Monday, December 1, 2008

Just about a week left!

After our Thanksgiving feast on Thursday, I got to spend Friday evening with the German stagiaires to celebrate Stefan's birthday, and here's an awkwardly staged picture of everyone. Starting to the left, there's Claudia, Olivia (who's actually French, and has taught in Germany), Stefan, Peter, Bettina, Johannes, and Franziska. It was another multilingual evening, as Peter, who was visiting, doesn't really speak French, so we alternated between French, English, and German all evening, which was really cool.

Saturday morning was cool--I got to teach a bit in Sophie's French class. The material was nothing new to me (intro to theatre of the absurd, and a close reading of the beginning of Godot), but I had no idea how the lesson would go from a linguistic point of view. I actually had a really nice time chatting with the students. They picked up on a lot of Beckett's humor and general philosophy just from reading the very start of the play. As always, I find their thoughts and interpretations so interesting. I found myself quite grateful for this opportunity; I really enjoyed it.

On Saturday night, Vanessa and I met up with Lindsey and Josh again for some adventures in Paris. We went to a fondue restaurant in Montmartre where they serve wine in baby bottles. The place was really busy, and there were a lot of other Americans there, so we chatted a little with the people on both sides of us. One girl told me she goes to Skidmore, and I said a lot of my people from my high school went there, so she asked who I knew--so I mentioned my brother's good friend Anthony, and it turns out she knows him! I thought that was just the funniest thing. I think the context of the baby bottles contributed to that...

I have really wanted to go to the Opera Garnier here, but tickets for operas and ballets were a little out of my price on Sunday night I went to see a little chamber music concert with performances by the some of the Opera's orchestra members (percussion, flute, clarinet, piano). The building is just stunning, from the outside and from the inside. It's actually the building that inspired the novel The Phantom of the Opera. Here's the outside at night.

Here's the main staircase. It's so impressive!

And, of course, the performance room was magnificent. I had an impossible time taking a picture that could do it justice. It's all red and gold, and incredibly ornate. Coincidentally, the music of the evening was largely 20th century American pieces for percussion, so it was really modern and experimental. It was really interesting, and there was a pretty thorough description provided of each piece before its start, so it was cool to have a point of view from which to interpret it.

Tomorrow will be another performance adventure--Vanessa and I are going to see a French production of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew at the Comedie Francaise. I'm really looking forward to it!

Today was a rather festive day, as Christmas markets are springing up around Paris, so Marta and I spent the morning at la Defense, walking through a huge variety of little stands selling all kinds of things. Definitely started getting us into the holiday spirit.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Le Thanksgiving americain

Last night, I hosted a little Thanksgiving party in my apartment, and I think it turned out quite well! I planned it with a couple of the other American teachers in Paris, Vanessa and Chelsea, and the three of us took care of the food--all without an oven, I am proud to say. We did end up seeking out some cooked chicken from a store, but otherwise, we did pretty well. Here's the basic run-down.

We had salad with veggies and cheese...

I made steamed veggies with olive oil and tarragon (which any Beckett fans will be glad to know is "Estragon" in French)...

Chelsea made stovetop stuffing, and Vanessa went on a search for cranberries (much harder than you would think...) and managed to find something similar. They were little red berries in a section of jars labeled "Condiments insolites"--essentially odd condiments. Turns out they went pretty well with the stuffing.

Vanessa made some delicious Southern-style mashed potatoes, which were a huge hit.

I thought of how great it would be to make a pie or something, but that wasn't possible without an I mixed up some apples with cinnamon and sugar, a la inside of an apple pie.

We used all of the big plates we had, so the bread was displayed in a skillet. Classy.

I don't have pictures of everyone, but here are a few--this is (starting from the left) Stefan, one of the German teachers, and Marta and Lukas, the two Polish teachers I live with.

On the American side of things, here's Vanessa, Josh (Lindsey's boyfriend), and Lindsey, who's teaching in Amiens. Also, if you look really closely, you can see the Condiments Insolites jar.

One of the things that was coolest about the evening--besides the obvious interesting cultural conversations about holidays and celebrations--was the use of languages. It was truly a bilingual evening--Lindsey's boyfriend doesn't speak French, so a lot more English was spoken than would have been otherwise, though the majority of the conversation was in French. We were changing back and forth constantly, which was a great challenge. Overall, a wonderful evening with really interesting people!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Cemeteries and Christmas Decorations

Today, I spent an eerie but interesting day in two of the most famous cemeteries in Paris, Montparnasse and Pere LaChaise. I didn't actually end up spending a great deal of time in either of them, as they were difficult to navigate and somewhat overwhelming.

I started at Montparnasse, mostly because I had to go see Beckett, but I got the added benefit of seeing the shared grave of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir (two French writers). Then I found the grave Beckett shares with his wife Suzanne. It is so modest, as I had expected, yet there are fresh flowers on it (as on Sartre and de Beauvoir's), so it is sought out by visitors. I did a lot of thinking about how much time I spent studying his works for my honors thesis, and it somehow struck me that he was a living, breathing man. Of course, I know this quite well, but standing there in the middle of Montparnasse, he felt more real to me than before. I think generally being in Paris has made me think more about the life he lived, in addition to the works he wrote.

Then I went to Pere LaChaise, where I ended up achieving even less because I didn't have a map and the cemetery is enormous. I wandered around for a little while and took pictures of a few striking graves, like the one pictured here. It was kind of weird wandering through the tightly packed cemetery and taking pictures of graves which remain somewhat anonymous to me. It's really interesting how people want to be remembered, and how their memories do live on. In both cemeteries, I saw monuments with the word "souvenir" which is the French verb "to remember." Because it also exists in English as a more trivial word, I find I sometimes forget to consider it with the amount of meaning it merits in French.

I stopped at Oscar Wilde's grave (English writer), which is covered with lipstick. People come and kiss his grave, which I think is such an interesting tribute. I can't help but wonder how that began. Someone had left a beautiful blue rose on the top, and I couldn't resist taking a picture. Wilde is one of many famous people from the US or the UK to be buried in Paris--I'm sure there is an interesting story behind each of them. I happen to know Beckett's, but not many others. Overall, a very thought-provoking day.

In other, more pleasant news, I have pictures of the decorated department stores I mentioned! This is the enormous tree in the center of Galeries Lafayette, which is stunning. The outside of the building is also really cool; it lights up at night.

Right next door to Galeries Lafeyette is Printemps, another department store, and I think they compete by default every year for cooler decorations. Galeries Lafayette is much more traditional, and Printemps is bright and modern. I found the windows particularly hilarious, especially when considering the Christmas/Holiday scenes in Macy's windows in NYC. They alternate between bizarre scenes for kids, like bears with bubbles here (there were also models in space), and really intense high-fashion scenes. Amazing how many similarities and differences there are in the way our two cultures handle the oncoming holidays.

An additional note--I finally posted some albums on Facebook (with only a small fraction of my pictures, as you can imagine), for anyone who wants to check them out. If you're not on Facebook, but want to see them, let me know and I think I can figure out a way to do that--though I plan to eventually post everything on a site everyone can see.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Parisian Weekend

As we have started to realize that our time in Paris is rapidly coming to an end, we have made up our minds to "profiter"--essentially, make the most of--the time we have left. On Friday night, we went to the Louvre. It's the fourth time I've gone since I've been here, but I still feel like I have so much left to see there! Friday nights are cool, because anyone under 26 gets in for free, so it's pretty busy!

After that, we walked along Rivoli to reach the Champs Elysees, since Paris is officially decorated for Christmas. This picture is a street off of Rivoli. All the lights are so festive!

Last night, we had a nerdy, touristy evening, which is really unusual for us--but we figured, why not? We ate at a creperie restaurant, and then took a boat ride along the Seine. It ended up being more touristy than we would have liked (not surprising, of course), but we got some lovely pictures of the Eiffel Tower! Excuse the perspective on this one, but I was trying to get the water in, too...

Anyway, hopefully I'll be taking many more pictures around Paris in the next couple of weeks, which I will most certainly post!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Mummies and Shakespeare

Everything has been pretty busy lately—lots of teaching, lots of running around Paris, etc. I did take a weekend to visit Madeleine in London, which was wonderful! She is working there as the program assistant for the Drew semester abroad. I got there on Friday night, said hello to the Drew folk, and then she and I went to a pub for a traditional fish and chips dinner to start off the weekend.

The next day, we did a Shakespeare walk with London Walks, which was cool. We got to see where the Globe and other Renaissance theatres stood, and hear about the archeological stuff they are doing now to learn more about them. Our tour guide was awesome, and did many dramatic recitations of Shakespearean monologues, and even sang some songs. After that, we walked around to see some of the main sights—Big Ben and Parliament, Westminster Abbey, etc. After a quick stop back at the flat, we went out for an awesome Indian dinner before catching a show called “Waste.” It was an interesting drama about the conflict between the public and personal life of a brilliant, aspiring politician, and essentially chronicles his downfall. It was full of the quick quips and wordplay I always imagine as being characteristic of English plays in performance.

On Sunday morning, we went to the British Museum, where we saw the Rosetta Stone, mummies, and an interesting HSBC exhibit entitled “Money” with lots of old money and information on how coins have been produced over time and such. That afternoon, we went to an awesome department store called Liberty, where we had tea and scones. Then we just shopped around that and other department stores, which were all particularly adorable with their holiday decorations.

On my last day, Monday, we began our day in Camden, which is really interesting. We spent a while at the markets there—they had a really cool variety of things for sale. After a delicious lunch in a pub where one of Madeleine’s friends recently got a job, we went to the British Library, and had an awesome time looking at their collections. They have incredible manuscripts, including Beowulf, Shakespeare First Folios, illuminated Bibles from as early as the 600s and 700s, pages from DaVinci’s notebooks, writings of Mozart and Beethoven, journals of Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen, the Magna Carta, and the list goes on. They also had a really cool exhibit going on called Taking Liberties, about peoples’ fights over time for the freedoms we have today. Really thought-provoking.

I returned to France on Monday evening, and taught for the last couple of days. Today was free, so Vanessa and I met up for a fun Parisian day. We had lunch in the Marais, got delicious hot chocolate on Rivoli, and did a little department store shopping (more holiday fun). Apparently the Champs-Elysees is lit up at night as of yesterday, so I’m looking forward to checking that out, as well as other festivities!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Le changement est en marche

(Change is in progress—from a message from Jean-Pierre in Angers about the results of the election)

Vanessa and I had returned from our trip to Spain just in time to catch all the election news in France. It was weird going into it, because everyone here acted like it was absolutely certain that Obama would win—and yes, if France was voting in our election, it would have been a landslide. We had a hard time explaining to French people that it was a lot more up in the air than they realized.

Around 1:30 in the morning (our time, of course), I found myself getting frustrated with hearing nothing but exit poll numbers, and decided to go to sleep for a while. By the time I woke up early the next morning, the news was in. Vanessa and I decided to go celebrate at a restaurant called, appropriately, Breakfast in America. We found ourselves the only Americans there, surrounded by French people wearing Obama shirts. We enjoyed some pancakes, American coffee (rather than the espresso you’re handed when you order “café” in France), and a diner-like ambiance. We spent much of breakfast staring at the reporter outside holding a microphone connected to a machine in a suspicious-looking plastic bag. He was young and awkward, but taking his job very (perhaps too) seriously, so he was interesting to watch. As we had secretly hoped, he approached us when we stepped outside. Since he heard us speaking English, his first words were, “I am journalist. I make reportages. Can you comment?” We gave our two cents, without ever figuring out what paper/news source he came from.

I spent a little time with the Germans one night, which began with them asking me about the elections, and morphed into a discussion about the state of the world. It never ceases to amaze me how much nuanced information Europeans know about all the other countries in Europe, and often about the rest of the world. We actually got to talking about games that are played in our respective countries, and we played one of theirs—you go through the alphabet and, for each letter, you name a country, a city, and a river or lake (and sometimes a mountain) that start with the same letter. This obviously put me at a great disadvantage, as in Germany “Geography” is an entire subject on its own, and it is perhaps under-taught in the US. However, we were mostly discussing France, so I was able to hold my own. We didn’t continue with the game for too long, as we were all tired, but still, I found myself thinking about how we play games like that in the US but with the names of movies or celebrities, not geographical landmarks.

I had a proud day in Sophie’s French class on Saturday. Beforehand, she and I were discussing the elections, and she complimented me again on the improvement she’s noticed in my speaking, and asked if I’d mind speaking for ten minutes or so about the elections. As I had already spoken with her class a bit about African-American history, I said ok, only a little nervous. In class, she told them they could chat among themselves and formulate four questions for me, but they had to be questions they couldn’t find answers to on the internet (like no statistics, no specific factual questions about what happened in various states). She said they should take advantage of my nationality to ask me philosophical or sociological questions, the answers to which could serve them on the Bac. The questions they came up with were really impressive (do bear in mind that this is a class that is being given two years to complete one year of high school because of academic difficulties). I made note of them (there are more than four because they opened up into larger discussions), but in French, so bear with my English translations—they sound better as the students originally phrased them.

- Is the election of Obama an example of “positive racism” or affirmative action?

- Will he change perspectives on African-Americans?

(I talked about some states being so staunchly conservative that we won’t see sweeping change in the immediate future. I told them that one of my friend’s boyfriends was taking people to vote in Louisiana, and as an Obama supporter, he heard some incredibly harsh commentary, including the “n” word. I explained the concept of the word, how many Americans refuse to say it, and how sometimes referring to it as the “n” word is the safest way to go, because it has such a terrible history, and some people react strongly to it.)

- This led to an impressive question—one of the boys asked if people don’t ever call each other by the word in modern slang, and I acknowledged that he was correct. I tried to explain that there is a difference between minorities using the word among themselves (sort of a re-claiming or re-defining of it) and a white person saying the word out loud (referring back to its historical use).

- Will he renew or reinvigorate African-American identity?

- Is the election of someone so different (young, black, democratic, rather inexperienced) a commentary on the weaknesses of the American system? In other words, does it indicate that Americans regret where their former approach has led them?

- Do Americans have too much hope in what Obama can do?

The discussion went on for quite some time, with Sophie sharing her opinion from time to time and encouraging them to keep asking questions. By the time we were done, 45 minutes had gone by! I was so proud that I was able to continue a rather complex discussion in French for so long with high school students. And, perhaps more than anything, I was impressed with the maturity and perceptiveness of the students, in asking complicated questions about a country other than their own.

I spent Monday in an all day pedagogy class with French first-year teachers. It was so cool to spend the day in the midst of discussions about teaching literature, since that’s really my home terrain, even though it was, of course, in French. I did more listening than contributing, but I learned a lot. One of the most striking parts of the day was a discussion about where they would be placed in the following year. As a teacher in France, you can basically be sent anywhere in the country from one year to the next, and obviously young teachers get the least consideration for their preferences (it’s all based on a point system which is based on seniority). There was a lot of concern from teachers who had certain places in mind, and especially those who live with someone, because it all seems like it can be so up in the air. You have to play your cards right with your choice-making, and even then, it may not work out in your favor. When some of them asked me about the American system, and I explained the differences, they joked about expatriating. Then I reminded them that in France, once you are officially a teacher, it means you have passed a competitive exam, and you can be certain that you will have a job somewhere (the number of teachers who pass is the number of open jobs that year)—whereas, in the US, a lot of people find themselves with certificates but no job. That made them feel a little better about their situation. Overall, I find myself wishing the US had higher standards for teachers, as France does. It’s not a perfect system, but it seems to leave schools with pretty impressive candidates to work with.

Finally, today, I began three two-lesson units with different classes—about the elections! With one class, I’m talking about how the elections have been presented in the news and media. With another, I’m making a link between the elections and the Harlem Renaissance (they love saying “jazz and soul” and “jazz and blues”), in terms of African-American identity. And with the last class, the most advanced, I taught a bit about the Civil Rights Movement today, and tomorrow we are going to compare part of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech with part of Obama’s victory speech. Should be interesting!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

On the Camino

At last, here is my journal from the pilgrimage. I did a lot of writing while we were away—at least a couple of pages each day—so I’ll try to condense it all here and give you a little day-by-day synopsis.

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 25 – Arrival in St. Jean Pied de Port
We left Paris on a midnight train, and neither of us managed to get much sleep. I found myself nervous about how many details were yet to be figured out (some transportation stuff, all of our lodging—pilgrim hostels don’t allow for reservations), but really excited about being surrounded by a new language and a new landscape. I was constantly attempting to learn new phrases. What I found surprisingly difficult was dealing with the Spanish pronunciation—I guess I am more used to the Spanish of the Americas than I have considered.
We arrived in St. Jean Pied de Port (in the South of France) pretty early in the morning, and went to the Pilgrim Welcome Office. The greeting was everything I could have hoped for—the woman who spoke with us provided us with lots of information, encouragement, and some warm tea. We spent the rest of the day exploring the city, which is lovely and found ourselves perplexed by a language we kept seeing everywhere; it took us a little while to figure out that it was the regional language, Basque, which is still very much alive in the area (which includes parts of Spain and France). Signs were mostly in Basque with French beneath them, and we found a Basque bookstore. Incredibly interesting. We were pretty exhausted so we went to sleep early, to get ready for the adventures ahead.

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 26 – Taxi to Pamplona
Before leaving St. Jean in the morning, we had breakfast with the other pilgrims, who were taking off for the hardest day of walking in the entire pilgrimage (we weren’t going to start walking for a few days, so we couldn’t really commiserate). We spoke with some people from Switzerland, one of whom had hiked 635 km to get to St. Jean! We thought it was a starting point for most people, which it is (the start of the Camino Frances—there are several possible trails), but a lot of people hike from their home countries or from elsewhere in France in order to get to St. Jean. That Swiss guy complimented us on being the first Americans he has met in France who actually speak French, so we felt proud. We went to say goodbye to the woman who had welcomed us, and took off for Pamplona (who kissed us and remarked that we were cute and brave).
Since it was Sunday, we had basically no travel options except a taxi, but it was cool because we got to see the Pyrenees, where we otherwise would have been hiking, and we got to hear about the Basque language from the driver. Turns out everyone learns it in school and it is even the language used for announcements in the airports. He said it’s such a fascinating language because its roots are almost impossible to trace.
When we arrived in Pamplona, we did a lot of useless wandering (since most things are closed on Sunday), but eventually found an albergue (pilgrim hostel). It seemed to mostly house Germans, but obviously everyone is welcome. We just ended up being the minority, linguistically. We stayed in a room with two German girls who had actually met online and decided to walk some of the camino together; they hadn’t known each other at all otherwise, which was fascinating to us. One of them spoke fantastic English, and she explained to us that she had worked for years on an American army base in Germany, where she had an American boyfriend. They left the base recently, and her boyfriend passed away—so this was the first time we heard a “this is why I’m walking” story. We also met a 71-year-old German man who has walked and biked all over the world, and remarked that the reason this pilgrimage is so unique is because you truly meet people from everywhere in the world. Additionally, we met a guy from Holland who began the camino there and has been walking for three months already. As Vanessa put it, he walked out his front door—and kept walking. He thus did a lot of the camino completely independently, whereas starting from a designated city like St. Jean gives you access to the yellow arrows which point you in the right direction, and cheap albergues to house you. I give him a lot of credit. Besides wondering how people had randomly free months to spend walking the camino, I think we both went to sleep that night really impressed with the courage and spirit of the people we had met.

MONDAY, OCTOBER 27 – bus to Leon
We had to wake up at 5:30 to leave for Leon, and we had to take 3 different buses to make it there—but we accomplished it all without a hitch! We had several successful interactions in Spanish throughout the day, including the purchasing of the bus tickets, the finding of the correct buses (even getting off at the right stops was not always easy), and explaining our traveling situation to the man at the Benedictine albergue where we stayed (you’re mostly supposed to be walking in order to be allowed to stay in the albergue, so we had to explain that we only had so many days in Spain, and we were going to start walking soon).
The city was lovely, with a beautiful cathedral. The albergue itself was particularly interesting. The rooms were packed—we slept in a room with about 50 other pilgrims, and there was an equally large room next door, also full. We met a fellow American named Chrissy from Maryland, who has found herself with a degree she is not sure how to use (in Divinity) and who is exhausted from several years of working at a camp for troubled girls. She’s not sure what she wants to do next, so that’s why she’s walking.
The albergue is run by Benedictine nuns, so you only pay what you can (a few euros suffice). They also invited us to the evening vespers and a special pilgrim benediction, and we went to both. We were pretty proud of how much we could understand in the prayers, and we got to pray aloud in Spanish with the other pilgrims, which was foreign but very cool for mostly everyone. They read a list of the countries we all came from, and it was pretty impressive! The man from Pamplona was right when he said the camino draws people from all over the world.

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 28 – bus to Sarria
We left for our last day of traveling by bus, which was long, but fine. We continually impressed ourselves with our ability to understand what we hear and express ourselves, however elementary our phrases are. We saw some beautiful landscapes, several pilgrims on the camino, and lots of camino arrows! When we arrived in Sarria and followed the camino to reach the albergue, we looked down at the shells in the sidewalk (yellow arrows and shells are the two indicators of the camino for pilgrims). We remarked on how many people had walked along this otherwise unsuspecting sidewalk. The camino really has such a life and presence to it.
We decided to vary up our albergue experiences, and chose to stay in a nicer private one (still under 10 euro for the night). We were in a nice little four person room, which seemed refreshing…until we realized that there were no outlets in the room, the albergue doesn’t offer breakfast in the mornings, and we really had no way to meet other people. We paid 4 euro the night before for our crowded room, but there was a real sense of community, and an unlimited supply of bread and coffee in the morning! Ah, well. Also, the power-saving lights in our nice little room shut off every 15 minutes. That was pretty irritating as we got into bed for our nightly writing/reading time.

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 29 – walk to Portomarin
The weather was a little drizzly in the morning, but we got off to a nice start for our first day of traveling on foot. As soon as we left Sarria, we found ourselves in forests and rural farming areas. The views of the countryside were breathtaking and the entire day was incredibly peaceful. The most exciting event was passing a herd of cows on the path. Cows are so big up close, it's a little scary. Overall, though, I think we’d both say it was a really pleasant, calm day.
The experience of walking was really powerful. I kind of developed a new sense of the terrain as something infinitely larger than myself, yet something I still was able to traverse. It was such a wonderful feeling, for example, to see Portomarin from a distance, and then suddenly find it right before us. We met some French friends at the albergue, which was really nice. We met an older woman who had been walking for almost 60 days (ironically, we had seen her earlier in the day when we stopped for coffee, and she had shared some bread with us—but we didn’t realize we all spoke French at the time, so we had an awkwardly silent exchange), and a couple who had just started walking like us.
Vanessa remarked that she knew I was on board for this over the summer when I said we could have our very own Canterbury Tales, which cracked me up. It made me think, though, about how many stories Vanessa and I have already exchanged—how conducive this type of travel is to the telling of stories (even the bus part). There is really nothing else happening but the traveling itself. I even thought of how many people we have met have introduced themselves with a short story about who they are and why they are walking; we rarely learned anyone’s name, but we always learned something somehow more personal. It’s almost like stories are, in this context, something of value that everyone wants to share and receive. So rarely, otherwise, do we make time for the telling of stories.

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 30 – walk to Palas de Rei
Our second day of walking was more trying. The ground was damp from the rain last night, but the cool air was nice for starting off the day. I find that I love the peace of the early mornings as we’re walking. As we hesitated in getting back on the path (we lost track of arrows when we went to our albergue), we ended up meeting a nice man named Peder from Slovenia. Together, we crossed a rickety bridge, and as we expressed our fear, he replied, “Ah, you like your life?” After the epic bridge-crossing, we said farewell and continued on our ways.
We continued the tradition we began the previous day of stopping for a little café to break up our morning. Unfortunately, it poured all afternoon, and we arrived in Palas de Rei soaked and disgruntled in our ponchos. We re-encountered our friendly French couple, which was nice. We heard that the shower water was cold, and also the four shower stalls were wide open and facing each other—so between that awkward situation and the fact that we were already cold and wet, we opted to forego taking a shower for the day. And anyway, we were just going to be putting the same dirty (and now wet) clothes on the next morning. We put our pajamas on, and we were unable to move from our sleeping bags for the rest of the evening. I finished up reading A Thousand Splendid Suns and moved onto the French book that I picked up in Portomarin the day before.

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 31 – walk to Arzua
We didn’t get a whole lot of good sleep last night, because there was a rowdy group of Spanish teenagers sleeping in our pretty crowded room. We decided they were either a school group or random locals—they didn’t seem to have much respect for the camino or the pilgrims, so we figured they had just begun to walk somewhat recently.
We stopped for our first real lunch along the way, which sustained us through the rest of what turned out to be a very long day. We had planned to stop short of Arzua, but we decided to continue the rest of the way there, taking advantage of the mostly sunny weather.
We walked for a while with a German guy (who we later came to refer to as “West German”) who had worked in NYC and whose wife is a teacher, so we had plenty of topics to discuss. We chatted (in English) about school systems, language learning, and about the election. We continued to run into the French couple; it feels so nice to talk to them in French. Dealing awkwardly with people in Spanish, it’s refreshing to be able to express ourselves in the tense and tone we choose, even if it’s still a foreign language.
We were both aching and tired as we approached Arzua. We met a man who is writing a story about Canadians on the camino, who we continued to see and hear about as the days went on. We arrived at the albergue, pleasantly surprised to find that the showers were really warm and the water pressure was strong—so that more than made up for the unfortunate shower situation in Palas de Rei. We took the best showers ever.
We heard about a bomb in Pamplona that had been set off by a Basque terrorist group, and we saw graffiti today comparing Galicia to Palestine. Those two things made us reflect on what we know about the importance of regional identity in Spain (as in France), but also how unfamiliar we are with the culture and conflicts of Spain. As much as we learn everyday about the land, we have so much left to discover about its people.

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 1 – walk to O Pedrouza
After a night in a room of snoring old men (better than the teenagers? I don’t know), we woke up to more rainy weather, but it let up quickly. We walked along with another German (this one was, obviously, “East German”), and talked to him for a while. He finished up his contract as a consultant for international companies, and plans to move to Cambodia. In the meantime, he is walking to get away from everything, but also as a physical and spiritual challenge.
We took a break for lunch and continued our new tradition of Estrella Galicia (the regional beer) in the afternoon. Afterwards, we shouldn’t have had too far to go, since we decided to cut today a little shorter. However, we had trouble knowing what towns we were in, since they were really tiny and poorly marked. We were increasingly tired and it was raining pretty hard. We ran into two Canadians and an American who were also planning to stop in the same town as we were (O Pedrouza). As we figured, we had overshot it by 4 km, and the next town with an albergue was 12 km away. We turned back, which was obviously discouraging, but clearly the best choice.
It was interesting to be around an American, as he was only the second we had encountered. It was refreshing to hear his accent and even his slang, of course, but there was something characteristically American about him—in a bad way. As we watched him confront people in his awkward Spanish (which may have been worse than ours), there was something in his bearing which seemed to affront people and lead them to respond sarcastically and harshly to him, something we have not yet encountered. We were proud of ourselves for our interactions with Spanish people, even with our linguistic limitations, which seem to show them enough respect that they respond with sincerity and kindness.
Looked like another long night with the Spanish teenagers in our albergue.

SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 2 – walk to Santiago
Waking up was tough this morning; I got very little sleep last night because of the group of teenagers—they were chatting and turning lights on all night. I had a conversation with one of them earlier in the day, who confirmed that they are indeed on a school trip, though I was left wondering how the logistics were working out with so many of them.
In honor of our last walking day, we had a “Café Che” before we took off—coffee with milk, cinnamon, and whisky (though I would guess that no one actually orders it in the morning). We also split a Tarta de Santiago, so we started off strong. We did a whole lot of uphill walking at the beginning, but the weather was nice, so we couldn’t complain.
We got frustrated during a rather flat stretch with no camino signs, and nothing interesting in sight (I think I had actually been warned about this portion of the camino, and how disheartening it is). We felt like we weren’t moving anywhere, until we finally reached Monte de Gozo where we stopped for one of our staples—juice, “zumos.” We each bought bottles to take with us, but the woman at the counter offered us glasses and insisted we sit. We got to see the adorable baby she cares for, but unfortunately found ourselves able to say nothing more than “hola” repeatedly. We continued our trek and Santiago at last became visible. We finally made it into the city, and left our stuff at a cool hostel with incense, music, and interesting decorations. Felt very homey. We then went out for a celebratory meal. What a feast—red wine, a selection of local cheeses (Vanessa remarked, “You know what’s cool about these cheeses? I think we met all the cows responsible for them.”), a mysterious something that we think involved octopus (regional specialty), I had prawns in lime, honey, and garlic sauce, Vanessa had pork belly, and we split a salad of asparagus, tomato, and mammoth hunks of goat cheese.
Tired, full, and being pursued by an ominous cloud (Santiago is said to be the rainiest city in Spain), we went back to the hostel, and saw our West German friend along the way! Hopefully we’ll have more reunions tomorrow. For now—it’s reading and sleeping time.

MONDAY, NOVEMBER 3 – day in Santiago
We began our day by wandering around to do a little bit of souvenir shopping. We each wanted a little something with a shell on it to remember our experience, but it took us a while to find anything other than really cheap, touristy stuff. Then we went to the cathedral, took some pictures, and looked for the pilgrim office. We heard some French speakers, so we asked them to tell us where it was, and we headed over to get our pilgrim credentials (for walking the last 100km). Then we went to the pilgrim mass. It was cool so see so many people who looked dirty and tired like us, and we were pleased to hear the words “pererinos” (pilgrims) and “Etados Unidos” (US) in the sermon.
The climax of the mass would be when this enormous (seriously, as big as a person) incense thing came down from the ceiling, and 5 men worked together to swing it from side to side all the way up to the ceiling while really dramatic organ music played. Everyone was taking pictures. We actually got videos of it.
On the way out, we ran into this Spanish man from our hostel, who had been really distressed about the fact that we went to sleep early yesterday—he kept popping his head into our beds to see if we were awake and to wish us “beautiful dreams.” I managed not to see him right away, and I yawned, which was not the best thing to do, because he proceeded to pretend to yawn in return and remark, “My God. So many hours. I don’t know why. Why?” This continued for the rest of the day and into the night. In the evening, when he was bothering us about being in bed before he was, Vanessa looked at him and said “My God,” as he had earlier (in a kind of hilarious accent), and then hid in her sleeping bag. Good times.
In other news, we chatted with a Canadian guy named Stefan, who was pretty cool. We met a nice American couple from California, who has actually walked the camino before, but followed a different route. They were nice and lent me a book (about the camino!) because I finished the one French one I had picked up, and couldn’t find a bookstore with French or English books in Santiago. We also met a Spanish man named Carlos who works with young children, but was just getting really worn out, and asked to take some time off to clear his head. He’s continuing on, like many pilgrims, past Santiago to Finisterra. Vanessa and I stayed up reading for a while, and went to sleep. The next day we returned to Paris; we found we had really missed France, though we had an incredibly interesting adventure through Spain. Truly an authentic, one-of-a-kind experience. We’ve discussed possibly returning to do other parts of the camino in the future, or at least considering hiking elsewhere. It’s such a great way to get to know an area and to meet interesting people.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Santiago - A Summary in Pictures

Hello, all! Just wanted to say that we have returned safely from our pilgrimage, which was a terrific adventure. I did a lot of writing while I was there, so I will post a basic run-down of that within the next couple of days. For now, I figure I'll just show you a few pictures from along the way.

Saint Jean Pied de Port -- the city in France where we began our trip.

Early morning in Sarria, looking at the city as we began walking away (as we began the walking part of our pilgrimage).

Lovely view from the middle of nowhere as we were walking.

Portomarin -- the first city we approached on foot.

A lovely path on our last walking day, on the way to Santiago.

A fence as we got nearer to Santiago.

We followed yellow arrows the whole way, but they got bigger and more interesting as we got closer and closer to Santiago.

During the pilgrim mass in Santiago, they put incense in this enormous thing (which I tried to get a photo of) which requires five men pulling a rope to swing it back and forth all the way up to the ceiling while dramatic music plays.

The cathedral in Santiago, at the end of the pilgrimage!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Teaching and the Pilgrimage

I taught my first lesson this week! I worked with a class of Terminale (senior year) students on an excerpt from a John Jakes novel called American Dreams. We started the discussion with the concept of “The American Dream” and what that connotes—they were so articulate with their responses! We only got started on the text, going over some of the main ideas. I am going to pick up with that lesson when we get back from the vacation (the first week of November), covering the vocabulary and syntax in a more thorough way.

I also said something in my French literature class today, which is only a big deal for me because the class is obviously conducted in French. They had been discussing the identities of African immigrants, and Sophie asked me to speak to the class a little bit about African-American identity in the northeastern US. I managed to express my thoughts on the matter relatively clearly. Sophie actually commented afterwards that my French has improved markedly since I’ve been here, which surprised me, because I find myself increasingly aware of my linguistic deficits. Ah, well. I’m proud that I contributed a little something to class today.

Another interesting experience from this week was a class I had at the IUFM with a bunch of teachers from Algeria. It was incredibly interesting. The main topic of the day was the difference between FLE (France as a foreign language) and FLS (France as a second language)—because both terms are used here. In the US, when English is taught, it is taught as ESL (English as a second language) or something similar; there isn't a suggestion of "foreignness", there is rather a certainty that one will adopt the language and become integrated in the culture. The terminology leads to some complicated cultural tensions here—tensions which show themselves even more in Algeria than they do here in France. Funny language terminology detail here in Europe—when people talk about the “first language” they learned, they don’t mean their native language—they mean their first foreign language. That’s because everyone learns at least two. They are always puzzled when I say that most people in the US are barely proficient in one language besides English.

We had lunch with the Algerian teachers, which was cool because we just got to talk outside of the intense classroom discussion. We somehow ended up discussing holidays, and someone brought up Santa Claus, so everyone at the table looked at me, because the American image of Santa Claus is the most extreme and the most dominant. They said that kids often see Santa Claus on TV in Algeria, and asked why he never comes to bring them gifts. It really struck me when they said that, because I am aware of how widespread American culture is, but I don’t always think about the effects it has in very different countries. We had really great conversation all afternoon. When we returned to class, I was telling one of the teachers that I think Arabic writing is beautiful, so he wrote my name in Arabic! I didn’t realize that they apparently have an alphabet that’s almost equivalent to ours. The characters are obviously written extremely differently…and backwards.

Last night I went to the movies with the German teachers to see Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which was about two Americans going to Spain. Europeans are obsessed with Woody Allen, so it’s one of the few conversation points on which the American viewpoint is not challenged. We went out afterwards and had some great conversation about traveling, about the differences between France, Germany, and the US, and about what really constitutes “culture”—i.e. the division between sports, academics, and the arts. I really love talking with them. And the conversation always challenges my French vocabulary.

The movie’s Spanish setting got me psyched for the pilgrimage! Vanessa and I are leaving on a night train this evening. We have a basic layout for the trip at this point, though it’s not set in stone. The only things that are absolutely definite are our arrival and departure. Here’s the general plan:

Friday, October 24: night train to St. Jean Pied de Port (the starting point in the South of France)
Saturday, October 25: spend the day in St. Jean
Sunday, October 26: train to Pamplona
Monday, October 27: train from Pamplona to Leon
Tuesday, October 28: train from Leon to Lugo, bus to Sarria
Wednesday, October 29: we start walking! Sarria to Portomarin
Thursday, October 30: walk from Portomarin to Palas de Rei
Friday, October 31: walk from Palas de Rei to Azura
Saturday, November 1: walk from Azura to Lavacolla
Sunday, November 2: walk from Lavacolla to Santiago (the end of the pilgrimage!)
Monday, November 3: spend the day in Santiago
Tuesday, November 4: fly back to Paris

I hope to return with excellent stories and beautiful pictures!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Nous sommes tous americains

Last night, Vanessa and I went to the American Library of Paris to hear a talk about the upcoming elections. It was between Ted Stanger (an American who has lived in Paris for quite some time, and who writes books in French explaining American politics) and Jean-Marie Colombani (a French journalist whose headline after 9/11, “Nous sommes tous americains”—we are all Americans—became famous). They discussed what seem to be the main issues at stake this year, in the eyes of American voters and in the eyes of the world.

I wrote down a lot of remarks they made, because I thought they revealed so much about the U.S., not in spite of—but because of—the fact that it was being seen from the outside. So here’s a brief overview…

Colombani spoke first and essentially said that he sees Obama as the only choice for Americans, that there will be—from an international point of view—a “before the election of Obama” and an “after the election of Obama” (like two different epochs), and that he seems to be the incarnation of the American Dream.

Ted Stanger began more of the comparative discussion between the US and France in terms of politics and presidents. He suggested that he has perhaps a “truer” view of American politics from the outside. People asked about Obama’s image, and whether that seems to be the driving force of his impact—Stanger’s interesting response was that if someone can run a marvelous campaign in the really challenging context of the American elections, they have something special—and perhaps it’s the same something that can help him successfully run the White House.

We talked about the difference between the 6-month campaigns in France and the 1 1/2 year campaigns in the US, the 85% voter turnout rate in France, versus the much lower US rate, and the fact that the French know more than some Americans do about the election. The recount came up, and it led to a comparison between complicated
US ballots (as if they are asking for errors to be made) and the much more straightforward (easier to count) French ballot. All very interesting. Made me reflect a lot on my role as a voter, which has been different this time around—I’m always checking American headlines to keep myself posted, but I occasionally read the same stuff from the French point of view.

Let’s see…what other interesting things have happened this week…

I have continued my observations at the high school, and am teaching my first English lesson next week. I continue to enjoy my literature courses with Sophie, and I have also started observing English language courses with Lek Sang. She has a very different style of teaching, but it has been valuable to learn from nonetheless. She moves at an incredibly rapid pace, and students are repeating, essentially nonstop, what others have said. It’s not always the most natural way of speaking, but it keeps everyone engaged and on their toes, and everyone’s voice is heard in some sense—which is important in the language classroom. Students in Europe learn British English, so I feel a little awkward about my pronunciation sometimes, and occasionally I encounter some vocabulary that doesn’t exist in the US. But more on that later.

Again, I am teaching my first lesson in her class on Wednesday. Something I love about French education is their emphasis on “authentic documents.” Whereas American classes rely on textbooks—which are thorough, but are someone else’s interpretation of the information—they work from real documents and put together the information for themselves. The English language book, for instance, is filled with excerpts from British/American novels, news articles, advertisements, short stories, memoirs, etc. I am going to teach an excerpt from a John Jakes novel called American Dreams.

As well as observing courses, I have also been taking education courses at the IUFM with other first-year teachers. Where we have our student teaching programs in the US, in France, they have a “stage” where they spend one year as a full-time teacher, but with only one or two classes. So they have their own classes, exclusively under their control, but they do not have a full schedule. It’s a different way of learning the trade, I guess. I spent Thursday in class with English language stagiaires—in other words, French people who are starting to teach English. You’d think they’d have wanted to speak English with me, but no, we spoke exclusively in French all day. That’s another interesting thing about French people—they are linguistically self-conscious. They’d rather speak correctly in French than speak incorrectly in English with a native English speaker. I spent Friday in class with the German stagiaires, who are doing a program like mine. So we essentially discussed what we have seen in our schools and what has been interesting to us. They are really nice, but they often get started speaking in German and then I’m at a loss. If only I knew a few more languages. Sigh.

Friday night was fantastic—I hung out with Vanessa, Marky (another American in our group), and a few French teachers who did the other half of this exchange, and taught in Ohio last year! We had wine and cheese, alternated between speaking in English and speaking in French, and had lots of interesting cultural discussions. They loved their time in the US, and truly seem to miss blueberry pancakes (no lie, so do I).

Saturday morning I observed class (yes, high schools have class on Saturday mornings), which was cool. Jean-Pierre (host father from Angers), Marie, and their friends Brigitte and Francois were in Paris, so we met up in the afternoon! We went to see a museum exhibit connected to a movie called Seraphine, about a woman who works as a housecleaner but has an incredible artistic talent. The man she works for discovers her work and wants to show it to the world—but the whole process is disrupted by the two world wars. She has some mental problems and ends up in a mental hospital, where she stops painting for the rest of her life. The story behind the film is true and we actually saw her works. They were stunning! Now I need to see the film to fully appreciate them.

Speaking of art, I went to a display-type event in Paris with Vanessa, where lots of artists were selling their work. Her host mother from Angers is a sculptor; her work was there and she invited us. There were a lot of really thought-provoking pieces. My favorite was a painting of two young boys. The foreground was bright red, and they were sitting and building houses of cards. Behind them, in a kind of hazy background, were the Twin Towers, the Tower of Babel, and the Tower of Pisa, which was being held up by a small ribbon thumb-tacked to a wall. It was just an incredible reflection of the things that men build, and the way that we see them.

Yesterday was also a really interesting day. Vanessa and I went to the well-known market in Saint-Denis. All the main streets of the town are filled with vendors selling all kinds of food, as well as anything else you can imagine—clothes, jewelry, china, kitchen supplies, etc. We bought some fruits and vegetables, but moreover, just enjoyed the ambiance. The streets are truly bustling, and we found that we couldn’t understand everything the sellers were shouting—because they weren’t always speaking in French. I had mentioned that a lot of minorities live in the banlieues of Paris, and that’s what made this particular market so interesting. Even the types of things that were being sold were more culturally distinct than what you’d find elsewhere in Paris.

Vanessa and I came back and made a delicious lunch with our purchases, and then headed over to the Basilique (Basilica). Saint-Denis is a pretty modern neighborhood, so to have an old basilica with a great deal of history in the center of town is odd. To say it’s anachronistic would be an understatement. It’s where a lot of kings are entombed—which always raises the question, for me, of whether what we’re seeing are really tombs or are memorials. In this case, there were quite a lot of tombs, and we found ourselves a little freaked out from time to time. The oldest ones were from around the 500’s! My mind can’t even process how long ago that was. And something cool about France is that streets and towns are generally named after famous French people, so there’s always an interesting story to discover. In my case, Saint-Denis was a martyr—he had been sent by the pope to Paris to spread Christianity France, and ended up having his head cut off—he supposedly walked, carrying his head (and still preaching, I think?) to reach this Basilique. Hence, the area is called Saint-Denis. It also inspired the name of another area in ParisMontmartre, which means Mount of the Martyr.

Speaking of religious history, we have about 10 days off starting this coming Saturday—and Vanessa and I are going on a pilgrimage in Spain! We are following a medieval route from the south of France to Santiago de Compostela in the north of Spain. The whole route typically takes a month, so we are doing the first few cities by train, and walking the last five days’ worth of the path. I have heard that it’s a really cool experience, and a great way to meet a variety of people. So I’ll have to spend this week brushing up on the very basic Spanish phrases I learned last year—and perhaps learning a few more related specifically to walking long distances and staying in pilgrim hostels! I should return with some great stories.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Summary of the last week or so

I guess I will start this much needed update with my last couple of days in Angers. We spent our last Saturday visiting Mont Saint Michel, which is absolutely beautiful. It is essentially a little island of its own, so it is stunning, but I think everything is sinking bit by bit as the years go by, so I know there are issues as to how much money should be set aside to preserve it. I guess it’s a tough question, since there are so many things that money could be devoted to, but it really is a magnificent place.

It was hard to say our goodbyes in Angers, since we felt that we were just getting settled in and comfortable. My friend Vanessa and I had been assigned to the same French conversation partner, an English history/literature student named Estelle. We got along very well, and it would have been great to spend some more time with her before we left! And, of course, I was not ready to say goodbye to Jean-Pierre and Marie, nor to their friends Brigitte and Francois. They all devoted so much time and effort to making my time in Angers valuable, and they increased my confidence in my spoken French by conversing with me often, and about practically everything. I spent my last morning in Angers visiting Brigitte’s preschool, where I watched her teach for a few hours. I was nervous about whether the students and I would be able to understand each other, but it went really well! They were comfortable starting conversations with me, telling me about themselves and what they do at school, as well as asking me about my life. The students in the class range from ages 2-5, so besides the cultural differences I got to observe, I was interested in watching how Brigitte and her classroom aides balanced the class so everyone was engaged and involved. The students are truly fortunate to have Brigitte for a teacher—she is incredibly motivated, organized, and thoughtful. I got lots of hugs and “bises” (kisses) from the kids when I left, and they all gave me pictures that they drew. Such a fantastic way to end my weeks in Angers.

I then arrived in the Paris area, and moved into my apartment in Saint-Denis. Saint-Denis is a banlieue (suburb) situated to the north-east of Paris, but is still on the subway line, so I have relatively easy access to the center of the city. The connotation of "banlieue" is much different from that of "suburb" in English—Parisian banlieues generally have populations made up of poorer, immigrant families, so they are very different from the more well-known areas of Paris. Though it might be easier in terms of transportation to be located more centrally in Paris, I am grateful for the opportunity to have a picture of another urban way of life. And, of course, it’s nice to be living with other international teachers doing similar programs.

I have spent a little time at my IUFM in Creteil (to the south of Paris), but haven’t really started classes yet, so more on that to come. I did begin observing courses in Pablo Picasso high school, where I will eventually teach a bit (located in a banlieue to the east of Paris…I move around a lot). I was placed with two different teachers—Sophie, who teaches French literature, and Lek Sang, who teaches English. So far I have only observed with Sophie, and I have loved it! Sophie teaches students who have struggled with academics, and are given two years to complete their middle year of high school (French high school consists of three years—Seconde, Premiere, and Terminale). Her class is small, only 16 students. The students are pretty polite, a little calmer than some classes I have seen in the US, and consistently have interesting perspectives to share. It certainly helps that Sophie runs the class well—she keeps it laid-back but focused and busy. Something that makes French high school different from American high school is that French students finish their high school studies by taking a big exam, called the Bac, which essentially determines what they can do afterwards (much moreso than the SAT in the US—and it’s more complicated, and covers more subjects). So it’s interesting for me to always hear the Bac being mentioned. When I first arrived, Sophie asked students to kind of fill me in on what they were studying, and she told them to speak to me as if they were in their Bac interview. I didn’t know what this meant at the time, but I came to note that whenever students speak in class, Sophie always discourages them from mumbling and using slang, reminding them that they will be judged by very specific standards for the Bac. Also, the French value their language in a very distinct way, and from what I see, French individuals are expected to be able to shift from casual conversation to a higher diction with ease. Anyway, my first few days at Picasso were interesting; the students and teachers seem cool overall. I will keep you posted on my progress there.

I have generally been trying to take advantage of my access to Paris, as well as the nice weather, by doing some exploring. When I’m on my own, I enjoy walking around near Notre Dame and the Latin Quarter, right along the Seine (top photo). It’s a beautiful area, and there seem to be so many interesting things to see and do. The other day, I turned a corner and found Shakespeare & Co. (bottom photo), a famous English bookstore. I loved browsing through the books; they have a really unique selection of titles. I will definitely be making many a return trip there.

Vanessa (whom I mentioned earlier) lives in Paris--near a statute of a big thumb (top photo)--so she and I have been spending a lot of time together. We have tried some cool restaurants. Notable ones include Pain, Vin, Fromage (Bread, Wine, Cheese), where we had a fondue of chevre (goat cheese), camembert, calvados (apple liqueur), and garlic, as well as La Grain de Folie, a little vegetarian place in the Montmartre district. Walking around the streets of Montmartre, we visited the area around the cathedral of Sacre Coeur (bottom photo), which is beautiful at night.

This weekend, we went to see the gardens of Versailles, where there was a big display--the fountains were on, and were accompanied with music (to which the small boy is pointing). We also went to an art exhibit called Picasso et les Maitres (Picasso and the Masters), which sets pieces of Picasso’s work next to related pieces which influenced him in some way. We were surprised at some of the influences we hadn’t quite expected, like Rembrandt. It was also cool just to be surrounded by artsy Parisians.

So, overall, things have been going well here. Though I’m not quite “in” Paris here in Saint-Denis, I love having endless access to it. I know I’ll never be bored in my time here. There are so many things I have yet to see. Nonetheless, I can’t believe I’ve only been here for a week. I feel like I have done a lot and, surprisingly, I’m getting to know my way around! Hopefully I’ll have some more interesting updates soon.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Change of scenery

Hello all, just writing a quick note to let you know that I have safely returned to the Paris area, where I will be living and studying for the next couple of months. I live in Saint-Denis, which is to the north of Paris. I share an apartment with two Polish students, who are really cool. We spent one of my first nights here having a long discussion about educational and cultural differences between our countries and France. I think we are going to get along really well. There are also four German students who live down the hall, and are participating in a program that seems to intersect a lot with mine. We spent all day yesterday in class together, and it looks like I'll be seeing them somewhat regularly, which is nice. It feels good to be establishing some connections so quickly upon my arrival. I also feel really fortunate to get to spend time with several international students; we will all have to speak French to each other, which is great practice, and the conversations I have already had with them have made me reflect a lot upon my own educational background and what I seek to get out of my experience here.

Anyway, tomorrow I start my observations at the lycée (high school) Pablo Picasso, which I am really looking forward to. I am not sure when I will be able to post again, as the wireless internet in our apartment doesn't work. I am currently using a computer in the IUFM (college of education), with--my favorite--a French keyboard. Hopefully you can look for a longer post from me in the near future.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

What is your name?

Our last week of courses in Angers went pretty well; it’s hard to believe how quickly the time has gone by. We leave for our individual placements tomorrow afternoon!

Perhaps one of the most moving experiences we have had in Angers was going into the classrooms of a couple of nearby middle schools this week. We were taken to schools which are classified as ZEP (essentially, areas where education has become a priority because the schools are struggling—many of the students tend to come from poorer immigrant families).

On Tuesday, I watched a few English classes in Jean Lurcat middle school. The students were all about 11 years old, so what we observed was much more about classroom management than about the teaching of English. Teaching any foreign language in a ZEP school is challenging, not only because classroom management is notoriously more difficult, but also because French is not the first language for many of the students. Just as ESL students in the US struggle to learn all of their disciplines in a language they have not yet mastered, so do their French equivalents—known as FLE students. This puts all the students on quite uneven footing and complicates the classroom dynamic.

As it is impossible to generalize about an American classroom, it is impossible to generalize about a French classroom, but this one did showcase some of the classroom practices which had been described to me as somewhat “common” or at least “accepted” in France. The students could not enter the classroom without the teacher telling them to do so. Nor could they sit, take out their books, or start writing. It is/was more common in France to find classes in which teachers lectured the entire time; reflecting that idea of the teacher's role is the little podium in the front of many classrooms, where teachers stood and spoke. This teacher in particular was a lot more engaging and moved around much more than that, but the strict classroom structure was there nonetheless, and he did seem to expect to have more control over the students.

What was strange for us in Jean Lurcat was the reaction of the students to our presence. I guess I tend to think that a lot of people travel to France, so an American/Anglophone individual should not be that striking. Apparently, I had somewhat underestimated the situation. The students were absolutely fascinated to be sitting right next to Americans, and they used just about every English phrase they knew to try to speak to us. In one class, a little boy next to me turned and said very quickly, “My name is…what is your name?” (clearly reciting something that had been practiced in an earlier lesson), so I replied “My name is Christine,” and he looked absolutely floored that I had understood him and replied. And I guess it’s true anywhere that young students learning a foreign language have a hard time comprehending that it really is spoken somewhere, that it is someone else’s first language. After “what is your name?” I think the most common questions were “you New York?” and “do you know Zac Efron?” (to which one of my friends replied affirmatively). In one of his more advanced classes, the teacher tried to use the students’ excitement in a structured way to have them form whatever questions they could ask us. We also did a little pronunciation activity with them. Overall, the experience at Jean Lurcat was fine. The teacher was really nice and was quite honest with us about the problems facing the students and staff at the school.

On Thursday, I went to another ZEP middle school, called Montaigne. I knew the day would be different from the moment we arrived. They had arranged for some of their strongest English students to give us tours of the school, both to welcome us and give the students an opportunity to converse with native speakers. My friend Therese and I were taken on a tour by a boy named Samuel, who speaks English quite well, and also studies Spanish and Latin. He told us about the school and we asked him lots of questions about his life to get him communicating extemporaneously, which he handled really well. Afterwards, we watched two Spanish classes with one of the best language teachers I have ever seen. The students in the class seemed to be around 13 years old, and it was their second year of studying Spanish. Nonetheless, the teacher conducted the entire class in rapid-fire Spanish, filling in only more complicated directions and concepts in French. She expected the students to speak to her almost exclusively in Spanish, which is surprisingly rare among language teachers (at least in the US). I don’t know any Spanish, but I felt like I actually learned a bit during the course of the class. I learned more, however, about how to run a language classroom.

In the teaching of any language, it’s certainly important for the students to speak, though it is then harder to monitor their behavior. The teacher at Jean Lurcat had sacrificed opportunities to let the students speak comfortably in order to maintain control, whereas the teacher at Montaigne successfully blended her role as teacher with her role as facilitator of conversation. It involved using a great deal of energy and personality, but she had a more successful lesson and fewer "classroom management issues" to address. My whole experience at Montaigne reinforced what I already knew about the importance of a teacher’s attitude and expectations. Having seen two schools in somewhat similar situations, but with very different approaches to education, I realized that attitude often does determine reality, rather than the other way around. Montaigne felt like a more welcoming, safer place. It’s no coincidence that the school that wanted to make the most of our visit by providing us with student guides was also the school with brightly colored walls, artwork, and places for the students to hang out—decorated by the students. It was a great experience for us—really encouraging and empowering, as we consider and reconsider the roles of teachers in different communities.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Castles and Elephants

I had a packed but excellent weekend! I spent Friday evening with my host family—we had dinner at the house and then went out for a drink. Still, I wanted to get to sleep early because Saturday was going to be spent visiting castles with the group, and we would be leaving at 8am.

We met Saturday morning and took a bus to the Castle of Chenonceau, which Henri II gave to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, so there were lots of interesting historical details about it. It’s built on the water, so it’s really stunning. We wandered around there for a few hours, then got back on the bus and headed to the Castle of Chambord.

Before we visited the castle of Chambord, we had a little picnic outside the grounds. Our host families were responsible for sending us with lunches (which was kind of reminiscent of elementary school), and French lunches are enormous compared to American lunches, so we had fun comparing our bags of food. A couple of girls had an entire baguette and a tray of meats and cheese, just as an appetizer. If families sent sandwiches, they sent at least two. Some people had up to three different desserts. One family even offered to send along a bottle of wine. We finished up our feast and went to see the castle. Chambord is also really beautiful. The structure of the castle itself is interesting—there are a whole bunch of towers, and the staircase at the heart of the castle is in the shape of a double helix. Again, we did some more wandering (it was truly a day filled with history and the taking of photos), and then headed back.

The day felt pretty long, but it was still relatively early in the evening when we returned to Angers. I met up with my host family and some of their friends for a drink, and then we went out for dinner at a Moroccan restaurant. Afterwards, I met up again with some people from the group as well as some French students we’ve been meeting with for casual conversation. It was cool to just chill out with a bunch of people, and it was really interesting to hear how everyone was going back and forth between languages, as we really want to practice our French and they really want to practice their English. I think we are meeting up with them again later this week, so that should be nice.

I had another early start to my day on Sunday, as I went with Jean-Pierre, Marie, and two of their friends, Brigitte and Francois, to the city of Nantes. We saw a castle and a chapel upon arriving, and then they took me to see “The Elephant.” I had no idea what that meant beforehand, even though they had mentioned in advance that it would be part of our visit—but it turns out that Nantes is home to an enormous, mechanized elephant that actually walks around (and people can ride on top) once an hour. I caught a little on video (check that out below). Truly fascinating. There was a bookstore right there, where I learned that there are approximately a million French children’s books about elephants. My favorite was “L’elephant qui se cache” or “The elephant who hides himself”—it was about an elephant escaping from a zoo and struggling to find good hiding places.

After the elephant visit, we ate lunch at a nice little waterfront restaurant, and then went to the beach. The weather was incredible (though it’s generally been cold here), and there were lots of people swimming. We walked along the shore and hung around for a while. We left from there and got home pretty late at night. I had dinner, did my homework (yes, homework), and then went to sleep. I was exhausted, but went into my week with many stories to tell!