I Am Brave

I was going to write a post. It was going to be something academic-sounding, like “I Am Brave: Living Abroad and Glimpses into ‘The Immigrant Experience.'” “The Immigrant Experience” tongue firmly in cheek, of course, because there are as many immigrant experiences as there are immigrants. And I don’t presume to have more than micrometer-sized glimpses of immigrant life from living briefly as an ex-pat, even a broke ex-pat.

Anyway. I was going to write that post.

And then I walked, took a bus, took a taxi to the local ecole d’equitation. I spoke the French of a two-year-old until I found someone who spoke English. I got a crash course on grooming and tacking my schooling horse (I have only ever ridden bareback before).

Then I took a riding lesson. In French. I posted at the trot for the first time, I cantered for the first time. (Dear French people: you are missing a gait when it comes to the horse. It is called a “gallop.” I know you think you have a gallop, but that’s a canter. Won’t you be surprised when you realize the horse can go faster?) I struggled to understand and apply a series of home signs combined with a few words I began to recognize. I struggled to understand and apply my bareback natural horsemanship lessons to riding with a saddle. I struggled to keep my feet in the fucking stirrups, and not to fall off.

I struggled like hell to communicate.

When I was done, I walked for an hour, in the rain and the cold and the dark, to the nearest night-time bus stop, 4 km away. I huddled under the bus-shelter, feeling my saddle sores, as the rain turned to freezing rain.

I got on the bus. I got off the bus. I walked the rest of the way home. My husband peeled me out of my clothes, literally, in an entirely non-sexual way, stuck me in front of the bathroom heater, then stuck me in the shower.

In total, it took five hours of my life to get a one hour riding lesson.

Next week, I’m going to do it again.

I am fucking brave.

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Let It Snow

It’s snowing here again.  We got about 2.5 inches last night (I suppose I should be thinking in cm, but…who cares?  😛 ), and it’s snowed pretty much all day.

I showed my parents last night by turning on my webcam, turning off the lights, and holding my computer out our window on the European 2nd/US 3rd floor.

These are pictures Tom took, mostly out the window of the shared kitchen.  He took them at the end of January, but this is basically what the view out of the kitchen bay window looks like now.

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I love how smooth the non-iced part of the lake looks.  (Left-hand part of picture.)  Tom says that that’s caused by a thin layer of water over ice underneath, making the water look smooth and glassy.

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Here, the building you can see behind the trees and the lake is GT Lorraine.  (Yes, it is one-building small.  There are about 200 people total, mostly undergrads, with a few permanent French professors and about two labs worth of grad students doing their PhD here.)

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The whole lake is lined with buildings like the ones in the background, which are buildings for various French colleges and universities.  (And yes, just like at regular Georgia Tech, you can tell where it is by all the construction.  Although in this case the construction is on an environmental school right next door.)

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Yep, weird ugly buildings (I think a secondary school) at the other end of the lake too.  But also a bus stop, yay!  And the lake is icy enough for there to be SNOW ON IT.  For me, this is mind-blowing.

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Care Packages

Thank you, everyone who has offered to send letters and Skype, etc.  It means a lot.  I am making this “Care Package” list NOT to pressure anyone into anything, but just in case anyone wanted a reference.  (Not entirely true: I am totally attempting to hint my mother into sending a newsy letter with her next package of necessary things.  But if anyone else is feeling pressure, you’re accidentally encountering misdirected at-my-mother guilt.  Ignore it. 😀 )  Next post, I promise to post the pretty pictures of Metz in the snow and of Luxembourg being Luxembourg.  Or possibly to talk about my friend’s awesome baby that I’m about to meet, or how our immigration appointment went, or how small-town Germany is…

The point is: we are making things happen, sometimes.  We are enjoying some things.  We are doing the best we can to make the most of being here.  And I want to share that too, because it’s just as true as the hard stuff.  When anyone asks me how living here is, I say “Good and hard” because they are both true, often simultaneously.

Anyway, if you were wanting to slip small things into a care package but didn’t have any ideas, here are some:

 

Rule of thumb: if it’s larger/heavier than a non-fiction paperback, you do NOT want to ship it to us and we do NOT want to lug it home in our suitcases.

For Sophia

Tea–black, green, or white (I love Hunan Gold, and Darjeeling, and Assam, and would love to learn about white and green teas), no Earl Grey/Lady Grey/anything with bergamot, because I am allergic; non-fruity herbal teas would be great too

Small decorations that I won’t feel guilty about throwing away when we leave–if it’s wall-hanging, please also include adhesive clay (we have very textured walls that are also shed wallpaper like crazy) and/or Command strips and/or hooks.  Our bedroom has a blue-green-y vibe, but I will take any cheap pretty things.

Postcards.  OMG pretty pictures.

In general, things that are bright/shiny/cheerful or strongly flavored or scented–the sorts of things you use to chase winter blues away.

I have an Amazon wishlist [http://amzn.com/w/17I4EEL5TXZXC]–any books that are marked “high” or “highest” and have been on my list for over a month are fair game; I read all my books on my Kindle.  High-priority .mp3 downloads from my Amazon music wishlist [http://amzn.com/w/2DUIEBR5JZ9UA] are also nice, but much less necessary.

I will always take more Eagle Creek double-sided packing cubes, any color except red, any size.  They don’t make quarter-cubes double-sided, but I can always use more of those, too.

My Sock Dreams wishlist: http://www.sockdreams.com/_users/wishlists/5405cbf5aa19fc6
I love sophisticated thigh highs, and zany knee socks for horseback riding. (The knee socks could be toe socks, no toe sock thigh-highs/OTKs please!)

 

Tom

Tom is, as you may know, extraordinarily hard to shop for, and he rarely asks for things that are “care package-able.”  Sweets are always good, although you’d have to find out what French Customs will let arrive at its destination.

I have made an Amazon wishlist of good gifts for Tom: http://amzn.com/w/1G43JP8XO9BKX

Things marked “highest” are things that Tom has explicitly asked for.  “Medium”-priority ideas are things that I know Tom likes and would welome more of.  “Lowest” priority are vague ideas I’ve had of things Tom might enjoy.  Honestly, I am not great at thinking of little things Tom would enjoy, so go with your gut.

The Scary Parts

I’m sorry, T.S. Eliot, but February has always been the cruelest month to me.

Tom and I are both in the throes of depression (which I have much more experience with coping with–his is related to how sedated he gets when he’s taking three Claritin/day for the cold urticaria), which multiplies the inertia we’re each having about meeting people and doing things.  It’s hard to separate “there’s nothing to do here” from “nothing that would normally appeal appeals at the moment.”  And Metz truly is a small, small town, with a tiny little club and music scene, a carousel, one cinema, and cuisine at either $3 a pop (sandwiches) or $30 a pop (anything else).

The other thing I want to be frank about is that moving to France has been expensive in ways we didn’t expect.  In addition to plane fares and the frequent surprise!fees related to immigration, the cost of living here, even in a small town, is surprisingly high.  Georgia Tech shafted us a bit regarding rent: we are living in a crappy dorm for a local French college, in a two-bedroom suite, because none of the normal grad student rooms have double beds.  Thus one bedroom per twin bed, which we have shoved together in ways that are most assuredly not allowable in our lease.  So because we had to have two bedrooms to get two twin beds, and one of those bedrooms is “for Sophia,” we have to pay for one of the rooms in the suite.  This is about 320 euro per month–about $425.  Since we are also paying “rent” for the storage of our stuff in Atlanta, our rent here is barely less expensive than it was in Atlanta.

Groceries are also bafflingly expensive–bread is super-cheap, and everything else is about half again as much as we would expect to pay in Atlanta.

The bottom line is that we are using up the last of our life savings by May.  For someone like Tom who has scrimped and saved practically since birth, and for someone like me who is not quite as pathologically careful with money but who has also saved a substantial chunk, this is terrifying.  Especially when we don’t really have a guarantee of what comes next, so there’s no guarantee that our finances will end up back in the black.  This is also hard on our marriage: it’s easy to blame each other for difficult financial circumstances; we’re both bad at trust–in each other, in God, in our potential to end up making more money than one grad student salary between the two of us; and we’re living in Europe.

Frankly, that last bit is why I’m saying anything at all: I’ve had lots of friends say, “Wow, that’s so cool!  I wish I had the money to [live abroad/come visit you/live a life of European luxury.]”  And I’ve explained briefly that we don’t have the money to live a life of European luxury–this is just where Tom has a job that is making him money and giving him good experience for the future.  We are just as flat broke as our just-out-of-college friends in their first jobs, and quite honestly, probably even more flat broke.  But the illusion that we must have a lot of money to get this opportunity is extra-isolating when every bill makes me want to cry.

Finally, I have decided that as broke students, five months is the worst amount of time to spend in a foreign country.  Long enough to want to settle in; not long enough to justify the expenses of even cheap decorations, a couch…a car.  Maybe not even long enough to justify local cell phones; we’ve already survived two months without them.

Long enough to start making friends; not long enough to make really good friends.

Long enough to need a community; not long enough to feel comfortable in one.

Disclaimer: This is not a plea for money.  It might be a plea for Skype calls, emails, postcards, and small care packages.  You can write me at the following address:

Sophia FISHER
Log D 210-2
Residence A.L.O.E.S.
4 place Edouard Branly
57070 METZ
France

Day 27: Langues des Signes Français

Wow, Day 27.  Can you believe we’ve been in France for almost a month?  I am famous in my own mind for having bizarre cravings when out of country, and France is no different.  I want some freaking Taco Bell.  Don’t get me wrong, fried okra or grits or sausage gravy and biscuits would be amazing, too, but man, I keep wanting Taco Bell at the weirdest times.  (When I was in Kenya, FYI, it was Waffle House.)

So I promised I would eventually tell you the story of my second meeting with Metz CouchSurfers and now is a good time.  One of the girls on the local list, Élise, suggested a bar called La Chaouée.  And it’s…

Well, it’s a world unto itself.  Élise called it a bar, and the management said that it was a “club” and required a membership in order to buy drinks, but quite honestly, the best description of it is a tiny modern gentlemen’s club.  (Not the strip club kind.  The kind you read about in Sherlock Holmes.)

There aren’t any private rooms available to club members, but for such a tiny property, there are lots of alcoves and tables for various sized groups.  One wall has a window in it that used to look onto the street but now looks onto the beer storage room, so someone put up a black cloth behind the glass and stuffed the alcove full of stuffed animals.  A third of the available vertical space is devoted to a lending library for club members (you may only borrow three books at a time!).  Two large bookcases hold an extensive library of board games.  Down a narrow spiral staircase, there is a small music venue set in a whitewashed wine cellar-cum-catacomb.

I’m pretty sure the only reason they don’t serve food to anyone but the benevolat (volunteers) and the musical act of the day is that no one would ever leave if they could get food there too.  (This isn’t entirely true: the other reason is that the tiny kitchen in the staff area is a converted bathroom.  Someone put a large butcher block on top of the bathtub and built a kitchen from there.)

Last week, Élise and Réne, another CouchSurfer, met us at La Chaouée.  Because Élise is a regular, all of the volunteers know her, and we ended up playing “Dobble,” (called Spot It!) in English, that works really well for groups who don’t all speak the same language.  It involves finding pictures on certain cards and calling out the name of the pictures.  This means that six other people were reinforcing the word for “tree” or “tear drop” at an excited shout, over and over again, and no one minded what language you used or if you just pointed and shouted “C’est!”

When I discovered that La Chaouée is run by volunteers, I immediately asked if I could sign up.  (Umm, duhhhhhh.  Awesome venue, friendly people who all know each other, chance to have something to do and learn French.  No brainer.)

Tonight I went back in the hopes of getting an overview of what kind of volunteering I’d be doing (working the bar) and whatever other orientation I needed.  I also went because La Chaouée was hosting a cultural event about LSF, French Sign Language.

American Sign Language, or ASL, which I know a little bit of, is similar enough to LSF that when I signed with people there, I kept getting corrected on my ASL signs, because they look like slightly wrong LSF.  Which is problematic when you’re trying to explain for someone who reads lips in the wrong language.  (I quickly learned the sign for “Anglais,” though, which smoothed things over a bit.)

Funniest moment of the night was explaining to an LSF interpreter, who also spoke English, why I was in Metz.  I finger-spelled M-E-T-Z, and the interpreter and another nearby signer recoiled and said “NON!” very loudly.  “No this!” the interpreter said, fingerspelling T the way I had.  “It means…a sex thing.”  Oops.  I explained that it was the letter T in ASL, which the two women thought was hilarious, and switched to signing T with the very awkward LSF sign for the rest of the night.

Élise and Réne showed up again (separately, with individual friends), so I spent a very pleasant three or four hours.  By about half-way through, though, I had a horrible headache—being on that beginner-intermediate edge of understanding a language more fluidly is hard enough on your brain.  Two at once is sheer masochism.  I resorted to putting on the dorky earphones that were available for the hearing people to simulate the deaf experience (or at least to keep them from cheating and trying to get auditory cues when they were getting their two hour immersion in LSF).  Blissful quiet.

The group of Deaf people that were there were all amazing about playing charades with hearing people until they learned a basic sign—making a pretend nametag and then making the sign for “name,” spelling their own names very slowly and then making the sign for name and then pointing at the hearing person to ask for his or her name.

There was even a “debate”—a question and answer session for the hearing people to ask the Deaf people things that they were curious about.  I did not understand a word of it, en français or en LSF, but that was fine.  I understood at least a couple of questions, which were things like “How do you watch movies?  Do you like movies?” and “What is music like for you?” and “Would you ever try to dance?”

The answer, oh hearing people who are reading this, is that there are as many answers to these questions as there are Deaf people.  What would you say if someone came up to you and asked, “Do hearing people like movies?”  Which isn’t to say you can’t ask a Deaf person something you’re curious about, just ask that person, and not all of Deaf culture through the oracle that is [really, really not] that person.

The Deaf people argued with each other: I don’t usually hang out with a lot of Deaf people at once, so I had never seen that many Deaf people interrupting each other or deliberately ignoring “my turn now?” turn-taking markers.  The lovely, lovely ‘terp synthesized the arguing into an answer, or interpreted each person’s answer in turn.  The Deaf man who was the “main event” answerer of questions also said “pour moi” and the French phrase for “for example” A LOT, which helped me feel better about the debate.

As an aside:

Dear Jen,

I’m so sorry, but when my new French friends asked me about rude signs, I, um, showed them some.  They were (naturally) quite taken with the ruder sign for sex.  At least I also taught them to order drinks in LSF at the bar?  Sigh.

Love,

Sophia

When the crowd finally cleared, one of the staff members showed me around and introduced me to a couple more of the benevolat team.  Élise invited me to a party at her house tomorrow night (“just red wine and chips, not a very good party” she said), which I regretfully declined because Tom and I are taking a long weekend in Luxembourg.  Réne drove me home, and now here I am.  Saying hi to all of you and sending very much love.  🙂

P.S. Jen and Wes, I miss you extra today.

Day 25: Une bière mirabelle

The "Carmen Miranda" or "Twisty Knot Bunch."  No, I don't know what day this is either.  Maybe Day 12?  And no, I didn't brush my hair today.  Or close our bedroom door.  It's nearly 3 AM; does it *look* like I care?

The “Carmen Miranda” or “Twisty Knot Bunch.” No, I don’t know what day this is either. Maybe Day 12? And no, I didn’t brush my hair today. Or close our bedroom door. It’s nearly 3 AM; does it *look* like I care?

Tonight, I finally made it to  Café des Langues in Metz City Center.

As you might remember, my first attempt was thwarted by a much-needed nap.  My second attempt was short-circuited by stubbornly ignoring black ice on a hill.  But tonight, as Tom pointed out, was already starting better than last week, since warmer weather and a metric shitton (exact measure) of rain has melted all the ice (except for a little bit in the lake).  La glace disparaît.  So, if I was going to injure myself, it was going to be from something else.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t!

To be honest, Le Café des Langues was exhausting.  My arm is still not fully recovered, and I forgot to take my oral anti-inflammatory this morning, resulting in throbbing pain all afternoon and evening, despite the miracle that is Voltaren gel.  I have taken to dousing the whole length of my arm in the stuff, to get the sore shoulder muscle loosened up as well as the elbow, which is recovering enough to turn a lovely shade of yellow-green.

The point is, I was in enough pain that the conversational point of no return was three people speaking in French.  I truly believe that focusing on people speaking in French, even when I understand one in twenty words, is helpful to the diffusion of français into my brain, but tonight I found myself setting an intense “listening” look on my face and mentally drifting away.  It probably didn’t help that by about nine pm or so, there were 15-18 people crammed around three tables in a rather echo-y upstairs room, and half the time when someone was speaking to me I had to cup my hands around my ears to hear them over the other conversations.

Despite this, I kept asking “Comment un dit ?” over and over again like a not particularly bright parrot, and repeating whatever I had been saying  in French (like an amazingly intelligent bilingual translator parrot?).  I had to ask how to say “What do you do?” approximately three times (the French I was given is “Que tu fais?”), and I still had to look it up with Google translate just now.  I also discovered that spoken slang for “Il y a” is just “y a,” although I have no memory of what prompted me to ask for something that got this response.

My go-to order at an…anywhere, actually…is now thé noir: black tea.  This prompts a variety of teas to show up, but tonight’s was Assam, and I savored every sip.  (Except the first sip, when it was too weak: I promptly popped the tea bag back in the cup.)  But after a while I was hungry enough, and envious enough of the young man with what was obviously a cherry lambic beer, to venture downstairs and order une bière fruitée and “Je mange…”  The proprietress, who evidently had been overjoyed at the change of venue from Café des Langues’ regular venue, was happy to prompt me slowly with types of sandwiches.  I asked if she could please add cheese to my ham and butter sandwich.  O.o

Both other times I have managed to spend long periods of time talking and drinking with locals (oh, right, remind me to tell you about the second time; it was awesome), they have asked if I have tried a mirabelle.  No, I haven’t, and I don’t like prunes, but hell, I was trying new things tonight.  Public service announcement, people: a mirabelle lambic is fucking delicious.  It doesn’t really taste like a plum, it just tastes warmly yellow (but not citrusy), with that perfect lambic balance of sweet fruit and fermented beer.

I discovered that two of the Café regulars were PhD students at GTL, which definitely makes the total of GTL students (that are not in Tom’s class) I know higher than Tom’s total.  (Yeah, sad.)  It was nice to be able to complain about the grad student dorms and internet with someone who would commiserate and not take offense.  It’s not that we’re not grateful for the cheap housing near campus.  But, OH GOD, anyone who has ever been to college and then graduated, would you want to move back into a dorm with undergrads?  Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Case in point: one of the grad students, Manas, also lives in my building, so he gave me a ride home after the Café.  As we were walking to our building, some boys from SUPELEC (local university for which our housing is one of the main dorms) started setting off fireworks from close enough that burned out rocket stems hit Manas in the head.  Twice.

At any rate, from today came: our deposit paid to the dorm, finally; good design work on a Sekrit Project; and two Facebook friends + two GTL grad student acquaintances (that Venn diagram overlaps by one).  Good enough for me.