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:

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