Saturday, November 28, 2009

Edible Culture

Of the few cultures I have had the privilege of making acquaintance, I have to say France has the most edible culture, something you can really sink your teeth into (I apologize, i couldn't resist). I guess one of the best examples of French taking their food seriously is our lunch lady (I honestly don't know her real name). She runs the cafeteria here at school where I have eaten many a delicious lunch, thanks to her above-par food standards as far as any cafeteria I have ever eaten is concerned. Every meal she comes around to each table in the teachers' dining room and asks what we think, with questions like, "How finely was your steak browned?" or, "What do you think of the lemon-creme sauce on the eclair?" First of all, name me one US high school cafeteria where there would even be mention of "browned steak" or "lemon creme eclair." Second, since when does the lunch lady even care what the food tastes like?? Turns out you have to have a cooking degree to work in a cafeteria here, like any chef in a restaurant. They take food seriously.

A little more about the cafeteria here... Meals are set up like normal cafeterias with single-file lines and maybe one or two different choices for plates. Each meal costs 3.10 Euros, or about $4.75. Every meal comes with half a baguette, an appetizer (normally a salad or some other type of vegetable dish), an entree, your choice of usually 10 or so different cheeses, and a desert (either the special of the day like an eclair or fruit or yogurt). As you may have guessed I have never once still been hungry after eating at the cafeteria, in fact most of the time I wish I had team Oompa Loompas on hand to roll me out like Violet Beauregarde. The entrees have varied from simple steak and fries to oysters in a butternut squash and garlic sauce. I love the cafeteria because it gives me the chance to try real French cuisine on a daily basis, like beef bourguignon and "pain perdu," which literally translates to "lost bread," when they take an old baguette and let it sit overnight in a sauce made of eggs, milk, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and raisins. It has a taste like French Toast but served cold and very tasty.

One lunch stands out in my mind above all others as a "this-could-never-happen-in-the-US-in-a-million-years" scenario. As I walk into line in the cafeteria I smell the unmistakable aroma of sauerkraut, at which point the German assistant who is with me, Kathi, must have registered it too because she starts grinning from ear to ear at the thought of some home cooking. Sure enough when we get up close enough to see the food it's quite obviously German day: there's sauerkraut, two different kinds of sausage and mashed potatoes. After collecting my apple strudel for dessert I walk into the teachers' dining room where, now get this, replacing the normal bottled water on the table are giant bottles of beer! I was a little apprehensive and thought, "Surely this is non-alcoholic..." Nope, 4.5%. I then thought there must be some mistake, drinking at work? Then another teacher approached me, grinning a little too wide for it being a Tuesday afternoon, and encourages me to pour myself a glass of beer to eat with the German food. I'm told this is the custom in France, to drink beer with sauerkraut. A custom apparently strong enough to break the "must be sober at work" rule. Having been raised by my father I could not pass up something free, and this was free beer. Done and done. I had my fair share of full glasses while enjoying an otherwise still delicious meal. I wonder if the students noticed that the teachers were leaving our dining room much more jovial than we had entered? What a way to break the monotony of a work week.

One last comment I'd like to make is about the wine, naturally. Wine, in most cases, is cheaper than bottled water here. When you go into a cafe you can usually get wine for only a few centimes more than water from the tap. It's just a factor of life for the French. I try to get a new wine each time I go grocery shopping as my way of tasting but honestly I taste little difference between red wines and the only difference I taste with whites is my uncanny ability to predict which ones will give me a hangover. So the standard red I get costs me 1.15 Euros a bottle. That's less than $2! And it's leagues above a $6 bottle of Barefoot wine back home. When I visited my host family in Nantes I brought with me a regional wine from Burgundy and I decided since it was a special occasion to buy a more expensive bottle, about 8 Euros (~$12). Apparently they recognized the bottle because after thanking me my former host mom immediately chided me for buying such an expensive bottle of wine! I would like to just watch a French person peruse the wine isle in Fred Meyer or Safeway to see their reaction. French wine is a culture in itself and I'm glad to be here during the Spring when all the vineyards open up again. That way I can come back and be the wine snob everyone will expect.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Government Health Care

I can't say that I've followed too closely what's going on in the US in regards to Obama's Health Care Reform, but I would like to add my own two cents being that just yesterday I had my first experience with the French Health Care System, a system run by the government. Before I left for France I heard three general arguments against universal Health Care that I would like to prove non sequitur as I believe they were derived from people who had no experience with such a system, as in France where Health Care is universal.

The reason for my visiting the doctor was to get OK-ed for joining a gym to lift weights, simple as that.

The first complaint, that in order to insure everyone we must pay exorbitant taxes. This is false, again, only within the bounds of my experience, as my salary is 980 Euros a month, of which only 120 is taken out by the government each month. A little fourth grade math will tell you that is around 12% of my earnings. These taxes cover everything they do in the states, such as roads, education, etc., AS WELL AS universal Health Care. And how much taxes do we pay in the US now, taxes that don't cover a trip to the doctor? It isn't like the quality of life in France is significantly less, in fact life here is pretty expensive compared the the US. So how does the government here afford high standards of living with less taxes? Well France did say Iraq was a bad idea. Hmmm...

Secondly, that a patient would have to be wait-listed in order to see a doctor therefore diminishing the quality of care. Again, false. I called the doctor's office Friday morning in order to make an appointment sometime in the near future only to be met with apologies on the receptionist's end that the soonest available appointment would be 7 PM that night. I failed to see the problem but from her reaction I found most people aren't even accustomed to waiting a whole day. Keep in mind too that this doctor has more than 2,200 patients, all of Toucy and the surrounding communities. I can't remember the last time I called the doctor in the US and get an appointment in less than 3 days from when I called, usually met with apathy.

Lastly, that under government-run Health Care patients lose the right to choose their own primary care physician, leading to indifferent treatment. In France this could not be farther from the truth. In fact, you can go to any doctor you damn well please. You can choose your primary care physician but that does not meant you are restricted to seeing only that doctor, with the difference being how much are reimbursed. For example, I paid 22 Euros out of pocket, of which I will be reimbursed all but about 2 Euros because this doctor I chose as my primary care physician. Now, if I chose to see another doctor who would not be considered my primary care physician, I would be reimbursed a little less, meaning I would pay about 7.50 Euros instead of 2. Still! Another plus being if I am displeased with my doctor's performance I can quite simply change doctors with no cost and no hassle, and I never have to worry if my insurance will cover it. And when you think about it, why should anyone have to worry about a company telling them who they are allowed to see? It just makes sense.

That said, there still are numerous problems with France's Health Care System but even when you add them all up it's still a fraction of those in the US. Also this is an isolated experience that cannot speak for the whole but from talking with my teachers and acquaintances here in France I do know that my experience is by far the most common. I mean you should just hear their complaints about their Health Care system, like, "I had to wait two days before I could see my doctor!" or, "I paid almost 10 Euros for that visit!" I just want to say, "Really? Are you serious France??" Try getting the same service in the US and then we can talk.

And now I'll step down from the soapbox...

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Call me butter, 'cause I'm on a roll...

Second post in two days? Yeah, crazy.

I wanted to give some background to the other albums as well, namely Orleans as it was one of my most outlandish, albeit semi-predictable, experiences I have had in France. Kathi and I drove from Toucy to Orleans, normally a one hour drive but when she gets behind the wheel Kathi becomes a basket case of nerves and stress. The long and short being driving anywhere with Kathi means doubling travel time. So after a good two hours we arrive within view of the city and immediately after entering the city limits it felt like descending into chaos. There were tractors coming at our little VW golf from seemingly all directions, police men furiously blowing their whistles in a futile attempt to control traffic, and, wait, was that a giant pile of hay where the median should be? It took another half hour to navigate this madness but we found a parking garage near the cathedral and took our first chance to get off the roads. We hoped we could survive on foot. As luck would have it we ended up being only a block from the Tourism Office so we headed over there to get our bearings and maybe some useful info. The kind lady behind the desk informed us that, "The cathedral, directly behind you, is a must-see site and the Museum of Art is open until 5:30 tonight." While pointing at the map and in an equally nonchalant voice she added, "Oh, and avoid these roads as the farmers are protesting today." Excuse me? Yeah, farmer revolt. On tractors. This had to be good. I took only a couple pictures of the aftermath, but what happened was hundreds of tractors filed into Orleans (and other major French cities) that day and dumped copious amounts of hay, manure, and rotting vegetables such as onions all throughout the main streets but especially in front of the city hall. The farmers want the government to set higher quotas for purchasing goods from farmers and to raise the minimum purchase price for their products. So what a better way to get your message across than riding in on your tractor to dump poop on the government's doorstep? It really makes you wonder just how the French think things through... So they protested like this for one day (luckily for Kathi and I it just happened to be the one day we were in Orleans, go figure) and then around 4 pm everyone packed up and went home, leaving their "products" in the streets for the local city cleaning crew to take care of. Keep in mind what these farmers did is entirely legal here, there were no legal repercussions. And as if this one protest wasn't enough, after making our way up to the main strip in Orleans (the road headed with a giant statue of Joan of Arc) we saw yet another protest! Couldn't they have combined forces or something and made a mega-protest? This time, however, it was the baby boomers wanting better care after retirement. By the way just to clear things up, the retirement age in France was only recently moved up to 60 years old from 55.

Just another day in France.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Team English

I figure in order to make some semblance of a picture of my life at Lycée Pierre Larousse it is necessary to talk about “mon équipe” (“my team,” as my group of teachers call themselves in French). I like the name "Team English" because it really justifies the description of this group as a whole; each teacher has their own specialty, like the A Team, the Ninja Turtles, or Power Rangers (and teaching pubescent teenagers oddly feels like physical confrontation at points… but I digress). There is Linda, who is the technology buff, Emanuelle (or Manu), the humorist, Marie, the historian, and Séréna, who is somewhat difficult to classify but if I continue with the Ninja Turtles reference then let’s call her Splinter, the one pulling the strings to make everyone work as a team. Then there’s me of course, the newbie everyone is always going out of their way to save from a merciless clan of French teens.

While I haven’t spent any time outside of school with Linda or Manu, a good deal is spent with Marie or Séréna. The dinner mentioned in my previous post has been one of many that I have been so lucky to be invited to. I also often went to David and Séréna’s house to check my email and Skype in the Dark Ages before I had internet in my room. Needless to say their hospitality has been a huge blessing.

Marie has also been extremely kind in introducing me to this wonderful new region I inhabit. But before I continue, first we must have a little history lesson: Burgundy is a region in France, much like a county in any US state. It’s about 12,000 square miles in size (roughly the geographic size of the Willamette Valley) but has a history that pre-dates Rome. Burgundy has been inhabited by Celts, Romans, Germans, Swiss, Italians, and of course, the French. It was ruled by a once powerful duchy, called the Dukes of Burgundy, who held power over the land from Dijon (current day capital of the region) all the way to the Amsterdam and the North Sea. Mustard aside, the region is also famous for wine, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to be specific. Also, having been inhabited by so many ethnic groups, the gastronomy here is also world renowned. You may have heard of “coq au vin” or “beef bourguignon”? You betcha, invented right here in good ole Burgundy.

It has been from Marie that I have learned so much about this quaint corner of France. Many a weekend has she taken me and Kathi (the German assistant here at the school) for a ride in her car with Sam, a small, yappy dog that I don’t think has ever known the word “no,” to experience the many historical sites easily within a day’s drive. I have already put up pictures of Noyers, Vezelay, and Bazoches, three places Marie has been so kind to show me. Others are sadly unrepresented due to my uncanny ability to forget my camera in the pocket of the coat I decided not to wear that day. Mind you, I only have two coats. So places like St. Fargeau and Geudelon will have to suffice in being described with words until I (hopefully) revisit them before I leave.

Just a quick note, then, on Vezelay and Bazoches to help give the pictures some meaning and attempt to express the rich history belonging to each. Vezelay is a city built on a small mountain that previous popes have declared “the Eternal Hill.” The Second and Third Crusades to recover the Holy Land were launched from this very hill (the Third Crusade being the coalition between King Philip II of France and Richard I of England, or Richard the Lion-Hearted). It is also on the way of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella in Spain. The church at the top of the hill, the Basilica of St. Magdalene, is named so while it is rumored to contain relics of Mary Magdalene. While I find that a bit of a stretch it’s still an amazing place. I like to refer to this basilica as the “mullet church,” or as I titled one of the photos, “business in front, party in back.” The reason being that construction on this church started in the 9th century, when Romanesque buildings were all the rage. In case it’s been a while since your last architecture class, Romanesque is characterized by round arches and thick walls that have little room for frilly things like stained glass windows; very dreary and businesslike, if I may. After centuries of neglect the transept of the basilica collapsed, leaving room for Violet-le-Duc, infamous renovator of the 19th century, to step in and fix things up. Rather than restore what once was, Violet-le-Duc added his own personal taste to this restoration (it was, after all, his money). Thus the transept is in the Gothic style, very gaudy with pointed arches and thinner walls thanks to the invention of flying buttresses, leaving room for colorful stained glass windows. Stoic in front, flamboyant in back, hence the mullet idea. Did you follow all that? Good. The test will be tomorrow.

Bazoches, on the other hand, is a fascinating piece of living history. Why living? Because the direct descendants of the original owners of the castle are still alive, inhabiting the very space as did their ancestors. Formerly, this chateau belonged to Vauban, Louis XIV’s go-to guy. He was a philosopher, strategist, and, most importantly to Louis XIV, the best defensive military engineer of the 17th century. While he spent most of his life traveling from one end of France to the other building city defenses for the vulnerable towns on the borders, his wife and children lived here. What I find most interesting is that families still live there! You walk into a room and see an original painting of Louis XIV from the 17th century hanging above a cherry wood royal desk with gold inlay in the Louis XVI style, upon which is a framed photo from 1990 of a boy learning to ride a bike. It just makes you wonder how that small fraction of royalty still lives today.

Phew! I need to go do some arm stretches or something now from all this typing, but I already have in mind other things to write about and not the least of them being my experience with the local food and *ehem* drink.

Go Team English!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Pimpin' It Out

Alright, I haven't had time to write anything yet but I did spend a couple hours adding photos to my web albums and trying out different gadgets on my blog page.

First, you'll notice the fancy slide show to the right of only the best photos of Toucy (how appropriate). Second, beneath the slide show is a list of links to all my web albums with the most recent at the top. I'm also working on geo-tagging the albums so check that out too in the bottom right hand corner of the actual album page. Obviously there are stories behind each album, stories that will come in time. Till then, enjoy the pictures!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

More Photos

I uploaded some more photos from Picasa to my web albums so here are the links for the photos I took around Toucy and my room, respectively:

I realize the entire month of October went by without a single update and it was by no means uneventful. I'm working on catching up so everyone just put their patient pants on...

You know what they say about first impressions...

It has been awhile since my last post because I have had a plethora of technological difficulties since arriving in Toucy including waiting EIGHT MONTHS for activation, but my WiFi is up and running so here we go:

Even though the train ride is only about two hours from Paris to Toucy, upon arrival I was still a little sweaty from lugging my suitcases through what seemed like miles of the Parisian metro. My correspondent from the high school, Séréna, was waiting at the train station for me and promptly gathered me and my belongings into her car. In the car I realized I was having the hardest time understanding Séréna, which I attributed to my fatigue and only having been in France for less than a week. As it turns out, however, Séréna is from the Netherlands; a Dutch woman living in France and teaching English. How much more international could that get? As I will come to find out, Séréna, David (her husband) and their two children will become my pseudo-host family for this first week of my stay, but more on that later.

We arrive at Lycée Pierre Larousse (“lee-say pea-air la-ruce”) around 4:30pm, my home and workplace for the next seven months. The people here are nuts. To add to the confusion of getting my keys and setting up my room, 4:40 is when all classes end. Keep in mind too that this is a Friday so these kids are out for the weekend. Also, the address for my school is 6, rue des Montagnes (montagne = mountain in French) and they were not kidding. So imagine this: me with two giant suitcases struggling uphill through a torrent of 500 teenagers with me being the only obstacle between them and the weekend. The image that comes to mind is that of the Spanish run from the bulls, except I’m heading straight towards these angry beasts on an incline. Once I get to my room it turns out I have not one key to get in my room, or not even two… There are five locked doors between my bed and the outside world! God forbid I lose even one. After many introductions to the people whom Séréna deems important she lets me get situated in my room and tells me she will be back in a couple hours to pick me up for dinner at their house. I will say one thing, having my own bathroom is AWESOME.

Now I have to talk about dinner with my pseudo-host family as it gave me my first impression of Toucy. David comes to pick me up from the high school and we have a nice chat on the way to their house. He is also an English teacher but not at the high school I work at, but rather another school in the neighboring town of Joigny. David and Séréna do not live in Toucy, but sort of out in the land. Outside of the immediate city limits of Toucy it turns into something I am all too familiar with: farmland. It’s like if Banks was a millennium older and everyone spoke French. David and Séréna live in a slightly renovated farmhouse, which, when I saw it, is one of those I-have-dreamed-about-a-house-like-this-all-my-life houses. The house was built in 1789 in the style of French farmhouses at the time. So there are two buildings, the house and the barn with a perfect garden between the two overlooked by an aged willow tree. The entrance to the garden (and house) goes through a gate, and I mean a real, 20 ft tall, massive, wooden gate. To add to just how cool this house was, Séréna told me that there is a record of Napoléon staying in this house on a trip to the South of France. As the story goes, it was late and the farmer who owned it at the time begged to have the honor of housing the Little General, which was granted. Beautiful and full of history, how could it get better? Well, there was the family. Séréna and David have two kids, 6 year-old Niels and 3-year-old Heidi (nicknamed Dee-Dee). These children are absolutely precious. They both fluently speak French and Dutch and Niels can read German. Heidi loves to draw and color and so before the night was over she drew, colored, and autographed a picture for me, which is currently hanging up above my nightstand. As if the company wasn’t enough, the food was even better. Séréna eats only organic food, so we had a salad with tomatoes, cheese, and olives to start, followed by fresh (and organic) meats from local markets in Toucy, finished off with custard and puddings from an organic sweets shop. There are not enough words in any language to describe the contentment I felt after that meal. I just sat back digesting this heavenly banquet and watched the kids wrestle with their 8 year-old German shepherd, Lous (or “loo-loose”), thinking that this whole integrating into French life thing might not be so bad after all.

It is in a big way thanks to Séréna, David, and family that my first impression of Toucy was overwhelmingly approving. I don’t think that my many “merci!”s could even convey to them the service that had done me. I hope to pay it back to them somehow through these coming seven months.

I’ll try to put up some pictures of Toucy soon, as well as my high school and bedroom!