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:

Monday, April 5, 2010

Sunshiney hiking

Apparently the day after Easter is a holiday around here. This country, it's full of surprises. So there was no 8:10 bus to Aix this morning, and as we were sipping our coffee/hot chocolate and planning Plan B, Plan B called us to go hiking. We rode in the overflow car of the caravan with a lovely couple I'd met once (who turned out to be the parents of one of my students), and promptly got lost. We didn't end up finding my friends, but we did have an extraordinary hike high above the sea under the glorious Provencal sun, in a relatively lush region close to Toulon. Vegetation here includes "white cystes" that are actually pink, and l'herbe de schmourf ("Smurf grass"), which is not even close to the color of "Smurf ice-cream."

Hiking with Cyrus

Most of these photos by Cyrus.

Why is there a car in my front yard...?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Visit #4

My brother's in town! People come to visit me as dependably as the bakers find an excuse to make something tasty (see below). Visits from family and friends are exciting on all counts. Seeing cool peeps is always a good time when you're far away. Not only because a person can get lonely all the way on the other side of the ocean, but because as exciting and foreign as France may be, I didn't get a chance to notice every exciting and foreign detail before becoming adjusted to the ways of the French world. Having a visitor opens my eyes to things before my eyes that I had never seen before. It also gives me excuses to go hiking along the calanques of Cassis, which are gorgeous and new every time.

Culinarily gifted brothers are also handy to have around when you need to impress French people. For example, on Friday, I gave a presentation at a small organization, and Cyrus provided the refreshments. The presentation went over fine, but it was my bro's salsa that I caught someone eating with a spoon. One of the attendees was heard saying, clearly impressed, "All the Americans speak French!" Bah oui.

I took Cyrus to the market today, my favorite Sunday morning activity. He got to meet the friendly cheese lady (who made sure he tasted all the cheeses), the friendly vegetable dudes, and the woman who has strange and elaborate opinions. We had some quality basking in the sun time, and some quality wandering-around-Marseille time, and we're headed to Barcelona on Wednesday, for all the adventure that entails.

Amelia + dessert = holiday

It's entirely possible that I mark the passage of time with the changing displays in the bakery windows. France never fails to delight me with its rich tradition of rich food. Christmas was the buche de noel, a cake shaped like a log, complete with little frosting mushrooms. Just as American New Year's Resolutioners were kicking into gear, the French busted out the month-long galette des rois party. If your slice of cake includes the feve (which is a little figurine, here, a traditional Provencal character), you get to wear the tacky paper crown, and the next cake is on you. And so on and so forth until February 2, Chandelier, which, as far as anyone knows, is when you take down the creche (nativity scene) and devote yourself to eating crepes. It may be the day that Jesus ate his first crepe, but we're really not sure.

Eventually, there's Lent (Careme), which has no special desserts associated, but there was Carnaval somewhere in the middle, perhaps to show that France is an equal-opportunity disdainer of religious practice. That brings us up to Easter, featuring mouna (which seems like a strangely un-French word), a light brioche-like cake, like sweetbread with a hint of orange water, I think, and most importantly, little crystallized beads of sugar on top. David Sedaris fans will know that the French are not visited by the Easter bunny, but by the Easter bell, and while I have not confirmed this with any real French people, I have seen quite a few chocolate Easter bells at the bakeries. They also have large chocolate cats, fishes, hens, the occasional bunny, and eggs. There's some debate as to whether or not we saw chocolate turtles.

Part of the thrill is that I didn't know about any of these traditions until they started appearing in the bakeries. So who knows what the next big event will be? I hear May 1 is big around here, at least for disrupting bus schedules, so we shall see what that brings.

I also want to take this opportunity to remind you of how much I love ice-cream. Ice-cream in France (especially when there are Italian influences involved) is exciting every single time. Lavender ice-cream will never get old. And yogurt ice-cream -- who knew what tangy delights awaited me? This country is full of pleasant surprises.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The pen is mightier than the sword

Have I mentioned recently that I live, more or less, in my second language? Let's talk about language.

I met a French lady today, who, immediately upon meeting me and learning that I was American, informed me that "French is the language of Culture." That French is more difficult than English, because there are more French words (although a minute with google debunks this), each precisely defined, lending the language infinite subtlety.

If French is the language of Culture, what, I asked her, is English? It's for everyone, she responds. Everyone can learn English. Whereas French cannot even be mastered by all French people.

Which is why, if you speak French truly well, you will always succeed (just, in general). Because, she explains, if in conversation you use a word that the other person doesn't know, "you win." The perfect French is the language you use to bend people to your will.

This conversation put me at unease.

I'm not sure I properly understood her, but the questions I asked didn't lead me to the clarity I'd hoped for. I asked, first, if she saw conversation as a way to take the upper hand, rather than as a way to establish rapport. She protested heartily. I couldn't say on what defense. My second question was which French language she meant. "In general," she said unhelpfully. The language of inner-city youth? Nope, definitely not that one. That's not French, that's something completely new. Those kids who can't be bothered to learn French French will never leave les banlieues (French equivalent of the inner-city). It's French French that will open doors -- or close them.

She is absolutely right, though, that language is power; that language can be used to exercise control. You can see this in the dynamics of a single conversation, or you can see it in the power politics of colonized countries. As soon as someone opens their mouth, you have the evidence you need to pigeon-hole them in a class, should you choose to stop listening there. I don't disagree that you'd do well to arm yourself with the weapon of words. But wouldn't you rather see words as a million little doors that open you to the world and the world to you? Or as bridges uniting two minds?

And what the hell is Culture anyway, if there's only one? Surely not the one that was dead by 2007?

As we parted ways, this woman invited me to an olive cultivation expo next week. With a smile, she said, "It's culture."

Whatever, dude.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Who I played Bach for this afternoon

Blossoms and other lovely signs of spring

The sun is shining unabashedly, the fruit trees are blooming, I played Bach to an open window this afternoon, and I'm only going to write about the good things in life.

I left school in a good mood, as I often do these days. My students are endearing themselves to me more and more and the months pass. If I ever become a teacher (which is looking more and more likely), it would be for the endless possibilities of the job -- not only could I endlessly and endlessly master the art of teaching, but every one of my students is endlessly fascinating. As we learn to trust and understand each other, each one crafts a unique rapport with me. April seems too soon to leave.

Not to exaggerate my competences as a teacher either, but I've felt different lately, standing before my class; more at ease. I'm chipping away at my discipline issues (my middle schoolers listened to me this week, which is what getting high must be like). I'm learning to talk slowly, repeat the directions, and explain when we use the past simple instead of the present perfect.

I would not say that I'm a good teacher, or a natural. But I feel good.

I'd meant to describe my weekend -- a leisurely Saturday lunch shared, a blue-skied morning of music with poets and friends, and hearing Joan Baez sing in person. But you can imagine.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

March Flowers


and almond trees.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

February 25

If I sometimes hate my job, it's not from boredom. Other days, I love it.

This morning started with a class of eight girls who were very dubious at first about speaking English with a native speaker at 8am, but by the end of the class they were hard at work trying to set me up with another single teacher. That they referred to him as a "vampire" can only be a good thing in this Twilight day and age. . . right? Meantime, the prize-winning question of the hour was, "Why do Americans say 'oh my god' all the time?" No answer, but they decided it was like "voila quoi," a French expression that also means practically nothing. Still unresolved was my claim that there are more vegetarians in America than in France -- surely you can't be a vegetarian if your entire country runs on hamburgers?

The second class was 5 boys (slightly older, around 18-19 years old), one of whose claim to fame was nearly starting a fistfight in my class a few weeks ago, another who, when not preparing for the French boxing championship, has endless creativity energy for charming his way out of work. They walked into class singing in English ("What is love." "Qu'est-ce que ca veut dire, Madame?" and other smooth lines), asked me if I thought Tom Cruise was a beau gosse, and tried to convince me that they'd spent their vacation in Vancouver.

I can tolerate a certain amount of betises (idiocies, roughly translated) in class, but dropping the n-word in class? Not so much. Where do you begin? So they didn't know that it's an offensive word, even if rappers use it. I can only hope that the ignorance doesn't run deeper than that. If it does, I hope that it's at least been chipped away at today . . .

Today's return to (relative) innocence was a little 12 year-old boy going on a long monologue (in English!) about the (largely imaginary) tradition of oral history in his country, without knowing the phrase "oral history."

"In my country," with a hearty French accent, of course, "We [brainstorms in French] talk the stories of the family. My grandfather say to me," gestures dramatically and self-importantly, "and I say to my little sons." Et cetera. All that to say he didn't want to write his assignment.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


It's a Sunday afternoon in France. I went to the market this morning: bought my shimmeringly fresh yellow pepper; listened to the produce vendor warmly greet a friend in Arabic before offering me a bunch of parsley; accepted a cadeau from the cheese vendor who remembered me from last week and was happy that I had enjoyed the 24-month-aged Comte; and bought my hot fresh bread from the bakery around the corner. I arrived in France Friday night, after a sojourn in Rome. Walking past a cafe in Nice the next day, where the late-morning coffee-drinkers were still lingering, I caught myself thinking, "It's nice to be home."

But it's even nicer to travel; which, let us not forget, is what I'm doing every minute this year. I spent the first day in Rome in a complete buzz. I asked everyone patient enough how to say this or that in Italian, ate my meals one savory bite at a time, and flooded my eyes with artwork. Visiting a new country is a drug, and I can tell from the minute I set foot somewhere new that I won't ever have enough. When I wasn't stuffing my mind with Italian words or Italian art, I was scheming (ok, fantasizing) a year in Italy, complete with language courses and art history classes. It was a totally realistic dream until I got to the part where I'd start wearing fashionable Italian clothes...

I was not prepared for Rome. Even if I had pored over pictures guidebooks, you're never really prepared for Rome.

Rome is unreal. It's huge, larger-than-life. Every city has endless nuances and nooks for the patient explorer. Rome has everything -- the enormity, and the subtlety.

Every time you turn a corner, there is another church. The architecture is diverse, but each one rises above the street magnificently, wearing its columns, sculptures and stone filigree with the grace of a French lady at the opera. If a year in France had numbed you to immense stone facades, you have only to walk in to be awed anew. Inside, the ceiling is closer to the heavens that the roof had been outside. If you peeked in the door and then immediately closed your eyes, the colors, however muted by time and solemnity, would dance behind your eyes. If you looked again, your gaze would ascend along the marble pillars, past the larger-than-life sculptures of saints and popes, past paintings of every story in the Book, past Mary after Mary, and rest on the vaulted ceilings covered with paintings framed in golden lace. Finally, if you walked through the door and stood with your head tilted back and your hands hanging at your sides, you could stare for hours and hours without seeing everything.

And after your eyes were saturated, after the choir had finished singing their mass, after the nun had passionately pressed a Mary medallion into your hand, and you'd emerge on the street again, you'd blink in the crass light and and you'd start walking, towards, knowingly or not, the next monument to beauty.

Rome shows its true colors

It's never too rainy to be a huge, bright-orange building in a beautiful city.

Self-portrait, Musei Vaticani

February Flowers

I only skipped January from neglect, not for lack of flowers.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Friday, January 1, 2010