30 September 2009

It's Complicated

My view:

My room:

I think that all my life and training has but prepared me for this challenge: settling in France.

It wouldn’t be so difficult if it weren’t for the domino effect of services. For example, I am fortunate to have an apartment which was chosen for me by my supervising professors at the lycée, of which I have eight, all like mother hens. However, I would like to have internet and a phone in this apartment. But first I must have an open phone line, so I must go through France Télécom. But first I must have a bank account, so that I can be charged the monthly fee. To have a bank account, I must first have a certificate of lodging, confirmed by—for example—a phone bill, or say, an electric bill. But to pay the electricity I must first have a bank account and a certificate of lodging! I have yet to go through all these hoops in the US, but if this is the universal process, life is decidedly too difficult!

It wouldn’t be so bad if services were a little faster, a little more efficient. Today I was promised that my salary would come through in a month (and that's an advance), my telephone line would arrive in three weeks, my bank account would be valid in one week, and my traveler’s checks couldn’t be exchanged for two days. I wish my employer, phone lady, bank man, and landlord, would sit down together over a beer (or hard cider, the drink of Brittany) and decide to give each other the benefit of the doubt and me a bit of sympathy. Three weeks!

It wouldn’t be so trying if it weren’t in another language. The reason I have become so keenly interested in linguistic policy is because I know as much as any immigrant that language is power. Comprehension is one level of reclaiming that power, and expression is another, but real communication takes courage. It is difficult not to allow a bureaucrat to speak down to you, especially when you are not a native speaker and can be easily bowled over my practiced legalese.

It would be hell, however, if this were my first go-around in France. If I didn’t know all the services available to me, like health care and housing grants. If I didn’t have all the documents in order, my organization being my greatest asset. If I didn’t speak the language, at least well enough to say, a second time, in a sweetly insulting way, “Excuse me, sir, I would appreciate it if you spoke more slowly, if that doesn’t bother you.” It would be hell.

For now, it’s okay. I have an apartment with a view. I like the food. The pay is better than the last year I spent here. My landlord is like a grandpa, I speak the language, and the baguettes are fresh. Even the high school has ceased to be intimidating! If I can face up to a sullen French teenager, surely I can handle all these bureaucrats! Wish me luck!

Bien Arrivée

Sorry to have kept you all waiting so long! I won’t blame it on the internet, but I will mention fiendish French keyboards—which are similar enough to lull you into confidence, only to have you hunting and pecking with abandon after a simple sentence!

Yes, I have arrived. In France, nonetheless. I spent several days chez Julien, and I could not have asked for a warmer welcome. Julien is a friend from my year in Strasbourg, who studied hydrology (and dance!) there and is now at home near Rennes. We’ve done a bit of a tour of the surrounding region, starting with Brittany’s most famous asset: the sea.

On the coast the Atlantic, you don’t just lay out on the beach and splash around in the water. You also catch dinner! Julien and I collected sea snails, oysters, clams, and crabs, and later went fishing.

Eating seafood is very adventurous. While your usual fish entrée may pose problems of extracting tiny bones and avoiding the glassy eyes, crabs are a matter of hammers, claw-crackers, and very tiny forks. Shrimp begs beheading, then prying off legs and scales. Sea snails require long pins to extract them from their curved shells. Oysters? You just eat them alive and let the slimy saltiness slide smoothly south!

Although I don’t have much of a taste for seafood, it was well worth the experience of gathering tide-to-table.

And then a bit of sorcery

The next day we traveled to the Forest of Brociliand, ostensibly the site of many Arthurian legends involving Merlin and Morgan La Fée. Wait, didn’t King Arthur live in England? Because of the common Celtic heritage between this peninsula and the island across the Channel, the written records of the Arthurian period often confuse Bretagne (Brittany) and Bretagne (Britain). The Forest of Brociliand is said to be the home of Merlin’s tomb, the Fountain of Youth, the Valley of No Return created by Morgan La Fée. While legends abound concerning different sites in the Forest, I can assure you that the tomb was not magical, the fountain was not flowing, and dragons were significantly lacking. Sigh, maybe next time…

In the meantime, it was a great hike!

Finally, we spend our last full day in Gacilly, known for its small artisanal painters, glass-blowers, designers, and photographers. There was a fantastic photo exhibit at the Yves Rocher Institute, but our visit was cut short by the need to return home for a crepe party with friends...


My bus to Pontivy was Saturday afternoon, and one of the English professors, Isabelle, arrived to chauffeur me to the apartment and around town for the necessities: food, toilet paper, and bedding. The apartment is on the third floor with beautiful southern exposure, nicely decorated if poorly appointed. More on that as soon as I have pictures; I spent all Sunday cleaning before unpacking, and it shows!

A bientot!

19 September 2009

Return to the Drawing Board

Hello all!
As I will be traveling again to France in just a few days, I've decided to give blogging a second chance. It turned out to be a helpful tool for communication and reflection...plus photos. Here are the facts:
I will be an English assitant in a high school (lycee, pronounced lee-say) in Pontivy, a small town in the middle of Brittany. The region, known in French as Bretagne, forms the northwest peninsula of France, jutting out boldly into the Atlantic. As you might guess, Bretagne touts beautiful coastlines, a variety of seafoods, and excellent hard cider. I'll keep you updated on all three.
You can keep me updated through email, Facebook, or post letters (and packages!) to me at:
38 Rue Leperdit
56300 Pontivy FRANCE
Thanks for playing!