Saturday, October 29, 2011

Where Planning Is Half The Adventure

It's come to my attention that there are some text-formatting issues going on with this blog. I'm not sure why, but I'll try to sort it out.

According to Wikipedia: “In Britain and Ireland, there are a number of superstitions regarding magpies[16] 
  • A single magpie is associated with bad luck (see rhymes below)  
  •  One should make sure to greet magpies when they are encountered in order to either allay bad luck or encourage good luck as related to the number of birds and therefore their place in the Magpie poem. Common greetings include "Hello Mr Magpie" "How is your wife/where is your wife?", "Good Morning/Evening Sir" and other marks of respect.
  •  Upon seeing a lone magpie one should repeat the words "I defy thee" seven times. 
  •  On seeing a lone magpie one should pinch the person they are walking with, if they are alone they are to pinch themselves. The custom in Devon is to spit three times to avert ill luck. 
  •  If a lone Magpie is seen, one should salute it to show you respect it. This formality can be forgone if the Magpie looks directly in your eyes, which shows it respects you.”

and also, “In Scotland, a Magpie near the window of the house foretells death.”

The article does not have as much to say on how the French feel about magpies, but even if the British superstitions carry over, I don't think I have to worry too much about ever seeing just one magpie in a given place in Brest. That said, it would be impossible to go around greeting all the magpies I see—I'd never be able to focus on getting anything else done.

But, one of the several mornings last week that I woke up to a drenching rain, there was a very wet, sad-looking magpie hunkered down on my windowsill. So I guess that's bad. Good thing I'm not in Scotland.

I guess technically that's a lone magpie, but there were others around the parking lot, in sight. I wonder how big a geographic area is standard for the counting of magpies.

Anyway, as everyone who's friends with me on Facebook is probably already aware, I got seriously frustrated with France a few days ago. I had wanted to do some hiking, maybe a short backpacking trip, before coming to Rennes, but after going through the two [first of many] hiking guides I bought early last week and beginning to try to plan, I encountered some unforeseen problems. Actually, I guess they weren't entirely unforeseen, because I'd already begun encountering them in trying to plan to go to Rennes, but I hadn't yet fully appreciated their extent until then.

I guess I forget sometimes, being from the U.S., that France is actually a pretty big country by most other standards. Including, perhaps, standards of certain kinds of practicality. Public transportation exists, but it's a complicated and time-consuming way of getting anywhere and a nightmare to navigate even if you sort of understand the information available. There are the TGV trains, which seem to be the only real way to get anywhere over long distances because there is basically no such thing as interregional bus systems in France. As far as I can tell, I can't even get from Brest to Rennes or vice versa on a bus, because they're in different departments. I can (and did) use the regional train network, which is inexplicably cheaper than the TGV even though it takes the same amount of time and makes the same stops. Then, finally, there are intercity bus systems in each department, which are quite cheap and efficient (at least in Brittany). But you still have to take a train at some point to get from one department to another. And then, of course, there are some places that are so small or so remote that they just aren't served by any public transportation whatsoever.

All of this together turned trying to plan visits even to places relatively close to one another into a logistical nightmare. There were some places I wanted to go that I literally can't get to unless I take a bus into the next closest town and walk (probably along a road with no sidewalks), and even among places where buses do go, the need to reconcile multiple schedules, many of which have buses running with annoying infrequency or at really inconvenient times, and allow enough time for walking the legs I was planning to walk and for visiting attractions that are open for specific hours, made things anywhere from unnecessarily complicated to flat-out impossible.

To make matters worse, France is not the Mecca of cheap accommodation I have come to expect in Europe, and that's true in some major cities as well as the small towns I'd have to stay in along some of my hiking routes.* Hostels are few and far between and still often cost more than 20 euros per night, a cheap hotel is often forty or fifty euros a night, and B&Bs, though I haven't really looked for them specifically, do not appear to be the middle ground between the two that they often seemed to be in Ireland. It had not occurred to me until I really started looking that I would need to plan on spending two or three or even four times as much for every night away from home as I did when I traveled in Ireland, and I'm concerned that's going to put a damper on some of my within-France travel plans. I know it made my trip this past week into an overnight one instead of the two nights I'd originally planned.

Anyway, after spending something like five hours at my computer on Monday night trying to find a way to make some of the things I wanted to do work out both in terms of timing and in terms of not spending over a hundred euros on transportation and a place to sleep in just two or three days, I finally gave up and went to bed pissed off at the world.** Tuesday I woke up late, to another gray, rainy morning, and grudgingly worked out an itinerary that involved a lot less hiking and a lot more ridiculous bus schedules than I wanted, and grudgingly made a hotel reservation in Carnac for Wednesday night. Then the biggest problem was that I can't find my Maya necklace anywhere. I know it came to France, but I don't remember when or where I last had it and I have no idea where it's gone. I'm actually pretty upset about it, because I've worn it everywhere, on every trip I've taken since I got it (including symbolic ones--I was wearing it underneath my graduation dress last spring).
That afternoon, though, the weather cleared up and I went out to find the trail along the coast. I was a little miffed because I knew I was starting much too late to get all the way to the westernmost tip of the peninsula, where there's a lighthouse right alongside an abbey in ruins (my responsable took me there the first weekend I was in Brest), but I figured I'd go as far as I could and still be able to catch a bus back. By the time I walked all the way across town to find the trail, that wound up only being a few kilometers before it started to get close to dark and close to stormy again and I wasn't sure how far it was to the next place with a bus stop, but they were a much-needed few kilometers of wild cliffs and beautiful woods and views over the harbor, and I felt much better about life and much kinder towards my most recently adopted country by the time I got off the trail—just in time to see an enormous rainbow right down to the water.

*Camping out is not an option (even if it's legal, which I don't know) because A) I have no equipment, and B) I do a lot of things by myself and some of them border on risky, but sleeping in the woods alone in a country where people don't speak my first language is not going to be one of them, at least not at this point in time.
** Mostly France.

Little Things

Oh, the joys of central heating! Imagine being able to wear just one or two layers of clothes, to take a shower (in a mildly drafty, tile-covered room) without freezing to death, to have wet laundry and towels actually dry out when hung up for a few hours, even to wake up in the morning and be almost too warm under the covers... I had almost forgotten what such simple pleasures were like until the end of last week. It was a little chilly in my room, and a little more so in the bathroom, from the start, but it's getting colder now and by the last few days before the heat was finally turned on, I'm told it was getting down to 3 degrees Celsius (about 37 degrees Fahrenheit) in the early mornings. I was wearing two good pairs of socks most of the time, and multiple shirts/sweaters, and sometimes tights underneath my pants. I avoided showering and when I had to I tried to do it in the middle of the day. We'd been told the heat wouldn't be turned on until after the Toussaint holidays, and there wasn't really anything else I could do; I cooked in my room once or twice a day, so the oven gave off a little heat, and I could boil water for tea and then set the open kettle in the middle of the room to steam for a while, but mostly I just bundled up and shivered and dreaded the ten days of ever-colder vacation time with nowhere in particular to go and no heat at home.* So imagine my delight when I came back from class the day before the holidays and discovered that the radiator was hot!

I am now more determined than ever before that if I ever have a house of my own, my number one criterion is a working fireplace. I don't care if I end up in a beach house on the Gulf Coast; it will have a fireplace.

Despite the cold, there are still somehow insects hanging around, including mosquitoes. I think they must have superpowers, or perhaps be demons in disguise. They're driving me nuts, because France doesn't really do window screens and because there's no reason anything not warm-blooded shouldn't be dead or hibernating by now.

Anyway, as you might have gathered, I'm on a break now. There are four vacances scolaires in the French school year: ten or twelve days around Toussaint (All Saint's Day) in late October and early November, two weeks at Christmas/New Year's, and about two weeks in February and again in April. It's a pretty sweet deal for language assistants—almost eight weeks of vacation time for a seven-month contract, AND a monthly salary that's the same regardless of whether we have two weeks of work or five? Bring it on. But before you start thinking that French students have it pretty good, bear in mind that they may only have six or eight weeks of school before another break comes around, but their year starts at the beginning of September and isn't over until the end of June, and they may have much longer days when they are in school than their American counterparts do (classes at my school, for example, begin at 8 and finish at 5:30). So it all evens out somewhere. They spend just as much, if not more, time in class as American students.

I'm currently in Rennes for the next four days with one of my best friends from college, who is also an assistante and lives just outside Paris. I am waiting for her to arrive as we speak. It's fantastic to see her again after five months apart, and it's also fantastic just to be with someone familiar. I really like the other assistants in Brest and we all get along well, but there's still something to be said for being able to spend time with someone you've known for more than a few weeks.

In other news, I now have [limited and inconsistent] access to the internet from my room, though this blog, Skype, and many other useful things are blocked, because apparently censorship in French schools isn't just for porn. I also have my French bank card (as of a couple of weeks ago, actually), my French social security number, and confirmation that my immigration paperwork was received by the appropriate office, which means I should be done with administrative formalities until I get the time and place of my mandatory medical appointment. Assuming everything was done correctly, I should be getting paid any minute now—my first-ever paycheck in euros and also my first-ever monthly salary. I've never had a job that wasn't paid by the hour before, and it's kind of funny that this one isn't, because the powers that be are so much fussier about us working exactly the right number of hours than anyone was at most of the hourly jobs I've had.** 

I've noticed a little bit of an improvement in my conversation skills. There's still a long way to go. I still can't eavesdrop on other people very well, and I still get lost in group conversations (unless it's the other language assistants and everyone is speaking slow, badly-accented French), but I have more extensive one-on-one conversations in French with the other teachers and everyday interactions like buying train tickets and talking to my bank representative and checking into a hotel have gotten ever more successful. I'm not going to be ready to discuss philosophy anytime soon, but I'm a lot more comfortable with my ability to function in society without someone there to help me.

Also, in case you missed it, I shaved my head last summer, and my hair is now finally about two inches long—long enough to sort of lie down instead of standing straight up like a cartoon character. I still don't like it and it's still more work than is fair considering there's so little of it and the work yields such little result, but it's huge progress all the same. Soon there will be enough for me to just wear headbands and ignore it until the long, miserable growing-out process achieves a reasonable length. I know I don't get to complain, because I did this to myself (literally) and it wasn't even a snap decision, but if I'm not going to be bald or buzzed*** anymore, than I want my hair back and I want it now.

*And read. I spent most of my free time over the last week or two re-reading the entire Little House on the Prairie series (in eBook form). They brought up a lot of nostalgia, and some poignant emotional connections in the later books (which I thought were totally boring when I first read them as a kid) where she writes about teaching school for the first time and about growing up and leaving home, but they also just made me feel a lot better about the temperature situation.
** Bon-Ton was a notable exception, because they wanted to get as much work out of me as they could and not pay me for a second more than was absolutely necessary. Bon-Ton is also the exception to such statements as “I've been really lucky to have laidback employers who've treated me well,” “I've liked most of the people I've worked with/for,” and “I've really enjoyed most of my jobs.”
*** YES, I know how that sounds.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Counting Again

1000 hits!

I guess maybe that would be more exciting if this blog wasn't more than two years old, but still. Averaging more than one page view a day is better than less than one, right?

Tomorrow, I will have been in France for a month. That's a weird thought. It seems like last week that I was wandering through Celtic Classic thinking about how much I love Bethlehem and how much I was going to miss it, but I'm also so settled in my life here that it's a little hard to believe I've only been walking these streets and talking to these people for four weeks.

It's also hard to believe there are still six months to go. I know it will fly, just like the last six months have, and I'm already worrying about how much I want to do and how I can't possibly get it all done, but it sounds like such a long time. And it is kind of hard to shake the feeling that my life is on pause right now, like I'm taking a time-out from whatever I'm really supposed to be doing to fool around in France for a while. I don't necessarily mean that in a bad way, but there's no way around the fact that this is ultimately a detour, of one sort or another. I'm a little worried that by the time I figure out what it means, it'll be over, but at the same time, there's so much happening that I'm not there for and so much I feel like I could be doing instead that it seems really important to make all this time count for something. I do sometimes feel like I'm in exile. That part of it doesn't bother me as much as it did when I was in Ireland, though (for a variety of reasons, none of which is any reflection on Ireland itself--or on France, for that matter).

I also realized today that by the time I go home at the end of this year, I will have spent more than a year of my life outside the U.S. Assuming I travel after my work is done and stay abroad until around the end of May, the grand total will be just shy of fourteen months. I'll be twenty-three in May, so that's... roughly 5% of my life.

Maybe not that much compared to some people, but I think it could be worse.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Students: First Encounters

My schedule will change after Christmas, but right now I am working with ten classes. Two of them are sécondes, which are roughly the equivalent of American sophomores; they're all fifteen or sixteen, and this is their first year of high school. They are shy and bright-eyed and braces-wearing and make me feel old, because even though sixteen does not feel that long ago for me, they seem SO young. But they're my favorites, because they're so polite and energetic and enthusiastic about learning. The rest of my classes are BTS, which is, as far as I've figured out, a two-year, post-high-school professional degree program; they are studying things like electronics and combustion engines and product design, and they are anywhere from eighteen to older than me. Most seem to be around nineteen or twenty, but I stopped asking them to tell me how old they are after finding several who are my age and at least one who's twenty-three already. They are overall less interested in English, but there are at least a few in every class who do want to improve and who try very hard and at least a couple of classes that seem legitimately motivated. I've been struck by how little difference there is in level between the sécondes and the BTS students; my responsable explained it to me as a result of two factors. She thinks that speaking gets emphasized more in middle school than in high school, so they get here doing well but lose some of those skills as they progress to higher grades, and also, the BTS students are required to take English even though many of them don't want to and don't understand why they need it—plus they're college-age and just don't want to do any work.

My job is to get them to talk, which means finding a way to engage them. Some of the more artistically-oriented programs of study have a lot of girls, but in some of the more technical/mechanical courses ALL of the students are boys. Some of them are very nice and polite and both interesting and interested. Others are big, macho boys who play sports and ride motorcycles and play violent video games. Not to fall into gender stereotypes, but their fields of study and their hobbies are things about which I have very little knowledge—they want to talk about their cars, and I'm like, “Uh... what color is your car? Is it big or small? That's great, want to look at these pictures of historic buildings in my hometown? No? Okay... what else do you like about your car?” I love boys, I think they're great fun, and a part of me was really excited about teaching mostly boys, but it's also going to be a challenge. Many of these particular boys are not like the boys I've always hung out with—instead, they're the boys I didn't talk to much when I was in high school myself—and it remains to be seen how much we have to discuss that's interesting to them but still within the realm of things I can understand and teach them words for.

The other challenge with them, and with all my BTS students of all genders*, will be how to relate to them. Do I try to set myself apart and be teacher-like, or do I try to act like one of them and be pals? It's tricky. Part of my job is to be fun; if I try too hard to be their teacher, they'll hate me. But if I don't try hard enough, they won't respect me, and that's no good either when half of them don't want to do any work.

I suppose “not wanting to work” is relative, though. Almost every class has asked me outright whether I speak French, and it would be difficult to pretend not to anyway, since sooner or later most of them will either hear me speak French to a teacher or at least notice that I understand a lot of what's going on when the teacher speaks French to them or vice versa. However, I have yet to have a problem with students trying to speak French to me. Sometimes, they ask, “How do you say ____ in English?”; in front of the regular teacher I usually try to let him or her handle it, but if it's just me and the students, I usually acquiesce, especially with the sécondes, although I have offered my dictionary to a BTS student on occasion rather than feed him a word (also a good strategy if I don't know the word they're asking!). Technically, I'm not supposed to speak anything but English to them, and had always intended to be strict about that even if about nothing else, but as long as there's no pretense about my knowing at least some French, I am willing to translate provided they ask the question in English. Sometimes when I see the BTS students outside of class, even off of school grounds, they still speak English to me, which makes me very proud. (Sécondes tend to just avoid speaking to me at all outside of class, but maybe we'll get there.) My two favorite interactions concerning the language barrier were both boys in BTS. The first was my first day in a classroom, and went something like this:

Student: Do you speak French?
Me: I speak a little French, and I'm hoping to get better. But you have to speak English to me.
Student: So we can speak French to you?
Me: No, there are plenty of French people for me to talk to if I want to practice French. In here, we speak English.
Student: Say something in French.
Me: Je m'appelle Erica.
Student: Say something longer. With more words.
Teacher: She has to speak English to you! Drop it!

She rolled her eyes at me and told me later that he's always going to be “the cheeky one.” I thought it was great. He wasn't being rude about it or anything; he just wanted me to prove I could speak French. He also later became the first student I ran into outside of school and we had an entire conversation all in English, which he initiated. I told the teacher about that the next day, but sadly she did not seem as impressed and proud as I was.

Anyway, the other was a boy in one of the more difficult classes I'm working with, who asked about my French and then told me almost immediately that he doesn't speak English. I said, “Well, you're in an English class, so you have to speak English to me.” It turns out he speaks English quite well once he starts talking. He speaks better than he understands, as a matter of fact, and with most people it's the other way around. When I caught him translating something for the boy next to him, I said, “See, you do speak English!” and he said, “No, no, I speak Italiano.” I laughed. 

He later asked me if I'd brought any girlfriends with me to France.

My first day in each of the classes I'm working with this term has been introduction day. I introduce myself briefly, make the students introduce themselves to me, and then give them free rein to ask me questions. (The younger classes get a few minutes to think and write down some questions to ask; the older ones just have to go for it.)

Classes vary a lot in terms of their level of interest in interrogating me; sometimes there a lots of questions, and sometimes only a handful of students speak up while the rest just sit and shake their heads if I ask if they have anything they want to ask. There does not seem to be a pattern to this related to the age of the students, to what they're studying, or to whether the class is mostly boys or mostly girls. The things they ask are interesting. They all want to know why I'm here, how long I'll be here, how I like France/Brest/French people/French food, if I've been to France before, if I speak French, what my hobbies are. Many want to know what I studied, what my hometown/home state is like, if I've been to New York (and/or California), what my favorite movie/book/kind of music is, what 9/11 was like. Sometimes I get asked about Obama or about DSK**. But some of the questions I would have thought most obvious don't get asked very often—only one class has asked about siblings or pets, only a couple about my car*** or whether I can speak any other languages, and less than half about whether I'm homesick or about how I think living in France is different from living in America (SUCH a hard question to answer!). I've also gotten surprisingly few questions about what American high schools are like. I have, fortunately, not gotten any inappropriate questions, even from older students, and I've only been asked once whether I have a boyfriend (I decided not to consider that an inappropriate question as long as there aren't any dangerous follow-up questions)--and then it was a girl who asked. I have been asked a few times about whether I eat hamburgers a lot (because there's a stereotype that Americans all eat fast food all the time), and I get “What is your job?” embarrassingly often, because they don't seem to understand that my job really is just to sit there talking to them. (I suppose it's possible that at least sometimes they mean my job in America, but if so, no one has actually succeeded in asking that yet... and I wouldn't really have an answer anyway.) Some of the better/more original questions I've gotten have included “Have you seen any French movies/Do Americans watch a lot of French movies?”, “Could you see yourself staying in France forever?”, “Why did you choose Brest?” (I always feel awkward when I have to explain that I didn't), “What is your favorite part of France (and/or of America)?”, and “What are your origins?”****

I've now been in the classroom officially for two weeks, so I've met all my classes and started taking the lead in most of them, though there are only a few where the regular teacher lets me take on lessons without supervision. I'm starting to plan real lessons now (my first real lesson without a real teacher present was this morning, in fact), and it's a little intimidating, but also a lot of fun.

On a slightly different note, I was told today that my French has already improved. I replied that I'm just having a good day. If anything, I have a lot of lost ground to regain (from months without French classes and with French classes in which I never spoke if I could avoid it) before I'll be able to acknowledge any real improvement.

* There's my inner Obie coming out [no pun intended]. I think the actual likelihood of encountering anyone with a nontraditional gender identity at a French tech school is exceptionally low. But now that I've thought about it, I'm curious about how one handles such issues in such a rigidly gendered language...
** The first time this came up, I was not only embarrassingly unprepared, but embarrassingly confused. It stands, of course, for Dominique Strauss-Kahn, but I had never heard him referred to by only his initials before. The students were understandably shocked when I had no idea what they were asking about, and an incredibly awkward explanation ensued, and I'm still not sure how successfully I conveyed the fact that I had, in fact, heard about the case and was only confused because of the way they asked.
*** This oversight is interesting to me because they clearly have the idea that everyone in America drives, and drives a lot, and drives big cars.
**** This was also initially a confusing question. I'm sure I looked puzzled, and the teacher said, “She's American, she just told you,” but he explained [to her] in French that Americans come from all over and he wanted to know where my people lived originally. Then I was pretty proud of him for being so insightful, and also pretty proud that I got to rattle off six countries in response while they all looked impressed.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Chez Moi

I live in the cité scolaire. For lack of a better English equivalent, it's what we in America might call a campus, although I'm not sure that it's quite the same thing. It's a complex of academic, administrative, and residential buildings associated with one or more schools—in my case, four, which I believe makes it the biggest in the city. It's all concentrated into a fairly small geographic area (lots of concrete), and the whole block is surrounded by a tall fence dotted with both vehicle and pedestrian gates. As a non-student residing on the property, I have possession of a cluster of keys that includes not only the normal ones to my building and my room, but also a single large, magical key that will open any of the outer gates should I need it to. It makes me feel very powerful. (You can laugh, but in a world where I don't know how to do anything and am doing well to understand maybe 60% of what's said to me, I'm going to take what power I can get.)

I'm still trying to learn my way around, as everything kind of looks the some (a maze of boxy grey and white buildings with lots of windows surrounded by various parking lots and walkways and courtyards), but it's been a few days since I really got lost. And it's not like it's an enormous place, anyway.

My room is on the top floor (106 stairs from the ground...) of what seems to be a multipurpose building—I know there are classes held here, and I also know that there are other rooms/apartments elsewhere in the building, although I do not know who lives in them. In my corner of the fifth floor (that's the sixth floor for my fellow Americans), one of my several keys opens the door to a tiled hallway off of which there are four small rooms like tiny studio apartments, with a shower and toilet at the end of the hall that we all share. The latter have been described as “prison-like” by several people other than me, which makes me feel less ungrateful for perpetuating the label. Only my room and the one next to mine are occupied full-time (the other by the Spanish assistant); the other two are, as far as I understand the situation, used by people who work for the school in some capacity but live elsewhere and only stay here on occasion. I have not met them, nor do I know whether it's only two people or there's some kind of sharing going on, nor do I really understand the circumstances of their using the rooms. Perhaps they are teachers or staff members who live outside the city and spend the night here when they are going to be working especially late and/or early and don't want to commute. I don't know.

My room is more than adequate, although I wish there was carpet because the tile floor is very cold. (I'm still debating the merits of trying to bring an area rug back from Ikea on the bus and drag it across the cité and up six flights of stairs. I might just buy some more socks and wear multiple pairs.) I have a reasonably comfortable single bed, for which I was provided sheets and a duvet and pillow set, which I supplemented with a cheap fleece blanket. I also have dresser with two small shelves, a bedside table, a desk and chair, another small table, a wardrobe that's mostly shelves and not nearly enough clothes-hanging space, a squat refrigerator, a toaster oven with two burners on top, and a small sink in the corner. Everything is arranged around the walls so that although the room is crowded, there's plenty of space in the middle to move around. I don't really mind much that it's small; I like space, but I don't need it. I'm going to spend most of the time I'm here at the desk or on my bed anyway. It's a bright room, and it has everything I really need, so I'm content. My biggest complaint is not having nicer bathroom facilities, which is hardly a complaint at all. All in all, it's not so different from living in a dorm except that now I can cook and wash dishes in my room—so really, it's an improvement.

Living in the cité scolaire has its advantages. First and foremost, I don't pay either rent or utilities. I think that's usually the main upside to being offered housing by your school, along with avoiding the stress of having to find a place on your own. Even assistants who have to pay for their school-owned lodging pay only a token amount compared to what renting a room or an apartment in the city at large would cost. And when you make less than 800 euros a month, even if that's a generous salary for the job, not having to shell out half of it in order to have a roof over your head is a very nice thing. Another advantage is that I couldn't really be any closer to work. My commute consists of going down the stairs and taking a two-minute walk across the parking lot into the main school building. There may even be a way to get there without going outside, but I'm only just starting to figure out where my classrooms are and haven't fully explored all the passageways yet. I also have a card that allows me to eat in the cafeteria along with the students who board. The hours aren't terribly convenient, but the meals are decent and very cheap.

Disadvantages include the fact that having classes held in the same building where I live means being subjected to the ringing of bells every hour. It's not the electronic beep we had in my high school either, but the old-school kind of bell that makes a really loud, shrill, vibrating, ringing sound. There's also the constant proximity to students, whom I think most assistants will admit to being afraid of in the beginning—you don't know how to interact with them, and you constantly feel you're being stared at. I work at a school that has a lot of students enrolled in post-high-school diploma programs, many of whom are around my age, so I always imagine that I kind of look like I could be a student but A) don't blend in well enough to get away with it, and B) don't really want to be mistaken for a student anyway. Plus, I always seem to be moving against the crowd when trying to enter or leave my building between classes. It's really awkward.

I also live some distance from the city center, where most of the bars and restaurants and stores are. It's not a great distance—a twenty or thirty minute walk, depending on where you're heading and how fast you go—but it's not necessarily the best place to walk at night in a city with a drinking problem, and the buses stop running early. Even the "night" buses finish around 10:30 during the week and 12:30 on weekends. I'm not as far away as some people are, and since three other assistants live in the cité and another lives in a flat up the street, I can often come and go with at least one other person. And it's certainly not as inconvenient for me as for the assistants whose schools are in the suburbs or in small towns in the outlying area, who have nothing to do nearby and no way of getting into the city or back without the buses. And then, it's me: I'm on my own a lot, I look after myself, and, as with anywhere else I've lived, I refuse to be afraid of my own city. I've already walked home alone several times—once even before the buses stopped running, because I'd miscalculated and would have had to wait longer at the bus stop than it was going to take me to just walk—but I'm not sure that I'd want to do that any later (or any drunker) than I already have. I'm quite proud to say that I've pretty much gone wherever I've wanted at pretty much whatever hour I've pleased since I was sixteen years old—I'm the girl who walks other girls home—but I do try not to go out of my way to be stupid about it.

Then there's the isolation that comes with living at a school anywhere. At night, it gets very quiet here, and on weekends, when most of the students who board during the week go home, the whole complex is eerily deserted. For the first few days I was here, none of the other assistants were yet, and then there were a few days when the English assistants at one of the other schools in the cité had moved in but we didn't know about each other yet—we met trying to find our way into the school where our orientation was to be held two weeks ago and only then realized we had all come from the same cite. I'm a person who likes to be alone, who sometimes even goes out of my way to be alone, but to feel that alone, like you're the only person around for hours or days at a time, is a little oppressive even for me. I'm glad all of the assistants are now here and, so far, getting along. More on that later!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Ma Nouvelle Ville

You can read all about Brest on Wikipedia if you want, and it probably has some kind of tourism website in English, too (come to think of it, I should probably read those myself…), so I'll skip straight to my perspective: Brest is less than I desired, but more than I imagined. By that, I mean that while I had hoped to be somewhere more vibrantly French or Breton or both, both Brest and my situation in it have proved to be better than I expected from my reading and from some of my email exchanges over the summer. If Brest is not quite as rich in history or culture as I might have wanted, or at least not in the ways I might have wanted, it still has plenty to offer in terms of things to do, places to go, and people to meet. I think Americans always have grand expectations for anywhere in Europe; if I'm willing to let go of those and accept that Brest is not going to be my beloved Tours or Avignon, let alone Paris or Nice, then it is, in fact, a perfectly fine place to live. And it is full of magpies, which I love.

Of course, it's also full of steep hills, which I love much less, despite where I grew up.

Four months ago, when I first learned I'd been placed here, I wrote that I was both relieved about the size of the city and its student population* and disappointed that I was going to wind up, yet again, in one of the few places in my chosen country that had little surviving physical evidence of its long history. In Brest's case, that's because it was almost totally leveled in WWII and was rebuilt after the war. It's a port city, with an important naval base, and in its day was filled with factories, though I'm told that much of the industry that was here is now gone. Having heard that makes me even more inclined than I already had been to play the Billy Joel song "Allentown" for my students when I talk to them about where I come from—about the only thing better than a pop culture reference to my hometown is a pop culture reference to my hometown that's potentially tailor-made for les Brestois to relate to.

Some of the city is attractive—for example, the monumental Place de la Liberte at its heart, and the broad Rue de Siam that leads from the Place down to a lovely view of the harbor, which is flanked by the castle and tower that are all that remains of medieval Brest. Much of the rest is, at best, nondescript. Concrete, barred windows, and graffiti abound. Shades of grey and white and beige are predominant, though I have seen at least a few colorful residential streets. Within the city proper, houses are small and massive apartment buildings common. Sirens are a constant, and would almost make me feel at home if the sound wasn't so different from American sirens. It took me a few days to get used to that, but now I tune them out just as easily as I do back in Bethlehem.

Despite having been destroyed, Brest seems to have managed to retain its medieval street plan, and I have yet to make much sense of it, even though I once wrote a history paper about medieval city layouts having a kind of internal logic. It's very easy for me to get turned around if I'm not paying close attention or it's too cloudy for me to tell compass directions easily (which is most of the time here). I get lost a lot anytime I stray from the most familiar routes. 

A lot of streets are named after people, ranging from the vaguely creepy (Rue Robespierre? Really, Brest?) to the unintentionally humorous (I don't know who Claude le Prat was, or if the average French person would think that's a funny name, but his street sign cracks me up). Many of them, of course, are French names I don't recognize, so I get excited when I do know who a street is named for and why they deserve the honor. There are what seems like a surprising number of streets named after writers, from Rue Charles Baudelaire and Rue Victor Hugo, which I suppose are to be expected, to Rue Hemingway down by the quays. I've only seen that one on the map for the moment, but I'll have to go find it at some point, although I don't actually know whether Hemingway had any connection to Brest or not.

Brest is, despite all the not-so-flattering things I said above, a nice enough place to be, especially in the unseasonably nice weather that we had for the first week and a half I was here. The city center really is nice, although most of it is currently a treacherous, labyrinthine construction zone for the new tramway that should go into operation soon after I'm due to leave, and there are also some lovely gardens and parks, including a series of walking paths along the river that I already love, and even some tree-lined streets. The French are also very fond of landscaping with flowering plants. I am quite willing to believe, however, that during the long, dark, wet winter, this will indeed be a depressing city. In fact, I wonder if that's not as much a reason for the number of pubs here as the Irish influence on the region or the fact that except for in summer it's simply too cold and wet for all the oh-so-French sidewalk cafes.

I can't seem to stop myself thinking of Brest as the Pittsburgh of France even though that's unfair in several respects (the biggest of which being that I've spent approximately two hours in Pittsburgh in my entire life—and they were at night, in winter). In some ways, though, I think it's entirely fair: Brest is a grimy, dreary, formerly industry-heavy city of several hundred thousand that, though it has a few nice things to offer in the way of history and culture and nightlife, is a place that kind of fails to stand out and that even its inhabitants tend not to boast much about.

But hey, I work twelve hours a week, plus a little prep time, for which I get paid a ridiculous amount of money** AND get nearly eight weeks of vacation time (although I may volunteer to teach optional classes during one or two of those breaks and make even more money)—part of the point of being a language assistant is to go out and travel and do cool things away from your base city. And when I am here, there are other assistants to hang out with, museums and bars and libraries to go to, more shopping than I can handle (including a fantastic, awe-inspiring bookstore that could pose a serious hazard for me), and plenty of nice walks to take and pastries to eat. Brest may not be very glamorous, but I think I'll be plenty fond of it before it's time to leave.

(If I can remember, I'll try to update this post with pictures this weekend.)

* One night last week, a large group of assistants was sitting in what seems to have become our usual pub, and one girl observed, "The worrying thing here is that there are 17,000 students in Brest and none of them are here..."
** I did the math, actually. It works out to almost 21 euros per hour, for what will probably take very little effort on my part—in other words, over twice as much as I'd probably make doing archaeology right now, and possibly more than I'll ever make doing archaeology even if I go on to get a Ph.D. Plus, I don't have to go to work if the teacher I'm supposed to work with is sick or on strike (it's France, so the latter is bound to happen sooner or later), and it doesn't affect my salary because I don't actually get paid by the hour. It would pretty much be the best job ever even if the economy didn't suck.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

My First Days en Bretagne

I arrived in France two Tuesdays ago, tired and confused and really, really glad to be meeting someone at the airport: a fellow Académie de Rennes assistante (that's the French feminine spelling, not a typo) who graduated this year from the university where my father now works, so we were able to meet ahead of time and start to get to know each other, as well as to figure out that we were getting to France the same day. Plus, she studied abroad in France and had at least a little bit of train experience, so I was quite happy to follow her and let her figure out where we had to go. (Thanks, Ali!) We bought discount cards for under-26s* (I managed to lose mine later that same day and had to go online to request another from the SNCF after I got to Brest) and found the platform, but we weren't able to sit together because French trains have assigned seating even if you buy your ticket the day of the trip, as I did. Lame. (It's not like that in Ireland.) But we did have lunch together during our short stop in Rennes.

Rennes is the main city in the region, with Brest coming in second. They're about two hours apart by train. My train buddy's town is one of a number of much smaller ones (about the size of the city of Oberlin!) and is just to the Rennes side of halfway between the two big cities. Right now I don't know a whole lot more than that about the geography of Brittany, other than that there's a town not far from Brest called Quimper that's supposed to be very nice. I do know that within a short distance of Brest there exists both a Wolf Museum and a Strawberry Museum. Provided I can find a way to get to them without renting a car, that's clearly a sign that I'm in the right part of France.

Another sign: Brittany is fantastic because on the one hand, Brest is super-French and filled with bakeries and crêperies and sidewalk cafés. On the other hand, it's also filled with Irish pubs (which are a lot more legit than Irish pubs in America, even if they still have a little bit of local influence).

Back to my story. My responsable (the teacher who served as my contact person at the school and who's now more or less taking charge of my integration) had generously volunteered to come meet me at the train station and drive me and all my stuff** to the lycée. She was very nice, and spoke to me in English, which was a huge relief, and showed me up to my room. She also told (not asked) me I was going to have dinner at her house, and left me alone for an hour or so to clean up and make my bed before coming back to get me again. Her daughter, who is studying modern languages at the university and speaks English, Italian, and maybe some Spanish (I don't remember now) as well as French, made the dinner and was also very nice to me, albeit more reluctant than her mother to speak English, with the result that there was a lot of code switching going on, and sometimes the two of them went on in very fast French and I missed almost all of it and just sat there and smiled blankly. But, it turns out that the daughter and I are exactly the same age, to the day, and she lived for a few months in Dublin, so we could all talk about how wonderful Ireland is.

The next day I was supposed to report to the teacher's lounge to be introduced to some of the other English teachers and have my responsable take me up to meet the proviseur (principal, headmaster) and then his secretary, who would help me take care of all the necessary paperwork. I slept very, very late and was lazy even once I was awake, to the point that I managed to put off going to get something to eat from the bakery my responsable had pointed out the night before until I had less than an hour before the appointed meeting time. And of course, despite the fact that getting from the school to the bakery is incredibly simple and we had both laughed about the idea that I might get lost trying to go back by myself, that's exactly what I proceeded to do. So lost, in fact, that at one point I thought I was going to have to choose between being late and calling to admit that I'd gotten lost, neither of which was even the slightest bit appealing. At the last possible moment, I discovered that I had almost gotten to the right intersection quite early on, only to mistakenly think I was wrong and go a different way. With that mystery solved, getting back was far more straightforward, and I had exactly enough time to deposit my baguette in my room, change my shirt, and cross the parking lot to the school building right on time.

The teacher's room had been pointed out to me from outside the building, but once inside I wasn't one hundred percent sure I knew which way to go, and naturally the woman at the reception desk saw me peering up and down hallways in two different directions and asked if I needed something—at which point I promptly forgot how to speak French. Utterly unable to come up with the phrase "teacher's room" (an exact equivalent, by the way, nothing idiomatic about it), I eventually managed to stammer something like "Sorry… I am the English assistant and I am looking for _____." Since I must have looked completely incompetent to understand directions, she got up and led me down the hall to the correct place. Once there, I was introduced to a number of people, none of whom were English teachers and all of whose names I've forgotten, though I recognize most of them when I see them now. We say hello, and some of them have even started to do "the bises," that very French way of greeting people you know with a kiss on the cheek, with me.*** 

I sat awkwardly at the table and understood enough of the conversation going on around me to realize that the teachers were discussing computers, and specifically the merits of Macs vs. PCs especially with regard to foreign language instruction. I did not understand enough of it to feel comfortable jumping in. On the other hand, I find I'm often a little overwhelmed by French conversations even when I do grasp most of what's being said. Everything moves at lightning speed, with hardly a pause between speakers.

Anyway, I did eventually meet one other English teacher, an older man who very kindly asked me if I spoke French, to which I replied, "A little. I read and write much better than I speak." (My standard response—either that or "Well, I speak French badly," depending on who's posing the question.) At least, that's what I meant to say. I realized much later on that day that what I'd actually said had completely ignored some fundamental rules of grammar, in any language. Fortunately, he just smiled and said something like, "Ah, yes, it's always that way."

But seriously, this is why I was simultaneously relieved and a little horrified that the application process for American assistants did not involve an interview. I probably look way more proficient in French on paper than I would to anyone trying to have a conversation with me. I'm about as far as it gets from being an eloquent speaker even in my native language, especially when put on the spot; I'm constantly unable to make my brain articulate thoughts at an acceptable pace, and frequently tripping over whatever words I do come up with. Plus I'm shy to begin with, and that's not exactly going to make anybody more inclined to talk, let alone a shy person, so it becomes this really awkward vicious circle. Plunking me down in the middle of a totally new situation with totally unfamiliar people and saying "Now you have to talk in a different language" is pretty much a recipe for disaster, regardless of having studied said different language for years. I knew I was bad at spoken French, but I don't think I was ever fully prepared for just how bad it could get. Because it's not just that conversation. That might be the most glaring mistake I've made, but I think the number of correct sentences I've uttered in the last two weeks is miniscule compared to the number of sentences I've butchered (or just failed to complete).

It turned out the secretary wasn't even there that afternoon, and as there was no one else around to meet and my responsable's afternoon class was taking a test, so there was no point in my sitting in, I was dismissed for the afternoon having embarrassed myself more or less for nothing. I went back the next morning and was paraded amongst the administrative personnel and did a lot of smiling and nodding and half understanding what was said to me. On Thursday I met a very nice Spanish teacher who told me, though I had a particularly hard time understanding her French, that she was responsible for my Spanish-language counterpart, a boy from Colombia who would be arriving on Sunday and probably living in the room next to mine. Also on Thursday, my responsable tried to take me to a nearby bank to open an account, but the branch was inexplicably closed for the day, so we had to go back on Friday instead, at which point the mission was accomplished with very little trouble. However, the bank employees have subsequently been on strike, until yesterday or today, so I have not yet received my bank card, nor have I been able to stop by and make sure I've done everything I need to do before I can. Ah, France.

Coming up: Exploring the city, meeting other assistants, my first encounters with students, and the lowdown on life in Brest [as a semi-reclusive foreign girl living in a high school, which is probably not the best possible insider perspective].

* 26 is the magic age in France, it seems. A person becomes a legal adult at 18, just like nearly everywhere else, but based on my observations in the past two weeks, there follows this magical period wherein one has all the rights and privileges of an adult, but still gets a lot of preferential treatment, particularly concerning financial breaks. In Ireland, I remember, student discounts abound; here, most deals are just for young people, usually (though probably not always) up to the age of 26, regardless of student vs. non-student status. And we're not just talking about reduced admission to museums or meal deals at local restaurants—we get special bus and train passes, are offered special deals by everyone from banks to cell phone and internet companies, pay less for supplemental health insurance... all just for being under the age of 26. I do not know what the French job market looks like for twenty-somethings right now, but assuming it's no worse than anywhere else, this is a fantastic place to be young.
** My ambitious plan to pack super light did not quite go as planned, but more on that later.
*** As my responsable's daughter later explained to me, this custom differs regionally—in Brittany, one kiss, usually on the right. Elsewhere in France, it's three, alternating sides. And when I said goodbye to a fellow assistant from Spain the other night, it was two, one on each side. I've also observed on my own that the only people who'll do it upon a first meeting (including the Spanish assistant, who's about my age and therefore much younger than most of the teachers) are men. Fewer women have done it with me at all yet, and those who have have all waited until we've met at least two or three times.