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!

1 comment:

Hilary said...

you're so darn cute!