Friday, December 10, 2010

Paris & Strasbourg

So I've had a pretty good few weeks and its all going well although I think all the assistants are looking forward to a rest and most of us get to return home. This past week I took 2 trips out of Reims. Last Saturday, I alongwith several other assistants went to Paris for the day taking advantage of the proximity & high speed rail to go and spend a day there sightseeing, shopping or meeting other hands. I had gone primarily to see one of my very good friends who was visiting from Italy & celebrating her 21st. It snowed quite a lot whilst we were there and I have to say the weather wasn't great but highlights of the day included a walk down the Champs Elysée including going stores like Louis Vuitton & Cartier & going to La Durée. La Durée is a famous macaroons, cakes & pastries store founded in 1862. It was lovely & the macaroons were delicious although expensive. I also met up with friends from Bristol & went to the Sacré Coeur which is my favourite religious building in France (perhaps in the world).

The day, however wasn't successful for all. Unfortunately one of the other assistants was pickpocketed on the Paris metro & lost some money and her cards etc. I felt really bad for her especially as I lost my camera just before the October holidays so know exactly how she feels. Nevertheless it was a nice day & it was great to escape Reims for the day.

I also went to Strasbourg on Wednesday to do the wonderful christmas markets known as the best in the world! The tickets were considerably cheaper thanks to 'prems' which are special, non refundable tickets which occasionally come out. I'm glad I went and felt I used my day off wisely as I normally sleep in till late, do very little and then go to the pub on Wednesdays. Overall a great day was had. Strasbourg is a really cosmopolitan city with both a very German & European feel to it. It has a very interesting past and present & its Cathedral is very very impressive. The Christmas markets are huge & it takes a really long time to cover all of them. Some of the markets are really good, others are more clichés; having the same, old tacky stuff. The food is amazing - we went to a traditional Alsatian restaurant where I had a pigs head & snails- I felt very French!! The weather however was absolutely terrible. It poured down all day so I had to buy an umbrella although I brought a EU brolly which looks pretty awesome. Also there were delays on the way back due to snow in Reims so I had to wait at Champagne Ardenne station for around an hour and a half. Despite the weather, I had a great time & it was lovely to get out of Reims & explore a new city.

Typical Strasbourg Marché de Noël

La Cathédrale de Strasbourg

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Things I've learnt and discovered since coming to France

1. The novelty of drinking champagne hasn't quite worn off. I expected the novelty to wear off within a few weeks but I still love tasting & buying the stuff. I also very much enjoy  going to the champagne houses in the region and hope to do more in the new year.

2. Beer and wine is often cheaper in restaurants than soft drinks - this would probably be against the law in the UK?

3. Everything is more expensive in France except beer, wine and bread. Of course being in the champagne region, champagne is marginally cheaper.

4.French McDonalds are so much more sophisticated than any other McDonalds that I've been to. You can get a real cup of tea served in a pot. But there is more security there so you can't just nip to the loo as I've often done in Croydon- a man stands on the staircase checking if people have purchased food.

5. The French are extremely bureaucratic. They love their forms. At the bank, everytime you go to sign something you have to write - lu et approuvé meaning read and approved!

6. France is a socialist country. President Obama would be seen as far-right by many French people. The only thing in which the UK is more socialist is when it comes to the healthcare system & that is probably a good thing!

7. French drivers are the worst I've ever seen after Indians!

8. You have to "composter" your bus or train ticket. The act of composting means to validate, punch or stamp your ticket through a machine. No one checks on the buses & you can simply get away without buying a ticket. The public transport system, however is much better than in the UK.

9. First class seating on trains can often be cheaper than second class or only 1 or 2€ expensive.

10. I've gotten used to having the Euro as my currency but it has confirmed to me that I do not want it in the UK.

11. I don't want to be a teacher!

12. I find it very uncomfortable when intelligent, polite kids call me "Monsieur" at school. When the nasty ones calls me "Monsieur", I love it and refuse to correct them.

13. French classrooms are much more backwards than English ones - many of them still have blackboards & none of them have interactive whiteboards.

14. Who to call "Tu" & "Vous" - the French words for you, the former being informal & the latter being more formal still confuses me. I sometimes say "vous" to both my students & to teachers who have already told me to say "tu" to them.

15. French studio kitchens are not cooking-friendly. No oven & no microwave!

16. My favourite French word is  'un coquelicot' meaning poppy. My second favourite is 'un pamplemousse' meaning grapefruit.

17. Everything is shut on a Sunday except the laundrette & McDonalds.

18. That Christmas markets are wonderful with lights, food, mulled wine and other various bits and bobs. The only thing I don't like is the fact they use real animals and they aren't treated very well, for example the donkey and sheep do not have enough space to move around and are not given adequate water.

19. I have made some amazing friends here!

20. I love my vie française!

Monday, November 15, 2010

What a wonderful weekend & Why I don't miss England

After a few down days for various different reasons, I had a wonderful weekend with wonderful people! There was a wine festival at the Parc des Expositions, around 15 minutes by bus from the centre of Reims. I had gone there at the beginning of this year abroad for a chocolate festival so I loved and we managed to get free tickets so off we went on the bus! I have to say it was AMAZING and probably the best activity I've done since I got here. There were literally hundreds of wine stalls selling thousands of different bottles and giving free samples so if you really wanted to, you could easily get very drunk.

It was so overwhelming and we didn't cover all of it - its almost impossible but we did try lots of amazing wines but I quickly decided that I had to go back on Sunday to actually buy wine so I returned two days later. I decided that on the Sunday, I wouldn't try very many so I could concentrate on buying but I have to say I did get a bit merry! I ended up buying 3 bottles - a Medoc red from Bordeaux, an Alsace white wine called Gewurztraminer and a champagne! I'm hoping to take at least 2 home for Christmas. The festival was really good & I learnt so much about French wine including new vocab!

On Saturday, I went with another assistant and her 2 friends to Epernay to see other assistants who we had met at the stage & go to Moet & Chandon. I had been with my parents already but this time did the French tour. It was ok but I much preferred the English tour that I did previously and felt it was more comprehensive. I was however pleased with the knowledge I have acquired since arriving here and asked the tour guide some questions in French! It was a pleasant day and lovely to catch up with everyone in Epernay!

This time next month I will be getting ready to go back to England for the Christmas holidays. Personally I have mixed feelings about going back. On one hand, I am looking forward to going back to see family and friends and celebrate Christmas. I'm looking forward to having fast internet, reading British newspapers & eating lots of great food! I am really not missing England though despite a few small things that I can live without (Eastenders for example!) Of course I miss my friends and family but again its very easy to keep in touch and everyone leads very busy lives anyway.

I think this whole experience has confirmed to me what I knew before- that I don't really want to live in the UK forever and ever. I don't miss England because back home I always feel that I'm on a treadmill, leading  busy life with something to do everyday and I get little time to relax. On the other hand, in France the way of life is so much more relaxed and people seem to have more time for you. Whilst Britain is the 25th happiest place in the world behind Lithuania and Uruguay, France is the happiest country in the world to live in according to a recent survey. And France has come top for the last 5 years and to be honest I'm not surprised. The French really chill out and enjoy their  lives whilst retaining family values. They are much more cultured than the Brits, have an excellent healthcare system and a pretty good state education system too. And they have excellent food and drink!

I'm not saying France is a perfect country but I can see why people are so happy here!

Well that's all for me now but I will be back soon!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Armistice Day

Today is Armistice Day and is a public holiday in France so no school for me! To me its a great thing that its a public holiday as it gives us the opportunity to pay our respects to those that fought for our countries, for making the world a better place. We also remember those fighting today to free the world of terror & ensure democracy all over the world. Whatever your opinions on various wars are, today is the one day where we should forget our differences and remember those who were killed & to those who are prepared to put their life at risk for their country.

I decided to go and witness the local Armistice Day memorial ceremony and we arrived in time for 11am. I have to admit I was a little bit disappointed by the ceremony. At the UK ones that I have attended, the national anthem is sung, hymns and prayers are carried out and someone usually gives a reading. I find the British memorial services so much more moving and personal. My concern with the French one was that it was impersonal. There were no readings, just a short speech about the event. It also didn't help that we got there very early and had to stand out in the cold for a long time but I'm glad I went. It felt right to go and pay my respects, witness a French ceremony and I met some lovely French people with whom I chatted to. I also got to see the Mayor of Reims, Adeline Hazan who I have since read is a finalist for the World Mayor Prize!

It was also strange not wearing a poppy this year but I have now learnt the French word for poppy - un coquelicot which has now become my favourite French word!

In other news - I have had a nice couple of days relaxing and spending time with my friends here. This weekend, we are thinking of escaping Reims and perhaps going to Epernay to enjoy some fine champagne.

To end, I wanted to post an American poem which I hadn't heard of until today - its very inspiring!

It’s the Soldier, not the reporter,
Who has given us the freedom of the press.

It’s the Soldier, not the poet, 
Who has given us the freedom of speech.

It’s the Soldier, not the politicians, 
Who ensures our right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

It’s the Soldier who salutes the flag, 
Who serves beneath the flag, 
And whose coffin is draped by the flag.

God bless them all. 

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The joys & woes of teaching

Its been a hard couple of days. I'm now teaching on my own and I have mixed feelings about it although I'm pretty optimistic that I will warm to it fully. I've had some really fantastic classes - classes with pupils who are intelligent, passionate about the subject & eager to learn more! When I have these classes, I feel proud that these young adults are the future of this country- they really deserve to do well in their studies. Today I did American politics with one of these classes discussing various key issues from immigration to healthcare to the death penalty. The pupils had very interesting opinions and it was great to discuss it with them.

On the other hand, I've had classes which have not been so successful where the kids have shown no real desire to learn English & look bored. Some of them often talk in French to themselves and refuse to contribute to group discussions. This annoys me because they are going to benefit by having the assistant & everyone knows that English is a necessity in today's world and that without it you really can't be successful. I've had to use discipline a couple of times already - something which I don't particularly want to do. But I don't want to be seen as a push over who can't control a class!

One thing I'm finding hard is the size classes. I usually get classes of around 14 people which is too much in my opinion. I think it would be far better to have smaller groups like I was lucky to have at school with my French assistants.

Other aspects of school life are annoying me too. For the best part, the teachers are warm & welcoming. I've received dinner invitations and teachers have approached me for my advice with English, for example. This has been great and this is a big reason why I'm enjoying my stay in France. The English teachers in particular are awesome. However on the other hand, I've found some teachers to show a complete lack of interest in me, barely say bonjour and probably see me as the assistant who is only going to be here for one year. I sometimes eat in the school canteen but have become rather put off as it is always the same teachers there who always sit together, gossip but never really welcome me and ask me how I'm getting on etc. This always puts a downer on my day because I want to practice my French with them and get to know some more people. My eyes always light up when I see teachers I like in there!

I also find the canteen staff really petty too! Today a friend came to visit me at the canteen and I had the intention of paying for both of us with my id card but the card wouldn't work as I had used it once. I then asked them to take me name and they could take the money off the system but they refused and made me go all the way to the administration office to sort it out with them and get a permission slip. I feel that they treated me a bit like a naughty student & they wasted my time. As payback I took extra food!

But I'm glad I'm a teaching assistant & not working or at university and I'm glad to be in Reims at a pretty good  school academically rather than in a smallish town in a difficult school perhaps! I also only have to work 12 hours a week and get a nice little salary! I'm not missing England either which is great. The year abroad so far has confirmed my desire to live abroad on a more permanent basis.

Sorry for today's rant - its been a tiring day!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Midterm elections

This week has been an interesting week politics wise because of the midterm elections - an event I always look forward to. I know this isn't strictly a politics blog but as a keen enthusiast of American politics, I felt it appropriate to blog about the midterms. Occasionally I will blog about something political but it will mainly be about my experiences in France.

This was the first election since I began following American politics where I endorsed neither party. I felt I couldn't endorse the Democrats because they've done very little in Congress during the last 4 years, were absolutely disgraceful in their treatment of Hillary Clinton during the primaries, weren't bipartisan despite promising to be so & weren't vigorous enough on key political issues like healthcare. On  the other hand, the Republicans haven't offered a viable, appropriate alternative, have no positive vision for the country & I still disagree with them on several key issues. So the verdict the American people gave, I believe was.... appropriate! They gave Obama a thumping which he rightly deserved in  the House but it wasn't an enthusiastic endorsement of the Republican Party either. I believe that the Republicans could have taken the Senate too, had they selected more moderate candidates.I'm hoping that by losing the House, it will encourage the president to work more closely with & cooperate with the Republicans to ensure the best compromises for America. Lets hope its like 1994!

The Tea Party movement really did do terribly. They tried to put some very interesting and particularly women candidates to try and capture the women's vote but failed miserably. Tea Party darlings like Sharon Angle, Carly Fiorina & of course the infamous Christine O'Donnell all failed in their attempts to get into the Senate despite the former 2 running against very unpopular incumbents. Sarah Palin thinks it was a great night for her & her movement but the Republican Party desperately needs to find a more moderate candidate to present to the electorate in 2012. If I had to put money on the presidential election right now, I predict that President Obama will be re-elected by a comfortable margin, possibly even a landslide.

I was particularly thrilled to see that Nikki Haley was elected Governor of South Carolina. She's an Indian-American whose parents hail from Amritsar and is actually orignally from my ancestral village Pandori Ran Singh. Her family's story is incredibly inspirational and gives me hope in the UK that perhaps one day an ethnic minority could become Prime Minister. Although I disagree with Governor-elect Haley on a number of issues, her victory is a win for Indians overseas & I wish her all the very best of luck!

So now we start looking towards 2012- thats all from me today,  I promise to blog soon about ma vie française!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Les vacances de la Toussaint!

Sorry I haven't been very active recently. Its currently les vacances de la Toussaint which is the All Saints Holiday so I've had just under 2 weeks of holiday. It has been a wonderful break and I've been travelling with my friend Paddy. We went to Luxembourg, Trier Germany, Brussels & Bruges! I had such a great time & was nice to get away from France and see a few new places. 

Me in Luxembourg 

Our adventure started in Reims where Paddy arrived at 9am last Tuesday. We went to the Cathedral & went to the Pommery champagne house before going out for drinks in the evening in Place d'Erlon - our town centre. We then had an early start the next morning for the train to Luxembourg. Neither of us knew particularly much about Luxembourg and wanted to go there because its probably the most random EU country & just wanted to tell people we have been there. It was a very charming, pictoresque country and moBst things are very expensive with the exception of cigarettes due to low taxes on them! But it was nice to take the beautiful scenery in, visit some of the sights there & see some delightful architecture.

The next day we took a train to Trier in Germany. Its only 45 minutes away and is best known as being the oldest city in Germany & the birth place of Karl Marx. We wondered around this wonderful city - it truly is something special & I would definitely recommend a visit! We also bumped into my friend Emily & her family who were doing a similar tour to us. The food and drink in Germany is incredible. We tried the local delights of Bratwurst - a German sausage Glühwein - a warm white wine! It was nice to be able to visit Germany for the first time & I will definitely be making a return soon. 

After spending the night in our hostel in Luxembourg; we took the train to Brussels. Brussels holds a very special place in my heart as 3 years ago I went there & undertook work experience at the EU Parliament. Brussels has since become one of  my favourite European cities, for its Europeaness; its delightful beer, food & of course chocolate. Walking along the streets of Brussels brought back lots of memories & I was especially glad to see the European Parliament again. However extreme tiredness meant that we didn't experience the Brussels nightlife centred around the Grand Place & instead went to bed early.

The next day we took a train to Bruges- a city probably best known as the capital of chocolate & for the movie In Bruges. Paddy had wanted to go specifically for the latter reason & I was more inclined to go for  the chocolate! Bruges, I have to say Bruges was incredible & may perhaps be my favourite EU city at this moment in time! We climbed up the Belfry of Bruges, a medieval bell tower which was a central feature of the movie In Bruges! It was funny as at the top of the building people had written quotes from the movie. We also went to the Basilica of the Holy Blood, a beautiful church which houses a vial of Jesus Christ's blood. We also tried the beers; including one called De Garre that is only sold in one old fashioned, backstreet pub! And we went to a lovely restaurant where we had the traditional Mussels and Fries & then to a pub that sells over 400 different types of beer- a great way to end a great trip!

We met some interesting people travelling too including an American guy who had been travelling round Europe for 3 months, an Australian lady visiting Bruges following a business trip & 2 fellow teaching assistants from Lille & Dijon doing a bit of travelling round Belgium.

One of my aims in life is to visit every EU country & I'm glad to have added another 2 to my list in a space of 6 days. I'm pleased to be back in Reims now- back to the comfort of my own bed. I've been feeling a little drained out and definitely need to rest but this wasn't helped by me wanting to watch the US midterm election results but I will blog about those later!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The pros & the cons of France so far

The year abroad for everyone is bound to have ups & downs & its certainly been exactly the same experience for me. There are some days when I'm so happy to be here, willing to integrate with everyone & practice my French & then there are other days where all I want to do is sit in my room and catch-up on British tv, not speak French & criticise everything thats wrong with this country!

So what have I enjoyed so far: Well the school that I'm teaching in has been very friendly & most of the teachers always ask me how I'm doing & some even want to learn English from me & insist on talking to me in English in the staff room. Most of the teachers here are so polite & bonjours and ça va's are always exchanged in the staff room. The English teachers especially seem geniunely happy to have me here and don't see me as a burden, for example I've been asked to help a teacher with her English, asked to help the students with Model UN & have been invited for drinks/dinners by various teachers.

The foreign language assistants too in the area have been so friendly & I hope to have made some friends for life out of this experience. We are a group all in the same boat & especially when you are down, it is nice to spend time with them.The city too is beautiful & although it wasn't my first choice, I'm pleased I'm in Reims now as opposed to some dumpy area in the middle of no where! I also love the food, the pattiseries, the fresh bread! Having said that lots of it is soooooo expensive that I haven't really been as adventerous as I want to be!

But what have I disliked about being in France- The bureaucracy here is too too much. I must have signed more forms in 4 weeks than I have in my whole life. France doesn't need to raise its retirement age, it needs to cut all the bureaucracy & red tape - that would save millions of euros in my opinion! The strikes have been a massive inconvenience. For those of you who don't know, the French government is planning to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. I don't have a strong opinion on the issue but it seems to be the sensible thing to do in order to save money & help France's economy, however the majority of French people are so angry about this issue and have taken to the streets. There has even been violence in many parts of the country even involving school children. When I went to witness the strikes last week, there were people from all walks of life there including pupils from my school & teachers! Whilst I love seeing people engaging & partipating in political activities, the strikes have become an inconvenience for travellers & they are not going to change a thing because the law will be passed! But the strikes are a part of French culture so I better get used to it!

French people can be unfriendly although for the best part they are lovely, warm people. However, I have had one or two experiences in shops with French people who have been rude to me and classified me as a foreigner. But I'm not going to let one or two people give their country a bad name & ruin my year abroad!

Crossing the road here is a nightmare too!

For those of you who know me, I like a good moan about England & always say how I want to live abroad, I have to admit there are some things in England I take for granted & I'm going to appreciate them a lot more when I return home: these include easy access to fresh milk, good mobile phone contracts, cheaper calls abroad, a good old Indian curry & cheaper things!

However on the whole, having lived abroad for nearly a month now, I'm glad to have the opportunity to spend some time away from the UK & would like to live abroad in the future and who knows maybe in France!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Year abroad so far!

I've been meaning to write a blog for some time now but still hadn't gotten round to doing it. I'm Samir and I'm a third year Politics & French student at the University of Bristol. I am currently working as a teaching assistant in Reims. I only work 12 hours a week so there's plenty of time to doss around & experience French life to the max! I've been in France for 3 weeks now & am absolutely loving it. Every experience has its positives & negatives and I've definitely experienced good days & bad days on the year abroad so far.

So where to start- Reims is a great city & its only an hour away from Paris on the train. Its in the Champagne-Ardenne region of France & has a population of nearly 200,000. I consider it to be fairly small as its smaller than both Croydon my hometown & Bristol where I've been living and studying the last 2 years. Its an important city in France as its where champagne is made & its cathedral is where the French kings were crowned. In addition, it is where Nazi Germany surrendered the war. There is a fair amount to do here too which is good & I'm hoping to keep busy as I don't work very much.

I'm teaching in a lycée called Jean Jaurès named after a socialist leader assassinated during the First World War. Its a pretty nice school and is known as one of the better schools in the area. It has an internat which is like a boarding house but its for girls only although boys also attend the school. The teachers here are very friendly & welcoming and I have to admit I'm very happy here so far. So far I've been to almost every English class to introduce myself & answer questions about myself, UK life. Its been a bit repetive but I've been asked all sorts of questions from 'Do you like football?' to 'What is your view of the special relationship between the United States & the UK?' The students here seem very well behaved and geniunely interested in learning & improving English.I'm living in a studio flat on the 5th floor of the boarding house. Its a pretty big room with a little kitchen & a bathroom. The room looks a bit bare at the moment but I'm sure it will look cozy when I've put pictures and all up!

The training itself for the job was rather boring & I don't think I gained very much from it but I had the opportunity to meet lots of other assistants from all over the world. The training was for assistants from all over the academie. Our academie includes schools near the Belgian border and ends near Dijon so its quite large. I've made assistant friends from all over the world including the UK, the US, Germany, Spain & even my native India! It was nice to meet so many great people & we went out in the evenings and I've had the opportunity to get to know many of them since.

So far I've been to the cathedral twice, been to the Moet & Chardon champagne house in Epernay which was an awesome tour! I also went to a chocolate exhibition in the city which was fantastique although I spent so much money on random items of chocolate. This last weekend I went to Paris to meet friends and relax & see some of the city so I feel I've done a good amount so far! We also have our October half term holidays coming up known as the Toussaint Vacances and I'm planning to visit Luxembourg & Belgium with a friend from university. I'm very much looking forward to a bit of a break & an opportunity to travel.

That's all for now but I will write soon!