Monday, April 26, 2010

After all, French children are French people in training

I spent this morning in elementary school with the munchkins, who were all the cuter for speaking French and offering up their sweet little round-cheeked faces for bisous.

The school is set in the center of a Typical Provencal Village, which may be the only thing more charming than well-behaved children with toothless grins. School, 12th century stone church, post office, mairie (town hall, but replace the white wooden peaked building with a sturdy stone facade), and Roman fountain, wrapped around the town petanque green, shaded by pale-barked trees. Three-story houses with colorful shutters peer at each across narrow cobbled streets -- narrow to keep the too-hot sun out. On a warm, sunny morning, the glaring sun is mellowed to leafy green and pastel.

The school building itself surrounds a flat courtyard dotted by shade trees. There is no playground, but the children find means anyway to run around and amuse or hurt themselves.

The day started at 8:30, with their teacher checking their blue math notebooks for completed homework. Those who hadn't completed it went and, without any fuss, wrote their names on the chalkboard. (If I understood correctly.)

After they introduced themselves and figured out that I was American, we did a little geography. Luckily, they could find America on the map, and major cities like New York, Los Angeles, Hollywood, etc. They also found Alaska, which isn't quite attached to the rest of the US, but is the same color on the map, and there's another piece of the US over there that's the same color, right next to Russia... No, that's Mongolia. Mongolia is not America.

Our next lesson was math. After I gave them a numbers dictation (thirty is a killer -- what's this th business? how can you be sure she didn't say thirteen?), I busted out the American Dollar -- which is not from Egypt (despite the pyramid picture on the back), nor is that a picture of the Queen, or her son, or a judge. I showed them a $20 bill (which, although the $1 has a picture of the first president, doesn't actually have the 20th president on it), and one child pointed out that the dollar is worth less than the euro; another kid guessed that a 20 must be worth about 5 euros. Ouch. (It's more like 15 euros.) I had cleaned out my change purse on arriving in France, and I had enough American coins for each kid to have one. They asked me quite a few questions along the lines of, "Is this real money? Is this what you use to buy things?" It's a strange feeling to realize that what is arguably the most motivating symbol in our country is effectively, to these kids, play money.

Morning snack break appeared pleasantly soon, and, lo and beyond, it was Clemente's 9th birthday, and we all ate cookies and Coke. I have never seen so many 8-year-olds behave so calmly in the presence of sugar. Yet more unwitting disregard for American values. I led the class in a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday," which they all seemed to know already. I hope that being sung "Happy Birthday" by a real American was at least a little exciting for her.

I finished the morning by playing my violin, and then it was time for them to trot off to lunch (either purchased from the school cafeteria, or eaten at home with their family -- they have two hours to make sure they get a proper hot meal). A few stopped to ask me questions ("Is this real money?" "I have the same bag as you!"), to thank me, and to give me bisous.

I spoke only in English the entire morning, which was understandably confusing. But it was exciting when a child would surprise us by understanding a sentence, or a word they'd probably never heard before, or when they'd know some fact about the US that seemed to come from thin air. I don't believe the French education system is founded on this concept, but there is something enchanting about listening to what children have to say.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Stereotypes galore

I was sitting at a picnic table in the sun, talking with my students, and one girl asked me if the TV show CSI was like real life. I quickly disabused her of that notion, and we started talking about American movies, French movies, reality and stereotypes.

They all listen to American music, and prefer American films, although they do tell me American movies are "exaggerated" and the happy endings are ridiculous; French films are "bland", often too complicated for their audience to appreciate, and don't have enough action. Often the French films that are made, they tell me, are with French plots (which are good) and American actors (who are "strong"). I asked them if they thought it was important for France to have good musicians and good films, and they said yes.

We eventually segued to stereotypes -- they wanted to know what Americans think of the French. Always an awkward question. But I do love telling my students that French people eat frogs' legs and escargot. The disgusted faces they make answer that question.

In a development that would horrify the French language advocates in my life, I then told my students that American believe that the French are very proud of their language. That got a unanimous no, on the grounds that French is "too complicated, too hard" (hear, hear!) and "not pretty" (unlike English, Spanish and Italian). Furthermore, they would not be among the French accused by Americans of being "snobs" by snubbing imperfect attempts at speaking French. (True point -- I don't get much further than "bonjour" before French people start praising my French.) They get that it's a hard language, and, as one girl explained, French people speak English with a pretty thick accent themselves.

The Death of French Culture is often a subject taken up by American press (not sure that's really our right), National Identity taken up by the French (specifically President Nicolas "Obama could take you any day" Sarkozy), and my students' interest in American culture at (arguably) the expense of their own makes me wonder how French Culture and Language will evolve as this generation grows up.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Barcelona: The Pretty City

Englishizing (Englishising in British English)

Have you thought, lately, about how infinitely weird and awesome the English language is?

This isn't a sneaky jab against Ms. French is the Language of Culture Snobbypants; I'm sure (am I?) that, if I had a deeper understanding of it, French would prove itself equally rich. But in the meantime, I'm trying to plan a lesson for an adult student who throws up his hands in exasperation every time I use a phrasal verb including "up" or "down." "We need to do a lesson on this," he tells me.

So I hit the google (learning, in the process, the phrase "phrasal verbs" -- multi-part verbs, like "I looked up phrasal verbs in the dictionary.") and found an online dictionary where you can type in a preposition or verb and it gives you the list of phrasal verbs. Type in "up" and you get 320 results -- all weighing down a word that implies gravity-defying with a world of other meanings. Which I suppose is gravity-defying in its own right.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


One of the coolest side-effects of being a totally unorganized traveler is the intense power of surprise that a city can offer you when you have absolutely no idea what to expect. A few people mentioned sites to see on our impending trip to Barcelona (which I forgot, because I can't yet retain Spanish/Catalan names, with or without a French accent), and arrived remembering only the counsel to "see as much Gaudi as possible," whatever that was.

We took an eight-hour bus ride and stayed in a colorful youth hostel in the center of town that had rooms not unlike double-tiered hospital wards. Uncharming but functional.

Even if you aren't one of those ubiquitous American college students responsible (I assume) for the scent of pot that wafts through the streets, Barcelona is still a trippy city. All the European cities I've ever been to (and it's not clever of me to compare European cities, I have no claims on expertise) have a certain respectable dignity to them. Or maybe it's not dignity, maybe it's just elegantly packaged conservativism. Which is not to say that one gets sick of Parisian wrought-iron balconies and stone facades, but Barcelona does this instead:

And then does stuff like in this, in public:

Walking through certain passages of Barcelona feels like walking through the fantasy landscape of a picture book. There's an element of the fantastical that would be inappropriate anywhere else. I'm mainly talking about the wild Gaudi influence, but the rest of the city is lushly adorned with ironwork and architectural frills.

At the same time, Barcelona has the expansiveness -- seen and felt -- of a modern city. Huge boulevards cross the town, complete with fanciful lampposts and outsized banks whose facades point into the outsized intersections. Even as we walked away from the tourist hubs, the scale was large, and we didn't wander into the sort of windy-streeted, clothesline-arbored neighborhoods that must be tucked away somewhere.

I've heard that everyone loves Barcelona. For me, it was the aesthetic. For others, I believe it's the ambiance. And I won't lie, it's amazing to walk down a street teeming with life at 9pm , to eat dinner near 10, and to walk home at 1am with no signs of winding down. It's a serious party city, or just a living city, as you wish.

Finally, it's a Mediterranean city, with a big blue sky, and the illusion of infinite sunshine on all that glitters.

Barcelona, gettin its magic on

So there we were, enjoying the Barcelonian sunshine late one afternoon, in front of the Magic Fountain, kind of wondering why there was no moving water in the Magic Fountain.

Nice, but not magical.

When all of the sudden, this happened: