11 December 2009


I will soon be among you! Four days from now, I will take a bus and a train and a plane and a metro and another train and a vehicle, and then I will see your bright faces chasing away the Breton rain. My countenance, as you may imagine, has lightened considerably since my last post. And whose wouldn’t, with Christmas presents strewn about the room, a suitcase attentively waiting to be packed, and numerous messages telling me I’m expected? I love my people. I also love very specific things about being home. Among them: the woodstove, the KenapocoMocha coffeeshop, carpet, my down comforter, a large kitchen with full oven, snow, and pets. Surely there is no place like home for the holidays.

In anticipation, I’ve worked hard to finish my application to McGill University in Montreal, where I will be studying next year thanks to the Rotary Foundation. I finished the online application last night, which officially marked the beginning of excitement and included a rash of phone calls. The application requires a research proposal, which gave me the opportunity to articulate what exactly interests me about sociolinguistics. My current impression of the linguistics field in general has turned a bit sour, given that the McGill professor I thought could be my advisor wrote that he is currently working in “the nativization of foreign words containing the /a/ sound, such as ‘llama’ and ‘pasta.’” Such studies do not entice me. However, the sociolinguistics I studied in Strasbourg strike me as vastly interesting (although you may disagree). I want to study the perceptions speakers have of their languages, as the case studies in Alsace elicited what people thought about French, German, and Alsatian. For example, many Alsatians who still speak the regional language have not taught it to their children because it is considered useless or even worthless. Linguistic perceptions aren’t necessarily so damaging: I realized when I traveled in Spain that I had subconsciously associated Spanish with directives like, “Don’t drink the water” and “Don’t eat fresh fruits or vegetables.” It’s strange what we are capable of thinking without thinking about it.

I am ecstatic to study in Montreal next year, where French and English blend in this “bilingual city.” But is it really? Are French Canadians the only real bilinguals? Why so many language laws if neither variety is threatened? My intuition is that language policy reflects and then deeply shapes linguistic perceptions. After World War II the Alsatians were told to reject everything German, so is it surprising few pass on their Germanic language, favoring French instead? How can bilingual Canada serve as a model for bilingual regions in the US? Fascinating.

This and Christmas have occupied my thoughts intensely for the last week. Both tales have a happy ending, I hope, but no pictures just yet. But who needs pictures when the real thing will land in five days?

07 December 2009

Disgruntled Foreigner

The time has come for my annual rant against bureaucracy, which has been particularly bothersome lately. I considered posting this just before Thanksgiving, but ran out of time and found that the past week only brought more cannon fodder to intensify my scathing remarks.

Let’s start with the phone bill. Victo and I spent eons poring over communication plans only to find that all over France runs a single twisted phone cord: France Télécom. But each subsidiary of this national company offers different plans, so we jumped on the most advantageous, which includes local calls, wifi internet, and cable television (immeasurably less consequential when you have no TV). As young people, we get ten percent off, and as September subscribers, two months free. Great! We add to this plan the most important of our communications: international calls. For seven euros per month, I can call any and all of ninety countries around the world, talk-time unlimited.

Or so they told me. The first phone bill came in the middle of October, which struck me as odd, since October would count as one of our TWO FREE months. I open the letter and find that we have, in fact, been charged for our international calls. Strange and annoying, but not infuriating. I called, corrected, and considered the matter closed. Then, to my surprise, another phone bill arrived last week. Among the details were my reimbursement for October, my marked international call option, and then—how is this possible with modern technology??—a long list of international calls for which I was charged a staggering sum. I again called, corrected, complained, and clarified that I was quite dissatisfied with their nincompoopancy. Only it didn’t translate well.

And then the ever-promised milk and honey of French socialism: housing aid through the CAF. I find rent a little high for a small town like Pontivy, and even compared to other rentals in town. But I was placed here, I get along with my landlord, and most importantly Susi and Victo are here. Could be better, but could be a lot worse. However, I have now paid rent three times without the help of the CAF, which I filed for two months ago, and frankly the job is not worth the salary without a little social assistance. If my work were better supported by teaching workshops and evaluations, or if the hours were a little longer and the salary a little higher, I would retract that statement. But for now, it feels like I work half time making ends meet. Something has to give, and I hope the CAF comes through before it does.

I don’t have high hopes, however. Victo just received a letter declaring that she is refused the CAF because she didn’t submit a copy of her residency permit. FYI: the whole idea of the European Economic Community is the free flow of money, goods, and labor. Victo is Spanish; she doesn’t need the same permits I do.

And let me be honest about returning home for Christmas: I may have to do it illegally. Roughly three weeks ago, I noticed a small announcement in the Assistants Newsletter saying that non-Europeans planning to return home should first contact their local prefecture for permission. Permission? More bureaucratic steps and papers? Mais c’est pas possible! I poked around online, then emailed the French Program Coordinator for the Americas asking, roughly translated, What the heck? This year I’m grateful to have a long-term visa, which I got before I came and is valid until next September. It still has to be validated by a medical visit, a remnant of the residency permit procedure, which I have yet to be called for. The Coordinator informed me that without this medical visit (which I cannot schedule myself or speed along), my visa is not considered validated, and therefore I must obtain a return visa from my local prefecture in order to reenter France.

I find fault with this for two reasons: my visa is marked valid through next year (no doctor’s signature required), and your average American traveler is allowed to enter France with a simple passport. So not only should Customs normally accept my visa, but they shouldn’t even have occasion to look at it given my regular status as an American entering the European Union. I confirmed this all with my local Immigration Office, which wrote it off as a new policy whose procedures just take a while to trickle down. Just as I am feeling confident about my legal status, Coordinator writes back with the reverse confirmation from the Paris Immigration Office that I do need a return visa.

At which point I contact my Coordinator in Washington, DC, who I find out has no more information than me. I thus prepare the necessary papers to get a return visa from my prefecture.

All of which proves fruitless, however, when I call and find out that my prefecture no longer issues return visas. You know why? Because the policy changed and they’re no longer necessary! People should give me more credit, really.

As if these travel concerns were not enough, my trip to Angers this weekend was cut short by—you guessed it—a strike. I visited Bev (a Manchester grad who started ECHOPPE, a microloan program for women in West Africa) and her family, who have become good friends. We talked development, made pumpkin pie, rode horses, visited the neighbors, and left Sunday afternoon for Nantes to catch the only train home. I didn’t take enough pictures, but I guess that’s how I know I feel at home there. In my next post, I’ll rant less and show more pictures.

30 November 2009

Thanksgiving Feast

You know you’re a good host when your guests show up on time at 1:30pm, eat until 4:00, play games until 11:00, and dance until 4:00am.

This year’s epic Thanksgiving began Thursday with an extended Skype session with family. The wonders of technology placed me right in Grandma’s kitchen, next to the pie and not too far from the cheesy potatoes. If only food and hugs could cross the Atlantic so easily…

Friday afternoon marked the beginning of food preparation for the Saturday meal that my Spanish and German roommates allowed me to impose upon them. We invited nine others, a mix of teachers, friends, and community members, including our token seven-year-old who obliged us with decorations and songs. That afternoon I prepared, in one very small oven, pumpkin bread, corn bread, rolls, and pumpkin pie.

The evening brought Shannon, the friend I stayed with in Brest during the Toussaint vacation, and she joined in the decorating frenzy (and washed many dishes). Out of yellow, orange, and red paper, we created hand-stenciled turkeys, maple leaves, feathers, a mascot turkey, and a cornucopia of apples, pumpkins, pears, carrots and potatoes. We put up the decorations, blew up balloons, cleaned the apartment, borrowed plates and bowls and glasses and dishes and blankets and chairs from the landlord, finished the mixture for the turkey pot pie, and called it quits at 2:00am!

All our preparation allowed for a lazy Saturday morning, thankfully. We set up the second table, creating one long table running the length of our common room, and scurried for twelve chairs.

If you think your Thanksgiving dishes fight over oven space, imagine ours! Serving in courses and the God-given French custom of eating slowly were the only habits that saved us from all-our oven space war. Morning faded all too quickly into afternoon, and when all our guests were assembled we toasted and began eating the lovely apéritif nibbles that Victoria had prepared:

Then we sat down at the table and I explained the basics of the Thanksgiving tradition to my attentive guests. I warned them that, for the Pilgrims, this meal celebrating the abundance of the harvest usually followed a fast: light eating before Thanksgiving is as necessary to the holiday as elastic waistbands. Then I sang Johnny Appleseed, a song of thankfulness my extended family uses as grace, and we went around the table saying one thing we were thankful for. Among those listed: friends, shared meals, French language practice, sunny days, and new clients (the very helpful man from the bank we’d invited said that). Traditions satisfied, we then dug into a tasty pumpkin soup Susi had made, accompanied by rolls and red wine.

Out came the side dishes (while the pot pie baked), including mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potatoes with nuts and cranberries, and classic stuffing. All home-made, all delicious, and all more filling than expected. So much so that, when I presented the finely-decorated turkey pot pie, everyone sighed with relief and thought it was dessert! A large dish the size of two pies, it was gratefully consumed, although half is currently languishing in my refrigerator. I made a pot pie in lieu of a turkey (whole turkeys being expensive and difficult to find in France before Christmas) and excused it as a traditional leftover dish, our meal being Saturday instead of Thursday. Unfortunately, now Victoria and I are consigned to leftover leftovers!

Needless to say, when I put out two splendid salads, no one was interested. Poor endives and nuts, lentils and raisins. We washed the dishes while our guests attempted to enlarge their intestines, because no one wanted to miss dessert. And voilà, everyone found a small niche for the specialty breads and pumpkin pie:

After observing everyone’s distended bellies, I decided not to test their constitutions any further and left the two bakery-delivered cakes in the refrigerator. It was a good decision to favor traditional over French: I received plenty of compliments on the quality and quantity of American cuisine—and no jokes about McDonalds. It was an absolutely splendid and convivial Thanksgiving meal.

To help the digestion, we continued with group games. Lena, our token child, taught us a German song about days of the week, a multilingual miming game, and various guessing games. The company started winding down and drifting off in the early evening, leaving us young folk to our own devices. I took advantage of Julien’s presence to dance a little tango, salsa, and swing, and much to my surprise everyone else joined in! Julien and I became impromptu instructors, and we danced the night away.

I could not have planned such a wonderful Thanksgiving. I’m thankful for delicious food shared with adventurous guests.

24 November 2009

Of Rest and Protest

This past weekend brought another grand adventure into the Breton countryside, by invitation of a fellow English teacher. In general, my coworkers at the high school have presented an interesting mix of reactions to my presence: I feel either relatively ignored or nothing short of adopted. Enter my new sister Amandine, who invited the three of us (we language assistants travel in packs, you know) to explore the northern coast of Brittany along the English Channel. Although it costs her two hours’ commute every day, I can’t argue with her attachment to the seaside.
Amandine chauffeured us home Friday evening for a quick meal and then her traditional end-of-the-week pool session. The sauna, steam room, pool and hot tub really marked the end of the work week—and made me miss my Michigan hot tub. Add it to the list of things I will enjoy when I’m home (yes, HOME!) over Christmas.
Then we were transferred to our weekend residence: the vacation home-turned retirement retreat of Amandine’s parents. The two, who are little older than my parents, were exceptionally welcoming and interesting. The dad is a former maître d of Parisian restaurant fame, while the mom regaled us with stories of her work as an au pair in England. My favorite part of the weekend was staying at the table until midnight, finally tearing ourselves away because, simply, conversation is impossible while sleeping! The three Parisian-size dogs fell asleep long before any of us!
Saturday we attempted to work off all the tasty calories we had already consumed by a long walk along the coast. The sentier des douaniers, or customs trail, is a marked path that follows almost the entirety of the Breton shoreline. The section we walked Saturday near St. Brieuc eventually meets up with the hike we took several weeks ago around Perros Guirec. We, however, stopped in Tréveneuc, a small village whose odd symbol is a red frog. Our hosts knew an impressive amount about the history of the area and showed us the old bakery, butcher shop, town hall, and manor. Now vacation homes are the main real estate, but the town maintains its character (whatever kind of character a red frog can have).
In the afternoon we stopped en route to see an old-style Breton mooring station. It involves full tree trunks kept upright by piles of rocks. The idea is pre-anchor, and I gather there are not many of these ports left:

Equally old and impressive was the seaside Beauport Abbey, which was built at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Without roof, windows, or doors, the building has been overtaken by vegetation and seems at times to grow right up out of the ground. The surrounding gardens and grounds meet up with—you guessed it—the sentier des douaniers.
Which we probably could have followed to our next stop, the town of Paimpol. Don’t be fooled: despite what the song says, there are no cliffs in Paimpol. “La falaise” mentioned in a well-known folk ditty about the port city refers only to a bar. The Medieval center of town was postcard-perfect, so that’s what I bought. However, I did find the Tourism Office worthy enough of a photo. Opened this summer, the new building contains one incredible fault: the outer door to the public restroom opens onto the adjacent canal. Doesn’t say much for Brittany’s environmental commitment!

The next morning, after a proper crêpe dinner, we attempted to work off the same calories by another hike. This time, however, the rain overtook us, and we spent the rest of the morning drying out. The afternoon included a short visit to the chateau of Roche-Jagu, which although closed, sported magnificent grounds and view over the Trieux River valley.
Our afternoon ended with a family visit to Mi-maw and Mi-paw Breton. Whereas in Alsace it was easy to distinguish native from other French, Brittany has proved difficult in this aspect. These were the first Bretons I’d met who still use Breton everyday, who learned French at school, and who spoke with an incredibly different accent. We snacked on crêpes with them in a farmhouse which, I observed, was older than the United States. This country never ceases to amaze me.
De retour à Pontivy Monday morning. It’s difficult to re-enter the real world when you leave a family like this:

One last note: I included the word protest in the title because today the French are doing what they do best…striking. All around the country teachers are on strike because of low salaries, teacher cuts, and large class sizes. I can’t blame them, but I always wonder if there is something more productive, more solution-oriented than taking the day off… Consequently, many students skipped school today, assuming their teachers wouldn’t be present. I had two complete groups, one with only two students, and a full four classes cancelled, all in the name of democratic education. I know a caravan of people left early this morning for the Paris protest, and a harmless group of students gathered outside of the high school this afternoon, but the results are yet to be seen. A subject to be examined further.

20 November 2009

New Experiences

This year, I’m surprised to find how easily I slip back into old (French) habits. Very little about my current setting, objective, and lifestyle corresponds with the student life I lived in Strasbourg two years ago. Pontivy is a small town I came to on my own, to work in a high school teaching job I found on my own, to live in an apartment as any other young person, where I am leading a routine daily life with a Spanish roommate and a broken heater.

Yet my habits are similar: I speak French, eat good bread and cheese, open bank accounts, buy groceries, relish my Wednesdays off, and take the train. In these respects, Take II Pontivy sounds much like Take I Strasbourg. And it is—comfortingly so. I like these things and I like that they form a routine.

But even so, every once in a while a new experience comes along. Like my aerobics class on Mondays, for example. Dad was right to laugh me off the phone when I said I had signed up, voluntarily, to impersonate a cheerleader one hour per week. But when you’re faced with rainy skies day in and day out, exercise is a good way to get moving and out of the apartment. I have yet to actually meet any of the other exercisers; I’ll just have to learn to be more forward with the sweaty French ladies.

For this aerobics class (and the African dance class I described last time), I needed to obtain a medical certificate stating that I’m in good health and can do all the cheerleading I want. This week Tuesday, after receiving all my information from Social Security and my mutual (which, together, cover 100% of my medical costs), I went to the doctor. Now, while I did stop in at the Strasbourg university clinic in 2008, this time I’ve actually chosen a primary care physician. How did I choose? My supervising teacher recommended him, and I dropped her name when calling so that, “Oh, Dr. Chapon is very very busy” became, “Of course! Just until May?”. Unfortunately, when I arrived for my appointment Tuesday evening, I found that in all that talking the secretary had forgotten to note down my rendezvous. I still saw the doctor, though—I even shook his hand, just before he signed my medical certificate and dashed off to the next (scheduled) patient. So close, so close to my first brush with socialized health care! Suppose I will have to wait until I’m actually sick…by the way, my seasonal cold officially started the day following the visit.

The list of new experiences goes on: I’ve started tutoring a high school student once a week; I learned the French version of Parcheesi; I’ve joined the Pontivy CSA, where I pick up bread, dairy products, and fresh vegetables every week; my first French checkbook has arrived; Victoria and I actually spent two hours with our grammar books dreamily discussing linguistics and the phonetic alphabet; I bought a Christmas plane ticket…

WAIT! A CHRISTMAS PLANE TICKET? That’s right, everybody, get out your Bing Crosby and your sleds and your carols and cheer, because I’ll be flying in with Old Saint Nick! And I won’t leave until the last Christmas cookie is eaten!

26 days and counting...

15 November 2009

From The Reflecting Puddle

A week full of rainy weather has put me in an introspective mood; I get the feeling this year in Pontivy will be very introspective.
To start with, a topic which plagued my writing while in Strasbourg: French, the most beautiful language in the world. I feel fortunate to say that previous language barriers are now a non-issue. My oral comprehension is nearly 100 percent and my oral expression is quick enough to match it. Written comprehension begs more reading, just to amass particular and descriptive vocabulary. My written expression in French is for the moment underutilized, but withstands formal letters and text messages. What really needs work is my French memory. I just don’t remember information as well in French as I do in English, although I don’t translate between the two. Have other language learners had the same experience? For example, instead of having the echo memory capable of hearing and repeating a phone number, I’m always obliged to ask people to repeat. Not a big problem, but the disadvantages become clearer when I can’t remember people’s responses to questions I’ve already asked. It must be like temporary amnesia: at the beginning of a conversation, I sometimes have to ask for the same updates the person gave me last time. It’s not so bad with good friends, like Julien, but I find it difficult to situate new acquaintances from one meeting to the next. Thinking about this makes me wonder where in my brain “French language” is stored, and why the information received imprints poorly compared to “English language” conversations. I would study neurology if I could…
I’ve also been thinking about living situations, simply because my roommateship with Victoria is going so well. I’m thankful I didn’t opt for a studio apartment! With Susi on the main floor, our apartment building has some of the same dynamics as a residence hall. Although I never imagined I’d miss those dynamics, and this scenario is immeasurably preferable because I have a kitchen, this year differs from my isolated situation in Strasbourg and even last year’s off-campus housing. Of course, a good friend already observed this to me last year, and now in hindsight I’m siding with the idea. I don’t seem prone to this need to “get away,” but instead thrive on the accessibility of my companions. The qualifying factor being the “livability” of the roommate.
And a third thought: How, after two months, do I measure up as a teacher? The difficulty here lies in defining exactly what my role is: a language assistant is supposed to provide exposure to a “native speaker” while creating a convivial atmosphere in which students feel at ease using the language. So am I really a teacher, or am I a contact point for an English-speaking youth culture? Am I allowed to befriend my students? Am I expected to? I think most of the students see me as a teacher, and that’s how I present myself. I give lessons, some more and some less formal depending on the grade level and main teacher.
For example, with the terminale students who are in their last year of high school and will take the English exam at the end of the year, I tend to take a more directed approach. During the Bac (the high school exit exam), they will be given a document and asked to comment on it—so this is what we work on. We might discuss a political cartoon about Hispanics in the US and identify themes like racism, bilingualism, and immigration. Terminales: check.
Well, sort of. With some special track terminale students, the ability level is much higher and we’re able to bypass cut and dry analysis to focus on other activities, like role plays and current events. One group is learning about child soldiers, so I prepared a small advocacy campaign following Amnesty International’s letter-writing directives. I don’t know if I’m allowed to pursue these actions, really, but it beats talking about stereotypes or American music!
Of course, with younger grades or post-high school specialties, I do tend towards lighter topics. “Small talk” is a good example: we define the phrase, brainstorm appropriate and inappropriate topics, and write dialogues in pairs. Technology was also popular with the students: we identify different technologies, count up how many hours per day we use each, and average it out before debating the question, “Is technology addictive?”. Personally, my favorite group so far is the post-high school marketing students. We’ve debated shoplifting, analyzed advertisements, discussed the financial crisis, and performed dialogues about financial advising. Of course, each group has a variety of levels, so not every activity works for or interests every student: violà the most frustrating part of the job.

In other news, Victoria’s parents are visiting this weekend, so I’ve had great opportunities to practice Spanish. My brain seems to be experiencing a grammar malfunction and I’m poorly communicating last year’s language courses, but every time we sit down my comprehension improves. And, considering the Andalusian accent, that’s no easy feat! Yesterday led us to Port Louis (across the river from Lorient), where high winds buffeted us around and added a certain excitement to beach and castle ramparts:

08 November 2009

Just When Things Settle Down...

Having just returned from exhausting travels, I planned nothing for this weekend. And having planned nothing, I had many things crop up for me to do.

Let’s start with Thursday: I fortunately spent most of the day out of the house while our heater was noisily replaced. I left at 8:30am and violà, returning at 6pm found the old unit gone, the pipes newly soldered and attached to our brand new heater. I’m tempted to post a picture of it. Let’s disregard for the moment the fact that it has quit twice, since Thursday, for no apparent reason. This leads me to reflect on my elusive handiness and think about becoming better at fixing my own possessions.

Thursday nights are dance nights. Victo and I are taking an African dance class that brings to our attention our inherent awkwardness and self-consciousness. Over the course of an hour and a half, we and several other women learn to dance to the beat of the djembe drums, moving every possible body part in every possible direction. This being the second week, I did notice a slight improvement in certain steps, which I can only describe to you with cryptic titles like “bird/raptor-like lunge” and “drunken sidestepping meets wall.” I like it.

A two-class Friday turned into a semi-class day, as one of my teachers had failed to notify me of an in-class exam and the other hasn’t quite figured out how to utilize me. I used the time to review the information packet for my application to the Masters program in Linguistics at McGill University; did I mention the acceptance rate is fifteen percent? To give myself a confidence boost, I stopped by my (French) bank and opened a (French) savings account, then a second one (also French) just for good measure. I don’t know how proving myself in French will help my application to McGill, but it had the desired effect!

Friday night was marked by two momentous events, both quasi-celebrations of my first month’s salary. First, Victo and I replenished our larders with a big “no more pasta!” grocery run. Slightly more exciting was the dinner out we had later on with Susi, the German assistant, at a neighborhood creperie. Creperies are uniquely Breton, and the meal consists of a galette, a thin pancake made from buckwheat flour and stuffed with goodies like egg, cheese, tomatoes, and nuts. This is followed by a crepe, eaten with a variety of toppings like butter, caramel, chocolate, jam, sugar, and fruits. All this you eat with the typical hard cider that Brittany is famous for.

Saturday turned out to be a beautiful day, so Susi and I went for a bike ride along the canal. Just when I don’t think life can get more picturesque:

Upon our return to town, we ran into the large Breton festival that took over Pontivy this weekend, and we sat in on a bagpipe competition. We returned later in the evening for the fest noz, night festival, which includes traditional Breton music and dancing. The Bretons have Celtic origins, and the cultural ties become evident when you see the bagpipes, “Irish” dancing, and even kilts! This was my first fest noz, and I would say that while I liked the music, the dancing was not inspiring. Although I saw it danced by professionals, I myself participated with the general public in the pinky-holding lines you see here:

We left a little after midnight, and the bagpipes and pinkies showed no signs of winding down!

Then today, in another show of hospitality, we were invited to lunch with one of the Spanish teachers and another of the German teachers in Hennebont, close to Lorient and the seaside. The meal was long, delicious, filling, and soaked. And after all this, the idea was to go horseback riding! Luckily I landed a docile and attentive horse, and easily got my “riding legs” back. We rode around Hennebont and through fields: a pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Now back to a full week of work.