I'm finishing up the second-to-last week before yet another two weeks of vacances scolaires. I can't decide how I feel about a school system that takes this many breaks. While it's great for me, it kind of seems like it must create a rather disjointed learning experience for the students. I guess maybe it evens out because of the shorter summer break where they presumably forget less than American students do during our long summers. And I guess they do have longer school days and more work, so maybe they need more frequent breaks. It's hard to judge from where I'm standing, I suppose. I'm not ready for another break yet, personally--I haven't really made any plans or researched the plans I was hoping to make. It's been a busy five weeks since the New Year--my TESOL course, lots of lesson planning, catching up with friends, trying to catch up on blogging, trying without success to figure out my life after France--and I'm not sure how much time went by so quickly, but I am entirely sure I did not get done everything I was intending to get done by now.
This afternoon, I wished my tutee luck on his big English exam this weekend. It was actually our first meeting in several weeks, after he had initially told me he wanted to practice every week in January. I hope we didn't because he's been busy and not because he couldn't pay me--that thought didn't occur to me until today, and then it made me feel bad. I think he'll be okay, though. He still makes a lot of mistakes, but he really is very good at making himself understood. I spent most of our hour today saying, "Yeah, that was good," and reminding him not to stress out. Talking to him has been less immediately rewarding than some of my official classes, but only because there's less progress to be made. On the other hand, it's kind of a relief, for the same reason and also because he has so much motivation where so many of my high school students have none.
Meanwhile, winter seems to have finally struck. It's cold here again, after weeks of 50F days. It's still well above freezing in the daytime, but I'm at least back to bundling up in hats and gloves when I go out. It even snowed a little last night (!), though not enough to cover the ground and most of what there was had melted by the time I left my classroom at 11 am. I am certainly not complaining about a relatively warm and snow-free winter, but I am holding out hope of getting at least one good snowfall, mostly so that the assistants from warm climates who've hardly ever seen snow before can experience a proper snowball fight at least once in their lives.
Speaking of assistants, I don't think I've actually written much about the social aspect of life here, other than the interesting language mélange. There are several dozen language assistants in Brest, plus a few foreign lecteurs/lectrices (lecturers) at the university. (We also occasionally meet students who are studying abroad at the university, either through the lecteurs or because they hear us speaking English when we go out and introduce themselves.) This isn't uncommon for a city the size of Brest, and bigger cities might have even more language assistants, or assistants from an even greater variety of places. (We don't have any Arabic assistants, for example, and if there's a Russian assistant I haven't met him or her. We also don't have any English assistants from Australia or New Zealand or Canada, which I think is kind of strange.) However, based on what I have heard from the Internet, from friends in other places, and from friends here who also have friends in other places, I think it is uncommon for all of the assistants to get along as well as we do. It seems that in a lot of cities, the assistants are very clique-y. People find a few others they get along with and don't really interact much with the rest. They tend to divide along language lines, and to bunch up in twos and threes and fours and never really hang out with other assistants in the area.
In Brest this year, it's not like that at all. After a few big meet-and-greet parties at the beginning of the year, pretty much everyone knows everyone else, and that includes some assistants who live in the suburbs of Brest, or even farther away, and only come into the city now and then. We all get along, for the most part. Things have gotten cliquier over the course of the year, but not in an unfriendly way, just in a consolidating kind of way. You can't ALWAYS hang out in groups of twenty or thirty, after all. Even so, the people I consider to be "my group of friends" still numbers about ten or twelve regulars, and it's still very fluid. We are always inviting or running into other people.
I've already explained to several people that being an assistant, and in particular, being an assistant in Brest right now where everyone is friends with everyone else, is kind of like being in college all over again. There's a concentration of young people who all work during the day and have very little to do at night. We have a lot of disposable income, and alcohol is cheap. The difference between this and college is that we have even fewer immediate responsibilities than we did in school. All assistants talk about the amount of free time available to us, and it's true. We work so little it's ridiculous. So, yes, we party a lot here in Brest. We drink a lot; we go out a lot; there's often nothing to prevent us from doing it during the week as well as on weekends, because we no longer have "homework" other than maybe a few hours of lesson planning each week, and many of us have at least some days where we don't have to be at work until late morning or even afternoon.
But we do other, more wholesome things, too. We have regular soccer matches and multilingual poker nights. We go to the cinema--in French and in English--and on "field trips" to the music library and to the Sunday market. Sometimes we eat dinner together on bluesy Sundays, and sometimes we go out for crepes or eat brunch together after a night out. We celebrate birthdays, and we did Secret Santas before Christmas. We have a plethora of inside jokes. We sleep on each other's couches and floors, and we share everything from snack food to DVDs to lesson plans. We look out for each other. We travel together: There have already been group trips to St. Malo and Rennes, and during the vacation this month we are all going to Barcelona. We may even travel together in May after our work here is over (though I may have to miss some or all of that because of my trip to Senegal). All in all, it's rare for anyone--even a hermit like me--to go more than a couple of days without seeing the others. If someone is missing from a big event, the others bombard him or her with text messages to find out what's going on. We joke that it's creepy and cult-like, that we're all codependent, that friends who come to visit from elsewhere must think we're all crazy, but the fact is that even in a place like Brest, we aren't like this just because we're needy or desperate for companionship. It's because we truly like spending time together and we all feel comfortable with each other, and given that none of us CHOSE to be in Brest, how amazing is it that all just happened to end up here together? We might be friends now because we're all in Brest, but we all think we'd still have been friends if we'd met somewhere else.
This is why I say I've been so lucky to be placed in Brest, even if it is kind of a rough, boring place to live from which it's near-impossible to get anywhere else. I'm not outgoing enough to go anywhere with high hopes for socialization, and after my exceptionally lonely semester in Ireland, I was expecting to spend a lot of this year doing my own thing. Instead, I haven't gotten a lot of what I planned on doing done, but I have made more wonderful friends than I would have imagined in my wildest dreams. They come from all over the world and I hope we will always be able to visit each other and to meet up in our travels.
All right, I'm done being sappy [for now].
One other thing about living in Brest, before I move on to something more focused: Brest has not just one public library, or a public library with two or three branches like my hometown. No. It has a whole network of public libraries scattered throughout the city. They all have a little of everything, I think, but some of them specialize in a few things. Like, there's one library that has an especially good travel section, and another that's good for mystery novels, and another that has lots of foreign-language material, and another that keeps most of the regional special interest stuff like local history and books in Breton. I've been borrowing a lot of DVDs, trying to A) improve my language skills, and B) find something redeeming about French film*, and I'm sort of trying to get into bandes dessinées, although I'm not really sure where to start. There's also a "study library" that specializes in nonfiction and reference and documentary films and has WiFi and lots of space for people to work. And there's the "discothèque"**: the music library. Basically, it's a great big room full of CDs, and you can check out as many as you want at a time, up to whatever the limit is on the total number of things you're allowed to have checked out at once. (There's a three DVD limit.) It's awesome. AND, there's also a section of sheet music and scores, and an electronic keyboard with headphones that anyone can come in and play, first come first served. I haven't really taken much advantage of that last part yet, because the discothèque is kind of far from where I live and I often just have time to go exchange my CDs for new ones, but it's totally cool nonetheless.
Sadly, that's one of the most exciting things I can say about Brest. My tutee and I had a good laugh this afternoon about one of the questions he might be asked in his speaking exam: "Tell us about the most important building in your town." First of all, he lives in the suburbs, so we were like, "Hmm... Ikea?" I suggested he just pick something in Brest instead... and then we realized we still couldn't think of anything. We eventually decided he should talk about the castle.
* I'm sort of kidding. Actually, no, I'm not, I'm just being a little hyperbolic. I've found a handful of French movies I like, including some I'd seen before I came, but I think they're still in the minority of the total number of French films I've seen.
** language joke... but actually, that's what it's called