Miscellaneous Moments, Part V

After not having seen blue skies and sunlight in days, I walked straight into a patch of sunshine, closed my eyes, and photosynthesized for five minutes. And then, clearly, the proper response to such a gorgeous day was to spend 30 minutes walking 2.1 miles—casually muttering, “I’m going to die” the entire time because a good portion of the journey consisted of walking down a steep mountainside—to Carrefour to use the Wi-Fi and update my blog (and buy groceries). The Internet-less life is a difficult one.

  • A trio of girls walking behind me on the way to class addressed me as “Madame,” but I didn’t realize they were talking to me until they said in French-accented English, “Miss?” I’m not old enough for this.
  • I saw a coconut merveille in a boulangerie and bought it on a whim because it reminded me of the time Madeline and I watched Le gout des merveilles at the French Film Festival. Unfortunately, it was more of a meringue than a pastry.
  • After finally introducing the Spanish assistant La to L and S, we went to a pizza restaurant for dinner, and talking to people my age in a foreign language helped me realize just how much my French has improved over the years.
    • On the way back to our rooms around 10:30pm, La and I terrified an employee at Claudel because he’d never seen us before and wondered how two strangers had gotten into the gated campus.
  • Some gutsy high schooler sent me a friend request on Facebook. Honey, you could be the best-behaved, brightest girl in Claudel, and I still wouldn’t add you.
  • A Méchain Spanish teacher kindly drove La and me to the school, and when they spoke in Spanish it was even more confusing than when I watched Captain America: The Winter Soldier in French the night before. Also, the teacher gave me several mini heart attacks because she kept turning around to talk to La. While driving. With one hand. Stick shift.
    • I attempted to journey back to Claudel by foot, except I got so lost that I gave up and paid 1.10€ for the bus. On the bright side, I’ve finally figured out how to use the @ sign on a French keyboard.
  • While J was explaining my overly complicated schedule to me in French, Ml thought I couldn’t understand and repeated some parts in English, like stressing how important it is for the students to talk more than me. Pfft, trust me, Ml, I’m not as talkative as you. It won’t take any effort on my part to listen more than speak.
  • Yes, I know these high schoolers are children, but I’m so tired of being asked, “What is your origin?” that my fist might accidentally run into the face of the next adult who asks.
  • At Méchain’s canteen, La and I sat with two young teachers—C of economics and R of French, Greek, and Latin—and C informed me that they know an American who lives here in Laon and that they could introduce me to him. Please do—I’m really curious as to what an American is doing in a tiny city in the middle of Picardie.
  • Typing on American keyboards now confuses me because I keep hitting the “q” instead of the “a,” since their locations are switched on French keyboards.
  • La and I went inside a grocery store and the cashier said, “Merci les enfants,” “Bonne journée les enfants,” and “Au revoir les enfants,” and I legitimately looked around for children before I realized she was calling La and me the children. Sigh.
    • When we got back to Claudel, we went into the library and asked if we could use the computers, and the worker asked, “What class are you in?” Welcome to the struggle of never looking your age.


Day 1

It took a brief 35-min train ride to cross the border into Belgium, where my brain has never been more confused about whether to speak or read French or English. After a wonderful greeting from a precious cat, C and I dropped our stuff off at our homely little Airbnb and then set off for La Grand’Place, making good use of the directions kindly furnished by our hosts and successfully not getting lost on the tram and metro.

Our first stop was Le Comptoir de Mathilde, which was full of beautiful chocolates and caramels. Being in Belgium, we also had to get waffles, which were equally delicious.

As I tried not to smear Nutella all over myself, we left La Grand’Place and wandered through the streets until I stopped in front of Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert and stared because my little feminist heart was getting emotional over an intersectional rally. Like the nerds we are, C and I then bought books from Tropismes and sat in a café to indulge our inner bookworms.

I won’t explain the mansplaining incident again, but long story short, we got a better, cheaper dinner and then just sat, read, and wrote in our Airbnb.

Day 2

Our hosts provided us with a cute little Belgian breakfast, and then C and I went to let our nerd hearts geek out at the Belgian Expo’s Harry Potter Exhibition. (On the metro, this guy kindly pointed out that we were taking a very circuitous route to the Expo, even after he’d asked where we were from and I’d stood there and brilliantly said, “Uhhh…” for several seconds because I didn’t know whether to say the US or France.)

I won’t even lie, we got weepy over the whole Harry Potter experience–taking a trip down memory lane with the books, getting to see real props and costumes fron the movies, and being surrounded by the general nerd atmosphere. (Oui, I’m the kind of nerd who started reading the books in 2nd grade and finished the entire 759-page final book the day it came out.)

We spent an entire 90 minutes in the building and souvenir store; sadly discovered the comic book museum we wanted to see was on the opposite side of Brussels; considered going inside the Atomium but took one look at the long line outside and went NOPE (it was so cold that we actually went back to the Harry Potter Expo so that I could buy a scarf); and explored the Basilique before defrosting in our Airbnb from the foggy 39-degree, spoopy Halloween weather.

Feminist Salt

If I were a recipe, two of my main ingredients would be French and feminism. It’s why my little feminist heart was so moved when C and I stumbled across an intersectional feminist rally this afternoon in Brussels, right outside of Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert. That beautiful feminist spirit then followed us into a bookstore, where we found a book that was everything I’ve ever needed. I picked it up, read the blurb, and caved. I impulse bought it for 21.49€, but god, it was so worth it.

Barely 4 pages in, I knew that I’d fallen in love with the book when I read, “Being told that, categorically, he knows what he’s talking about and she doesn’t, perpetuates the ugliness of this world and holds back its light.” Men Explain Things to Me encapsulates everything about why I want to study feminism. Solnit’s prose is just so quotable, so eloquent, so alive that it resonates with every one of my salty feminist heartstrings.

I’m only on page 52 of 124, but I know this book is going to go right up there with Émilie du Châtelet’s Discours sur le bonheur as a feminist work of art that’s indelibly painted its way onto the canvas of my worldview.

Ironically, after the book blew my mind, C and I ran into this pizza owner who epitomized everything wrong with mansplaining. Look, butthead, we didn’t need your little cabbage-brain telling us that you support Trump because he “wants to improve the economy, not make war” and that you want progress so badly you’re willing to watch society regress. (Did he realize that how asinine that sounded? Probably not. I doubt he could hear anything over his white privilege and the fact, that to quote Solnit, he had his “…eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.”) C and I were so done that we paid for our water, got up, and left without a word even though we’d already ordered our food. 

So to everyone who thinks that “Feminism is a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians,” well, I won’t deny the destroying capitalism part, but nobody asked for men to be born with privilege and women to have to die for it.


Day 1

La and I got up bright and early (dark and early? It was before sunrise) to walk to the train station and head to Lille. During the 3-hour, 18-minute journey, when La and I weren’t excitedly talking in French, I returned to my nerd roots and spent the train rides brainstorming ideas for my letter of motivation for grad school.

Upon arriving at Lille, La and I got distracted by blue skies and sunshine, a phenomenon we hadn’t seen for days in Laon. We waited for C to arrive from Amiens, and then the three of us were awestruck by how big and lively and diverse Lille is compared to Amiens and Laon.


After grabbing sandwiches for lunch, we sat by the fountain in la Grande’Place, taking in the city’s gorgeous architecture  before leaving our stuff at our hostel and wandering into FNAC, where I was in pure nerd heaven as I gazed at stacks of French literature. I’m not a nerd if I spend all my money on French books, am I?


Our next destination was Cathédrale Notre-Dame de la Treille, which was an odd mixture of modern and ancient.


Eventually, we went to a Tex Mex restaurant for dinner, where I managed to drop my knife onto the floor–and the worst part is that this was before I started coughing like mad after trying my first shot ever because the owner gave it to us for free. I guess I’m a natural klutz.


Day 2

C, La, and I started the day off by having breakfast at one of the ubiquitous Pauls scattered throughout the city and then walking to the Citadelle, where we embarked on a scenic walk, absorbing nature, sunshine, and the adorably tiny dog that kept trying to pick up a stick that was too big for its mouth. (I empathized on a deep level. I once tried to stuff an entire Reese’s in my mouth but it barely fit.)

Next, at the Parc Zoologique, I think I was honestly more intrigued by the hordes of French children who’re more stylish than I am, with their perfectly coordinated glasses and scarves and pants, than the animals.


Inspired by the greenery around the Citadelle, we headed over to the equally verdant Jardin Vauban. Although it did briefly rain, we lucked out because it happened while we were chilling in the lobby of the Palais des Beaux-Arts and making the most of the free Wi-Fi.


Next destination: Notting Hill Coffee, where we met up with K, a fellow Yellow Jacket studying abroad in Lille, and one of her friends. Except the conversation that was supposed to be about TAPIF digressed into K and me gushing about a favorite mutual professor for an hour-and-a-half.

Then we parted ways; C, La, and I had dinner at a Chinese restaurant; and then we met up with K again and brought her to our hostel, where she, C, and I had a lovely minority salt/rage party until 2am.


Anyways, it’s time for me to shut up now–today at noon, C and I are popping over to Belgium for two nights, and I can finally cross the country off of my bucket list of places I want to travel.

What Happens in Class, Doesn’t Stay in Class II

  • While a girl was trying to figure out what languages I speak, she asked, “German? Spanish? Italianish?”
  • A student legitimately asked me, “How long have you been learning English?” and I stood there flabbergasted until the teacher said, “Think of what a stupid question that is! She comes from America! She’s been speaking English her whole life!”
  • I finally met the elusive Ak (it took F one whole year to realize that Ak was one of her colleagues), and I can see why. I didn’t think it was possible, but Ak, along with R at Méchain, are quieter than I am and thus have serious issues keeping their classes under control—the students are horrifically behaved and talk the entire time, so it’s beyond awkward for me to be in the room with those two teachers.
    • One girl in Ak’s class said “No no no I don’t believe that” when I said that I liked France better than the US and then called me crazy for not choosing to be an assistant in the south of France. Child, don’t give me that attitude. You know nothing about my life. (I’ll confess that I had fun answering her questions with outrageous lies that would’ve been obvious if you know me.)
  • With the amount of kids asking me if I prefer Trump or Clinton, I’m actually morbidly curious as to what would happen if an assistant replied Trump.
  • One girl straight up told me, “Let me give you some advice. Take the train to Paris because here it is a dead city.” Good to know that the children of Laon hate it.
  • Several kids have said that R-MC looks like Disneyland. They’re so young, so innocent.
  • When a student asked if I had a boyfriend, I said no, and then two boys loudly exclaimed, “Yes!” I don’t think they’ve realized that they have absolutely no chance.
  • Jt told a student that he should try eating peanut butter with Nutella, and he got this look of utter disgust on his face. I don’t think that kid has lived if he thinks peanut butter and chocolate is disgusting.
    • I then proceeded to depress one of her classes by explaining why I don’t believe in the “American dream.” I know, I’m so patriotic.
  • Someone asked me if I’ve ever seen Fifty Shades of Grey, and I don’t think I’ve ever been more horrified to learn that a high school girl has watched the movie. And liked it.
  • A class protested, “But you said you don’t have a boyfriend!” when I showed them a picture of one of my professors and me. I’ve been sufficiently scarred for life. Why must heteronormativity exist?
  • After I told a class about R-MC’s annual tuition, one girl raised her hand and asked, “Are you rich?” Sweetie, I wish we were living in a world where student debt isn’t real.
  • I was on the verge of falling asleep before walking into a class, but these 15-year-old babies were so excited to see me that I became wide awake. Although poor M-L had no idea what was going on while they happily fired away with questions such as, “Do you like Pokémon/Troye Sivan/The 100/Bioshock/Teen Wolf/Fast and Furious/Pretty Little Liars/The Hunger Games? (Also, what on earth is up with the French obsession with The Walking Dead?)
  • I won over this class full of boys when I confirmed that I play Pokémon Go, and then one of them shouted, “I love you!” after I said that the Tenth Doctor was my favorite.
  • To the two boys muttering to each other in disbelief when I said I was 22, I just want you know that I could understand your French. Every word of it.

I’m (Technically) Official

During the past two weeks at Méchain and Claudel, I’ve been doing nothing but repeatedly answer the same questions about myself and thus nearly forgetting my name and age and biography. So I was really excited to finally begin my role as a teaching assistant today, at least at Méchain. My schedule is a complicated mess because of class rotations, but basically I work a grand total of three days every other week—welcome to the difficult life of a TAPIFer who gets three day weekends and free Wednesdays.


Like a true adult, I started the day off my Google Mapping my way to the school, getting incredibly distracted by the ethereal sight of Laon wreathed in fog and sunlight, and then pulling out my phone and using my sad little portable Wi-Fi device because I had no idea where I was going.


On the bright side, I managed to successfully make it to Méchain, even if it did take me an extra fifteen minutes because Google Maps lied to me. At least the pretty scenery and fall foliage made up for it.


On the not-so-bright side, my journey ended in frozen fingers and legs, a near-heart attack because my phone led me down the wrong road and two dogs started barking at me, and the embarrassment of asking a lady right in front of the gates where I could find Lycée Méchain. (To be fair, I’d found my way to the back gates, and considering I’ve spent my entire time in one building, I didn’t recognize the campus from behind or realize that it was the same size as R-MC.)

My Tuesdays are supposed to be spent working with one class of secondes by collaborating with the teacher (the system here goes premières, secondes, terminales), and then alone with three small classes of terminales. J explained to me yesterday that, with the terminales, I’ll be by myself with the students while they spend five minutes talking about a subject for their bac exam. And then I’m supposed to ask them questions about their speech, but that’s not the strangest part. I’d like to know who on earth decided to give me the responsibility of GRADING them when I still don’t understand how the hell the French grading system works. (Enlighten me, what’s the point of the 20 if it’s impossible to attain??? And how is an 8/20 considered passing???)

Anyways, enough of that griping. I’ll cross that bridge on November 3, after my two weeks of paid vacation. Today would have marked my official work life, but N forgot that I was coming to his class and let me go, thus giving me a head start to my two weeks of paid vacation.



What Happens in Class, Doesn’t Stay in Class

  • Students keep asking me if I’m married or if I have any children, which makes me feel like a fossilizing dinosaur.
  • I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to explain Halsey, Bastille, Parks and Recreation, and Chipotle.
  • One student asked for my phone number, and that’s the one question I’ve refused to answer so far.
  • Another student asked if I used social networks, and I replied “Yes” before realizing that was probably a terrible idea. At least I haven’t received friend requests from hordes of high schoolers on Facebook…yet.
  • I showed a class pictures of my friends’ cat and said that I sadly don’t have one, and one girl said she’d buy one for me. Go for it.
  • A girl wanted me to say écureuil, so I did and she approved of my pronunciation, which I guess is good. Better than when another class said, “Aww, that’s so cute” when I said my name and age in French.
  • A boy recommended I go to a nearby kebab restaurant because “It is very bon.”
  • When I told A’s class that I was working as an assistant to see if I want to become a teacher, A translated, “She isn’t sure whether she wants to take care of petits monstres for the rest of her life.”
  • When a boy said, “Can I ask a personal question?” and I replied “…Yes?” he asked, “Are you single or married?” After saying that I was single, I immediately thought, “Is this a trick question should I have answered ‘married’ to make sure no high schoolers will ever try to flirt with me?”
  • The one time I’ve ever challenged a teacher was when I said that knew a bit of sign language, and J explained it as “the language that dumb people use,” and I immediately protested, “I’d use ‘mute’ or ‘deaf’ instead of ‘dumb.’” But she said that she didn’t think the students would understand “mute,” and I just… Seriously? “Mute” in English really isn’t that different from “muet” in French. Give those kids some credit.
  • When I asked a class what I could do in Laon, one boy said, “Nothing. Take the train and go to Reims. Don’t come back.”
  • I attempted to say “You’re welcome” and “No problem” to a student as they walked out of the classroom, but it came out as a muffled “You’re problem.” I’ve already done this once at the Writing Center last year. I’ll go put a cone of shame on my head.
  • A fluent class wanted me to speak French, so I said, “Bonjour, je m’appelle Sarena. J’ai 22 ans et je viens de la Virginie,” and the kids said, “Pas mal,” so I’ll accept it—especially because these kids were asking me about gun control, police brutality, and the primary elections.
  • I interpreted “Do you have a gun?” as “Do you have a girl?” but at least the answer was no either way.
  • I misheard “Do you like Marie Le Pen” (the French equivalent of Trump) as “Do you know Mario Lopez,” so I accidentally said yes…but luckily they realized I have no idea who she is, so all is well.
  • This 15- or 16-year-old child told me, “You are beautiful,” and I burst out laughing in front of the whole class because I don’t think he realized that there was a pretty significant age gap going on.
  • One girl at Claudel is apparently such an overachiever (she’s going to the US for two weeks to do a project comparing the French and American elections as viewed through the media) that the teachers don’t know what to do with her because she answers every question during class.
  • When a student asked, “Are you going to live in France later on in your life?” I told him, “Yes, depending on the elections,” and F gave me a thumbs-up while the rest of the class laughed.
  • I broke this kid’s heart when I told him I’ve never seen Lord of the Rings or The Walking Dead, but he adorably perked right back up when I said I like The Legend of Zelda and David Tennant.

Miscellaneous Moments, Part IV

  • Because high school here starts at 8, I usually have to get up before sunrise to get ready (and make it to the bus stop on time if I’m working at Méchain). The last time I regularly got up that early was middle school. I’m not sure if I’ll survive the month, much less the year. Lately, I’ve been going to bed around 10pm like an old lady.
  • Every time I see N, I get beyond excited because he’s a cinnamon roll who lights up whenever he sees me, too. He’s the nicest teacher I work with and the only person who regularly does la bise with me, so sometimes I get really confused about whether I’m supposed to do it with other professors or not. (La bise happens pretty regularly at Méchain, but I’ve never seen any teachers do it at Claudel, which could be an interesting observation on the level of formality among adults at the two schools.)
  • I forewent lunch at the canteen or in my room for a simple sandwich from a bakery, and when I bit into it, I nearly cried over how good it was. I’ve missed French sandwiches.
  • I’m sure I looked ridiculous chasing a crunchy-looking leaf across the asphalt, but it was so worth it.
  • Every time a teacher tells me, “Don’t hesitate to ask me if you need anything,” I’m so tempted to say, “Will you adopt me if Trump wins?”
  • While hurrying to the copy room to make one final photocopy for orientation, I walked past a dog and got so excited that I stopped and smiled at it, and the dog stopped and smiled right back, ignoring the owner’s pleas to get into the car. Sorry, dog owner. (Luckily, she didn’t notice me stealing the dog’s attention.)
  • I’m still the klutz who can’t figure out whether to push or pull doors open. Also, picture: me at Méchain’s gate, trying desperately to pull it open because I’d been awake since 7:30 and wanted to leave, only to learn that I was supposed to push a button to open the gate and escape.
  • Half of the time I don’t know what I’m eating in the canteen—I unknowingly ate some lamb once—but everything tastes delicious. It’s not like Estes where I won’t even go near some labeled foods.
  • I bonded with A over our mutual love of Harry Potter and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
  • Random teachers will come up to me at Claudel and Méchain and ask how I’m settling in, and I’m like, “I have no idea who you are but thanks?”
  • M just sent a Canadian student off to the library to talk to me for the remaining 30 minutes of class. She’s here on a Rotary exchange, and because her grades don’t count, she’s not trying—she got a 0.5/20 on a test, which is honestly…impressive. Also, apparently Canadians only have 4 hours of high school???
  • In Méchain’s canteen, I was so baffled by the fact that they were dishing out entire personal pizzas that I stood there and stared. I repeat, an entire pizza. And then a cafeteria worker yelled at me for using the priority line for teachers because he thought I was a student.
  • I told a French, Greek, and Latin professor, as well as a fluent class of students, about my Wiki page on Discours sur le Bonheur. Maybe they’ll go read it?
  • It’s barely October here in northern France, but it’s already so cold—40 degrees in the mornings and evenings—that I was wandering through Amiens wearing two flannel shirts and might return to the US sans my fingers and nose. I’ve already turned into a weenie who gets so cold, I might as well become the next cryogenic experiment. (The Niçois winters have spoiled me.)

Les hortillonages

Try saying that word in French—it’s a struggle. Basically, les hortillonages are floating gardens, unique to Amiens and Picardie. And they’re gorgeous. F, S, and I paid 6 euros for an idyllic 45-minute boat ride through what was a network of canals and tiny islands, complete with houses, veggies, fruit, ducks, chickens, dogs, and fish. The experience cemented the feeling that, even though I’ve been in France for 19 days, I still feel like I’m dreaming, like I’m waiting to wake up at any moment. Since I don’t have the words to describe how magical les hortillonages were, a picture is supposedly worth a thousand words, so I’ll just let these photos do the talking:


Oh my god, Amiens is gorgeous. (Let’s be honest, I’ll probably say that about every city in France and mean every word of it.) My train for Laon was at 4:27, so I carried my backpack everywhere like the ultimate tourist. S and I started off the morning by wandering into an organic store, where I had to stop looking at everything before I bought things like almond butter and coconut oil.

We then met F at the cathedral, which is so massive that it doesn’t even fit in the camera frame. Its intricate architecture, both the exterior and interior, is incredible—I will never understand how people managed to build such imposing buildings centuries ago, without modern technology.



After craning out necks to look at all the sculptures and stained glass, the three of us walked to Saint Leu (I envy how walkable Amiens is, how it’s not situated on a hill), where I finally got to see the famed canals—and they did not disappoint. At the outdoor food market, I caved and bought a 500g of fresh honey for 6€ and felt really bad about paying for it with a 50€ bill.



On the way to Park Saint Pierre, which was so lush and aquatic, we thoroughly confused a postman—“Oui, je me pose des questions”—by stopping in the middle of a picturesque street to take pictures. Before the most incredible part of the day, we stopped by a poutine place for lunch and finally set off for les hortillonages. (I’m dedicating a separate blog post to Amiens’s famed “floating gardens.”) I’ll just say that S, F, and I had our minds completely blown by the beauty of the verdant waterways.


We then sat down at a café, where S and F got to witness my most memorable French fail ever: I ordered a hot chocolate but got a Chardonnay, and then proceeded to drink my glass of shame because the wine was cheaper than the hot chocolate and I didn’t want to tell the waiter that he’d misheard “un chocolat.” And then, like real adults, F and I sat there and played Pokémon GO as F remarked, “This is what they’re paying us to do.”


I think that, by this time, Amiens was telling me to get out of the city, because when I stopped to take a picture of the back of the cathedral, a chestnut fell from a tree, bounced off my phone case, and then hit me smack on the chest—my surprised shriek of “Ow!” was probably the loudest sound I’ve ever made. My terrible luck prompted S to say, “All right, we’re walking you all the way to the train tracks.” She and F did exactly that, and when I hugged them goodbye, a part of me honestly didn’t want to leave because I had such a great time in Amiens.

IMG_2269-.JPG(The photo a chestnut tried to kill me for)