Monday, 30 September 2013

Pretty trees

It's nearing October, and after a drizzly week it's become very warm this fin de semaine in eastern Quebec. This means a lot of fall foliage (sorry, "autumn foliage" just doesn't alliterate) which is still a total novelty for me; it seems to get brighter and brighter each time I see it and reminds me I'm very lucky to be living in this part of the world at this time of the year. Here is a handful of photos I've taken of the lovely leaves.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

School: a learning curve

It's only been a week, but I can already say with a fair amount of certitude that my time as an ELA here in Quebec is going to be a totally different experience to when I was in Austria. There, apart from certain uninterested students, it wasn't too much of a struggle and I could easily walk out of a lesson feeling like I'd achieved something. This, on the other hand, feels like more of an uphill journey. But I'm glad that I have previous experience working in a foreign school at all.

I'm also finding it challenging to keep up with the fast pace of conversations. I keep reminding myself that I've only been here a couple of weeks so there's no way I would be an expert in Quebec French, but it's hard not to feel disheartened. I am lucky to be living in a relatively urban place, so there are plenty of activities to join (which admittedly I keep putting off, the shame). The thing about being an ELA is that you may only be working 18 hours a week, but there is so much work to be done in other areas. You've got to rely on yourself to pull yourself back up on the horse again; I know that I am the only one who's responsible for what I get out of this year. It's a sobering realisation.

On a more optimistic note, I am enjoying some of the ways in which the school differs to European schools. There are no formal breaktimes before or after lunch, although there are 10-minute gaps between each period to travel between classes or go to the toilet, which I would have much preferred when I was at high school. There are lockers (we just had pegs at school), and announcements are made over the speaker.
This week I have basically just been introducing myself in front of the class, and subjecting myself to questions from the students. I've been asked four times whether I have any kids - I guess when you're a teen, 22 seems really old! And just from interacting with the students when introducing myself in their classes, I have gleaned that there is a rivalry - perhaps even a beef - between the school's football players and hockey players! By the way, they call it le football, and they call British football le soccer. A few more funny moments:
  • Saying a random sentence in German in front of the class (at the teacher's request) and having them try to guess what language it is;
  • Being asked countless times whether I've met One Direction;
  • 'If you have McDonalds in England, how is there no poutine in England?'

Other things that have happened this week:
  • Some friends and I went out to a local student night. 'Man, I Feel Like A Woman!' by Shania Twain played, and by the end of the song every person in the room was doing a line dance (us included - that goes without saying).
  • I saw my first moose... albeit a dead one. After school we were driving down the highway, when my mentor pointed out a moose carcass on the back of a pickup truck. Its legs were sticking in the air, it had been decapitated and there was a bloody orifice where its head had been, yet the weird thing is I wouldn't have noticed it if he hadn't brought it to my attention. Hunting season has begun, and even though I personally have certain reservations against killing and eating animals, I acknowledge that it's part of the lifestyle here and I'm morbidly curious about it.
  • On my phone I discovered a tip-calculator feature... the answer to all my prayers!
  • Just as I was beginning to think they didn't exist round here, I finally discovered the section in the supermarket with the tofu and veggie sausages. There's also a whole foods shop selling that kind of thing a short walk away from my place, which I'm thrilled about. 
  • I was given a TV! This is really good because it means that I can immerse myself into French by having it on in the background while cooking or something. Even if it's just something like Un souper presque parfait (Quebec's Come Dine With Me) or terrible game shows, it makes me feel like I'm improving with minimal effort.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Parc national de la Gaspésie

Not even one week after stating my goal to become more outdoorsy, I went and made a step towards achieving just that. Along with some other assistants, I was invited to join a trip last weekend to the Gaspésie National Park; more specifically, to hike the Chic Choc Mountains, which mark the northernmost point of the International Appalachian Trail. The park is four hours' drive east of Rimouski, but seemed longer, somehow; towns that I'd hitherto considered to be neighbours were so far apart from each other. People aren't kidding when they say distance is a totally different concept in Canada.

Actually, I was this close to saying no to the trip. For one thing, me - a girl who grew up in The Fens - hiking mountains? You're having a laugh! I have never owned a pair of walking boots, nor were they exactly on my priority shopping list when I arrived here. Also, I wanted to spend the weekend in Rimouski to get some errands done and to be fresh and ready for my first week at school. But I also sensed, somewhat, that if I didn't go on the trip I would feel some regret.

We arrived at the campsite on Friday. The scenery was already very atmospheric and evocative of Twin Peaks (other people said Twilight, also a fair comparison). And I saw chipmunks scurrying about here and there!

On Saturday, the original plan had been to hike Mont Albert, but seeing as it had rained heavily the night before, this was deemed unsafe and we went up Mont Olivine instead. It's smaller by about 500m, but to be frank, that was already more than enough for me. As I ascended the steep mountain with some of my more sprightly companions zooming ahead of me, at times I wondered if I should have given my parents my insurance policy details because it felt quite likely this was where I would meet my end. To keep my spirits up, I hummed the very appropriate 'Land of the Silver Birch' to myself, a song I'd learnt all those years ago at Brownies. Here are some photos from the way up:

My poor trainers will never forgive me (this is before the muddiest part of the trail)

The route was neverending and I fell over a couple of times, plus it rained a lot, but the view was ultimately worth the trouble. It was mistier than we'd hoped for, but still "malade" ("sick") as the guides kept saying.

After that, we relaxed in a cabin for lunch, then it was time for the inevitable descent. In some ways it was an ample reward for the way up there, as we saw some more striking scenery. In other ways, though, it was even worse than the way up; treading downwards over slippery rocks, being sprayed with mud, and getting lost in infinite forest at dusk while it rained heavily were not exactly highlights of the weekend. By the time we got back to the campsite, I felt like bursting into tears. The initial high of reaching the top of the mountain had long since worn off and I hadn't brought many extra dry clothes with me, so a miserable evening looked to be in store. But then we ate a really nice dinner, sat by the fire and played card games, which had me going to bed in a much better mood.

Lac au Diable, at the foot of Mont Olivine

The next day was a lot more chilled out, which I was grateful for. We took a bus trip across the park - it's huge, the previous day we'd only hiked a tiny, tiny part of it! - to Lac aux Américains. The weather was much nicer that day, which made the water so clear and beautiful.

As my friend Vindya pointed out when we arrived back in Rimouski, this was the first time that we would be coming back there as our home. For this reason, I'm really glad that I decided to go in the end, as I think it finally helped me settle in if only by relativity; for one thing, it really made me appreciate my bed. It was also great to be able to just chuck all my dirty clothes into the machine as soon as I got home, a far cry from last year at university when I would have to let them accumulate enough to justify spending £3.20 on washing and drying (as well as dragging it down three flights of stairs to the laundry room).

I loved being in nature, but I had been right: hiking is really, really not for me. I'm glad that I gave it a go, though, because now I have solid reasoning about what I like and dislike. And it paves the way for trying other new things!

A week has passed since I went on that trip - I have been doing some work, I promise! I will elaborate on that soon.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Salut Rimouski!

First hints of fall foliage!

I feel as if there is a lot of pressure on this first post from Rimouski, so I thought I would break the ice with a nice picture.

The few days I've spent here have been pretty packed, it's hard to communicate just how much of a jump it's been. I've finally got a place to live. It's in a basement, which might sound strange but is pretty common here. It ticks all the boxes, but it was difficult to make a decision as I also visited a really nice room in a very North American clapboard house with a staircase leading up to the door, which I would have been sharing with local students. It was really cheap with everything included, and theoretically it would be a good way to speak French all the time, but in the end I didn't want to risk potential housemate stresses. Also, it was quite far away from my mentor's house; he will be giving me lifts to school, which is actually in another town just up the road. It's the first time I'm living completely on my own, which I love so far! It's such a novelty to have my very own fridge and bathroom. I still don't feel completely settled yet, but I hope that will happen in the next couple of weeks.

I now have a phone, but it's already let me down with this different pay-as-you-go system. I got my bank and social insurance stuff sorted out this afternoon so that I can get paid, which involved a lot of walking and took a lot out of me. Yep, I'm finding out firsthand why everyone has a car round here. I have also visited Walmart for the first time in my life which was very exciting. I mean, we have ASDA back home, but it's got nothing on Walmart. In the freezer section I saw huge boxed steaks, as if they were pizzas. Just looking at the sweets aisle made my teeth hurt. I observed that they do have Cadbury Buttons/Boutons, but I heard they taste different.

All in all, people have been super friendly and welcoming, and I hope they don't doubt my interest in their culture for a second. The accent is, of course, taking some getting used to but as long as I concentrate it's okay. I've already learnt some new Québécois phrases. "C'est correct" means "it's alright/good". Also, some words here have different meanings to what I had learnt. For example, it turns out that here, a boisson is generally assumed to be an alcoholic drink; a breuvage, rather, is a drink like water or juice. Actually, I'm going to try to make a section dedicated to new phrases each time I post.

At the orientation, we were told that we should get out of the habit of comparing things here to how they're done back home. It's something that you do naturally even if you don't mean it in a malicious way (which I highly doubt anyone would). I am still getting to grips with taxes 'n' tips - the latter especially stresses me out. This is partly because I'm finding it hard to navigate my way around Canadian coins in high-pressure situations. It doesn't help that the 10¢ pieces look exactly like 5p pieces, and 25¢ pieces look like 10p pieces. I wish there was a way to explain to locals that it's a totally foreign concept in the UK without fearing that they think you're saying "my way is better". Quite on the contrary, I'm not thinking about home much at all; I'm still in the honeymoon stage, which we were also informed will be over sooner or later.

Anyway, a bit about Rimouski. Its name sounds somewhat Slavic, but is actually thought to originate from the Mi'gmaq language, to mean "land of the moose". It has a population of around 50,000 and is the largest settlement in eastern Quebec. There is a CÉGEP (kind of like a sixth form) and a university here, so there's a lot of young people. Rimouski is located in the Bas St-Laurent (Lower St. Lawrence) region of Quebec, due to its proximity to the St. Lawrence river. I am told that there is a different sunset over it every night and that it is always beautiful. I have yet to find evidence to the contrary.

Tomorrow I will be visiting my school for the first time. I have to admit that I'm a bit nervous about it; as well as the information we received in Montreal, what I've heard from the school board indicates that things are going to be quite different from my ELA experience in Austria. In some ways it seems more laid-back, in others it seems like there are more opportunities to put a foot wrong. I guess as long as I remain self-aware, I should be fine. As I keep saying, the reason I applied to come to Quebec was to expand my horizons and develop as a person!

Also, I bumped into some Germans in town! I asked them for directions and they replied to me (in German) that they weren't from round here and that they didn't speak French, not realising that I understood them perfectly. I was too astonished to reply...

I have set out five goals that I hope to achieve by the time the year is out:

1. Become more outdoorsy (definition negotiable)
2. Be a lot more confident when speaking French, regardless of whether I develop a particular accent
3. Find the perfect veggie poutine
4. Travel to the United States
5. See Cœur de Pirate, my very favourite francophone musician from Quebec, in concert

Monday, 9 September 2013

'Say yes to everything': arrival in Montreal

I have already arrived in my hometown for the year - Rimouski - but I thought I would dedicate a post to the few days spent in Montreal as I think it's integral to the whole experience.

My flight with Air Transat was relatively good. All in all, there were actually about ten of us assistants on there (i.e. a third of the group). I watched The Place Beyond The Pines and The Bling Ring and bits and bobs of other things but I got tired.
Entering Canada was not quite as straightforward as anticipated. We were standing in the initial customs queue - where most people get their passport checked and then they're all set - for an hour. After that, we were sent to the immigration hall and given tickets, where we sat on the floor for two and a half hours before being called to a desk individually to receive the visa itself. Then we had to go and collect our luggage, which was thankfully still there, and get a bus to the hotel. By the time all this was done, I was a sweaty mess with a headache.

The next day, I was stoked to be waking up in Canada so I went to Tim Hortons across the road (well, motorway) and had chai, a muffin and a doughnut for breakfast.

The induction didn't start until the evening so it was time to head into Montreal proper. What hit me this time was how anglophone it was. I hadn't esteemed it as the pinnacle of francophone Quebec anyway, but I turned out to almost exclusively use English this time around; once people realised I wasn't local, they just switched. I wasn't too bothered as I knew I'd be able to use French all the time in Rimouski.
Other than that, it was as if I had never left. The group I was with were interested in a smoked meat place for lunch, so I decided to go off and get some vegan food. After that I wandered some familiar streets for a bit while listening to my iPod, which was almost overwhelmingly lovely. I attempted to reconvene with my group but got lost; by that point it was time to get back to the hotel and I had to rely on the kindness of strangers to find the right bus and get dropped off in the right place. In the evening we had the welcome meeting and met the assistants from Germany, Mexico and China. I ended up practising a lot of German that night, which was good as I fear my skills will be non-existent by the end of this year. We were divided into teams for a Quebec quiz - my team were the runners-up and I chose this prize for myself (quizzes are my superpower, by the way).

On Thursday we received a lot of information about integrating into Quebec, the most prominent piece being by far 'say yes to everything'. Later, we hopped on a yellow school bus - which I still can't quite believe actually exists outside TV! - for what we all hoped would be our final brush with bureaucracy and waiting around: getting the Carte soleil sorted out. Basically, it's a health insurance card that only comes into effect once you have lived in Quebec for three months. The process wasn't too strenuous, but waiting for everyone to finish took a lot out of us. Afterwards we went to a sports bar downtown for dinner. It was pretty surreal to see American football as the sport of choice on TV. I had a vegetarian poutine with tomato sauce and vegetables as an ersatz for the gravy - what I later learnt is known as a poutine italienne - as well as a nice Alexander Keith beer. I'm a carbs / comfort food fiend so I can imagine myself gorging on it a lot in the near future.

Friday morning heralded a workshop about classroom management, then it was time for frantic packing. After lunch, we bade farewell to the people placed in western Quebec. I was sad to be leaving Montreal but I know I'll be back soon, and the prospect of not living out of a suitcase was exciting. In a way, it was good that we spent so little time there because I'd already seen most of the tourist hotspots and so didn't feel any regret, but on the other hand I've developed such an attachment to it that I just want to be there.
We got on a bus that stopped in Quebec City and dropped off people who were based in that vicinity. From there, we were divided into two Gaspésie minibuses, respectively driven by two of the great people who'd hosted our induction. Those who were not on my bus were going to stay the night in a town called Matane before continuing their journey to the very east of Quebec. That drive was quite fun even though I was tired; I think I'll remember that day for the rest of my life. It gradually hit me that I truly wasn't in England anymore - the scenery was beginning to get so vast and unlike anything we have there. For dinner, we stopped in Rivière-du-Loup for a visit to a restaurant called St-Hubert. It's a chain that specialises in chicken dishes but I ordered a Mexican salad. When we left, it had got very dark and the temperature had dropped dramatically. There were a couple of hours left to go before reaching Rimouski. We arrived at around 22:00, and Sarah and I were picked up there and each brought to the houses of our mentors. In due course I will tell of my first impressions of Rimouski!

Monday, 2 September 2013

By the time you read this, I will be so far away

Well, this is it. Tomorrow I'm flying from London to Montreal. Over the weekend I took a break from my preparations; my friend Alex came to visit, and we went to see Margaret Atwood give a talk on her new novel (no big deal, only one of the best writers ever). Now I am face to face with a suitcase that looks a lot smaller than it does on the outside and a lot of stuff that I need to cram into it. I am feeling a sort of indescribable, numb panic, hence this post. Priorities.

Nobody likes packing. The closest you may get to liking it is that sort of night-before excitement you feel about seeing a new country and experiencing a new culture. Usually that applies when you go on holiday for a week or two, though. And that excitement is often most deeply felt when you're a child - at least, it was for me. As you get older, you stop tagging along on holiday with your parents and start planning your own trips. And that's when it hits you that going on holiday is actually pretty stressful. You alone are responsible for paying for it, sorting out transport and accommodation, having all your important documents with you, showing up on time, and getting your bearings in your destination.

Only this time, it's not a holiday. I will be living about 4,000 miles away for a year (although I suppose I should start getting used to measuring distances in kilometres) and I am finding that a 23kg luggage limit just does not suffice to this end. In fact, seeing as the suitcase itself claims to weigh 2.75kg, it's basically only 20kg for me. Sigh. I realise that I don't need to take everything with me, I can buy most of the essentials there. But still!

I decided that I won't bring any teabags with me as I don't have space. Besides, I guess I'm aiming for a true North American experience where tea is going to go from being what is currently a several-times-daily necessity, to a mere luxury. Now that I'm no longer going through the stresses of uni and the dastardly effect it has on your sleep cycle, I tend not to drink coffee that often anymore, but maybe I will have to learn to embrace it as my go-to hot drink.

Some useful things I'm taking with me include: 
  • An extension lead so that I don't have to worry about finding plug socket adaptors (although I do have a couple of those too!);
  • Odds and ends to use as material in my lessons - more on that later;
  • Some things to decorate my room with to stave off the H-word (homesickness);
  • A light coat to bridge the gap between autumn and winter (don't worry, I do understand that any winter coat bought in England is not going to last a minute in the harsh conditions of Quebec);
  • Mini shower gels, shampoos, etc. Again, we were warned in June that toiletries can be expensive there, so if I use them frugally, hopefully they'll tide me over for at least a month;
  • A measuring cup I got for about £4 at Morrisons a while ago, thereby eliminating the need for scales when cooking and baking. Every student or snail needs one!

Pretty much the best invention ever

Anyway, I'll be staying in Montreal over the next few days for orientation with around thirty other ELAs. Then begins the bus trip that will take most of us to our placements (those going in a different direction will be picked up personally by their responsable). Google Maps indicates that it takes six hours to get to my town, but in reality it will probably be much longer as people are getting dropped off along the way. I am very much looking forward to being in Montreal again; it will feel a bit strange but hopefully nice too, even though I'll be on my way again in the blink of an eye.

I've been keeping up with the weather there; seems it's going to be slightly milder than before, seeing as this time it's September and not the middle of June. When I was there last, it was so humid that I'm surprised I didn't melt away in the street and disappear down the drain. In many parts of Britain, we've experienced a "heatwave" this summer. While it's been annoying and uncomfortable - give me back my cold winds and rain! - at least the heat has been pretty dry where I live.

I am anticipating a culture shock. There is going be a whole lot to take in, and not just language-wise! I'm glad this will be my second time in Quebec; even though my previous stay was only a week, I've still got some idea of what a few key differences are. At the same time, I am trying not to build up any huge expectations. I want to take everything as it comes and appreciate everything for what it is. The next few weeks are going to be extremely busy, but I will try to make my next instalment informative, whenever that may be!

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Books That Grow With You: 'Norwegian Wood' by Haruki Murakami

My well-worn copy

Last week, a friend told me he'd bought Norwegian Wood, which I'd recommended a while back, citing it as one of my favourite novels. This inspired me to refresh my connection with it. I can't specifically remember the last time I did that; I first read it when I was 17 years old, and I believe I've reread it at least twice since then. I'm inclined to do that with very few books. Seeing as I seem to be getting through books really quickly these days, I thought there was no harm in revisiting this one. I do have a couple of other books I'm aiming to finish before I leave, but they're pretty slim and I don't think I'll have any trouble with those.

The first time I read it, I quickly became aware that this was a book that gets right under your skin. Aside from anything else, I related to it heavily because there were some undeniable parallels with what was going on with me at the time. First love, acceptance of mortality, finding solace in music, studying Euripides, learning languages: it seemed to have come into my life for a reason. But maybe I'd focused too heavily on those parts and not actually paid much attention to everything that goes on during the course of it. And I'm not really sure how I feel about it now - definitely differently, though.

While I am not going to explicitly spoil any major events in the novel, those who have not yet read it may prefer not to continue under this cut if they wish to form their own, unblemished opinion.