Sunday, November 29, 2009

Dinner in French

The English teachers from the high school hosted a dinner in my honor last night. I was impressed by how graciously they accommodated my vegetarianism. No one bothered me about why I didn't eat meat (tact or disinterest, I don't know), and their culinary flair didn't seem to suffer for lack of meat. There were three desserts, which surprised me, and no one seemed to mind how Americanesquely I (and others) tried all three.

There were a couple good moments of conversation -- nice to roll with a crowd who can walk the English Lit walk. There is also something very satisfying about talking about my country to non-Americans, which is my unquestionable authority (whether they know it or not). And when my French sounds the way a Calvin and Hobbes cut & paste ransom note looks, and what's more when I look like an unfashionable 16-year-old, a little credibility feels good.

Somewhere in the haze of the third glass of wine and a chocolate mousse I lost track of the conversation. No no, it was long before then. When I listen to spoken French, I have the impression that I understand. But really I don't. I assuage myself with the rhythm and the cadence that is becoming familiar; then I stop struggling to build paths around the words I don't know with the words I do. Unfortunately, the missing word is so often the punch line to the joke which I won't get, and I tie myself up in knots trying to understand. It's really hard to feel like a functional human when everyone is laughing and you have a perplexed look on your face (and possibly a quivering lower lip). This sort of situation can have complex side effects. For example, when I don't have the opportunity to laugh at normal, appropriate times, it comes out in the wrong places. For example, when someone starts throwing pieces of food at his colleagues.

This extreme gauchery reminds me of when I lived with a host family in Paris during my study abroad. Conversations were pretty excruciating. The up side was that when I returned to the US, my English had undergone a transformation. Before then I wasn't really fluent in English. I mean it's my native tongue and all, but I would stumble all over the place trying to find the right word at the right time. After three months of blaming my awkwardness on language skills, I refused to be awkward in English. And that was that.

I'm eager to see what transformations will become apparent when this year is out.

November flowers

So delicate to be blooming in November. Is that an autumnal shade of purple?

The flower vendors at the market are so appealing, and this grey morning I didn't resist.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

An expat Thanksgiving

Today, I'm thankful for friends and family worth missing and a home worth returning to -- and in the meantime, for a sunset walk along the sea, though solitary, and the dark-haired girl who didn't once stop smiling in class. I'm thankful for the chance to do something most people only wonder about, and I'm thankful that, difficult though it is, this is one adventure I won't have to regret not trying.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

My first strike

Did I ever tell you about the transportation strikes in Paris, back in '07? How we all got up extra early, packed onto one of the few trains that were running, walked miles because our connecting train wasn't running at all, and spent the whole day wondering if we were going to have to walk home or maybe there'd be a bus running for at least part of the way?

So that's one kind of strike. Then there's the teachers' strike.

My first reaction to a strike is to laugh. I mean, really? A strike? Medical, dental, retirement, and how many weeks of paid vacation? And I thought you weren't supposed to skip work when there was work to be done. (Although believe me, I am not one of those people who think teachers have it easy. Oh no. You try herding cats to prepare them for an exam.)

But. Who doesn't have complaints about their job, their boss, or their management, and good grief, all the more so when you work for the government, right? So really the only difference between us and them is that we complain at the water cooler and they complain and strike.

The idea of a strike is to annoy as many people as possible, one of the teachers explained to me, so that there's an impetus to change. But, as I grumbled to myself this morning, why must that mean annoying me? I called my supervising teacher last night, and she only told me that she would be striking, and that I should call the school in the morning to see about my other teachers. See, usually this is how my schedule works: A certain class has English with their teacher; the teacher sends me several (3-14) students from that class. So if the teacher is on strike, the students don't go to class, and I don't have to work. But if I don't know which teachers are on strike, I don't know which classes I have to be at. I called the school at 8:45 this morning to see if those teachers had showed -- they didn't know. I called at 10:15 (my first class starts at 11); they still didn't know.

So I went to school indignant, wishing I could know at least an hour in advance if I was going to be working. *grumble grumble grumble*

It turned out to be one of my favorite days yet. The school was dead quiet, with so many teachers and students gone. I did end up working for my full day, but it was actually a perfect working condition. In my first class, I had three students. We sat and chatted for an hour. The second class I had two students. The teacher and I spent the hour talking with them about Thanksgiving. Also amazing. It was also a chance for the teacher to see me in action, and, much to my surprise/delight/relief, she was really pleased.

Pedagogically, the small classes were brilliant. But we expected that. There was an unexpected effect as well. Since there were only a few teachers in the teachers' room at lunch, I actually had a chance to chat with several people who I'd never so much as exchanged bonjours with. While the other teachers are showing their solidarity in striking together, we back at the ranch had our own little solidarity going on.

Monday, November 23, 2009

French healthcare: Part I

I called the doctor at 2pm today and got an appointment for 4pm, same day.

Gave the receptionist my info and paid in full, to be reimbursed later. 22 euros (Three times my American co-pay, if you account for the exchange rate. Yes, we're comparing copay to full cost.)

Waited for about 10 minutes. Peeling paint and ugly furniture are not problems that can be fixed on a government-run budget, apparently.

Saw the doctor. She was certainly competent and efficient, and although I could have wished for a more cosmopolitan outlook from her, she was not unkind. I had a hard time understanding her, not so much because I was lost on the medical terms (I actually got all that), but just because there are some people who are harder to understand than others. I left her office feeling depressed about that, because I hate being the stupid foreigner who asks you to repeat yourself again and again. Let's face it, there's no way to sound intelligent while saying, "I don't understand." On the other hand, I'm a little proud of myself, because, while it was not gracefully executed, I did get myself through an entire doctor's appointment in my second language.

I left the doctor's office with my prescription print-out of four items, which I took to the first pharmacy I passed. The woman who helped me there was very helpful and patient about my foreignness. She collected the medicines, explained to me how to use them, explained to me how to get reimbursed by my insurance, made sure I had the proper papers, etc. The total cost for two things of antibiotics, anti-septic spray, anti-septic cream, and bandaids was 37 euros.

Because doctor's visits are reimbursed at 70%, some medicines at 65% (including my bandaids) and others at 35%, my 59 euros worth of healthcare will end up costing 23 euros.

What do you make of that?

Amping up the Frenchness

Guys, I'm really excited. I'm going to experience some profoundly, quintessentially French things this week.

Today I have my first ever French doctor's appointment. (Nothing serious. A problem that even the quackiest of quacky quacks has eventually cured.) Because, remember, I have French Health Insurance. If this goes well, I'm going crazy with medical fun.* I could get my teeth cleaned (yes, dental insurance!)! I could get regular check-ups! I could -- I could --

Tomorrow is a very special event in France, one that only occurs all the time. A teachers' strike! The government did something to the teachers (I didn't catch what, I was busy frolicking with my benefits package), and they're going to protest. The idea, as one of the teachers explained to me, is to annoy as many people as possible. So the students will all go to school, but without knowing if they'll have any teachers. I myself do not know if I'm going or not. I might be on a shopping spree with my health insurance.

Full report to follow.

*I should say, I've always been lucky to have great insurance coverage back in the US. It's just realizing that that ends by the time I'm 25, and then what?

Friday, November 20, 2009

A short reprieve

Here by popular demand, a full account of Lenny's visit to Provence.

It was sunny and we sat outdoors and drank coffee.

Yes, the whole day. Well, until it was time to sit outside and drink wine, and then time to sit inside and eat dinner, and yes there was time to walk along the seashore.

What better way to spend the day?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A good day at the ranch

I've been struggling to write a blog about teaching for several days, with no success. No coincidence that the past several days have been a little rough (Monday excepted)? But I enjoyed myself at school today, so I'm jumping at the opportunity to write an upbeat entry.

The English teachers are throwing a dinner party in my honor. They've even set a date, and it's really going to happen. Some of them even talk to me now! And a couple days after this dinner party, I'm going to someone else's house for dinner.

I still have no way to decide if my classes are "successful" or not. Is our children learning? Who knows. But I'll settle for amusing myself. And I laughed plenty today. I had them invent biographies for these random people (mostly pulled off The Sartorialist), and later make up stories using five random words they drew from a hat. While some students were happy to chat in French and ignore their work, some got it together and came up with brilliant stories. Highlights were the politician who killed a fox at brunch with hairspray; something about Star Wars, time travel, and killer-bananas; and finally the guy from the photo who likes "sex, drugs, and rock and roll." I know I'm not supposed to laugh, but you have to understand, these kids do not have a sophisticated command of English, so when they bust out something like this, it just kills me.

And my classic ESL moment du jour: These kids were goofing around instead of working (yes, really), and I asked them reproachfully, "Are you working?" The one boy repeated slowly to himself, "are... you... working...", thought for a moment; then the lightbulb went off and he scrambled to look busy.

My supervising teacher gave me a CD of materials for the terminales (seniors), who have a major exam at the end of the year. On their exam, they will be given an image or a quote, and they'll have to talk for 10 minutes on that subject; my new CD has images that have been used in past years. (That counts as, like, an entire semester course of teacher training! I mean it's really not, but considering how little training I have, it's a bonanza. It was nice of her to think I might need help, too. Because, good god, do I ever.) I'll probably use images I find on my own (that represent multiple facets of the US, rather than just the one), but at least now I know what's expected of them.

So maybe there are undercurrents of snark here -- maybe I'd kind of hoped that everyone I met would leap at the opportunity to listen to me butcher French, that all the teachers would shower me with wisdom, and that every day at school would be a joyous occasion of language-making. But maybe I'm getting there.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Paper airplanes...

...are actually really funny. Please don't tell the teacher.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Autumn in Avignon

I haven't posted any pictures yet from vacation. And I know that's not right.

Walk out of the youth hostel, turn left and see: the Rhone River, the Pont d'Avignon (do you know the song?), and a little bit of Notre-Dame-des-Doms and the Palais des Papes.

Le Palais des Papes, 14th century home to the popes and their entourage.
It's mostly huge and stone, with cool features like secret underground coffers to stash their wealth.

Inside, looking out.

Less than an hour away from Marseille by train, yet Avignon looks totally different -- it actually looks like fall. The color of the stone and the particular quality of fallness made me surprisingly nostalgic for Paris.

I'm turning into my mother :-)

I've been meaning to take a picture of my adorable little French eggplants for ages. (Which is something my mother would have thought of and done weeks ago, hence the title.) Are they not the cutest little things you've ever seen? I can't tell you how delicious they are, sauteed in olive oil, with maybe some tomatoes, chick peas, and bell peppers for good measure.

They're posing here with my shopping basket, that I bought expressly for filling with fruits and vegetables at the market. Have I mentioned how beautiful the market is? It is probably the one thing I will miss the most about France. Unlike American farmers' markets, I don't believe the vendors are actual farmers; which means that the produce could still be imported from non-Provencal locations. (Not sure locavorism has quite caught on here...) But what amazes me every time is how much really high-quality produce is available for such low prices. I filled my basket with eggplants, bell peppers, clementines, kiwis, tomatoes; plus bananas and apples. At an American grocery store, would that not cost more than 7 euros? And would it not be a little difficult to find nice tomatoes and nice clementines at the same time? I don't know how they swing it, but it really seems a lot easier -- in terms of quality, availability, and cost -- to eat a ton of fruits and vegetables here than it did in the US.

Another observation on health. There are McDonald's here, and there are advertisements for McDonald's. And at the bottom of every ad for fast food, there is a reminder that, for your health, you should exercise regularly and eat at least five fruits and vegetables a day.

More on le mistral

Now that it's 10 degrees colder in the South of France than in my old northern stomping grounds, there's heat on in the school, and I got my shoes soaked through by the rain last night, can I complain about the weather?

I don't really want to complain. In a confusing, unfamiliar way, I think it feels like fall. When I walked out my door this morning to go to the (open-air) market, it felt even wintery. You know those bright winter days we have in NH, where the sky such a clear, icy blue and the air is so dry, and there's nothing stopping the sun from shining, but you can tell just by looking at the sky and the way the light falls that it's winter? It felt like that. Except, I must be losing my grip on reality, because it's really not cold at all. The wind can be fierce, as it is today, but it isn't needles to the face so much as chaos in the air. And when the wind stops, the air is gentle.

It's not swimming weather, but it's not bad. It is weird, though. It's weird to go out in the evening, at 6pm, when it's already dark, so it feels like winter is coming, and yet... by day there are palm trees, so it looks like summer. There's a strange cognitive dissonance going on. I am curious to see how it will feel to have a winter without snow. I'm guessing that I will be tricked into feeling normal. After all, we wouldn't want to subject even weather to ethnocentrism.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

My week in food

A culinary summary of this past week, eating on the cheap:
Default sandwich: Variations on a Nicoise salad, involving a half-baguette featuring tuna and olives. A little drizzle of Provencal olive oil and pepper really goes a long way.
Olives: These are REAL olives. I've walked past the olive trees. They are pungent and potent and ever so olivey. These beasts are not for everyone (and I'm only just now developing a taste for the little punks), but there is no arguing with some quality olive oil.
Fougasse aux olives: Some brilliant, delicious pastry with a shiny, slightly sweet patina, slightly sweet cheese filling and olives. I was not prepared for how delicious this was going to be.
The latest in ice-cream: Olive oil, honey and nougat (?). Still don't know what the nougats were, but for a relatively unsweet ice-cream, this was a cool experience. I have no idea where the ice-cream place was, though -- could be any one of millions of little streets in Arles...
Pistacio-apricot tarte. Creamier than an American fruit pie, and a beautiful shade of green. Why must bakeries put such pretty things out in the window to tempt weaklings like me?
Chausson aux pommes. Puffy pastry with apple compote (think apple butter) inside. At a high-end bakery (like a certain one in Nimes, near where my last sighting of that intriguing stranger took place...), this stuff is serious.
Coffee. It would still be delicious even if it weren't in those cute, cute little mugs.
Hot chocolate. In the cafe where Van Gogh used to hang out. And yes, for that, you may charge me that much for a little cup of ordinary hot chocolate. The put a little packet of sugar on the saucer, too.
Bread and cheese. I can't go long without this stuff.

Next week: Vegetables (have I ever mentioned how cute French eggplants are??) and lesson plans.

Avignon, Nimes, Arles

I just spent the last week all around Provence, seeing sights and thinking thoughts -- I can't decide what to tell you about.

The main points revolve around ancient buildings (including Roman structures from the 1st century AD and a 14th century papal palace); wandering through impossible tangles of French streets and stumbling upon places I may never find again; contemplating art from the 14th and 21st centuries; eating (yes, really); and talking with all sorts of nice people. We could also get into both the introspection I had time for, my renewed appreciation for my bathroom (toilet seats! you don't see those every day), and small epiphanies on language.

I walked through a lot, a lot of very old stone buildings. No sooner did I recover from the shock of a 14th century palace, than what should appear but a 1st century arena. It is impossible for my 23-year-old mind to grasp 2000 years old -- although my young viscera definitely got the "I know this tower has lasted 2000 years, but can this narrow winding stone staircase really hold up until I get to the bottom safely?" bit. So we must be impressed then by the size and grandeur of the structures -- but even that's out of reach. At its finest, the architecture is so perfectly proportioned that it doesn't feel huge and you don't feel small; but the people walking around in front of you do seem a little silly in their irrelevance. I wonder what it was like to be walking around these buildings not as a reverent visitor, but as an inhabitant? I'm talking about the Palais des Papes, temporary seat for the Popes when they were in Avignon (starting around 1309, I believe), a place that housed not only the pope but the hundreds of people who worked with, under and around him; I'm talking about the 1st century AD Roman arenas, where 20,000-30,000 people could watch machismo in its bloody glory. What would it be like to see all that lavish extravagance as functionality rather than a sacred cocoon of History?

History's overwhelming; let's talk about Art. I saw two art museums: One of medieval Italian paintings, one of contemporary photography and sculpture. I realize that my nerdiness really borders on snootiness when I get all excited about Art and Western Culture and the New Yorker magazine and all those fancy elitist things that people pretend to like, but, seriously, fusty old paintings are a big deal. Looking at what one man (or woman) decides to put in one frame that ostensibly represents one moment in time puts me in their mind like nothing else can. Because of course they couldn't possibly confine the meaning of the painting to only one idea, even if they wanted to. What informs their decision to choose those expressions, those colors, those gestures? Nothing less than the entire world they live in. And so in room after room of Virgin Mary and Child, we see not the same woman with the same child but dozens of different artists as people, the towns they lived in, the conversations they had, the qualities they valued... as many enigmas as insights.

Wandering through narrow, windy little streets, or across ancient stone floors, is the best way to mull over all these thoughts about art and places and the world and what I'm doing here. And none of these words looks quite the same on my laptop screen as it did floating above a ivy-shaded shuttered window somewhere in Arles. I'll try again later.

The writing on the wall

"Smoking kills."
In America, this would be to avoid a lawsuit. In France...?


"Long live the Pope."
What century am I in?