first snow

Apologies for not writing more often – it’s been difficult to find motivation these past few weeks. Basically, these are the things that have happened in the past month:

  1. I changed host families. I won’t go into detail about that; suffice to say our personalities didn’t really match up in the end, which caused some pretty serious problems. I now live with a family who I think fit much better with me – a single unemployed mother with two children still living at home and three who live not far away.
  2. I moved to the other side of the country. Well, the middle to be exact. The family I am now living with live in Chalais, a lovely little village somewhere between Bordeaux and Angouleme. They own a house in the middle of town, five minutes’ walk from the supermarket and a couple more to the primary school which I now attend.
  3. Christmas. But you probably know that already. I spent it with the new host family, and it was pretty good. I got chocolate (thank you, Santa).
  4. The End of the World. Or lack of. Damn. Maybe I shouldn’t have sold the house to pay for that fancy bunker. I wonder how much tinned beans are worth on the open market these days?
  5. Snow. YES, snow. Hence the sudden blogging enthusiasm. I went to bed last night thinking how cool it would be if it snowed the next morning, and lo and behold, I awoke to that magical frosty loveliness that is snow. It fell overnight, and actually stuck around for most of the day, meaning that school was cancelled (yay!). Unfortunately we didn’t actually see it falling, but I have been assured there will be more to come in late January to February, and perhaps we’ll be lucky enough to get another few days off from school to enjoy winter’s kisses. I’m pretty stoked, as you may have guessed.

Well, that’s a basic overview of my current situation. The house here doesn’t have internet connection, but luckily there’s a delightful little English café just down the road with free wi-fi – they also happen to serve tea and homemade cake (or scones with jam and cream, if they take your fancy). I should also say something about their rooms full of handmade children’s clothing (dinosaur costumes, princess dresses, crusader outfits and flowery toddler aprons – oh my), handmade jewellery, second hand clothing, odd antiques and curios, a small library of English books and handmade English clotted cream fudge. They also have an assortment of other random bits and pieces, and all are lovely. The people who work there are all really kind and always up for a chat when I need some English. Basically, it’s a little island of (relative) normality in this sea of foreign language and culture.

Mentally I’m doing well. I was flagging a bit with the other family but moving has really turned things around. I’ve been enjoying the ability to understand the work we do at school (I’m a couple of years below my actual grade) and actually being talked to at home. I have long conversations with my host mother and sister, and we have a lot in common. I haven’t been missing Australia, despite weekly conversations with family members and friends; I’ll write more about that next week.
Physically it’s a little different. Yes, I have gained weight – which isn’t surprising seeing as I’m in France. Artisanal bakeries on every second corner and a country-wide horror of eating lightly, I would not advise a long stay in this country if you’re looking to lose weight. If not, prepare yourself. You’re gonna have a great time.

I’m looking forward to spending three days in Paris this weekend – which also means I have almost reached the halfway point of my stay here. Five months by February, and still going strong. I also bought a camera today so there should be many pictures next week. Brace yourselves.

I have to go finish packing my suitcase now. One of my new years’ resolutions was to write here more often, which I suppose I’ve almost failed at. I’ll do my best from now on.

bisous xx

courage and kindness

It’s been a while since my last post, mainly because I’ve been occupied with other things. Lately I’ve been writing more than I did in Australia – I should do it more often. I’m good at it, and I love it. I’ve written several poems, a couple of songs – none of them very special. I’m not sure if I’d  be brave enough to put them on the internet; stories are more my thing. Recently I started putting particular thoughts and images I’ve had in my head for years down on paper, and it feels strange. There’s a part of me which wants to discover the hidden path in my head and see where it takes me, but in a way I don’t want to find it. It’s like an exotic bird. Part of the attraction is not understanding it, not knowing what it’ll do or where it’ll go next. It is hidden from you, but you can still hear it singing. If you catch it and write it down, you seal it off forever. It won’t change any more. It won’t be free. I guess I’m afraid that I won’t be able to do it justice. I know what I want it to be, and I won’t be able to forgive myself if I can’t tell it to other people. Maybe I’ll let that bird sing a little longer.

A couple of weeks ago I walked to school. As I walked through the centre of town I decided to take some money out of the ATM for no reason other than to have some in my purse, just in case. When I got close I saw a woman, no more than forty, sitting against the wall a couple of metres away. She was dressed in a worn but clean coat and had a plastic cup and a cardboard sign asking for money. There was a part of myself which wanted to walk away without taking money out just to avoid going near her. That revolted me because I always feel compassion for homeless people regardless of past or present situations. Standing there, I debated whether or not to give her the 20€ note I was holding, but decided not to. I said ‘bonne chance’ to her as I walked past, but the clean new notes in my purse made me feel sick. I looked back as I walked away, feeling awful. Passing a bakery just around the corner reminded me of something that happened when I was younger.
<I was with my father in the city where I grew up and we were approached by an Aboriginal man as we were paying for a parking ticket. It was always my job to push the buttons on the machine. The man was obviously drunk; he was dirty and took up both sides of the footpath in a foot-dragging lurch. He asked for money with his hands cupped in front of him, and my first instinct was to back away. My father stood straight, looked him in the eye, and told him he wouldn’t give him money, but that he would buy him a hot meal if he wanted one. Maybe the man was too out of himself to understand but he swore at us and swaggered away. My father told me that it’s better not to give money to people like that because you don’t know what they’ll spend it on, and it could make things worse for them. Instead, he told me, the most valuable things you can do are to buy them a meal, if you can, and to show kindness. He taught me to always be courteous and compassionate for people in difficult situations like that – you never know what kind of life they’ve led.>
On a whim, I walked into the bakery and bought two croissants. It cost me less than 2€. I walked back around the corner and gave them to the woman, who smiled and gave me nothing but a quiet thank you. I smiled as I walked away. I didn’t look back again.

As I walked to school I thought about that woman. I don’t know who she is. I don’t know her name. I don’t know where she’s from, I don’t know where she’s going. I don’t know where she sleeps at night or who she dreams about. I don’t know why she was wrapped up in a clean, well-worn coat holding a plastic cup and a cardboard sign on a cold Thursday morning, but I know she has more courage than many. How many people do you know would be able to watch every person who walked silently past, just in case they flipped a coin at your feet? Who knows what life she left to sit near that ATM on a cold Thursday morning? If I had half that woman’s courage I would’ve bought ten croissants. A hundred. Heck, I’d’ve bought half the shop.

The thank you she gave me, that small gratitude, left me smiling for the rest of the day. They say you can’t buy happiness, but I’ve never believed it. It’s true, money in itself doesn’t bring real happiness; one little coin bought me a happiness more profound than a sackful of notes could’ve done. The cost of two croissants is nothing to many people, and yet most would walk past a beggar without a glance. It may be nothing to you, but for them it can be the difference between another cold day on the streets and one which might feel a little warmer. So I ask, anyone who is reading this: next time, do them a favour – and don’t expect anything from them in return. Their not being able to repay you is part of what makes it feel so good. You’re doing something kind not because it’s a necessity, but because you can. Because you have the courage, the compassion, the kindness to break through something inside of you and reach out to a total stranger. You might not remember it in a month or a year; you might not miss a small gold and silver coin in your purse. But those tiny things: a croissant from a stranger, a hot drink from someone who walked passed and saw, can stick with a person forever. It’s the littlest things that show who we truly are.

I hope she’s there next week. Maybe I’ll buy her a coffee.

weekend bliss

Well.

Seeing as it’s been nearly a month since my last post, there’s a lot to write about. I still have to upload the pictures I took in Paris, and school probably deserves a post to itself, so I’ll do them later. But first I want to write about the past couple of weekends, because they have been perfect. Every one. Totally amazing. Let me just get a piece of the perfect fresh-baked French bread we had with lunch and I can begin.

I’ll start with the weekend before before the last (that’s two weeks ago), because it’s the first. I spent Saturday being a bum, lazing around the house and generally enjoying my freedom from the craziness of French high school. Sunday, however, was fun. Really fun. It started out pretty normally; sleep in, tasty breakfast and reading for most of the morning (Wuthering Heights: I felt it was time I started on the classics). We had a really long lunch; my host mothers’ parents came over and we had a birthday thing for them, which ended up being over two hours long after we had finished dessert. No complaints here – French food on special occasions? Yep. It’s pretty good. After lunch my host brother and sister (Charles and Victoria) and I went to Charles’s friend’s house. Since my arrival in France I’ve seen some pretty nice houses. This one made them look … lacking. In what, I don’t know, but their house was the most amazing I have ever set foot in. It looks like an old farmhouse from the outside – rough, aged, grey stone exterior. High, dense hedges. Ivy covering the walls. The front gate is huge; old wood with simple iron fittings, set into the high stone wall. Inside the gate there’s a sort of covered courtyard, then an open bit of grass with a really nice pool in the middle. On the other side of the pool there’s an open bit of lawn with a veggie patch and a huge chicken yard, and opposite, a seasonal creek with an awesomely creepy patch of gloomy pine trees on the edge of the property. On the other side of their property they have a huge raspberry vine, a big hazelnut tree and various other fruit trees.The family also owns four cats, some donkeys and a goat. You get the picture. They have a nice house.
So we went to their house after lunch for a few hours to have a swim, but the weather was cool so I got out after a while. After I got dressed I went raspberry picking with Charles’s friend’s mum, Martine, and we picked a huge bowlful of the freshest, sweetest, juiciest, tastiest raspberries I have ever eaten – though the bowl wasn’t as full by the time it got back into the house. After that I picked my first hazelnuts with Martine’s daughter, Salome, and Victoria. There were tons on the ground, many of them chewed through, and they explained that there was a squirrel who regularly came and decimated their crop. They didn’t seem to find it as cute as I did. Next we collected fresh eggs from the chicken hutch and by that time it was starting to get cold, so we went back inside, where we used hammers to crack open the nuts on the kitchen table. Afterwards Martine and I made clafoutis (with the fresh raspberries and eggs, of course) from a French recipe book: my first foreign cooking class! I learnt a lot – some interesting verbs (tamiser – to sift, beurrer – to butter), some nouns (âne/anesse – donkey, écureuil – squirrel), and made three new friends – all of whom happen to be cats. One of them jumped on my lap while we waited for the tart to cook and purred so loudly I wondered that he didn’t choke. We were also joined every few minutes or so by a very inquisitive rooster who wanted to know what was so interesting inside the house, and why he wasn’t allowed in. We eventually had to shut the door in his beak, but he was mollified when Martine gave him some cheese. Who would’ve thought a chicken could be so fond of dairy products?
We took half the tart with us when we went home and had it for dessert. It was pretty good… if I do say so myself. But I suppose that’s French cooking for you.

Last weekend was also about a nine out of ten on the amazingness scale. Saturday was a good day – I talked on the phone to my dad, who was at my brother’s house for his and my sister-in-law’s fifth wedding anniversary, which was nice, then Skyped with my mum later that afternoon. The rest of the day was spent reading my latest novel (To Kill a Mockingbird – I finished it yesterday) and being lazy, two of my favourite pastimes. Sunday lunch was again spent with my host mother’s parents (eating good food) and afterwards Charles and I rode bikes into Bruz and met up with one of his friends. They told me we were going to see the pony club (I’m a self-proclaimed horse fanatic), and maybe ride around Bruz a bit afterwards, but we ended up spending quite a while riding around the club grounds: there were heaps of bike trails with these cool little clearings and odd paddocks hidden away. I thought we were only going for an hour or so, but we ended up spending about two and a half riding around the area. I got my first real look at the countryside, and it was amazing. We spent a while exploring the pony club, then we rode out and followed the river to this huge open field with a gravel track running through it, and from there we got back onto the road and followed it home. Unfortunately I didn’t get any pictures, but riding bikes through the open yellow fields, passing white stuccoed farmhouses and the odd cow or two – it felt very French.

It’s funny: at the end of every week I think to myself, ‘life cannot possibly get better than this,’ and every week I prove myself wrong. I wonder what the next nine months will bring!

elly xx

the adventure begins…

Have you ever been to another country?

I have.

Ever tried to learn another language?

I’ve done that too.

Ever done something so crazy, so extreme, so fantastically different, that the whole time your head is telling you, “This is insane. I’m insane. What was I thinking?” your heart is saying, “This is the most brilliant thing I’ve ever done. Bring on the adventure!”

Well, I’m proud to say that as of six days ago, I can tick that box as well. Last Thursday I left my country, comfort zone and my head back in Adelaide, Australia and flew two days and an ocean away to France for a many-month long cultural exchange program that will leave me worldly, bilingual and even more clinically insanerer than I have been for the past fifteen-and-a-half years.

I’m guessing the majority of people won’t have committed to spend almost a year of their lives in a different family, school and culture 16,454.3kms from everything familiar (not that I’m complaining, because I’d never have signed up if I wasn’t totally sure I could handle it), so those people please note: it is not for the fainthearted. It can mean hard work, embarrassment, people talking to you like you’re four years old (literally), teachers who don’t speak your language putting you on the spot in class, constant headaches, feeling tired all the time, and feeling like you’re totally useless in the world; but the positives outweigh the negatives a million times over. I know that after only four days here, and it’s only gonna get better.

I’ve been lucky enough to be placed with a good family: they’re kind, generous and willing to help me learn. They’re fixing up a French farmhouse amongst plenty of horse pastures. There’s a cornfield, a river and a tiny bit of forest just down the road. And they have those fantastic taps which come on when you wave your hands underneath them (I had a lot of fun with those). I go to a good school with my host brother and sister, my teachers are, for the most part, very helpful and don’t expect too much, and my classmates are friendly (and very, very funny when they try to speak English).

The food here is amazing: I had my first croissant a couple of days ago with homemade redcurrant & raspberry jam and coffee for breakfast and I think I died a little bit. Cheese is a separate course here, eaten after dinner, and that in itself has been an adventure – a thoroughly enjoyable one. French cheese… yum.

All in all, I’m pretty sure I’m the luckiest damn person on the planet.

These next months will be difficult, exhausting, and quite possibly the best of my life.

So I say to all you people in the world doing the same things you’ve done for however long you’ve done them…

Bring on the adventure!

elly xx