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…after making my way to France and being introduced to the host family I found through Chabad, I transitioned to living abroad. I flew to Grenoble a few weeks before my contract started and for those first few weeks, I was completely and utterly jet-lagged. The language barrier added to the fatigue. Little things like acquiring a bus pass and figuring out which tram took me to work were a process. French bureaucracy is time-consuming, unpredictable and requires a great deal of finesse even for native speakers. Kvetching aside, the more I came to know my host family, the more settled I became and the more experiences I took on.
Naturally, with each meal I learned more and more about my hosts. Mr. and Mrs. B were business owners with great entrepreneurial spirit. Mr. B. designed restaurant and retail store concepts and owned a few clothing shops in town. Moving to Grenoble from Tunisia with his family in his twenties, he was determined to create a successful living. Mr. B’s mother would often stop by for lunch, Shabbat dinner or just to say, “hello.” A bright and vibrant woman, you could barely tell she was in her eighties. You could tell just how proud of her son she was. Chatty and personable, she always politely encouraged me to eat more, gleefully enjoyed stories of my American life and often told me I was smiley and adorable. Basically, she a Jewish bubbe away from home.
My host mother was just as passionate about business as her husband. She managed a clothing store near the town center. Mrs. B. was raised in a non-Orthodox household in France and “converted” her lifestyle when she met and fell in love with her husband. When she saw me taking in the two dishwasher set-up in her kitchen, she shot me a calming and understanding look. “It wasn’t easy,” she said, when she decided to take on the customs of a modern Orthodox lifestyle. “But it was worth it.”
Mr. B’s entrepreneurial attitude quickly revealed his capitalist leanings in a country with major socialist tendencies. Over dinner we would ramble on about the realities and shortcomings of the French 35-hour work week, the French workplace in general, and the plethora of creative ways French citizens could live off the state. He expressed great interest in the ways of American industry, especially American work ethic. He loved Obama, like most Frenchmen, but pointedly asked if I thought he had Israel’s interests at heart. Acting as an “American representative” made my head spin. I kept up with the news, but I didn’t want to express my opinions as anything other than my own. It was harmless really...as much as the French get a negative reputation for disliking Americans, in my limited experience, there’s more cultural and political curiosity than anything else. Though both nations are very “Western,” the motives that drive both countries and its citizens are very, very different.
My host brother was quite a character. At the time, 18-year-old David was studying to be a doctor, which meant being locked in his room for the majority of the day taking classes online and studying. Medical school in France seemed to be a terrifying endeavor...after the 1st year, more than half of the students are cut. Only the best and brightest make it to the end, so industriousness is necessary. When he emerged from his room, David proved to be an expressive guy with a seriously silly side. He talked like his mouth was full of marbles and was addicted to Diet Coke, well, addicted to Coca-Cola Light. He was a counterpart to his older brother who left early on to study at Oxford for the school year. Joachim possessed a quiet and composed demeanor, endlessly patient in showing me around town. He spoke slowly and smiled often, which was just what I needed those first few weeks in town. The B. family would soon take me to meet their friends at shul, teach me how to keep kosher in France and prepare me for my stay in the lovely and fabulous Grenoble, France.