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.