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.

1 comment:

madeleine.lapenta said...

i forgot about your pilgrimmage! that reminds me of the west highlands walk in scotland. maybe we can do that one next ;)
p.s. who's venessa? your roommate? or another girl on the program? i must have missed that bit.