Castle for Rent

Over the past two weeks I was reintroduced to the art of slow, steady breathing. Breathing, it would seem, is a rather important function that I quite conveniently forgot during the chaos that was the preceding three weeks. Consequently, I found myself plunged into a sort of waking apnea in which all the proper mechanisms for normal breathing were utterly lost on me. When I took my first conscious, deep, rejuvenating breath on Monday morning therefore, I was surprised at the amount of good it did me. I am happy to report that the horrible sequence of nightmares concerning the MGEN, the OFII, and my new school has at last subsided, which means that the immediate future promises less paperwork, more breathing, and more… well, lesson plans if truth be told.

The foreboding cloud of uncertainty that dogged my every step the last two weeks of classes has finally dissipated. After writing an email to the vice principal explaining how I thought I was poorly treated during our first meeting, I received an extremely compassionate response assuring me that, yes, miscommunication was at fault and that things would certainly go more smoothly in the future. This lifted an enormous burden from my shoulders. The thing that was somehow so mysteriously “my fault” suddenly became no one’s fault. While I do not profess to be skilled in the art of conflict resolution, it seems that honest communication is the best remedy for a superbly marred conversation. To date, my theory has served me well.

Les Sables d'Olonne Lighthouse

I suppose that any proper discussion of my new job in Aizenay should include a description of what it is I actually do. Like my previous work in Challans, my time at Collège Soljenitsyne generally consists of preparing a 25 minute lesson plan that I repeat with both halves of the class. While it is nice to have only twelve students at a time, this system of splitting the class in two also means that I have to repeat the same lesson four times in a row if ever I have back-to-back classes. Other that the broken-record effect that this creates, I quite enjoy my small class sizes.

And now to discuss the students. When I first arrived in Aizenay, I was impressed by the level of maturity that the pupils seemed to possess. They are quiet, well-behaved, and respectful in a way that my students in Challans never quite mastered. During my first week of classes, their demure attitude was refreshing because it meant that I was forced to do less shouting. However, now that I am in my fifth week of teaching, I am coming to find that silence is not always the best company. My oldest students are the worst. I think that their timidity must be due to some sort of weird classroom chemistry, because all of the teachers that have these pupils say they are almost frustratingly silent. Like, so silent that they cannot even collectively respond to a yes or no question. They literally stumble over each other in their haste not to be heard. If this sounds a little backwards, it is. When I ask a question, my students will politely tell me that, “No, I don’t want to answer but Thomas does”, at which point Thomas will tell me, “No, I think that Ludivine was about to raise her hand”, at which point Ludivine will tell me, “No, I’m almost sure that Lucie was about to say something.” It’s really quite aggravating. The phenomenon is a strange one but it has forced me to set a new goal for myself: puzzle through the mystery of the silent 3èmes and make them more responsive. It promises to be a lot of work.

And now for a few more fun tidbits from the past week. We were served alcohol in the staffroom twice this week, once to celebrate the birth of a granddaughter to the principal and once as a goodbye gesture for a teacher who will be traveling around Europe by bike for the next six months. I am learning a lot during my time as an assistant, but when the first bottle of champagne made its appearance on Monday morning (yes, Monday morning) it still came as quite a shock to me. We’re allowed to have champagne during recess? Hard apple cider over lunch? I don’t know what higher entities condone the consumption of aperitif in the staffroom, but I’m coming to realize that everything worthy of celebration is celebrated in style here at Collège Soljenitsyne.

Rocky Coastline

Maybe this happens in staffrooms all over the world and I am just now finding out about it. Sometimes I almost feel like a spy that is only pretending to be an assistant so that I can gather juicy tidbits about what really happens in the lives of teachers. Perhaps I’ll write a book, to be entitled “The Other Lives of Teachers” and featuring such exciting information as the reading of confiscated love letters during breaks in the staffroom. “It took me one second to fall in love with you, but it will take an eternity for me to forget you.” This really did happen this week and the poor student who wrote the letter had the terrible misfortune of being caught pouring her heart out in a note rather than completing her homework on Louis XIV. A shame, because her writing was actually quite good…

Aside from the new discoveries I made in the staffroom this week, my adventures in France have been less than exciting recently. Unless, of course, you count scanning ads for houses and finding a castle for rent as exciting. Which, come to think of it, I do. In fact, this may have been the most excellent discovery I’ve made since my first visit to the Colosseum. Upon closer inspection of the ad, Kévin and I found that the rent was rather cheap – only 1,800 euro per month for a three-bedroom, two-bathroom, fully-equipped section of the west wing, the uppermost level of which is located in a tower. Imagine having a tower as your balcony. Unreal. After our discovery of such an add, we of course had to go see this château for ourselves. The gates had long been closed at 8:00 pm, but we nonetheless took a tour of the grounds and imagined what it would be like to sign a lease agreement for a castle. Said castle is located in a pretty little port town just to the north of us, called Pornic. I’m considering making it my summer abode, funds permitting.

Walkway in the Waves

Despite the unreal amounts of rain that have been falling over the past few weeks, Kévin and I have still managed to make the best out of our little corner of France. The weekend after our excursion to Pornic, we decided to venture south (only slightly south) to the tourist hub of les Sables d’Olonne. As we quickly found out, the term “hub” can only be appropriately applied during the summer months. The city is smaller than Challans, with only 14,000 permanent citizens, but the housing is organized to accommodate at least 40,000. The natural result of this setup is that les Sables d’Olonne more closely resembles a post-apocalyptic ghost town than a flourishing tourist destination from November to May. The empty high rise buildings that line the ocean front lose any charm that they may have had to begin with (which isn’t much, in my opinion) and instead give the impression of large skeletal monsters long forgotten and left to crumble, one by one, onto the desolate depths of the ocean. Luckily, Kévin and I were able to divert our attention from this rather haunting scene by taking an ocean-side path away from the city and off toward an ancient church and the lighthouses on the cliffs. This view was far more agreeable than that of the abandoned buildings, and we spent the better part of three hours exploring tide pools, the disused monastery on the hill, and the various rocky outcroppings along the coast. After three hours spent without seeing another living being, and with only the sound of the howling wind and crashing waves for company, we decided to return to the city center for food and human interaction. The latter of these two was difficult to find. We passed a dozen shops that were closed before settling on an Italian restaurant, seemingly one of the only open businesses on the waterfront. Our decision ended up being well worth it, and we were greeted by a very friendly host who made the best panna cotta I have ever tasted…

And now, back to reality. While reflecting on my recent weekend excursions is a welcome break from both the rain and lesson plans, it unfortunately does not put time on pause. I’ve got bingo to organize, a pet test to prepare, and a film to critique. Tune in for more adventures soon. A bientôt.

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