Monthly Archives: November 2010

Too many cooks in the kitchen?

I wish I had a picture of tonight.  But how to capture three boys in competition to “clean the mixing bowl” of chocolate remains?

With the mousse safely on its shelf in the refrigerator, freshly licked beaters fly through the air as six hands reach for the singular bowl.  Fingers greedy for a sugary sweet coating inadvertently deposit their prize on brothers’ sleeves. Shrieks of affected torture issue from lips that are convinced they will never taste something so worthy as what is at the bottom of this blue plastic container.  The boys huddle at the far end of the kitchen.  Jules, the oldest and strongest, grasps the bowl, his brothers flanking him on either side, like football players battling for their chance at a chocolaty interception.

All this for one little ounce of chocolate, left behind by a too-stiff spatula.  But who cares about the untouched mousse in the fridge!  We’re kids and we want to lick the beaters, and we want to double-dip our spit-covered fingers in the mixing bowl.

I don’t tell them to calm down.  I don’t tell them they’ll have to clean up when the battle is over.  Across the kitchen, I lean against the counter, enjoying the show and an extra chocolaty wooden spoon that was left behind.


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Filed under Cool Characters, Dijon, Food, Inspiration, Just for laughs, Recipes/Cooking

“I miss you in a ‘winter is here now, and it’s necessary and it’s pretty in its own right, but gosh I hope it’s brief’ kind of way.”

It was gray all day today. Gray, gray, gray.  When I get off the train in Beaune at 8:45 there is mist in the air but I don’t get out my umbrella because it’s awkward and I don’t want to have to rearrange everything to get to it at the very bottom of my Mary Poppins bag.  I walk in the mist and I think that it seems more like six at night than nine in the morning.

At school I unwrap my navy leopard-print scarf and economize its length to cover more of my neck — twice around this time instead of once.  I put my peanut butter sandwich in the fridge because there’s a yogurt in the bag and I make my photocopies and I go to class.

The kids don’t want to color the Thanksgiving Hand Turkey in red, orange, brown, and yellow.  They do it in rouge, orange, marron, and jaune.  A “Sanksgiving chicken” they call it.  Do they not roast turkeys in France?

The older kids stare at me when I ask, “Are you ready?”  Some of them respond in the affirmative, “oui,” and I tap my foot and ask, “what does that mean,” and find out that some of them think it means, “is everything going okay?”

I’ve repeated this phrase from day one.  Lost in translation.

The bell rings for recreation but I don’t go outside for even a minute’s worth of fresh air and conversation with the other shivering teachers. I slump in front of the computer and read the European version of the Wall Street Journal.  I can’t find the page of American news.

Last class of the day.  We play the same game as last time because they don’t remember the difference between “there is” and “there are.”  There is one.  There are five.  There is one.  There are seven.  There is one.  There are twenty-three.  How many?  How many?  What does “how many” mean?

Last class of the day. We color Thanksgiving Hand Turkeys.  “Tous les enfants americains le font,” I say.  All the American kids do this.

TUE les enfants?!?! Laurine shouts, giving me a sarcastic sideways glance. “Kill the kids.”  Oh, the subtleties of French pronunciation.

Non. Tous,” I repeat, this time making sure to pronounce the “ou” with my best accent.

Laurine giggles as she puts the finishing touches on her multicolored chicken.  “You try to speak French like we are trying to speak English,” she says, in French.

Oui, c’est ca.” I say and sigh.

It was gray, gray, gray all day today.


Filed under Laugh it off, Teaching

Love is: blue chocolate chip cookies and three French boys

Lucien, 11, Jules, 16, Emile, 14


In October 2008 I untacked a post-it note advertisement from the dirty gray wall at The University of Burgundy and tucked it into my purse on my way to class.

“Looking for a student to babysit and speak English with three French boys.”

Easy way to earn some extra spending cash, I thought.  Funny how things work out…

Two years after I first started “working” with Jules, Emile, and Lucien, I’ve resumed my roles as board game-referee, vocabulary reinforcer, pronunciation perfector, and captive (or captivated!) audience to three genuine comedians.

I count these three — along with their awesome mom and dad — among my greatest blessings here in France.

On Friday we tried something a little out of the ordinary of  our normal board game routine.  We baked cookies.  It wasn’t even my idea — it was Jules, 16 and the oldest, who suggested that it would help their English to learn cooking vocabulary.  (Yes, you can take this as an indicator of how awesome these boys are).  A sixteen year old who wants to cook…and speak English while doing it?  I wasn’t going to argue with that.

I bought the ingredients to make Mom’s chocolate chip oatmeal cookies — a rare treat in France, and an easy start to our cooking adventures.  (In addition to the supermarche, I stopped by the pharmacy to buy baking soda, which apparently is only used to clean teeth in this country.)  Walking to their house, I did a mental inventory of all I had bought and reassured myself that if there were anything else we needed we could find it chez eux.

…And then I learned what Mom always meant about 1.) the necessity of a sifter and 2.) the fact that you can’t replace the sifter with any other tool, including, but not limited to, a potato masher, a colander, or a strainer — no matter how small the holes are.

Besides adding a few blue sugar crystals a la Emile, we did everything according to the recipe…except that we didn’t have a sifter (like I said, cookies aren’t too popular in France) and so, after eyeballing a potato-masher (?) and a colander, we used a strainer to “evenly distribute” the flour, baking soda, and baking powder.

It didn’t work.

The first batch came out flat…And the second batch expanded –without rising — into a sort of cookie cake.

Whatever.  The cookies were delicious.  Between the laughs and the “ah, well, we’ll do better next time”s, I delighted in sharing with my little French brothers something that tasted like home — even if Mom’s always look one hundred times better.

Emile, official beater licker, and Lucien, official chocolate chip manager



Filed under Adventure, Art, Cool Characters, Dijon, Food, Home, Just for laughs, Recipes/Cooking

You know things are progressing when you can assert yourself (read: threaten little kids) with the same force (read: joie de vivre?) in French as you can in English

I’m not going to name any names but I remember the bad kids from elementary school.  I’ve been remembering them a lot lately.   Particularly when I scratch my head  — or bend over at the knees to stretch my hamstrings in front of the entire class, which surprisingly relieves a lot of stress — and ask myself if those bad kids were as bad as the worst in my classes now.  “They were worse,” I remind myself, thinking back to my favorite teacher Mrs. Jones’ trials and tribulations.  But oh, how dramatic things can seem now that I am the one in Mrs. Jones’ place!

When I say “bad,” I hope you don’t think I really mean “bad.”  My kids are spunky. Outgoing.  Active. Assertive. All positive qualities, really. BUT NOT WHEN THEY ARE SPUNKY, OUTGOING, ACTIVE, AND ASSERTIVE ALL AT THE SAME TIME, and WHILE I AM TRYING TO TEACH!

I think I am getting the hang of this assistantship thing, though.

In my one point two five months of complete-immersion, sink-or-swim teaching experience I have learned that what it all boils down to is a sense of humor, positive reinforcement and, when necessary, a swift kick in the pants.

When I say “kick in the pants,” I hope you interpret that as “a kindly escort across the hall and back into the boring old regular maitresse’s room, where grammar lessons will ensue.”  I even say, “Bye, we’ll miss you. It’s a shame you have to go,” as I push them in the right direction.  They may not understand what I am saying, but my tone is bilingual.

As of this week, I gave one warning, and then whoever so much as approached a second strike received one of my swift kicks.  On Tuesday I sent five kids from one class back to the Maitresse before I achieved silence.  The next day, happily, I didn’t have to send any from that class.  I think they are getting the hang of it too.

I felt kind of sympathetic the other day as I was walking down the hall and heard a teacher yelling across the room, “C’est pas possible! Qu’est-que vous arrive que vous soyez tellement agacants? (It’s not possible! What possesses you to be so insufferable!?)  It was then that I realized the advantage I have as an assistant who travels from class to class.  Having no one class of my own, I can always send away the misbehaving students.  Out of sight out of mind. It does make me feel a bit of compassion for the “boring old regular” maitresses, who have to deal more directly with bouts of spunky-outgoing-active-assertiveness.

Yesterday I was giving the short and sweet ten-year-old explanation for why we don’t answer “yes” when asked “how are you?”  (“In English it’s comment tu es — how ARE you — as opposed to est-ce que ca va — is everything GOING [okay]?)  So we have to answer by telling how things are, (fine, great, okay) rather than whether they “go” (yes or no)…. Okay, it’s complicated.  I had a hard enough time simplifying it for my students, so if you don’t get it, you might be better advised to talk to a real English-as-a-Second-Language teacher.  Sheesh.

I was in the middle of this slight detour (we were supposed to be talking about colors, after all), and I saw, out of the corner of my eye, spit-wad ammunition being loaded into a straw and raised to the mouth.



But my automatic was already loaded.

In two seconds I had made the mental switch to French, gotten my student’s attention (“AUGUSTIN!”) and delivered the lethal threat. (Lethal to the spit-wad, that is.)

Vas-y, envoie-le,” I said. (Go ahead, send it.)  “…Et tu ne me reverras JAMAIS!” (And you’ll never see me again!)

He put the apparatus down and I didn’t hear a peep from him for the rest of the class.


Filed under Laugh it off, Unconventional Wisdom

Papa maman bébé: why does children’s literature in this country have to be so undeniably French?

Do you know the feeling of surprise that dissolves into interest and eventually into paralysis of the will to turn the page when you stumble upon a particularly striking image in a magazine?  Maybe it’s a dirty image, but not necessarily.  Maybe it’s just a suggestive one.  One with a smidgen of the stuff that Marilyn Monroe exuded.  At any rate, you are captivated for a moment, or a few moments.  You don’t hear whoever might have been talking to you before.  You don’t notice that your bus has pulled up and that people are pushing by you to get on it.  Until the moment passes, you are helpless in a way. Absorbed.

This has never happened to me when I was looking at a children’s book.  Until last Wednesday, that is, when I was drawn to the children’s section of Dijon’s Librarie Privat — probably because I am surrounded by 223 French kids three days a week these days.

I had no particular intent, since the only children’s books I read in my classes are books in English — The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and Brown Bear Brown Bear, for example. Maybe I was just a little curious to compare.  And boy did I get more than I bargained for.  After perusing a few names I can’t remember, I picked up a name I’ll never forget: Papa maman bébé by Anaïs Vaugelade.  The concept was simple, for kids just learning to read.  Each two-page spread was like the cover: three images, one designated to represent Papa, one for Maman, and a little one for Bébé.  Papa Melon, Maman Orange, Bébé Citron. Papa Chaussure (a decorated leather city shoe), Maman Botte (a chic leather tall boot) Bébé Pantoufle (a soft little slipper).

Charmingly uncomplicated images outlined in black kept me turning the pages, along with the obvious French culture symbols — like those ubiquitous tall boots I mentioned.  Even the children’s books are so French, I thought…right before I turned the page and my thought process took a temporary hit.

There before me — how I wish I could find a picture of the page online! — was Papa Caca, Maman Pipi, and Bébé Prout.

For all those who need a little help with the translation, that’s Papa Caca, Maman Peepee, and Baby Fart.

There I was, staring at a charmingly uncomplicated turd, a charmingly uncomplicated pool of urine, and a charmingly uncomplicated little baby cloud of gas.

Surprise: Did this author really draw and color excrement? Did she really put her drawings in a children’s book and label them Dad, Mom, Baby?

Interest: Yes she did.  And oh, my, gosh…that is so French.

Paralysis: I cannot turn the page.

When I finally pried myself away — after checking all the other pages for similar scandals — I walked out of the bookstore feeling less offended than I probably looked.  If there is one thing I can say about the French (okay, everyone knows I have a lot to say…) it is that they are very frank — with their coworkers, with their friends, with their family, and (especially) with their kids.  It’s something I appreciate about them because it’s not always a given in the United States.  The French always “tell it like it is” and aren’t as bothered by political correctness or hypersensitivity.  In the states we call people who eat too much “MacDo” overweight. Here, they’re straight up gros. I saw a sign in my school today identifying children with autism as “handicapés. No sugar-coating necessary: the French aren’t offended by the word “handicap” — among others.  And, they don’t have a problem with poop and pee in kids’ books.

An American-style hug in France

But that’s only one side of the coin.  The best part about their straightforward, no nonsense approach? When you receive a compliment — which happens rarely, by American standards — or gushing support (maybe in the form of an American-style hug instead of les bises on the cheeks?) you know it’s real. You know you’ve earned it.  You’re accepted into the club.

Sort of.  There are conditions.

One of those being that you won’t be shocked by what might be found in the pages of children’s literature, for example.


Filed under Dijon, Laugh it off, Miscellaneous, Teaching

Four days, four ways: The start of a very good year.

Thursday, October 28th–I wake up to a very long-distance call from my Aunt Sherry in California, who sings Happy Birthday in the familiar “Aunt Sherry way,” with an extra verse at the end. “We love you, we do, / we love you we do, / we love you dear Emily, / we love you we do!”  Great way to start the day.

Twelve hours later, I’m on my way to a delicious French dinner with Nico, where I receive two tickets to see the fabulous French comedian, Florence Foresti when she comes to Dijon!

Friday, October 29th–Decorate Nico’s apartment for our Halloween Party.  I’ve never put up fake spider webs before, but there is definitely something satisfying to it.

Saturday, October 30th– Lunch with all of Nicolas’ family, who are home in Burgundy for Toussaint vacation.  Surprise ending: a homemade chocolate gateau, eleven homemade birthday cards from eleven nieces and nephews, and a new sweater from “my” freres et soeurs. I. Am. Spoiled.

Sunday, October 31–I put the finishing touches on our gross-out finger food before the “American Style” Halloween Party began. The spread includes monster toes, eyeball cupcakes, witch’s hand carrot dip, potato-skin ghosts, and a deadly punch a la Nicolas.


Voila, the end of my four-day birthday celebration.  There’s something to be said for a great start to things, because I haven’t had an ordinary day since I turned 23. I think it’s going to be a very good year.


Filed under Chatillon-sur-Seine, Cool Characters, Food