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.


Hilary said...

You bring tears to my eyes and joy to my heart!!! I love and miss you very, VERY much!!!

Anna said...

I feel like I'm there with you, in so many senses of the phrase. I wish I could give you a big hug and whisper Greek nothings in your ears.

Shelby said...

oh colleen! you're spoiling the surprise :) can you give me a tour when i get there?

glad your misty eves are serving their purpose....we miss you in the hall :'(