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).

Monday, March 12, 2012

Brest And Its Environs

I totally just realized that the word "environs" clearly comes straight from French. ("Environ" means "about" or "around".) I'm observant.

Now for some nice things about Brest.

For one thing, Brest has an interesting atmosphere in that it's a big city that sometimes feels like a small town. I'm actually not a hundred percent sure just how big Brest is, because I have heard several conflicting population estimates, but I know that in Brittany, it's second only to Rennes, which definitely qualifies as a major French city. I also know that geographically speaking, it's a pretty big place. I've never literally walked from one side to the other, but I live near the middle and I know that it takes me a solid hour or more to get out if I try to head for the coast in either direction. I'm always a little surprised when I arrive from somewhere else on a bus, because we cross the city limits and I think, "Oh, we're back," and then it actually takes another fifteen or twenty or thirty minutes (depending on the route) to actually reach the city center. And yet, it's very concentrated. It's divided up into official neighborhoods with their own names and and markets and parish churches and mairies*, but the heart and the life of the city are very much in the city centre, along the two main streets stretching away from the Place de la Liberté and in the surrounding neighborhoods. Running into people you know, and into the same people over and over again (including our students, some of whom don't even live in Brest full-time), is incredibly common. Finding out that people you met in different settings already know each other from somewhere else or discovering half a dozen mutual acquaintances with someone you've never spoken to before is also common. (Being an expat no doubt exacerbates the frequency of this phenomenon, but I assure you it also happens with locals!) When one of the other assistants left her camera behind at a bar a few weeks ago, it was returned to her by the bouncer in a chance encounter at the Sunday market the very next day. So we laugh about how small Brest is, when in fact, it's actually not that small, objectively speaking.

Brest is, for a port city and for any city that tends to feel so much smaller than it is, very cultured. I don't mean that in a snobby way, just that it doesn't seem big enough to support a thriving arts scene while also being built primarily on commerce and industry and the military. But it has, to begin, a surprising number of cinemas, playing French films and American films (sometimes dubbed, sometimes just subtitled) and other foreign films, lowbrow comedies and award-winning dramas and documentaries. Several of them play operas and ballets as well as traditional films, and there are film festivals, including the big short film festival I went to last fall. At least one of the cinemas doubles as a theatre, and I don't know much about the theatre scene here but at least there is one. There are also several local choirs, and probably some instrumental ensembles, too. There are concerts--big well, publicized acts and also smaller performances by local and/or lesser known groups that take place in various bars on practically a nightly basis. I've already mentioned the extensive library system (which is vastly superior to the public libraries where I come from, and I often compare Brest to the Allentown/Bethlehem area), which is excellent and well-used. Bulletin boards in the libraries advertise assorted opportunities for music lessons and language classes. All of this is, again, nothing out of the ordinary, but more than I might have expected for a city this size and especially a city that doesn't even feel as big as it is sometimes.

Sports, especially football/soccer and rugby and assorted water sports (obviously), are also big, and I can see the lights of the football stadium from my room at night. And of course, there are lots and lots of bars and cafés. All kinds of bars and cafés. Also a couple of crummy nightclubs, and at least one nightclub I rather like.

Brest has several suburbs, which I'm just now beginning to really explore. I've been to Guipavas, which is to the northeast and is the one closest to where I live, several times, but to the really suburby area between its downtown and Brest, never to the center of the town yet. I've skirted Le Relecq-Kerhuon (just east of Brest) along the coast, but haven't really seen its center yet, either. I have been to Plougastel-Daoulas (southeast of Brest, on the next peninsula down) a few times; it's the home of the Musée de la fraise et de la patrimoine (the Strawberry and Patrimony Museum), which was more interesting than it sounds. The Plougastel peninsula is well-known for its strawberries, and the museum included the history of strawberry production in the area but was also about its customs and material culture and fishing/maritime traditions, etc. And just last week I spent a few hours in the area of Bohars, which is north of Brest and is the home of a sixteenth century chapel and fountain, several still-functioning watermills, and my personal favorite [thing ever], the remains of a MEDIEVAL MOTTE. I'm not sure it had ever even occurred to me that there were surviving mottes in France, but there ARE, and I've been half an hour away from one for the last six months without even knowing it!

There are beaches just outside of Brest in either direction.

As far as Things To See In Brest, there's not that much. I think that's partly because it was bombed and partly just because its importance has always been as a port city, and there just isn't much here for the tourist industry.** There is Oceanopolis, a huge aquarium near the port that I haven't yet been to. Then there's the castle, located right where the river flows into the harbor, which mostly survived the war and has parts from pretty much all periods of Brest's history dating back to the Roman Empire. It's now a national museum about naval and maritime history. Around the castle and extending along harbor in both directions, as well as some distance up the river, are some surviving seventeenth and eighteenth century fortification walls. (At least I think they're surviving, and not rebuilt.) Just across the river from the castle is the Tour Tanguy, a three or four story round tower, which is medieval and older than most of the remaining parts of the castle. Once a prison, it's now a museum about the history of Brest, mostly full of dioramas depicting the city at various times. It's actually pretty neat if you're into that kind of thing (which I admit I am).

The main street leading down to the castle is the pedestrians-only Rue de Siam, which is lined with expensive shops and has a cluster of bars and restaurants at its base, near the harbor. It connects to the other main street, Rue Jean Jaurès, at the Place de la Liberté, which is for all intents and purposes the center of Brest. It's a big plaza, mostly below street level, running downhill from the mairie. There's a very modern-style fountain just in front of the mairie, and futher down the plaza goes under an overpass, beyond which is another big phallic monument to various war dead, with small gardens on either side.

Brest has many bridges. My favorite is the Pont d'Iroise, which crosses the eastern end of the harbor from the outskirts of Brest/Le Relecq-Kerhuon to Plougastel. The main one across the river, and the one on most postcards, is the Pont de Recouvrance, which I think is the kind that raises up to allow ships to pass under it. (Not a drawbridge that splits in the middle, but the kind where the whole thing moves up.) It goes from the end of the Rue de Siam to somewhere just uphill from the Tour Tanguy. Further north but still pretty much in the city centre is the Pont de l'Harteloire, which is absurdly long, less because the river gets really wide and more because the bridge itself is really high up and has to start pretty far back on the bluffs. I think I've mentioned the dramatic landscape around Brest before. Steep hills everywhere, and basically a cliff from the main city to the port. There are lots of stairs in Brest, and lots of places where the front entrances to buildings are on a different level than the back or the side entrances.

I've mentioned the American Monument, which is along the fortification walls overlooking the Port de Commerce. It and the castle, which is nearby, are surrounded by little gardens and walking paths. There are some other parks in the city, too, including a big one along the banks of the river with assorted walking paths and little footbridges. There's also one, the Jardin des Explorateurs, next to the walls opposite the castle. There's a raised walkway along part of the wall and then a formal garden tucked behind it. It's a really nice place to sit (I wrote postcards there once during the February holiday), or to stand on the wall looking out to sea.

Near the Jardin des Explorateurs is the Maison de le Fontaine, which I've mentioned before, and an eighteenth century church. A little bit north of there, close to the river, is the little Rue St. Malo, home to the one and only section of an old street to have survived the bombings. It's a short section, right at the river end of the street, but it's there. I went to find it two weekends ago. There are about ten or twelve stone houses in varying states of decay, all joined in a row and mostly without roofs or floors. (Some of them have been modified to hold, for example, restrooms and an office for the organization devoted to protecting what's left of the historic section of the street.) Most of them would have had two or three stories in their day. They face the high wall of what was once a convent across a narrow cobblestone street. There's a little fountain set into the wall that's still bubbling water. One of the bigger houses near the middle of the row has been turned into an enclosed garden, and inside it and some of the others that you can still peek into (some of them are locked tight and hung with signs proclaiming them dangerous to enter) you can still see the fireplaces and vestiges of steps or doorways. When I was there, on a drizzly weekend afternoon, it was utterly deserted except for me, and aside from being awesome, it was quiet and haunting. It's kind of a sad place, because it really is falling to pieces practically before your eyes, but it's also really amazing to find this secret little piece of the old city tucked away. I can just imagine it in 1944, a perfect little seventeenth and eighteenth century street, just standing there defiantly in the midst of destruction and chaos. It kind of surprises me that it is one of Brest's best-kept secrets, because it seems like it could be such a symbol of resilience.

* I actually can't think of how best to translate this right now. It basically means a town hall, but as I just said, there's more than one. There's the central town hall for the city, and then there are several others that serve specific parts of the city. I don't know what to call that in English. Somebody help me out.
** On a related note, I have absolutely no idea what to do about bringing my friends souvenirs... because there are none in the conventional sense.

Things That Suck About Brest

The other kind of gloomy thing about Brest is that it's just not a very nice city in a lot of ways.

For the most part, people are nice and friendly and generally helpful. Which is awesome, and kind of makes some of the rest of it hard for me to understand.

First of all, as if Brest is not little enough to look at already, people do not seem very interested in keeping it as pretty as possible. I've already mentioned that graffiti is everywhere and on everything. Walls, fences, sidewalks, mailboxes, utility poles, street signs--nothing is immune. And as far as I can tell, it rarely or never gets cleaned up or painted over. It's almost like someone once gave the entire teenage population free rein for the night and then the next day the city just shrugged and went on about its business.

But the vandalism doesn't stop there: Windows are frequently broken (one at the front of the laundromat I go to has had big spiderweb cracks since before Christmas and looks like it was kicked), and I have on several occasions waited at bus shelters that had been literally smashed to bits. I've never seen any of this happening, but somebody's doing it, and it's not just a once-in-a-while problem.

Second of all, Brest is gross. All big cities are dirty to some extent, but some make more of an effort to clean up than others. Here, the sidewalks are carpeted in cigarette butts and crushed cigarette packs and empty candy and snack wrappers. Also with dog poop, although that seems to be France in general and not specifically Brest. People just don't seem to feel the need to clean up after their pets. Then again, men openly peeing in public is also not seen as a social problem, so it's hard to expect that dog poop would be.

Broken bottles and squashed beer cans also abound, which brings us to the next point (and may also be related to all the vandalism): There is so much alcohol.

There are some folks in America right now rolling their eyes and saying, "Yeah, it's Europe." But you don't understand. Most of continental Europe, despite its casualness about alcohol, has a very different attitude towards drinking from that found in Anglophone countries. It's geared more towards enjoyment (of the drink, that is, not the drunkenness) than abuse. That's not to say that people from anywhere alcohol is consumed won't go on a binge now and then, just that that's not necessarily alcohol's only or primary social function. My German/Austrian/Belgian/Spanish/Italian/whatever else friends all certainly know how to party when called upon, but Americans and Brits and Irish and Australians are more likely to habitually drink for the drinking rather than for the drinks, if you get what I mean. There's more of an attitude that drinking is a means to an end, whereas in continental Europe that's sometimes true but not inherently. Have a beer at eleven a.m. is acceptable because there's no assumption that one drink will lead to another, and therefore no assumption that day-drinking indicates a problem.

Brittany, however, forms a crossroads where the idea of drinking to get drunk (a lot, and often) meets the very French/European idea of having alcohol be incredibly cheap and prevalent to the point of ubiquity. It's asking for trouble. It's like American college kids with Keystone, only here the alcohol is better and stronger and no one cares if you have an ID.

I think I've described Brest before as "a city with a drinking problem"; it's true, and I don't think it's just Brest, I think it's the whole region.

So drunk people are a common sight. Drunk men in particular: Brest obviously has many sailors, and seems to have a higher than normal concentration of young men in general, I suppose because of the higher education options available here and what's left of the industrial jobs. (Or maybe the women just don't go out as much or travel in packs as often, and my perception is not totally in sync with reality.)

Also, the drunks in Brest do not merely haunt dark alleys and deserted midnight streets. They can be found anywhere at any hour of the day or night. I have more than once encountered drunk guys (or crazy guys, or both) hanging around bus stops in the middle of the afternoon.

My older students answer every "What did you do over the holiday?" type question with "drink" or "go out" or "make a party". They think it's okay to drive drunk.

Bar fights happen. Soccer brawls happen. I've seen at least two big fights on the street here, one of which we were actually present at, right outside a bar as it was closing. It was a few months ago now, but I remember lots of shouting and big plastic traffic barriers being thrown around and the bartender running outside to intervene, and apparently somebody got stabby with a broken bottle, although I somehow missed that part.

On New Year's Eve, while I was waiting at the bus stop with Jimena and Neala on our way downtown, a car pulled up beside us and someone inside chucked a lit firecracker at us--yes, AT us--before driving off again. It rolled off to the side, and I realized what it was and turned around and kind of shooed the other two a few steps away before it went off, and nobody got hurt. But what the hell.*

It's not often that I've actually felt unsafe walking around Brest, even by myself and even at night. But there are places I avoid, and especially avoid loitering. (I've gotten unwanted attention from men in the Place de la Liberté on two occasions, one of which was before it even got dark.) And it's also not often that I see other women walking around by themselves after dark. In fact, I don't even see women walking in groups without any men nearly as often as I see the opposite. Maybe that's just a French thing because of the gendered culture and maybe it's a Brest-specific thing because of the seemingly skewed sex ratio, I don't know, but it is what it is.

In any case, one last thing is the construction. Maybe this is nitpicky, because it doesn't actually say anything about the atmosphere in Brest, but it's had a big impact on my time here nonetheless. Brest is filled with construction work. They are putting in a new tram line across the city (to be operational more or less right after I leave), and so half the main streets have been blocked off and torn up and full of gravel and cement and barriers and construction vehicles at any given time since before I arrived. It's ugly and noisy and dusty and, quite frankly, a safety hazard a lot of the time. I'm amazed I haven't seen anyone fall into a hole yet. The whole future tram line is one giant death trap.

In addition to the tram, there are also always minor construction projects happening all over the place, with holes in the middle of streets or sidewalks torn up and barricaded, or blocked by scaffolding. Obviously, that could be anywhere, not just Brest, but it doesn't exactly earn Brest any extra attractiveness or liveability points. Meanwhile, much of the port area is rundown or abandoned or totally demolished, and also littered with construction equipment. It looks ugly even from above, and seriously sketchy when you're walking through it.

So that's where I live. (I swear I'm safe here, Mom.) I do have to say I'm somewhat glad to have grown up where I did instead of in the suburbs or some cute little town, because despite everything I just said, I don't dislike Brest and its rougher side doesn't really faze me. So now that I've spent this entire post more or less hating on Brest for no real reason, I promise a more positive update next.

* I know a few people who got egged in Cork, which is definitely mean, but at least the risk of serious injury is pretty minimal compared to freaking explosives.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Strategically Important Port City

I wrote the first take on this a few days ago, and it got swallowed up
by a computer malfunction. (You're probably seeing a pattern by now.
My computer actually doesn't crash as often as it might seem, but when
it does, it pretty much always takes something unsaved down with it.)
Take two.

I've written before about how for me, and I think for many, if not
most, Americans, one of the big things about Europe is the constant
proximity to the past.

I've actually had to try to explain to students before that just
because American history is shorter doesn't mean it's somehow
inherently less interesting, but that's beside the point.*

The point is, the depth of history here is something it's actually
possible to lose sight of in Brest. I'm always thinking about how
almost everything around me is so very recent, but I don't always
really THINK about it. If that makes sense. What I'm trying to say is
that if I'm not actively thinking about it, I don't notice. It doesn't
strike me as odd. I walk downtown to marvel at the castle, the old
fortification walls, the Maison de la Fontaine, the eighteenth-century
church across the river, but it doesn't always register that those
things should not seem so unique and exciting at this point in my
stay. A glimpse of old stone walls or crooked doorframes should not be
enough to draw me out of my path, but it is. And I suppose, coming
from where I do, that's not that surprising, but now that I live in
France, it is. There should be more than a handful of
things-that-might-be-old scattered throughout this city. I should be
surrounded by them. Buildings older than my entire country should be

So anytime I leave Brest, I'm suddenly reminded of what everywhere
else in France looks like. And I become that awkward girl with the
camera taking dozens of pictures of everything in sight, even things
that must be totally mundane to people who live there, because they're
still super exciting to me.

When you tell people outside of Brest that you live in Brest, they
become sympathetic, even pitying. "Oh, well," they say apologetically.
"It was destroyed in the war, you know."

Yes, we know. It's the first thing most of us learned about Brest. It
had the crap bombed out of it--something like 80% of the city was
flattened. Tons of civilians died, and most of the rest were
presumably made homeless. It was the Allies that did it.

And that's why we don't have nice things.

And that brings me to another place where I think being American skews
my perspective.

With the notable exception of Hawaii, the United States has for the
most part been comfortably far removed from modern war. We ship our
soldiers elsewhere to do the fighting. Nowadays, most of the country
goes about its daily business while barely noticing what's happening
in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think it was different in the World Wars; I
don't believe things were so easy on the homefront then. But it also
wasn't Europe. We have landscapes dotted with battlefields, and we
have our fair share of historic monuments that no longer stand because
they were burned or otherwise destroyed by war--but these things
happened many, many years ago, long out of living memory.
Twentieth-century wars happened far away, too far away to pose an
immediate threat to Americans at home, and life in the U.S. could
return to normal relatively quickly after the treaties were signed. We
are not surrounded by physical reminders, and I think we do not always
realize that other places were not so lucky.

Here? It's inescapable. I live now in a city that is not only marked
by war, but totally altered. Hardly anything is left from before
besides those things I've mentioned. One of the few pre-WWII houses
still standing is near my neighborhood, and is marked by a plaque
claiming it as the home of a member of the French Resistance. The
"American Monument" overlooking the port, a memorial to the American
and French forces of WWI, bears a plaque explaining that it is a
reproduction of the original monument destroyed in the Battle for
Brest in WWII. Meanwhile, I walk every day down streets that less than
seventy years ago were nothing but rubble and blood. Streets where at
least one of my great-uncles once walked in uniform and robbed the
corpse of a dead German soldier or two.

Even outside of Brest, it's inescapable. The coast, to the west and
the south, is lined with fortifications protecting the harbor. Some of
them date to the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries and were later
altered and used by the Nazis. But these are outnumbered by the
crumbling remains of twentieth century bunkers, piles of broken
concrete and twisted metal and man-made burrows now littered with
empty bottles and covered in graffiti. They are everywhere, and they
are unmistakable. They are as unavoidable and as ugly as war itself.

It's very sad, to see the landscape marred like this and to think
about why. And it's very strange to me, having never had to think
about what it must be like to live always in the shadow of WWII. It's
easy to see why it's still such a sensitive subject for so many in
Europe. Even if you were to ignore the changes in government policies
and social attitudes that still linger today, the physical traces of
war are still everywhere. "Out of sight, out of mind" is something of
a luxury, if you think about it.

Brest doesn't look damaged today. That much is out of sight. It just
looks new. But when you remember WHY it's new--then it becomes tragic.

* I am of course referring here just to the history of Europeans in
America, i.e. written history.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Whoa, March?!

I'm still behind on blogging, but I'm no longer so far behind that I feel like I can't keep up with my life, so that's nice. I'm also back at work, and this has been a pretty easy week so far. It's really hard to believe I have just a few weeks left before my contract is up. One thing about the French school calendar is that all the breaks really make the time fly.

The biggest development this week is that I FINALLY have a working bank card again, after an entire month and one final setback in which it turned out my card was still blocked from the ATM incident in
Quimper and I had to go to the bank and say "My card doesn't work and I don't understand why because it's brand new" and wait for the woman there for figure out the problem and give me a lecture while she fixed

In other news, we've had some gorgeous weather lately. Yesterday was a bit like the foggy, gloomy last week of vacation, but Wednesday was like summer. In February. It was amazing. I walked around without a
jacket, and my friends and I had an afternoon drink outside on the terrace of a café near the castle. It's funny how this strangely nonwintery winter has kept me from even realizing how much I missed spring!

Also on Wednesday, I finally spent some quality time with that keyboard in the music library. It was a little terrible, since I hadn't touched a piano in months and have never exactly been a virtuoso, but it felt so good. I've been missing music a lot for the last couple of years, especially since I left college, and I'm looking
forward to getting back in the game once I'm settled somewhere else for a while. (I actually briefly looked into the possibility of joining a choir in Brest, but by the time I did so it was a little late in the year.)

On that note, most of my spare energy in the last week or so has been taken up with job hunting. I've found at least two and possibly three positions that I'm applying for for now, but they're all just for the summer. I'm still not sure what's going to happen in after August even if one of these works out, but we'll see. I do know that at this point, it looks like it's likely to be back in the U.S. I have mixed feelings about that, but the EU does not seem to have terribly mixed feelings about [not] hiring Americans for not-super-skilled jobs.

In any case, I just want to take a moment to give a shout-out to the internet. I can't imagine living abroad without it. (I can't imagine a lot of things without it, but that's the magic of the moment.) Thanks to email and instant messaging, I correspond not just with my family and close friends back home, but with a lifetime's worth of friends and acquaintances all over the world, including some in developing countries. I sometimes lament my failure to send more letters and postcards, but the truth is I'm just as in touch with friends via email. (Or at least, I could be. I also lament my failure to send emails with any regularity...) Facebook lets me stay at least nominally in touch with people I'd have lost contact with years ago even without leaving the country if it weren't for Facebook--I'm better connected to my friends there than I would be being pen pals
the old-fashioned way. Meanwhile, I call each of my parents about once a week, give or take, and my sister only slightly less often. And that's because I'm busy; if I want to talk to them more often, there's absolutely nothing stopping me, because do you know how much those calls cost? $0.01 per minute if I use Google Voice. Something like $0.02 or $0.03 per minute if I use Skype. (Compare to upwards of a dollar a minute on either my French phone or my international phone.) And of course, if we plan ahead, we can voice or even video chat using either of those mediums completely for free. It's an amazing world we live in.

Not that we can't still imagine more amazing worlds: My friends and I watched Midnight In Paris the other night (which means I've now seen all of about three of this year's Oscar nominees), and it's now
officially one of my favorite films.

It does make walking around Brest at night even more sad by comparison, though.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Living in Brittany

Background: France is divided into a bunch of administrative regions, of which Brittany (Bretagne in French) is one*. Each region is subdivided into departments. Brittany has four departments: Ille-et-Vilaine in the east, Côtes d'Armor in the north, Morbihan in the south, and Finistère, where Brest is located, in the west. (And let's not even get into the various unofficial cultural regions, which I'm only beginning to figure out. Just look how confusing it is: MAP.)

The Breton name for Finistère is Penn-ar-Bed, which means "the end of the earth". I don't know for sure, but that seems like a legitimate origin for the French name, too; in modern French the translation would be something like "Fin de la Terre", which is pretty similar. It actually sounds like it might even be a Frenchification** of the Latin.

In any case, in theory, Finistère (along with the western part of Côtes d'Armor) is where one is most likely to hear Breton spoken. I suppose it's a similar phenomenon to that in Ireland; the original Celtic language survived mainly in the westernmost regions because they were the ones furthest from the encroaching influence of what was to become the dominant language. That said, Breton is an endangered language, spoken by only a fraction of the population, most of whom are old. (The immersion and bilingual schools scattered throughout Brittany are not funded by the state, because French historically does not play well with other languages, and so they only reach a tiny percentage of children.) So in practice, I have never actually heard it used. I'm sure that's partly because I live in the city, where it's less likely than in rural areas, but I've never encountered it in my short forays into smaller towns, either. The exceptions, of course, are Breton words that have been adopted into French (names of traditional foods being the most obvious example) and Breton words used in the names of businesses and products. Place names are also commonly Breton, or at least Frenchified Breton, which makes them exceptionally difficult for me to figure out how to pronounce.

Sometimes in classes where I'm lucky enough to have the class roster in front of me, I study it while I'm waiting for students to complete some individual or group task without my interference. Sometimes I'm just trying to figure out who's who, but other times I'm studying the names themselves and trying to guess which are French and which are Breton. Classically French names are common: All of the Marions and Laurines and Elodies, the Valentins and Lucs and Cléments, leave no doubt. And sometimes the Breton names--Riwan, Aziliz, Killian, Nolwenn--are just as obvious. Others I'm less sure about. They sound like they could go either way. Last names can be especially difficult, but there are plenty of first names I still can't identify.

Then I start to wonder about the students with the Breton names. Do their siblings also have Breton names? Do their parents speak Breton, or did they just like the name? Do they themselves speak Breton? It's not likely. But... are they among those who still identify as Breton more than, or even instead of, French? That's more common than you might think. The people of Brittany are extremely proud of their heritage and their traditions (the Breton flag is everywhere), but more than that, there are people who claim Brittany is not France and aren't speaking figuratively or trying to make a point. "I've never been to France," they'll say. The "BZH LIBRE" graffiti I sometimes see would even suggest there is still a movement (how big, and how politically serious, I wouldn't know) for Breton independence.

When I think about it, that makes it seem a little strange that I don't have more of a sense of there being a culture clash here. The fact that I don't know which names are Breton and which are French, that I don't think twice about Brittany-specific targeted advertising, that a lack of bilingual signage strikes me as odd... it's just funny how normal things like that seem. I've spent very little time outside of Brittany, comparatively, and it occurs to me now that I don't really know what life in the rest of France is like. The differences must be so much more than drinking wine instead of cider and beer and eating white-flour crêpes instead of buckwheat. It must be more, even, then being away from the megaliths and the pervasiveness of fishing and sailing culture. They say, for example, that Brittany is by far the most Catholic part of France, and while I haven't seen much evidence that people are especially religious today, there are churches and abbeys and religious sculptures around every bend. Everything is named after St. Anne and St. Yves. Meanwhile, the region is full of festivals, festivals of all kinds, but especially ones celebrating traditional music and dance and storytelling, not to mention maritime traditions. Some of my students have told me they play traditional instruments, and often some of the street musicians at the Sunday market are playing Breton music. The market itself is a smorgasbord of local foods I take for granted that I imagine my friends elsewhere in France may have never seen. The libraries and bookstores have huge sections on Breton tales and proverbs and history. Every other car I see has a triskell sticker or one of a little cartoon person in Breton dress. Women carry shopping bags and men wear scarves that have the Breton flag on them--and here I thought putting your flag on everything was an American thing. Most people may not speak Breton, but it's printed everywhere.

I realize that no country's culture is uniform and that what it means to be French varies from region to region elsewhere. There are probably traditions everywhere that are region-specific. (They say the middle of the country, away from the influence of bordering nations, is the most "French".) But here, where some people still insist they are not French at all, where most of the population was bilingual until fifty years ago and many still wore traditional costumes up until WWII, there's truly a dual culture. Brittany remained very distinct from the rest of France until astonishingly recently, and it still shows. It shows in ways I think I must not even realize, since I have nothing to which to compare what I see here. And that's just really interesting to me.

I wonder what other ways my experience of France hasn't been typical...

* Not to be confused with the cultural region of Brittany or the historical duchy of Brittany, of which the modern administrative region only contains about 80%.
** That's a real word, I swear.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Saga of the Wallet, Continued

So, I wrote about how my wallet got stolen, and about the trauma I went through over the next couple of days trying to get everything sorted out, and about how my wallet was eventually returned to me, sans cash but otherwise intact.

Last Tuesday, I picked up my new bank card (for which I was charged a five euro replacement fee, by the way), and thought that was more or less the end of the saga, other than figuring out when and how to get my new American cards, which are currently in my parents' possession.

Then last Wednesday, I took a day trip to Quimper to visit the museums there. The first thing I did upon getting off the bus was walk across the street to an ATM to get some cash.

CODE INCORRECT. (Or whatever it says when that happens.)

I looked at it for a minute in astonishment. I was pretty darn sure I hadn't screwed it up. I tried again.


At that point I started to panic, realizing that my new card must also have a new PIN, even though no one at the bank had bothered to mention this to me. I hit "cancel" and got the card back. For a second I freaked out about the fact that I was no an hour from home with no access to money, before I remembered the bus home costs three euros and I definitely had at least that much on me.

Then I thought, "Wait a second, this is ridiculous." I put the card back in the machine and tried again.

I think I was hoping that the three strikes and out rule did not apply if you started over entirely, but obviously modern technology is too smart for that, and, predictably, the machine ate my card.

At that point I was seriously pissed off. I went inside the bank (which fortunately was a branch of the one that holds my account). I explained to the woman that the machine outside had taken my card, which was confusing to me because I had thought I was using the correct code. "That's strange," she said. No kidding. I gave her my passport so she could look up my account, and then explained that I had just gotten a replacement card, but that since no one had said anything to me about a new code, I had assumed it was still the same. (I left out the part about how they had specifically asked me the week before about whether the code had been lost along with the card, a question whose purpose I do not understand if they were going to change the code regardless of the answer.) She then explained that the new code would have been sent to me by mail, at which point I must have looked horrorstruck, because she said something like, "Does that not sound familiar?" I explained that I live at the school where I work and it's closed for the holiday. No mail. I think I then tried to reiterate the fact that NOBODY FREAKING TOLD ME I was going to have a new code in the first place.

She said she would go try to get my card out of the ATM, and then she could withdraw some cash for me if I wanted.

"There's no other way to get the code?"

"No. It can only be sent to your home address. It's for your security."

Seriously? I'm standing right in front of you in person, passport in hand (a passport which contains not just one, but two photos of me, I might add). What's more secure than that? Send me back to my own branch if you must, but surely that would at least be enough for them? I even understand if bank employees aren't allowed to access PINs, but the original letter was generated somehow and handled by some person, so there's got to be a way to print a new one and hand it to me.

Needless to say, that little discovery blighted my whole day. But more than that, I had plans for my vacation: At the very least, I was going to spend a couple more days in Paris, I was going to check out Saint Malo, and, most importantly, I was going to spend four days in Barcelona with my friends. I had put off buying tickets until I had my trip to Senegal sorted out, and then until I got my new bank card, but I had intended to go home from Quimper that very day and book my trains and flights and hostel. But try as I might, I couldn't think of any way to do any of that without using my bank card at all. Even if I went back to the bank and withdraw a huge sum of cash, that would still be all I had. If something happened to it, or I ran out, in a place where my bank doesn't exist, I'd be screwed. If I somehow found myself in a situation where I couldn't use cash, I'd be screwed. There is no way to use a French bank card without the code (except online, which would get me my plane tickets and maybe my hostel, if I was lucky--some hostels prefer cash--but nothing else). And of course, I didn't even have my American cards, which are a pain to use anyway, to back me up, so I couldn't even pay for my whole trip with a credit card to be paid off when I got back.

So, wallet thief, I hope that twelve euros + however much Czech kroner was really worth it, because you ruined the next three weeks of my life. I may not get another chance to go to Barcelona, which we'd been planning since last fall, and I certainly won't get another chance to go with these people.

It's not really so bad, in the end. I think I needed some time at home to work on stuff like powering through my TESOL course and looking for jobs for the summer and next year. I'm getting some reading done. I'm working on blog posts. I'm getting some hiking in (though transportation continues to be an issue), because what better time to explore my immediate surroundings than when I'm stuck here anyway, especially since I've so far proved to be insufficiently motivated to go out and do such things during my free time when I'm not on vacation. And of course, I'm saving a lot of money; there's nothing better than lack of easy access to money to keep one from spending it. But it still sucks, because the things I WOULD have done were things I won't have time to do otherwise. I'm not looking forward to hearing about what I missed in Barcelona, and I'm not looking forward to the inevitable questions about what I did during the holidays when I go back to work. (Some of the teachers already knew about Barcelona, which will make for especially awkward conversations.) I'm trying to be as productive as possible so I can feel like the time off wasn't wasted, but I'm not sure how well that's going to work for someone like me.

Especially since there are now only a little over two months left before this is over...