Two years ago

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On April 30, 2013, my seven-month contract with TAPIF came to a close. I stayed up late the night before and baked snickerdoodle cookies for my 200+ students; even on my last day, I couldn’t help but subject my students to pronouncing just one more funny word for my pleasure. I spent a quick weekend in Nantes, and then it was a jam-packed couple of days as my parents arrived from across the sea, I packed up my apartment in Périgueux, and said goodbye to all the people I had met since October. Neat and tidy it was not.

I was, and still am, very nostalgic for the year that I was an English assistant. I loved the life that I created for myself there, I loved the people that I worked with, and then the calendar flipped over to May and TA-POOF! It was gone.

(Ne vous inquiétez pas, I have absolutely found my footing since then and am loving my life stateside.)

In the first couple weeks stripped of my assistante d’anglais badge and back in my civilian clothes, I strung together some clips that I filmed throughout the region – commemorating the faces, places, moments, routines, and meals. I have not been back to France since then, but when I get around to watching this video, two or three times a year, I am transported back to my ole Rivière de l’Isle home in the Dordogne. How very Périgood it all was!

Featuring the music of Thomas Fersen (« Le bal des oiseaux » version ukulélé), and the canoe-paddling of une Australienne incomparable.

I seem to like making little videos like these, because I just remembered that I made one when I left Nantes, too! Check it out!

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Oui, oui Nontron!

Bienvenue à Nontron! Capital city of the Périgord vert – green because of its abundant oak and chestnut trees and due to its location within the Parc Naturel Régional Périgord-Limousin and Massif Central. It is home to one of the most famous knife forgery in France, but more importantly, it is home to some of the sweetest students in the whole of the Académie de Bordeaux. And that’s why I was there, invited to teach English with TAPIF. I gave an enthusiastic oui and tried in vain to get a glimpse at what life in this secluded community would be like. Today of course, Google Maps allows any Monsieur or Madame Tout-le-monde to tour Nontron’s streets remotely, but in October 2012, my arrival was more akin to an alien landing (moi, l’extraterrestre et l’étrangère en même temps).

What odd cathedral-like pointy spires! What flat, paved areas, perfect for driving! And what a peculiar balance of sky to land! How foreign it all was…

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Happily situated in the Dordogne, I often found myself with periods of free time between classes, long enough for me to walk down into town for a sablé aux noix or a brioche suisse (or both), and a cup of coffee. It is a sleepy little town, but sure enough people live here and work here and study here and grow here.

Nontron’s streets are narrow, its roads quiet, and I may never have had the chance to get to know it had it not been for a bit of luck and a pair of restless legs. And I’ll reiterate: I regularly had four hours to kill in the middle of the day. Good thing I like walking.

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The first view of town arriving from the south via the D675 is of the Pont du Général Leclerc; make a sharp turn to take it into “downtown” Nontron, but take a moment to appreciate a few (or all?) of the sites:

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Monument dédié aux morts de Nontron;

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Monument à Camille Chabaneau – a Nontron-born, Occitan-speaking philologist and member of the Académie Française;

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La Coutellerie Nontronnaise – a 15th century knife forgery, said to be home of the folding pocket knife. I hear that the annual Fête du Couteau is an absolute gash – I mean bash!

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The bridge steers you onto the Rue de Verdun, Nontron’s veritable “Main Street USA,” where you’ll cruise at a speedy 20km/h by the cinema, the post office, the office of tourism, la Maison des Beaux-Arts et sa jardin, and le Château de Nontron – my favorite spot to take lunch, catch my breath, and laugh at student graffiti making bold and false proclamations like “smoke weed every day” (yeah, yeah sure).

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Continue along and you’ll reach Place Alfred-Agard, lined with cafés, a bakery, town hall, a pharmacy, a knife store (Couteaux à gogo?), a tabac or two – vous voyez le tableau, hein? A perfectly normal French town. Plus knives!

Winding roads spur off from the main square but soon enough the houses and pavement disappears and a national park swallows you up. That’s when you check your watch and realize that fifteen lycéens will be waiting for you in as many minutes. En voiture, Simone!!

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It would be amiss of me to not mention the oddest of the town’s traditions: La mascarade des Soufflaculs de Nontron. That translates roughly to a festival of “ass-blowers” who are traditionally male, and mischievously run through town with bellows, trying to blow air under the bloomers of jolies dames, said to signifie the beginning of springtime. Today, Nontronnais of all ages and genders participate, some sardines appear to be paraded around, and a pointy-nosed totem is set ablaze, Burning Man-style. For a more nuanced description of the event, see le Ministère de la culture.

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For a final glimpse before heading out, make the walk to the pedestrian bridge at the southern side of town for sweeping views of Nontron, whose streets and valley I now know by heart. Its name may not grace the pages of travel books, but I will proudly try to pronounce it and its many alveolar nasals pour toujours et à jamais!

Avec souci? pt.4 TAPIF & Expectations

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Souci nº4: I will be disappointed.

Well aren’t you a pisse-vinaigre! But you make a good point – it’s true, you could be disappointed. For once please excuse my French, but c’est la vie. Feeling short-changed, let down, cheated…it’s normal, and it even happened to me.

But it didn’t define my experience as an English assistant with TAPIF. By now, if you know anything about the town of Nontron, it’s because I have written extensively about just how in the middle of nowhere it is. And when I first got my arrêté de nomination, that’s all I knew about it. In the months prior to the start of my contract I spent an unfortunate amount of time worrying – based entirely off of one puny piece of information!

Here’s what my arrêté didn’t tell me:

  • Nontron is located in one of the most scenic departments of France;
  • Teachers in Nontron are extremely supportive;
  • Students in Nontron are (generally) very engaged and curious learners;
  • School administration in Nontron is sympathetic to the language assistant experience;
  • The Nontronnais and Périgourdins will go out of their way to welcome you into their community.

Of course, I can only speak to my own experience. I have known assistants who could not say that one or any of the above comments were true of their assistantship, so I feel lucky to have spent my year teaching in Nontron. Even without comparison to the horror stories recounted by other assistants, I feel fortunate to have had my particular placement. But it certainly wasn’t lacking for challenges.

It is a mistake to anticipate a transition to life in France where you find yourself free of needing to wait in lines or fill out paperwork; where information you are given by one individual will match what you or your friend is told at another moment; where you expect to always feel welcomed by the French aux bras grands ouverts – unfortunately, I don’t believe that is what Robespierre meant by “liberté, égalité, fraternité.”

Even when it gets frustrating, remember why you’re there: TAPIF is a chance to impact the lives of French students by exposing them to linguistic possibilities outside the prescriptive walls of the Académie Française. Do not confuse it with a vacation or study abroad; you are there because you agreed to perform a job, and luckily it’s one that has the potential to be fun and rewarding – in fact, with plenty of time for travel. To top it all off, you can call France home for a year and earn enough euros for a morning croissant and a roof over your head.

So why worry? Things like finding a place to live or opening a bank account may indeed be difficult; the temperaments of your students or the location of your placement may not be ideal, but that is precisely the reason why you applied to TAPIF. Part of its charm is that you very well may end up in the center of Bordeaux, or in a bucolic locale where cows outnumber humans and transit by tractors is de rigueur. Other than the fact that you’ll be somewhere in France and theoretically giving English lessons a few times a week, the rest is up in the air and that is why the opportunity is so special. The Frenchy “powers that be” may seem cruel and unrelenting, but learning how to handle situations like these will make the experience valuable.

So spread your wings and fly little bird, il faut que tu t’envoles du nid! Do not worry about disappointment; focus instead on buying a plane ticket and counting down the days until you can use it. You cannot possibly predict all that is to happen in the year to come. Some moments will be tough, bien entendu, but so many more will be beautiful in ways that you would never expect. On verra bien !

Souci nº1 │Souci nº2 │ Souci nº3

Un vœu

Please allow me to break my months-long blog silence to compose a personal letter to one of my favourite people.  For her sake, I have chosen to include that silly ‘u’ that commonwealth folk like herself seem to “fancy.”  But only because it is her birthday.

Ceci étant dit, Happy Birthday Rosie!

Of all the tiny towns, in all the Dordogne, in all of France, I am so glad you walked into mine – or rather, that we walked into the same one.  Though while we’re clearly alluding to gin-joints, dollface, I do hope that you manage to celebrate with un verre or douze.  Wishing so much that I could be in whatever posh London watering hole is right-this-moment refusing to serve you any more St. Emilion (surely you’ve sprung for the fancy stuff; Château Pavie, peut-être?).  Regretting not baring witness to your most newly acquired article of cat-themed apparel that you’re undoubtably sporting tonight, but hoping that it will not be long until we are at long last réunie!

You are an amazing friend, whose cheer, humor and insight I can’t help but miss each and every day.  May the next year of your life bring you all the gastronomic, exotic, and feline delights that you so very much deserve.  And maybe Hugh Jackman will star in a movie where his shirt needs to stay off all of the time.  Just for you, ma belle.

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At the Livre Gourmand in Périgueux.

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In Arcachon, on the way to La Dune du Pyla.

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Posing like jaunty cats in Collonges-la-Rouge.

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A lovely afternoon in Saint-Jean-de-Côle.

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Losing our minds in Brantôme.

Gros bisous, Sarah

Avec souci? pt.3 TAPIF & Travel

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Souci nº3: I will be stuck.

My hunch is that fresh-faced would-be assistants who take the time to apply to Tapif, brave the lines and attitudes at the French Consulate, do so primarily out of a desire to travel – to see France, and to explore a little bit more of the world.  Teaching English may seem like a fun and enriching experience, though at 12 hours of work a week, it’s easy to dream about how to spend all that lovely time outside of the classroom.  But then you get placed in a town that’s barely on the map and you start to wonder if any of the grand adventures you’ve imagined are even doable…

Pour ne pas édulcorer la vérité, one could very easily get stuck in Nontron.  Smaller périgordin towns like La Douze (pop. 1,018), Douzillac (pop. 809), and Limeyrat (pop. 450), all have train stations with daily service, but not dear old Nontron, who hasn’t seen a passenger roll into town since 1946.  The nearest gare SNCF is in Thiviers, a forty minute drive from Nontron, on the Périgueux-Limoges line.  Bus service does exist but is limited and not particularly useful for assistants, despite being primarily a “ramassage scolaire.”  Monday to Friday there is one bus a day: in the early mornings it makes the trip from Nontron to Périgueux, picking up those returning to Nontron in the evening.  C’est-à-dire, c’est parfaitement à l’envers.  As for the weekends, sacré veinard: aucun bus!

However, the good news is that one can also become unstuck – it just takes a bit of elbow nudging and a lot of flexibility.  As I have mentioned, teachers and staff at my school would often invite me over for lunch or dinner, but almost as frequently, they would offer to include me in on their travel plans, letting me know where they were headed and if I would like to join. You’d be surprised how easy it is to catch a ride to nearby Bergerac or Sarlat-la-Canéda, as well as trips farther west to Bordeaux and east into neighboring Limousin and Midi-Pyrenees.  Though, if you can corner someone into letting you tag along to Périgueux (not much of a feat, as many teachers live there), you’ll find that it is a good starting point for both local and more expansive travel.

Case in point: during my stint as an assistant in Nontron, I was able to make several trips to Bordeaux, hike in Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park, follow Hemingway’s footsteps in Pamplona, get sand in my pants at La Dune du Pyla, and even spend a nostalgic weekend up in Nantes.  Not to mention many short jaunts into the paysage of the Dordogne, a two-week trip to Portugal, and an extended stay on the Croatian coast – soon to be recounted here, je vous jure!

It will take some ingenuity and perhaps some strategic mingling in the salle des profs, but travel for a language assistant in Nontron does not need to be limited to trips down to the Super-U and back.

Of course, a car can ease a lot of the transportation issues for a newbie Nontronnais – but that is a topic deserving of its own post…bientôt!

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Avec souci? pt.2 TAPIF & Boredom

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Souci nº2: I will be bored.

FAUX.  Ou bien, pas nécessairement.  “Only boring people get bored” et papati et papata…  It’s true, Nontron doesn’t have a shopping mall (unless you count the hypermarché Super U), nor does it have a swingin’ club scene (you’ll have to trek out to Trélissac for that), but it does have an organic grocery store, a library, a movie theater, a couple of restaurants, boulangeries, cafés, and a gymnasium.  At the Maison des Sports, I have attended an aerobics class, a volleyball match, and have played badminton a number of times, often going head-to-head against my students.  The crowd who shows up here couldn’t be friendlier – I noticed some healthy competition among quelques badistes en herbe, but mostly there was lots of encouragement and the tamest trash-talking ever.  An example: upon missing the birdie, a sporty gentilhomme exclaims to me, “Faut pas louper le volant-là, hein ?  Ouf pardon, clairement c’est du style américain !”  How very droll…

Accept any and all invitations to be wined and dined by your colleagues (and treat them to the same).  Apéro, hors d’œuvres, entrée, plat, salade, fromages, dessert, café…you’d be amazed by how quickly the night passes!  Embrace the tradition of long dinners and conversations that begin with comments on local government, give nod to the wine selection, evolve into a Franco-American geopolitical slugfest (only figuratively), pause briefly to predict the weather, and terminate with a couple of good restaurant recommendations.  Yes, seek out these kinds of evenings.

But not at the expense of your kiddos!  Create quality lessons for your students that excite them and make them laugh. Despite the fact that many students in Nontron have never traveled even so far as Paris, nor flown in an airplane, I found them to be enthusiastic about studying English – most of the time.  Some lessons resonated with them, while some flopped, but I really enjoyed the challenge of preparing a new activity each week and tailoring it to the learning styles of each of my classes.  It took more effort to get ready for class than I thought it would, but a TAPIF work-week is still only twelve hours, so take the time!

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Speaking of l’horaire de travail, spend part of your free time completely unplanned, because you probably will never have the luxury of working a twelve-hours-a-week in France ever again (with five weeks of paid vacation!).  Get into a routine, buy your baguette and make small talk with your boulanger, walk home, steep your tea, butter your bread, spread your confitures – now is the time to enjoy the quiet and the simple.  From nearly any spot in Nontron, it is a ten minute walk into nature; take paths and make paths, maybe even all the way to the Grand Etang de Saint-Estèphe.  And when it’s winter, read a book or twenty, watch a movie at Cinéma Louis Delluc, or hang out with the old men who congregate at the Café des Sports on Place Alfred Agard – you’ll be a regular before you even finish your first allongé.

Nontron is small, but it’s got at least one of most things.  Dog salons, on the other hand, it’s got like four dog salons!  Does a town really need more than one, if that?  Only in Nontron…

Souci nº1 │ Souci nº3 Souci n°4

Avec souci? pt.1 TAPIF & Solitude

As follow-up to my first post on making the transition into TAPIF assistant-hood, I would like to provide mon grain de sel on some pre-departure anxieties, of which I had quite a few. As much as I was looking forward to meeting my students and settling into a substantially-more French day-to-day routine, I couldn’t help but let my nerves get the better of me every now and then – and with good reason, I thought. Who’s ever heard of Nontron? Agreeing to pack up and move, only to realize that you don’t know Jacques about where you’re headed? Courageux, toi!

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I write this in part as a resource to all assistants de langue who find themselves assigned to those unmappable, unsearchable towns, villages, and communes in the middle of nowhere, for which little information is published and for which little is done to answer the question: What am I getting myself into?

But I write this especially for assistants in Nontron, a niche audience to be sure, because it is the only assistantship about which I can truly speak and because I know what it feels like to be placed in so remote a place. When I received my arrêté de nomination, and started doing research on the town that I would call my home for eight months, I can admit to having felt a bit discouraged. Nontron was smaller than I expected, less accessible than I expected, more unknown than I expected.

So, dear Nontron Assistant (after all, there only is one of you), with this I hope to provide you some information that you may find useful – useful, in that the information is correct, but not because the news all happens to be “good.”

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Souci nº1: I will be all alone.

Nontron is a small town. Despite being the capital of the Périgord vert, the northernmost quarter of the Dordogne which boasts a population of nearly 90,000, Nontron itself has a population of only a few thousand. The school where you will be working, a dual collège-lycée, is the only one in town, and you will be the only language assistant at your school, English-speaking or otherwise. Just a small number of students can really call themselves Nontronnais, as the majority live dispersed throughout the countryside in even smaller “hameaux” and “lieux-dits” – the same is true of faculty and staff at the school.

However, you are not fated to solitude. Although you probably are closer in age to your students, your fellow teachers are likely to be your fastest friends. You’ll see them in the salle des profs, you’ll work with them to prepare lessons, you’ll whisper with them about problem students, you’ll stand in a group of them day after day as they suck down cigarettes twenty meters from the principal’s office during la récré. Show them that you’re interested in their teaching, their school, their town, their country, and say yes when they ask you over for dinner, or invite you on a weekend away. The teachers and staff members in Nontron are all very sweet (particularly the English contingent, mais peut-être j’ai un avis biaisé…), and I really encourage you to spend time with them outside of the walls of the cité scolaire. Egalement, do take care to reciprocate their generosity by sharing parts of your culture with them – they’ll welcome social, political, or artistic discussion, just as well as they’d welcome a taste of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (albeit with a palpable sense of extreme curiosity and extreme fear).

C’est-à-dire, befriend your colleagues – they will help you make the most of your year as an assistant and are very sympathetic to the fact that you’re by yourself in a tiny town in a new country. Ey-trawn-zhay are few and far between in these here parts of the Dordogne, et les Périgordins voudraient te montrer que ça vaut le détour.

Souci nº2 │ Souci nº3 │ Souci n°4

La Dune du Pyla

A few days ago while perusing the Flickr Blog, I came across some stunning photos of a place that I recognized instantly: La Dune du Pyla – Europe’s largest sand dune.  I had a chance to visit last February, a rare winter day with springtime temperatures – I’ll give all the credit to Rosie and her expert planning.  Early one Sunday morning, we boarded a train to Bordeaux, we did NOT stop to smell the canelés, and we took a second brief train trip to Arcachon on the Atlantic coast.  After several landlocked months in the Dordogne, the ocean air was a refreshing change.  We lingered just long enough at the Jetée Thiers to get perfectly-windswept beach hair (ou pas) and strike a surfing pose, then we continued on to our main attraction.  In typical French fashion, Sunday bus service was nonexistent, so we waited our turn for what seemed to be the only taxi that serves the Bassin d’Arcachon.

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After being dumped out onto the Route de Biscarrosse, our excitement only grew as we walked closer and closer to the dune.  But first, photographic instruction from Rosie: “Pretend to be apathetic teenagers!”

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Then we gleefully scurried up the dune!  Usually there is a staircase poking out of the dune, however, winds had all but completely covered them for our visit.  Up and up, some stairs would really have been nice as La Grande Dune stands about 110 meters tall.  To the east, a dense, dry forest.  To the west?  We still had some climbing to do first…

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Once you start seeing mirages and messages in the sand, you know you must be close to the top.  And what a view to be had!  Deep, blue Atlantic spreading our before us for as far as the eye could see.

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Click here for a panorama of the dune!

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Time for a break! A gâteau basque filled with almond paste and un bon cidre on the sand.

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With our bodies re-energized and our heads a bit hazy from the sun and the cidre, what came next was natural: running as fast as we could, jumping as high as we could, and landing as hard as we could.  All caught on camera.  What fun these Périgordingues had!

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Such fun, we didn’t even want to leave.  Not to mention, the walk down the dune was difficult in its own right – when the ground is falling out from under you, you may find yourself falling down a lot.  Mais ce qui est important, c’est d’esquisser toujours un sourire charmant!

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No sandy buns here!  My shoes, on the other hand were so stuffed full of sand, my foot popped out of them a couple of times during the descent.  After what felt like minutes of pouring, my shoes had emptied, we took the same cab back to Arcachon, and we hesitantly started the trip back home.

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So you’ve been placed in Nontron

Eh bien donc t’es affecté à Nontron ?  Coucou toi, on n’est pas nombreux !

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Acceptance letter in hand, and a pat on the back from monsieur le Ministre de l’éducation nationale proclaiming you the newest and brightest assistant de langue vivante in France – pas mal.  And in the Académie de Bordeaux no less – la classe!  In no time you’ll be rattling off all the châteaux of les premiers grands crus classés (Latour, Lafite Rothschild, Margaux, Haut-Brion) and meeting up for an apéro en plein air with cool new friends of the prénom-composé variety – Jean-Claude, Marie-Bérénice, Xavier-François, etc.  Hum, la vie bordelaise…

You applaud your extreme patience as you wait (mere) weeks for your arrêté de nomination; ben dis-donc, you’re not even in France yet!  You know nothing of what it means to wait!  Go ahead, bide your time navigating the neighborhoods via Google Maps.  Spend hours imagining your ideal coffee shop, your perfect bakery, your gruff yet kindly shopkeepers – all minutes from your to-be doorstep.  Sure your friends have heard of Bordeaux, but could they even find it on a map?

So by the time your inbox blinks to life with another message from l’Académie, you know it’s your arrêté – what you don’t know is what quartier of BDX (you’ve learned to abbreviate it like a real Girondin) in which you’ll be working.  Lucky for you, the French have graciously and inexplicably put it tout en majuscules:

NONTRON.

That’s sure a funny way to spell Bordeaux.  In fact, upon closer inspection it doesn’t even really look like a French word.  Even to pronounce it tests your command of uvular fricatives and nasalized back vowels in a way that your vocal cords have never been challenged.  Back to Google Maps you go where your fear is confirmed.  You thought that Nontron was perhaps some banlieue just outside city limits, but it isn’t.  It’s in a big patch of green, and it takes zooming in three or four times before its name even appears, and several more clicks before its streets become visible, like little white veins cutting through the abundant countryside.  Far from Bordeaux, far from everything.

You gather what information you can: over two hours by car to BDX, a population of about 3,500 (on the decline, it seems), the site of many a bloody battle, plumb in the middle of a parc naturel régional, its claim to fame: an ancient knife forgery.  Ouf.  What’s more, there’s no train station, only a couple of cafés, and the closest “big” city is an hour away.  You see your relationship with French wines blossoming out of desperation and not appreciation.

One thing’s for certain, no one will know where to find Nontron on a map.  Not even the French.

But now is the time to be positive.  Not many people can say that they’ve lived and worked in Nontron. Fewer still can say that they’ve been an assistant there.  Sure it’s small, sure it’s en pleine cambrousse, sure it’s not precisely what you had in mind, but with a little ingenuity you may find that your experience as an assistant de langue vivante in Nontron is as memorable and worthwhile as any.

A suivre…

Bonjour mademoiselle: Part 1

In November of my TAPIF year I had the pleasure and honor of hosting Jin, my friend and former high school debate rival on her first (first!) trip to Europe.  And what a great place to start…la Dordogne!  Back from Northern Spain, we decided to start our tour in the scenic Périgord Noir, famous for beaux villages and truffles – in fact, on one of Jin’s first nights in town we packed her into the Peug’ and shoved her into the Périgordine darkness to sniff out poisonous mushrooms.

However, I soon realized that wandering around picturesque towns on cobbled streets was only half of the experience for Jin.  After all, this was her first time in France, and France can be a strange place à première vue!  Phillip and I, each having had year-long stints in France as students before moving to Périgueux, had grown accustomed to much of what American travelers find confusing about France. Gone were the days that we entered a store without giving a personal bonjour to each employee; that we batted un œil when something was canceled, closed, or rescheduled unexpectedly; that we recoiled at an incoming bise.  Driving in roundabouts?  Pas de souci.  Breast-laden shampoo commercials?  Allez-y!  Train strike?  Tram strike?  Airport strike?  Trash strike?  N’importe quoi.

But for Jin, taking but the premier pas, some explanation of life and culture in the Hexagone was clearly due.  So we did just that, describing and shrugging our shoulders and anecdoting our way through our adopted culture, at its best: charming and warm and rich; at it’s worst: skeptical, archaic, a bureaucratic nightmare.  Though to some extent, every country has a similar kind of dichotomy – le bon et le mauvais.  But before I delve any further into what would surely become a longwinded political discussion, let’s turn our focus to some of the stranger sights one sees in France, at the first stop of our Tour de la Dordogne, Sarlat-la-Canéda.

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My first reaction to this cherry-picker levitating in the air: why add complexity to something as simple as putting up Christmas decorations? But a second look and something even more typically French becomes apparent – A service truck blocking the entirety of a one-lane road. A car parked just next to the aforementioned truck, blocking the only way another car could possibly get around this bouchon, whose owner just moments ago, turned on the emergency lights and walked inside the tabac for a newspaper and a chat of indeterminable duration. Typique.

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Foie gras is nothing short of a way of life in France.  The Dordogne is a particularly popular spot for the fatty, livery, ducky or goosey delicacy – 90% is made by les Périgordins!  Albeit a strange practice (the moral dimensions of which I will not discuss right now), the production and consumption of foie gras epitomizes something very special about the French – their dedication to gastronomic tradition and the lengths they’ll go to find their favorite snacks – foody pilgrimages! It’s like the Camino de Santiago, only instead of salvation, your goal is to attain a belly full of the most perfect mirabelles, the cheesiest tartiflette, the whitest asparagus, the springiest frog legs.  Of course there is a Route du foie gras!

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Just as beloved to the French as the corn-fattened liver of poultry is the art of inconvenience. All around Sarlat, Jin started noticing signs in shop windows: “fermeture exceptionnelle,” “fermeture annuelle,” “en congé.” In France, one must equip oneself with the emotional wherewithal to arrive at an intended destination only to find said destination with its blinds drawn and a crudely written note tacked to the door: closed for a day, closed just one more week, closed until next year – I’ve seen them all. Though I don’t think it’s what was meant the first time “laissez-faire” was uttered, the ability to gracefully change plans in spite of the Frenchy “forces that be” is critical to one’s survival here. Why is everything closed? It’s a question best left unasked.

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You see?  There is a part of American culture that is wholly embraced by the French!  Grâce à la famille Simpson!  « Haw ! Haw ! »

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Last but not least: an eyeful of waxy mannequin flesh.  Simultaneously celebrated and feared by outsiders, the French have a particular comfort with the human form, be it tucked precariously into a striped speedo, sculpted in marble, or selling body wash during the evening news.  Sure, one’s first undressing à la française is memorable, if not traumatic, but once the novelty wears off, France starts feeling less like a plage de nudistes, and more like home.

With all the important lessons taught for the day, Jin, Phillip and I could finally spend the day exploring the whole of the Périgord Noir…