28 April 2011

April Crazy

So much to report on!

If the period of craziness from March through early April did not bring me to nervous breakdown, then I can survive anything. It was truly a feat of coordination, complemented by some gracious extensions on the part of professors and coordinators. Now, let’s see if I remember it all step by step.

Mom and Dad arrived Thursday morning in Paris at the end of March. I actually arrived in town after them, and we met at the hotel, each glad to see that the other made it okay. From our spot on Boulevard Pasteur, we visited the Luxembourg Gardens and lunched in a crêperie, typical of Brittany where I taught last year. Then we took the train out to the suburbs to have a fantastic visit with family friends who have often dined at our house in Michigan and were glad to host us on their home turf.

The next day we left for Orléans, about an hour train ride away, to stay with another French family we know. It was great to catch up with them, and we played with the kids, walked along the Loiret river, and visited the manor where Leonardo daVinci lived out his last days in Amboise. The house is filled with is designs and the gardens contain the actual structures, so it’s like a mechanically sophisticated playground.

I finally managed to tear Mom and Dad away from their vie en rose and woo them over to Barcelona. After a first-night feast of paella (a rice and seafood dish), they spent the week visiting and enjoying the view of Montjuic from their vacation apartment terrace, and I spent the week scurrying from visit to Catalan class to masters class. One highlight of the week was my presentation to the Rotary club Barcelona Les Corts, which hosted me and my parents for Wednesday afternoon lunch. I was proud to introduce myself a bit in Catalan to this bilingual club, which then continued with a presentation on the Chinese economy and closed with a debate. It was, I think, the most challenging Rotary presentation I’ve given, between translating for my parents and trying to follow the quick and heated discussion about economics in Spanish. I responded to several tough questions, including the overarching theme of this year, why do some Americans refuse to institute national social security programs? Anyone with comments, please post. My response always contrasts historical precedents limiting government power, which is seen as the problem, with contemporary European perspective, which sees government as a mechanism of the solution.

I wish I had had more time to play the tour guide, but in the end I think the only real problem was my stress level. Unfortunately it only got worse when we rented a car (and I’m waiting for years to pass so we can laugh about this) and drove through insane Barcelona traffic and poor signage to get out of town. We did happen upon a fantastic seaside tavern for lunch, where somehow Mom lucked out with roast duck and Dad and I ended up with fish sticks. But the weather and coast were beautiful and we had the chance to see the Greek ruins of Empuries, an ancient trade settlement.

From there we stopped by Figueres and Girona before spending the night at Luz’s family’s house—the villa in the photos from last fall. It was worth the complication of the car rental just to wake up and look out through the arcades of the second balcony towards the mountains across the valley. Oh, the peace of the countryside.

After a return to Barcelona, a final afternoon walking around the old part, and an evening view of the city from Montjuic (the hill-park near my apartment), their final day in the city came to a close. We had dinner with my flatmates and a friend at my current pick of tapas restaurant, El Glop. Although we meant to get to bed early, and had to get up at 5am the next morning to leave for the airport, somehow the city just calls you to stay. We made it home at midnight.

I think this is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned this year: how to let time slip through my fingers. I like to be in control of my own schedule, and when I have set ideas about how things will come to pass, it’s difficult and disappointing to see them changed. But the Spaniards have this way of staying on and on, never mind the time or the cold or the tiredness. I commented on this a year ago when I attended the April Fair in Sevilla: during twelve hours of eating, drinking, dancing, and talking, my Spanish friends never once got bored with themselves or tried to create an agenda to pass the time. Time passed all on its own. Although I’m not by any means a pro, since September I’ve learned to let this happen, to stay until the conversation runs out, and if it never does, so much the better. To watch time as the hours pass and enjoy the people who surround you while it happens.

Am I Crazy?

Saturday morning, early, the parents left, and I got back to some assignments I’d left hanging during their stay. I made studying an Olympic sport over the next three days as I turned in paper after paper and studied for a high-pressure exam in one of my favorite courses this year, Advances in Second Language Acquisition Research. [Essentially, research has focused on how age of learning affects your success in your second language, and how this factor is also affected by others such as aptitude, motivation, and learning context. For example, my accent and grammar in French can be very good because I’m highly motivated and expend a lot of effort, and I have 100% aptitude for learning things like grammar rules and sound-symbol relationships, but it will never be native because I started learning French late and as a foreign language. My proficiency and fluency improved enormously when I was immersed in French studies in Strasbourg.]

I had to be organized and quick because Tuesday evening two dear French friends of mine arrived from Brittany. It had been a year since I’d seen Julien, a very close friend from my Strasbourg days who never lacks for words, and so you can imagine the conversation. After a good late-night catch-up, I sent them off on their own the following days so that I could study, finish some projects, and go to class. They were good sports, but when I could finally join them when my vacation started Thursday afternoon, I felt a complete decompression. As you can tell, Barcelona never stops, so there is more to visit and do than even I can finish this year, but we gave it a good try.

Saturday morning we left in Julien’s car, headed north for my first French road trip. The scenic drive along the Costa Brava allowed us an afternoon dip in the Mediterranean at Roses, where Julien fished (he’s taken up wet suit-snorkel-harpoon-under-water fishing) and Sebastien and I napped on the beach. After passing through the Languedoc, we stopped in Auvergne 100km south of Clermont-Ferrand to camp for the night. Just off the highway we found a small village with a small river just perfect for “savage camping,” as it’s called in French. We set up the tent, built the fire, organized our supplies and enjoyed the afternoon’s catch. The night was cold, but clear with a full moon. Couldn’t ask for more.

Sunday was a long day of driving, and we arrived late in the evening at Julien’s house outside of Rennes. The week unfolded perfectly, without any prior organization on my part: I spent a day at the house, then a day at the seaside in Dinard, where Julien and I went fishing at low tide. The high tide that evening was exceptional, splashing up on the beach terrace, to the surprise of many small giggling children.

The next morning I took the bus to Pontivy, the town where I taught last year, and visited some of my favorite people and places. All the teachers were surprised to see me, and I had a wonderful long lunch with some of them and met others later for coffee, in between walks along the canal. I had time to reflect on my year there, which I hadn’t given much thought to since I left. There is no room for complaining: even though I thought of life in Pontivy as calm, by the end of the year I was surrounded by friends and had a trove of memories. The whirlwind of a summer and settling into Barcelona last fall had separated me from that time, and it was good to think over it again and spend some time with the people who made it so special.

I came back to Rennes the next day, visited the art museum, and sunned in the Parc du Thabor which was all a-flower. The weather was incredibly nice all week, and I got my first suntan of the year in Brittany! I was a little sad to leave the region Friday morning, mostly sad to leave friends there. Julien has been hired by an international hydro-engineering company and will start work in September in Oman. The news came as a surprise to me, although I had helped him correct his English CV. I can’t believe the gall of some friends: I move to Europe to be near them and then they move even farther away, or worse, to the US!

I left Rennes and arrived in Paris, where I stayed with Antoine and his family for Easter weekend. The irony here is that the family is Jewish, and for logistical reasons I hadn’t been able to attend the traditional Seder meal earlier in the week for Passover. And there I was for Easter instead, eternally grateful that we still got to have an Easter egg hunt, that I could talk with my family over Skype, and that my Easter 2011 included a special afternoon trip to the Louvre. Irony continued to plague me though, as during this Jewish holiday wheat and yeast are prohibited, and we were relegated to eating matzah (unleavened bread, like a cracker). What is a Frenchman without his baguette? They were all good sports, though, and breadless meals were full of clever conversation and debates and, later, cards. I found Pit, the stock market card-trading game, to be the perfect outlet for this boisterous bunch.

On Monday morning I began the long trip back to Barcelona, first by train to a town near Lyon, where Luz’s family picked me up, and we continued by car to Girona. After stopping by the warehouse and picking up lots of organic goodies from Luz’s mom, we returned home by train. I was flat-out exhausted, but feeling rested, relaxed, and removed from the stress of the previous month. It should be much smoother sailing from here until the end of June—I hope!