Monday, December 28, 2009

Une creche

A creche is like a nativity scene combined with a Christmas village, except set in Provence. It's really just an excuse to make tons of rustic little miniatures. I've seen some with little mechanical devices, for example a well drawing water, or people moving.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Photodiary: December 27

Cats don't like to be photographed.

Cabbages do.

Blue is the new green

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Sing it loud; the three-month mark

If you look to your right, you will see my favorite verse from my favorite Bob Dylan song. It's there because I imagined this year as an adventure, a joyful adventure in which my long-muffled Soul would announce itself jubilantly from the hilltops. If souls grew as predictably as zucchinis, maybe things would have progressed as planned. As is, I haven't exactly spent this fall being the devil-may-care rebel that Bob probably had in mind. If you've asked me how things are going at any point these past months, the "it's a good experience" part of the answer (qualified praise that that is) is always accompanied by some "but" and some variation of "not easy."

Well, it's not. The three skills that would have been most handy -- teaching, speaking French, and making friends quickly, language barriers be damned -- have turned out to be ones that don't come naturally to me. I could also throw "herding cats" and "crowd control" on the list, but "teaching" should cover that, right?

Don't get me wrong; this is not a pity party post. I've turned a corner (we won't call it "the" corner), and I'm finally feeling more optimistic about this year. The thing is, it's good for me to be doing something I'm not good at. I've known this abstractly for a while, every morning that I gathered my courage to face down the flighty teenagers; each afternoon that I asked myself what I could do better next time, rather than throw my hands up in despair and count the days until vacation. (I'm being melodramatic and self-martyring right now, but not unreasonably so.) But it didn't feel like I was getting anywhere, and I wasn't getting better at teaching, and I still can't speak French beautifully, and, and.

And now, the moment where what I've learned finally clicks into place. I was in Ireland this weekend, playing chamber music. We were rehearsing, and there was something I wasn't quite getting. I didn't quite get it on the first try. I didn't quite get it on the second try either. And to be honest, I really don't think I got it in the concert, either. But in the moment where my group was politely listening to me throw tempo to the wind, I watched myself not get frustrated. Usually a failure to be perfect on the first try sends me into torrents of existential despair of the "I'm bad at life" variety, maybe even a little panic. You know, the kind of frustration that lets you walk away from a problem in disgust because you don't believe you'll ever solve it. This time, I watched the exasperation pass like a cloud and noted that I would have to dig in harder.

Christmas chowder

Red peppers & green peas.

On my return from Ireland

The raindrops were beaded like Christmas lights on the clothesline as the dusk fell pearly-grey; the wind shook the palm trees in the damp haze of the streetlights; the waves were heard leaping the beach to scatter detritus on the sidewalk; and I was in the glow of my lamp.

My trip to Ireland, to play chamber music and see friends, was so good, that I'm even happy to be by myself here in rainy Provence in my moldy apartment. As the train rolled closer to "home," the red roofs, scruffy flora, and jagged horizon looked new and welcoming. Not really new, since the land here looks old and the buildings tired, but new as if I was seeing anew. The homecoming that greets a long-traveling daughter, the voyage to a place seen only in the mind's eye never by daylight, the first time opening your eyes fully. "I live here," I told myself, here where walking through the hills feels like walking through an arid movie set.

What drug of new vision did my few days in Ireland give me? Partly that travel-rapture that has eluded me here in France. When I was a student in Paris, visiting Marseille, visiting Chartres, wherever I was, the slightest discovery was thrilling; returning this fall, I felt blase. I even went, very deliberately, to the particular cathedral that I once felt a certain kinship to. But no; nothing.

Now, Ireland. My excitement to go to Ireland was untempered and uncomplicated, and when I got there, I was as delighted as I had been prepared to be. The first day, I took a walk through the countryside. I was in such a rapture that I stopped to stare at chickens.

You may suspect that it would take something more than rain-rich pastures, or even cozy fires and unparalleled hot drinks, to cause such joy. You'd be right.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Friday, December 11, 2009

Another week of classes survived

There has been a slight uptick of successful classes lately. I still haven't gotten the hang of manipulating large groups of unwilling adolescents, and I may never, but when I can gather a few little students in a circle to chat for 50 minutes, things go well. More than six or so and you start getting into cat-herding territory. Not that I don't like cats, and in fact I have an adorable group of 15/16-year-old kitties on Friday mornings who are curious and playful and will respond however flittingly both to suggestions to be quiet and invitations to talk in English.* Yesterday I chatted for an hour with a charming group of five terminales (high school seniors) who, unless I flatter myself, were pleased to discover that English can be used to chat, not just to do grammar exercises, and to have a teacher sit and listen to them talk about themselves. The cool thing about teaching is that you have tons of kids in your life who you could potentially care about, and every so often you see them respond. Tuesday, two girls told me, "It's a good class, Madame!"

With one class, I had a worthwhile, if brief, discussion about multi-culturalism, via Kwanzaa. We worked through their confusion ("No, no, black people can still celebrate Christmas! And, uh, I guess white people can do Kwanzaa too?" I don't think we have segregated holidays in the US...? They were worried about the white people being left out of Kwanzaa) and they were impressed that we have a holiday to celebrate black heritage. They did tell me that they think US has more racism than France to which I say: Obama can take Sarkozy any day, and they know it. We got to Kwanzaa by way of the Muslim holiday of Eid. For my part, I made the mistake of assuming that that blond girl didn't celebrate Christmas because she was atheist or celebrated the Solstice or something. Turns out she was Muslim. Guess that goes to show that, Obama and Kwanzaa aside, we still have something to learn about stereotypes...

Of course a small group is no guarantee for success. For example, my terminales today who, when I mentioned that we were in English class to practice speaking English, told me "je parle pas anglais"** as matter-of-factly as if I had accidentally stumbled into a grocery store looking to buy a skirt, and went back to chatting in French until I was ready to get back on subject (whatever that may be). Luckily, I came to class armed with music, and they happily sang along (such as it were) to Winter Wonderland and We Wish You a Merry Christmas, and the class narrowly escaped complete failure.

Across the board, good kids or no, they all think they can get away with texting in class. They look embarrassed and surprised when I, smugly, swiftly and adeptly, catch them, but, really, what did they want me to think they were doing staring intently at their lap?

*I mean the cat analogy as affection rather than condescension; I think I respect my students.
** "I don't speak English."

Pretty food

To help you recuperate from the ugly cookies, here is the most delicious orange soup ever. It was beautiful.

December flowers

My landlady promises blooming mimosas in January.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Maybe I'll be a senator instead...

This is the batch I dropped.

This represents all the batches that started as cute, autonomous little stars and ended as blobs.

These are the success stories, to be broken into cookie-sized, if not cookie-shaped, pieces.
The most tragically burned were not photographed.


My nostalgia-driven baking adventure was for the benefit of a holiday gathering at Le Grand Portique. (These are cookies, by the way.) Le GP is an association in my town that offers opportunities for members of the community to glimpse the outside world; they periodically offer evening presentations by people who have done interesting things in interesting places. Among the 25 people there last Thursday night to share our holiday traditions were two Americans, two Italians, an English, a Mexican, a Paraguayan, a Russian family, and a bunch of French people.

It's nice to be reminded that even if America can export its blinged-out Christmas around the world, different countries are still different countries with different traditions. It's nice to be reminded that I still have plenty to learn. I told them about decorating our houses with lights, making gingerbread houses, and Yankee swaps; Yankee swaps, not because I've ever done one, but because I thought, correctly, that it would be something quirky enough to have escaped mass export. (Yup, you can count on Yankees for quirk.) Karima, the other American, explained Kwanza; I'm glad the French folk got to hear about the diverse, multi-cultural side of the US, and they received it well.

The best part, well, second-best to the hand-made Italian chocolates and whatever that cake was, was of course the singing. For all that America is the most dominant exporter of pop music, I often feel that there isn't quite enough spontaneous music-making in our lives. Not enough sitting around sharing songs. We the Americans offered Rudoph the Red-nosed Reindeer, which, as it turns out, uses a totally different musical idiom than the Russian, Italian, Mexican, and Paraguayan songs we heard.

My cookies, appearances aside, tasted fine, and were in good company with an impressive spread. The evening lingered late with dancing (salsa) and music.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Here and there

I've been getting a little mired in nostalgia lately. Did I tell you I was getting nostalgic for a particular midwestern bar? even though I have never once in my life been happy to be in any bar ever? Unreasonable. This trend is getting worse as we get deeper into the Holiday Season. I'm listening to Christmas carols, mooning over Christmas cookies, and obsessively wanting to make a gingerbread house. As far as I know, it's been at least ten years since any of those things even crossed my mind without being accompanied by due cynicism.

But here I am, here are the Christmas lights strung alongside the palm trees, and here I set out to make my American Christmas cookies: Translating ingredients, finding them in the store, converting cups to grams; in my damp, dark, slug-frequented kitchen, rolling out the dough with an empty wine bottle, baking the cookies six at a time in the toaster oven, and in the meantime nibbling bits of raw-egg infested cookie dough, something that never so much as tempted me as a child.

Next Christmas, when I'm in Mom's cozy kitchen with rolling pins and and tins of flour, I'll be nostalgic for department-store tinsel and make-shift batches of cookies, won't I.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

More revelations

My high school seniors were so, so not sold on the name "Santa Claus." "Ok, we have Saint Pierre, Saint Paul... Saint Cloos," they said. The sleigh, elves and North Pole toy workshop were all fine. But Santa Claus?

Let's not be reticent on good days!

Like many other teaching days, I woke up nervous today. Teaching is like giving a concert, which is cool, I like concerts, except I've been playing violin for 15 years and teaching for about a month and a half. Often enough, my worries are justified; I've had my share of unsuccessful teaching days. To be honest, I don't think I'm a natural at teaching, or the learning curve hurts, or I've been airlifted into an alien universe where nothing makes sense.

But not today! Today was gold. Teaching felt great. Thanks, I think, to the advocacy of one of the teachers, I worked with small groups today -- only 4-5 students at a time. With only 4 kids in class, we can sit together in a circle and have a conversation. It's hard to hide, so everyone gets a chance to bust out their English moves. So effective. So suited to my personality. (Have you ever seen me thrive amongst large groups? No, you haven't. And how do I like the "I talk you listen" model? I don't.)

This was one of the first times I've felt truly effective as a teacher. I felt like what I offered them was suitable and helpful and well-executed. After so many classes of feeling like I'm not doing anything for my students but confusing them, this felt so good. I do love those little punks, and I hate to let them down.

Some choice moments:
With the 10 year-olds: "What is dinde [turkey] in English?" "Dodo!" Exceptionally witty, that one. Faire dodo is a cutesy way to say "go to bed" in French. Yes, turkey makes you want to faire dodo. (Inadvertent wit, I'm pretty sure.)

At high school: We were analyzing a political cartoon, and one of my students came up with an interpretation that I had not thought of. Not that I have a monopoly on ideas, but using language to express abstract thoughts is glorious.

In the next class, we joked around about one boy's imaginary friend. Cross-cultural humor. Also glorious.

Later that class, I explained "sweat shop" to them. It's not a funny concept, but seeing them understand "sweat" and then trying to figure out what a shop of sweat might be... good fun. I'd forgotten how weird English is.

I have honed my plans for Christmas (Plan A was sitting alone in a darkened room drinking vodka and writing bad poetry). New and improved plan is an invitation from one of the teachers to have dinner at her house.

If good classes are my favorite thing, The New Yorker magazine is a close second (especially this). Thanks for the care package, Mom!

Out for a walk this afternoon, an elderly man fell on the sidewalk. No fewer than 5 people rushed up to help him, sit with him, and make sure he got home ok (it wasn't anything serious). It is deeply reassuring to know that even on a quiet, empty afternoon, there are still at least 5 people in this town who will help you if you fall.