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.