27 January 2010


It appears that January is sluggishly plodding to an end. Although I don’t suppose February will provide warmth and contentedness, I at least rejoice in the end of January. It’s difficult to keep your chin up in January, which is why for the past four years I’ve skipped town, mostly opting for warmer climes like Mexico and Ghana.

I had no escape this winter, however, and apparently it shows. Under no illusion that I am easy to live with, I constantly expect Victoria to exile me to my room, expel me from the apartment altogether, or at least ridicule me for my negative aura. Her course of action, however, is worse: I’m now being fined for my pessimism.

By the best means known to humankind (a bet), we are crusading for self-improvement. I bet she can’t stop her nail-biting habit, and if she does by the end of the week, I will make her a delicious dinner. She bets I can’t be consistently positive, and each time I say something negative I contribute fifty cents to buying our favorite bottle of Bordeaux. Whatever money I don’t raise, she pays. So here we are in Pontivy, planning for success.

As part of this effort, I’ve catalogued and focused on positive parts of my current existence. At the top of the list are, of course, Victoria and Susi, without whom I would undoubtedly be lost, angrier, and more negative. Along the same serious lines, we have made contact with some very open and generous teachers, in whom I find every reason to revisit Pontivy in the future. As the list continues, it includes some arguably mundane aspects of daily life that I have latched onto, such as the friendly black and white cat that often intercepts me on my way to school. The elevated view from our kitchen window. Reading French easily. Coffee.

Once the snow days passed, certain events rendered optimism easier. I’ve finally been reimbursed for all my trouble with the phone company, to the tune of 275 euros (over 400 dollars). I’m planning a grand trip for the two-week February break, including an expedition to Belgium and Amsterdam with Victoria. One of the very nice teachers took me to the food coop, where I finally found whole wheat flour. And a new idea has given direction to my summer plans: which field hires bilingual, homeless, kid-oriented seasonal workers? Language camps! I found some wonderful options in Michigan, Minnesota, and Québec. Really, despite all the bureaucratic debacles, disheartening American politics, and unsatisfying assistant work, things are looking up! Here is one satisfied Frenchie:

20 January 2010


The title may be misleading, as slowly the snow has melted, classes have continued, and life has gone on. But as life only started going on as of three days ago, I can claim that I’ve spent nearly a month in hibernation. Hibernation in Pontivy, however, is proving much less satisfying than cookie baking, skiing, and friend visiting elsewhere. Thus my decision, this weekend, to get out of town.

By Friday night, Victo, Susi and I were in Rennes and enjoying the sense of possibility offered by a new, big, moving city. My friend Julien met us for a drink on what’s aptly called “Thirsty Street,” in the midst of Renne’s pleasant collection of half-timbered houses. The city, capital of Brittany, sits on the Vilaine River in the easternmost part of the region. Perhaps this convenient location closer to Paris than to Brest (the main Breton port, all the way on the western edge of the peninsula) explains the confused architectural styles. The center of Rennes is divided between charmingly colorful cobblestone streets and grand white Parisian edifices.

This difference could also be due to the great fire of 1720, which sent most of Medieval Rennes up in flames. The city seems to have a penchant for burning, because in 1994 the Parliament of Brittany also caught fire. I learned this through a guided visit of the building on Sunday. The history of Brittany serves as a reminder of the sacrifices made during the formation of modern nation-states. In the sixteenth century, the region (or the province, as the tour guide frequently reminded us) was a duchy integrated through successive marriages into the kingdom of France. A provincial parliament was established, although for a while it split its sessions between Rennes and Nantes. Finally, sixteenth-century voyage between the two towns not being by express highway, the parliament settled in Rennes. Its current grand edifice was built over more than half a century. A long time, you say? Maybe that’s because all of the décor was assembled in Paris and then shipped cross-country. Yet another responsibility the Bretons were not entrusted with…

One more interesting historical note: the Parliament viewed from its square is an imposing two-story block. Originally, the lower story housed the prison, and a grand outside staircase wound up to the main second-story entrance, and from this waiting room one had an elevated view of the square and town.

But in the eighteenth century when a statue of King Louis on his horse, representing the kingdom of France, was installed in the square, the grand staircase and elevated entrance was declared too imposing. The Parliament of Brittany, of course, could not be more prominent than the king of France. So the staircase was removed, and parliamentarians obliged to enter through the prisons. Although no post-king staircase now graces the building, the statue was attacked and melted down during the French Revolution, soon after its installation. Tee hee.

The rest of the weekend, it rained. We went for walks around Julien’s whenever it wasn’t raining, wearing boots and sporting umbrellas. We played cards, skipped rocks at a pond with a Medieval tower, ate cow’s tongue, the usual. I didn’t care for cow’s tongue, although it was a very tender meat, and my dislike is probably attributable to the psychological oddity of using one’s tongue to eat a tongue. To make up for it, we also ate Galette des Rois, a cake that celebrates Epiphany and contains a hidden trinket. Whoever finds it gets to be king for a day and is then expected to buy the next galette.

At the origin of my visit to Rennes was my Monday doctor’s appointment at the immigration office, required to validate my visa. It went fine, and now I have a cute X-ray to show off. Several assistants from Lorient were also there Monday, and we considered playing “Guess whose X-ray?” in the waiting room. I got a large stamp in my passport and was sent home. I suppose that means I’m completely legal, and that sounds like a reason to celebrate!

07 January 2010

Another World

It’s a clear, wintry day in Pontivy. So wintry, in fact, that it’s a snow day, although you wouldn’t know it from the roads. Coastal Brittany isn’t used to snow, and three wet inches fallen Tuesday night have now caused two days of school closings. Except school isn’t closed so much as cancelled for those who come from afar: if you come from a-near, you’re expected to show. Yesterday bus service was called off by the district, so the cancellation of classes was fairly evident. But throughout the day I observed no effort to improve the snow situation: no salting snowplows, no shovels (one woman did clean the slush off her sidewalk with a stiff broom). So the white residue has jellified and frozen into sheets of ice on all the sidewalks and side roads. Today bus service was cancelled by the bus company—although I don’t know how one finds this out without showing up at school and overhearing teacher gossip—and so class cancellations were less sure, the district’s mandate confronted by the lack of students. I was allowed to return home, despite the four classes I have scheduled, because most of the school population was “stuck.” To all you Michiganders, who are not paralyzed by three inches of snow: we are impressive folk.

I remember Michigan fondly these first days back in Pontivy. I won’t spend too much time recapitulating, since I’m addressing the same people who hosted me, but my trip was like entering another world. Here are some photo highlights:

Lots of kids decorating lots of cookies.

A Christmas tree and a dog.

Lots of snow and snow activities.

And more cute kid, more dog, and more snow activities.

Okay, so the vacation also had its downs, like retiling the entire floor. I would not recommend this during the Christmas season, when all of a sofa, table, chairs, recliner, refrigerator, and Christmas tree must be shoved into the living room. But, if you must, remember that there’s room for the microwave in the bedroom, the coffeepot in the bathroom, and you can always get yourself invited to dinner somewhere.

Don’t allow my banter to mask the difficulties of Christmas, which can be a sad season as easily as a joyful one. I can’t know what it’s like to be in the positions some of my relatives and friends are in, but I do recognize the pain of not feeling like myself, not feeling comfortable with myself, not feeling safe in my surroundings, and not being able to change a frustrating situation. It hurts to be so far away when people I love are confronting these situations and feelings. But I am not inaccessible. I can be in communication if it helps. And now that France Telecom owes me a good batch of euros for international calls I already paid for in my phone plan, I intend to abuse it. It’s my New Year’s resolution.

Love you all.