Wednesday, March 21, 2012

My Glamorous Job As A Language Assistant

This seems like something I should maybe have written more about before now, especially since I know for a fact there are at least a couple of TAPIF applicants out there who have looked at this blog.

First things first. I and everyone else have already said it many times, but it bears remembering: There is no such thing as consistency in France. And so, as with anything else, my experience as a language assistant is totally unique. The job, not to mention the overall experience, varies widely depending on where you are, what type of school you're in, what specific school you're in, what age group you work with, what teachers you work with, whether the administration likes you, what language you teach, what course of study your students are in, what time of year it is... do I need to go on?

In other words, it's a crapshoot based entirely on circumstances. In some ways, I have been very lucky. In others, not so much.

One way I am lucky is that I only have to deal with one school. It's very common for assistants of all languages to have their hours split between two or even three schools. (One of my friends here even has FOUR different schools, even though that's supposed to be illegal.) It all depends on where the académie (regional school district) thinks you're needed, which presumably has something to do with the number of language teachers and the number of students, but (of course) isn't necessarily consistent or determined by consistent criteria. In any case, I work in the same school all the time, and I'm the only full-time language assistant at my school.* Miguel works there half the time, and at the neighboring school the other half. So our school has one and a half language assistants, while the school he splits into has [I think] two and two halves. (That does make sense; think about it.) It's most common to have English and Spanish assistants. Some schools also have a German assistant. Other languages are less common, though some schools do offer them and there are a scattering of Italian, Russian, Chinese, Arabic, etc. assistants around the country. Some schools have only an English assistant, or even only a part-time English assistant. Some schools probably have none, though I guess I wouldn't know about them.

I've also been lucky in terms of the school itself. There are three main types of high schools in France: general (basically the equivalent of a traditional American high school), technical, and professional (what we in America would probably call vocational). Mine is a technical school, and seems to be neither the best nor the worst school in Brest. I am under the impression that it has quite a good reputation among tech schools, particularly for certain programs--some of my BTS** students are here from as far away as the Mediterranean, so the school must have something to offer. My students range quite a bit in terms of language ability, not to mention interest in learning a foreign language at all, but they are all fairly respectful and mostly well-behaved. The worst discipline problem I usually have to deal with is getting them to stop chatting amongst themselves and listen, which is nothing compared to what some assistants experience! Several of my friends routinely kick students out of class, and a few have had to break up fights. Compared to that, I'm pretty content with saying "Shhhh!" ten times in one class, giving some dirty looks, and calling out kids who aren't paying attention (most of whom at least have the decency to be sheepish, even if they don't stop talking afterwards). Meanwhile, many of the non-English teachers are friendly to me, the other staff are consistently helpful when I need something and patient with my French, and my few encounters with the administration have been nothing but positive. I've heard many assistants complain about conflicts with their school(s). I have none.

A way in which being entirely at this one school is less lucky is that I am entirely at this one school because it has a huge English department. I work with seven different teachers, at least five of whom teach here full-time.*** (One of the others is definitely part-time, and the seventh I'm not sure about. I know she also teaches some classes at the university, but I think in theory it would be possible for her to do that and still carry a full schedule here at the lycée, so I'm not a hundred percent sure what her deal is.) This means two things. One, that there is not enough of me to go around, and I am now on my third schedule change this year as they try to make sure as many students as possible have some time with me. (This, in turn, means that I rarely get to know all my students names, let alone anything personal about them.) And two, that I have to meet at least seven different sets of expectations every week, and sometimes more than that if I have two or three classes with the same teacher but they're all at different levels or studying different things.

One of the most frustrating things to me about this year has been the amount of work I put into my job outside of class time compared to some of my friends. Other lycée assistants, especially those others who also work all their hours at one school, typically plan no more than one or two lessons per week, do the same thing with all of their classes (perhaps with slight modifications for students at different grade levels), and that's the end of it. Some don't even have to do that much, either because their teachers give them things to do or because they have alternating schedules where they see each group of students every other week, and thus only have to plan biweekly lessons. I, on the other hand, plan most lessons individually, which normally means planning four or five or six new lessons each week, or even more. For the rest, I do sometimes re-use lessons with different classes, but rarely all in the same week. (This does mean, however, that the burden of lesson planning has gotten slightly less over the course of the year, as I amass more of a collection and also keep changing classes.) I keep a running spreadsheet on my computer with all of the classes I've had over the the year and what I've done with each of them each time I've seen them, so that I can easily find out what classes haven't yet done which easy-for-me thing I have already prepared. Meanwhile, some of the lessons I've put the most work into planning have been very class-specific and can't easily be re-used. And sometimes a teacher will pull me aside the day before a lesson, or even text me after school the night before, and ask me to prepare something on a particular topic, thereby throwing out anything I might have already planned.

On the plus side, I can honestly say that every day is different, and I wonder sometimes if part of the reason I seem less unhappy with my job than some of the other assistants is that I'm not doing the same thing over and over all week and getting bored. Also, sometimes I'm learning along with my students, either because I need to research a topic or just because I need to find the French equivalents for vocabulary words.

An unrelated plus side is that I almost never actually work all of my assigned hours in a given week. (Last week I did, plus an extra even, and it was bizarre.) There's always at least one teacher who's sick, or one class that's taking a test or going on a field trip. Of course, I might find out I don't have to teach a given lesson anywhere from the week before to first thing that morning to ten minutes into the class time when I'm standing outside the classroom with the students and we determine that the teacher isn't coming, so I may or may not have already done my planning. In any case, this is another way in which I'm pretty lucky; although there are some assistants who routinely work even less than I do because their schools just aren't organized enough to give them hours, there are others whose classes are almost never cancelled and who are expected to continue with their lessons even if the regular teacher is absent. (Whether that's legal or not seems to be kind of a grey area.) Maybe it would be worth working as much as I'm supposed to in exchange for a lighter workload in terms of prep time, but at the same time, the unexpected gift of a free hour or two is just as exciting for me now as it was when I was a student.

I guess, now that I'm thinking about it, my job as an assistant is pretty middle-of-the-road in a lot of ways. What it's not, however, is typical.**** Not just because of the workload and the schedule changes and the simple fact of being in a tech school, but because of the students. I think I've mentioned before that I work mainly with the students in BTS, which in effect means that I work mainly with adults. Almost all of the BTS students are over 18; some are my age, or at least close to it. (I stopped asking after I found one or two who were a year older than me!) When it comes to the regular high school students, there is a terminale (last year of high school, 17-18 year olds) class I've taught a few lessons to, and I'm currently working with one première (the middle year, 16-17 year olds) class, and other than that I've been used primarily for the secondes (first year of high school, 15-16 year olds). I've had a group of kids in seconde in each of my three schedules, and I tend to like them even when they're brats, but it's still very weird to work almost exclusively with the youngest and the oldest students and almost none in between. I'll have more to say about this in some upcoming posts focused on students and lessons, but for now I'll say that this is definitely not typical--I'd say the majority of lycée assistants spend a majority of their time with students who are in première and terminale, helping them prepare for their baccalauréat and other exams. But I haven't even met most of the premières and terminales at my school.

Also, at all levels, I teach mostly boys. There are a lot of girls in the applied arts and product design programs, but most of the more technology-oriented programs are almost entirely male. Some of those classes have one or two girls; others have none. I don't think it's a coincidence that the more girls there are, the better the class tends to be, although whether that's because the programs that draw girls actually draw students of all genders who happen to be interested in languages, or just because of the presence of girls in the class, is anybody's guess. Since I see boys trying hard to learn even in the worst classes and the classes that drive me up the wall the most, I'm inclined to think it's actually the latter. I mentioned this to my responsable once, and her opinion was also that having at least one girl around makes the boys more inclined to settle down and behave themselves. Gender roles are a big deal in France in many ways, so I guess maybe here's one positive thing about that?

Anyway, I'm not teaching high school in a very traditional sense over here. But I think I've got it pretty good.

* And by "full-time", I mean that all of my hours are there rather than being split with another school. No language assistant anywhere actually works full-time. There wouldn't be nearly as many of us if we did. (It's more like one third of full time, to be precise.) So for blogging purposes we are just going to assume that the standard number of hours for an assistant is considered full-time for an assistant. Does that make sense?
** Brevet du technicien supérieur. Or something close to that. It's two-year diploma program students can do after finishing high school, in fields like product design (my best students), electrical engineering, and building internal combustion engines, among others.
*** Now I mean full-time in the conventional sense.
**** Though I admit that sentence assumes there is such a thing as a "typical" assistant job, which may not actually be the case--refer back to the beginning of this post.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Quimper ("No, dad, it's not pronounced 'KWIM-per'.")

Quimper is the capital of the department of Finistère, and it's in the middle of Cornouaille, the area that includes the third peninsula south of the one Brest is on. I think I have that right. In any case, it's significantly smaller than Brest despite being the capital, but it's also significantly prettier. Allegedly, it's one of the cities in Brittany (along with Rennes) where the medieval architecture is best preserved. There are pretty significant sections of the old city walls still intact, including a tower, and inside them much of the city centre is twisty narrow streets, many of them cobblestoned and pedestrian-only, lined with half-timbered houses of all sizes and colors and degrees of decoration. The cathedral looms over everything, and is surrounded by a wide plaza that just accentuates its bulk.

One of my favorite things in Quimper is the monastery-turned-public-library. (One of my other favorite things, less historical, is the guy who hangs out near the cathedral with two tiny fuzzy horses and charges a few euros for pony rides. In the middle of the downtown.)

There are less-old things also worth looking at: the nineteenth-century theatre is a beautiful building, as are some of the various government buildings, and all of the above are along a small canal criss-crossed by little bridges every few yards. There are also some lovely gardens, including one sort of hidden away behind the theatre and one next to the wall with the tower that dates originally from the Middle Ages. Part of it still has its original layout, but more interestingly, it's full of subtropical and Mediterranean plants. Something about the climate of Brittany means that there are places where you can grow things that by all rights should not thrive in northwestern Europe, and from what I've seen Brittany is extremely proud of this fact. There are palm trees in all sorts of unexpected places, and gardens like this one devoted to hot-climate plants just because they can be. It's a little weird, but I guess it's also pretty cool.

I had been through Quimper a couple of times earlier this year to make bus or train connections, but I hadn't gotten around to really visiting it until the holiday last month, when I went twice.* Twice because there are two museums in Quimper: an art museum with a very good reputation and the departmental museum for Finistère. I did the latter first. It's right next to the cathedral, and it would be awesome even without being a museum. The building used to be the bishops' residence, and it's in three parts, a sort of tower house dating from the 15th or 16th century (I forget), the 16th or 17th century (depending on which the first one is) wing that attaches the oldest part to the cathedral, and the 18th century section that runs along the canal perpendicular to the rest of the building. Since it's L-shaped, and the cathedral is on the side opposite the canal, there's a nice courtyard, partly paved and partly a garden, with the remaining open sides closed in by walls. The entrance to the museum is inside the courtyard, and there are an assortment of sculptures scattered around the courtyard including a megalith, a row of grave markers, and a large cross, among others, that were all rescued from other places in Finistère.

The museum itself is mostly about the history of the area, specifically of Cornouaille but also the rest of Finistère. It begins with prehistoric and Roman-period artifacts, then moves on to medieval art, including a couple of awesome effigy tombs salvaged from ruined churches.

Upstairs are exhibits about the culture of the region in the last few centuries, which is where the focus really narrows to Cornouaille and other parts of southern Finistère more so than the area around Brest and the northern coast. This is particularly true of the costume exhibit, which was fascinating nonetheless. There is also furniture and pottery (for which Quimper is famous; you can also visit an important pottery factory/workshop elsewhere in the city). I continue to be amazed both by the distinctiveness of Breton material culture and by its consistency. Though there are a lot of subdivisions within Brittany that are accompanied by slight variations in, for example, traditional dress, which seems almost to have been different in every village, the broad similarities are always there.

I liked the Musée des Beaux Arts, too. It's quite big for a small city, and although it doesn't have a lot that's hugely famous, it does have a lot, and some of it is by very famous artists even if the piece itself isn't well-known. In particular, the museum has a big collection of paintings that are of places and people in Brittany, or by Breton painters, or both. They have a lot of stuff from the Pont-Aven school and after, but also a lot of works in more realistic styles and even some more modern art related to Brittany. One of the highlights, as well as one of the most famous pieces (at least within Brittany) is a painting of the king of Ys and some saint escaping the flood.** Anyway, it's really cool to walk through a gallery and recognize places in the paintings! It's happened to me before, but not usually so many at once. The day I was there, in fact, I had just been hiking the day before in the vicinity of a place that was featured in several paintings in that wing, and I was really pleased that I did things in that order so I knew firsthand what I was looking at. It's also really interesting just to see how much the region has changed over the course of the last century, in terms of culture as well as landscape.

Anyway, they also have other French art, including a Rodin sculpture, and also some Spanish and Italian and Dutch art. Lots of nice things. Also some less nice things, like some weird nature paintings of creepy-crawly things and a painting of Adam and Eve in which it was not immediately clear to me which figure was meant to be Eve. One of my personal favorites was the Italian painting of a half-naked woman grabbing her own [ample] breasts, titled "Abundance". I laughed out loud. (Because I'm a mature adult.)

Supposedly, it's allegorical.

Boobs aside, it's a good museum. I like Quimper a lot in general. I've sometimes wished we were there instead of Brest, because its prettier and also because it's slightly better positioned in terms of getting to other places. But it's also a lot smaller, and possibly less interesting for it. It's also not right on the coast.

It's a really, really nice place, though. Like a miniature, Western Rennes. Charming.

* The bus schedule, in combination with the museum hours, is too stupid for me to have done everything I wanted to in one day, and even if I'd had access to all my money at the time, I'd still have refused to pay five times as much to take the train.
** Ys is a mythological city that was swallowed up by the sea because of the Devil and a willful woman. It's basically the Breton Atlantis, with a healthy dose of Christianity and sexism and violence (like all good Celtic myths).

Monday, March 12, 2012

Brest And Its Environs

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

Now for some nice things about Brest.

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

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

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

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

There are beaches just outside of Brest in either direction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things That Suck About Brest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Strategically Important Port City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 2, 2012

Whoa, March?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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