After nearly 24 hours of travel, here I am in la belle France, in the small town of Gueret.
I arrived in town Tuesday evening, a day later than my original plan, after my initial flight to France was cancelled due to an Air France strike. (A strike? Welcome to France.) So now, I’ve been here for three days. As for Gueret, well, it looks exactly like a French town — old stone buildings, a smattering of statues, nice little gardens, and plenty of bakeries.
On Wednesday, I visited Limoges, the main town in our French region of Limousin, for an orientation with the other language assistants throughout the region. Limousin has about 30 assistants for English, Spanish, and German from countries such as the U.S., Canada, Britain, Germany, Austria, Guatemala, and Mexico.
On Thursday, I visited one of the two lycées (high schools) where I’m going to teach in order to meet the staff. During the afternoon, I took care of French administrative madness, getting health insurance, opening a bank account, buying resident’s insurance, and obtaining a working SIM card for my cellphone. Today, I visited the second lycée to meet staff and help with an English class.
I’ve done a lot in the past three days, so I’m going to condense my random observations about life in rural Central France into a few thoughts:
- Few people speak English in this part of the country. That means I speak French most of the day, and let me tell you, there is no confidence-buster like haltingly speaking a foreign language all the time.
- With that said, people seem interested to learn English. On the train to Gueret on Tuesday, a woman asked me if I could tutor her daughter in English. I live in the same building as two students from one of my lycées, and they practiced their English skills with me. Today, I stood in front of an English class and the students asked me questions (in English) about life in the U.S. Many people see an American (a rare sight in this region) as a way to practice their English.
- The stereotype about French rudeness seems to be a myth. From the people who helped me with my bags while traveling to Gueret, to the people who work at my residence, to the teacher who spent the afternoon taking another English assistant and me to all the French government offices, everyone has been helpful and nice.
- French bureaucracy is all too real. I’m going to have paper-filled nightmares about it for awhile. When I wanted to open a bank account, the government-owned bank wanted proof of where I live. I tried to give my apartment rental contract, but I needed a special form filled out by the residence; a contract would not suffice. So I had to go back to the residence, have them fill out and sign the necessary form, and then return to the bank with it. In another instance, the bank did not like the other American assistant’s document because it didn’t have the correct stamp.
- Most businesses in Gueret are closed noon-2 p.m. for lunch, though that doesn’t apply to grocery stores or restaurants. Grocery stores close early in the day, with most shutting their doors at 7 p.m., though I hear that one is open until 9 p.m. When I told the French students at the lycée today about 24/7 grocery stores, I had to contain my chuckling at their shocked expressions.
- All the cheek kissing. When you see anyone you know, you must give them an air kiss on each cheek — it is rude if you don’t. As an American, it proves difficult to acclimate to this custom. I even saw lycée students cheek kissing their friends.
- The high level of smoking is another practice that is hard to take. A third of French smoke, according to 2011 statistics from the World Bank, which is nearly double the rate of the U.S. When I visited the lycées, many of the students stood outside during a break to smoke. A mushroom cloud of cigarette refuse floated above them. It is strange that smoking is still so prevalent in France.
- French grocery stores are wonderful. They have entire sections for cheese, where a shopper can ask a person working behind a counter for a chunk of brie or camembert or any other cheese to be cut and wrapped. Who doesn’t adore cheese?
Next week, I start teaching English to the lycée students. Wish me bonne chance.