All adventures begin with an introduction. This is mine.
When I finally arrived in France after nearly fifteen hours of travel and a two-hour layover in Iceland, I was relieved to be greeted by the welcoming familiarity of the Charles de Gaulle airport. After spraining my back trying to lift my luggage just before leaving the United States, I was exhausted from a mix of useless pain killers and sleepless travel. Nonetheless, when I gratefully passed my suitcases into the hands of my boyfriend Kévin (who had taken the five hour drive to come meet me at the airport) it felt as if I were coming home. The start of this trip marks the second time that I will be living in France, though the first that I will be facing the adventure without the help of the study abroad office behind me. During the 2012-2013 school year, I will be teaching English to French middle school students – a task that frightens and enthralls me in equal measure.
For the first several weeks that I was here, most of my time was spent sorting through the piles of paperwork that the French government requires of people arriving from outside of the European Union. In France, there is a bank slip called a R.I.B. that is needed for every single paper signing ceremony, so before I could do anything else, I had to open a bank account. That was the easy part. The list that follows is the waist-deep pile that I am still wading through:
• Signing up for the CAF, a program that provides financial assistance for students, families with low incomes, and people like me who are only allowed to work twelve hours a week
• Signing up for a French social security number, which required me to give up the original copy of my birth certificate
• Providing financial documentation for my house to prove that I will have the means to pay rent, which required that I have a French financial guarantor – difficult when my parents live in the United States
• Signing up for a mutual insurer to cover what the French Health Care system does not
• Finding a médecin traitant (primary doctor) which is required for my insurance, social security, and health care
• Making an appointment at the OFII so that I can legally stay in France. This is a process that could take months, and yet if I don’t have it by the end of December, I could be deported.
• Signing another ten forms for my two middle schools. What purpose they serve is a complete mystery to me.
This is the shortened list. Aside from the flood of paperwork that has recently inundated my life, it is nice to be back in France – completely and shockingly different, but nice.Although Kévin and I had planned on taking a road trip to Italy for a week before house-hunting, our plans took quite a turn when I realized how many paper-signing errands I would have to run. So, instead of Italian sunlight, we endured two rainy, eight-hour treks from Préty (where Kévin’s family lives) to Challans (where I will be working) in order to search for houses and move furniture. Luckily, we were able to break away from the madness for a day to visit Dijon, my home of six months when I was abroad. After sending a very last minute email to my host mom, we were invited to eat lunch with her at the house. I didn’t realize how much I had missed her cooking, her company, or Dijon until we were seated around the dining room table talking about her soon-to-be grandchild and the new tramway in the city. Needless to say, I was more than a little nostalgic for my time abroad as I wondered through the streets that I frequented as a student in Dijon. The narrow roads, the medieval cathedrals, the university, and Parc Darcy were all there as I remembered them, though flavored somehow differently by time and circumstance. It was a flavor of fond memories however – a taste that I rather enjoy – and it was wonderful to visit. Aside from traveling to Dijon for the afternoon, the only other “leisure travel” that I have done so far is to ride a bike three miles from Kévin’s family’s house to the canals in a nearby village. Even this short trip was a much needed mini-vacation. Riding bikes through the French countryside in the setting sun seems a little cliché, but magical all the same. We ate cookies on the banks of the Saone river, waded in the shallow water, and enjoyed a brief few hours of sunlight before heading homeward. It is moments like these that make me so happy to be in France.
My situation in Challans, the city where I am teaching is somewhat different. To say that it lacks the charm of Dijon and Préty is quite an understatement. It is a small yet modern town of 20,000 people which is missing something of the warmth that I have grown so accustomed to in other French cities. On top of that, I am the only assistant in Challans so it has been somewhat difficult to meet new people. The professors I work with are all very nice, as are the students, but it seems strange to me to be living in a town without college students. Needless to say, this experience is going to be much different than my time in Dijon.
It will be quieter, calmer, and it will no doubt leave me with much time to reflect on my projects and goals. It will also push me to travel and explore in ways that I might not have before. It will push me to listen and take comfort in the simpler joys of living abroad. The smell of fresh croissants in the morning, small family gatherings, the smoky glow of stage lights in a small concert hall, the shouts of laughter and encouragement at a breakdance-off, the Basque armoire sitting in my living room – these are the things of inestimable beauty that occupy this new France I am discovering. So while it may be difficult, uncomfortable and lonely sometimes, this is my home for the next nine months. And I am overjoyed to be back.