26 May 2008

Happy Birthday Week

Birthdays are special days in my family. So special, in fact, you get to celebrate them all week long: the weekend before, the week of, and the weekend after can be filled with celebrations, gifts, happiness, and excuses (“C’mon, it’s my birthday!”). I think it’s my mother’s fault we celebrate birthdays this way. It’s not such a bad tradition…

So my birthday week began with the Quebecoises’ visit to Strasbourg last weekend. It continued uneventfully through Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday as I waited for my friend Nicole from Manchester (the one I visited in Marburg, Germany, where she is studying) to arrive. Unfortunately in the meantime, the weather took a turn for the worse, so that when I picked her up at the train station Wednesday afternoon and we joined other BCAers for an end-of-year barbecue, thick clouds and grayness and wind made for a cool-weather gathering. We still enjoyed ourselves, running around with Alex’s four young sons, playing ultimate Frisbee, trying to catch a muskrat, and building human pyramids. But the weather didn’t make for very good pictures, so imagine a lake, a campfire, food, champagne, and a Frisbee. Yeah, that should be it.

The big day was actually Thursday, no sunnier or warmer. Nicole and I slept in, made a big breakfast, rented her a bike, and biked out to the small town where I teach English. We picnicked and explored the paths through the fields. The problem is, I have SUCH a good sense of direction that I forget to take into account natural barriers: I had us on a path through the fields back toward the forest path I knew, and it curved a bit but kept going in the right direction. Despite Nicole’s voiced doubts of my sanity, we kept on. Then the path went from gravel to dirt, then to grass, then entered the woods, then dead-ended at…a river. Bothersome things. BUT we were never lost!

We came home and cleaned up, then went to l’Artichaut, my favorite café in town. I go there with friends on Thursdays to listen to the jazz jam sessions. Nicole and I went for dinner, and I had invited nearly all my friends to stop by for a drink. It was a good crowd: friends from dance class, several other BCA students, Hayley, Manuel (nationalities present: US, French, Australian, Greek, Colombian, German)…and those who couldn’t come by sent messages. It was a wonderful evening, I liked the food, the music, the company, the conversation. No one bought me drinks, obliged me to have a “traditional” 21st birthday (although I hear my sisters are planning it for my return). In the late evening, a piece of chocolate-pear tart (nothing compared to Mom’s yellow cake and chocolate frosting, or Grandma’s puppy chow!) came to the table with a candle in it, and everyone sang happy birthday and the entire bar chimed in. I have seldom been so happy, so thankful.

In the wee hours of the morning, we called it a night and left satisfied. And none of this takes into account all of YOUR efforts: a birthday song by phone from my parents, cards from friends (and their pets), and emails in every form. Thank you, thank YOU, THANK YOU!

But, as I said before, the celebrations continue: on Friday Nicole and I took a day trip to Saverne, an old town at the foot of the Vosges mountains. We hiked up to the chateau of Haut Barr, a gothic castle/fort topping the mountain and offering a view of the plains stretching out toward Strasbourg. We picnicked again, and returned to town to meet the parents of Charlotte, the French student who will be studying at Manchester next year. They invited Leslie, Cassie, Nicole and I for an aperitif at their house, then a typically Alsatian tarte flambée dinner in a restored barn-restaurant somewhere in the countryside. It was by far the best tarte flambée I’ve ever had.

Saturday we rested: a short trip into town to the Hospices de Strasbourg, the renowned wine cellar that’s part of the city hospital, where I chat and chortle with Philippe, who recommends wine for Nicole to take back with her. In the afternoon, we watched a movie and Nicole cooked up a fabulous dinner, which we shared with Hélène from my tango class, and then played cards.

Sunday morning almost all the BCA students left town. They will be settled back at home (some after a very long séjour) now, surrounded by loved ones. A large part of me envies them.

I was glad the family I teach English in (Laurence, the mother, specifically) invited me to celebrate French Mothers’ Day with their family and the grandparents. The meal was amazing, and the family is full of characters. At one point, when they were debating the three best cheeses in France, after having informed me about the proper way to store wine and how to know how long to store it and how sometimes you have to change the corks…I realized that, no denying it, I am living in France. Sometimes it just hits you. And a large part of me does not at all envy those who had left for home that morning. Professors, surprisingly enough, are usually very wise people: you were right, part of my home will always be here in Strasbourg. I thought about that as I dozed blissfully under the cherry tree in the yard and the grandpa jabbered on about Alsatian history. Can’t complain about this birthday week. My goal now is to remember and celebrate everyone else’s birthday in such a way.

I think it’s normal, to feel divided like this about leaving this place that has welcomed me these last ten months. I wish human beings were not capable of feeling to opposing emotions at the same time, but I think that’s the way we spend most of our existence. Try to keep that in mind when I come back. I will be happy, overjoyed even, to see you; but I imagine it will be tempered by some uneasiness, some nostalgia; overall, I expect it to just be very strange to see you, in person.

18 May 2008

Wrapping Up

Family Vacation

When I signed up for BCA, I knew I wanted to live in a host family rather than a student residence. Why, after two years of independent living, would I want to give up my freedom to eat, go, do what I want where I want? Because when you think about how you will spend the next ten months of your life in a foreign country, you like to think that there might be some place where you will belong. Some people you might actually grow close to. Some table around which you might share your lives. At least that’s what I signed up for.

And in some cases, the ideal actually happens, but unfortunately, I didn’t land in that situation. First of all, there was the vegetarianism: from the age of sixteen, I gave up eating meat for ecological and ethical reasons. It wasn’t that difficult, and it was something I could do to minimize my impact on the land so that everyone can have a “fair share.” Others can take three-minute showers; I can’t. Others can’t give up meat; I can. I could go on and on about my particular vegetarian philosophy (and how it has evolved over this year in Alsace, sausage capital of the WORLD), but suffice it to say that it was a factor in my housing selection and landed me in a peculiar host family situation in which I live in an apartment with a “family,” but I cook for myself and almost never eat with them. The story is that the mother is a divorcée with an intense professional life and a partner who lives in the country. The 11-year-old daughter lives here, but when she visits her father, the mother spends those weekends at the country house. During the week, she might return late, have to make a day-trip to Paris, or be at her athletic club. This all led her to decide that she just couldn’t promise to be there every evening to provide a meal for a student; that, and she doesn’t really cook very often. The mother and I have had plenty of conversations about how this allows the student “freedom and independence” (not untrue), but I think I can say now that this is more about her “freedom and independence.” She loves and takes very good care of her daughter, and the two of them are very likable, chatty, and laid-back. But this is definitely half-way between a renting and a host family situation. I’m never expected to see them, be at the house, spend time with them on a regular basis, and as the year has rolled on, I rarely do, and I don’t feel too guilty about it. The situation of my room on the upper floor of the apartment, removed from the kitchen, their rooms, and the living room, has contributed to the distance. There are no bad feelings about the situation, just a whole lot of neutrality. I don’t think the mother is just doing it for the money, but there’s not a whole lot of warmth in the in-home reception either. It’s an awkward way to live: there’s laundry in the house but I can’t use it; there’s plenty of food but I can’t eat it; there’s a clear delineation between what is mine and their’s. The most embarrassing and passively infuriating instance was one of those rare times that we ate dinner at the same time and the mother was drinking wine (which one never does alone, and which she’s offered me before) and she didn’t offer me any. Not that I was dying for it, but the French are usually pretty strict about manners of wine propriety, and to drink a glass in front of others of drinking age without offering any is probably the most egregious offense.

All this to start the story of my weekend in Grenoble with the family I teach English in. Meet Laurence, Christian, Marine, and Julie. They lived in Florida for six years while Christian was working, have been in Strasbourg for three, and now will be moving to Grenoble. Marine is 11 (so was in the US from 2-8) and is bilingual; Julie less so, since she was 2 when they moved back to France (although she’s the one with the US passport!). I work with both the girls in English on Wednesdays, two hours each. They both attend the international school in Strasbourg, and Marine will hopefully continue at the one in Grenoble. To gain entrance, she had to pass an exam last weekend at the school, so the family invited me to come along, have an “all-English” weekend, and see the city. It was an amazing trip, with all the aspects of a family vacation. I learned how to be an older sister, and remembered way more songs, games, stories, and jokes than I ever realized I knew. We left on Wednesday afternoon and got in late after six hours of driving, most it in Switzerland along Lake Geneva. The countryside was beautiful, and expressways here are refreshingly free of billboards. We spent the weekend in an apartment/hotel building where the dad is staying (he’s already been working in Grenoble for two months). Thursday was a public holiday, so the four of us (Julie had stayed at home with the grandparents for the weekend), visited the Bastille fortifications that overlook the city, walked around old Grenoble, lunched on the terrace of a café, visited one of the nearby mountain villages, and went out that night for Indian food. Though we spoke in English all the time, Marine and I spent the afternoon back at the hotel specifically working on oral comprehension and expression activities. We went to bed early and got up early for the exam on Friday, for which Marine was not at all nervous but Laurence and I desperately so. It’s a delicate balance between wanting her to make it into this school where she’ll have much more language support for her English (which she doesn’t get at home, because both parents are French), and realizing that if she stopped speaking today at 11 years old, she would lose fluency and vocabulary, but she would still speak English. It’s one of her languages. She sounds like an American kid when she speaks.

While Marine was taking the exam in English, I worked on my own end-of-semester projects in French. Specifically, I was working on an analysis of three interviews I conducted about “linguistic behavior,” what/when/why each person spoke French/Alsatian/German. It was (I know you don’t believe me) very interesting, I had plenty of things to comment on, and the French came easily. In the end, the paper consists of 9 pages of good analysis in hard-core academic French: the requirement was 6. I’m quite proud of this paper, and it only further confirmed that sociolinguistics is the field for me! (To my Manchester French professor: Yes, I will send it to you once the writing has been reviewed by a native French speaker, and then we’ll see what you think of it—I still know my impression counts very little.)

To celebrate, we went out to eat Friday night at an American-style buffet family restaurant (including buffet wine?!). AND the booths were in an old train car! Can you see my full, full stomach in this picture?

Saturday morning, after sleeping late(r) (always subjective when you’re with kids), we went to see the house they’ve bought in Corenc, a Grenoble suburb clinging to the foothills a bit above the city. (Did you know that Grenoble, though located in the Alps, is the flattest city in France?) Let’s just say this family does quite well for itself, and the house is beautiful. It was when they showed me the guest room and said they hoped it tempted me to come back and visit them that I realized just how much I mean to this family, and how much they have come to mean to me. I thought they hired me as an English tutor, but were really looking for (and found) a big sister for the girls.

And the weekend only got better: after we saw the house, we drove to a town up the valley and had lunch in a road-side cafe next to the para-gliders’ landing field. We took the funicular (a little rail car) up the mountain to the take-off point, since it affords a great view of the valley. Laurence, Marine and I basked in the sun while Christian (who is a real bird) para-glided down; then we took the funicular back down and headed back to the hotel. That night we dined in a South American restaurant then retired, sun-exhausted, to bed around midnight.

Sunday morning was more than the perfect way to end the weekend: You see, the dad also pilots planes. He took this up when Marine was born: Laurence could have killed him, Marine couldn’t be happier. We almost didn’t make it into the air, because the plane we rented hadn’t been topped off with gas by the person before us, so we had to start it, take it to the fueling station, and start it again, but apparently it doesn’t re-start so well when already hot. Luckily, after a few tries, we were ready to go. I’ve uploaded the take-off video and a few pictures: we flew up the valley, over the mountains a bit, and then over Grenoble, and I felt like I was in a National Geographic film. One of THE coolest experiences.

We drove back that afternoon, stopping at the grandparents to pick up Julie and have dinner. The grandparents proved just as welcoming, just as endearing. It was a great time, and I always knew I had a place around the table. I found my host family.

Finals Week(s)

I know this is getting long, but I can’t leave without remarking the difference between finals week and “hell week” (the week before, when all the projects are due) at Manchester and finals week here, which has actually spread over three weeks. I am turning out quite a bit of work (two real university exams, a half-hour solo presentation in a real university class, the analysis paper for a real university class, year-end French exams, and two small elective exams; not to mention two papers left to write for my internship), but in what sort of exam period can you take a 5-day vacation, spend a day riding bikes with you study abroad program, and host visitors? The bike ride was last Monday (another public holiday) to Molsheim, a nice town at the feet of the Vosge mountains. Twenty-five kilometers there, a nice lunch, a jaunt up the hillside for the view, and twenty-five kilometers back: good thing the terrain was flat, the weather perfect, and the company good!

Then my beloved Quebecoises came to visit me and see Strasbourg Thursday to Friday evening. I practiced my tour guide skills for when my parents come (which is unbelievably SOON!!!!!).

Emilie et moi
Nancy at the Cave de l'Hopital civile: Where everyone knows your name!

And take-off!

07 May 2008

May Day

To celebrate the closing of winter and the coming of spring is really a wonderful and important thing. At Manchester, this transition is celebrated with copious amounts of alcohol, lots of noise (including an air-band concert), silly games (at least silly if you have consumed said-copious amounts of alcohol), and general (and sometimes frightening) public drunkenness. Maybe my reaction is a bit extreme, but I’ve always enjoyed standing (sober) on the sidewalk watching the hordes of drunken revelers make their (never straight) way to the concert, shaking my head, returning to my room—and locking the door.

May Day weekend this year was much more tempered, full of activities you didn’t have to be drunk to enjoy, and thus enjoyable. It started with a day of Thursday (French Labor Day), which I spent working like a fool for a presentation the next day. Except for the evening, when I was invited chez Hélène, one of my friends from dance class. We spent the beautiful late afternoon walking around downtown Strasbourg, then had dinner with her mom at their house, eating à la grècque (see feta, moussaka, Greek coffee and money below), because Hélène is French-Greek.

Friday, with my presentation finally over and all the tension flowing dissipating leaving me like a popsicle in the sun, I did just that: read and napped in the sun on the terrace of my apartment. It’s a perfect place to be, and is becoming dangerously tempting in this warm weather when I should be studying. After resting up, I went to my couples’ dance class and giggled with Hélène while we learned the swing, waltz, and el paso. Dancing continued later that night at le Snooker, a place in town that has “all dance” nights every other Friday, including tango, swing, waltz, salsa, chacha…you name it, there are people to dance it. I was there with my (best French) friend Julien and a couple others from class. I managed to get a couple films of the dance, because I suspect none of you believe me when I say I can do it. I don’t know if these are post-able, but I’ll try.

Saturday slipped away from me between going to market, lunching with a friend, sitting on the terrace of a café with others (for the purpose of getting to know the French student who will be at Manchester next year), attempting to fix my bike, and a last-minute crêpe dinner chez Leslie. I can’t complain—all of it was fantastic!

And the crêpe dinner went late, devolved into dancing, and ended with a very tired group of four BCAers watching the sunrise. Sometimes life is just great. And sometimes it takes riding your bike home in a foreign country watching the sunrise over the European Parliament to realize that you cannot let who you are be wrapped up in other people, because then you will never become who you want to be.


Nor can you let your self-worth be determined by French university.

I HATE French University

What follows is an untempered rant concerning my academic well-being. It makes no claims to be well-thought-out, weighed-out, or correct. But here goes...

I may very well fail some of my classes this year. This is not normal, and I don't say it with a sense of resignation. Just a matter-of-fact tone acknowledging what is possible. Let me explain:

I have eight hours of courses at the foreigners' university. These classes are a joke. My grammar block, though providing me with a steady year-long group of acquaintances (it was unbelievably comforting to see the same faces every day at the beginning of the year when everything else was changing), has done little to improve my French. It sounds haughty and ungrateful, I know, because I speak French a thousand times better now than when I arrived, but I'm not trying to say it was all through my own effort. Simply, it was just not by virtue of the work we did in class, which consisted of Monday: review mistakes made in previous written expressions; Wednesday: work on oral comprehension; and Thursday: written expression. It sounds logical, but there was a sense of lethargy that dominated, especially this semester. The bar was never raised. All I ever got back was "c'est excellent" and "tres bien," which does a lot for my confidence but nothing for my skill. I produced nothing of worth in my grammar block, just a lot of BS written expressions responding to prompts I could care less about (subjects like "cell phones and adolescents" and "dietary supplements"). My two elective courses, Translation and Linguistic Diversity, were somewhat redeeming. Translation always frustrated me because we always worked from English to French and the professor would always respond "But what you've written doesn't SOUND French!" Linguistic Diversity, while the material was interesting, the class pace was too slow and the last three weeks of class were cancelled (ok, legit: the prof was quite ill). But LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT THE EXAM: a semester's worth of class = 15 fill-in-the-blank questions it took a half-hour to complete. One question (no kidding): What explains the spread of latin starting in the third century BC in Italy and Mediterranean Europe? Another (again, not kidding): What historical event explains the spread of these languages around the world: French, Spanish, English, Portuguese. Uh, the Roman Empire? Uh, the colonial system? It's just like that, too: you end up second-guessing yourself. And the best part? The exam for the year-students and those having taken the course only the semester--same exam.

I have eight hours of courses at the real university, thank God. At least there I knew I wouldn't shoot myself from boredom...just frustration. I got to study real, live, linguistic change under the tutelage of some very experienced professors: sociolinguistics, regional language and culture, linguistic educational policy, history of Germanic languages. The content is enthralling (again, I know you don’t believe me)! There does not exist, however, the concept of the undergraduate professor, someone who retains a bit of teacher-ness while being extremely well-versed in the field. What do I do this semester? I go to class, I sit there for two hours, I contribute nothing, and I’m treated like I have and will never have anything to contribute. The professor basically ignores the presence of the students: it’s a lecture. I kept justifying it to myself: Well, but it is in French, it is interesting. But it just wasn’t enough, and I was frustrated about being a sponge and having information deposited into my brain, and in the end not producing anything. Then, two weeks before exams, I found out I would be producing something (golly, would’ve been nice to know): a presentation on the educational linguistic policy of the US and surveys and an analysis of the linguistic behavior of three Alsatians. In two other classes, I had exams, which were/will be challenging. I did a darn good presentation and I’ll be proud of the paper when it’s finished, but I would’ve liked to have known the expectations before going to an entire semester’s worth of lecture about educational linguistic policy in Europe. You know? And what frustrated me the most was that, when asked how I would like to be evaluated, nothing was specified: a presentation, a dossier, or a “traditional oral exam.” What are these things? What were they expecting? Luckily I chose the presentation and was able to watch others and learn from them. Who knew we had to hand in a 100-page dossier of our research after presenting? And I still don’t know what a “traditional oral exam” is.

In short, I will be glad to get back to a system I at least understand, with professors who know my name and who encourage me to think on my own. Who knew it was so rare?

And now…

Leaving this afternoon for Grenoble with the family whose girls I teach English to. They’ll be moving there in July, and the oldest girl is taking her English exam to get into the international school, so they wanted to have an “all-English weekend.” I don’t think the family thinks I actually want to come (which I do!), so they keep proposing more and more extravagant activities to occupy our time. I’ll let you know how it goes.