24 October 2009

Off Galavanting around France

Now that I've worked ten days, I figure I deserve ten days of vacation.
Or at least that's what my school tells me. I can't complain, because everything has fallen into place for my trip:
Today: Lorient, Take II
Sunday: Brest, farther out on the Breton peninsula
Tuesday: Rennes, checking in on Julien
Thursday: Orleans, celebrating Halloween with dear friends the Noe
Sunday: Strasbourg, ticket price I could not refuse to visit a friend in the city I love
Tuesday: Home, prepping for classes the next day
Stories and pictures to follow...

20 October 2009

Bum Week

You know, there are times when you just can’t catch a break. It’s not particular to France, or to the US for that matter: sometimes things just don’t work out as planned. And then they don’t work out as hoped. And then they just plain don’t work out.

For example, this past weekend Victo and I planned an overnight trip to Lorient, the other big city in our département (read “county”). We thought we’d meet up with other language assistants, have fun visiting the city, maybe peek in on some Lorient nightlife. But alas, very few assistants responded to my initial email about hosting. Only Alex, a Canadian who fulfills all the wonderful stereotypes, invited us for dinner.

So Victo and I arrived by bus around noon on Saturday and visited the town. Lorient looks much different than Vannes, notably because the town was completely destroyed and completely rebuilt. So I didn’t stumble upon any ramparts or tiny medieval alleys, but I did find lots of boats and likely the biggest anchor I’ve ever seen:

As the afternoon sun faded, Victo and I headed for the youth hostel where we’d decided to stay, since none of the Lorient assistants had offered to house us. I knew that the hostel was not downtown, but as we walked, waited a half hour for a bus, and walked again, I realized just how inconvenient the location was. My opinion slipped lower when we were slapped with a subscription fee to this certain hostel association (FUAJ), an addition that almost doubled the cost of the stay. Then, looking at the bus schedule, I went from disappointed to disgruntled as I realized that the bus back came only once an hour, and that we had just missed it.

So dinner was late. Okay, manageable. After dinner, we had planned to go out and meet up with the other assistants. It was a good plan, but the evening soured quickly as we met more and more assistants who said, as if surprised, “Oh, you could have stayed with me. I live in a house just a couple blocks away and all my roommates leave on the weekend.” A nice offer, but too late.

Speaking of too late, we could only visit for an hour because the “night bus” service stopped at 11:30. Resigned, we got on the bus and got off at the stop closest to our hostel: still a 25 minute walk, through confusing suburban streets. Thank goodness we had a map!

The next day, although Alex had invited us to visit a few other neat sites in Lorient, Victo and I were too exhausted and depressed to think about anything but going home. We walked twenty minutes to the bus stop; on a Sunday morning, we were lucky to catch a bus at all. After an hour bus ride home, we both crashed and crawled into our separate corners for the rest of the day. Next time, Lorient.

And that was just the weekend! I don’t want to bog you down with complaints. But after that weekend, and one teacher who skipped my class, and the never-ending expectation that I know exactly how things work here, and the heat that broke last night, and the difficult students, and the rain…

If you didn’t know before, “my life in France” is not all baguettes and bonheur. Wish I had my dog.

11 October 2009


Last Wednesday, Susi and Victo and I alighted in Vannes, a city located 45 minutes south on the Gulf of Morbihan. Our mission: to learn about everything that we had to do to be good language assistants and foreigners in France…a week after we’d already officially started doing so. Voilà, welcome to orientation!

“Stage” is the translation for “orientation,” but I prefer to use it in the same condescending way I would use the English “stage.” Oh, I’m just going through a stage; don’t worry, this stage won’t last long; at this stage of life, everything seems backwards. Etc. Orientation, hosted by the Academy of Rennes but specific to this Department, lasted all day Thursday and included 37 English, Spanish, and German assistants. And one Italian. But before I bore you with the details, let me include a few pictures of Vannes itself:

The city gardens and ancient ramparts.

The Hotel de Ville by night.

At the end of an afternoon lunching by the boat docks, wandering the city’s medieval quarter, and visiting the fine arts museum (notably hosts a Delacroix painting), S—V—I met up with our hosts for the night. We met Claire and Aurélien, a young couple with a penchant for traveling, online through the website CouchSurfing. The main mission of the site is to connect people all over the world who are willing to host other travelers or who are travelers: kind of like an updated Mennonite-Your-Way program. Claire and Aurélien have welcomed many visitors (60 in the past five months) and have various experiences couchsurfing in places like Spain, Ghana, and Madagascar. Next year, they plan to move to La Réunion, a French island near Madagascar. I enjoyed meeting and getting to know such a welcoming and adventurous couple. And the best part: Claire currently works in a pastry shop, so we were stuffed with croissants and chocolate tarts and given some for the road!

These travel pastries were, sadly, the highlight of the next day. Orientation commenced at 9:00…or rather 9:30…maybe closer to 10:00. I found the morning information session and accompanying guide very helpful—for hindsight. Half of the “very important things every assistant must do” I’d already fumbled through, mostly because someone very important already expected me to have it done. Case in point: my procès verbale d’installation (paperwork which certifies that I have in fact begun my job) required a certified copy of my birth certificate. Good thing I’ve always traveled with the copy I obtained five years ago! Then, Assistant Guide page 6: “You will be required to present a certified copy of your birth certificate in order to commence your teaching duties.” Thanks.

The hour-long break before lunch, followed by the hour-long break for lunch, gave me plenty of time to socialize with the other assistants. The Brits and Americans came in roughly equal numbers, along with a smattering of Canadians. I had the vague impression of being part of an exchange program again; I’m glad the feeling passed. And although I met some other assistants I’d like to keep in touch with, I’m glad I ended up with the ones I did here in Pontivy. One interesting story: I’m currently reading a Canadian journalist’s research on minority languages, and had just finished the section on Manx when I left for orientation. Manx is from the Isle of Man, another island nation between Ireland and Great Britain. The language died with its last speaker in the seventies, but revival efforts like a bilingual playgroup, school, and music group have formed. By chance, one of the assistants I met is one of the “new native speakers,” and her parents started the playgroup. Intellectual overstimulation! For me it was like meeting the lead in a favorite band!

The afternoon pedagogy session couldn’t compete with this lunchtime discussion, but it was entertaining and informative. None of the information or techniques were new, but it was a good reminder of how to elicit student participation in a foreign language. For example, don’t lecture for five minutes and then ask for questions. I was able to immediately apply some of this advice in my classes on Friday: instead of introducing myself briefly, I wrote five statements on the board, two of which were false. It was up to the students to find out which ones, and then explain their choice. My favorite responses:

“You probably don’t like to cook, because Americans never cook, they just eat McDonalds.”

Upon my insisting that I never eat fast food, they reformed: “You probably do yoga, because people who don’t eat fast food do yoga. And you look peaceful.” Better.

I guess there are worse descriptions! I had a very peaceful walk this weekend along the canal that runs through Pontivy. Fall is a lovely time of year:

And lastly, me and roommate Victo:

06 October 2009


I expected this past weekend to be slow and boring—as I know hardly anyone in Pontivy, and no one my age apart from Victo (my Spanish flatmate) and Susi (the German assistant living in the same building). But it could hardly have been more amazing!
Friday, after running around town a lot, the three of us decided to stay in. We made popcorn, had Breton cider, and watched a movie. Uneventful, but comfortingly normal.
Saturday, a German professor at school invited us to his house in the country Saturday afternoon. The three of us went, Susi being the only one who had met Jens before. Jens lives with his wife and 7-year-old daughter in Baud, a small town about fifteen minutes from Pontivy. We first went on a hike (I have a lot more contact with nature this year than when I lived in Strasbourg), the highlight being a gravel pit lake. Well, you take what you can get in the countryside around here. Then we settled in for coffee and homemade apple cake. It was about 6:00 when we finished visiting, and seeing our interest in board games, Jens asked if we would like to stay longer and play one.
The longer we stayed, the more generous the offers became. After playing till almost 8:00, Jens asked—or rather his adorable daughter begged—us to stay for dinner. We were enjoying ourselves so much, we figured why not! While pasta cooked and sauce simmered, Léna gave us a violin concert:

We drank quince wine for l’apéritif. Not only is it a fruit I have never even tasted before, but Jens’s German father made it!

After dinner—and this is when it really got ludicrous—Jens told us he thought we could drive ourselves home in their second car, and then use it the next day for any trip we might want to take. Afternoon visit, nice; coffee and cake, lovely; the board game, homey; dinner, exceptional…but borrowing the car?! I suppose he could have been too tired to drive us home, but there’s a long leap between being tired and actually offering one’s mode of transport.
Flabbergasted, we said yes.
And yesterday we struck out on the wild curvy roads of France to see the town of Perros-Guirec on the northern coast of Brittany. This region is known for its pink granite, and we were not disappointed: we hiked along a seaside trail to the next town, stumbling over pink boulders.

I have found that Victo and Susi are incredibly companionable, and I’m lucky to have ended up with such great neighbors. Victo is from Valdepeñas, near Jaén, Spain. It’s a town known for its olives, and Victo could practically bathe in all the olive oil her parents sent her this week, including “travel packs” of 5cL (about a tablespoon). She studied Spanish-English translation in school (though I suspect she’s a closet philosopher), and her French is improving rapidly. I find her incredibly well-organized, sociable, and gracious. While Victo is petite, Susi must be six feet tall and lithe. She’s from Berlin, and though her English is near-native, her French is “beginner.” She lives in a studio on the first floor, so I don’t know her as well, but I enjoy her sense of humor and her affinity for nature.

Fortunate I am. :)

05 October 2009

Edu. Abbrev.

I thought I had a pretty good understanding of the French educational system.
Until, that is, I began teaching in it.
MUC. BTS. TGST. Term Spé. LV2. Even ASS! What does it all mean?!
As in other areas of French life, education is rife with abbreviations and acronyms. Some are comprehensible; others are unreasonable. For example, the DGELF (General Delegation of the French Language), SNCF (National Railroad Society) or SIUAPS (no one actually knows what this stands for, but it references the university sports complex in Strasbourg where I took dance classes). These acronyms are cumbersome and defy pronunciation. MSU (Michigan State University) I can understand. Indiana pushes the limit with IUPUI (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, sometimes pronounced ee-ew-pew-ee). But when the vast majority of people who work in a given sector have difficulty remembering the sector’s main acronyms…
It took my supervising teacher, Anna, a full half hour to explain all acronyms for the classes I’ll be working with—and this is just at the high school level. I’ll attempt to do the same for you in less time.
First, I work on an even-odd week schedule, although only a few classes change. I teach 12 hours a week, which is 2/3 time for professors. Most of my classes are Tuesday (5-6) and Thursday (4), with 1-2 on Monday and Friday, and no classes Wednesday. Having Wednesdays off is not unusual for teachers in France; until last year the school week included Saturday morning. For the most part, I’ll be working with groups of 4-5 students for a half hour to an hour, practicing oral conversation and presentation skills. My sessions will generally follow the main theme being discussed in class. For example, if the students are reading texts and discussing addiction in class, I can choose to talk about cell phone addiction. I can ask Are cell phones addictive? What defines addiction? What are some addictive substances? I might introduce some vocabulary, ask students to prepare a small presentation ahead of time, bring in extra articles or images, and basically invite and mediate discussion.
The students I work with come from a few different grades and specializations:
Première STG: Première would be Grade 11, one year before taking the high school exit exam called the Baccalauréat, a very thorough exam covering several areas of study but emphasizing whichever specialization the student has chosen. STG means business sciences and skills, students destined for work either immediately after high school or after a couple more years of study. Foreign languages are required in all high schools, and most STG students choose English (and possibly a second language) because of its practical application in business.
Terminale STG: Terminale is the last year of high school, Grade 12. These students will take the Bac at the end of the year.
Première Spé: Grade 11, specialized studies in either literature or economic and social sciences. These students will take a more difficult Bac and receive a higher mention on their diplomas. Think of this as the Honors course: they are intelligent and eager.
Term Spé: Grade 12, specialized.
BTS: post-high school work training. The classes further prepare students in more specialized fields. The students are not much younger than me!
MUC: BTS studies focusing on business management.
ASS: BTS studies focusing on the insurance industry.
TLV2: Grade 12, second foreign language. These students will be fluent in three languages by the time they graduate high school. Think of these as the top ten of each class.
Term Euro: Grade 12, European section. This course is designed for students who are either very highly motivated or already speak two or more languages. This is not an English class; it’s history and geography taught in English.
I have yet to meet all my classes, but so far I’ve attended five. Depending on what the teacher has time for, I usually spend time talking about Michigan (location, the Great Lakes, student stereotypes based on Michael Moore’s depiction of Flint and Detroit); my university, studies, and graduation (they like my picture with cap and gown, like in the movies); my interests, where I’ve traveled, and in turn what they like to do; and what they’re interested in studying (overall, American daily life, movies, music, schools, and Michael Moore films). My presentations to the Première classes (Grade 11) have been less smooth than those to Terminale, and my two sessions with Spé classes have been delightful! One student even invited me to spend a weekend at her family’s home in the countryside this fall!
What do I think will be difficult teaching this year? Classroom management should be okay, given that I’ll be working with small groups. Defining the line between professional and personal contact with my students, since I’m not quite a professor and I’m supposed to create a friendly atmosphere where they feel at ease speaking English. Maintaining a natural English could also pose problems (except for writing this blog and making phone calls to you all!), because my classroom “English for foreigners” is much clearer, slower, simpler, and free of slang, sarcasm, and expressions—essentially what make it worth speaking.
Details of this weekend soon to come…Otherwise, I dropped off my housing aid application (now wait three months), should be able to fill out paperwork at school (if the secretary isn’t still sick, or if someone has finally learned to cover), first month’s rent is due Monday (interesting discussion with the landlord today), and the phone technician comes Tuesday (pray the line is ready right away).
Even if I had something else to add, I don’t think you could stand it. Have a good day, and more soon!