Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Let The Countdown Begin

A week from right now, I will be on a plane on my way to Paris. I will have left the house I grew up in for the last time and will not set foot anywhere in America again for more than seven months—at least. It could be more, because I have a one-way ticket and no idea where I'm going or what I'm doing after my contract is over.

Twenty-two and a recent grad is a scary thing to be anyway. Nothing is certain, nothing is permanent. Even my friends who are now in grad school don't have anything planned for their lives beyond the next couple of years until they have their next degree. To be twenty-two and a recent grad and on your way to another country with a temporary work visa and nowhere to go when it's up is scarier still. We're not just venturing into adulthood, with all its usual challenges and uncertainties; we're doing it in a foreign language, thousands of miles from our family and friends, with nothing more than what we can carry in a suitcase or two, and we don't know when—or if—we'll be “home” again. We don't even know where home is anymore.

It's exciting, too—I know the freedom I have right now is just as fleeting as everything else, and I intend to make the most of it—but still very unsettling.

The things I'm most excited about mostly involve the traveling I plan to do. I want to thoroughly explore France, and I'd like to do at least some of it on foot. Brittany has fabulous mountain and coastal scenery, France as a whole has one of the best systems of long-distance walking paths anywhere in the world, and I have a brand-new backpack, a good pair of boots, and a love of being outside. I loved seeing Ireland from buses and trains, but I also loved my mini-adventures on foot, and I gained enough solo traveling experience that semester that I'm ready to cut some of the buses and spend more time on the ground. I also want to visit college friends in Copenhagen and Senegal, and take trips to Amsterdam and Prague. I'd like to go back to Ireland, and England, and I desperately want to take an extended trip to Scotland, maybe by saving up some money and planning to go in the spring, after I'm done teaching. And that's all just the beginning, and I know I won't even be able to do all of that. So we'll see.

And I won't lie; I'm also looking forward to drinking nothing but cheap wine and gorging myself on crepes and pastries.

Things I'm extremely, perhaps irrationally, concerned about include, but are not limited to: getting to Brest, my first interactions with my contact person and others at the school, figuring out everything I need to do in the first few days and when to do it and who to talk to to get it done, getting a SIM card and some kind of internet, and opening a French bank account (for that last one, concerned times a million).

My correspondence with my “personne contact” (see, French isn't always hard for English speakers!), the teacher at my school who's basically in charge of answering my questions and making sure I know what I'm supposed to be doing as far as my actual job is concerned, has been reassuring, but also a source of some additional stress. On the one hand, she's been very available and reasonably good at answering most of my sometimes-numerous questions, and even gone so far as to give me her personal email address and phone numbers to make sure I can reach her. From what I hear, some assistants are unable to get in touch with their contacts at all over the summer, so I feel very fortunate in that regard. Reading between the lines, she also seems very nice—she's even offered to come to meet me at the train station when I get into Brest, which is definitely going beyond what's expected of her. I say “reading between the lines,” though, because the French are notoriously reserved, and although her emails to me have been cordial, they've not been overly friendly. Of course, my first email to her was probably unnecessarily formal, and therein lies part of my concern—I'm also naturally a pretty reserved person, partly because I'm also a private person and partly because I'm shy and tend to err on the side of distance when it comes to people I don't know well. I'm slow to make friends (among other things) because I tend to wait for someone else to make the first move. I have a feeling the French and I will be edging around one another for quite some time.

Also, there's the fact that French, like most Romance languages, has two different words for “you”. To put it very simply, there is the informal “you”, used with family and friends, and the formal (or plural, but that's not the confusing part) “you”, used with strangers/casual acquaintances and with people to whom one should show extra respect. In practice, the boundaries are much murkier, despite the fact that the French do not use the word “friend” as casually as most Americans—most young people would not use the formal “you” with anyone their own age, for example, and co-workers are likely to use the informal “you” among themselves even if they are really no more than acquaintances. And so the questions of whether and/or at what point to begin to “tutoyer”—that is, to use the informal form of “you”—with someone with whom you do not have a clearly defined relationship is one that tends to cause considerable anxiety among non-native speakers. Not only do we lack the cultural context for determining what's appropriate, English speakers don't have a linguistic reference point because our language does not make such a distinction. I had not fully appreciated the extent of the ambiguity until now, having never had much occasion NOT to use the formal except with my friends and classmates. Obviously, my first email to my contact at the lycĂ©e used the formal “you”. She wrote back addressing me with the informal. I could take this one of two ways: The fact that she is being casual is an invitation for me to do the same, OR the fact that she is being casual but did not explicitly invite me to do the same is indicative of our age and status difference and I should continue to be extra-respectful.

Thus far I've gone with the latter. In theory, we are fellow teachers now and should be able to be informal with each other, even if I'm only an assistant. But she's not just a teacher; she's the head of the department, and I don't know enough yet about French schools to have any idea how much weight that distinction carries or whether it has any bearing on her relationship with other teachers.

The “you” debate is a continual topic of internet conversation among language assistants, but there are few answers to be had. Experiences and attitudes seem to range widely, and the advice follows suit. Many people seem to have/have had contacts who were puzzled if they continued to address them formally and/or who insisted almost immediately that that was unnecessary. Nearly everyone who wasn't so lucky seems to be in a position of uncertainty similar to mine. Some people say “if they're 'tutoie-ing' you, it's okay to do it back,” (as is normally a good rule of thumb, but as I mentioned above, there's the added complication in this case of my being kinda-sorta a subordinate) others say to wait until you've met in person, still others say to wait to be asked or to just ask them outright if it's okay. There are even a few who say, “meh, it doesn't matter anyway, we can get away with not knowing the rules because we're dumb foreigners and no one expects much of us anyway.” (I don't like that last one very much.) I think I've decided to just wait until I get there and observe how other teachers interact for a few days, assuming I'm not invited to tutoyer up front.

As for the actual teaching, which I sometimes forget is the reason I'm going, I go back and forth between being ridiculously excited and ridiculously scared. There's not a lot of in between or a lot of simultaneous mixed feelings. When I'm brainstorming activities and games that I can do with my classes or sorting through things like maps and photos and card games and planning how I might be able to use them in lessons, I get really super excited. There is a part of me that's wanted to be a teacher ever since I was a little kid, despite my shyness and my inability to improvise and my horror of public speaking and my awkwardness with children. I know that this could be a lot of fun for me. But then I remember the shyness and awkwardness and fear, etc., and wonder if I'll actually be able to keep a roomful of students entertained productively or, perhaps more importantly, keep them at bay when there are discipline problems (which, from what I hear, there almost certainly will be, especially at the high school level and especially because I'm a woman with mostly male students). Part of me thinks this is going to be amazing, and the rest thinks it's going to be awful and uncomfortable and I'm going to hate it. I guess there's really no way to know until I've actually started.

Which will be in two weeks.

Life is crazy.