Sunday, October 22, 2006

Looking over my past posts, I notice that there is a glaring omission. Mainly, what about the classes I am supposed to be teaching? It is, after all, the reason I am here (and getting paid). Actually, this is something that is going to a bit difficult... I teach at two Coll├Ęges which house students who are 11-15 years old and are roughly equivalent to junior high/middle school in the States. Both are so disparate in student makeup, economic condition, and faculty that I will address each independently:

Ernest Renan
I will always remember walking up to this school my second full day in France. Wandering lost through the forest of high-rise apartment buildings thrown together in the mid-eighties and having 14 year-old kids asking me for a cigarette until I found a large gate in the stone wall. Renan is a large school, but, as the vice principle told me at our first meeting, one that can be very trying. The children who go here are not violent or scary, they are not very interested in learning and enjoy getting expelled from class. You see, Renan is located in the immigrant quarter of the region (in this case mostly of an Islamic background). For the most part their parents are either unemployed or barely able to make ends meet, they are socially marginalized, and often distrusted by the general population (which, I'm sad to report, sometimes infects their teachers too). As a result, Renan is under financed and is making do with staffing problems and out-dated technology. The teachers are very dedicated, but also very young. I have to admit that I am closest to the staff here because they are younger and more interested in talking and hanging-out. Here I teach six (boring) hours a week where I sit in the back or front of the class reading aloud occasionally but mostly sitting. Not that I would agree to teach more than four or five of the students by myself; however, it would be nice to be of more use to the children. They are good kids, but they are just very... loud.

Everything I said about Renan take and flip it on its head. This school, though located in the same suburb, is economically well-off, the students are attentive, and the staff are very experienced. The "ideal" school. Here I teach five hours a week - one first year class and two advanced classes. The first years are so cute! I am amazed how much growing (physically and mentally) children do in these three years. Anyway, their teacher takes about eight of them each week to review what they learned and I am left to play whatever games or sing whatever songs I think reinforce what they were learning. The other two classes are two hours long - I take half the class for half the time and then we switch. With the fourth year students I just try to get them to speak as much as possible, and with the fifth year students I correlate with their lessons with what they are studying at the time (they are better served by hearing me speak in a normal fashion, whereas the others need to speak themselves). Everything here is easy and straight foreword, except, being a first time teacher it is overwhelming to be told to teach whatever you want for an hour.

Albert Einstein said something like - It is nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not entirely strangled the curiosity of inquiry. I can be a bit of an idealist; however after three weeks I think that I have abandoned this guiding sentiment for one that will get me through the next hour. I hated junior high school, as every sensible person does, and now I am back teaching students who really don't want to learn. Don't get me wrong, I can't see myself doing anything else right now. I am a good teacher and entertain the students well. Also, it does have its benefits : I am getting rather good at British English. "I went to university, etc. And I have learned that in the UK you ask "Have you got a pencil;" whereas to American ears this sounds a bit awkward. Who knew?

Overall, I have had my frustrations and miss-communications with both schools. Yet I am glad I can help (how much my help is worth we will have to wait and see).


Sunday, October 15, 2006

After many unfruitful meetings with gruff landlords and countless miles put on my poor shoes, I have found a place to live! Things just seemed to fall into place, and in order to fully appreciate the joy this house gives me you need to know the events that led up to its discovery...

I had been living in a hotel for a week and I still had not found a suitable domicile (and I really was not all that particular). One day one of the English teachers mentioned that she was letting a room but someone was looking at it that night. If they did not want it I could take a look sometime over the weekend. I cannot describe how much I wanted this place - and I hadn't even seen it yet. Later that week I received an e-mail from the teacher saying two other people were taking a look at it, would I like to join them? Absolutely! The day of our rendez-vous came. The rain was pouring and the wind was whipping, but I trudged through the adverse conditions towards certain victory (I am a pushy American after all). I arrived a comfortable five minutes early to a beautiful if small stone row house in an upper middle-class neighborhood. Low and behold, one of the people cancelled their appointment. The teacher and I chatted, waiting for the other person. Twenty minutes later she called to discover he was caught on the bus, stuck in traffic. Well, she decided to let me look at the "room." I was expecting to head upstairs or towards the basement (like all of the other rooms I had seen). Alas, she put her shoes on and took me into their extensive (for a city) garden to a separate little house - la petite maison. After less than five minutes I took it! This was two weeks ago, and I moved in this past Monday.

My petite maison, as I said, resides in an overgrown British style garden. It has one window that overlooks a beautiful rose bush, a tuft of lavender, and an ivy and moss covered stone wall. I enter the property from the musty garage in the back, walk up the stone path past the rabbit hutch, garden shed, and office to my door. Using my brass key and a lot of force if it is humid I enter a rather large room with 12-foot ceilings. Ahead is a small refrigerator and microwave, to the left a large table, upon the far left wall my small bed sits, and slightly to the right of the bed stands a large shelf/closet unit. The bathroom is through a very small door on the right - there is enough room to walk sideways from the sink to the shower, but it is clean and everything works efficiently. As of now, everything is rather spare and the white washed walls are glaringly sparse. Nevertheless, I have quickly made it my own and I look at it with a mother's eye - I cannot see the draftiness of the door, frequency of spiders, or the strange thudding noise five or six times a day.

My landlords, who live in the "main house" are very sweet. The woman is an English teacher, but she herself is Danish (and we have started sharing French bureaucracy horror stories). She is young, creative, and very driven. Her husband, a Frenchman, is also very nice, speaks English well (but we converse in French most of the time). They have two children and she is pregnant with their third. They are active noisy boys, normal. Actually, I babysat the younger one last night. We drew pictures and I read him a story (he had to pick the hardest and longest children's book ever - I barely understood most of the words, let alone know how to pronounce them): overall one of the easiest babysitting gigs I've ever had, plus it is an excellent way of subsidizing my already low rent.

Now that I have overcame this hurtle, I am ready to face the next... getting a bank account and having a physical from the immigration office (no TB here). In addition, I can start travelling a bit more. I think I have walked every street in Nantes so it is time to expand my walking options.


Thursday, October 05, 2006

When you think of France and French people, often a less than attractive picture comes to mind. One of snotty waiters and people on the street who would rather get their teeth pulled than direct you to the Place de la Concorde. However, like all stereotypes, this is simply not true.

As one of my fellow assistants put it, "If someone's only experience with France is in Paris, then it is no wonder they never want to come back."

Nantes, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. In fact I have never met with nicer people in my life. It is your essential French city - men carrying baguettes under their arms, women navigating cobble stone roads in stilettos, and children playing soccer in the streets on a Wednesday afternoon. Yet is is quite a large city complete with an excellent metro system, a dodgy part of town, and a modern quarter. I think that Nantes has been able to retain its old-world beauty because of the lack of tourists. True, there is a Chateau and an old Cathedral, not to mention one of the best Beaux-Arts Museums in this region (one of the best Kandinsky's, and a ton of Gordins), but they are far surpassed by the other Chateaus and Cathedrals that line the Loire.

A perfect example of this is the Creperie that I visited this past week. In a less than picturesque part of town sits a forgotten string of restaurants in their original buildings. For example, this particular creperie is housed in an old house, were there has been a restaurant/tavern in continual operation for more than four hundred years. When you enter, and cut your way through a curtain of smoke, a friendly Frenchman escorts you up a flight of creaky old stairs to the first landing (nonsmoking, surprisingly) or up to the third floor. In each floor there is seating for twenty people which is more than ample for the spattering of lunch patrons. For 8 € 50 (about 11 dollars, an amazing deal) you can buy the menu de midi (lunch menu): choice between an onion, ham, or cheese savory crepe, choice between a lemon, chocolate, sweet cheese, or orange crepe for desert, and a choice between coffee, water, or french cider (sparkling apple juice). All of this is served with a smile and a small "how's your mom" kind of chat. I cannot remember a friendlier meal in Europe, let alone France.

There is only one truly visible scar to this city, one annoying blight for any romantic American - the unimaginably ugly brown tower that forces its way into the otherwise unspoiled neo-classical skyline. The majority of Nantes sits along the north shore of the Loire river. It was a rich and beautiful city thanks to the fishing and the near-by salt flats. This is where the merchants who became wealthy chose to build their magnificent town houses. Many of these homes escaped the bombings of WWII and continue to lend Nantes a stately beauty. However, in the mid 80s, some bank somewhere decided to destroy a block of these buildings and build a beacon of modernity in the heart of Nantes. After they finished and the people realized that it was ugly, the city banned any further destruction of their old-town. Too late for that. The bright side is that if you are standing underneath the awning of this brown thing, your view of the medieval part of Nantes is unparalleled and unspoiled.


Sunday, October 01, 2006

Welcome to France, and what a journey it has been!

For those of you unfamiliar with my situation, let me enlighten you: I am an English assistant in St. Herblain, a suburb of Nantes. I will be teaching in two Coll├ęges (roughly equivalent to Jr. High Schools). Currently I am living in a hotel in the heart of Nantes, looking for an apartment or a room to let, navigating the unorganized world of French bureaucracy, and fighting the after effects of jet-lag.

The majority of my time has not been spent enjoying the pleasures of un express (espresso) or a burre blank(Nantais delicacy), but wading through the long-standing time-honored pool of paperwork and senseless bureaucracy. After all, this is the best way to begin to create a cultural picture of the French people and society. It gets to the heart of the matter - the meat of the issue. In all of this I have learned two valuable lessons:

1. French people love official documents more than a fine Burgandy wine.
2. French people don't care if you tell little white lies if you successfully fulfill the requirements of number 1.

I have a grey plastic accordion file folder with all of my important document neatly organized by type and category. It is always safely tucked in my satchel bag and slug across my back at all times. Why? Not because I am scared they will be stolen, but because I am never sure when or where I will need to pull out a notarized copy of my birth certificate or a note of guarantee from my parents. Here is the perfect example - getting a bank account. Now I have not tried this yet, as housing and visa have been my top priorities, but before I get payed I must open an account as a rite-of-passage. In order to do so I must have a multitude of documents. First my passport and a copy; okay. Second, my proof of employment which must include all of the following: working card, letter of acceptance, and my "arrete de nomination" (which I really don't know what it denotes). Third, my proof of habitation. Fourth, proof from my bank that I am in good standing. Fifth, a letter from my school telling the bank that they will cover my overages if I flee the country. Now the bank my not ask for all of these, but they may - in fact they may ask for three times as much if they wish.

White lies never really hurt someone, and in France they can be a foreigner's best friend. For example, one of the easiest ways to find cheep housing is through the student organization CNOUS. From what I gather, CNOUS helps international students find housing by creating a free database of furnished apartments. You have to visit the CNOUS office in order to gain access to the site. Why? Because they need some documents that prove you are currently a student somewhere in the world. Having just graduated, I don't quite fit into this category. Nevertheless, I was able to find an old version of my AER (Academic Evaluation Report) from April 2006 that showed I did not have enough credits to graduate (through some sort of clerical error, all of my credits from my semester in Hungary were missing and the situation was remedied before graduation). The CNOUS lady barely looked at the document and gave me an account. I think that the important part was the fact I had a stack of papers to hand her, not the meaning of the documents themselves.

All in all I am adjusting to life here very quickly. The people are more than friendly, and when anyone finds out that I don't know a soul in France they grab a pen and paper to give me their name and address and the name and address of their mother. My notebook is quickly filling with scribbled names and numbers.