24 December 2007

Spa Treatment

You probably all know that I am not one to pamper myself at expensive all-inclusive spa resorts…But there’s a first time for every thing. My mother will be happy to know that I soaked out the last of this summer’s garden dirt from under my fingernails. The rest of you will just be jealous!

Exams and papers finished for me Thursday evening, and Friday several other BCA girls and I decided to head to Baden-Baden, Germany, to relax in the world-renowned thermal baths at Caracalla. But first let me describe “exams,” conducted in France in a manner you may not be familiar with, may not even recognize, may even laugh at. I certainly laughed a few times over the week: it was the only way to keep my sanity.

Contrast #1: In the US university system, several exams, projects, presentations, and papers will usually form a student’s semester grade. In the French (and other European) university system, one exam given at the end of a semester’s worth of lecture determines the grade. Sometimes, if the class is year-long, this exam is only considered “partial,” something more like a midterm.

Contrast #2: Whereas exams back at Manchester are given during a certain 1:50 time period during a certain week at the end of the semester, exams at Marc Bloch ranged from one hour to four, and though all of mine were given this week, the semester doesn’t actually end until mid-January, at which time exams can also be given. Bizarre. Even though I finished my exams this week (one even before the final session of class), I have no classes after Christmas Break.

Contrast #3: Exams at most US universities consist of multiple choice, true/false, short answer, and essay questions, typed on sheets of paper which are (mostly) checked and re-checked before being systematically distributed to students. My exams this semester were all medium answer/essay questions, which is a change I completely agree with. However, let me describe my first exam “episode”: Saturday afternoon during a four-hour period, I took my Francophone Literature exam. The professor, not one of my favorites, had told us that the exam for our class of 30ish students would take place in Amphitheater 1, the largest on campus. We thirty arrived, along with…300 other students. I think they were all students of literature electives in the Department of Letters. We weren’t seated in any particular order, and so I can’t imagine how the professors imagined distributing all of the exams, but this is how it went: one professor would call out the name of his course, would begin walking up and down all the steps around the entire amphitheater searching out his students and handing them the exam. In the meantime, one of the other professors in front, perhaps embarrassed by the relative silence and feeling a need to move things along, would call out the name of her course. This would, of course, result in students of two different sections sitting patiently, hands raised, waiting for their professor to come around, often receiving the wrong exam paper. It was ridiculously inefficient, and I sat there incredulous, hand raised, dodging eye contact with any professor not my own to avoid receiving the wrong exam. And I was lucky: other students had their subject dictated to them by someone other than their professor (I didn’t catch if it was lack of time or lack of money that resulted in dictation instead of paper copies). After everything settled down, over half an hour had passed. I looked over at the paper of the student next to me when he swore under his breath and shook his head, and watched him cross out the page number cited on his exam sheet and replace it with another (correct) page number. Then I looked down at my exam sheet: five questions, the first of which was “What meaning does Elysée Réclus give to the word ‘francophonie’?” Now, at the beginning of the semester we’d read an essay by Onesime Réclus, the geographer who first used the word “francophonie” to describe all the places in the world where French was spoken in 1880. Elysée was his slightly-more-famous brother whom we mentioned in passing as being more famous. That was it. He didn’t write about “francophonie,” as far as I know. What was he doing in the first question of our exam?! I wasn’t quite sure what to do—I simply crossed out Elysée and wrote in Onesime. I couldn’t imagine that the prof had actually intended the former over the latter, but I could neither fathom that on a once-a-semester exam, there would by a typo that serious!

Flabbergasted, just flabbergasted.

The rest of the exams continued normally over the next week, including a test in English-French translation, art history, French linguistics, and French cinema (with a film analysis to hand in as well). The week sped by…and Friday morning I found myself on a train headed into Germany.

It takes two trains and a bus to get to the baths at Baden-Baden, but luckily two of those who went had already been before, and I didn’t have to worry about travel plans. There was snow and sun and lots of fur coats, and mostly I enjoyed seeing the sun, which doesn’t shine very often during the Strasbourg winter, and doesn’t climb very high when it does, so that weak 1:00pm sunlight feels more like 4:00, and night falls by 5:00. When you enter the baths (which are not too expensive, actually), the first pool of warm water feels like a bath, and the second like a hot tub. The pool extends outside, where everything beyond three meters is lost in the mist. But once in awhile, it’s nice to have a world that extends only three meters around you. After swimming around a variety of pools with currents, bubbles, whirlpools and jets galore, we went to the steam room. I think the purpose of this room is to “sweat your butt off.” The light is low, and supposedly-relaxing rainforest bird calls complement the fake starry skies above. As you sit, sweating, breathing thick, humid, Vicks vapor rub-scented air, the occasional drop of hot liquid (I think water) falls from the ceiling. It’s quite the experience. After the steam room, we went to the sauna (85 and 95 degrees Celsius—keep in mind that 100 degrees Celsius is boiling), the purpose of which is also to “sweat your butt off.”

Here I have a confession to make. For those of you who know the thermal baths at Baden-Baden, you know that the sauna is located on the second level. You also know that the second level is the nudist level…While clothes and suits are not allowed, fear not: I maintained towel coverage. I also saw quite a few naked people, though almost all wear towels when just walking around. It was quite a European experience. Giggle.

All in all, the day was very relaxing, and I’m glad I went, though it will rest (probably) a once-in-a-lifetime indulgence.

Because there’s work to be done.

1 comment:

laura christine said...

I, too, have corrected exam questions.
But never have I sat in a steam room with naked germans.
I think I might like to experience that some day.
Guess what.
I think the family is actually going to Europe in August.
Happy Christmas :)

ps- Mom gave me an Over the Rhine album for Christmas, and I thought of you.