Sunday, October 19, 2008

A bit cheesy...

OK, where did we leave off? Ah yes…amusing or interesting stories. I think I’ll just write these up in a random fashion, if you don’t mind.

First, let me just say that in a land which is home to over 400 different cheeses, it has been a real bitch to find some cheddar. American supermarket aisles are clogged with every possible incarnation of cheddar cheese, but at the two markets I frequent, there is only one piece of cheddar cheese on offer at each. At LeClerc (the ungodly huge grocery store with 100+ yogurt choices) there is one package of pre-packed white cheddar, a chunk of “Sharp Scottish Cheddar” that weighs about 8 ounces and costs about $4. At Monoprix, the grocery store in the center of town that is relatively small (compared to LeClerc, anyway) but oh-so-convenient, there is a large block of white cheddar at the cheese counter. 18.50 Euros per kilo, which works out to about $11.50/pound. The unfortunate thing is that the most popular cheese here is emmentaler (a basic swiss style cheese), and it just does not work as a substitute for cheddar. C’est tragique.

Another food item that is abundant in America and mysteriously absent here is pepperoni. When I was living in Korea, just getting a pizza was an ordeal, so I’m not bitching too much here. But still, pepperoni is my favorite topping, and it’s practically nowhere to be found. Eggs, however, are a common and quite popular pizza topping, so it’s no wonder that I’m getting screwed on the pepperoni (I hate eggs).

At any rate, there is a Dominos Pizza here, and, as you all know, they are required by law to offer pepperoni as a topping. :-) So, when I received their flier advertising “Crazy Week!” wherein they were offering any sized pizza with any combination of toppings for only 6.99 Euros (about $9, carry-out only), I decided that the time was ripe for my first pizza here in France. Tragically, I neglected to remember that my life’s story is filled with heartbreak and unfulfilled longing.

So, it was with a hopeful heart and growling stomach that I impetuously lept off the bus one drizzly school night at the stop just across from the Dominos. It was 5:45, which meant that I had 15 minutes to sit at the bus stop, staring longingly at the Dominos until the doors were unlocked. Once 6 o’clock hit, I casually strolled inside. I explained in bad French that I was American and in desperate need of a pepperoni infusion. The man was friendly and happy to take my order for the largest pizza possible with a mountain of pepperoni and cheese. For only 6.99, it was going to be a pizza miracle. Until I went to pay, and his motherfucking credit machine would only take French credit cards. I could have thrown that machine through the fucking window and then set the place on fire. And of course, I only had 4 Euros cash on me, so I was basically totally fucked. The man smirkingly suggested going to the ATM at the very bottom of the hill, which I was not keen to do in the increasingly vigorous rain. At this point, the man became a bit too smarmy, so I huffed my way out of there, muttering various curses against the man, specifically, and France, in general.

Remembering that there was a pizza place just down the street, I walked until I came to the “Pizza Box” (I forget the French spelling). The boy who helped me there was exceptionally nice and even spoke some English. No pepperoni, but they did have chorizo. Much more expensive, but they were doing a two-for-one special on carry-out orders. So, for $20 I got two small pizzas and a carton of Ben & Jerry’s to mend my wounded soul.

But let us not forget that I still had to get home. In the rain. Carrying two pizza boxes and a sack of ice cream, in addition to my purse, computer bag, and umbrella. It was way too far to walk, even if it wasn’t raining, so I waited at the nearest bus stop. When the bus finally did arrive, it was packed to the rafters, so I literally stood at the very front, hip to hip with the driver, my pizzas basically resting on the dashboard, trying not to fall over with every sudden braking or turn. It was a misery.

By the time I walked home from the bus stop by my apartment, a pool of water had collected on the topmost pizza box. But they must really know how to make a pizza box here, because not only wasn’t my pizza soaking wet, it was still mostly hot and definitely delicious. The chorizo wasn’t like at home; it looked and tasted almost exactly like large pepperoni pieces. Perfection!

What wasn’t perfection was the night I decided to phone up this same pizza place to have a pie delivered. I’ll admit I was nervous to place an order over the phone, but I had practiced what I was going to say and studied up on the relevant vocab from a flier of theirs I got in the mail. But, naturally, the man who answered the phone had an accent that I could not understand for the life of me. I tried to tell him what I wanted, but every time he asked me a question (presumably the typical things like address, phone number, pizza choice) it was like he was speaking in some sort of Martian dialect; I was at a total loss. Eventually, he got fed up with me and passed the phone to a fellow employee, who, I am proud to say, I was able to understand with absolutely no issues. (I’d like to think that he hung up the phone and said, “I don’t know what the fuck your problem was, but she seemed fine to me!”) The whole thing just reminded me of every time I’ve heard a fellow call center employee bitch about a customer whose accent they couldn’t understand, and they’d say something along the lines of “Fucking foreigners…learn some fucking English.” Since I’m not one of those people (and I was really trying my best to both speak and understand the native language) I don’t feel I should be getting stuck with their bad karma, but what are you going to do? At any rate, I don’t think I’ll be going through that experience again in a hurry.

Another thing which I will not be doing again in a hurry is having my mother ship me stuff via DHL (or really any private shipper, for that matter). The day I left for France, I stupidly forgot my brand new coat at my mother’s. Since it was an insulated raincoat that I planned to wear during the late fall/winter season, and we were running late to the airport, I decided to just have my mom ship it to me. Never again. First of all, my mother didn’t know how much the coat cost, and not wanting to undervalue it in case it was damaged or lost during shipment, she put on the customs declaration that it cost $200 (it was really only half that expensive). I can hear the more internationally experienced among you groaning right now. Yes, that’s right, I had to pay a duty on the package. Plus, unbelievably, I also had to pay a private shipping fee for using DHL. ??? So, when the DHL delivery guy showed up at my door, he required a payment of—get this—60 Euros!! before I could have my fucking package. I, of course, don’t keep this kind of cash on hand, so I had to tell him to bring it back the next day. Unbelievable.

A long-overdue update

There could have been no finer day for a stroll along a medieval river than this past late-autumn Sunday in Poitiers. The sun, streaming brightly through yellow and russet leaves, was warm enough to chase off the late afternoon chill, while the slight breeze carried a hint of wood smoke in the distance.

The constant tinkling of the petite rivière beneath my balcony reminded me of the time I had walked along the river Clain a few weeks ago. I had it almost entirely to myself, and it was an exceptionally beautiful and peaceful experience.

So, feeling cooped up in my studio, and with nothing much to occupy my time (having beat every possible piece of laundry against a rock yesterday) I decided to buy a sandwich at the bakery around the corner and then enjoy it while sitting on one of the many benches along the river, throwing the occasional piece of crust to my Mallard friends. (I refer to them as my friends, of course, because they have taken to napping every afternoon on the bank of the petite rivière, just across from my balcony. I quack hello to them when I open up my balcony door.)

As always goes the story of my life, I had the inevitably embarrassing moment at the bakery, during which my credit card wouldn’t work because their machine was only for French cards. This was only revealed after my entire order had been prepared and bagged up, naturally. I was reduced to scrounging through my purse for enough coins to barely cover the cost of the specially-prepared sandwich, and was therefore forced to leave behind the bottle of water and the croissants for tomorrow’s breakfast. The woman behind the counter was no friend of mine by the time I hightailed it out of there, let me tell you. Still, what kind of establishment doesn’t have a credit card machine that will allow you to swipe a card? These French cards have a “plus” sign (pronounced “ploose”, of course) that allows the card to just be inserted into the machine. Most credit machines have the option to either insert or swipe, so this has only happened to me twice: at this bakery and at a Domino’s Pizza [story to follow].

After taking my sandwich of shame and getting the hell out of there, I headed toward the river, keen to repeat my peaceful and isolated experience. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one with the idea to walk along the river on such a gorgeous day; I would have realized that had I given it about half a minute’s thought. Still, it wasn’t quite overrun with squealing brats or yipping dogs, so it was satisfyingly peaceful and inviting. The river was calm, glassy, tinged green like an old Coke bottle. The gravel path snaking alongside the river was dotted with white wooden benches, the best ones already taken by elderly couples (the rest mysteriously not even facing in the direction of the river). All sorts were out for a stroll, including families, couples, men with dogs, women with babies, and one little girl trying to rollerblade through the gravel with very little success. It was lovely.

I know I’ve been slacking these past couple weeks, in regards to keeping this page updated. Please accept my most sincere apologies. Having very little to do in the way of actual work, I should have been posting something every day, but it never really seems to work out that way. When I’m somewhere with internet access (such as my school), I tend to want to goof around online and not do any actual work. I’ve discovered that unless I have 24/7 access to the internet, my productivity once actually connected to it is significantly diminished. I guess I just need to get that goofing-around time out of the way before I can really get down to business. Thankfully, I have at last been able to submit the order for internet in my apartment, and I should be online full time by mid-November. God willing, of course.

Speaking of business, I do have several stories I’d like to share in order to get you all up to date. There’s a lot to report, so I’ll do it in two separate postings. Let us go forth chronologically…

October 1st was a day of orientation for the assistants in my school district, conveniently held right here in Poitiers. I was nervous that the whole day would be in French, and I would be lost for most of it. Of course, it turned out to be mostly French, with brief interludes in English. I got by alright, but not without sounding like an idiot on several occasions which I want to forget and so won’t be repeating here.

I was also nervous that I would be like a grandmother (age-wise) compared to all the other assistants, and I wasn’t far off on that, either. Most of them were clearly in their early or mid twenties. I felt ancient, which was worse than not understanding the French, to be frank. I did make a few “friends”, so at least I had someone to eat lunch with and stand next to at the post-orientation reception.

At this reception, the man in charge of our whole region gave a little speech, and then circulated throughout the crowd, chatting in French with lots of my fellow assistants. Yours truly saw what was going on, and in a desperate bid to save herself from a surely-humiliating scenario, kept one eye on him and the other on various escape routes. Unfortunately, during the one second my eyes wandered over to the drinks table, the man was suddenly at my side and reaching out to shake my hand. Accepting my fate, I plunged in headfirst, speaking very bad French and bringing shame upon not only my ancestors but also all of my fellow countrymen. When did I end up living in a horribly trite American sitcom? *sigh*

At any rate, now orientated, I was ready to begin teaching. My first week only consisted of teaching a small group of advanced students (about 20 in total). Let me tell you a bit about them:

First of all, they already have an undergrad degree in English and some experience living in an English-speaking country. What they’re doing now is studying to become middle or high school-level English teachers, so they must pass a comprehensive and frankly terrifying exam at the end of this school year, called the CAPES (pronounced “Cap-ez”). My job is to help them prepare for the oral section of the exam, wherein they will be graded on the authenticity and consistency of their accent, as well as on their ability to extemporaneously synthesize written and visual material into an oral presentation. It’s nowhere in the same ballpark as easy, and if they don’t pass, they have to wait another year to take it again. It’s also a nationally competitive exam, so it’s all about what percentile you fall into, not about passing with a B+ or some such system. In short, it’s hard as hell, and they need a lot of oral practice.

So, I’m there to give them practice speaking, basically. On Tuesdays, from 9-11am, I get to do fun activities with them, entirely of my choosing, where the goal is to get them to use advanced vocab and to correct them every time they make a mistake. On Wednesday afternoons from 5-7, they have a language lab, where half the time is spent with the other teacher (Mr. Duchet) using computers to record themselves speaking, and the other half with me, using examples from last year’s exam in order to practice their accents and their ability to answer questions about the material.

I like these guys a lot because they’re mostly fluent in English, and I can speak to them pretty much like I’d speak to anyone back home. Some of them have been very nice to me, inviting me to go out for drinks or helping me call the internet company to find out why I’m getting screwed over. I really enjoy my time with them, even though I was warned by my supervising teacher that last year, the CAPES students rarely showed up for class (they’re not actually required to be there, as this is just seen as exam prep), so I shouldn’t put any energy or thought into what I prepare for them.

Of course, this was said by the supervising teacher of my *other* set of students. His name is Michel (pronounced Mee-chelle), and he’s a great guy. Very friendly, very welcoming, very gay (or at least that’s what my gay-dar is telling me). I like him quite a bit, but he does seem to be very prejudiced against the CAPES students (or possibly he just has a personal conflict with my CAPES supervising teacher, Pierre…I can’t quite tell). At any rate, I’m sure I’m going to enjoy my time with him, if not his students.

Unlike the CAPES crew, these students (about 120 in total) have not decided to dedicate their lives to teaching English. In point of fact, they seem to hate English, and only speak it because it’s required in class, and often not even then. Why are they studying English? Well, apparently the French government passed a law a few years ago saying roughly that all primary school teachers must be able to teach basic English to their students (I’m not an expert on French law, so I’m just repeating what’s been vaguely explained to me). These students are required to pass an exam to become primary school teachers, and part of the exam covers their knowledge of English. The portion of the exam which I help them prepare consists of reading through a short text, summarizing it, and then being able to answer questions about it.

I would frankly be shocked if the majority of these students could read an entire English text aloud in an intelligible accent; I would probably fall over dead if they were able to *comprehend* what they were reading and then spend 10 minutes adroitly answering questions on the topic. Now, if I were able to teach these students for several hours every week for the next 5 months, I think we would see a definite improvement; however, I am scheduled to teach these students approximately once per month. For an hour. In December and March I meet with them twice. Oh yeah, they’re gonna do great on that exam! Michel and I have had several discussions on the absolute futility and ridiculousness of this situation, but the fact remains that the French government, while increasing expectations of the students, has simultaneously cut down on school funding. So, not enough teachers, and definitely not enough time. It’s crazy.

Anyway, these are the general descriptions of my students; I’ll relate personal experiences of my teaching later on. I think this is a good place to end my update for right now, don’t you? Seems like a good time to make a cup of tea, enjoy a small snack of some variety, and pick up with some random stories in, shall we say, 20 minutes? Lovely!