Fitness in France

Okay… Lets talk about health and activity in France.

We’ve all heard it – Americans are disgustingly obese, French people eat smaller portions and walk everywhere and are all the vision of health, all striking the seemingly-impossible balance between being able to eat dessert and baguettes every day without eating the entire dessert and baguette everyday. Exampe: the book French Women Don’t Get Fat. After living here for a few months I can’t say I fully agree.

First of all, there is a stereotype that everyone here is slender. Nope. I can definitely attest to the fact that that is not true. Yes there are plenty of slender people, but there are overweight people all over the place. There are plus size clothing stores. Statistically, France is around 40-50% overweight (including ~15% obese). What I have observed is that people in general are smaller than in the US. Whether or not they are overweight, their frames are just smaller than those for Americans.

I find the French approach to activity hilarious. I shouldn’t… it is probably much more balanced and sustainable than the way Americans do things. I have concluded that whatever Americans do, we do to an extreme. Fit people in America tend to be really fit. People who don’t exercise in America really don’t exercise. In France, I routinely see people running home from the boulangerie carrying a couple baguettes. Women wear their scarves at the gym, and Nike wedge heels have somehow been accepted as workout shoes?!?

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WHY ARE THESE EXERCISE SHOES?

The French (Europeans in general, really), walk and bike places so much more than we do in the US. Cars are not very practical or really necessary, so there is more activity weaved into their daily and weekly rhythm than a lot of people in the US. A number of the French, however, don’t go to the gym or do routine workouts. Since I joined my gym here, I’ve seen their idea of a workout. Yes, there are some people here who are really quite fit. The majority, however, are not. Their workouts are much more mild than what you tend to see in the US. You just aren’t going to see very many really athletic people here. I’ve never felt as strong as I do here…. I lift just as much or more than so many of the men in my gym (can’t complain about that!).

As a competitive, all-or-nothing type of person, I can’t say I don’t catch myself looking down on the French style of activity and movement. But, the truth is, they have a much more balanced + accessible movement lifestyle than what people think of fitness in the US. This is probably also related to the prevalence of sports in the US vs. France. Sports are not a big deal here, only some people participate, and they are not nearly as time consuming… there isn’t really a competitive side to exercise.

In terms of diet, it is another case of extremes. I’m not sure they ever got the memo about a lot of the popular diet ideas in the US (like no white starches, for example). A balanced French meal has a starch (rice, couscous, pasta, potatoes, bread), a meat, some veggies, bread, and a dessert (often a fruit + dessert yogurt). Let me tell you…. these meals can be BIG & rich. Frenchies won’t snack in between meals though, which is a huge difference. But this way of eating is standard, even for the body-builder types I’ve observed.

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What we eat for lunch at the lycée, a pretty standard example of a cooked French meal. (zucchini soup, beets, potatoes, cauliflower with sauce, cassoulet, a pudding type dessert)

I can say the French style of eating does NOT work for me. I can’t eat really large lunches and dinner everyday. It feels like too much, and I find it very difficult to not snack in between meals (regardless of how much I ate with my meal). Moreover, I find that eating a dessert at most lunches and dinners (even if it is just fruit or yogurt) makes me want to keep eating desserts after I finish eating. Also, once I start eating a baguette, I can’t really stop 😉

Anyways, these are my generalized observations and opinions. Not true for everyone, but definitely what I’ve noticed up here in Nord-Pas-de-Calais

Les Soldes!

Les Soldes translates into The Sales in English. In France, sales are regulated by the state. France allows businesses two periods each year to mark down their merchandise, one in the summer and one in the winter, each lasting six weeks.

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The fact that France has national sales means that every store has a sale starting and ending on the same days throughout the entire country. Since these are the only two times each year where stores can use sales to clear out the last year’s merchandise, almost everywhere has sales. Anything from the local boutique, to the big department stores (Printemps, Galaries Lafayette, etc.), to designer brands, to the hardware store… even the supermarkets mark down some of their goods! And these sales are a good deal, merchandise is marked down anywhere from 30-50%. As you approach the end of the six weeks, things just keep getting cheaper… it is the only time where stores have the right to sell merchandise at a loss.

Additionally, the stores are not allowed to bring in special merchandise for les soldes. That means whatever you’ve been eyeing for the past month will probably be on sale. Of course, there are the things with the biggest markdowns that nobody wants to buy, but then most of the normal merchandise is also on sale. Shoes, handbags, backpacks, clothes, coats, decor, books, hardware supplies… you can get great deals on normal things you need! My cell phone company even did a promo for les soldes, giving everyone free and unlimited data access on the weekends for 6 months!

For example, I was able to get a great wool coat for 50% off! Which is great because I spend way more time outside here waiting for a bus, or walking to the store, and am always freezing.

On one hand, it is nice to be able to expect the sale coming, know how long it is going to be, and know that it is going to be everywhere… it almost ensure finding a good deal if you can wait until January or June. On the other hand, I find it a big strange that the government controls the sales… and it is inconvenient not being able to look for sales or clearance prices all the time.

A Bientôt,

Amy

Amiens

This past Saturday, I took the regional train down to Amiens. Amiens is about halfway between Lille and Paris; the train ride was about an hour and very practical.

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Amiens is the capital of the Somme department within the Picardy region. In spite of this, it is a fairly small city. It has  been the site of several battles, and was occupied by both sides during both World Wars. Much of the city was destroyed during the German occupation of WWII, so many of the buildings are quite new, and the streets are wider than a lot of European cities.

I had a nice time! Amiens is a pretty place, with buildings that reminded me of France, Alsace, and Scandinavia. This was especially true for the St. Leu neighborhood, which was a great little area to just wander around in.

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Along the Somme

Amiens also had some great parks! I got so lucky with the weather! It is officially winter here and cold and wet. All the Frenchies complain about it, and make jokes about how horrible I must think France is (because of the weather in Nord-Pas-de-Calais) and no matter what I tell them, I cannot seem to convince them that it is the same weather as in Portland. Oh well. At least it doesn’t bother me. Anyway, it was cold but sunny on Saturday, so it was a great day to be walking through parks! Parc Saint Pierre was nice. I also walked through the Hortillonages, which is a large park with canals separating parcels of land used for various gardens. In the winter, you can’t do much other than wander on some paths, but when the weather is nicer you can talk boat tours through the canals and look at all the gardens.

There were also so many houses along the canals and along the Somme that had little bridges to get from the house, over the water, to the street! Each one had its own little dock and most people had canoes, etc. stored there. Who needs a driveway when you can have a bridge? 😉

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You can see one of the little bridges each house had in the top part of this picture.
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View from the path near the Hortillonnages

In the afternoon, I went to the Musée de Picardie, the regional museum in Amiens. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go there, but I found out it is free entrance for students under 26. Free is free, so I went and had a look. I then went to the cathedral in Amiens, Notre Dame d’Amiens. It has the largest interior of any cathedral in the world and is twice the size of Notre Dame de Paris! It was huuuuuge!

It was actually too bad that I didn’t go there a week later, as there is a colored light display at 7 pm every night on the cathedral in December.

The rest of the day was spent shopping. Amiens has a fairly large Christmas market, so I wandered through the market, ate a beignet, had some vin chaud, and browsed. They have tons of lights, and played Christmas music throughout the market so it felt very festive.

All in all, it was a good day! I am hoping to take more day/weekend trips now that I am feeling really settled and comfortable in Lille.

A bientôt,

Amy

On Teaching

Hi from Lille!

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Porte de Paris in Lille

I have now been teaching for a variety of classes for about a month’s worth of time. Here is a discussion and reflection on what that month has looked like for me.

My contract stipulates that I will have 12 hours worth of classes a week. Technically, my timetable does have 12 classes on it, I have yet to work more than 9 hours in a week. Although this doesn’t include any necessary out-of-class prep work, I can tell you that 9 hours isn’t a lot. They do manage to make it feel like a fair amount of work, but that’s because my schedule is all over the place. I work at 11:30 for an hour, and then not again until 4:45 for another hour. I can’t imagine not living at my school. Many assistants end up spending hours everyday just waiting in the teacher’s lounge because their schedules are so spread out. At least I can return to my apartment.

I work for a school that is divided into two halves. One half is the Lycée Générale, this is a fairly standard high school, with classes in subjects including languages, science and math, literature, etc. The other half is the Lycée Professionnel, which is a vocational school. Students can learn various vocations from shop-keeping, to machine maintenance, to secretarial work. A big component of the vocational school is each student has to do a certain number of internships (‘un stage’). These internships are coordinated by the school and each grade within each chosen vocation goes on their internships at the same time. Four of my classes are doing their internships right now, so I don’t work those time slots (which is why I haven’t been working my full 12 hours).

What I actually do in class depends on which teacher I’m working with. I work with 5 different teachers, and each one utilizes me differently. The assistant’s role is really to provide an opportunity for student’s to improve their conversational English and listening skills. That is a really general job description. Communication in France is not always where I think it should be (e.g. don’t expect anyone to get an email for a day or two), so often I don’t even know what they want me to do before I get there.

Some teachers have a list of questions they want me to go through with the students. Some teachers tell me to work on conversation (& that’s it!). Some teachers ask me to give Q&A style presentations to the class. Here are some examples of what I’ve been doing:

  • introductions in small groups. I introduce myself, the students introduce themselves, we ask questions and have a conversation. This sometimes goes well and sometimes doesn’t depending on how interested the student’s are in me/America.
  • asking them questions on their internship experience. This is a necessary skill for the vocational students because they have to be able to do this for the exam they take at the end of their studies. They have a list of questions which I read to them, and they answer as practiced. It feels like a waste of time, but amazingly so many of them aren’t very good at it, despite having had weeks to practice 8 simple questions.
  •  20 questions in a small group. This was probably the most fun activity I did. The students weren’t the most capable in English, but they became motivated to actually say something because it was a boys vs. girls competition. I’m not sure it’s the best activity because they really only ask one style of question (e.g. “Is it….?”) but I think it is a good ice breaker activity for a  new group.
  • group presentations on topics relating to America. Two examples are 9/11 and National Parks. Remember: my purpose is to provide opportunities for them to talk, and listening to me is secondary. So these are mainly pictures with questions like “what do you see here?”, “why is this here?”, etc.

In general, I like what I’m doing. However, I am really thankful that I am not on a career path to become a teacher, and I could never imagine myself doing the program for a second year. There are so many students who just don’t care. Especially in the vocational school, it’s hard to speak in English with them. The teachers don’t do it, but there is an expectation that I will only speak English. When the teacher isn’t doing that, they don’t care to listen to me, and they honestly aren’t capable. Around 4-5 people per class can understand me when I talk as slowly and clearly as possible. And the rest either don’t care presently, or spent enough years not caring that now they are really far behind. I don’t like feeling like a babysitter, and I don’t like trying to make people care. If you don’t want to be there, I don’t want to deal with you. The general high school is stricter in that regard, and easier for me to work with – just really different student demographics between the two schools.

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Let’s just say I use these expressions a lot.

On that note, I finally had the motivation to suck it up and finish my grad school applications and pay the OUTRAGEOUS application fees (OVER $200 to apply to 4 schools?!!?!?!?). Teaching this year is helping me feel very affirmed in my career choice as a scientist. 😀

A bientôt,

Amy

 

Busting Boredom

For better or for worse, my job is only 12 hours of work each week. This definitely has its merits – I have lots of time to sleep in, workout, cook, and explore the place I am living.

As seen on an afternoon bike ride
As seen on an afternoon bike ride (forgive the glare!)

I’m not sure exactly how to put into words just how measly 12 hours a week is. At home, it might feel a little bit more substantial, because you have friends, and activities, and projects that you are working on. In a city where you have just arrived, don’t have language mastery, know very few people, and don’t know what is around to do in the first place, 12 hours is NOT a big enough time commitment. I am not made to sit around and watch Netflix all day, I just get sick of it.

Bike = best way to explore AND stay busy! Most worthwhile purchase ever
Bike = best way to explore AND stay busy! Most worthwhile purchase ever

When I first arrived, the time commitment didn’t feel so small because there is so much to do when you first get somewhere. Getting settled takes up a lot of your time. Between the bank, my cell phone, internet, IKEA, figuring out the bus system and the grocery store I was reasonably busy for the first two/two-and-a-half weeks. That time has ended. I have been killing a lot of time with activity, a workout in the morning, biking for around an hour during the day, and a yoga sesh at night. Unfortunately, my back started having spasms again and so I need to find some other way to use up my time.

Commence operation Bust Boredom!

Really, my number one priority with my free time is finishing my grad school applications. Honestly, I can only work on these for so long at a given time before I feel like I don’t even want to be a chemist anymore. So, I have been spending some time on them each day, and am slowly finishing them. This still leaves a lot of time. Thanks to the internet, I am in touch with other assistants in the region and have gone to a few things with some of them who live in the city (yayayaya speaking English and having a social life). Very very useful because all of the assistants also have not much to do and not many people to do them with, and are a similar age.

Lille 3000 is a cultural event happening throughout the Fall in Lille. I went to a parade/techno concert with some assistants outside the Opera House.
Lille 3000 is a cultural event happening throughout the Fall in Lille. I went to a parade/techno concert with some assistants outside the Opera House.
I went to the Lille Zoo (which is free!) with some British assistants
I went to the Lille Zoo (which is free!) with some British assistants
For a free zoo, I was impressed!
For a free zoo, I was impressed!

I also have enjoyed taking my bike out and seeing what I can find. Best done on a day with no rain and no plans, so when it takes 3 hours longer than you thought to find your way back, it doesn’t matter 😉 In Haubourdin, I found the cemetery. Off to the side, there is a German Military Cemetery from the German occupation in WWI.

“In this military cemetery lie 1000 German soldiers”
Individual graves
Individual graves
“September 8, 1984. For the Fortieth Anniversary of the liberation of Haubourdin, this Resistance Square is inaugurated in homage to all those who secretly fought for freedom.”

I have also explored various parts of Lille, researched restaurants, museums, attractions, etc. that I want to go to in Lille, and I have been going to lacrosse practices. Yes, there are lacrosse teams in France (who knew?!). There is only a men’s team in Lille, but they have a couple of women who practice with them so I have been going to that and enjoying having something to do. Fortunately the star drill doesn’t need translation.

Grand Place in Lille. Starting to see the grey skies.
Grand Place in Lille. Starting to see the grey skies.
Found a huge park (Parc de la Citadelle, Parc Zoologique) and then looked up and saw a large animal in the middle of it.
Found a huge park (Parc de la Citadelle, Parc Zoologique) and then looked up and saw a large animal in the middle of it.

Plans to stay busy:

  1. Take the train to a regional forest and hike!
  2. Take up knitting again
  3. Try to cook regional specialties at home
  4. Buy some French middle-reader books to practice reading at home
  5. See if any of the local colleges have chemistry/research seminars

A bientôt,

Amy