25 October 2007

Off galavanting around Europe...

Be back soon.

15 October 2007

When time starts to fly

I think I’ve been here for six weeks now. Or has it been seven? I’ve stopped keeping track—that’s a good sign. But it feels like almost nothing. It feels like I’m just getting started. Part of that is due to the continued publicity regarding ‘La Rentrée,’ the big back-to-school season. I laugh because, for the past four weeks, stores and clubs and the university have been advertising ‘Solde de la Rentrée’ (sale), ‘Fête de la Rentrée’ (party), ‘Rendezvous de la Rentrée’ (meeting), and you can’t help but giggle and wonder (ok, maybe you can help the giggling), So when exactly does the Rentrée end? When do people stop celebrating coming back and realize that they’re here? Exams?

Saturday afternoon over a steaming bowl of homemade broccoli soup (I make my own chunky soups, since all soups here are puréed), Leslie and I discussed with amazement the fact that we’ve been here several weeks, and were very thankful that we’re staying a year. Really, we feel like we’re just settling in, and yet in only two months almost the entire BCA group will return home. It feels so…transient. Although I suppose since I moved to college I’ve lived on ‘I can do without’s, waiting to buy or do or wash something until I go home on a break. I’m trying to get out of that mindset here, changing from ‘I can do without’ to ‘No, this would really make my life here a lot more pleasant…’. Not that I’m going on shopping sprees or anything, mind you. I’m just settling in, unpacking, realizing that now the word ‘home’ refers (in part) to Strasbourg, France.


This week in review: It’s a good thing I read linguistics books for fun! This week in my linguistics courses we distinguished content words from function words, and I think I would have been quite lost had I not read Steven Pinker’s (MIT linguist, Chomsky cohort) The Language Instinct this summer. A content word (or mot lexicale) is a noun, adjective, verb, and sometimes adverb; the category is open—we’re always adding new words to it; think ant, bluish, to blog, and standoffishly. A function word (or mot grammaticale) is a preposition, conjunction, determinant, pronoun, and sometimes adverb; the category is closed—we don’t just invent new ways to say and/or/with/he/she/very. If you can master this distinction, consider yourself a linguist. If you think you can invent a new function word, consider yourself an idiot. If you have trouble with the word and but not ant, if you can construct a perfectly grammatical sentence without understanding what it means, or if you have a hard time remembering the names of vegetables, consider yourself a victim of SLD (specific language disorder)—No really, it exists!

Just in case you missed the ball…

Saturday night, France and England took their historic enmity to the rugby field. France lost, but that’s not the most important part. Real amazement comes from realizing that two countries who had been enemies for centuries (millennia?) are now content to play games of sport instead of games of war. And what separates France from Germany? A bridge. No border guards, no customs, no security walls, no barbed wire.

Espero (from the Spanish verb ‘esperar,’ which means both ‘to wait for’ and ‘to hope’) for the day when the US plays Iraq in rugby (or soccer, or badminton, or put-put golf), when all that separates Israel and Palestine is a bridge (you know, over the hot sand), when the lion lies down with the lamb…

French Culture 101

Since I’m not exactly sure who my audience is, I think I ought to clarify the importance of wine in France. Wine is to French cuisine what _______ (cheddar cheese? Meat and potatoes? Peanut butter and jelly? Popcorn? Apple juice?) is to American fare. Alcohol is not taboo here like it tends to be in the States. It accompanies the meal, it accents the taste of the main dish, it’s consumed in company…it’s not automatically associated with drunkenness. In fact, as other study abroad students have remarked to me, there is a certain ‘alcohol consumption etiquette.’ There’s a clear distinction between families drinking wine with dinner and, well, drunkards drinking any sort of alcohol. Here’s a contrast that, if considered, might put French wine in the right light: Yesterday at church a new member was admitted. To celebrate after the service, her husband (a professional wine taster and 5 star chef) catered in an aperitif: munchies and a nice regional white wine. Wine…it’s just here.

I can't disclose whether this was actually taken in France or not, but it was with family, around a meal, with a Reisling.


Due to the incredible cost of peanut butter in the local Match supermarket (3.85 euro per jar…I think at the current conversion rate that’s about $5.75), it is now officially a sin to waste peanut butter. O ye heathens who consumeth not thine entire portion! Just think of all the poor, peanut-butter-starved Colleens in Europe.

I’m doing well, healthy and whole and safe and sound in Strasbourg. Bisou.

08 October 2007

It takes one to know one

(Me and my host family)

Tomorrow I’m going to rise with the sun and make my way to the largest farmers’ market in Strasbourg. I went last week, and the excursion was quite successful, except for the time I tried to buy a half-kilo of Parmesan cheese for 1.50 euro when it actually cost 15 euro. I excused myself on grounds of being a foreigner. I was overjoyed at meeting so many local farmers, trying to explain that I come from farmland too, that I know vegetables too. Those small-stand, small-time farmers that I met with friendly, gladly telling me about their farms and farming methods, showing me their vegetables, or fruits, or cheese and yogurt, or apple juice, or eggs. It made me think of a dear friend who has always been adamant about her roots in the Midwest, where people make casseroles for sick neighbors and everyone’s got a smile and a fresh tomato. Sometimes, here, I get the sense that I’ve found “my people,” people with whom I share a bit of identity. These farmers were such people, and it was wonderful to meet them and share in their harvest.

I like to take with me the bag I bought at the fair trade store in Angers. It reads: "Beaucoup de petites choses, par beaucoup de petites gens, en beaucoup de petits lieux, peuvent bouleverser la face du monde." (Many small things, by many small people, in many small places, can change the world.)

Conseil Generale

The BCA group visited the Conseil Generale, the regional government branch, last Wednesday to learn about the social services of the region. A few notes:

  • France is a central government as opposed to a federal government, like the US. That means that all the power rests in the hands of the central government in Paris, and that central entity demands certain things of the regional governments; in the US, the states hold the power and require certain things of the federal government. There have been recent efforts at decentralization of power.
  • Certain parts of the social services program are obligatory, required by the national government. Others are optional, formed by the initiative of the regional government.
  • The CG of the Bas-Rhin region spends 400 million dollars. The population is 1 million.
  • Initiatives concern: public health (especially maternal and infant), children and families, programs for handicapped persons and old people, and finally the reintegration of anyone on the margins of society to bring them back into the life of the community.

And then I went to Germany for the afternoon…

I just like to write that phrase. It’s true: I spent Friday afternoon in Kehl, just across the river, where things are cheaper and the ice cream is better and you can find Kindereggs are aplenty. Don’t know what a Kinderegg is? Think ‘happy meal’: it’s a toy encased in a thin chocolate egg. I’d send you all one if I could, just to make you smile. It’s an odd creation. But then again, so are happy meals.

When Bethany, another BCA student, and I returned from Kehl, we went to her house for dinner. Her host family is amazing. Madame wears pearls and has a deep smoky voice and laughs a lot. Monsieur, whose nickname is ‘Doodoo,’ is a character, always telling stories and making jokes and putting you at ease. Whenever he crosses the line and says something too risqué or something that’s not true, he bows his head and puts out his hands to be rapped by all present. For dinner, we all sat at the breakfast bar, made crepes, drank cremant (the champagne of Alsace; a late harvest wine, picked when the grapes are almost rotten; thus it’s very sweet and very expensive), and listened to magrebhin (north African) music. Then Doodoo, after telling a very funny story about what happened when long ago he and his buddies get out of a hot spring just as a tour bus was passing (we appropriately rapped his hands when he pulled out the ice cream scoop to illustrate a point), after all this he put on his favorite Western film soundtracks. Madame quickly bustled him out of the way, eager to play for us her favorite music (“Que sera, sera…Whatever will be, will be”). Doodoo quickly stepped in a hustled us off to the living room to listen to albums of Beethoven’s and Mozart’s symphonies.

It was truly magnificent. I’ve hardly felt so warmly received since I’ve been here. I think, when I get back to Manchester, I’m going to have dinner parties like that, full of good food and good wine and good stories and good music and good people.

I like meeting foreigners who speak French well

It gives me hope. I used to think that speaking French was all in the accent and, for me, putting on the accent was just like acting. I’m finding, however, that one can’t act all the time, and so even though I’m getting lots of golden stars for grammar, my accent is undeniably foreign (though not obviously American). I read somewhere in my TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) texts that sometimes people choose to retain their accents for reasons of identity: I’m not French, so why would I try to hide my nationality, which is integral to my identity? An interesting question. Another interesting question: why are we so convinced that learning English is easy, just a matter of will? You have no idea how difficult it is for me, a well-educated person with an inclination for language, having already studied French for several years, and being employed right now by the task of mastering the language…how difficult it is for me to become functionally fluent. You have no idea how easy it is to stay within an English context, to hang out with other BCA students, to go to the Irish pub, to work with other speakers of English, to rely on my friends to translate or on other to speak English. I think I’m a little more understanding of Hispanic immigrants who, generally speaking, have middle school education, work and live with other speakers of Spanish, and need to work all day every day to earn a living.

It’s hard, so very very hard to learn another language, because it’s so much more than just words. I can express myself quite well, but I have a hard time manipulating tone, being witty, communicating exactly what I want to say. And, if you know me, you know that’s what I live for.

So bravo for all those who ever master another language. You give me hope.

Autumn in the Vosges

I got to go to the Vosges again this weekend, this time with the group of students who live at the AUP (the Protestant student group and organization where BCA has its office). It was wonderful to get out of the city, and the weather couldn’t have been better. We were about thirty, and we stayed at a YMCA lodge somewhere near a small lake. The colors are starting to change, and the sunlight was golden. We played games, talked about activities for this year, ate together, had a campfire, played music. I think it was the most intense language experience I’ve had since I’ve been here! One of the highlights was a game we played at about 11pm: the students who have lived at the AUP for a year or two grouped all the new students in pairs, blindfolded us, took us out into the woods, and left us! “The game is to get back to the lodge without being caught by one of the former students patrolling the trails.” We didn’t know the trails, couldn’t see the lodge, didn’t have lights, and (in my trio) all spoke a different language! It was crazy and fun and the stars were gorgeous and we all made it back safely. Thank goodness!

Sunday afternoon, we hiked down the mountain along the Brusche valley to the town of Shirmeck, where the Alsace-Mosel Memorial is located. It’s a museum of the history of the region of Alsace-Lorraine, which changed hands from France to Germany (1870-1918) to France to Germany (World War II) to France, all the while belonging to neither country. Alsace is truly a unique region with its own culture, cuisine, dialect. The traditional hat: a large bow three times the size of one’s head; the traditional meal: lots and lots of sausage; the dialect: Alsatian, a dialect of German, on its way out but stronger here than most other regional languages. I’m thinking of taking classes in it this semester!

It takes two to tango

No! It really does! It’s official: I’m taking tango lessons at the university. Maybe I’ll follow the tradition of a formidable Manchester student (who returned from Ecuador and taught salsa) and come back next year and teach you all how to tango (by twos).


02 October 2007

La Belle Vie Francaise

I am comforted. The adventures continue, classes settle down, and I stop stressing. The beginning of last week was difficult, but each day was better than the one before. I think the definitive change occurred in my French linguistics course, a class at the ‘real’ university (Marc Bloch, not for foreigners), in which we studied all the things about language that I absolutely love. I laughed as the professor made comparisons between French and English, trying to indicate the different sounds of the languages, and ended up saying ‘ship’ and ‘sheep’ exactly the same way. I got so excited about taking the course I didn’t even wait until this week to declare myself to the professor as a foreign student wishing to take the course. And, well, after confronting a French professor, you can pretty much do anything in the world.

For those of you who are interested, my schedule falls out as follows:

Monday: 12-2 Francophone literature

2-3 Grammar

4-5 English translation

5-6 20th century literature

?6 Tango class

Tuesday: 3-4 Art history

?4-5 Linguistic methodology

5-6:30 Grammar

Wednesday: 3-6 Grammar

Thursday: 9-10 French linguistics: workshop

12-1 French linguistics: lecture

1-5 Grammar

5-7 French cinema

Friday: …nothing!

If you are under any sort of impression that this is a light load, keep in mind that IT IS ALL IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE. Oi!

So, that was the week, and then some, since I wasn’t sure which classes I was going to take and which I would eventually drop. I had headaches from listening so hard. And it rained! But, in spite of all this, the week got better and better.

There’s a difference between Dissonance and Cacophony

Friday night, I went to an orchestra concert with some other students from BCA, my study abroad program. We listened to ‘Le Sacre du Printemps’ of Stravinsky (think of the music of the dinosaur scene in ‘Fantasia’) and two other pieces like it, by French composers, who were in attendance. Stravinsky’s work is pretty well-known, and for good reason: it’s an amazing combination of dissonant sounds. Of the other two works presented, the first was quite nice, although I think I got more enjoyment out of watching the fiery petite violinist who needed a six-foot radius to accommodate her passionate playing. The second pieces, well, let’s just say I learned something that day: there’s a difference between dissonance and cacophony. Although it was amusing when the man playing the xylophone pulled out two large pieces of Styrofoam and rubbed them together for the length of three notes, then set them down and never touched them again. I was bemused and confuddled, to say the least.

All ended well, including the surprise after-concert meal. We were chatting in the lobby after leaving the auditorium, when all of a sudden we noticed small tables dotting the room, quickly being covered by bread and cheese. And, through a crowd of people, we saw drinks being served, but no money exchanged. Okay, we can do that, we thought, and grabbed some bread, cheese, and drinks. But then something else happened: a table of sandwiches, bratwursts, and bread appeared, along with a new supply of drinks. Huh, sure, we can do that too, we thought. We were pleasantly surprised, to say the least. How very nice that this concert included a small repas, and much nicer was the fact that, as students, we had already received a discounted admission. But nothing compared to the ecstasy we felt when plates and plates of tarts, cookies, éclairs, puddings and yogurts appeared for dessert! Can you believe it? Entertainment AND a meal! Incredible! And how much do you think it cost, as students? 5.50 euro, thank you very much. Did I mention how much I appreciate the student/young person reductions in France?

Saturday began with another Musica event (Musica being the sponsor of these truckloads of music recitals and concerts going on in the city right now), which I attended with my friend Hayley from Australia. This smaller venue was even more ‘modern’ than the last. If I thought the Styrofoam was bad, I knew I was in for it when the pianist pulled out a kazoo, the violinist a whistle, and the soprano a megaphone! It was not to my taste, but the best thing about Hayley is that she’s completely different from me, apparently in everything from music style to lamp shades. After sharing a baguette in the Botanical Garden for lunch (it was a beautiful day), we rode our bikes to Montagne Verte (the end of one of the tram lines) to Emaüs, a place where you can find anything you’re looking for and everything you’re not looking for as well. Emaüs operates on the Goodwill principle of ‘you donate it to get rid of it, we’ll fix it to sell it, and we’ll donate the money,’ only it’s about as large as Meijer (or WalMart, or Krogers, or Auchon, or whatever supermarket chain you happen to be acquainted with that takes up the space of a sovereign nation). Hayley and I looked at lamps for her new studio apartment (which it seems, for the most part, don’t include ovens!), and she succeeded in contradicting me once again by choosing a dingy, fringy, take-me-back-a-couple-decades lamp. She looked very funny carrying this lamp while riding her bike, but we left happy.

Gateau à la colinienne

Sunday, my little host sister Célia turned eleven and had a raucous birthday party with all her friends. So I made her a cake: sugar cookie bottom spread with peanut butter, sliced apples, and drizzled with honey. It’s also called a ‘fruit pizza,’ and although I can’t remember where I got the recipe, I remember making it last year. Well, Célia and her friends went crazy for this cake, and amidst the slang and shouted child-language I managed to pick up a few ‘merci’s. Célia demanded to know the name of the cake, and when I said I didn’t have one for it, she decided to call it, ‘gateau à la colinienne’, gateau meaning cake, Coline being the pronunciation I go by (koh-leen) (which also means ‘hill’), and colinienne being the adjective form. You know, I kind of like having a cake named after me.

You give me Fever

Sunday night I saw the film ‘Sicko,’ the newest documentary by Michael Moore, featuring the American health care system in all its glory. I can’t tell you how interesting it was to be an American (the US being the only country in the Western world without a free, universal health care system) in France (the country with the best health care system in the world) watching an American film which, at one point, directly compared the systems of the US and France. First, DON’T GET SICK. Second, see this documentary, whatever your political bias may be. It asks questions that are worth examining, questions I discussed with my French friend with whom I saw the film:

Why doesn’t the US provide free health care for infants?

What happens when doctors become businesspeople?

Why doesn’t everyone deserve equal access to health care?

Why are the insurance company lobbyists to powerful (four lobbyists for every congressperson, if I remember correctly)?

Why do insurance companies deny coverage or reject claims?

What is the purpose of knowing of a ‘preexisting condition’? (Note: in the UK, you’re asked for preexisting conditions so that you can be better treated; in the US, so that you can be denied)

What happens, economically, when we pay for better health care to have a healthier population?


I was quite ashamed when I left the cinema, mostly because of the pitfalls of the American private insurance-industry-run health care system, but also because, by being American (or, rather, from the US), I felt like I had to answer for them. ‘Please don’t point out that I’m American,’ I half-joked to my French friend when the film finished. I was overwhelmed by thoughts of finding a solution to this national problem, but also started thinking about it on a personal level: (reality check) I’m now on my parents’ insurance, but that will end when I graduate from college. What then? Can you live without medical insurance? What if I couldn’t afford to pay for medical treatment? What if…? What then…? Long, long thoughts.

To close…

Things I am missing or thinking fondly of: the present perfect verb tense, communicating exactly what I mean to say, real Mexican food (I ate at a Mexican, or rather ‘Frexican’ restaurant this weekend), somebunny named Ananda and her owner(s), people who don’t care whether or not brown shoes can be worn with black pants, inexpensive peanut butter, my Women’s Spirituality Group, and my family (in the extended sense of the word).

Things I like about where I am: the health care system, public transportation, farmer’s markets, people who listen, my house, the European Institutions, my cat, culturally-incorporated alcohol use instead of culturally-tabooed alcohol abuse, looking at French as ‘speaking in synonyms,’ and sleeping swans.

Things I am learning: how to dodge bugs while biking near rivers, how to avoid using the 6 euro/load washing machines, how to enjoy Sunday afternoons in parks, how to use my language abilities and how to adapt when they don’t suffice, how to relax (even during the school year), to like Nutella as much as I like peanut butter, how to send cryptically-abbreviated text messages in French (for example, ‘tkt pa’ stands for ‘ne t’inquiete pas’ or ‘don’t worry’; ‘ ), and patience.

Sometimes it takes walking back in the misty rain of a foreign country’s night to realize you are becoming exactly who you want to be.