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).



John Planer said...

Your blog is delightful, Colleen.
Obviously you are having a magnificient experience. Brava! The French are thoroughly civilzed--and if one can speak the language--helpful, sensitive, and warm-hearted.

michmark said...

Are you sure you are OK with all this wine?

One World said...


I've just discovered your blog, and really enjoyed it...Your thoughts on language learning are so true: having tried to teach English to many Mexican immigrants, when I hear people asking, "why don't they learn English?" I ask, "Have you ever tried to become fluent in another language?"


ritodhi chakraborty said...

from one language addict to another colleen,

we can change the world as soon as our nouns become our verbs.