Thursday, January 26, 2012

Holiday Travels, Part 5: The Van Gogh Museum

We interrupt the otherwise sort-of-consistent chronology of my tale to bring you this unnecessary ramble about an overpriced museum dedicated entirely to a single artist.

But seriously, it was great.

First things first: Whoever decided to put the Van Gogh Museum in a city where a large percentage of the tourists are high a large percentage of the time was a freaking genius.

I'm not saying I was high when we went (and even if I was, I wouldn't announce it on the internet); I'm just saying those are two things that I think would go very well together. Van Gogh did so many cool things with color and texture and shape that his work is fascinating when you're completely sober. Imagine being surrounded by it when all you want to do is stare at interesting things.

I love Van Gogh. I always feel like kind of a turd saying Van Gogh is one of my favorite artists, if not my very favorite, because it seems like a cop-out—everyone knows Van Gogh, you don't need any knowledge or appreciation of art to claim Van Gogh as your favorite. It's an answer for people who aren't actually that interested in art but have enough culture to like famous pretty things. But it's true. I'm not super well versed in art by any means, but I've taken art history classes, I've been to countless museums, and I have deep attachments to some works of art much more obscure than anything Van Gogh ever painted... but I still love Van Gogh.

And it's a very different love from my love for other famous painters. I love Monet and Sisley and assorted other Impressionists because all of their work is superhumanly beautiful. I love Rubens and Vermeer and assorted other seventeenth century painters because their subjects are interesting and because I could spend hours just looking at the use of light in baroque paintings. I love Leighton and Waterhouse for beautifully painting beloved legendary/mythological figures. I know next to nothing about any of those artists themselves, only their art. With Van Gogh, on the other hand, I know his life story, and I did even before I could recognize much of anything other than "Starry Night." He fascinates me. I guess all tortured artists fascinate me, but I tend to go for writers rather than painters—except for Van Gogh.

And that's why I love the Van Gogh Museum (aside from the mere fact that it's full of Van Gogh paintings): It's all about context. It's a museum that tells a story, which is something I'm not sure I've ever seen from another art museum (as opposed to, say, a history museum). Art exhibits, sure, but never an entire museum. The Van Gogh Museum is the story of Van Gogh's artistic progression, but also of his life, and I thought it was wonderfully designed.

It starts with an exhibit that describes Van Gogh's development as an artist and puts his work in a stylistic context, displaying works by artists who influenced him as well as by his contemporaries and those he influenced.

Upstairs, almost all of the paintings on display are Van Gogh's work, with a few more from his friends and contemporaries scattered throughout. They are grouped in chronological order in rooms arranged according to periods in Van Gogh's life and accompanied by extensive biographical information, both in the introductory text for each room and in the information about particular paintings, especially those of people or of views, as well as the more unique paintings. Each chronological period is also associated with a particular place where Van Gogh was living at the time, making everything even more organized.* So as you make your way around the floor, you see not only the distinct periods and changes in his art, but you are able to place each painting squarely within the framework of his life. Most museums give you a time and place; at this one, you also know why he was there at that time, what his life there was like, and where he'd been before. You've learned about his family, his friendships, his pre-painting life, and his illness--and all the while, you know where things are headed, even if you haven't already glimpsed the photograph of his grave that stands at the very end of the exhibit. You watch his life unfold through the lens of his paintings. Or perhaps you watch his paintings unfold through the lens of his biography. Whether it's Van Gogh's life story told through his art or the story of his art told through that of his life is something of a chicken and egg question. Which one shaped the other is a matter for debate. Either way, the two are inextricably bound up together.

I realize there's a school of thought in the art history world that says that an artist's biography and social/political/historical context don't matter. I think that's crap, and I don't care if you pardon my French or not. Context matters. It always matters. No, I don't think everything a person ever creates is necessarily autobiographical or a statement of their religious or political beliefs or a social commentary about their surroundings. Obviously sometimes a flower is just a flower, let's say, and it's there because it's pretty and for no other reason. But all of those things influence what a person does overall. What they're interested in. How they relate to the world around them. Even if it's subconscious, even if it's not super important for interpretation, it still makes a difference. I write instead of painting, and my poetry is super personal and autobiographical; my fiction is not, at all, but it still reflects things about myself and my relationships and my views on life. People create based on what they know, what they think, and what they feel. How much is open to interpretation--maybe there's a direct connection between all of the darkness and grotesqueness of Caravaggio's paintings and the drunken violence of his own life, and maybe there's not; I don't know. Maybe Virginia Woolf wrote stream of consciousness because her mind was damaged, and maybe it's a coincidence; I don't know that, either. But to completely discount all of the things that make a person who they are, to dismiss them outright and say they have no bearing on that person's art, is ridiculous and narrow. I guess if all you're interested in is technique, then fine, but if you're after the big picture... life matters. Even artists who choose their style and subjects for entirely pragmatic reasons still have reasons, and what makes them practical depends on the time and place and circumstances. Nothing in this world happens in a vacuum.**

On the floor above are temporary exhibits. When I was there, there was one about the influence of Asian art styles on Van Gogh and his contemporaries, and a really fascinating one about conservation work and research on the famous bedroom painting, with lots of before and after photos, photos comparing the different versions of the painting (one is in the Van Gogh museum, of course; another that I've also seen is in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris; I don't know where the third is--NYC, perhaps?), and a full-size reconstruction of the room and its furnishings. It was pretty great. Also, I feel like I've seen a lot of conservation exhibits in various museums over the past couple of years, about everything from paintings to decorative art and furniture to architecture. which is also great. It's good for the public to be aware of those kinds of issues and realize there's a lot more to museum work than just rearranging pictures on the walls, and it's a good way to get the more science-y minded among us interested in the art world.***

The very top floor is a more wide-ranging exhibit of late nineteenth century art, mostly of Van Gogh's friends and contemporaries. Lots of Gauguin and Pissarro.

So that's pretty much it. We were there for probably somewhere between two and three hours altogether, and I could definitely see spending even a little more time there without being bored. I thought I had a lot more to say, and maybe I do and it's just not in words yet. (Or it was in words at the time and now I've waited too long to get them out properly. That's also possible.) And maybe a lot of it isn't really about the museum, but about Van Gogh himself, which doesn't necessarily have a place on a travel blog. Anyway, it was one of the highlights of Amsterdam for me. I bought seven postcards, which I think is a record for any one museum, let alone any one artist at a single museum, and they didn't even have postcards of a couple of my favorite paintings. I haven't figured out what to do with them yet.

Now back to my story, speaking of things being in order. Stay tuned for tales of adventure (and NOT of museums) in Eastern Europe.

* You know, now that I'm thinking about it, it's possible one of the primary reasons I like this museum so much is that it conforms so perfectly to my obsessive-compulsive tendencies: Everything is in order AND broken up into neat categories. Plus, for the most part, there's really only one way to move through the museum, so there's a set path. No chaos anywhere.
** See also my rant about anthropological theories of culture that insist that social and political history are immaterial to understanding the present-day functioning of society.
*** I never really thought of myself as being science-minded OR art-minded until college, but when both of those things changed I was really excited to discover the field of art (and archaeological) conservation. If I'd known earlier in life, I might even have attempted the necessary chemistry coursework to get into conservation myself.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Holiday Travels, Part 4: Purgatory

It occurs to me that it's now been a month since the trip I'm writing about--which is CRAZY, I can't believe how fast time is going--so I'm going to try to move this along.

However, that also means I'm halfway through my time in Brest. It's been almost four months since I came to France, which is also crazy. Time flies, I guess. Maybe a little too much for those of us who don't know what we're doing next, or where we're doing it, or when we're going there. Yikes.

I've been kind of homesick lately, which is weird for me. The only times I've ever really experienced homesickness before all involved a boy (other than some time in Ireland when I was homesick for Oberlin, but I was very lonely in Ireland, which is not at all the case here). I've never really been one to actively miss being at home, even though I like being there. I think it's a combination of the lost, what-do-I-do now feeling and the fact that I have, whether it seems like it or not, been gone a really long time. I was in Ireland for exactly four months and one week, which until now was the longest I'd ever been away at a stretch, and obviously at this point in my time there I was getting ready to leave--saying goodbyes and strategizing packing and looking forward to Christmas and family and old friends. This time the things I'm looking forward to are much farther away, and home isn't even on the horizon. Right now I have no idea when or even if I'm going back.*

Anyway, this morning I had the surreal experience of being at a French market talking to my [non-Francophone] friends in French, and then receiving a text message in English from a French person. Irony.

But back to Amsterdam.

After I left the Anne Frank House, I wasn't entirely sure where the nearest tram back to the hostel was, so I just sort of wandered around for a while. It was getting dark, and I got a little lost, but I think it was a good way of decompressing. I just walked, and took pictures of houseboats, and watched swans in the canals.** Eventually, I made my way back to a familiar area and found a tram (and there's a story about that tram ride for another time), and settled down with my computer in the hostel lobby to wait for Sam and Jimena.

The next morning we went to the Van Gogh Museum, which was amazing and deserves its own post, so that's next. That afternoon we took a boat cruise through the canals. In theory, it was a tour, but to hear the tour you had to sit inside and listen to headphones, and that was no fun at all when we could be sitting out on the smoking deck feeling the wind and seeing the city go by all around us instead of just through the weirdly low, smudgy, glare-y windows. So we did not really learn much about Amsterdam or its canals, but we enjoyed the ride.

The next morning we parted ways. I was really upset. A) I did not want to leave Amsterdam, not even to go to other cool places, and B) I had spent almost the entire last week with Sam and Jimena and didn't want to say goodbye, even temporarily. Normally I'm perfectly happy to travel alone, but having had such a marvelous time with them made me really reluctant to go off in a different direction. I had kind of started regretting my decision to go to Prague instead of going to Bruges with them for Christmas.

Within a few hours, "kind of" regretting turned into full-on "Why on earth did I do this to myself?" but we'll get to that.

First, they left that morning, but I was in no hurry to go anywhere, because all I had to do that day was get to a town a couple of hours away, just across the German border, and my night train to Prague wasn't going to get to that town until something like 11 p.m. So I stuffed my luggage into a pay-by-the-hour locker at the hostel and headed around the corner*** to the Rijksmuseum.

The Rijksmuseum is filled with masterpieces of Dutch art, mostly from the Golden Age (17th century-ish). Rembrandt, Cuyp, Vermeer, that guy who painted church interiors. Also sculpture and decorative arts and an enormous model ship. Its crown jewel is an enormous group portrait by Rembrandt called The Night Watch. Apparently it is quite famous, although I was [embarrassingly] not familiar with it and didn't really see what the fuss was about.

Unfortunately, the Rijksmuseum is currently undergoing extensive renovations, and most of it is closed. The selection that is still on display is still pretty substantial, though, so I can only imagine what seeing the entire museum would be like. It must be enormous. According to Wikipedia, its permanent collection comprises a million pieces. Presumably those are never all on display at once, but still. That's more than the Louvre. By a lot.

I spent maybe an hour or two at the museum, and then I retrieved my stuff and went off to catch my first train. My night train reservation was from Wuppertal, Germany, and to get there I had to take short trips on two different regional trains.

And that's where things started going wrong. I got on the wrong train.

I realized it pretty much as soon as the train started moving, which was actually a good thing, because it meant that I was able to hop right back off again at the first stop (which was in Utrecht, not that that matters) and immediately onto a train going in the correct direction. So no harm done, other than adding an extra step to my multi-step journey, but not a good start to my solo travels.

And it got worse!

I got to Wuppertal without further incident. I was going to have several hours of waiting around ahead of me, but I figured I could just hang out in the train station. Unfortunately, it turns out the Wuppertal train station is approximately the saddest place on earth. It's ugly and dirty and shabby and mostly underground. Everything is concrete. Its highlights are a café/bakery and the newsstand. There is literally no place to sit down and wait other than the scattering of benches along the platforms. An enclosed "waiting area" on the far platform contains exactly four chairs and a lot of empty space.

Also, the extent of my German is as follows: I can say hello and goodbye, please and thank you, yes and no. "Good." "I love _____." "God in Heaven." I can count to about twenty. I can say "Do not speak German," but I don't know how to conjugate it properly. I know a couple of swear words and a handful of random other words that aren't terribly useful (schadenfreude, anyone? fernweh? also some slightly more practical ones, but still not anything I'm likely to need in simple conversation). I can sing the first verse or two of "Silent Night".

That's about it. I can often puzzle out more than that if it's in writing, but I can't understand any more than I can speak, which clearly is not enough to get by. For some reason this is far more stressful when one is alone than when one is with others, even if they also do not speak the local language.

I wandered around the station a few times. Then I wandered outside and found a Christmas market in the street next to the station, so I walked and looked for a bit, and eventually bought a sausage in a bun in an awkward "I-do-not-speak-your-language-at-all" sort of exchange. But I was dragging all my stuff with me, and it was getting dark, and I couldn't just walk up and down the street all evening, but I didn't know where else to go (in the grand metropolis of Wuppertal), so I went back into the sad train station. I went to the café and had a coffee, and frustrated the girl at the counter who clearly assumed I spoke German even after I looked blankly at all the signs and asked for the least German thing on the menu (café au lait) without using any other words. I sat there and fiddled with my computer until it looked like they were starting to get ready to close. I went to the newsstand and looked around, and contemplated buying a couple of English-language magazines geared towards foreign language students, in case I could use them for my classes, but they were weirdly expensive. Finally, with nothing left to do and several hours still to go, I parked myself on the ground squarely in front of the departures board to wait for my train to appear on the list.

But apparently, you can't sit by yourself on the floor of a train station without looking like a beggar. And that's when an old man (who I'm actually pretty sure was a beggar himself) approached me holding out a coin.

Ever had to explain to someone that no, you're not homeless, and you really appreciate his kindness, but no, you don't need money, and he's very nice, but honest, you're just waiting for your train? Ever had to try to do that across an enormous language barrier? I have! (It involved a lot of smiling and head shaking and pointing at the departure board.)

So I gathered up my things and went out to wait on the platform in the cold. And when I got too cold and bored, I came back down and stared (standing up) at the departures board for a while. I tried to go to the bathroom and wasn't willing to pay for it. I bought some candy bars from a vending machine. I went to wait on the platform in the cold. I got cold and bored and went back down to stare at the departure board. I went back up to sit on the platform in the cold.

It was the longest two hours of my life.

Also, by that point in the evening, the only other people loitering around the station were men. Vaguely creepy older men by themselves. Raucous young men traveling in packs. Once in a while a family came through, or a few young women, sometimes with boyfriends, but never alone. But they all came shortly before their trains and then vanished, and it was just me, by myself, in the dark, with bunch of non-English-speaking men of varying degrees of sketchiness.

Fun times in Germany, guys.

Finally, at long last, it was eleven o'clock and the train was arriving. I found my car (home of the cheapest available seats). Now, I had never been on a night train before and didn't really know what to expect. I knew I'd bought a seat instead of a place in a sleeper car. I guess I was expecting a typical train car, with rows of seats, maybe a little roomier than usual and hopefully able to recline. Nope. It was a compartment car, and my compartment was full. There were five people already there when I arrived, and my seat was in between two of them. There was nowhere to put my luggage. So I squeezed in, and set my backpack on the floor between my legs, and held my other bag in my lap, and resigned myself to a thoroughly miserable ten hours on top of my already miserable day.

Eventually, the two old ladies across from me shuffled some stuff around and invited me to lift my backpack over them and cram it into a small space on their luggage rack, which was nerve-wracking, because my bag was heavy and I'm short and I was afraid I'd hit one of them somehow, but it worked out. So that helped, because I didn't have to hold it upright anymore, and I could put my smaller bag on the floor instead. There still wasn't really any space. Plus I was tired, but anyone who knows me knows I don't sleep in moving vehicles.**** So that was out. I had imagined being productive during my sleepless night on the train, but I couldn't really maneuver things around, and I didn't really have much with me that wouldn't have required turning on a light. My computer was pretty much dead. I listened to my iPod for a while, but it died, too. So I just sat. Tried to sleep. Mostly sat. Early in the morning, still dark out, the two old ladies got off. The young couple to my right got off in Dresden, a little before dawn. Then me and the remaining guy each took a side of the compartment and stretched out. I managed to sleep for an hour or so that way. Then I sat up and watched the Czech countryside appear out of the lifting darkness. It reminded me weirdly of Pennsylvania, with its wide open fields and distant mountains and rivers wilder than anything I've seen in France so far. That made me start to feel a little bit better about my decision.

I was still pretty determined to find a way NOT to take the night train again on my way back, though.

* OK, that's a little melodramatic; I'm sure I am going back sooner or later. But I really don't have any idea when, or for how long.
** We don't have swans in Brest, and I love them so much.
*** It was literally that close. So was the Van Gogh Museum.
**** If I'm ever on another night train, though, I might shell out for a sleeper car and see if having a bed makes a difference.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Education in France, Part 1

I've been tutoring a university student who's planning to take an important English proficiency exam in February. He's doing this because he wants to apply to a program at McGill University in Montreal, and I've been really impressed by both his motivation and his focus. This kid knows exactly what he wants and by God he's going to do it, and if Plan A doesn't work, he's got Plan B, C, and D all ready to go. He's also just a good kid: pretty nerdy, but really smart and really, really nice. I'm not sure how effective a tutor I am at a level as advanced as where he is, but I really enjoy working with him and I really want him to succeed.

Anyway, he sent me the cover letter for his application so I can give feedback on his mistakes, and as I'm sitting here looking at it I decided it's time for my rant about the French school system.

I have many criticisms, but the problem of the moment is this: In all of my French classes in the U.S., I was always taught that translating is bad. Not in general, obviously, but as far as creating something in your second language is concerned. You don't write your essay in English first and then translate it into French; it's much better just to write it in French to begin with. American foreign language teachers, at least the ones I had, encourage their students to start thinking in their new language as much as possible as early as possible, because it improves fluency and it helps to avoid the kinds of mistakes where you try to translate phrases or structures that just don't translate directly. It's easier to see the things you don't know how to say coming if you're trying to think about them in your non-native language as opposed to trying to translate your ideas as you go, and that in turn makes it easier to find ways around them. You make fewer mistakes, not to mention less complicated ones, if you're only using the language you know, as opposed to trying to take complex ideas formed in your native language and express them in your fumbling attempts at your new language.

Is this difficult to achieve? Of course. At the early stages it seems impossible, and I still think in a mangled combination of French and English more often than I actually think in French, because I'm just not fluent enough. And there continue to be times--very frequent times, in fact--where I want to express something I just don't freaking know a way to say. (I tried to explain the Peace Corps to a friend in French this morning. That was interesting. And not entirely successful.)

But it really is useful to at least try. It really does help make things easier.

However, this is not a concept I have seen in action in French schools. If anything, I've seen the opposite. French foreign language education still has a lot in common with old-school methods involving lots and lots of grammar and translation and not as much emphasis on actual communication. Things have gotten better, I think; a lot of the teachers I work with try really hard to work in all kinds of oral comprehension activities and want me to do whatever I can that gets them to talk [in English] in class. At least one teacher has discouraged me from having students write anything in my classes, so they're forced to speak without preparation. But it's still not the same kind of education as what I had, and there's still a lot of things like "Listen to this audio file in English and then write about it in French," or "Okay, we've read this English text in class, now your homework is to translate the first two paragraphs into French," and I haven't heard anyone but me say anything about the importance of thinking, rather than just writing and speaking, in English. I've even seen kids using online translators in class instead of dictionaries, and the teacher just kind of shrugs and moves on.

And I don't think having practice in translation is inherently a bad thing, but the fact that there's no distinction being made between translation as one thing and really understanding/speaking a language as a separate thing bothers me. If you can only understand a language based on how it relates to your native language... there's going to be a lot you never understand at all.

And again, it encourages weird, complicated mistakes. Now I'm sitting here looking at this cover letter, and I don't even know where to start, because it's just a mess. I've had conversations with this kid; he makes mistakes, but he can make himself understood, and since most language learners write better than they speak, especially with time to edit and correct, I think he could have written a brilliant letter if only he had just written in English. Instead, he wrote it in French first and then translated it, with the result that he has a very eloquent French letter with a lot of very formal, complex language; and a very awkward and forced English letter with a lot of misused words and poor phrasing, whereas if he'd started out writing in English, he'd have been more or less limited to saying things he knew how to say and it would have come across a lot more clearly. Even if he'd made some mistakes or had had to look some things up and then not quite used them correctly (something I still do all the time in French), at his level those would probably be small things that are easy enough to fix. Instead, he has whole sentences that need to be rearranged or that don't make sense at all. Now I'm going to have to completely take it apart, and I worry it's going to be very discouraging, when I know firsthand that he's actually quite good at expressing himself in English.

It just frustrates the hell out of me.

Obviously no education system is without flaws, and no one is ever going to agree on the best way to teach languages. There probably isn't one, since everyone learns a little differently. And foreign language education in the U.S. definitely needs some improvement, in attitude even if not in method. But this is one area where I really think we're doing it better than the French. I have a hunch that this has a lot to do with the reason some of my students can barely string a sentence together even after years of English classes. We could argue pros and cons all day, but I have right in front of me as I write the evidence that translation as a language-learning approach does not work better than, or even as well as, communication-based approaches.

Of course, I don't even express myself well enough in English to be sure I've explained all that effectively, so...

I'm actually going to leave this here for now, but there will probably be more to come on my experience with French schools and French students.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Holiday Travels; Part 3: The Anne Frank House

The building now known as the Anne Frank House looks more or less like every other tall, narrow brick building lining Amsterdam's canals. I actually walked past it once without noticing, though once I was looking for it, it was fairly obvious by the remodeled facade and the short line outside the door. There's a rather steep entrance fee (with no student or youth discounts--the Netherlands is not as generous to the young and cheap as France), but it's worth it, and I'm pretty sure much of it goes toward preservation of the building and the museum's educational outreach, so there's that.

For those of you a little fuzzy on your history, the "house" was actually an office building in the WWII era and housed the business that belonged to Otto Frank (Anne's father) until Dutch Jews were no longer permitted to own businesses, at which point he legally signed it over to his partner but continued to be involved in its day-to-day operations, behind the scenes. And when the family decided to go into hiding for the duration of the war, it was in a "secret annex" on the top two floors of an addition at the back of the property. They lived there secretly for two years. Several employees who worked in the offices below were responsible for bringing them food and information, but the majority had no idea there were eight people hiding upstairs.

Now it's a museum, established in the 1950s with a lot of effort and input from Otto Frank, who was the only one of the eight to survive the war.

When you enter, on the ground floor, it looks like a museum. Everything is very clean and modern and shiny--lots of tile and glass and metal. Tickets are carefully checked (within six feet of the purchase counter, mind you) and bored security guards peer into your bags. You walk past restrooms and a bookstore and even a café (I thought that was weird, do you think that's weird?) before entering the exhibit. The first stop is a dark, empty room where several TV screens are playing a short introduction--much of it Anne's own words being read over film clips and photographs--on a continuous loop. The film (as well as most of the text elsewhere in the museum) is in English; a scattering of telephone-like speakers offers a choice of translations.

Once rendered appropriately somber, visitors file past a row of photographs of Anne, taken just before the family went into hiding, and into the office building itself. There, they move through a series of storerooms and offices where various photographs and documents and artifacts are displayed. Everywhere, there are photographs of the people in question and of the building as it looked in the 1930s and 40s. Poignant quotes from Anne's diary are painted on the walls, adding tidbits of first-person narration to the story told by the materials on display. Some of the windows in the front of the building, overlooking the canal, have faint photographic images on the glass, superimposing the 1940s view over the present-day one.

In the first room there is background information about the business, and also about what was happening in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam in the months leading up to the Franks' decision to go into hiding. A display case holds a faded yellow star and a "Jews forbidden" sign. Later rooms are devoted to the role of the "helpers" who knew about the secret hiding place and risked their own safety to help those living there survive. Another film clip shows an interview with an elderly Miep Gies, who explains that when Otto Frank approached her to ask if she would be willing to help the family in hiding, she answered yes without even considering.

By the time you have taken in the backstory--the reasons for hiding in the annex, the preparation for it, the functioning of Otto Frank's business while he was hidden away upstairs, the burden on the few trusted individuals who helped the people in hiding--you have moved up several stories. There, you find a detailed scale model of the Secret Annex showing exactly how it looked during the two years it was inhabited. It is complete down to the tiny pillows on the tiny beds and the tiny photographs pasted on Anne's walls.

The model is necessary not just to help the visitor get a sense of the layout of the annex, but because the annex today is completely empty. Except for being briefly refurnished for the purpose of taking photographs that now hang on the walls to help visitors visualize the way the rooms would have looked, all of the rooms have stood empty since the arrest of the people in hiding. So the model shows us how things would have been. How functional--and how crowded.

After you have studied the model, tried to memorize its details so that you can imagine them in their place in the rooms of the real annex, you pass through a short corridor lined with photographs of the eight people in hiding. Plaques give both their real names and the pseudonyms Anne used for them in her writing.

Then, you enter the Secret Annex.

The movable bookcase that once hid the door from prying eyes now stands aside. The door is squat. There is a big step up, and most people of at least average height (not me) will have to duck while making it to avoid the low lintel. Seemingly perilously close is a steep* back staircase leading down to the floors below, once used by the helpers and now covered by thick glass, presumably to keep tourists from falling down it while trying to get past the bookcase and into the annex.

The annex is dark. Imagine two years in which not only can you not venture outdoors, but you cannot look out of your window at the outdoors. The curtains are always drawn. No sunlight.

It is also, as I said, empty. And yet--not empty. There are the few photographs showing the rooms as they looked in 1942-44, and short texts to remind us which room was used for what, but there are also traces of life there. For the most part there is no furniture, but the bathroom sink and the kitchen counter remain. A map still hangs on one wall, still with pins marking the advance of the Allied invasion. On another wall there are pencil marks, still legible, tracking the growth of Anne and her sister. And on the walls of Anne's narrow room, protected under sheets of plexiglass, are, still, all of the postcards and magazine pictures she pasted there to try to cheer up the little space.

These are not just empty rooms. They are a strange sort of hollow shrine.

They are also very, very small.

You think you understand that. You think you realize that with eight people living in five rooms, day in and day out, there must never be any privacy. There must never be anywhere to go. But nothing, not reading the diary, not even studying the model of the annex on the floor below, can actually prepare you for just how small that space is. Every room serves more than one purpose. Every room sleeps at least two people. One person sleeps under the attic stairs. The "big" common room on the upper story looks reasonably sized until you look around and try to envision it as living room, dining room, kitchen, pantry, AND bedroom for two. Imagine eight people there, constantly. The staircase is long and uncomfortably narrow and treacherously steep.** Imagine walking up and down it multiple times each day.

Standing in the center of the room where Anne slept, you can almost touch the walls on either side with your outstretched hands.

Two years. Imagine two years in this place. Two years of fear and hope. And in the end--it's all for nothing.

I defy anyone to stand in those rooms and not want to cry.

That part where you actually cry, though--that comes later.

You leave the Secret Annex by a tunnel that takes you back into the attic of the main part of the building. It is bright and open. The light is a relief--and also jarring. Then you emerge from the passageway and come face to face with the epilogue. A sign explains what you already knew, but had forgotten*** while absorbing the realities of the annex: Eventually, the hiding place was betrayed, and raided, and all eight people were arrested and deported. Here you file past their photographs again, this time interspersed with graphic images from liberated concentration camps. This time their captions tell you where and when each person died. Near the far end of the room, another heartbreaking video clip plays, this one an interview with a childhood friend of Anne's who encountered her again at Bergen-Belsen just days before she died.

The next part of the exhibit details Otto Frank's return to Amsterdam, his decision to publish Anne's diary, and his efforts to open the Secret Annex to the public as a museum. It's pretty amazing how much he was able to pick up and move on with his life after Auschwitz, and even more amazing how willing he was to share his family's story.

And the most heartbreaking of the heartbreaking video clips: Otto Frank talks about his reaction to reading Anne's diary for the first time, and informs us that parents never really know their children.

The last part of the main exhibit is all about Anne's writing. There are original pages on display, including the original first diary, and also a neat display of some of the many, many editions and translations of the diary that have been published over the years.

At the very end, back on the ground floor of the museum, there's a small exhibit dedicated to the life of Anne's mother. I didn't spend a lot of time with it, but I thought that was a good idea. I would imagine there are very few mothers in the world who look good viewed through the lens of their teenage daughters' diaries, so offering a more neutral perspective is a really nice gesture on the part of the museum.

Overall, I think it's a very well-designed museum. I really like that it manages to be both chronological and thematic. It's also very thorough, in a way that manages to be sensitive withut shying away from the gruesome details. It's depressing as all hell, of course, but it's powerful. Nothing really drives home the message of the Holocaust like seeing the remnants of its destructiveness, and the fact that end of the narrative at the Anne Frank House is Otto's post-war activism and Anne's legacy as a writer is really inspiring. Humanity overcomes.

** It's a little like climbing up a steep hill that's also in a tunnel. I have pretty small feet, and I still felt unbalanced because the steps are so narrow and steep. I also, as I've mentioned before, am afraid of heights, complete with vertigo. This is normally an issue for things like cliffs and ladders and bridges. It's not normally a problem on an enclosed staircase. It was on this one.
*** But actually, I kind of did. I don't know if I was just so focused on imagining life in the annex that I stopped thinking about it, or if being in the annex just makes you want so much to believe that it was all for a purpose, that it worked, that you briefly slip into denial. Either way, for some reason I was feeling like leaving the annex was the end, and walking out into the rest of the story was kind of a suckerpunch.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

On Communication

I love it when French guys ask me if I speak French because they're either too drunk or too busy concentrating on their English to notice I've been replying in French for the last half hour.

Language is an interesting thing. Bilingualism and multilingualism are more interesting things.* I've already given a lot of thought to the phenomenon of code switching over the years, because I have several friends back home who also speak some French and with whom I've had many delightful mixed-language conversations. ( It's also true that I get endless entertainment out of insistantly speaking French to people who either don't know any or have just started learning.) Still, there's something really fascinating about conversation among people who aren't speaking their native language.

Even among the language assistants, there are a lot of linguistic adventures. We tend to default to English, at least within the group of people I see most, because the English assistants are the most numerous and it's the second most widely shared language after French. English skills among the non-Anglophone assistants vary from "I'd really be more comfortable speaking French..." to basically bilingual, but hardly anyone speaks no English at all, although there are a few with whom I can't recall ever speaking English, only French. At least one of the assistants doesn't really speak French, which means there have been times there was no ideal common language within a given group. Often at larger gatherings there are multiple conversations taking place in multiple languages--the Anglophones (and the German-but-no-French speaker) speak English to each other, the Hispanophones speak Spanish to each other, and mixed groups speak French to each other, while some people shift from group to group and language to language). Fascinatingly, despite coming from such a variety of linguistic and cultural backgrounds, there is consistently a surprising number of things about French culture over which we can bond as being different from what any of us is used to.

Speaking to French people is also interesting. I work with seven different teachers, all of whom have different habits when it comes to talking to me. There is one who nearly always speaks French to me. There are two or three who nearly always speak English to me, or switch into English after a few sentences even if we start out in French. And the rest speak to me in both languages at different times. There are two (including my responsable) who pretty consistently speak English to me in the classroom and French the rest of the time, but then there are others with whom I'm never entirely sure which language I should be using, especially if I'm initiating the conversation. The worst is when there's a group of people trying to talk to me and some of them are speaking English while others are speaking French. I am at least proficient enough in French that I sometimes don't notice which language I'm using right away--I might answer an English question in French and then turn around and reply to a French statement with English--but if I do notice, or think about it too much, I sometimes get confused by the lack of consistency.

There is also wide variation in how much they assume I understand in French. In particular, one of the teachers who usually speaks English to me is constantly explaining things other people are saying, especially when our students are speaking French amongst themselves, even though sometimes I already understood what was going on without translation. Meanwhile, there's at least one other teacher who usually addresses me in English who nevertheless seems to assume that I follow her long stretches of grammar explication in French and can provide word-for-word translations on various topics at the drop of a hat. (The other day she wanted me to say the word "oil well" and it did not seem to occur to her that the French word she was barking at me was not one I would ever have had occasion to learn.)

Some people try to slow down or enunciate more clearly when speaking to me, and some have even figured out that it's easier for me to understand when I'm spoken to directly as opposed to just trying to follow a conversation among several other people. Others are not so aware of these things, or just don't care.

This is particularly true outside the teacher's lounge. It makes sense that teachers, even teachers of subjects other than foreign languages, would be more patient and accommodating. In the world outside my school, there are fewer accommodations. My bank representative is always very kind and very careful to try to speak so that I can understand her, but with most other people I have business interactions with, I just have to try to keep up. (That's not a complaint, just an observation.) I ran into one bitchy woman at a train station ticket counter once, but other than that most people are willing to politely repeat or explain things if I look confused or tell them I didn't understand. They don't, however, slow down for me. I am particularly terrified of vendors at the markets: When they call out to me as I'm looking at merchandise, or walk over to tell me about something in particular I have my eye on, they're usually speaking very rapidly, not especially clearly, and sometimes with a heavy accent, and I almost never understand a word they say. And since I'm usually caught off guard, more often than not I just smile and nod and run away. (I'm aware that that's not the appropriate way to handle the situation, but it's very disconcerting to have no idea what someone is saying to you in a country where you're supposed to be able to speak the language.) When I bought the gloves I sent my mother for Christmas (and therefore had to interact with the boy selling them), I was really struck by the fact that he absolutely did not change his manner of speaking in the slightest after it became [abundantly] clear that I was not a native speaker of French. Again, not complaining, I just couldn't help but be intrigued, because I definitely alter my pace and sometimes even my vocabulary when I'm speaking English to speakers of other languages, especially if they're having trouble understanding me. Not so the French.

On the other hand, I have also encountered an astonishing amount of English here. Maybe it's just because French students all learn English at school--some of them are bound to retain at least a little into adulthood--but it seems like everywhere I go people are speaking English to me. The bartenders, at one of the Irish pubs in particular, sometimes speak English to us, and I've had many a caught-between-languages conversation with everyone from guys hitting on me at bars to the owner of the laundromat to people at the front desk at little local museums. Some of the assistants get really frustrated with the number of people who immediately start trying to speak to us in English once they realize we're Anglophone, but it doesn't bother me that much most of the time. Sometimes it's clear they're trying to be nice and make things easier, and other times it's pretty clear they just think we're exotic and want to show off and/or practice, and either way I don't really mind. When I made Francophone friends at UCC, I pretty much always spoke to them in English because I knew that was why they were in Ireland, to work on their English, but I won't pretend I haven't spoken French to, say, travelers I met in hostels even in Anglophone places. (There were also a surprising number of French vacationers in Virginia last summer.) It's exciting to have the opportunity, for one thing, and I also understand the impulse to want to make someone who might be out of their element feel like they're not completely isolated. It's not easy to be somewhere where you're surrounded by a language you don't understand, or only partially understand--but more on that when I write about my travels outside of France.

Often when people here insist on speaking English to me and I'd rather be speaking French, I'll let them talk in English and just answer them in French. I've had entire conversations in which both people were speaking the other person's language the whole time, sometimes by agreement and sometimes just because. I think it's a good compromise.
But anyway, it's not just from people I meet that I run into English all the time, but also on signs, in advertising slogans, in product names... it's everywhere. It's a little disconcerting, actually, and it really makes me wonder how it can be that so many students remain disinterested in learning English, or just don't see the value in learning English. It's becoming more and more clear that English's dominance is growing and that what I've been told by people from all corners of the world about how "you need to know English" is probably true, and only getting truer as time goes by. To see and hear so much English in a country that has a reputation for a level of pride in its own language that verges on snobbishness really drives home that belief. And as distasteful as I find the idea, because English-speakers have such a bad reputation as it is for thinking our language is best and most important and we shouldn't be bothered to learn anything else, it seems it's also only becoming more true that a person can get by in most of the world by speaking only English. My travels in other countries where I didn't speak the language at all were a little stressful, and I was constantly embarrassed not to understand the local language, but I got around just fine. No one here seems to hold it against me that I speak English and bad French and almost nothing else, even though many assistants whose native languages are something else speak three or even four languages, including English, all better than I speak just two. And maybe that's just because I have the grace to be ashamed, and to do the best I can with my bad French instead of insisting on English, but I still think it says something about how the relative global importance of languages is shifting. I've heard that in some parts of Scandinavia, it's more and more common for young people to speak only English to one another, so that there are fears that Scandinavian languages will start to die out within a few generations. My neighbor the Spanish assistant (who speaks English to me and usually not French) told me that on his layover in Frankfurt he and the German customs official communicated in English. 

One of the assistants from Austria has a French boyfriend and they speak to each other in English even though each of them knows a little of the other's native language. I had a long conversation with an assistant from Ireland one night about the problems with way the Irish language is taught and how little its students care; Gaelic is a minority language already, and if something doesn't change, I'm afraid its revival will soon be over. My mind was blown when I discovered there are English language assistants from India—I know that shows my ignorance more than anything else, but given the number of languages spoken in India and the fact that assistants have to be considered native speakers of the language they're here to teach, that's at least a little bit amazing to me. English is now taking over even in parts of the world where English speakers have never had political control and in places where local people once pushed back and revitalized their own linguistic cultures.

 It makes me feel like it's not all that arrogant of me to think that what I'm doing here, or at least trying to do here, is important, and it frustrates me that so many of my students—many of them studying things like engineering and product design, fields where their careers will almost certainly have an international aspect—don't seem to believe that English will be incredibly useful to them later. When I wrote in my application essay about my feelings on the importance of foreign language education, I was thinking more in terms of broadening students' horizons and opening up the world to them a little more and the way that understanding someone else's language gives us insights into how they think about things. I'm not sure I really thought at the time that learning English was a matter of day-to-day practicality, but it seems that it is for a lot of people.

I've never really felt lucky about being Anglophone before.** And that's not an insight I was expecting to gain from a year in France, either.

That's part of why I feel like pursuing TESOL certification might actually give me a chance to do something meaningful. Especially if I stay out of the swanky international schools for wealthy expat children and keep doing stuff like this, teaching city kids in tech programs or kids hoping to find a way out of poverty in developing countries for whom English might really open doors, or if I go back to the U.S. and teach ESL to immigrants who really need English to have a future there. Learning French changed my life, for sure, but not the way learning English has the potential to change the lives of speakers of other languages. I'm a little embarrassed to say that, and I don't think I would have a year ago, because it sounds so much like the outdated imperialist mindset I railed against last semester when learning about what French education was like in the colonies. But I'm not talking about using English to wipe out other languages. The idea of that happening even unintentionally is heartbreaking to me. I think we have to find ways to stop that from happening where possible, but the more I see of the world, the more I think it's true that English is becoming the global language. (Irony much?) I think learning it is going to continue to be important for anyone who wants to travel or communicate internationally.

That's not to say I don't still believe that English speakers should also learn other languages. If I ever have children, they will be raised bilingual--even if I still don't speak French well enough to be comfortable having them learn it from me, they will be getting some other language from somewhere. 

And on that note, I need to go out now and fumble through some more broken French.

EDIT: This video, blatantly stereotyping though it may be, is also hilariously accurate.

* Disclaimer: I do not claim, and probably will never claim, to be fluent in French. Not even close. I still routinely answer "a little" or "badly" when asked if I speak French, and I don't think it's untrue. According to the guidelines for language levels in the first lesson of my TESOL course, I would judge my own spoken French to be no better than intermediate, which at this stage--after nine years of classes and three and a half months in France--is just depressing. I am one hundred percent serious when I say that some of my students speak English better than I speak French, as do some of the Spanish assistants, for whom English is one of three or four languages bumping around in their brains. My reading and writing skills probably qualify as advanced, but that's little consolation in terms of day-to-day communication.
** And really, I still don't when I look at how much better foreign language education is in countries that speak certain other languages.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Holiday Travels, Part 2: Amsterdam, or, I Might Need To Learn Dutch

The good news is I've figured out how to post updates via email, thus circumventing the blocked blog issue at last. The bad news is it appears that the formatting gets a little wonky, and also, I still won't be able to post pictures this way. Nothing is ideal. Of course, since it appears that I mostly only get traffic through Facebook, chances are no one will see my emailed posts until I can log on to Blogger anyway and post links to Facebook, but oh well.

I love the light in Bretagne. I don't know how to explain it, and I don't have the photography skills to capture it, but there's something about it that's different from everywhere else. It's magical. A sunny day is bright, bright like you wouldn't believe, and on overcast days, the colors of the clouds and the way the sun looks when it breaks through the clouds, is amazing. I love the way the sun shines on the ocean through a gap in the clouds, and I love the way daylight sneaks up on you on grey mornings, and I love rich, velvety grey of the rainclouds. I love the intense contrast between patches of dark clouds and bright clear sky beneath them, especially late in the day when the sky and the fluffier clouds are all pink and orange and the darker clouds are blue and purple and grey. The thing I love most, and the thing I most wish I could describe effectively, is the way sometimes I look out the window--usually in the evening, shortly before sunset--to find that everything just... glows. There's no other word for it. Even if the sky is still full of clouds and they're still that wonderful deep grey color, there's light coming from somewhere, and it's not just illuminating things, it's bringing them to life, and they just glow like there's a light inside them somewhere shining out. It's glorious. It makes me long to be a painter.

Anyway. Speaking of things I love. Amsterdam.

I love Amsterdam. From the very first day we were there, I loved Amsterdam so completely I was already talking about moving there.

I love the canals. I love the flowers and the churchbells. I love the fleets of bikes (and I don't even ride bikes myself), little jangly bells and all.* I love the trams. I love the neat rows of tall, skinny brick buildings, many of them leaning, almost all of them with pulleys on top for moving furniture into the upper stories. I love the narrow, dark alleyways and the wide, open bridges. I love the cobblestones and street performers in Dam Square, and I love the quiet green of Vondelpark, surrounded by Victorian mansions. I love the houseboats docked in neat lines along the canals and the swans peering through their windows. I love the simple comfort food in American-sized portions. Yes, I love the coffee shops, in all their tacky, semi-legal glory--and I love the attitude they represent, not to mention the incredibly low rates of hard drug use. Amsterdam is now an incredibly safe city, and an incredibly clean one--by which I mean not just that drug use is down, but that the streets are immaculate. I love the spirit of tolerance that once let "secret" Catholic churches flourish when they were technically illegal and now lets tourists smoke up and LGBT people live openly and without fear or discrimination.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: For someone who writes compulsively, I am terrible at expressing myself. When my father asked me what it was about Amsterdam that so attracted me, all I had were platitudes and generalizations (it's beautiful; it's tolerant and laidback but still organized; it has a fun, friendly atmosphere) that didn't really explain why Amsterdam, specifically, was so captivating. Likewise, I was and am certain that there was something about the contrast I perceived between France and the Netherlands that contributed to my feelings, but I have yet to put my finger on exactly what that something is.

That's not to say that I don't love France. I'm very happy with my life here, and I'm sure there are things I will miss once I'm somewhere else. But I don't want to stay. I'm more sure of that than I have been of any life decision in a long time.** I don't regret this year for a second, and I would not even mind living here again for another short stint or two, but I think in my quest for a home (an at least semi-permanent home, that is), I can now cross mainland France off the list of possibilities.

And I don't really have a concrete explanation for that, either.
We're just not right for each other, France and me. Not for a long-term relationship.

But I'm getting of track again. Back to my adoration of Amsterdam: I do think it mattered that I was so happy to be there with Sam and Jimena, both of whom are wonderful and both of whom turned out to be really good traveling companions for me--which is awesome and not easy, since I'm so often a solo traveler and so happy being free from having to plan what I want around what other people want. I have a hard time being around people all the time, even people I really like, under any circumstances, so it really says a lot that I can't think of a single moment on the trip that I wanted to get away from them. We did split up a few times to do our own things, but never because we were sick of each other, and never with any bitterness on anyone's part that I was aware of.

We were also staying in an awesome hostel, one of the best I've seen. We had a private room with two sets of bunk beds and our own bathroom. There was a huge common room with WiFi and vending machines. The front desk staff was super nice and always helpful; they could and did answer every question we had and they sold everything from stamps and lighters to transportation passes and discounted museum tickets. The bar was cozy and fun, and super cheap, and never empty of other guests, and the bartenders were all nice and had our order down by the second night. Seven euros per night, prepaid when we paid for our room, got us a yummy dinner that was more than we could eat, and the best breakfast buffet of all time was included in our stay and didn't even have weirdly early hours like some hostel breakfasts. In short, I would highly recommend Stayokay Vondelpark to anybody looking for a cheap, clean, fun place to stay in Amsterdam (and no, I am not getting paid to plug it, I was just that happy).

Our first day there, we met up with a friend of Jimena's who lives in Utrecht and came in to see her and show us around the city a little. He marched us through the Red Light District and to a hotel near the train station that has one of those glassed-in bars with a view on the top floor, where we could look out over the whole beautiful city.

After that, we caught a ferry across the harbor to an area full of abandoned warehouses and rundown shipyards. It's apparently undergoing a sort of revitalization movement trying to create concert spaces and things like that, and there is interesting graffiti and odd sculptures everywhere. There's also a charming cafe next to the water that's either in an old greenhouse or just in a building designed to mimic a greenhouse, I couldn't decide. Either way, it was delightful. We went in to warm up and had grilled cheese sandwiches and coffee before heading back to the ferry. It was the sort of adventure we would never have had without a guide who knew where to take us--it would never have occurred to us to go exploring over there, and it was totally worth it.

Back on the downtown side of the water, we just wandered around for a long time, criss-crossing canals, looking at churches, browsing a market, eating French fries. Jimena's friend showed us one of the secret Catholic churches (now unexpectedly located, but no longer hidden), which looks out of place sandwiched between department stores on a pedestrian shopping street and is probably the narrowest church I've ever seen. It also had a metal parrot hanging inside, which the priest explained once hung outside and marked the location as a church.

Late in the afternoon, we went to a brandywine bar that makes its own and has been in operation since the seventeenth century. That alone was cool enough for me, but it turns out brandywine is also DELICIOUS. They had a long list of flavors (I tried apple and cherry; other choices included blackberry, passionfruit, lemon, cranberry, and blueberry, among assorted others I've forgotten), and it's served in tiny little stemmed glasses with flared rims. The glasses are waiting in a bucket of water, and the bartender takes one out and sets it down on the bar and fills it all the way up to the very top, just before spilling over. You have to bend over and take the first sip without picking up the glass. It's kind of syrupy, but not too sweet (in fact, the cranberry, which Sam had and I tasted, was ridiculously sour), and you can barely taste any alcohol even though it's stronger than most regular wine. We all had two glasses, and Jimena and Sam and I attempted to order our seconds ourselves in mangled Dutch, much to the entertainment of Jimena's friend (who then proceeded to order his in English just to be smart) and the bartender (who, like every other Dutch person we met, also spoke perfect English).

It was a great day, and I'm very grateful to this guy (whose name I can't spell, unfortunately) for putting up with an afternoon of making decisions and translating for a bunch of much younger foreigners. He was really cool, and really nice, and I'm really glad Jimena shared him with Sam and me, and we decided to tag along with them in the first place.

The next morning Jimena and I went for a walk in Vondelpark, right next to our hostel. It was cloudy, but not raining, which I always imagine makes everything look even greener than it is. Vondelpark is not obsessively landscaped like most French parks are; it's a little more natural, and I saw so many different kinds of birds (including one of my beloved grey herons) in under an hour that it was a little ridiculous. After that the three of us headed downtown to take a walking tour of the city.

The first stop was, again, the Red Light District.

The Red Light District makes me uncomfortable.
Not because I have some kind of great moral objection; I'm in the live-and-let-live camp on this one, and I think prostitution happens everywhere no matter what and everyone involved is a lot better off if it's legal and regulated than if it's underground and full of disease and violence and coercion. I also don't normally think of myself as a prude, but still, there's something about rows of windows full of lingerie-clad women posing suggestively that I find somewhat disconcerting. The closest I can come to explaining it is that normally in Western cultures the polite thing to do upon seeing a mostly-naked woman is to avert one's eyes (which is even more the case if one is sexually interested in women), whereas in Amsterdam's Red Light District, not only is permission to look the whole point, but there is nowhere else to look. Very narrow streets. Windows on both sides. Boobs unavoidable.

At any rate, the rest of the tour was very enjoyable, albeit long and cold, and I learned a lot of fun facts about Amsterdam. For example, a popular pastime among the young and drunk is to seek out unlocked bikes and throw them into the canals; the canals are periodically dredged for these bikes, which are then refurbished and sold to be used again (at least until they find their way back into the canals). Also, the old church in the heart of the Red Light District was known in the Middle Ages for giving out preemptive indulgences, specifically to sailors who weren't going to have time to come to confession after the fact and instead stopped by the church on their way to the brothels.

Our guide was a young British guy who was very engaging and told a lot of corny jokes. As long as I already plugged the hostel above, I might as well add that I would highly recommend New Europe Tours to anyone traveling in major European cities. I've now been on three of them and can say that they're always very high-quality, with very friendly and knowledgeable guides. And the best part is they're FREE aside from tipping the guide at the end.

Anyway, after we'd seen the sights and heard the history and stories (including an interesting mini-lecture that clarified exactly how the cannabis regulations work), we ended the tour next to the Westerkerk***, the church near the Anne Frank House, and Sam and Jimena and I parted ways for a few hours. I wanted to go to the Anne Frank House, while they preferred not to intentionally do depressing things while on vacation (a standpoint I totally understand), so they struck out in another direction and left me in line near the Prinsengracht to undergo the painful experience that will be the subject of my next holiday trip post.

* Bikes everywhere, by the way. I've never seen so many bikes. You wouldn't believe it if I tried to really express how many bikes there are. When some of my students returned from a trip to Amsterdam several weeks before I went, they told me it was "like an invasion of bicycles", which is pretty accurate.
And if I hadn't been before, I think I would have been once Brest welcomed me back on New Year's Eve with a series of closed bars and with having a lit firecracker thrown from a car at us--yes, actually at us--at the bus stop.
*** In looking up the name just now, I discovered that Rembrandt is buried there, which I think our tour guide failed to mention, since that would probably have prompted me to go inside.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Holiday Travels, Part 1: The Road (or Track) To Amsterdam

I am, as of now, more or less giving up on preserving the anonymity of the people around me. I've realized it's going to be next to impossible not to talk about them, and much too complicated to try to explain who everyone is all the time, so I'm going to start using names again. Only first names, and without too much other information, but if anybody doesn't want me identifying them, please let me know and I either won't include you or I'll find you a pseudonym.

I'm still not going to reveal the names of the school where I work or any of the people (students or teachers) there.

Anyway, my holiday, to be British about it, began with an absurdly convoluted train trip to Paris. (Yes, there are trains directly from Brest to Paris, as well as trains directly from Brest to Rennes and from Rennes to Paris. But you remember what I said about Eurail passes and making reservations at the last minute?) My friend Sam, a fellow American English assistant, and I traveled together to Rennes, where we were joined by Jimena, the Mexican Spanish assistant, who had already been in Rennes for her medical visit, and the three of us took a second train to Le Mans (I don't know where that is, so don't ask), where we got on a regional train that took a ridiculously long time to finally deliver us to Montparnasse Station in Paris. Along the way, we at least got a glimpse of the magnificent cathedral in Chartres—the first thing (other than Charles de Gaulle airport) I'd seen this year that I also saw on my first trip to France five and a half years ago.

In Paris, we were staying with a French friend of Sam's in a splendid apartment near the canal in the northeastern part of the city. I don't even want to think about what such an apartment (three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, and a kitchen, all of them very nice and quite spacious by French standards, let alone Parisian ones...) costs in Paris, especially considering I do know exactly how much the host of the party we went to that night pays for his cramped studio apartment and it's three or four times the going rate in Brest.

The party was just on the other side of the canal, conveniently enough, where Olivia (also an American assistant in Brest) was staying with a friend of hers who is also American and working in Paris as a paralegal. It was Olivia's birthday, and it just happened to work out that all of us and a couple of other Brest assistants were all stopping in Paris en route to our respective holiday destinations, plus several people had other friends who live in Paris or who were in Paris on holiday travels, so thanks to coincidence and to the generosity of her friend (and perhaps his lack of roommates), we had a lovely expat party with a really interesting mix of people. Language assistants from Brest and Paris, English and American interns in Paris, friends and friends-of-friends on vacation. I met several really cool people that night and had a lot of fun.

The next day, we had a mission: To begin with, we cured our hangovers with an early lunch at the Marché des Enfants Rouges (which sounds racist, but I still haven't managed to find out exactly where the name comes from), where Sam knew where to get delicious and very affordable (not just by Parisian standards, but objectively) Moroccan food. Then we headed off to find a series of bookstores recommended to us by another friend. We only actually made it to one before Sam had to take off again to return the key to his friend's apartment, so Jimena and I wandered along the banks of the Seine near Notre Dame and I took her to Shakespeare & Company, the famous old Anglophone bookstore in the heart of the city, right next to the river. Shakespeare & Co. makes me claustrophobic, and I don't really feel the need for English books as long as I'm only here temporarily, but I think Jimena would have happily stayed there all day.

Afterwards, my friend Thalia, the one I know from Oberlin who's now a language assistant outside Paris, met us at a nearby café and we all walked together to the Champs-Elysées and its massive Christmas market, where I had mulled white wine (a new one for me) and where we tried and failed to meet up with Sam again. After much confusion and crowds, we ended up joining him at a metro stop to get the heck away from the Champs-Elysées after all. Instead, we went to Montmartre, where Sacré-Coeur was illuminated beautifully against the night sky and a charming and much less crowded Christmas market was spread out around it. I had not been to Montmartre before, having spent only about a day and a half in Paris on that high school trip, and I was blown away by the charm and the view of the City of Lights below.

The next morning we were up and out in the dark to catch the first of four, count 'em, four trains on our way to Amsterdam. (Again, with the Eurail passes and the not having reservations and all that... This was the most efficient way to get from Paris to Amsterdam on regional trains that don't require reservations.)

Our first stop was in Amiens, an hour or so away from Paris. The cathedral in Amiens is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and also served as proof that I have not yet become completely jaded by all this traveling. An exquisite French Gothic cathedral can still take my breath away. And exquisite this one was. I think it almost rivals Notre Dame de Paris (which, by the way, is probably my favorite Paris landmark).

I had somewhat forgotten just how beautiful and elaborate French cathedrals are.

After a sandwich and a rush to catch our next train, we had a two hour ride to our second stop in Lille. We didn't really know much about Lille, and didn't have very much time, anyway, so we wandered down the street from the train station to see what we could find. This included a square where there was a Christmas market and some very interesting decorations, and also the old “stock exchange” (also a marketplace and a place for assorted other businesses, as far as I can tell), which is elaborately decorated and was randomly full of sellers of used books and comics. I don't know if that's a regular thing or not.

I was expectingly Lille to be sort of drab and shabby, kind of like Brest, but the bit of it we saw wasn't like that at all. It seemed vibrant, kind of old and modern at the same time, and it had interesting architecture.

After that we crossed into Belgium. Based on what I saw from the train windows, Belgium is very flat, very green, very cold, and very fond of ducks and sheep.

Our last layover was in Antwerp. By then it was getting dark, but I was determined to see the tomb of Peter Paul Rubens, which Sam had learned was in a church not far from the train station (whereas the cathedral was pretty much on the other side of the city), so we grabbed a map from the tourism desk and headed out. Sadly, it turned out the church was closed. We looked up at the big wooden doors, and I pouted, and Sam got out the map again and showed me that Rubens's house was practically around the corner, so off we went again.

We couldn't find it. We got confused took a wrong turn that led us to an H&M, where Jimena wanted to buy some gloves. Sam waited with her while I backtracked in search of the Rubens house, which was indeed very close and actually very easy to find.

Then we went back to the station to await our final train to Amsterdam. Our platform wasn't listed yet, so we parked ourselves on the floor in front of the departures board and waited. And waited. And waited.

And eventually, I started to get concerned about the fact that our train was the only one listed that hadn't been assigned a platform and also the only one with a note underneath it that said “trein afgenschaft”. That didn't seem good. Sam went off to ask someone, and it turned out our fear was correct: “afgenschaft” does indeed mean “canceled”. Fortunately, that train runs every hour, so all we had to do was hang around and get the next one. That also gave us time to head back out again and find a fast food place down the street (and that was a somewhat awkward adventure given that none of us speaks Dutch).

Antwerp has a fantastic train station, by the way. It's very old and beautiful (and huge), and also just super cool. I really get a kick out of multilevel train stations.

Naturally, the train was exceptionally crowded, presumably because it had to contain all of the people who were planning to take it plus all of the people like us who had originally planned to take the previous one. We couldn't sit together, and I think every seat in our car was taken. It also seemed more cramped in general than the rest of the trains we'd been on that day. BUT it got us there, and after some confusion about where to get the tram outside the Amsterdam station, and how to get the tram, and how to pay for the tram, we found our way to our hostel, checked in, and were even refunded for that night's dinner, which we'd paid for in advance and then missed because we were an hour later than we'd planned.

And then we had a cheap and much-needed drink in the hostel's bar, and so our adventure in the far North finally really began.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Next? Existential Crises, Part 1

[Not a lot of "travel" in this post, but feel free to read on for the
latest personal crap.]

"All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."
– J.R.R. Tolkien

But that's SO HARD.

With January came the inevitable realization that my time in France is
almost half over already, and with it the inevitable mounting pressure
to figure out what happens after that. I have absolutely no idea. I
was supposed to be using my time here to figure it out, which hasn't
really happened for a number of reasons—not least of which is that the
fact that I didn't immediately hate my job made me revisit the idea of
trying serious teaching for a while.

Yesterday, I paid the bill for an online course that's going to result
in my having TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages)

I'd been thinking about this for a while, A) because I need to be
using my time more wisely and this is something productive I can be
doing, and B) because it seems like a way to give my employability a
boost, even if it's not exactly job insurance. I talked to my mom
about it before Christmas (a conversation that was more or less a long
series of variations on me saying "But I don't know if this is really
what I want to do, and I might end up never using it," and her saying,
"But you have the time now, and then you'll HAVE it if you need it."),
and mentioned the idea to some friends, but it still took me a while
to commit.

Some people have trouble committing to relationships. I have trouble
committing to life decisions, even relatively small and flexible ones.
I put off declaring a major until I absolutely had to, even though I
knew what I was going to do for months. I put off applying to TAPIF
until the very last minute, and still wasn't sure I wanted to do it if
I got accepted.

It's not so much the decision to take the course that I was balking
at, it's what taking the course represents to me. I had to admit that
I wanted to do it because I want to use that certification. Not just
because it was something to do, and not even just because it seemed
like a good idea. Because I want it.

I won't get into the details about my mixed feelings about teaching,
because I'm pretty sure I already wrote about that before I came to
France. The update is that I still feel awkward and uncertain, and I
definitely have days where I dread going to class and/or hate the way
a lesson goes (not to mention days where I just want certain students
to just disappear), but there are times where I really enjoy planning
my lessons and have a lot of fun in the classroom. And now I'm
thinking, maybe this isn't so bad, and maybe I'm not so terrible at
it, and maybe I could do this again/more/for real/somewhere else.
(Interestingly, this seems to be the opposite reaction to the one many
of my friends here have had.) So I've begun thinking about finding an
English teaching job somewhere else for a year or two, in addition to
my plan to re-apply to this program next year and hopefully get an
assistant placement in one of France's overseas departments, ideally
French Guiana (I miss the jungle; have I mentioned that enough
times?). Even more serious, [read: frightening] I've begun seriously
revisiting the idea of applying to the Teach For America program, an
idea I had toyed with several years ago and subsequently abandoned
because I'd become so sure I didn't want to be a teacher. I've
mentioned to my parents that I'm reconsidering it, and I even went so
far as to discuss it with Sam, which I know means it's a big deal,
because I'm a private-bordering-on-secretive person and I normally
wouldn't bring something like that up with a friend unless I was
pretty sure about it.

The problem? Actually, there are two of them, but I'll deal with the
other in a later post. The problem I'm concerned with here is that
it's a diversion, and a pretty major one. Pursuing this certificate,
pursuing teaching at all, represents turning away from where I was
supposed to be going. If we can assume/pretend that I was even loosely
following some vague impression of a path before now, this is
definitely a step in a totally different direction. I'm going to be an
archaeologist, I keep telling people. I'm going to grad school for
archaeology. But that was originally supposed to happen two or three
years after college. It's already been pushed back to at least three,
because I have to wait at least a year before I can do what I'm going
now again (unless I want to renew my contract and stay in this region,
which I don't—no offense, Bretagne). Teach For America is a two-year
commitment; that's at least four years. If I start looking for other
jobs in other places—if I try to find somewhere to put this TESOL
certificate to use—how many years will that be? Then there are so many
other things I was wanting to try before applying to go back to
school. What if I just keep pushing back grad school and don't go
until I'm thirty?

What if I don't go at all?

And yet, if I'm honest with myself, and with everyone around me, I
have to admit that I really meant it when I said this year was a
litmus test of sorts, to see if I enjoy teaching and if I'm cut out
for it. I'm still not sure about the latter, but I now know the former
is at least sometimes true.

And if I'm even more honest with myself, I have to admit that there's
a part of me that feels a little guilty for pursuing archaeology
instead of doing something that makes a difference. Not that I don't
think archaeology makes a difference, not that I don't think
archaeology is important—obviously I do. Honestly, what I'd really
love to teach is social studies or history and get kids thinking about
the past. I'm just not convinced that archaeology is the same kind of
meaningful that teaching, or at least good teaching, is. I guess
someone has to do the research before anyone can teach it, but...

Clearly I can't express what I'm trying to there, so let's move on.
Last spring I counseled some friends a year younger than me against
going to graduate school immediately after college if they were unsure
about what they wanted. I told them about how I went straight to
college from high school even though I wasn't sure about it, and what
a disaster that turned out to be (aside from the fact that it led me
to some of my best friends), and I told them why I wasn't going
straight to grad school. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do yet, I
said, and I needed some time to figure it out. Just as importantly, I
had a lot of other things I wanted to do that had nothing to do with
school or my intended career path, and I was afraid if I didn't do
them before grad school, I'd get bogged down and never do them at all.

One of the examples I cited was this year teaching in France. Because
I was totally planning to do this and then be done and go right back
to archaeology, or at least on to the next irrelevant thing to check
off the list.

What happens when the things that aren't relevant become a new set of plans?

Before Christmas, I wrote about detours. This is either a very long
detour or it's a fork in the road. I'm afraid I might have to walk
pretty far before I find out which one. I know which one I want it to
be, but that might not mean much in the end. Because things are always
changing, and I just keep moving forward. Hell, I thought I was going
to be an English major. I thought I was going to marry my last
boyfriend and settle down young, like my mother. I thought I was going
to spend this year being lonely and speaking mostly French. Who ever
knows where anything is going.

So I'm taking this course...

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Post-Holiday Post

Bonne année! [Happy New Year!]

Clearly, I failed at blogging while in transit. I also failed at many other things I intended to do, and have continued failing at them since I got back (though I did manage to find some video-hosting websites that aren't blocked on the school server and have thus spent several hours catching up on How I Met Your Mother and watching the newest installment of Sherlock...). It's amazing how many things I can find to do when I don't really have anything to do. If that makes sense. I have unrealistic expectations for life, and my free time fills up astonishingly quickly even when it looks like there's more of it than I know what to do with. (Also, I sometimes don't use it particularly wisely--see previous parenthetical.)

Anyway, I remain behind on emails, postcards, and other forms of correspondence as well as blogging. I have managed to post some pictures to my Facebook and will hopefully begin adding some to the blog soon-ish, though I'm not making any promises, especially given how inconvenient doing anything with the blog is here. I'm also halfway through knitting another new hat--not that I need it right now. Since returning to Brest, after nearly freezing to death in Prague and having my first encounter of the winter with ice outside of Paris, I've gone back to wearing my fall jacket and put away the hats and gloves. I grew up in PA and spent my college winters in northern Ohio, so it's very very strange to me to experience such a warm winter. This is what my family in North Carolina calls cold, not what's actually cold! Even if this week has been unseasonably warm for Brest, as I suspect is the case, the average here is still a far cry from what I'm used to.

Still, I am much farther north in the world than you might think I am. The winter sun doesn't rise as late or set as early as it does in, say, Scandinavia, or even in Ireland for that matter, but there's still an awful lot of darkness here. I can't count on much more than eight hours of daylight (beginning long after I get up on some days), and in some places on my travels it was even less than that.

Speaking of travels, I WILL write about them, though it might take a while, and I might decide to intersperse posts about my adventures à l'étranger with more posts about life in Brest--because there IS plenty to say there and I don't want to give the impression there isn't! We'll see.

For the moment, the bottom line: Two days in Paris included a fantastic house party with fellow expats and my first trip to Montmartre. The long day's journey to Amsterdam was sometimes stressful, but overall incredibly fun and definitely worth it, since we stopped in places I might never have seen otherwise. Amsterdam was phenomenal. I fell completely head over heels for the city, and it didn't hurt that my traveling companions are wonderful people and friends. I cannot gush enough about what a great time we had. (Or I had, at least.) My journey to Prague did not set a good tone for the rest of the trip, especially given my reluctance to leave Amsterdam and separate from my friends. I don't think I'd be far off in saying it was one of the most miserable travel experiences of my life. BUT I got there, and being in Prague made me happy again. It's a lovely, lively city, and the two other assistants I met up with there are both very nice and great fun to be around. My three days in Prague were not long enough, so I guess I'll just have to go back again someday. My return to France was far more pleasant than going to Prague had been, and once back in the Paris area I spent three days hanging out with one of my best friends from college, who was kind enough to put me up and who tagged along while I did touristy things in the city. I came away liking Paris more than I thought I did, though I still resent the crowds and how ridiculously expensive everything is.

On New Year's Eve I came back to Brest. My Amsterdam buddies were already back, and Jimena (who is Mexican but spent several years living in England as a teenager) had a British friend visiting her. I had dinner with the two of them and we went to one of our usual bars--after having tried to go someplace less usual and discovered, to our surprise, that an absurd number of the bars in Brest were actually closed! On New Year's Eve! Ridicule. Apparently, house parties are more the norm here, and people go out well after midnight if they go out at all. Still, we had a nice, albeit fairly quiet, evening in our corner of the pub, along with another assistant who happened to be there along with two of her friends who were visiting from Quimper. We encountered a number of drunk men, both inside and outside the bar, but none of them really posed a problem. There was one who called us something rather unflattering after we ignored him shouting at us from across the street, but these things happen. I will say, though, that that night was probably the only time since I got settled in Brest that I was actually a little afraid walking home, even though nothing happened. I have no doubt that I'm probably safer here than in parts of my hometown, but something about the sheer number and exuberance of drunks wandering around, coupled with the fact that French men are somewhat notorious (at least among Anglophone women) for being aggressively forward made me more unsettled than I'm accustomed to being, especially in a familiar place. I want to say again, though, that there weren't actually any problems either while I was with the other girls or on my way home that night.

We (the same three plus Sam, a fellow American assistant and my other travel companion for the first part of the break) had a lazy New Year's Day, at Jimena's house, snuggled up on the couch watching movies and eating junk food. I had spent the morning unpacking and adding some of the art postcards I bought on my trip to the decorations in my room, so I was able to feel productive and still have some fun downtime.

So, nothing particularly French about my celebrations (other than the price of the wine I drank!), but it was a pleasant end to the holidays nonetheless.

I'm back at work now, with some new classes and some of the same. More on teaching and more trip details to come!