Jeanna Packard's Blog

Embarking on the East: Prague I.

Posted in Uncategorized by jpackard on October 27, 2011

Since October 1, 2011 I have been living Senlis, France, which is about 40 km north of Paris (or about 20 minutes by train),  as an English assistant in a public middle school. One of the many perks of my job, not only that it allows me to live in such close proximity to the Eiffel tower, is frequent two-week school vacations. Long live short work days and school holidays.

After two and a half weeks in the classroom, introducing and establishing myself in France, I’m on my first vacation east: Prague, Czech Republic; Bratislava, Slovakia; Vienna, Austria; Budapest, Hungary; and Nuremburg, Germany.

Until I leave Vienna, I’m sharing this trip with a young Indonesian girl, Mita, who is doing a semester abroad in Paris with her university (a school in Connecticut, USA). She was the true pilot of the journey, who planned the destinations, and I came on board about a week before take-off, adding my in-put and organizing the end from Budapest back through Germany to Paris.

She and I met through the couchsurfing network, couchsurfing.com, that I use extensively to stay in people’s homes for free or to ask locals for advice when I travel. The network connects travelers with locals willing to host them or advice them on things to do and how to get around a city, and it maintains credibility and safety through references. After every experience with a couchsurfing member one leaves a public reference on her profile.

Mita posted a message on a CS forum saying that she was doing this trip with the proposed dates and places, and she was looking for a travel buddy. I responded one week before the first day of school break.

Thursday night, two nights before we scheduled to leave Paris, we met face to face and I slept in a sleeping bag on her apartment floor in the 5th arrondissement (neighborhood) in Paris, with a view of the Notre Dame from her bedroom window.

Friday I hung out in Paris and was later joined by a few friends, with whom I stayed out all night. Mita joined our group by midnight, and she and I crawled up her eight flights of stairs to sleep two hours before leaving Paris at 8 a.m. Saturday morning.

Through a long series of very fortunate events we made it to Prague by about 9 p.m. that night.

“Cold and foggy, exactly how I imagined Eastern Europe to be,” Mita said as we looked around a deserted tramway station looking for a map of the city.

Tired and cold we did find our couchsurfing host’s apartment by 10 p.m. after hopping a metro without figuring out how to buy a ticket, and showing people the name of the street we wanted. I don’t speak a word of Czech, so paper, pen and gests work well.

We met Lucy, our host, a young architect who mainly works in building restoration ( there’s a lot of that in old cities like Prague) and competes on a local gymnastics team (finding time to do three hour practices between work and a social life). We had a cup of hot tea and then sleep on two mattresses on her bedroom floor, rejuvenating for the next day’s start in Prague.

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Christmas in Paris II

Posted in Uncategorized by jpackard on January 13, 2011

When I review my Christmas photos I realize that what is missing- the spark that would make a viewer say ‘yeah, now that is why it is such a romanticized city’ – is that I was a normal person without a film-crew, staged backdrop, or a lover who was just coming from or going off to war.  (And I did not see or smell Jude law – reference to his recent cologne ads where he tells a beautiful woman that she doesn’t have to know his face to recognize him because his sent (the audience must assume it is a pleasing odor) will reveal him.)

And although nearly all my photos are a bit muted by overcast skies and snow turned to sludge, I think the classic black and white picture and capture the Paris in the postcards.

As mentioned in an earlier blog  I arrived in Paris around 9 a.m. after a less than ideal start to my holiday.

I had no idea where I was going, until my friend Jeff responded to my text message and gave me directions to his apartment.

Jeff is a college friend of my godmother’s and even though we hadn’t ever met face to face, he had been a huge support since I’d arrived in France. He sympathized with all the culture shocks and frustrations I was experiencing, and he offered to help me improve my situation in any way he could. When the holidays were approaching he offered me his apartment to enjoy alone while he was out of town for Christmas.

I was waiting for his reply and sitting patiently in my cramped window seat on the French TGV train, while other passengers filtered down the walkway. Eventually I grabbed my black suitcase and progressed toward the exit, wrapping my jacket a bit tighter as the cold filtered in.

By the time I reached the platform that cold had invaded and opened my bag on the spot to retrieve a scarf, and extra sweater and gloves.

Jeff confirmed my directions, and I hit the metro system.

Paris was busy, but not rambunctious. On the walk to Jeff’s apartment there were streets lit with Christmas lights and vendors selling fresh fish, bread and cheeses. Dozens of men, women and children rapidly wove in and around the market commotion, heads down and shoulders hunched to combat the cold air.

My ideas of Paris came from postcards and movies. To me it was a sublimely romantic city where one was chic by association and everyone walked the streets in stilettos and intricate outfits straight from the runways. Men would play accordions and groups of people would be sitting outside the cafes smoking and discussing politics, poetry and art.

It was too cold for lingering out of doors and the café chairs were vacant. Boots replaced stilettos and I have no idea what people were wearing under their winter coats. There was no music in the air, but the occasional car horn pierced the general street and market noise.

In general, Paris wasn’t that much different from other French cities I’d visited. There was certainly a higher concentration of well-known tourist sites, and therefore a higher concentration of tourists, but I saw the same black coats, somber expressions and distant looks on the metro and sidewalks.

One major difference was the amount of people who knew English.

On my way to meet my friend Becca my first night in the city I stopped and asked a woman some directional questions in French. She responded in English. I clarified in French. And again she spoke back in English.  I was annoyed because I was proud of my language skills and she completely disregarded my effort. Normally, I get a pat on the back and ‘wow, you speak French so well for a foreigner!’ I don’t speak well but I like the encouragement.

My friend, Becca, a few of her friends and I went out to bars and one club and everyone we met could converse with us in English, but like the woman I’d asked for help, they tended to speak in English with us whether we invited the language or not.

During the week I benefited most from hanging out with a friend, occasionally relaxing in Jeff’s apartment completely alone and never feeling like I had obligations. Becca and I became overly indulgent, waking around noon, preparing a huge brunch, then leaving the house around 3 or 4 p.m., starting our nights out after midnight and making our way back around 3 or 4 a.m. Sometimes we completely missed the daylight. In my photo album Becca is holding a coffee cup in one hand and a wine glass in the other- I think this summarized our routine fairly well.

This was a contrast to how I’ve been living in the south for the past few months, where I’m restricted to another’s rules under a foreign roof. It felt good to live however I wanted for five days.

For me, Paris wasn’t about the Eiffel tower, but instead I approached the city with a French attitude: I self-indulged and went about making myself happy without necessarily following anyone else’s recipe.

Christmas in Paris, Photos

Posted in Uncategorized by jpackard on January 5, 2011

My first time in Paris, during Christmas 2010.

My friend Becca and I combined old traditions such as midnight mass with new traditions such as foi gras, made a make-shift christmas tree out of a stolen pine tree branch and a wine bottle, cooked, ate and drank ourselves merry and rolled out into the streets and bars a few times. I did make it to a few tourist sights like the Louvre, Arch de Triomphe et Champs-Elysee, but my experience was more “everyday parisienne” than one-stop tourist. By the end of the week the lady at the bakery I visited everyday recognized me, and the huge security guard at the grocery store was calling me the “cute english girl”- I don’t think he knew I was American. I was staying with ex-pats, but we all felt more local than foriegn.

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Christmas in Paris, 2010, Part I.

Posted in Uncategorized by jpackard on January 5, 2011

 I missed my 5:30 a.m. train to Paris on December 23, even though I stayed awake all night to avoid oversleeping and I had walked 20 minutes through the rain and dark streets of Marseille with my suitcase on wheels and an umbrella just big enough to cover half my torso in order to arrive at the train station before 5 a.m.

Soggy and nervous, and slightly shaky from no sleep and too much coffee, my baggy, mascara smeared eyes continued staring at the arrival and departure board awaiting my platform number to appear. Even a brief encounter with a homeless man who told me I looked like an angel, which at 5 a.m. is a compliment even if the deliverer is missing all his teeth, and who then asked me for spare change couldn’t break my gaze. The man had attempted to attract my attention by asking questions, but when he discovered I was an American and a student he kindly left me alone admitting that I probably needed the money more than he did. He left me to my anxiety the rest of the morning while he made his rounds to the other sleepy station occupants.

The list of things I feared could go wrong was endless. What if something happened and I missed the train? I already knew I’d forgotten the directions to my friend’s house once I arrived in the city and what if I couldn’t get in touch with him and I was left wondering the streets of Paris completely lost?

I have been traveling on less than no money for too long to be at ease over mistakes both realistic and imagined.  Everything that goes wrong has a price. Not to mention I was going to spend Christmas in a someone’s apartment I’d never met (friend of friend situation) and with another friend I hadn’t see or really talked to in three years.

I had much to stress over.

Finally at 5:20 platform C appeared next to my train number, but when I arrived the only thing on the tracks was an old maintenance caboose.

Since I arrived in France in September I have regularly waited for late trains, delayed buses and malfunctioning metros, so I convinced myself that there was a mechanical error somewhere and the train was probably coming any minute. I even transformed a bit of my anxiety into anger toward the incompetent French public transportation systems as I marched toward the information and ticketing office.

My suitcase’s wheel’s announced my arrival and a middle-aged man invited me toward the desk.

“Hello, I’ve been waiting at platform C for the train to Paris, but it hasn’t arrived. The departure time was for 5:30 and it is already 5:35 a.m. Will it be coming anytime soon?” I asked.

“The train for Paris has already left” he replied, indignant that I was even hinting at faulting him for my absent train.

The blood left my body. I couldn’t feel my arms and my brain shut off. I was staring at him dumbly for a few seconds before my synapses began firing again.  I switched from French to English unable to formulate a sentence in the foreign language.

“What?” I stuttered. “Check again please because I’ve been standing at the designated platform since 5:20 a.m. and the train has not even arrived.”

“I’m sure the train has left miss and you seem to be the only one who missed it,” he retorted.

This was not the exhilarating start to my Christmas in France I had imagined when I put took a gamble and booked a one-way ticket to Paris without verifying with my friend, who lives in Paris and with whom I was hoping would be home to participate in my holiday festivities, and without any kind of plan B or exit strategy per say.

It started at 11 p.m. December 20 when I had waited long enough for everyone else to verify their plans so I could conclude mine. That night my host family was out of town christmasing with the grandparents, and I was sitting at my computer watching the train tickets to Paris escalate while envisioning a lonely Christmas eve with just me and maybe a bottle of merlot, if I could even get to the stores before they closed (this is France after all and customers work around the vendors, not vice versa like I’m accustomed to in the USA).

This hadn’t worked out for me to spend Christmas with my host family, so I was searching for alternative plans.

So five days before Christmas, I was at my computer ready to take control of my holiday and there was not a soul to consult, but my visa card was ready in the wing whenever I was ready to make a move.

I bought the cheapest ticket to Paris, even though I was sure my host family didn’t want me to leave until December 24, and there was no way for me to get to the train station that early (no metros or buses)- all minor details when the next cheapest train was an extra 60 Euros. I would figure out how to make it work.

Things did work out at first. I left my host house late the 22nd and stayed at a friends, Camille and Paul’s, place in Marseille, which was within walking distance of the train station.

Camille and I had some tea and I went to bed around midnight. Even if I couldn’t sleep because of expectations and anxiety at least things were moving in the right direction and I could always rest on the three hour train ride.

But then I missed my train, bought a new ticket and was packed in shoulder to shoulder with other’s who didn’t seem to have slept well the night before either.

At one point early on in the train ride I attempted to slide my foot out of its soggy prison, but after about 3 hours of marinating in soggy socks and boots my foot reeked and the man next to me gave me a look that convinced me to deal with the wet feet a few hours longer.

As the train was pulling into Paris around 9 a.m. I phoned Jeff who was letting me stay at his apartment while he spent his Christmas in Normandy.

Fortunately he answered his phone, gave me precise directions to his place and within an hour I was thawing out and recounting my morning to him over a cup of coffee. We had a pizza lunch and then he left and I crashed for a few hours on the sofa.

I woke and realized I was in Paris! But my excitement was a bit false. It felt odd because I always thought when I finally made it this city I had idealized, full of people I had idealized, I would run around until I’d traversed every street in the city limits. But I sat in the hot shower, checked my email and arranged to meet my friend Becca, without even attempting a single tourist activity.

It was freezing outside and I haven’t been exposed to below zero degrees since the winter of 2008-2009 (I’m a summer chaser).  Walking around in the dark cold, in my state of exhaustion overrode my desire to see the Eiffel Tower.  

I made it to Becca’s apartment around 8 p.m. and our reunion after three years was seamless. We talked like we had hung out the week before. Finally, a friend who shared some of my culture and history. We planned to go out- my first time in nearly a month.

My holiday was finally starting to be enjoyable.

Lost in the Woods

Posted in Uncategorized by jpackard on November 3, 2010

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I just got back last night from a week long secluded vacation in the
middle of France, in the department of Cher, about an hour from Bourges (which is wear all the photos of cathedrals and shops were taken). My host family owns a big house in the middle of the most amazing woods, which overlooks a duck inhabited  lake. One swan made an appearance the final day of our holiday.

Autumn is my favorite season and the trees were spectacular shades of red, gold and tangarine!

I was free from the burden of internet, and read the first Harry Potter book in French! I spent hours in the kitchen assisting my host mother’s mother create traditional French dishes like tarte au pomme (an apple pie) and dozens of flaky, cheesy, creamy potato and bread entrees…every lunch and dinner was like a Thanksgiving feast, so I didn’t miss not celebrating Halloween (for the first time). We went to mass on All Saints Day, November 1, and after evening meals around the table, warmed by the fire-place, I crept down the drive way to a small cottage where I hung my clothes in a closet and curled up in bed with my gifted New Yorker magazine and a old body pillow each night. (Thanks Lisa for the magazine;) There were many busy hours, but it was good to escape to the forest and retire to some personal space and quiet.

Les Calanques

Posted in Uncategorized by jpackard on September 21, 2010

Every Sunday I am free of any obligations to my host family. It is my day to do and go where I want.

Here are some photos of last Sunday’s adventure to the Calanques about 10 km from where I live. They are basically like fiords with steep cliffs, deep water and hordes of folks trying to soak up the final rays of summer.

(I apologize for not providing a link to a web site for the calanques, but I’m having difficulties finding sites in English.)

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Miss Mary Magdalene and a church with a view

Posted in Uncategorized by jpackard on September 16, 2010

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Last Sunday I went hiking in Saint Baum, near the Plan d’Aups.

Tucked away in the mountain is a church established by

Mary Magdalene after she crossed the mediterranean on a boat

following the death of Christ.

This is about 30 minutes from where I live.

Which bus should I take?

Posted in Uncategorized by jpackard on September 16, 2010

This morning I almost punked out of a whole day of possibilities: maneuvering through public transportation, exploring the city to find a map, talking to strangers, and reading free newspapers. 

Yes, I almost missed all of that today, which isn’t like me. Normally, I try to be a seize – the – moment kinda gal but the first week here in France has been a bit soul crushing for me (adjusting to my family, being scorned for my poor French, and moving to a lower-level in my French school because I wasn’t up to par with A2) and cowering in the house was the safer, easier, option compared to striking out in France without anyone but my linguistically challenged self. 

I did it though, and I’m about to return to the street for round two, but I was hungry and prefered the free lunch I could prepare at home as opposed to the rather expensive menu the city offers (I’m sure there must be “student-friendly” options somewhere but my map doesn’t point me to them and I’m still scoping the place out.) 

Other than the restaurants, my small town of Aubagne, which is 15 km outside of Marseille, is rather socialist community and caters to the poorer crowd. The buses here are all free for residents (alas they get me though with the  4euro fare to go one-way into Marseille), many centers, like the yoga studio I’m looking into, have discounts for students, the town hosts free concerts in the summer and the spectacular views of the surrounding mountains can be enjoyed all day from any cafe if you buy a coffee at about 2 euros. 

Until 5 p.m. today I’m at liberty to do what I want and go where I please. That includes riding the free buses around just to see what lays around the ben. 

Normally I take the number 8 bus to get into the city center, but it had already left when I’d finally mustered the confidence to leave the house at 10:30 a.m., so I hopped on a number three just to see a different route. It cost me nothing, I had no time schedule and I relaxed into my seat knowing I couldn’t get too lost because all buses end, eventually, at the bus terminal. 

The best part of the morning was an old lady who sat next to me and started talking about food – the details went over my head but I could at least get the gist of what she wanted me to know. She asked me what I was doing here after it became apparent I wasn’t a local and in French I explained myself. It wasn’t eloquent, but it was effective. 

Every time I face failure it ends up being worth the risk. Now which bus should I take next? 

What Does France’s “Culture Capital” look like…Marseille

Posted in Uncategorized by jpackard on September 13, 2010

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A long day – 4 hours on trains and 11 hours in a car – following a very short night – 2 hours of sleep.

Posted in Uncategorized by jpackard on September 5, 2010

At 3 a.m. I gathered my belongings; Felix packed me two sandwiches with wheat bread and veggie spread, a pear and a banana, at headed to the train station.

For 4 a.m. on a Saturday morning the train station was fairly respectable. The two drunks snored lightly on opposing benches, a few bakers were preparing for the day and a man paced back and forth from the information board and the ticket machine. I found a middle-aged woman and a young man to share my Bayern ticket, which reduced the cost from 20 Euros to 7, and at 4:42 a.m. I was on my way to Munich.

Since I only slept two hours the night before (I couldn’t get to sleep until well after 1 a.m. and I did not trust the alarm clock) I looked forward to my two-hour train ride nap, but anticipation kept me awake and I read “On the Road” by Jack Kerouc, and ate one of my sandwiches, instead.  

The train coughed me onto platform 25 at 7 a.m. and I bought a coffee-to-go from a neighboring convenience store, while waiting and watching for my rideshare folks to arrive.

I was looking left toward the creamers, sugars and tiny wooden stirrers, when from the right I heard a hesitant “Jeanna?”

I turned to meet a lovely blond German girl about my height and size with bright brown eyes and a black jumper over a black and white striped shirt. “Melanie?” I replied.

Melanie and her boyfriend Daniel, who is over 6’3’’ blond and thin (a very German-looking man), were driving from Munich to the southern border of France and Spain or a two-week holiday, and I was paying them 60 Euros to take me with them as far as Orange, France.

Rebecca, another tall blond German, was riding with us too for the first three hours to Freisburg, but she didn’t say much, and didn’t talk to me at all, so I don’t have much to say about her.

The trip was enjoyable.

After we left Rebecca I had the whole backseat of Daniel’s BMW to myself and the three of us could chatter away in English without fear of being rude (I don’t think Rebecca spoke much, or if she did she didn’t like to.).

We listened to music, talked about the war in Iraq, recycling and McDonalds. Melanie was having her monthly craving for a big Mac and around 2 p.m. we stopped at a crowded McDonalds near Lyon, France. (I’m amazed at McDonalds’ ability to localize. FYI a French McDonalds is tres chic and they have Petite salade (little salads) and petit sandwich (small sandwich) and multiple coffee choices.)

The eleven-hour car ride ended for me at 6 p.m. at the train station in Orange, France, which is a couple hours from Marseille.

Melanie, Daniel and I said goodbye, promised to find one another on Facebook and Melanie took a photo of the two of us.

I bought my train ticket, in French, phoned a couchsurfer that I wouldn’t be staying at his place in Orange because I was catching a 7:30 p.m. train to Marseille (no problems there), and met Jane, a hippie woman from the UK who was waiting for a bus to take her to a grape-picking job.

I drank a coffee and Jane drank a beer and two wines (maybe there is a problem there?), while we waited for our train and bus.

I moved to platform one, 25 minutes early, and met Sarah and Neibla, two French girls dressed to hit some clubs in Marseille. We talked, in French, until the train came and continued during the 1.5 hour trip to the city. The girls applied more eyeliner and perfumes, and Sarah told me about her difficulties juggling two boyfriends. They helped me with my French and gave me their cell numbers. Nice girls who even insisted on helping me carry my luggage even though they had five inch high heals and polished nails.

M, my host mom, and F, the 14-year-old boy I will be working with, found me and soon we were jetting out of the city toward their 16th century home in Aubagne, a 15 minute drive out of Marseille’s city center.

Dinner was waiting….