Sunday, December 21, 2008

That man is spitting on the sidewalk…

...but it's okay, because it's France.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I’m wearing brown boots, black leggings, and a brown top…

...but it's okay, because it's France.


All right, so here are some scenes from recent weeks, with no relation to each other other than that they all made me happy.

A few weeks ago, Emilia and I were making our regular Sunday market trip and we stopped at the stand that sells yogurt and fruit juice and such for really really cheap to check what they had that week. The younger man who works there happened to be in front of the stall arranging packages, so he helped us put our juice in our bags (carefully avoiding crushing my chèvre) and generally made himself useful. As we were walking away, we heard him say to his co-worker, “Those are the regulars – they come every week!” So we were happy to be recognized and to have somewhere to be “regulars”. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that we’re young and foreign and female, either…

And another market vignette: two Sundays ago, Emilia and I were accosted (seriously, we were walking by minding our own business and they started yelling, “Les filles! Les filles! (Girls! Girls!)) by two young men selling cheese, wanting us to taste their wares. So we did, and they told us that it was very good with wine, as an apéritif, and that if we were having a party it was perfect. Then they gave us another one to taste, and said that they really liked it, so we should invite them to the party, and we were all laughing and joking, and the cheese was quite good, so I said I’d get some. One of them jokingly offered me the whole huge chunk, saying, “If you get this one, you’d have enough to invite us over for drinks…” and it was hilarious. I ended up getting a pretty big piece, and since I hadn’t looked at the price per kilo (which was probably their plan) it cost 11€. Cue heart attack, but then “for me” it was only 9€. Which was still a lot, but hey, I got a good story out of it, and Frenchmen make me happy. Then, last Sunday, they recognized us again and waved bits of cheese at us to taste, and we both said that we still had the cheese from last week, but they told us to taste it anyway, we weren’t obligated to buy anything. So we tasted, and they told us it would be good as an apéritif again… So we thanked them and said we’d be back the next week. Next time I’m going to check the prices, though – no more being distracted by flirting!

And, speaking of Frenchmen… A couple weeks ago a French guy invited me out with his friends, telling me to bring Olesya too because “nous sommes de méchants garçons – we are very naughty boys” and he didn’t want me to be all alone. The conversation ranged over many topics, including French stereotypes, American stereotypes, “prudish” Americans (I managed to convince them that not all Americans are uptight), Sarah Palin, history, philosophy, travel stories, and of course sex. We ended up going back to his house and staying there until 3 in the morning, because we were having so much fun. I was absolutely dead the next day, though, because 4 hours of rapid French conversation with older Frenchmen who are only too willing to take whatever you say the wrong way is exhausting. It was hilarious, though, and now he wants me to teach him English. So that’s fun.

And the best English mistake my students have made so far: Michèle is having her classes write surveys about things teenagers are interested in (music, fashion, movies, cell phones, etc), give the surveys to their class, and then analyze and present the results. So I’ve had to listen to dozens of presentations of survey results, some interesting and some not-so-interesting, and help her grade them (grading is hard. I appreciate my own teachers so much more now…). In the Seconde 10 class, which is one of her favorites, a student named Julien, who’s kind of the class clown, was giving a presentation about fashion. He said something like “Zees survey shows zat the testes of teenagers…” The first time he did it, I didn’t really notice, but then he went on to say a few more sentences involving the “testes” of 15-year-olds and it was all I could do to keep from bursting into hysterical laughter. I didn’t want to interrupt his presentation, though, so I didn’t say anything. By the end, I’d kind of forgotten, so we went on to the next presentation. However, the other students had obviously decided that since Julien’s pretty good at English, he knew the correct pronunciation, and at least two other students also said “testes”. By this point I wasn’t sure what to do, so I decided to ask Michèle after class. When I explained to her what “testes” meant, she was shocked – not a word she had learned in school, I guess. Anyway, the next time I saw the class she asked me to tell them. So I wrote “tastes” on the board and had them pronounce it, then wrote “testes = testicles” and explained that that’s how they’d said it in their presentations. Cue about 5 minutes of hysterical laughter from the whole class, including Michèle and me, and Julien blushing beet-red but still laughing as hard as everyone else. It was actually a really great way to break the ice between them and me a little bit, because we could all laugh together about something. And I bet none of them will ever mispronounce “tastes” again.

Finally, a story that sums up the biggest cultural difference between France and the US: My chorale sometimes has all-day rehearsals – the last one was from 10 to 5, and we must have spent at least 2 hours eating lunch, because this is France. Anyway, at rehearsal last Tuesday we were discussing the next all-day rehearsal, and someone suggested starting later, to which there was a general outcry of “But then we’ll only have an hour for lunch! That’s impossible!” Emilia and I just looked at each other, then burst out laughing. Oh, the French.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Day in the Life of an English Assistant

So, I just had a really good day, so I thought I’d relive it by describing it, which will also give you an idea of my typical day. Well, kind of typical. I only teach on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, so this is a typical day 3/7 of the time (well, usually I’m slightly better-prepared):

I wake up at 6:15 (Thursdays are my earliest day), get dressed, eat breakfast (yum Weetabix and yogurt yum) and head to the school, a 7-minute walk away. It’s raining cats and dogs, it’s cold, I’m sleepy, and I have no idea if the activities I’ve prepared for today are going to work, because I thought of both of them the night before… So I'm a little worried. I head to the réprographie (photocopier room) to print out the activities and make copies. Just as I’m finishing, the bell rings for my 8:00 class and I have to race through the rain, into a building, up 50 steps, back into the rain, and into another building, fighting crowds of students who stop the entire flow of traffic to do the cheek kissy thing. Oh, the French. Finally I get to the classroom, where I take half the class up more stairs to the little room I’m allowed to use. I’ve prepared a role play about planning a vacation to South Africa, so I explain it to them (all in English) and most of them seem to get it. It goes pretty well with this half, so I begin to feel better about it. Then I take them back down to the room and pick up the other half, who are much weaker. It takes almost twice as long to explain what they have to do, and even then I have to ask one of the better ones to explain in French to the others (which is my way of avoiding speaking French myself). But everyone eventually gets it, and two girls in particular are really getting into it, so I ask them to perform it in front of the class. They do it really well, amid giggles, and everyone gives them a round of applause at the end. I teach them how to say “Yay!” or “Hurrah!” instead of “Ouais!” which they seem to like. Then I go back to the staff room to touch base with the teacher and tell her how it all went. She’s pleased because when she got the group back from me, they were already excited about English and really thinking in English, so my mood is rapidly improving.

Then it’s back to the réprographie to make copies of the superlative pages of my yearbook for my next class, at 10:00. This is the Seconde 10, the class that brought you teenagers’ testes. I haven’t ever had them as a group yet, so I have no idea what they’re like. I get half the class for the whole hour – I’ll do the same activity with the other half next week. I troop downstairs with them to an empty room, they all file in and sit down, and I ask them to say their names (even though I haven’t a hope of remembering them, except maybe Julien). I do a mini-presentation about American high schools (all they know about them comes from High School Musical, so they have a lot to learn) and then tell them about yearbooks and superlatives. I pass around my yearbook so they can see the baby pictures of all the seniors and the senior pages, which is fascinating for them – French high schools don’t do yearbooks. Then I give them copies of the superlative pages and they are absolutely enthralled. After a bit, I do some superlative grammar, and we talk about the superlatives – “What does ‘tardy’ mean? and ‘gullible’?” “You were most studious?” and laugh about them. I also have to explain what “truest Vermonter” means, which is hard, because “hick” is not a word that transcends cultures. Then I ask them to come up with superlatives of their own, and they think of some pretty good ones – sexiest, truest Norman, most likely to be a movie star, best-looking, etc. I’m actually disappointed when the bell rings, because I’m having fun. This class has become one of my favorites – there’s a really nice vibe between them and me where they quiet down and pay attention when I ask them to, but there’s room for some playfulness and gentle teasing (like when I told them I was in Scholars’ Bowl in high school… Have you ever had 11 French teenagers laughing at you? It’s an experience, let me tell you.) And even when they’re joking around, they’ll often try to do it in English, so I let them – for one thing, it’s funny, and for another, every word that they say in English is a little victory. A lot of them also understand my little sarcastic asides, so they laugh and it makes me happy.

Then back again to the réprographie, where I photocopy my little Thanksgiving blurbs for my next class and chat with Martine, who takes care of all the photocopy/transparency/equipment stuff and who is really nice. Then off to lunch in the cafeteria with the English teachers, which is always fun because it’s a whole table of language nerds and they like to ask me how to say things in American (I am the only American in the entire school, so I’m the ultimate authority – bwa ha ha ha ha). As I’m cleaning off my tray, Bertrand asks if I’d like to have a drink with him tomorrow night to help him with his English, which of course I would, so he invites me to his flat.

Up more stairs, to a class that I only see every other week, which is why I’m doing the Thanksgiving thing a week after the actual holiday. Apparently they were disappointed last week to not see me, so they’re looking forward to me today, which is always nice to hear. I ask them what they know about Thanksgiving, which always brings forth shouts of “dinde! turkey!” and I tell them that turkeys say “gobble gobble gobble” in English, which always gets a laugh. Then we do my Thanksgiving activity, which finishes with presentations by the students on the little blurbs I’ve prepared (Pilgrims, the first Thanksgiving, football, presidential turkey pardon, etc). I show the students how to draw a hand turkey, and one of them does so and shows it in his presentation, which is surprisingly touching. The last presentation is the turkey pardon, which is always hilarious, especially since I found a picture where Bush and the turkey have the same expression. This class is also nice – they’re up for anything and have good attitudes for the most part.

Back down to the staff room – by this time, the skies are actually blue, there are white fluffy clouds, and it’s much warmer out. I plan next week with a few teachers and relax for a bit. Then I have one-on-one work with older students to help them prepare for the big scary test at the end of high school – I have different students every week. One has an amazingly good British accent – a little on the Cockney side (I fink, etc) but very natural, so afterwards I ask him why and it turns out his parents are both English. So we chat for a bit, and I curse the fact that dating students is frowned upon, because he’s really cute.

Then I go back home, have a snack, and read one of my French books (they’re meant for teenagers, but I’ve spent the last four years reading classic French literature and I think I deserve a break) before going to the gym for a “barre sculpt” class, which is weights and such. It’s a good 20-minute walk to the gym, but that’s why Ipods were invented. Also it’s more exercise, which is good because France doesn’t really believe in low-fat food. After the class, I depart, muscles shaky but feeling good, and come back home, where I have another snack and write this blog post.

So that’s a Thursday – Mondays are much the same, Tuesdays I only have two or three classes in the morning and chorale at night, Wednesdays I go to the teacher-training college for conversation groups with student teachers (half in French, half in English so everyone gets to practice), Fridays I stay in bed until an embarrassingly late hour, Saturdays I do museums or shopping or walks, and Sundays I go to the market in the morning and the internet café in the afternoon. Life is good.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

My 33-year-old colleague is hitting on me...

...but it's okay, because it's France.

(First in a series, the idea for which came from my brilliant and talented older brother. Thanks bro!)


One of the American assistants, Keri, graciously volunteered to have a Thanksgiving gathering at her apartment (which she shares with an Australian and a Brit), so on the Saturday morning after Thanksgiving I got up early to make squash with orange sauce (no Thanksgiving vacation here, remember – I had 5 hours of class on Thanksgiving Day). I’d bought something vaguely resembling a pumpkin at the market the previous week, and it looked sufficiently orange and squash-like, so I thought it would probably work. I had to buy a vegetable peeler and a measuring cup (which of course only had liters on it, so some quick work with the converter on my cell phone was needed) and my professeur référent, who is amazingly nice, offered to lend me a casserole dish. Thus armed, I began the process of peeling, cubing and cooking the squash.
You will perhaps notice the three different stages that the squash is at: this was because my only saucepans are the ones you see in the picture, i.e. tiny.
So I had two pots going at once and still had to do it in three rounds. Luckily, I had music and Nutella for fortification:
My ill-equipped kitchen does not, of course, have a masher, so I used a fork.
So it wasn’t the smoothest squash with orange sauce in the world, but hey, it worked. After cooking and mashing for a while, I had enough squash and it was time to make the sauce. I’d bought potato starch instead of corn starch because the box was smaller, and come on, how many times am I going to use any kind of starch between now and April? Thanks to a conversation with my wise and wonderful grandmother, however, I knew that potato starch would work. I also only had granulated brown sugar, not having been able to find anything else, but I figured it would all melt and make no difference whatsoever. Finally, I didn’t have a juicer, so I had to juice the oranges with a fork. Despite all the modifications, though, the sauce eventually thickened and I poured it triumphantly over the squash. Time to stick it in the oven for a bit. 350ºF, my mother said. Okay, that’s 175ºC. Now, to set the oven temperature…
Do you see any temperatures on those dials? I didn’t either. So I set it at about 4, which is right in the middle, and prayed. Here it is, in all its warm, fragrant, orange-y glory:
Then there was the problem of transporting it to the party, which was about 10 métro stops away. I covered it with plastic wrap, wrapped it in towels, and gently placed it in the bottom of a shopping bag, haunted by visions of the bag giving way and splattering squash, orange sauce, and broken crockery all over the street. It made it successfully to the party, though, and took its place among the other delicious things that other assistants brought:
Here are the turkeys (yes, there were two – there were more than 30 people at the party):
Dindes, they’re called in French. And they say “Glou glou glou” instead of “Gobble gobble gobble”. Here’s my overly-filled plate:
See the very-obviously-straight-out-of-a-can cranberry sauce? That doesn’t exist in France – cranberries barely do, and certainly not cranberries in the highly processed and indescribably delicious form of canned cranberry sauce. So one of the assistants had her mother mail her a can of cranberry sauce, which totally made my entire Thanksgiving. I went back for seconds on cranberry sauce and nothing else, actually.

Finally, a picture that doesn’t begin to capture how full the apartment was:
I can tell you that in that picture, there is a Brit, an Australian, and a German, and just out of frame there are more Germans, more Brits, some Mexicans, a Columbian, and some French people just for fun. Conversations were held in English, French, German, and Spanish, and all in all it was an amazing party. I was impressed with the cooking that people had done (most people just brought bread or wine or cheese, but there were also mashed potatoes, two kinds of stuffing, green beans with ginger, cranberry sauce, pumpkin cheesecake, pecan pie, and a few salads) and with the multiculturalism of it all. The non-Americans were all curious about Thanksgiving, so it was fun to talk about that. Also, at any given moment at least three languages were being spoken, so language-dork Lisa was happy. Afterwards, I went home with leftover squash, so I could also continue the Thanksgiving leftover tradition by eating that for a few days afterwards. No hot turkey sandwiches, though, which I miss. Still, it felt enough like Thanksgiving that I didn't miss it as much as I thought I would. Yay expats!