-French) life. I missed my daily baguette, cheap wine, and dorm dinners with friends. I even missed being surrounded by people speaking French and the daily challenge of taking ten minutes to figure out how to say something before actually talking. Though we all enjoyed our different journeys, upon our return, my American friends all agreed that we were ready to be back in Rennes. Life has picked up much as it was before I left, but with an added degree of comfort and pleasure in my little world here. I by no means have everything down and still learn daily new words, culturisms, and interesting nooks and crannies of my little town, but it's official... I can now proficiently do life here. I can feed myself including grocery shopping (one of my favorite things to do here), cooking in the dorm kitchen, and going to the Restaurant Universitaire (aka dorm food). I may even come back knowing how to cook way more than I ever did before. Let's keep our fingers crossed for that one! My American friends and I really support each other here and we have group dinners several times a week at one room or another. Usually pasta, one or two of us bring the pasta and ingredients, another brings a baguette, and someone else the wine, while we take turns cooking. We all bring our own fork and cup and end up sitting around on big pot chowing down, since none of us have enough plates for a crowd. It's become a tradition. I love sharing anyway and what an opportunity to have so many people looking out for each other. We all share everything we have, and this week while I am very low on money waiting for my stipend, one of my friends here said to me, "Don't even be silly, Allysha. You know we've got you, we'll feed you this week." How nice to have such a community here so far from home.
Another of our regular rituals, visiting the Restaurant Universitaire, is always an adventure. After several weeks we're still not exactly sure how it works. You enter a large room packed with people to find several stations with different kinds of food. Well the trick is that depending on which station you choose, you're allowed a different number of items for one meal ticket. So to begin, you have to pay close attention to whether you're allowed two or three items, because if you go over you have to pay extra (which we don't usually have when we've settled for dorm food). Your next task is to figure what is actually considered one item, which seems fairly impossible. It seems to me to be slightly arbitrary. A small baguette never counts nor does a salad,as long as it doesn't actually have any ingredients in it (basically stale bread and lettuce are free... as long as you get other things as well). Mind you, we're discovering these knit picky little rules in French when we have only an hour to eat between classes and are packed in on every side by other students and lines sprawling every which way. Now, an entree and two side dishes counts as one item as long as it's on the same plate; if they're on a different plates, they're counted separately. It took us a long time to figure this out since an entire plate of food is one item while just an apple is another. Most days we can figure it out and make it to class on time, though many of us take less food than we think we've paid for just to be completely safe. On our first visit, my friend Rachael got into a terrible mess where a kiwi put her one item over and she didn't have the 40 centimes to cover it. The French cashier-woman would not let her return the item and became loudly frustrated at her for her obvious lack of comprehension of the system. Eventually she was allowed to return the kiwi and Rachael lived to to share the story though she definitely lost her appetite after being yelled at for five minutes in French. Overall it's wonderful having a place with a big warm meal for two and a half euro right near home, and it has now become another of those hysterical things about France that adds to the ambiance of our funny little town.

Upon my return from Amsterdam I decided that I really wanted to take this French thing seriously and needed to stop speaking so much English with my American friends and dive right into the thick of it. My mission was clear: I needed some French friends... hopefully some patient, articulate folks who would be happy to help me with my language difficulties, teach me new words, and give me the chance to practice speaking in a normal context. Well, as my life at times can tend to be a bit charmed, no sooner had I stated my wishes than two French boys came and knocked on my door to borrow something, ended up coming in to talk to me and a friend who was over, and voila - French friends! One of them lives in my building and now stops by at least every other day to chat in French and hang out for a bit. Between this chance meeting and my propensity to start talking and never stop, I have met several other young French folk who now stop by my room on a regular basis. It's fantastic! I have learned so many new words including a ton of slang that would be impossible to learn from my professors (my American friends and I are all so amused to learn French insults and are always teaching each other new inappropriate phrases we've learned from random French kids in friendly inquisitive conversation). It has also been amazing to have the opportunity to practice the language in an everyday context, hearing how the young people here talk, and gaining competence in saying the types of things you would actually want to say when hanging out with friends.

Since everyone seems to love my funny French stories, I'll pass along another little pronounciation error that has made my American friends and I chuckle quite a bit. "Beaucoup" is a very common word here meaning . Well you can imagine how often this is used... beaucoup! "Merci beaucoup," in particular, seems to find its way into nearly every conversation. The other day I was sitting around with some of my new French friends and said this common "thank you very much" after which there was much snickering. They attempted to explain to me what was so funny, but after a few minutes, I still didn't understand, and they let it drop. I didn't think too much more of it until last night when sitting around speaking French with a few Americans and a young Nigerian fellow, one of my friends begins to describe her difficulty in pronouncing the word "beaucoup" and the humorous situations that ensued as a result. My ears perked up at hearing this and she proceeded to explain what the French gentlemen laughing at me were unable to convey. Apparently "merci beaucoup" - pronounced bo - coo, means "thank you very much" (that much I knew), but what I didn't know is that "merci beaucoup" - incorrectly pronounced bo - cue, means "thanks, nice ass." One tiny syllable slightly mispronounced and what a different meaning! I don't think it should be so easy to accidentally tell the woman at the bank or your new male French friends, "oh, thanks, nice ass!" I suppose I will have to pay better attention in the future to the subtle nuances of speaking. Who knows what other secret inappropriate phrases lie hidden in my silly American pronounciation.

My new outrageous Rennes story of the week is typical of the bizarre things that occur here daily. Whenever something weird happens here now, my friends and I just look at each other and say "Well, that's Rennes for you." So lying in bed the other morning I heard a strange tapping at my window, a short, loud, semi-intermittent stacatto that woke me from my sleep. Sitting up, I looked to the window to see a giant crow on my window sill pecking diligently at something there. Now, to understand this story completely, you must know that in the dorms here, the refrigerators are quite a pain. They are all the way down the hall and are locked with a padlock so you have to put in a combination to get your food. In addition, despite the obvious precautions, sometimes food is still stolen (especially yummy-looking things). To combat these inconveniences, many students keep food out their windows since it's usually about as cold as a refrigerator outside. Counting myself among those who trust their food to the dangers of the wild, I had several food items on the sill on "the morning with the bird". After being half startled to death, I jumped out of bed to find the crow pecking furiously at my pack of bacon and had to open the window slightly and make some noise to shoo him off. I don't know why the animals here seem stranger than other places I've been, perhaps because it's Rennes, but between my weird behavior (keeping food on the window sill) and his weird behavior (stealing breakfast from someone you've never met) it was definitely an odd experience. It started raining later that morning after I had gone back to bed and I kept waking up paranoid to the pitter patter thinking, "Oh my goodness, the bird's at my bacon again." Though I never saw him again, I didn't eat the bacon (which he had maimed a bit), and now every time there's a tapping at my window, I must be honest, I am more than slightly jumpy. Perhaps the moral of this story is that bacon is best kept locked up in Rennes.

I am definitely settled into a rhythm by now, and even though it is often difficult, I am loving my quaint little life here. My classes are passing much like classes do mid-semester, slightly difficult, slightly boring, but generally pleasant. The highlight of my world here has definitely been my friends. Between the amazing Americans who have been my saving grace (people who choose to study abroad are just a cool breed of folk) and my new French friends who allow me to practice my language skills and discover the intricacies of this culture, I am with people nearly all my waking hours and it is a blast! I am quite lucky to be so extroverted and have so many different kinds of friends that I have no idea what each day will be like before I see who is behind the knocking on my door. I was finally able to figure out how to use the gym facilities at the dorms and worked out for the first time today, which was wonderful. The more time I spend here, the more I am able to navigate the country to find new and interesting things to incorporate into my life in France. I still love and miss everyone back home, but I can now definitively say that I am happy here. J'ai de la chance!