Visa Struggles

This was one of the first drafts I made for this blog–I was hoping to write more regularly, but I suppose that got away from me.

I spent so much time worrying about my visa appointment at the French Consulate in Boston, I literally had plans to write a blog post about my experience 5+ months in advance. Oh well! Turns out it was a dream. Super easy and quick. Here’s to keeping that efficiency up for the next two years, France!

The New Observatory

If it was clear on Wednesday night you could go to the new observatory at Vassar for viewing hours; the old observatory, famous for its connection to famed astronomer Maria Mitchell, having been converted into the current Education building. Tucked away on a hill overlooking Sunset Lake, the observatory was way off the beaten track.

Almost weekly, I would think about going. I would plan to go. Almost seal it in stone. And then I would forget or something else would come up.

I finally went my senior year with my housemate Christian and it lived up to every expectation. It was a bizarre little community of incredibly friendly physics majors who were, quite honestly, shocked to have visitors. Even now, I’m not sure why I started writing this. I made a draft for this piece weeks ago and then it came to a standstill. Nostalgia–pointed or pointless–seems to be a recurring theme in my writing. Is this blog some kind of eulogy for days long past? An elegy for lost dreams? There’s a great metaphor in there. Something about stargazing but not seeing what else is around. Maybe I still just miss the rats. The dead mice at YA aren’t quite cutting it anymore.

Starfish Story: On Cannibals

Coffee. Pencils. Smile. Check.

 

It was our fourth small group intervention block. Jack* and Joe* were both in seventh grade and struggling with English Language Arts (and, to be honest, managing their behaviors). Our previous sessions had been rough. Team building had been difficult between these students and neither one was particularly fond of the other. Their exact words were: “We don’t like each other,” and they said it with an impressive level of self-awareness for tweens.

 

Young Achievers has dedicated times in the morning and afternoon for advanced students to excel, intervention sessions for struggling students, and enrichment activities for its students to have a multidisciplinary education. As corps members, we run individual or small-group mentoring interventions based on nation-wide Common Core standards and practices. Spending most of my time in a fifth and sixth grade math classroom made the transition a little to working with students in English, but I was determined to make it work.

 

I had tried a few tactics to win them over: donuts (“Glazed? I only like chocolate”), games (they threw the stress balls at each other instead of the trashcan), and even The Chronicles of Narnia had been a bust. After crowdsourcing ideas from my team, an obvious solution appeared: why not ask Jack and Joe what they wanted to do?

 

“Cannibalism.”

“Yeah, that could be cool.”

 

Could cannibalism be the solution to all of our problems? Yeah, no. They were messing with me. Before I even had time to explain what the word “facetious” meant, they were out the door for winter break.

 

But the first thing out of Jack’s mouth when they got back was:

 

“So when are we talking about cannibalism? You told us we’d talk about cannibalism.”

“Oh, that’s for, um, next week.”

 

So I got to work. There are three major types of animal cannibalism: Intrauterine (in the uterus), Sexual (during or after mating), and Filial (either parents eating their offspring or the offspring of others in order to reduce competition for resources). I made a few weeks worth of multimedia lesson plans, drawing from Youtube videos and scaffolded academic articles to really get to the meat of cannibalism in the animal kingdom. We would read articles about praying mantises and then watch them prey on one another after mating, drawing linkages between texts, videos, and our own lived experiences. For the first time since starting our interventions, Jack and Joe were actively engaged in the lesson plans and hungry for more knowledge.

 

We still have rough days–I mean, cannibalism can’t solve all of our problems. But for the first time Jack and Joe were collaborating and discussing texts with each other instead of biting at each other like fetal sand tiger sharks in their mother’s womb (hey, we’re all lifelong learners). And that’s a great first step as we work toward increasing their fluency, comprehension, and Vocab week by week!

 

“So when are we talking about human cannibalism?”

“Oh, that’s for, um, next week.”

 

Coffee. Pencils. Smile. Check.

Digging through Memory: On Archaeology

You remember one thing and that suddenly reminds you of another. Thinking about archaeology always makes me wonder “what if?” Could I have taken it all the way to a PhD? Did I even want to take it that far? Questioning authenticity, showing respect for other cultures, building bridges formed from shattered rocks and smashed bones. New questions arising from the answered (?) previous ones. But archaeology can only find those tangible things we leave behind, only structures and materials coated in dust and dirt. But I think I want more than that. I want the people and animals and plants (oh God, yes! yes to the plants!) that don’t make it into the archaeological record. Maybe. I want the fleshy, messy architecture of impermanence that melts away after death (unless sucking in some bog or layers of ice). Bones, too, crumble over time. It’s mostly teeth that remain long-term—hard, crystalline enamel lasting for ages but folk knowledge says dissolves in a can of coke after a day, a week. But the pieces of this puzzle are too jagged to touch. Histories and stories intertwining and contrasting, supporting and nullifying. An arrowhead here, a shard of pottery there. But human hands shaped those things—still do, in fact, as oils seep from thumbs and fingers into the crevices of once-hidden treasures. Invisible microcuts slicing and dicing our fingers into microscopic ribbons, leaving little piles on the desk where we work. But what’s the role of the archaeologist? To speak for the past? To interpret across cultural lines? To find some secrets in the dust?

Meet Me Under the Big Mirror: Marseille, a Retrospective

In a way, what was there to write about? Workload was light and rent was high. I made enemies with CAF and friends with the rats of Marseille. Maybe this should be a piece about the rats. There was one night in fall when all of the leaves in the city had fallen and, for the first time, you could really hear all of the rats running around at night, rustling and playing. They were a point of constant conversation with my friends: rat sightings per night, king rats, the sheer size of that one around the corner next to the restaurant, no not that one but the one across the street.

This is the first and final blogpost for the blog I never started during my year in Marseille working with the Teaching Assistant Program in France (which, actually, come to think of it, might have been this one: williamlefferts.wordpress.com). There was always a reason not to start writing. A trip to Berlin, a date with Maxime, “trouble” at school, private lessons, a salon to plan, etc. But I wish I had a better record of that time. I have endless pictures and the emotions those invoke, but a written account has such a different appeal. It’s the same with my semester in Paris. Always meant to blog about it, never did. Maybe I took too much time exploring to step back and reflect…just kidding. Both times I’ve lived in France, I’ve needed some sort of release from the culture shock, mild as it may be, and I spent SO much time reading/watching about life back home. Not in a “I want to leave” kind of way. But in a more complicated “I want to feel connected to what I know” way. Well, no use crying over what never was.

IMG_0794

The Vieux Port at sunset on 9/24/2013…my first night in Marseille.

Maybe I should’ve written about the big mirror at the Vieux Port, a relatively new addition to the scene, probably built as a response to the 2013 Capital of Culture that was radically changing Marseille’s reputation from a seedy port town to a cultural hub on the Mediterranean. My whole life changed under that mirror–twice. It was the meeting place for basically anything I did. I met Maxime under that mirror (we were wearing the same gray converse) on my second night in Marseille. I met my entire group of friends in Marseille in one fell swoop under that mirror and now they’re some of the closest people in my life, even the ones I don’t talk to enough. There used to be graffiti written in reverse on the stones underneath le grand miroir that said “Regarde plutôt la mer” (“Instead look at the sea”…more or less) so that it would only make sense if you were looking up at yourself. I thought for the longest time it meant something deeper, something more profound. The ocean as a universe, mother of life. Endless and finite all at once. And then my friends pointed out that it was just teasing people vain enough to look at themselves instead of looking out at something more. Which may have been the profound meaning I was looking for. We never did get matching tattoos, but I think I’ll have that scene etched in my memory for a while longer.

1382169_2065787921069_1540124242_n

At the Calanque de Sugiton!

I could’ve written about walking along La Corniche, visiting Pharo & la plage des catalans. All the time spent there. Swimming with Americlaire on our second hangout. Walking there on my second day in Marseille in my boat shoes and having them crusted over with sand and blood–and for some reason thinking that that was an appropriate topic of conversation for a date with Maxime that night. Or les calanques, the beautiful limestone inlets carved into Marseille’s coast. I never made it to Sormiou. I guess I’ll have to go back.

There’s a cliché about how living/studying abroad changes your life and Marseille might’ve lived up to that. I came away so much more competent and self-assured–for better or for worse. I met so many amazing people and gave them so many amazing nicknames (here’s to you, ‘pads & tbag & claires, both ameri- and -stralian!). I’m not sure if I have the perspective to be able to look back at myself pre-Marseille, but I think something about the Mediterranean made me more assertive, less likely to take disrespect sitting down. And I like being someone who is never afraid to speak his mind so much more than being meek. The salons (weekly/biweekly/…monthly discussions of articles and short stories in French) were such a great pet project and I’m glad to see them live on in my Radical Feminist Book Club (RadFemBooClu 4eva).

Even as I write this (and rewrite and edit and re-edit), I’m at a loss for what I want to say. There’s something poetic in here, I’m sure. Something really somber or heartfelt or optimistic, depending on how I frame it. Maybe the piece should’ve started and ended with that big mirror as a metaphor. Some sort of retrospective tangent on reflection and longing, bringing in personal growth and an anecdote. Maybe even more nostalgia. I never even mentioned le Cours Julien or Notre Dame de la Garde–but what would my year have been without those? Maybe that’ll be for later, maybe for the next time I go back.

But for some reason, as I write this, I keep going back to those rats, rustling under autumn leaves, there all along but suddenly so much more present than before.

Salt: A Retrospective

This is one of my favorite pieces that I wrote for my Literary Nonfiction class that I took during my Senior year at Vassar. It’s a mixture of dialogues/prose/etc. about something that’s really near and dear to my heart: how much I goddamn love salt.

Salt

~~~

“You’re going to die of hypertension. You’re going to have a heart attack,” they say (they all say it at one point or another). But you can barely hear them over the soft pitter-patter of flowing grains of salt pulled from the shaker to your plate; tantalizing white pyramids blooming like marble. Crystalline civilizations rising and falling, empires stretching as far as the eye can see, linked by snaking ivory trails. You raise your fork and cities crumble into ruin and landslides devastate the countryside. The fall of Rome was never so enticing.

~~~

There were no shakers in the house, just a giant vat of salt and the unspoken rule to use discretion. You could spend hours running your hands through that shifting white gold, seasoning food with your right and treating yourself to a granular snack with your left. Grainy footprints lead to and from the container, saline granules of shame cutting and scarring with each step. Let it slice deep enough and you can feel the salt pulsing inside.

~~~

Lot’s Wife: condemnation or ascension?

~~~

The greatest pleasure of eating pretzels comes from the just-emptied bag still littered with slivers of pretzel flesh and kosher salt. Take these remnants into your mouth; let the flesh melt away until all that’s left is the salt. Feel the sharp corners of your prize dissolve as you trace saline constellations on the roof of your mouth, your eyes rolling back in ecstasy.

~~~

You slice open the sweet potato. The steaming insides are red ochre. You methodically cut geometric shapes into its flesh: one line down the center, four across, each an inch apart. You put your face into the rising steam and you can almost smell the earth itself. You take the Morton salt container on your right as you pour you see endless equations forming in the glittering white sheen—ephemeral derivatives and parabolas flowing in the grains, new lines and shapes forming and reforming until not even a trace of red remains.

~~~

“You taste salty,” he tells you after he leans in for a kiss. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing,” you say as you lean in again, eyes closed and fantasizing about ocean brine.

~~~

It’s the middle of the night and it’s been so long since you did something like this and no one really needs to know, I mean, it’s not going to play out like it did last time because you were just a little thirsty then and it wasn’t even a big deal so you don’t understand why everybody made such a fuss and so you go downstairs making sure to be extra quiet just in case because you never know who might be up even though its late because you only do this kind of thing when no one is around and then you discreetly open the fridge and you unscrew the cap of the soy sauce and you really only plan to take a swig or two but before you know it the bottle is empty and you’re left there trying to get that last drop out when something catches your eye and its your mom in the door way in her nightgown and she just turns and walks away without saying anything and you go back to the bottle because that one last drop is still slowly trickling down the side and you almost have it and there it is and oh, God, it was everything you wanted it to be, but you’re still just so thirsty.

~~~

You wake up and your tongue is brittle and dry in your mouth, the mummified remains of a slug sprinkled with salt. You try to clear your throat, coughing until you hear a cracking sound and expel a cloud of dust. You reach for water but all you find is saline solution.

~~~

“Would you like some popcorn with your salt?”

~~~

You eye the margarita hungrily but don’t dare taste it, salivating at the chunks of kosher salt coating the rim. They might as well be little rocks of crack cocaine because they are driving you fucking crazy. You need to get out of here; it doesn’t matter where the fuck you go, just out. Away from this shit. You can’t go down that road again. It’s just fucking salt. NaCl. Sodium fucking chloride. Get a fucking grip. Fuck. Just get in the car and drive. But as you turn to walk away, you step in a puddle of hastily dumped tequila. Trembling with fear for what you’ll find, you raise your hand to your face and feel traces of salt around the outline of your lips. You don’t know what happened but you can already taste the kosher salt on your breath.

~~~

You will always remember the day you tried salted caramel. How could you have lived before you knew what it was like? You were an empty husk, a shell of person. Hungry for something you didn’t know you needed. You were twenty and living in Paris and you didn’t quite know what love was. Yet. But suddenly there you were outside of Pierre Hermé with a salted caramel macaron. You took a bite and you realized that love is when something makes you want to be the best possible person you can be. Love is a constant flutter like that moment before a first kiss. Love has to be mutual or it is nothing. You thought you loved salt before, but that was just infatuation. Because at that moment, this feeling made you realize that salt just might love you back. But the moment fades away and the hunger returns and you are right back where you started. So you turn around and go back into the store.

Ancillary Snow Days

an·cil·lar·y

ˈansəˌlerē
adjective
  1. providing necessary support to the primary activities or operation of an organization, institution, industry, or system.

Boston has been bombarded with snow these last few weeks–it’s getting a bit out of hand. For better or for worse, City Year Boston has been out of service every day the Boston Public Schools have been closed; 8 so far. Hence, actually, the catalyst for starting this blog:

Boredom.

Nothing too extreme. But having a place to write and, more than anything, having a project is necessary to maintain my sanity right now (otherwise I’ll just be looking up apartments I can’t afford in parts of Paris that don’t make logistic sense for studying at Sciences Po…). It’s easy to get obsessed with the details, but I’m happy with the format.

Something I struggle with is the idea of advertising this blog. The thought of a facebook status or a tweet seems so…attention hungry. I’d rather have a place to just be and create some professional-ish writing samples. Ironically, one of my biggest fears about moving to France–which are few and far between, thank God–is the knowledge that I don’t want to work in social media and I don’t want a degree in Communications to pigeon-hole me. Social Media always have a presence in the workforce–it’s too ingrained these days not to. But I know that being responsible for a Facebook page or a Twitter account would drive me crazy. I want to do something a little more strategic.

I was at City Year Boston’s 18 Minute Networking Event a few weeks ago during our Mid Year Summit and I was fascinated by the ways that people in the “Nonprofit” and general “Business” categories were utilizing communication in very nuanced ways within their fields…while the “Social Media/Communications” people were more invested in running Twitter campaigns which just isn’t my skill set or particularly interesting to me. I think working bilingually will open up some doors for me…but I guess we’ll see.

Aside from starting this blog, I’ve also used these snow days to catch up on reading. I feel like such a hypocrite with my students when I ask them what they’re reading and I don’t have an answer myself. I tend to binge read books and rarely have something constant and prolonged. I just finished Ancillary Justice, a sci-fi novel about a spaceship AI’s quest for revenge. It was GREAT! But I read it two sittings. I’m on the sequel right now, Ancillary Sword, and it’s lasting me a bit longer…but I’m not sure if it’ll make it through next weekend. Oh well, I’m just rambling now.

Nostalgia & Writing

As I sit here thinking about what to write for this first post (a 23 year-old with a new blog…shocker), I keep getting pulled back into my old stuff from undergrad at Vassar. Literary Nonfiction with M, Women’s Studies reflection pieces with Cohen & Harriford, ethnology exercises from The Ethnographer’s Craft–I mean, there’s got to be something to cannibalize from there, right? Little bits and pieces I can string together to make something sensical. Can you make a found poem from your own work?

And I keep getting pulled back by nostalgia, daydreaming of classes and whistling, wondering if life in academia was as good then as I remember it being now.

In (roughly) 6 months I’ll be moving back to Paris to start a Masters in Communications at Sciences Po and be a full-time student for the first time in 2 years. I’m incredibly pumped but also feeling a little bittersweet knowing that I’ll be taking courses as a part of a strict academic plan with fewer opportunities to branch out and take risks. Back when I first went to school in Paris in 2012, university classes were…hit or miss, to put it generously. The classes at the Vassar Wesleyan Program in Paris were stellar but those at the Université Paris VII Denis Diderot left a lot to be desired…like professors who routinely came to class. As a grande école, I doubt Sciences Po will have this kind of problem but the bureaucracy will likely have a lot of the same issues.

Here’s to some new adventures! Santé!