Here's a little background about me. I spent the 2010-2011 school year teaching English in Grenoble, France. Before that, I spent a year working in the heart of Chicago in the Jewish non-profit community. When I was abroad, my eyes were opened to the everyday experience of the Jewish community in my town and in the country at large. I experienced what it meant to me to be not only Jewish in France, but a Jewish, young, female, American in France. It was a ridiculously fun, thought-provoking and thrilling seven months and I'm excited to share these stories. By the way, all thoughts and opinions are purely my own…I take full responsibility for any sweeping generalizations.
Picking up where I left off, I was last in contact with the local in Chabad in Grenoble, looking for a place to stay prior to the start of a seven-month teaching contract. I'd heard back from a representative, Arie R. and he let me know he would put the word out.
Just a few short days later, I heard from Arie that a family expressed interest. They were a pair of business owners with two teenage boys, one of them leaving the nest to study at Oxford during the upcoming school year. I feverishly read the email. I shot a quick response back and within a few days, plans were firmed up to stay with the B. family in a house on Rue Raspail. I couldn't believe it. What was merely a suggestion from my boss slowly evolved into a concrete reality. Moving to France was becoming more and more "real" by the day. As I came to know my host father by correspondence, I felt welcomed and grateful.
As the date of my flight got closer, my investigation of my new hometown grew intense. Now that I had a jumping off point, suddenly my days were spent mapping how to get from Rue Raspail to every possible destination. To my school, where I'd made contact with the principal, to the bars in town, to any potential creperies (my absolute favorite French food), to the mountains that outline the northern curve of the city, anywhere. My new world, with the exchange of a few emails, quickly took shape. Before I knew it, my mother and father drove me to the airport on a crisp September day. Armed with two suitcases, some phone numbers and an iron will to make this all work out, I left my parents at the airport food court and tepidly headed toward la vie Francaise.
There's something a bit heartbreaking about airports. In my younger days, I went to overnight camp. The final day always closed with the whole camp singing "Leaving on a Jet Plane" and it always struck me as a little wrenching. To be fair, I'm pretty sentimental. I'd "left on a jetplane" many times before, but never for this long. And looking at my parent's faces, it finally hit me that I was leaving behind my whole "Chicago" life for quite some time. It would resume, of course. But at that point, I didn't know when I would be back again. A one-way ticket to a place I'd never been. It was exciting, more than a little gut wrenching, but hopefully worth it.
My flying motto is have Dramamine. The flight rushed by. After a lengthy layover at Heathrow, my stomach leaped into my throat as the plane hurtled toward my final destination, Lyon, France. From Lyon, I took the one-hour bus to Grenoble, where the B. family awaited me. The fatigue of traveling untangled my nerves. At that point, I didn't possess the energy for nervousness.
As the night grew darker and the coach bus whisked down the AutoRoute, I caught my first glimpses of Grenoble. What struck me first were the mountains…everywhere. As the bus sped down the main thoroughfare with lights flashing, signs glaring and French people strolling, my eyes lit up. I rolled up to Rue Raspail feeling content, exhausted and overwhelmed. Mrs. B. met me at the gate, and my first night in France unfolded.
It wasn't just any night, it was Erev Sukkot. After plopping down my suitcases, I was shepherded outside to the beautiful sukkah in their backyard. I sat down and saw the smiling faces of Mr. and Mrs. B., their two children, Joachim and David. I knew I was going to be just fine. After we collectively said our prayers over the bread and wine, I breathed a sigh of relief.
We washed our hands and began our meal. I, being the American, was offered a can of Coke; it's our favorite, right? I was asked a peculiar question. In rapid fire French that I was not quite ready for, Mr. B. asked me right out, "So, what think about American Judaism? What do you have to say about it?" Maybe it was the desperate need for sleep, maybe I was taken off guard, but the question gave me pause. I'd been on birthright and I'd been asked similar questions about Jewish life in America, albeit by peers. To Mr. B., I'm sure I rattled off something about how it's a complicated issue, there are shades of gray, to each their own; all of those fair and good diplomatic phrases. In the coming weeks I got to know and develop relationships with this family and learn about their modern Orthodox life in France as well as in Tunisia (where Mr. B. immigrated from). His question was a thought I often came back to. As a very reform Jewish gal, I could only speak from that experience. It was interesting to ponder and discover how French Jewish culture differs from American Jewish culture.
To come…learning how to shop for kosher groceries, going to services in France and more! Stay tuned and thank you very much for reading.