27 September 2007

What I wouldn’t give for a course catalog, thoughtless listening, and a grounds crew

On the one hand, these first few days of class have been endlessly and unbelievably frustrating. I showed up early Monday morning without any idea what language level I’d tested into, without any assurance that the schedule I’d sketched out from the confusing and ever-changing ‘guides pedagogiques’ would work at all. Mission 1: find out my language block at the foreigners’ institute. I’d tested into ‘diplome d’etudes francaises,’ the middle level. Okay. No class until Tuesday afternoon. Okay. Mission 2: double check times and locations of all classes I-might-remotely-possibly-consider-even-auditing at Marc Bloch, the real university. I found I had francophone literature that afternoon for two hours, and a fun ‘quirks of language’/linguistics course for two hours after that. Mission 3: find out which electives at the foreigners’ fit around these courses. Okay. French-English translation course directly following linguistics, then twentieth century literature directly following translation. Okay: Six hours straight of French classes, four hours of which are formatted for native speakers. Oi.

So I slipped in awkwardly, was undoubtedly called out for not being signed up for the course, had to explain that I was a foreign student, was either ignored or patronized by the prof. The francophone literature prof speaks with an accent, on top of speaking in French. I found out that the linguistics course is already full, so I can only audit it. And, after these two courses were over, I had more than realized that I had forgotten to eat lunch and now didn’t have time, so I was enormously hungry and had a headache from listening so hard and trying to blend in and deciding what to do and where to go and when and why and how. The whole experience was overwhelming. And that was just the first day! Fortunately, it ended with ‘Le Pont Mirabeau’ by Apollinaire and a brief study of twentieth century French poetry. And I like nothing so well as French poetry…nothing falls quite so sweetly on the ear. I’ve included it here for all who’d like to try pronouncing it for themselves (I recommend finding a Frenchman to read it instead!):

Le Pont Mirabeau

Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine
Et nos amours
Faut-il qu'il m'en souvienne
La joie venait toujours après la peine

Vienne la nuit sonne l'heure
Les jours s'en vont je demeure

Les mains dans les mains restons face à face
Tandis que sous
Le pont de nos bras passe
Des éternels regards l'onde si lasse

Vienne la nuit sonne l'heure
Les jours s'en vont je demeure

L'amour s'en va comme cette eau courante
L'amour s'en va
Comme la vie est lente
Et comme l'Espérance est violente

Vienne la nuit sonne l'heure
Les jours s'en vont je demeure

Passent les jours et passent les semaines
Ni temps passé
Ni les amours reviennent
Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine

Vienne la nuit sonne l'heure
Les jours s'en vont je demeure

Guillaume Apollinaire (1880 - 1918)

It wasn’t until Tuesday that I realized that everything I want to do happens at the same time, usually Monday and Tuesday afternoon. My schedule is a little more sorted out now, since my 14-hour-per-week grammar block effectively limits my options. It’s a college student’s dream schedule: no morning classes all week except Thursday, when the grammar block starts at 10:30. For me, this is a nightmare. The days feel so long when I run errands in the morning then try to collect my brain energy to concentrate in after-lunch classes that last until 6:30. I can’t imagine what it will be like as night falls earlier and earlier.

And on top of erratic course schedules and intense listening for comprehension, my campus in Strasbourg is full of modern buildings I refer to as concrete monstrosities. No value is placed on green space. A huge section of the middle of campus is bare and barricaded, though no one seems to know why. Construction is happening on the most conveniently-located university restaurant, but not on this space. I miss trees and green lawns and woods and friendly lawnmowers and crazy golf cart drivers. You know who you are.

I take consolation in my linguistics courses, friends who listen, and chocolate.

24 September 2007

Castles and Horses and Vineyards…Oh my!

It’s true: I spent most of last week gallivanting around the Loire River Valley. Leslie (the other Manchester student here this semester, a great source of entertainment and good traveling companion) and I left on a TGV (high speed train) from Strasbourg at 6:25am last Wednesday, arriving in Angers at 11:00. For those of you who know the distance, that’s quite impressive time. We went to visit Bev Ott, a Manchester graduate who went on to earn a masters in social work and start up a micro-loan program called Echoppe for women in Togo and Benin, West Africa. Echoppe provides small sums of money (increasing gradually from level to level after repayment) to women to use in their small business enterprises. Education accompanies each borrowing: first, women learn how to write their name and recognize it on a list. Health classes follow. Then children’s immunizations are required. The process keeps evolving to move women from poverty and instability to independence and security. And it works. Started in the 1990s, Echoppe now assists 3000 women. Over 20 000 women have graduated from the program, and now have their own women’s mutual, which provides larger loans for personal needs like repairing a roof or getting better health care. The money comes from the women’s pooled savings. The women in the mutual are politically active, running for office within the mutual and also campaigning for better water and electric services where they live. The hope is that one day the mutual will provide the principal amount for Echoppe’s start-up loans: a complete, cyclical, independent process that works. If anyone is interested in learning more about this project or supporting it, please please feel free to email me (crhamilton@manchester.edu) and I’ll put you in touch with Bev.

So, Bev, a very dedicated and respectable woman living with her husband Olivier, daughter Anna, and son Stephan near Angers in the Loire Valley. Their property is amazing, but they’ve worked hard to salvage it. You know how we have ‘fixer-uppers,’ houses that are in poor shape but probably less than 50 years old? Imagine fixing up ‘La Gaucherie aux Dames’ and finding out that it is actually a several-hundred-year-old castle! No turrets or fortifications or impregnable walls, but at least a moat, the remains of a dungeon, two towering pillars at the porch (main entrance), and a crumbling bread oven! Bev and Olivier have turned some of the outbuildings into very nice bed-and-breakfast type accommodations—after tearing out branch/sand/mud ceilings and re-plastering worse-for-the-wear walls made of ‘touf,’ the sandstone common to the Loire Valley. Incredible.

Leslie and I stayed in a bedroom in the ‘git,’ which can house eight people and is rented to vacationers throughout the year through the ‘git rurale’ program. Our porch overlooked the valley, including the river Lys and many cows and sheep and a horse and three church steeples. Bev proved a well-trained guide for the area, explaining the history of buildings and towns and churches as we went along. We visited the high schools attended by her kids, boarding there during the week and coming home on weekends. We explored the Chateau Brissac, which to this day belongs to the same family.

They inhabit the top two floors while people tour the bottom three. It’s a strange castle, because the majority of it is Renaissance, except for the two towers up to which the castle is built, which are medieval. It’s a bit difficult to explain, but it reminded me of the Strasbourg train station, whose new façade is an overarching glass dome completely enclosing the original neoclassical architecture. Ancient and modern…they both just sort of coexist here. I keep thinking, ‘this building is older than my country…by a few hundred years!’ Some things change, but some things stay the same, like the typical French dinner. I never ate so well as when I was visiting Bev! Not only was the food delicious, but most of it came from local producers: they belong to an IMAP (equivalent to our Community Supported Agriculture; you buy a ‘share’ of the crop, 15 euros per week in this case, and then once a week you go pick up your vegetables; if the harvest is good, you get more than your money’s worth; if it’s poor, then everyone shares the burden, and the local small-time farmer can still keep his livelihood; check and see if there are any in your area! It’s a great way to each fresh, local produce, and chances are you’ll even get to know the person who grows your food); they buy milk and butter and cheese from a local producer; their meat comes from the farm next door; and, of course, bread is always fresh and wine is always local. What more can you ask for? Friday night, when the kids were home from school for the weekend, Olivier finally stopped working at the new fair-trade/local/organic store they opened last week, and the family had another guest (from Fort Wayne, Indiana, wouldn’t you know!—a friend of Bev’s mother’s), we sat at the outside table and enjoyed the aperitif, an often alcoholic but also non-alcoholic beverage accompanied by an appetizer to start the meal. Then we moved inside and had a tomato and cheese salad, then the main course of curried chicken, then the cheese, then the strawberry tart dessert, and wine and good conversation throughout. Now that’s a feast.

It felt good to be part of a family for a little while. Bev even gave us hugs! I realized about a week ago that I had not been touched since I’d arrived. The classic French ‘bisou’ (kiss on both cheeks) doesn’t count. It’s much less personal than a hug, or even an arm around the shoulder, or a hand on the back. Leslie and I discussed it and decided that we had permission to ask a hug of each other whenever we were feeling ‘untouched.’

Go give a hug.

The Vendange

It’s true: I spent an afternoon harvesting grapes in a vineyard in the Loire Valley of France. Bev arranged it, and Jean-Noel of Domaine du Petit Clocher in Clere-sur-Lyon was amiable to having two American college students working with his jovial crew of thirty-some people of all ages, backgrounds, and personalities. Mostly we worked with Chardonnay grapes, snipping each bunch off, putting it in our bucket, dumping our buckets into larger backpack-type buckets, which were then emptied into trucks, which took the grapes back to the property. It was amazing. I learned that in 1850, a blight destroyed almost all French vineyards, and so the vines we were working with were actually French vines grafted onto American roots. I learned that even the overripe and spoiled grapes are collected and put into wine, and sometimes, to make the sweetest wines, only these grapes are used. I learned that the vendange, or grape harvesting, lasts about three weeks this time of year.

And at the end, we returned to the property and Jean-Noel’s wife was kind enough to show us the process, let us taste the grape juice, pour us a glass of the sweetest white wine, and (I still can’t believe this) give us a box of THREE BOTTLES of wine from the vineyard, ‘a gift from Jean-Noel.’ Please imagine and admire the red, white, and rose wine bottles sitting on a shelf in my room.

It was definitely a series of good France days.

17 September 2007

Boot Scootin’ Mademoiselle

Oh, life is full of paradoxes, isn’t it? Just when I start to think, ‘I’m really in France!’, I find a tent-full of big belt buckles and fringe line-dancing to country western.


This weekend has been full of happenings. Saturday, the BCA group had an excursion into the Vosges mountains (think low Appalachia, not anything close to the Rockies). We visited Struthof, a WWII concentration camp—the only one built on French soil. It seems ridiculous to think of the atrocious human behavior displayed at this place, nestled into a hillside forest, overlooking some beautiful valley chateau and a vineyard on the next hill over. It was a perfectly clear, sunny day, and the green and flowers of the surrounding landscape made the camp look all the more barren. It reminded me of visiting the slave castles in Ghana: perfectly beautiful sites with perfectly horrible stories. Like standing on an old battlefield and thinking, ‘What a lovely field. Who could possibly have passed right by this view, or this brook, or this tree, and not stopped awhile and rested instead of going on to kill, torture, humiliate another human being?’ I just don’t understand.

There were things I saw at Struthof that I can’t describe, but I won’t forget. You ought to see for yourself.

We continued up the mountain to Mont Ste. Odile, a monastery covering the entire peak, seemingly growing straight from the rock. The Vosges mountains are known for their rose-colored rock, and nearly everything made from stone has this color. From Mont Ste. Odile, you can see the entire spread of the valley beneath you…and that’s pretty far. I knew we were taking a hike to the town of Barr, but I didn’t know we were taking a hike down to the all-the-way-down-in-the-valley town of Barr. It was…invigorating. The best part of the hike was when we left the pine forest with its beautiful vistas and moss-covered rocks, followed a flat road around a field, and turned a curve to find acres and acres of vineyards spreading out before us down to the town of Barr. It was about 5:00, and the sunlight fell perfectly on the rows of ripe grapes. That’s when I thought, ‘Ah, yes. This is the France in the pictures. Just let me pull out my bottle of Bordeaux and baguette, don a beret, and watch the sun set from this bench above the vineyards.’ It was too perfect.

Now, with this imagine in your mind, return to the tent-full of cowboys. This weekend were the Journées du Patrimoine (Heritage Days), when almost everything is open and free to the public. After going to the Mennonite church here in town (which was very friendly, lively, multicultural, and intergenerational), I went to the Botanical Gardens, the Alsatian Museum, the museum holding the original stone carvings and other artwork of the Cathedral, the astronomical Observatory, and the Town Hall (think beautiful Romanesque architecture, fancy velvet chairs, and lots of chandeliers). Of them all, I recommend the Alsatian Museum, which is open this year after having been closed for twenty, and which describes the history and customs of the area, and which is housed in the quintessential Alsatian building: wood frame, red flowers, courtyard, everything. In the midst of all this visiting, I had a picnic lunch on a grassy spot at the river near La Petite France (the heart of town), and I chuckled at the tourists floating by in the big sight-seeing boats.

In the mid-afternoon, I headed down to the Jardin des Deux Rives on the Rhine River to the ‘Rheinfest,’ a common French-German effort to celebrate…well, I guess just to have a party. There were concerts, arts and crafts booths, games, a few carnival rides, lots of food stands, and athletic matches on both sides of the river. And, you guessed it, I walked right in on the country western concert, some French-speaking Texan singing about women, beer, horses and tractors. I think I giggled the whole time I was there, because it all seemed so very silly to me to serendipitously find this in the middle of Europe. We’re talking boots, hats, big belt buckles, Lee jeans, and a multi-age group of about fifty line-dancers. I was very amused, and said as much to the lady sitting next to me, who explained that she has friends all over Europe in this same line-dancing group. She seemed surprised that I was so surprised. When the concert finished, I went up to lead singer Tony Lewis, introduced myself as from the States, and asked incredulously, ‘So, when did country music come to France?’ About twenty years ago, he answered. Huh.

Then I crossed the river to the German side, got one of those carbonated apple juices, and listened to an Irish band called Paddy Goes to Hollyhead. They were very good, and though I couldn’t understand a bit of German the lead singer used to please the crowd, I laughed anyway and enjoyed the concert. I ended up sitting next to a French-speaking couple, and asked a few friendly questions about the band, then through the conversation found out that they sponsor French-German-English conversation tables in Kehl and Strasbourg. When I asked the man if the band was actually from (said in French) county Cork (said with an English accent), he did a double-take and said (in French), ‘Oh, I thought you were French, but the way you said that makes me think you’re Irish.’ I was quite proud to be mistaken in such a way, until, later in the conversation when I found out that he held up the English part of the conversation tables, I said (in French), ‘Oh, so you’re not French either.’ Then he broke into a strong British accent and said (in English), ‘No, I’m English!’ We continued with a couple sentences in English, then reverted to French, just to complete the linguistic back flip. At least it wasn’t a belly flop!

I’ll tell you if, someday, I’m every mistaken for French by an actual French person.


Ps. When a black hole becomes dense enough, it actually emits a note of sound: B flat, about 57 octaves below middle C.

Pps. There are only about 2000 Mennonites in all of France.

14 September 2007

The Invitation

It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living.
I want to know what you ache for
and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me how old you are.
I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool
for love
for your dream
for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon...
I want to know if you have touched the centre of your own sorrow
if you have been opened by life’s betrayals
or have become shriveled and closed
from fear of further pain.

I want to know if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.

I want to know if you can be with joy
mine or your own
if you can dance with wildness
and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes
without cautioning us to
be careful
be realistic
remember the limitations of being human.

It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me
is true.
I want to know if you can
disappoint another
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy.

I want to know if you can see Beauty
even when it is not pretty
every day.
And if you can source your own life
from its presence.

I want to know if you can live with failure
yours and mine
and still stand at the edge of the lake
and shout to the silver of the full moon,

It doesn’t interest me
to know where you live or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
after the night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done
to feed the children.

It doesn’t interest me who you know
or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand
in the centre of the fire
with me
and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom
you have studied.
I want to know what sustains you
from the inside
when all else falls away.

I want to know if you can be alone
with yourself
and if you truly like the company you keep
in the empty moments.

© Oriah Mountain Dreamer, from the book The Invitation published by HarperSanFrancisco, 1999

Just because it’s a bike path does not mean the curbs are bike-friendly!

So I’ve rented a bike, which has been very handy for getting to know my way around and spending some time outside on these beautiful fall days. A few days ago I discovered a bike path that takes me from my street corner right into town, wending its way along the river, through the European institutions, and under a canopy of trees. The Council of Europe, European Parliament, and Droits de l’Homme buildings are quite beautiful, and I’m lucky to cycle by them every morning in their glittering modernity. While the buildings on the university campus are modern concrete monstrosities (the law building is a particular eyesore with its ominously arching face and garish red and blue décor), the EU buildings are sleek, classy, and beautifully landscaped. I especially appreciate that they trim the weeping willows that overhang the bike path.

But really, stray weeping willow branches are the least of my worries on a bike. First, there are the fickle pedestrians, who stray from the other pedestrians who have been well-trained to the dinging of my little bike bell. Then, there are the other bikers, people of all sorts who ride slow and fast, on the right and left side, who stop or don’t stop at red crosswalk lights… And finally, the curbs. How spoiled I have been all my life to have curbs that slope gently into the ground! Here, on the bike paths I have been on, if you are lucky enough to find a curb that has been cut, you will find that it is still about two inches higher than the pavement. So, you break. You brace yourself. You make sure you’re not carrying anything breakable in your basket. And you continue. And sometimes you run into swans. Yes, this morning, I found a swan on my bike path by the river. I was quite alarmed to share a four-foot-wide path with a four-foot-tall swan.

Another finagling point: It is about time for the US to switch to the metric system.

A lesson in French wooing

One day in class this week while we were learning some new terms and idioms for expressing emotion, I realized that I was being fully equipped to woo someone in French. Not just to use the language of love, but to actually say lovely things! Well, at least according to the meaning of the expression. It’s starts with Je suis tombée amoureuse quand je t’ai vu, to « fall in love, » which we all recognize. After that, you can use expressions like avoir le coup de foudre, “to be struck by lightning,” or être aux anges, “to be with the angels, ie., to be very happy.” You can also s’attacher à quelqu’un, “attach yourself to someone,” or find your l’âme soeur, “soul mate (even though soeur means sister, in this sense it’s neuter).” But when she asks you (in English) if those pants make her look fat, don’t forget this proverb: La vérité est une flèche qu’il faut tromper dans le miel avant de la lancer; “Truth is an arrow one must dip in honey before shooting.”

Grocery store horror story

So I thought I’d had my token ‘bad experience’ at the grocery store when, the first time I went, I didn’t notice the scale in the produce section and arrived at the cashier without having weighed and tagged any of my fruit. It was embarrassing enough to be sent back to the scale while people waited in line behind me. Okay, it happened, I survived, now I know.

Oh, if only that were all. Read this story and just call me “frantic foreigner.”

I spent a good while at the grocery store last night picking out the perfect ingredients (and deciphering translations and names) for the things I decided to make this week: vegetarian chili, cornbread, baked oatmeal. I got to the checkout just around closing time, packed all my stuff into my bags, and went to pay with my just-received French debit card. First, something I should have realized: this card doesn’t double as a credit card, so I couldn’t sign the receipt like I always do in the States. She woman at the cashier asked me to swipe my card and enter my pin. Pin? I’d just received the card that day, and hadn’t memorized the PIN number yet, and in quick succession I realized that 1) I no longer had the letter from the bank including my PIN with me, since I’d taken everything out of my backpack to carry the groceries home, and 2) I only had 9 euros on me, not near enough to pay for groceries. I tried to explain my embarrassed hesitation to the woman, who was very patient and kind to me. I said that I would try calling Sabine, my host mom, since she was home and could run to my room, check the letter, and read me the code. Only…Sabine didn’t pick up her phone. I left a message in flustered, broken French, which was probably very confusing. Number…bank card…room…not enough money…call back soon. Dang. So, I hung up and started to sort my things to decide what I would take home with my 9 euros and what I would leave behind, when suddenly I realized that I’d taken money out this afternoon when I’d received the card to make sure it worked, and that the money WAS with me! Whew! I have enough money! I have enough money! The cashier woman was relieved, but not as much as I was! Then, my phone rang, and it was Sabine, frantic and saying, “Ok, I’m in your room, where’s the number?” I laughed and said, “No, no, I found enough money and I’ll tell you the story when I get home.” And I did. And it was the excitement of the night in our house, and a good laugh in the end.

And I’ll never forget my PIN code, that’s for sure.

Ps. I bought my first bottle of French wine on this grocery trip: A good Alsatian Reisling, 5 euros (about $6.50). I think it’s ok; Mom, I wonder what you would think.

Pps. I learned this week that they have self-raising flour in Australia (ie., flour with the baking powder already included).

Ppps. Only in a modern art museum can you find a large toy house, a ramp of light fixtures, lines, and the classic 'blank canvas.'

11 September 2007

Chez Moi

I think I've found the paradise that Milton lost. It's in La Robertsau, a neighborhood of Strasbourg. And I get to go home to it every evening.
I live in a very nice apartment: spacious, bright, clean, and home-like. My room is on the smaller upper floor, with my bathroom and a play space. When I got to my room, there was already a down comforter on the bed, a desk and chair, and a plant welcoming me to my new home. My window looks out over the neighborhood, with lots of trees and nice homes and apartment buildings and parks, and not too much traffic. The cat comes to keep me company, and a few familiar books on the beside table, and many dear letters with dear words written by dear hands.
But the best part about this place is the family I live with: Sabine and her ten-year-old daughter Celia. I visit with them in the evenings when I get home, sometimes playing games with Celia and sometimes watching the news with Sabine. I like to talk with Celia about her studies, and she likes to ask me random questions about English and the US. Her second favorite occupation right now is playing with the cat. Sabine smiles easily, talks a lot, and relates to me as person-person rather than person-child, even though I can't understand everything she says, and she knows that.
I cook for myself, which has not been as enjoyable as this summer when I also cooked for other people and also had time to think about what I wanted to make and cook it. My meals are fairly simple since I haven't been able to access my newly-opened French bank account yet, complete with BCA stipend. Once I do get that, though, I'll be able to better budget my meals and think and cook. Right now, I buy lots of fresh vegetables (although I haven't been to the farmer's market yet), good bread, and good cheese. And tomorrow I'm going to lunch with a couple new friends who are also vegetarian. We just figured out that we had that in common, and we felt a little more empowered in this meat-based more-German-than-French cuisine, and so we decided to have a celebration of sorts. Did I tell you that Saturday night when I moved in and my host mom made a welcome dinner, it was a typical Alsatian meat-and-potatoes dish? I ate and enjoyed it, after explaining in broken French that I really don't eat meat, and why, but that I do make some exceptions, and that everything would be just fine...I'm sure it was an endearing moment.
She likes me anyway.
And I like her, and being here, and living in this place.

10 September 2007

8 September 2007

“Friday: out, Saturday: shop, Saturday night: out, Sunday: church, Sunday afternoon: shop, Sunday night: out,” she said.

And it was then that I realized that I probably have less in common with most of the other American students in the BCA group than with the French and foreign students I’ve met and befriended this week. I take back the compliments I made about this group: in fact, a majority of them are quite xenophobic and not at all gregarious about meeting people outside the group. They’re always together, and they always speak English. Here’s a good comparison:

Last night I met up with the group to go to an Irish pub they’d picked out to watch the France-Argentina rugby game (France lost, by the way). I came from an organ concert I’d attended at the Strasbourg cathedral, which was amazing. The organist, Martin Gester, played pieces by Buxtehude, Grigny, Boehm, Bach, Mozart, Rheinberger, Boely, and Haydn (I barely know any of those composers, but some of you might). In a huge 11th-15th century cathedral! I couldn’t believe I had the chance to go. It was after this concert that I met up with the other students, who had spent the afternoon online at the BCA office, and the evening dining together at a Chinese restaurant. I know, sometimes I just want to speak English and be understood and be in a familiar environment, but… When we got to the pub, the group actually ended up getting drinks and sitting outside, together, speaking English, because it was so crowded inside. I ended up watching part of the game, but mostly talking with a friendly girl I met named Adèle who’s studying English at the university. And what did we speak? French. I’m not trying to glorify my choices; I’ve just had a personal encounter with the stereotypical behavior of American students studying abroad. And I’m glad I don’t exhibit that behavior.

This week in review:

All week long, every day, from 9-5, I heard and spoke and wrote and read and practiced and studied and learn French. They call it the ‘Stage,’ and it’s a pre-semester language intensive for foreign students. In the morning, I have a grammar block, in which we’ve studied various verb tenses and modes and talked about reality TV. Our lunch ‘hour’ is actually 12:30-2:00, after which I have a literature course and then a culture workshop. In the former, we’re studying contemporary French literature, and by that I mean we read extracts and listen to lectures on Daily Life literature, Pessimist literature, and Ironic/Metaphysical literature. In the workshop, my group is studying the use of the Alsatian language (regional language of Alsace related to German), which has proved to be the most interesting subject. There is an office here in Strasbourg dedicated to the teaching and promotion of Alsatian. They have lots of leaflets about the use and utility of Alsatian in different contexts, and they send out letters to new parents encouraging them to sign their children up for Alsatian classes, and everyone in the office is fluent in Alsatian. It’s pretty amazing. I think I’ll probably take classes in Alsatian while I’m here; seems I can’t get enough of languages!

Two other girls in my group have become pretty good acquaintances. One is Hulda, from Iceland, and then Hayley, from Australia. Hulda is very friendly and outgoing, and will be here studying architecture for the next three years. Her biggest travail has been finding an apartment, which made me realize just how fortunate I am to have had most of the details taken care of by BCA before I came. I’ve still had quite a time figuring out how to live here, but nothing like not knowing where I’m going to be living for the next three years and needing to find a place using my limited French skills. But she did it! Hayley is well-traveled and confident, and she’s enrolled in Marc Bloch as a regular French student rather than a foreign student, so she’ll be here three years as well. She has dreadlocks and about three changes of clothes and crazy ideas, and she’s always ready to have a deep discussion. She seems to have pretty much everything under control, which is very comforting when you’re feeling rather disoriented. And she has a great Aussie accent!

And what did I do outside of class this past week? I rented a bike, which I’ll have for two months and use instead of the bus. I got all the documents ready to apply for my residency card, with an appointment next Friday. Then I found out I wouldn’t have all the necessary documents, because my student card (which it seems that everyone but BCA students have) will not be ready, for some reason, until the end of this month (just after classes start). I planned a trip to Angers in the Loire Valley with Leslie, another year student from Manchester, for the week of the 16th, since we have a week off before classes start and a standing invitation from Bev, an MC grad who lives on a farm just outside of Angers with her family. I finished stocking my pantry and bought a card for cheap meals at university cafeterias. I got a train card for people 12-25, which gives me about 50% off regular ticket prices (it’s paying for itself double just in my trip to Angers). I wrote a few letters and emails, looked at the Strasbourg map a lot, and missed people. I tried to wrap my mind around the fact that I live here. I visited with Sabine and Célia, host mom and sister. I learned lots of new words and expressions. I was hot and cold and nervous and amazed and uncertain and amused and cozy and impressed and confident and disgusted and confused and frustrated and happy and pleased and satisfied and…human.

Are you all being human out there, too?

03 September 2007

You would not believe what I saw...

Yesterday in Strasbourg, all the protestant churches held a service in common in the Parc de la Citadelle. So, I thought I'd go, right? Well have I got news for you: I found that evangelical holy-roller emotive Christianity (which I thought was unique to the US) exists in France. I couldn't believe it! There were praise and worship songs, blared from a 'Gospel Vision' semi truck/stage and sung by euphoric people with raised hands; a very emotional testimony given by a formerly-Jewish woman, complete with Christian buzzwords; a drama enacting some violent repression of Christianity by the state; and an altar call. I was absolutely stunned to find this sort of Christianity practiced in France (traditionally very Catholic) and Europe in general (where fewer and fewer people even attend Church or culturally idenitfy with Christianity). And, for myself, I didn't like it.
So, after the service, I took myself to the fine arts museum (free the first Sunday of every month). Notably, I saw original El Greco, Goya, and Delacroix paintings. My favorite, however, was 'La Strasbourgeoise', a resident of the city painted in her ostentatious early 19th century garb complete with a large hat that extended beyond the width of her hooped skirt. Nice.
And, finally: I bought a fresh, beautiful, tasty baguette today for 70 cents, and almost cried.