Saturday, November 10, 2012

Homesickness, Farsickness, and The Odyssey In Between

I realize I have utterly failed at writing the rest of my travel tales. For what it's worth, be it better or worse, I have also failed in my ongoing efforts on other writing projects. At this point, I am not even going to pretend to promise that those travel tales will ever materialize, but we'll see. I'd like them to, but perhaps it's too late now anyway.

In any case, lately I have been reading two poems about Ithaka over and over again. (This one and this one.) Ithaka was the home of Odysseus, the destination of his ten-year journey described in the Odyssey. Both of those poems end on the idea of needing the journey in order to fully appreciate the destination. They suggest that the journey, not the end goal, is the real purpose, that achieving the destination would be meaningless without everything that happened along the way.

My Ithaka is symbolic. My Ithaka and my El Dorado are one and the same—“home” is a mysterious place of wealth and wonder, one I'm setting my course for without really knowing where to find it, or if it even truly exists.

It's something of a trope that the Germans have a word for everything, but it's also kind of true. “Wanderlust” is originally a German word, and it's a fabulous one. Another fabulous German word, which I learned while I was in France last year, is “Fernweh.” As I understand it, it means something like, “a yearning to be somewhere else,” and what makes it so fabulous is that that somewhere else can be anywhere. It's not the same thing as homesickness (I've seen it translated as "farsickness," sort of the opposite), nor is it quite the same thing as Wanderlust, which I think of as being a kind of restlessness. Wanderlust is a longing to move, to travel, rather than a longing to be somewhere in particular.

The concept of Fernweh was a small revolution for me. After wondering for so long if it's possible to feel homesick for a place that isn't home, strictly speaking, to find this other word for something that's the same but different made everything make sense. It's like a sick person receiving a diagnosis—you feel a special kind of relief just knowing what to call it, just knowing that enough other people have experienced what you're experiencing that it has a name.

I told you all that to tell you this: I miss Ireland. A little less intensely than I missed it while I was in France, which either a) supports my suspicion that having something in proximity but not in reach intensified my pain last year or b) is a sign that I've slowly and involuntarily accepted the fact that it would be incredibly difficult for me to ever find my way back as anything more than a tourist. But I miss it a lot. I also miss Belize. Once in a while I miss France, too, though I think what I miss is the friend-family I had found there, more than anything. I also miss my hometown, and I miss the town where I lived last summer before moving to France. Which one is on my mind the most changes from day to day, but at least one is always there. They all cause me Fernweh.

And that brings me to this: My own journey stalled a bit after I got back from France. (Which is a little ironic considering that part of the reason it stalled is that I got a job, which was originally supposed to be temporary but has stretched into the present, that has me traveling back and forth and all over the state every week, working in several different places and going home [or to visit friends] on the weekends.) But I am currently in the process of trying to make some very big decisions about both the near future and the big-picture plan for the next couple of years. And first on the agenda is finding a place to live for the next while.

The biggest decision facing me, assuming nothing else presents itself in the meantime, is whether to move back to my hometown or back to where I was last summer (for two of the happiest months of my life). That decision may come down to employment opportunities—or it may not. I'm not sure. But meanwhile, I am also applying for a teaching job in Guatemala that would start in January and put off plans to move to either of the above places. And I need to make a decision very soon about whether to reapply to TAPIF in hopes of being re-accepted for a second year under the tricolore and hopefully assigned to Guyane (or another overseas department; Guyane was the dream, but I don't think I'd quibble).

All of these possibilities feel a bit like mutually exclusive yes-or-no questions, and yet they're all interconnected and rely on so many other questions, like what I really want to do with my life and when and where (and if) I want to go back to school. And a big part of what it comes down to is the question of what's most important, because the issue of where is all tangled up with issues of jobs and hobbies and friends and romantic prospects. I'm pulled in so many different directions geographically and in terms of a career path, but also in terms of reconciling my ongoing wanderlust with my desire for community and stability. I don't know how to choose there, either. And then, should I make my decision based on where I can get the coolest job? Should I let people determine the direction I take, and go where I can be sure of being near loved ones? Should I just pick somewhere I like and go and work it out from there, hoping for the best? I think there's an argument to be made for each. I think I've tried each in the past, and not found any one approach to life to be “right,” at least not yet. So I don't know. And it may be that I will have to just see where the wind takes me, and trust that the gods do, indeed, know what they're doing.

This I do know: All of these places that give me Fernweh, both the places I've lived and loved and the places I haven't been to yet, matter. Perhaps one of them will turn out to be my El Dorado, my Ithaka, and I won't know it until I've traveled far and come back to it again. Or perhaps they are all my equivalent of the many islands Odysseus found before finding his way home, each with its own trials and temptations to be overcome before the end of the journey is finally in sight. Either way, it's the journey that makes us who we are. And I just try to remember, each time I look out over the months or years of uncertainty ahead and wish for “home” (Can you be homesick for a home you don't have yet?), that it's the adventures along the way that make it all worth it, and that give us our stories to tell when we finally end up where we're going.

"Ride, boldly ride,"/ The Shade replied--/ "If you seek for Eldorado!"

Tuesday, July 31, 2012


So here's the thing. I've now been back in the USA for more than two months, and have just completely and utterly failed at writing absolutely any of my backlog of blog posts. (Side note: "backlog of blog" is kind of hard to say.) I could blame a lot of things for this (readjustment period, zillions of job applications, getting stuff done at my parents' soon-to-be-sold house, not wanting to think about France and travelling once I was stuck back at my parents' house cleaning and applying for jobs, simple laziness...), but rather than getting into all that, I'm just going to get right to the blogging.

But before I start trying to go back and remember all the things I had to say while I was abroad, here are some things about coming back:

1. The jet-lag was murder. My goodness. I've always said that it's worse when flying west than when flying east, but now I'm starting to wonder if there's also some kind of correlation between the severity of jet-lag and the length of time you were somewhere else. Because my trips to Europe have lengthened over time, and my jet-lag has gotten exponentially worse right along with them. Maybe I'm just getting old, I don't know. But I don't remember my short trips in high school creating much of a time zone problem. Then when I came home back from Ireland, there were several days where I was kind of dragging myself around and never quite sure what time it was. Then there was coming back from France this year. I got home late on a Wednesday night (or, according to my body at the time, in the wee hours of Thursday morning), and it took until Sunday for me to feel like I was operating by the right clock again. And in between, I bordered on being non-functional at times. It wasn't just that I was hungry at the wrong times, or sleepy at the wrong times, or NOT sleepy at the wrong times; it was that plus wandering around in a haze, constantly tired, never really knowing even what time I thought it was, let alone what time it actually was, and unable to think straight half the time.

The morning after getting back, after going to bed around 11 pm EDT (5 am France time), I slept until 11 am, was dragging all day, and somehow managed to stay up until something like 10 or 11 that night, only to wake up again in the wee hours of the morning, unable to go back to sleep until I finally gave up around 5 am and started my day. That evening I went out with friends and was half asleep at the table by 8 or 9 pm. I then had to be woken up at 10 the next morning lest I sleep half the day away, and continued to be slow and sleepy all that day, too. At some point in all that it's like I stopped being on France time without being back on Eastern time and there just wasn't anything consistent about it. It was ridiculous.

2. Speaking of ridiculous, I totally forgot how to use my American phone (which, by the way, is a basic old, super-simple flip phone like nobody cool uses anymore). I was pushing wrong buttons and not knowing where to find things for a good week after I came back.

3. It was super weird not to need plug adaptors for any of my electronics. I kept picking up something to plug in and looking around for the nearest adaptor before realizing I didn't have one handy, and didn't need to. Derp. Everything just fits, and it's beautiful.

4. Driving was interesting. Not that I'd forgotten how, exactly, but I definitely had to get used to it again. And I dove right in, too, taking off to visit friends in Oberlin less than 48 hours after getting back. I felt super awkward backing out of the garage and was weirdly nervous and uncertain once I got on the road. I kept being afraid I was going to mess something up or forget something important. By the time I made it to the interstate, I was feeling more comfortable about it, but then I had to re-learn how to use the cruise control and the air conditioner settings, and I stayed more or less worried about my driving ability for the next couple of days. I've done a lot of driving since, because my current lifestyle is one I've been calling migratory, but I admit I'm still working on getting my parallel parking skills back, because I haven't been called upon to do that all that often in the last couple of months.

5. Where are all of the bakeries? And sandwicheries? And crêpes? We need those things here. Desperately. Also, America apparently doesn't know what quality bread is supposed to be like. However, pizza and Dr. Pepper and donuts and pie and peanut butter and American breakfast foods and iced coffee/assorted elaborate coffee-based drinks and most especially any and all Mexican/Mexican-influenced food are all amazing and I cannot stop being in love with them. Especially the last two. In short: There are food things I miss every day and there are also food things I can't believe I went eight months without, or almost without. I want there to be a magical place where I can have it all, all the time.

6. On a related note, my first trip to an average American grocery store* was kind of overwhelming. First of all, they are typically bigger and with more variety than the average French grocery store. Second of all, they're just so different. All the different kinds of things that are available here and not there or vice versa, or that are available in assorted varieties here and not there or vice versa. The way things are grouped and packaged is different, too, in addition to the products themselves. And of course my shopping lists are dramatically different because of the way food is different. I can't even really articulate it all properly. It's just such a different experience. And don't even get me started on places like Target...

7. Alcohol is so outrageously expensive here. Like, the first time I went to buy a bottle of wine from an American grocery store, I couldn't believe my eyes. I was also taken aback when the cashier asked me for an I.D. What? You mean everyone doesn't drink? And that's enforced?** Anyway, I think I spent more on alcohol my first weekend back in the States than I did in some entire months while I was abroad. And I didn't even do that much drinking that weekend, honest! (See previous comments about jet-lag if you don't believe me!) Especially not comparatively.

8. I was pretty excited about having access to all of my stuff again, and particularly to all of my clothes, because you can bet that after eight months I was pretty tired of the things I had with me. But it turns out the simpler you keep your life--the less stuff you're used to having or needing or wanting--the weirder it is to be faced with more stuff. I got to my parents' new house the day after returning to the States, and I opened the door to the closet where I'd left all my clothes... and I just stood there and stared for a minute before closing it and putting on something I'd brought home with me. I didn't know where to start. I had no idea how much stuff I owned, or why I had it. I still don't, I guess; I've just gotten used to it again. I've never been all that inclined to acquire a lot of stuff I don't need, but living and traveling abroad has wittled that lack of interest down even further, and I came back with a lot of perspective about what is and isn't "necessary", to boot. I've gotten rid of a lot since coming back, and I have a lot more to go through. And I still have too much, but it's getting better.

9. Everything is just different. I'm not going to dwell on this, because I can't explain it any better than I could the supermarket thing, but it's like... The vegetation is different. The animals are different. The buildings and houses are different. The cars are different. The way towns are laid out is different. The people and their clothes are different. The street signs and road signs and highway signs and license plates and billboards are different. It's all very subtle, but it's all very real, and taken all together it packs kind of a punch when you've been gone a long time.

So that's that, for now. I'm sure I will think of some more things to add later, and I'm probably not entirely done discovering things that are weird or surprising about my re-American life, even though I'm pretty well readjusted at this point. In any case, my homecoming was bittersweet, as I guess they usually are. I was, as I told many people at the time, ready to come home but not ready to leave Europe. I don't think the transition is ever simple, emotion-wise. But here I am, and hopefully in the coming weeks I will find the time and motivation to write some more about my adventures abroad and thoughts on France and expats and culture and so forth. Until then.

* My actual first trip to an American grocery store was to Trader Joe's, which was weird and exotic but not on quite the same level as subsequent trips to Giant and Weis.
** Increasingly not well, though, judging by the proportion of times I've gotten carded subsequently.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Weather Is Probably Not An Exciting Blog Topic

It's been quite a while since I posted, and I now have a ridiculous backlog again (as opposed to the relatively manageable backlog I had before this most recent vacation and trip). I'm really not very good at this. On a travel level, my parents were in France for a short visit earlier this month, so that story to come, and after that I went to Denmark to visit a good friend who's spending the year in Copenhagen, so that story also to come. On a personal level, my free time continues to be mostly taken up with an increasingly stressful job search, not to mention my assorted existential crises, and it is increasingly looking like I'm going to be either going home or moving someplace random and taking a menial job for a while. (Not that some people wouldn't argue that being an archaeological field tech is something of a menial job itself.) There's even a part of me that's okay with that, especially since I'm not really in the market for something permanent right now, and doing something that won't consume my life would maybe give me some time to write, since I haven't done as much of that as I expected this year. But I'm still applying for other stuff, and I'm reluctantly reevaluating my claim that I don't want to live in France anymore, because this makes it seem like France might well be the easiest place in western Europe for me to get permission live at the moment. I'm also considering volunteering to teach at one of several interesting schools in Central America for a while. I'm ALMOST done (finally) with my TESOL certification course; I have to write an essay for the last unit (blergh) and then I'm free. I guess that probably would have been a good way to spend the last few days of the holiday, but, well, Pottermore finally opened up to the public while I was away...

Anyway, here's what's to come: Not counting today, I have three days left at my job, which is crazy (and means that a lot of my unfinished posts on my observations about school-related things are going to be up after the fact). On the one hand, I'm kind of ready to move on to something else, but on the other hand, I can't believe how fast seven months have gone. The day after my contract ends, I'm flying to Marseilles with some friends and we've rented a house in the coastal town of Cassis for the week. That means I have just a week to get a lot of stuff done, including buying souvenirs, shipping some books home, finding out how to deal with closing my bank account, cleaning my room, and finding some way to pack all of my things and get them out of here. Should be interesting. After Cassis, I'm heading back to Paris, from where I'm flying to Dakar with another friend to visit our friend in the Peace Corps in northeastern Senegal. I'm super excited about that! Then once we get back, I have just a week left in France before my flight back to the U.S. I haven't decided yet how I'm going to spend it. I know all of this is going to go by so fast.

The last couple of days we've had some pretty classic Brittany weather. That means it changes at least every ten minutes, and going through three or four seasons in the span of half a day is par for the course. This experience pretty much sums it up: I got up today and it was what I'd call partly sunny and cold. I walked to the supermarket between classes this morning and when I walked outside again, there was a perfect rainbow hanging over the street I was about to walk down. By the time I reached the corner, not a minute later, it was pissing rain, as the Brits say, and that good old Brest wind (which last night attempted to physically prevent us from walking home from downtown) was driving it all right into my face. By the time I reached the steps down to the school, which probably takes all of five minutes, the rain had backed off to barely a drizzle and the sun was peeking out again. 

I've actually kind of grown to love the atmospheric mood swings, howling wind and all, thought I certainly prefer it when it's not cold. My favorite weather is probably light rain that falls while the sun is shining, and I've seen that more in my seven months in Brittany than ever before in my life.

There's a saying here that "En Bretagne, il ne pleut que sur les cons," which can basically be translated as "In Brittany, it only rains on idiots."* It basically means if you hate it enough to complain, go somewhere else.

It hasn't quite sunk in yet that I AM going somewhere else very soon. I don't know if I will miss Brest, exactly, but I will miss Brittany. I talked to some students yesterday about stereotypes; what they had to say about les Bretons made me preemptively nostalgic (and all of us hungry!). 

My other random thought for the day is my favorite thing about market day. Is it the delicious food? The beautiful produce? The cheap clothes? The stacks of used books? The concentration of adorable dogs? 

Nope. It's the sight of cute toddlers shuffling along gnawing on baguettes as tall as themselves. Never gets old, that.

* Or "on assholes", if you prefer a more hostile interpretation

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Language Teachers (Language "Teachers"? "Language" Teachers?)

A few weeks ago, on a single Friday afternoon, I had not one, but two rather unsettling experiences.

I'll tell the second story first, because it's less involved. I was asked the question (this is verbatim), "How do you call the person who learns you how to driving?"*

What was so unsettling about this? The question was asked by a teacher. An English teacher.

I may or may not have mentioned before that language teachers seem to vary widely in terms of their competency in the language they are supposed to teach. And I certainly don't mean to imply that this is an issue restricted to France; I'm sure there are similar situations in many places, but this is the only one I can attest to from firsthand experience. What I know is that working with seven teachers gives me an interesting window on just how varied the language skills of foreign language teachers can be. There are those with heavy French accents and lots of mispronunciation, and those with strange accents that aren't really French but certainly aren't neutral, and those with almost-perfect British accents. There are those who speak very clearly and precisely, trying to make a point of getting things right even if they mispronounce some words or use some odd grammatical constructs, and there are those who toss off their sentences quickly and casually whether they're right or wrong. There are those who are hesitant when they run into something they're not sure how to say when talking to me, and those who just make something up.

There are those who are essentially fluent--and those whose level is hardly above that of some of their students.

It's depressing sometimes, especially because the teachers for whom this is true aren't necessarily bad teachers in other respects. Indeed, this particular woman is probably an excellent teacher in terms of actual teaching skills. I've seen her managing students, I've seen her lesson materials, I know from my own experience that she is incredibly kind and patient. When I work with her classes, she and I often collaborate on lesson plans that tie in to what she's been teaching, which is a win for everyone--she's still off the hook for an hour or two a week, but I'm also getting input and feedback from an experienced teacher and her students are getting the benefit of more organization and consistency than those of teachers who give me free rein and little info. I like her a lot, and I respect her a lot, and I cringe a little bit every time I think about the fact that she probably speaks French to me (even in front of the students, which hardly any teachers usually do) as much because her English is bad as because I'm supposed to be learning French.

It also just mystifies me a bit. What does one have to do to become a foreign-language teacher? Surely there are language-specific qualifications. Surely there's an exam of some sort, and surely it involves speaking. How does one convince the powers that be to let him or her teach something he or she isn't even very good at? Again, I'm sure this doesn't only happen in France, but I still don't understand it. The idea that anyone would allow me, at my current level, to teach French is almost laughable to me. I've thought about it, and I don't think I would allow myself to teach French at this stage. If nothing else, I'm horrified by the prospect of passing on my terrible pronunciation. And yet if this woman makes her living as an English teacher, then it would appear that I might, by someone's standards, be qualified to teach at least beginning French. Even though there are still days when I can barely string a sentence together.


* Throw in a thick French accent and poor pronunciation skills and I actually mistakenly heard "drawing" the first time and answered, "an art teacher," leading to further confusion.

Planning Things, Visa Woes Revisited, and How I Still Can't Decide What To Do With My Life

Sorry to keep boring you with blog statistics, but "Things That Suck
About Brest" is getting way more hits than the less dismal Brest post
that came after it. That's kind of depressing, folks.

Here where the difference in length of day between summer and winter
is so much more dramatic than I'm used to, I am really amazed at how
quickly the changes seem to happen. I remember seeing the winter
darkness set in while I was in Ireland; this year I didn't notice
quite as much, I guess because I was more prepared for it. But now
that spring is here, it's hard to believe that less than two months
ago I was going to work in the dark in the morning and coming home in
the dark in the evening. One morning not long ago, I woke up at 6:40
and the sky was orange, and now when the school day finishes at 5:20,
it's still as bright as mid-afternoon. We set the clocks ahead two
weekends ago (so now it's not sunrise quite so early as it was last
week, but we'll get there), and now it's still a little light out at 9
pm. I lose track of time late in the day because it doesn't seem
possible for it to be as late as it is. It's like I blinked at some
point and suddenly we had three or four extra hours of daylight!

Of course, I'm still amazed at how quickly time is moving in general.
March went by just as fast as February, and I'm now in my second to
last week of teaching. As of last week, I have lived in France for six
months. It's not that much more than five months, really--and it
certainly doesn't feel like it--but it seems like a huge milestone.

Even as I've been revelling in the long days and the beautiful weather
we've been having, I've been going crazy over here trying to plan my
parents' visit. They're arriving at the end of this week! They've
never been to France before, and we only have six days, one of which I
won't even be with them because they're arriving the morning of my
last day of work before the holiday. My goal has been to maximize the
number of things we can do and see while minimizing the time we spend
traveling and the number of times we have to move our luggage. It is
not an easy feat, and it's complicated further by the fact that my dad
is super busy and my mom doesn't use the internet (or computers at
all, for that matter), so A) they hadn't done a whole lot of research
themselves about what they wanted to do, and B) it's hard to all be on
the same page at the same time. By two weeks ago, I felt like we were
down to the wire and was starting to get pretty stressed out about the
lack of concrete decisions that had been made. I realize I'm not
exactly the poster child for advance travel arrangements, but I'm
usually making arrangements for things I'm already relatively close
to. This is a big trip for them and I want to make sure it, well,

By a week ago, we'd figured out what we're doing and when, but were by
then two weeks away from needing a hotel room in Paris. During
everyone's spring break, French and American and probably other places
too. Right. So that was tons of fun trying to pin down... but it's all
done now, finally.

And as for planning ahead, I have also (finally) sorted out a way to
get back to the U.S. Speaking of logistical nightmares. I really don't
even want to get into why this is complicated, because it totally
shouldn't be. The point is, it took me days and lots of stress to
achieve, had me in tears on at least one occasion, and is still not
entirely satisfying in the end. But it's done.

Which means... I'm returning to the U.S. near the end of May. It's not
a decision I made lightly, and I'm still not sure I'm not making a

My current plan is find a job in my [original] field (archaeology) for
the summer. If it's a seasonal job, then I'm not sure yet what I'm
going to do after August--look for another job teaching abroad, do
something in education in the U.S., keep looking for archaeology work.
Too many choices. All I know is I'm still not ready for grad school
(somehow, a lot fewer questions got answered this year than I was
hoping), and anything I do right now is temporary because in the fall
I'm going to be re-applying to TAPIF for the 2013-2014 school year.

My reasoning for waiting a year to do my second stint is that if I
apply to renew my current contract, I theoretically would have to stay
in Bretagne, if not in the city of Brest. And as much as I love
Brittany, I want to experience other places. My dream (at the moment)
is to reapply to TAPIF and be accepted to teach in a DOM (département
d'outre mer/overseas department--places that are part of France but
aren't in France proper). Most of them are tropical, many are islands.
I'm actually most interested in going to Guyane (French Guiana). For
those of you who are geographically challenged, it's on the northeast
coast of South America, sort of in between Brazil and Venezuela, on
the edge of the Amazon rainforest.

I've noticed that my motivation to work on my TESOL course dropped off
sharply right around the time I started seriously looking for jobs
back in the U.S., which is somewhat unfortunate. I had originally
thought to be finished before now. My new goal, once I realized I
hadn't submitted a lesson in a month, was to finish before the April
holiday. I'm not sure that's going to happen either. I've reached the
final unit, but it requires me to write an essay, and I don't think I
have time for that this week. Sigh.

Finishing it will, at least in theory, open the door to a lot of other
opportunities overseas. However, 90% of them, as far as I can tell,
are in East and Central Asia (you'd be amazed how much demand there is
for English teachers in Mongolia) or the Middle East, which are the
parts of the world in which I'm least interested in living. (I don't
have any particular reason for that, it just is what it is.) I have
seen a few tempting possibilities in Latin America, but I'm not sure I
feel ready. I want to learn some more Spanish first. And as for
Western and Central Europe, France is probably my best bet, but I'm
just not that interested in staying. (Again, no particular reason I
can articulate.*) Unfortunately, it's likely to be next to impossible
to get a job anywhere else, because the EU is set up in such a way
that EU citizens are supposed to always have priority in hiring. And
obviously there are enough native English speakers in the EU that few
schools and companies are willing to go through the rigmarole involved
in hiring someone who needs a visa.

Speaking of which... what I really wanted to do was go back to
Ireland. I mean really go back. Not on a trip, not to visit, but to
live. I miss it. I did not realize how much I missed it until I was
here, but once I was here it took me about a month to decide that what
I wanted to do next was spend the next year working somewhere in

Obviously, the ability to teach ESL is not going to get me very far
there. Unfortunately, I don't really have any other highly marketable
skills, either. And like most places in western Europe, Irish
immigration policy poses a catch-22: You can't get a work permit
without a job offer, but no one is likely to offer you a job unless
you already have the right to work there. Especially when the economy
sucks and there aren't even enough jobs to go around for Irish

My best bet appears to be to do my Master's in Ireland, after which
graduates have a period of time in which they're allowed to stay in
the country to look for work.

But that would require me to be able to afford to do a Master's in
Ireland, which is both very expensive for international students and
unlikely to come with any kind of funding for international students.

So at that point, I might as well just aim for the ultimate fantasy,
which is to become independently wealthy and apply for residency under
the elusive "self-sufficiency" category. That's basically my plan
right now: publish novels, become highly successful, amass whatever
mysterious minimum sum is necessary to convince the government I won't
become a sponge, and then go back.

Unless I meet some lovely Irish citizen living abroad and wind up
getting married, which I guess might actually be easier.

I'm being pretty light about all this right now, but a couple of
months ago when I was really realizing that my odds of actually
finding and landing a job in Ireland anytime soon are slim to none, I
was devastated.

When I had to write an essay--nearly a year and a half ago now--about
why I was applying to TAPIF, I rambled on and on about the importance
of language education and how earnestly I believed that learning a
second language and learning it well could really open up the world to
a person.

Bull. Language barriers can be overcome as needed. EU citizenship
opens doors. If my British and Irish friends want to stay in France,
they can stay. There's no overstaying their visa, no making sure their
next employer will help them get a new one. If they want to move to a
different country in Europe, they can, same deal. No questions asked.
No extra bureaucratic formalities. No threat of getting deported or
blacklisted because of paperwork gone awry.

I realize it goes both ways. It would be just as hard for them to move
to the U.S. as it is for me to move to Europe. But all that really
means is it's equal-opportunity suckage.**

All of you out there with dual American/European nationality? Screw
you. I hope you realize just how lucky you are, and just how much
possibility is at your fingertips. And I hope you take advantage of
it. My ex-boyfriend told me when we were in high school that he could
potentially claim Swiss citizenship via his grandmother***; I don't
know whether he ever followed through on that, but I'm tempted to get
in touch with him for the sole purpose of telling him he's a fool if
he didn't.

In any case, the bottom line is that I now know way more than I will
probably ever need to about Irish immigration policy. I'm going back
to America at the end of May, and hopefully getting back into
archaeology for the time being, and we'll just have to see where
things go from there.

But first, my parents are coming to France, and I'm going to Denmark
(this month) and Senegal (next month)! Bring on the travel adventures.

* Although the fact that I don't want to have to write a French CV
might be a contributing factor.
** On the other hand, there are lots and lots of countries to choose
from in the EU. The U.S. is arguably just as varied as if it were
several different countries, but it's not actually.
*** Ireland also has a so-called grandfather clause, which basically
says you're eligible for citizenship if at least one of your
grandparents was a citizen, even if you personally have never lived in
Ireland before. I don't know if that's quite how the Swiss one works,
and I don't know how common such things are. It's moot for me anyway,
because I am many generations removed from anywhere in Europe on every
branch of the family tree I can reliably trace.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

My Glamorous Job As A Language Assistant

This seems like something I should maybe have written more about before now, especially since I know for a fact there are at least a couple of TAPIF applicants out there who have looked at this blog.

First things first. I and everyone else have already said it many times, but it bears remembering: There is no such thing as consistency in France. And so, as with anything else, my experience as a language assistant is totally unique. The job, not to mention the overall experience, varies widely depending on where you are, what type of school you're in, what specific school you're in, what age group you work with, what teachers you work with, whether the administration likes you, what language you teach, what course of study your students are in, what time of year it is... do I need to go on?

In other words, it's a crapshoot based entirely on circumstances. In some ways, I have been very lucky. In others, not so much.

One way I am lucky is that I only have to deal with one school. It's very common for assistants of all languages to have their hours split between two or even three schools. (One of my friends here even has FOUR different schools, even though that's supposed to be illegal.) It all depends on where the académie (regional school district) thinks you're needed, which presumably has something to do with the number of language teachers and the number of students, but (of course) isn't necessarily consistent or determined by consistent criteria. In any case, I work in the same school all the time, and I'm the only full-time language assistant at my school.* Miguel works there half the time, and at the neighboring school the other half. So our school has one and a half language assistants, while the school he splits into has [I think] two and two halves. (That does make sense; think about it.) It's most common to have English and Spanish assistants. Some schools also have a German assistant. Other languages are less common, though some schools do offer them and there are a scattering of Italian, Russian, Chinese, Arabic, etc. assistants around the country. Some schools have only an English assistant, or even only a part-time English assistant. Some schools probably have none, though I guess I wouldn't know about them.

I've also been lucky in terms of the school itself. There are three main types of high schools in France: general (basically the equivalent of a traditional American high school), technical, and professional (what we in America would probably call vocational). Mine is a technical school, and seems to be neither the best nor the worst school in Brest. I am under the impression that it has quite a good reputation among tech schools, particularly for certain programs--some of my BTS** students are here from as far away as the Mediterranean, so the school must have something to offer. My students range quite a bit in terms of language ability, not to mention interest in learning a foreign language at all, but they are all fairly respectful and mostly well-behaved. The worst discipline problem I usually have to deal with is getting them to stop chatting amongst themselves and listen, which is nothing compared to what some assistants experience! Several of my friends routinely kick students out of class, and a few have had to break up fights. Compared to that, I'm pretty content with saying "Shhhh!" ten times in one class, giving some dirty looks, and calling out kids who aren't paying attention (most of whom at least have the decency to be sheepish, even if they don't stop talking afterwards). Meanwhile, many of the non-English teachers are friendly to me, the other staff are consistently helpful when I need something and patient with my French, and my few encounters with the administration have been nothing but positive. I've heard many assistants complain about conflicts with their school(s). I have none.

A way in which being entirely at this one school is less lucky is that I am entirely at this one school because it has a huge English department. I work with seven different teachers, at least five of whom teach here full-time.*** (One of the others is definitely part-time, and the seventh I'm not sure about. I know she also teaches some classes at the university, but I think in theory it would be possible for her to do that and still carry a full schedule here at the lycée, so I'm not a hundred percent sure what her deal is.) This means two things. One, that there is not enough of me to go around, and I am now on my third schedule change this year as they try to make sure as many students as possible have some time with me. (This, in turn, means that I rarely get to know all my students names, let alone anything personal about them.) And two, that I have to meet at least seven different sets of expectations every week, and sometimes more than that if I have two or three classes with the same teacher but they're all at different levels or studying different things.

One of the most frustrating things to me about this year has been the amount of work I put into my job outside of class time compared to some of my friends. Other lycée assistants, especially those others who also work all their hours at one school, typically plan no more than one or two lessons per week, do the same thing with all of their classes (perhaps with slight modifications for students at different grade levels), and that's the end of it. Some don't even have to do that much, either because their teachers give them things to do or because they have alternating schedules where they see each group of students every other week, and thus only have to plan biweekly lessons. I, on the other hand, plan most lessons individually, which normally means planning four or five or six new lessons each week, or even more. For the rest, I do sometimes re-use lessons with different classes, but rarely all in the same week. (This does mean, however, that the burden of lesson planning has gotten slightly less over the course of the year, as I amass more of a collection and also keep changing classes.) I keep a running spreadsheet on my computer with all of the classes I've had over the the year and what I've done with each of them each time I've seen them, so that I can easily find out what classes haven't yet done which easy-for-me thing I have already prepared. Meanwhile, some of the lessons I've put the most work into planning have been very class-specific and can't easily be re-used. And sometimes a teacher will pull me aside the day before a lesson, or even text me after school the night before, and ask me to prepare something on a particular topic, thereby throwing out anything I might have already planned.

On the plus side, I can honestly say that every day is different, and I wonder sometimes if part of the reason I seem less unhappy with my job than some of the other assistants is that I'm not doing the same thing over and over all week and getting bored. Also, sometimes I'm learning along with my students, either because I need to research a topic or just because I need to find the French equivalents for vocabulary words.

An unrelated plus side is that I almost never actually work all of my assigned hours in a given week. (Last week I did, plus an extra even, and it was bizarre.) There's always at least one teacher who's sick, or one class that's taking a test or going on a field trip. Of course, I might find out I don't have to teach a given lesson anywhere from the week before to first thing that morning to ten minutes into the class time when I'm standing outside the classroom with the students and we determine that the teacher isn't coming, so I may or may not have already done my planning. In any case, this is another way in which I'm pretty lucky; although there are some assistants who routinely work even less than I do because their schools just aren't organized enough to give them hours, there are others whose classes are almost never cancelled and who are expected to continue with their lessons even if the regular teacher is absent. (Whether that's legal or not seems to be kind of a grey area.) Maybe it would be worth working as much as I'm supposed to in exchange for a lighter workload in terms of prep time, but at the same time, the unexpected gift of a free hour or two is just as exciting for me now as it was when I was a student.

I guess, now that I'm thinking about it, my job as an assistant is pretty middle-of-the-road in a lot of ways. What it's not, however, is typical.**** Not just because of the workload and the schedule changes and the simple fact of being in a tech school, but because of the students. I think I've mentioned before that I work mainly with the students in BTS, which in effect means that I work mainly with adults. Almost all of the BTS students are over 18; some are my age, or at least close to it. (I stopped asking after I found one or two who were a year older than me!) When it comes to the regular high school students, there is a terminale (last year of high school, 17-18 year olds) class I've taught a few lessons to, and I'm currently working with one première (the middle year, 16-17 year olds) class, and other than that I've been used primarily for the secondes (first year of high school, 15-16 year olds). I've had a group of kids in seconde in each of my three schedules, and I tend to like them even when they're brats, but it's still very weird to work almost exclusively with the youngest and the oldest students and almost none in between. I'll have more to say about this in some upcoming posts focused on students and lessons, but for now I'll say that this is definitely not typical--I'd say the majority of lycée assistants spend a majority of their time with students who are in première and terminale, helping them prepare for their baccalauréat and other exams. But I haven't even met most of the premières and terminales at my school.

Also, at all levels, I teach mostly boys. There are a lot of girls in the applied arts and product design programs, but most of the more technology-oriented programs are almost entirely male. Some of those classes have one or two girls; others have none. I don't think it's a coincidence that the more girls there are, the better the class tends to be, although whether that's because the programs that draw girls actually draw students of all genders who happen to be interested in languages, or just because of the presence of girls in the class, is anybody's guess. Since I see boys trying hard to learn even in the worst classes and the classes that drive me up the wall the most, I'm inclined to think it's actually the latter. I mentioned this to my responsable once, and her opinion was also that having at least one girl around makes the boys more inclined to settle down and behave themselves. Gender roles are a big deal in France in many ways, so I guess maybe here's one positive thing about that?

Anyway, I'm not teaching high school in a very traditional sense over here. But I think I've got it pretty good.

* And by "full-time", I mean that all of my hours are there rather than being split with another school. No language assistant anywhere actually works full-time. There wouldn't be nearly as many of us if we did. (It's more like one third of full time, to be precise.) So for blogging purposes we are just going to assume that the standard number of hours for an assistant is considered full-time for an assistant. Does that make sense?
** Brevet du technicien supérieur. Or something close to that. It's two-year diploma program students can do after finishing high school, in fields like product design (my best students), electrical engineering, and building internal combustion engines, among others.
*** Now I mean full-time in the conventional sense.
**** Though I admit that sentence assumes there is such a thing as a "typical" assistant job, which may not actually be the case--refer back to the beginning of this post.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Quimper ("No, dad, it's not pronounced 'KWIM-per'.")

Quimper is the capital of the department of Finistère, and it's in the middle of Cornouaille, the area that includes the third peninsula south of the one Brest is on. I think I have that right. In any case, it's significantly smaller than Brest despite being the capital, but it's also significantly prettier. Allegedly, it's one of the cities in Brittany (along with Rennes) where the medieval architecture is best preserved. There are pretty significant sections of the old city walls still intact, including a tower, and inside them much of the city centre is twisty narrow streets, many of them cobblestoned and pedestrian-only, lined with half-timbered houses of all sizes and colors and degrees of decoration. The cathedral looms over everything, and is surrounded by a wide plaza that just accentuates its bulk.

One of my favorite things in Quimper is the monastery-turned-public-library. (One of my other favorite things, less historical, is the guy who hangs out near the cathedral with two tiny fuzzy horses and charges a few euros for pony rides. In the middle of the downtown.)

There are less-old things also worth looking at: the nineteenth-century theatre is a beautiful building, as are some of the various government buildings, and all of the above are along a small canal criss-crossed by little bridges every few yards. There are also some lovely gardens, including one sort of hidden away behind the theatre and one next to the wall with the tower that dates originally from the Middle Ages. Part of it still has its original layout, but more interestingly, it's full of subtropical and Mediterranean plants. Something about the climate of Brittany means that there are places where you can grow things that by all rights should not thrive in northwestern Europe, and from what I've seen Brittany is extremely proud of this fact. There are palm trees in all sorts of unexpected places, and gardens like this one devoted to hot-climate plants just because they can be. It's a little weird, but I guess it's also pretty cool.

I had been through Quimper a couple of times earlier this year to make bus or train connections, but I hadn't gotten around to really visiting it until the holiday last month, when I went twice.* Twice because there are two museums in Quimper: an art museum with a very good reputation and the departmental museum for Finistère. I did the latter first. It's right next to the cathedral, and it would be awesome even without being a museum. The building used to be the bishops' residence, and it's in three parts, a sort of tower house dating from the 15th or 16th century (I forget), the 16th or 17th century (depending on which the first one is) wing that attaches the oldest part to the cathedral, and the 18th century section that runs along the canal perpendicular to the rest of the building. Since it's L-shaped, and the cathedral is on the side opposite the canal, there's a nice courtyard, partly paved and partly a garden, with the remaining open sides closed in by walls. The entrance to the museum is inside the courtyard, and there are an assortment of sculptures scattered around the courtyard including a megalith, a row of grave markers, and a large cross, among others, that were all rescued from other places in Finistère.

The museum itself is mostly about the history of the area, specifically of Cornouaille but also the rest of Finistère. It begins with prehistoric and Roman-period artifacts, then moves on to medieval art, including a couple of awesome effigy tombs salvaged from ruined churches.

Upstairs are exhibits about the culture of the region in the last few centuries, which is where the focus really narrows to Cornouaille and other parts of southern Finistère more so than the area around Brest and the northern coast. This is particularly true of the costume exhibit, which was fascinating nonetheless. There is also furniture and pottery (for which Quimper is famous; you can also visit an important pottery factory/workshop elsewhere in the city). I continue to be amazed both by the distinctiveness of Breton material culture and by its consistency. Though there are a lot of subdivisions within Brittany that are accompanied by slight variations in, for example, traditional dress, which seems almost to have been different in every village, the broad similarities are always there.

I liked the Musée des Beaux Arts, too. It's quite big for a small city, and although it doesn't have a lot that's hugely famous, it does have a lot, and some of it is by very famous artists even if the piece itself isn't well-known. In particular, the museum has a big collection of paintings that are of places and people in Brittany, or by Breton painters, or both. They have a lot of stuff from the Pont-Aven school and after, but also a lot of works in more realistic styles and even some more modern art related to Brittany. One of the highlights, as well as one of the most famous pieces (at least within Brittany) is a painting of the king of Ys and some saint escaping the flood.** Anyway, it's really cool to walk through a gallery and recognize places in the paintings! It's happened to me before, but not usually so many at once. The day I was there, in fact, I had just been hiking the day before in the vicinity of a place that was featured in several paintings in that wing, and I was really pleased that I did things in that order so I knew firsthand what I was looking at. It's also really interesting just to see how much the region has changed over the course of the last century, in terms of culture as well as landscape.

Anyway, they also have other French art, including a Rodin sculpture, and also some Spanish and Italian and Dutch art. Lots of nice things. Also some less nice things, like some weird nature paintings of creepy-crawly things and a painting of Adam and Eve in which it was not immediately clear to me which figure was meant to be Eve. One of my personal favorites was the Italian painting of a half-naked woman grabbing her own [ample] breasts, titled "Abundance". I laughed out loud. (Because I'm a mature adult.)

Supposedly, it's allegorical.

Boobs aside, it's a good museum. I like Quimper a lot in general. I've sometimes wished we were there instead of Brest, because its prettier and also because it's slightly better positioned in terms of getting to other places. But it's also a lot smaller, and possibly less interesting for it. It's also not right on the coast.

It's a really, really nice place, though. Like a miniature, Western Rennes. Charming.

* The bus schedule, in combination with the museum hours, is too stupid for me to have done everything I wanted to in one day, and even if I'd had access to all my money at the time, I'd still have refused to pay five times as much to take the train.
** Ys is a mythological city that was swallowed up by the sea because of the Devil and a willful woman. It's basically the Breton Atlantis, with a healthy dose of Christianity and sexism and violence (like all good Celtic myths).