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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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.

Day 21: Slow Recovery

My lightbox arrived yesterday, and huddling in front of it does appear to help with my Really-Not-a-Morning-Person brain and my mood. I plugged it in and basked in it for a half-hour or so, and decided that maybe I did have enough energy to go find the nearest English-speaking doctor’s office.

The doctor confirmed what we suspected: not broken. He said there’s a lot of blood and fluid built up in my elbow from the bruise, but that it should gradually abate over the next week and the swelling and pain should go down. He also sent me to the pharmacy to pick up paracetamol (I feel British!), an anti-inflammatory, and the French version of Voltaren gel, which is a topical anti-inflammatory gel that is PURE MAGIC. Smelly magic, but still.

I also burned through my bandwidth Skyping with my internet friend Liz, which cheered me up immensely. Not the burning through the bandwidth part, though–for whatever “bizarre” reason, I just can’t manage to keep my daily upload under 1.2GB and my daily download under 2GB. And *gasp* in all the reaching my bandwidth cap pretty much every day since we got here, not once have I attempted to illegally download anything! (I spend a lot of time internally wishing ill on whoever though this system would be a good way to limit piracy among French college students. Also on whoever decided to put bumpy wallpaper that practically brushes off the wall on walls in a DORM.)

So today I’m recuperating and pretending to work on grad school applications.

Also, this comic is pretty much my life.

Day 10

Today was FULL OF SUN, which was an enormous blessing. Tom said that when he headed over to school this morning at 8 AM, there was a dusting of snow on everything, enough so everything was just barely touched with white and gorgeous.

Of course, I am a chronically late sleeper (and I stayed up until 3 AM last night? ooooops), so by the time I woke up, there were little fragments of snow between the tufts of grass, and little lines of snow on car bumpers. It was just enough snow to have turned to ice in spots with lots of foot traffic that are permanently in shade.

I know this because I went and got a bike today! Yay! My to-do list for today was extra-ambitious (particularly considering that I got up at noon? ahem), but I layered up in tights under my running tights and a shirt under my cold-weather running shirt and headed in to the city to get a bike.

Getting a bike was easy. Getting home was…not easy.

The bike paths are relatively well-marked inside the city, less so in the outskirts and suburbs, and suffer an enormous problem of indicating very clearly where a bike path ended (usually and a portion of needing to walk your bike amongst pedestrian traffic began)…but not at all clearly where the next bike path would be. And I discovered that my tiny bike map, showing major streets and bike paths, is useless when you’re turned around in the middle of several blocks of tiny residential streets, particularly with the level of extensive road construction that is going on everywhere.

I got turned around once, and when I realized how far back towards the city I had gone, I was not going to bike back up and down the huge hill I had come over to backtrack. So I made a big circle, and in the process found the riverside path next to the Metz Pompadeu (local arts center) and the Seille (the river that runs around Metz)—gorgeous.

Unfortunately, by the time I was home, I had spent an hour and a half biking around in the (literally) freezing weather, the sun had set, my muscles were (and are!) sore, and I was very dehydrated. When I got in to our apartment, I pretty nearly collapsed on the floor. My lovely (if begrudging and still exhausted from being sick) partner stripped off my cold outer layers, bundled me into bed, and fed me bon bons (if bon bons are “hot chocolate and some shortbread-ish cookies we had laying around” 😛 ).

On the bright side, a: Tom, who is allergic to the cold, was not out in the cold for two hours and b: I am getting a much better sense of the roads in the south and east of the city. I might very well be able to bike to church next Saturday without getting hopelessly lost!

Other bright side: catching up on Elementary and relaxing this evening. Will get to the rest of the to-do list (laundry, shopping, vacuuming, French lessons, grad school applications) tomorrow. In the meantime, I have a sexy husband ignoring me in favor of his computer. Time to go steal a couple of kisses. (And then watch the rest of Elementary–I went over my tiny bandwidth cap for the dorm internet, so we’re waiting up for midnight to finish the episode. Hee.)