Saturday, October 5, 2013

First Days in Forbach

Thankfully Eric, Kasey and I had gained some sort of super-human strength from lugging all of our bags throughout the city, because I enlisted them to help me one last time – I needed to maneuver my two suitcases and overstuffed computer bag from our 5th floor apartment down into the bowels of the metro, across the city and onto my awaiting train to Forbach.  It’s a good thing I decided to take the train on Sunday morning, because not too much is open in France on Sundays, and therefore there aren't too many people out and about crowding the metro.  

With some more blood, sweat and tears (ok, maybe just sweat!) we made it to Gare de l’Est, the train station in which you board trains that are headed eastbound.  After boarding the train and saying my good-byes, I had a nerve-wracking 1:40 ride to my new home in Forbach.  The train I took is part of the French TGV system – meaning train de grande vitesse, or simply “high-speed train.”  And let me tell you, it goes so fast!! The computer screen in my car told me that we were cruising along at speeds topping out at 310 kilometers/hour (nearly 195 mph!) – normally this journey would take between 3 ½ to 4 hours by car.

Welcome to Forbach! 
As I struggled to the door of the train with my luggage, two nice Frenchies offered to help take them off the train for me – there is a God!  They kind of laughed at me because I had so much stuff with me, but wished me good luck as I rolled away into the station. 

[Ok, “rolled away” isn't entirely accurate because one of the wheels on one suitcase cracked in half and no longer rolled, and the whole wheel casing on the other suitcase snapped into 3 pieces and was hanging on by a thread…but needless to say I made it inside.]

Up to this point I had been a little unnerved because I hadn't successfully been able to firm up a plan with my contact person at the school where I’d be working, didn't have a working cellphone or WiFi connection to check my email, and basically was stepping into no-man’s land with 150 pounds of baggage and a giant knot in my stomach.  But within seconds, a man approached me to ask if I was Rachael, the English teaching assistant (What gave it away? The look of terror on my face?!), and it was indeed my contact person, Clément, an English teacher at the school.  He helped load my bags into his car and we headed off into the city of Forbach.

I had been under the impression that I was going to be able to get the keys to my apartment at the school that afternoon and would be able to move in that day – and quite honestly, I was looking forward to laying down and de-stressing a bit!  Unfortunately, or so I thought at the time, no one works in the school’s office on Sunday, so I was out of luck.  Fortunately, Clément had arranged for me to spend the night at his friend Doris’ house and told me we’d be able to get into the apartment the next afternoon.  That kind of burst my bubble because my first thought was about how I’d have to open up and rifle through my suitcases AGAIN to find clothes for the next day, then repack and move one more time.  Thankfully I was just tired and being momentarily selfish, because the day turned out great.

Clément took me to a little café on a sunshiny terrace where we spent an hour or so talking about where I was from, what I studied in college, etc. I’m pretty sure that the little bit of caffeine I ingested at that point was all that was keeping me awake!  We then went for a preliminary stroll down the main drag of Forbach (strolling: a common theme of life in France), and again, not much was open because it was a Sunday, but we ended up at a Moroccan restaurant for lunch.  Lamb kebabs, steaming hot couscous and a bowl full of roasted veggies really hit the spot! 

Mining monument in downtown Forbach
Re-energized, Clément drove me around the rest of Forbach and some of the surrounding towns like Stiring-Wendel to show me all the buildings that had been constructed to house the coal miners who worked in this area.  I learned that there were certain types of lodging for regular workers and fancier ones for foremen and their families.  Tragically, the mines all closed about 10 years ago, and as people need to work to survive, Forbach and the surrounding communities saw a massive population decline as people moved away to find work; the region consequently fell into economic turmoil.  It’s not all bad though – many of the once-abandoned mining villages are being refurbished and lived in, and the region is slowly starting to climb out of its deep recession. 

Memorial to the Puits Simon catastrophe in 1985
During our drive, we stopped at a memorial to the 1985 tragedy in the Puits Simon (puits meaning “mine”). Apparently there had been an explosion of firedamp, a mixture of gases found in mines (including methane), which caused part of the mine to collapse, crushing 19 miners and asphyxiating 3 more as they tried to escape.  Clément explained that his father had worked in the local mines and re-emphasized just how dangerous that line of work can be.  That being said, the French government recognizes the risks involved in mining and does provide benefits to miners and their families, such as extremely low-cost (if not free) housing, medical coverage, free utilities, etc.  Some of the metalwork which served to bring coal up out of the mines has been left still standing, so the landscape in this area is interesting.  When you look around you see these big metallic skeletons looming over the horizon, serving as a painful reminder of the tragedies (both in terms of lives lost and economic decline) which have fallen on this once-booming industrial area. 

Abandoned mining infrastructure, as seen from my bedroom window
On a happier note, the German city of Saarbrücken (Sarrebruck, in French), which lies just over the German border and touches Forbach, is alive and thriving – and was also our next destination.  I thought it was pretty cool that I had just arrived in my new city and was already taking a trip abroad for the afternoon!  Like Forbach, a good chunk of Saarbrücken was destroyed during World War II, so the city is split between the historic district (that which survived the war, most of it from the 18th century) and the modern district (all circa 1950).  We walked around the shopping district, spent an hour or so having drinks and people-watching in one of the main squares, and then walked up to the historic district to get some cool views of the city.  The city has museums, malls, movie theaters and other cultural attractions – many of which Forbach is lacking – and it’s nice to know that there’s a bus route from Forbach to Saarbrücken that only takes 20 minutes!  Clément told me that pretty much everyone in this area of Germany speaks both German and French (and many of them also speak English), so I should have no problem communicating with them whenever I choose to visit.  Also of note: cosmetics and household items are cheaper here due to differences in tax systems, and both clothes and shoe sizes are one size larger than their French equivalent.  You learn something every day!

View from a café in one of Saarbrücken's main squares
Saarbrücken's City Hall
Historisches Museum Saar - the Museum of the History of the Saarland, on my to-do list!
View of tour boats on the Saar River
Saar River
A view into modern downtown Saarbrücken
Pretty petunias on the bridge over the Saar
Upon returning to France, we met up with Doris, a sweet, peppy and very welcoming dame d’un certaine âge (the polite way of referring to an older woman) at whose home I’d be spending the evening.  The three of us went out to a restaurant specializing in the regional cuisine of Alsace-Lorraine, my new home, and we each enjoyed a mouth-watering flammekueche gratinée (or flamm’ as it’s commonly referred to), paired with a local pinot grigio.  Flammekueche is essentially a puffy thin-crust pizza with a base of cream sauce, topped with ham and emmental (pretty much Swiss cheese).  A delicious end to an interesting day.

It was nice to sleep in the next morning, and I awoke to a spread of all the donuts, baguettes, jams and butter that you could ever imagine!  Clément arrived shortly afterwards to pick me up and finally take me to my apartment.  I got to meet a few of the English teachers in the teachers’ room, and then we headed off to have lunch at the school’s cafeteria.  Quite impressive, if you ask me! No pizza and French fries here – we dined on pork roast, au gratin potatoes, salad, bread, cheese and yogurt.  And the best part? They have wine in the teachers’ dining room!  

I was quite impressed with it all and later found out that it only costs me 3,15€ to eat here (under $4.20!), so I consequently pre-paid for 10 meals so I can swipe into the caf for lunch or dinner anytime I don’t feel like cooking.  Conveniently located 100 feet from the entrance to my building, this French high school’s dining hall beats out any public school lunch I've ever eaten in the US.

At 2 pm it was finally time to bring all my bags upstairs and cautiously open the door to my apartment... 

Located on the 4th floor (5th floor in the US) and with no elevator, I put my muscles to good use once again and got all my bags into my new home with Clément’s help.  I’m hoping this will be the last time I have to move that amount of bags until I head home in May!  Much bigger and much more well-furnished than I had been envisioning (especially after moving into a jail cell-like room when I was a freshman in college), I was pleasantly surprised and will let the pictures I took do the talking…

Our door! Complete with working doorbell
Our living room/dining room/kitchen area
Living room view into WC and my room
More of the common room
My armoire, which is totally jam-packed!
My desk area, slowly but surely getting more decorated
My bed
My cute little owl from Paris is feeling right at home in my new room!
The view from one of my windows...
...and the view from the other window (the smoke rising in the background is in Germany)
Our cute little bathroom with a shower curtain which reminds me of the Paris metro map...
Our pantry was pretty well-stocked when we got here
Our oven/stovetop, view into the hallway with a closet, leading to the bathroom and spare bedroom
Spare bedroom! Come visit us!
Meike's room - although it looks much better now that she's here and decorated it! 
After a quick trip to Super U (the French version of Big Y?) to stock up on food and buy some bedding, I settled in for an evening of finally unpacking all my suitcases and setting up my new home.

The rest of the week was pretty uneventful - I had a lot of stressful bureaucratic stuff to get done, and I needed to work on setting up my cute little apartment!  The best part about living at the school is that it doesn't cost me anything - no rent, no utilities - I just had to pay an 80€ deposit in case of damage to the apartment, pretty sweet deal if you ask me!  I live in the old dormitory building at the school in the equivalent of what would be the RA suite.  There is a computer lab and one French classroom on the lower floors of the building, and then there's just one apartment each on the second, third and fourth floors.  I've yet to see who lives in the two apartments below us, but hopefully we'll meet them someday!

Janitors from the school supposedly "cleaned" the apartment before I arrived, but I'm not quite sure whose cleanliness standards they were trying to meet, because the place was pretty dirty when I got there!  So me and Monsieur Propre (the French version of Mr Clean! and yes, he's bald and has an earring here in France, too) got to know each other pretty well, and with a little elbow grease and a grungy old mop I found laying around I got the place up to snuff.

Then, I met up with Clément and we ventured off to Orange, a phone/internet/cable provider, in order to get me set up with all of the above.  Let me tell you, trying to negotiate technological terms and contracts in a foreign language is a bit daunting - especially when you're less-than-literate in all that nonsense in English to begin with!  Thankfully the guy there was wicked nice and good at explaining it all in layman's terms, so I walked out of there with a pretty great set-up: I got cable, wireless internet (le wifi, pronounced wee-fee, en français), and a landline phone (including unlimited calls to the USA, France, and 98 other countries) for 42€ per month - which I split with my roommate - so I only end up paying $25 a month for all that!  He handed me a bag containing the cable and internet boxes I needed to hook up and wished me good luck.

Technology: go!
Thankfully, after some wine, color-coded directions for dummies and a bit of head scratching, everything was hooked up and looked just like the diagrams in the manuals - success?  Maybe.  I honestly had no idea if it was connected properly because the services weren't set to be activated for 3 more days, so I crossed my fingers and waited...

On Wednesday I ventured back to Orange to try to sort out a cell phone plan for myself - one can only take so much stress in one day!  Thankfully I was waited on by the same nice guy who had helped me out the day before - he even remember I was Mademoiselle White!  I ended up with a Samsung Galaxy Trend, which is pretty similar to the Samsung Stratosphere that I had back at home, and for 20€ per month I get unlimited calls, texts and picture messages to anyone in France, as well as 150 megabytes of internet - which doesn't hold a candle to the 4 gigabytes of data I have back in the US...but at least I can use apps and the internet on my phone over wifi while I'm in my apartment.  I decided to splurge a bit on my phone and opted for a smartphone - since I don't have to worry about paying rent, I figured why not treat myself?  I had now left the Stone Age and was well on my way to being fully re-connected with the modern world!  

Some people say it's nice to take a break from technology, not needing to worry about getting text messages and emails every 15 seconds, and not yearning to log onto Facebook just one more time to make sure you aren't missing out on the next twerking scandal or shocking break-up...and I have to admit that for the first couple of days that was great.  But after a week and a half of living in a foreign land with very limited means to contact anyone back home or even look up directions to the nearest grocery store, my technology cleanse was really getting to me.

Finally, on Thursday afternoon, I got a bit of a diversion when my roommate Meike (pronounced MY-kuh) arrived from Germany! She is a student at the University of Stuttgart who will be spending her time in France working as the German teaching assistant, both here at Lycée Jean Moulin and at the high school in neighboring Behren-les-Forbach.  I helped her unload her car (a Ford Fiesta, imagine that!) and bring all of her bags up to our super-human ability for hauling luggage was once again put to good use!  We did some quick errands and I was able to show her how to get to the grocery store and to the main street in town - that was as much exploring as I had been previously willing to do without a map or internet! 

My roommate, Meike!
Friday morning, hallelujah! The internet/TV/phone began to work! This was proof that all of our boxes were properly connected, and while it may seem like a small victory, I was so overly relieved to be once again connected to the rest of the world.

Since Meike only lives a couple hours away in Germany, it's great that she drove here, because as we all know, doing errands is much easier when you can tote your heavy bags around in a car instead of dragging them down the sidewalk!  After a delicious lunch of Turkish kebab downtown, we ventured over to Cora together (the closest thing I can imagine to the French version of Super Walmart) to stock up on some food and load up the car with more household supplies.  It's nice peace of mind knowing that Meike has her car here and thus we are not trapped in this pretty sleepy town relying solely on buses or the train for the whole school year - we're looking forward to exploring the Lorraine region of France!

Saturday we went on a little hike up to the Schlossberg in Forbach - I learned that means "hill with a castle" in German.  Conveniently located right behind our school, the ruins of the castle sit perched atop a hill in the middle of a tranquil park.  We took a nice stroll through the paths in the forest which spiral up the hill towards the ruins and admired the scenery of the town sprawling away from us far below as we climbed.

Entrance to Parc Schlossberg
First mentioned in 1257 AD, the castle grounds included a square dungeon (tower), a palace, and a surrounding defensive rampart.  The famous Cardinal Richelieu ordered the leveling of the castle in 1634 during the Thirty Years' War as revenge for the insubordination of the Prince of Lorraine, who was a member of the Holy Roman Empire, against Louis XIII.  During the French Revolution the remains of the castle, along with a few newly constructed fortified buildings, then became known as la Montagne de Fraternité (the "Mountain of Brotherhood").  All of these structures and the surrounding land were later purchased by a rich industrial baron named Gustave Adt in 1886, who funded vast excavations of the ruins.  Adt continued on to restore the site, creating a park around the castle and reconstructing the 28 meter (92 ft) tall tower which stands as a symbol of the city today.  Unfortunately the tower (and most of Forbach itself, for that matter) was badly damaged during the siege of Forbach at the end of World War II, but the city scraped up funds to completely restore it once again in 1951.  Visitors to the Parc Schlossberg today can stroll through vast expanses of forest, picnic in the fields, enjoy fountains and flowers in the garden, and hike up to the top of the hill to explore the grounds surrounding the tower.  The tower is open occasionally for tours, so a return visit is on our to-do list!

Check out those guns!
View of Forbach from halfway up the Schlossberg

Ancient fortifications of the Schlossberg
The reconstructed tower atop the hill, the symbol of Forbach
I was happy to find a restaurant serving moules-frites not too far from my school! Essentially a large pot of mussels served with a plate of fries, I developed an appreciation for this dish during my stay in Paris - these were cooked in a sauce of cream, bacon and onions...mmm!  We're lucky to have a kitchen in our apartment, equipped with a small oven and stovetop, so Meike and I have been cooking up a storm lately.  So far we've made pizza (with dough from scratch!), baked a flan, and prepared a delicious dinner of turkey cutlets, rice, salad and green beans. I love to cook, and it definitely beats paying money to eat out all the time, so I'm looking forward to more adventures in haute cuisine!

There is a third teaching assistant in Forbach who lives and works at the Blaise Pascal high school on the other side of town - his name is Rudi and he's from the UK.  We invited him over to hang out the other night and had fun getting to know each other and chatting about where the heck we'll have to go in order to find some excitement around this place!  

Rudi and Meike, representing Team Forbach with me!
Thankfully I had a lot of free time during the week so I was able to catch up on some TV shows I had missed out on since I left home...namely Breaking Bad!  It's by far my favorite show and as I had missed two episodes already, which led up to the series finale this past Sunday, I wanted to be caught up before hearing any spoilers online!  Excellent episodes, as per usual, and boy did they tie up all the loose ends during the final show - it was a great program to look forward to every Sunday night, so now I'll have to find some new French series with which to occupy my time.

Love this Breaking Bad quote! Walter White's words to live by
The rest of my week was spent filling out various forms for the school (I have a veritable mountain of paperwork cluttering my desk at the moment!) and waiting for the school's secretary to draw up other documents for me, like my attestation de logement which confirms that I am lodged at the school, so that I could use these papers to complete other tasks, like opening a bank account and applying to the national Sécurité Sociale system.  I've been playing the waiting game ever since I got here - all the paperwork forms a chain, so you can't complete one part without having the previous part done first - but it's been frustrating since none of the school officials seem to be in too much of a hurry to get anything accomplished.  I have a lot on my plate at the moment, but my hands are essentially tied until they pick up the slack!  Hopefully I'll be able to report that my paperwork has been sorted out in the not-too-distant future!

La Salle des Profs (Teachers' Room) in the school where I work
That's right - my very own mailbox in the teachers' room :)
I am, however, happy to report that I now know how the laundromat in town functions.  This was a slightly daunting task, as I'm used to doing my laundry either at home or at college in a laundry room attached to my dorm, so the fact that I had to lug 9 days worth of clothes down into town with me was a little annoying - can't wait to be doing that in the dead of winter!  But I successfully figured out yet another part of daily living here in Forbach, and thus removed one more stressor from my list of day-to-day activities.  It might seem like something small, but life runs much more smoothly once you iron out all the little bumps along the road (pardon the laundry metaphor!)...    

Our bread knife is sheathed in a carved wooden baguette, how French! Good for slicing bread and/or clubbing intruders.


  1. I can't wait to come and see you Rach! Love ya :)

  2. Love all the pictures! Nice to see that your room isn't a jail cell haha and your roommate and friend look nice! Can't wait to hear about more crazy adventures :)

  3. This is totally bizarre but it looks like this blog is about the school where I'll be working as the English assistant this year! So the information about accommodation etc is very useful! Have you got any hints and tips about living and working there?

    1. Hi Gemma! Glad my posts may be of some use to you! I'd be more than happy to help you out with any questions you have regarding both the job and living situation - feel free to email me at so I can respond in more detail!