mardi 14 octobre 2008

Status Update

Status update. Tomorrow we will have been here four weeks. It seems a lot longer.

According to friends who have lived in developing countries, France is worse. I don’t know if I mentioned that our apartment doesn’t exist. We rented number nine, but there is no number nine, so our apartment must be number ten. It’s even more complicated because the street diverts into a little alleyway, and that’s where our door is. It’s called an “impasse” here. Most of our mail has had no problem getting here, no matter what number it is addressed to. However, important packages don’t seem to make it. Yesterday we got a letter from home mailed last Wednesday. It made it here in three business days. We’re still waiting for an envelope that was overnighted two days before that. And we’re also still waiting for our internet router package, the infamous “neufbox.” “Neuf” is French for nine, so we’ve started asking, Q: “what time will our neufbox get here?” A: “Neuf heurs” (9:00, pronounced “neuv-eur” = never). We ordered it over a month ago, but it takes up to ten days for the company to ship it to you. Apparently ours was undeliverable for some reason, so it sat in the post office, and was then shipped back. We can’t order a new one until our phone service, which was cut off for some reason, is reinstated. We can’t call to get our phone service reinstated because you can’t call official numbers from phone booths here. I’m wondering if I should have seen it as ominous when we moved to an impasse, because that’s where we’re at.

But we agreed last night that we need an attitude adjustment. There are wonderful things to see and do here, and if no human efforts will possibly get us internet chez nous any sooner than next week, we may as well go have fun. This weekend we might try to go hike Mount Sainte-Victoire, or go to the beach. Something to get out of the city and smell trees again!

In the mean time, we both like our classes reasonably well, and are settling into our jobs fairly easily. I’ll report back about those topics once I have some time to digest them. But here is an update on how my French is coming. I have almost successfully made it through a phone call with the electric company (that was the day our electricity was accidentally cut off). I was also able to have a full conversation with the woman in the post office. However, when I tried to tell her “I don’t understand how the postal system works here because I’m a foreigner,” I instead informed her that, “I don’t understand how the postal system works here because I’m strange.” I can’t even begin to ennumerate all the other ridiculous things I have said while thinking I was communicating in a clear and dignified manner. But, it’s all part of learning a new language!

And now, more important than a status update, a yogurt/prepackaged dessert cup update: On Saturday, we realized that the cheap yogurts that were “just passable” only cost about 17 American cents a yogurt, so perhaps you get what you pay for. We doubled our yogurt expenditure this week and spent about 35 American cents per yogurt, and were once more met with dairy bliss. Coconut flavor is totally the way to go. Along with the yogurts we got coffee custard and “apple dessert,” applesauce that makes Mott’s look like child’s play. We got raspberry (good) and “tarte tatin” (interesting). Tarte tatin is a carmelized apple pastry, so this was basically apple sauce with carmel in it. Carmel flavor here isn’t like the sweet, sticky American stuff. It has a deep, burnt tone to it, like homemade caramel (at least the stuff I make—is there anyone out there that can make caramel without burning it? ). It took some getting used to but of course, now I’m addicted. We haven’t eaten the coffee custard yet, because we made a rule that we’ll only have dessert on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and once a weekend. We’re sticking to it really well, as long as you don’t count desserts eaten before dinner.

mardi 7 octobre 2008

Baked Goods

This morning, I had a rather exciting experience with boulangerie. After eating a sparse but healthy breakfast, I needed something fluffly and full of carbs to fill my tummy. I poked my nose into the boulangerie across the street to find something delicious that wouldn’t send me on a sugar high. That’s a tall order around here some times. While I waited in line, my eyes grazed across the rows of patisserie and brioche. Then I spotted something in a basket on the counter: “Tonipain, 1,40.” They looked like giant round. . . dog biscuits. “C’est sucré?” I asked the shopkeeper skeptically: “Is it sweet?” She gave me the sales pitch: made of cereals (whole grains) with no added fat and no added sugar, just dried fruits for flavor. “Is it as good as a brioche?” No, but it’s healthy. After having spent the morning doing crunches for the first time in over a year, I thought the trend might be worth keeping up. I shelled out the euro forty and tucked the tonipain into my purse. I planned to eat half now, and half during break from classes. Well, we all know what happens to the best laid plans of mice and men. After my first bite, I wanted to cry. The tonipain was perfect. The natural sweetness of the grains felt fresh and wholesome, like a farmhouse kitchen on a sunlit morning. The dried fruits were exotic, with rich, subtle flavors and little bursts of citrus. The biscuit was a little firm on the outside, but the perfect balance between doughy and cottony on the inside. Never had I had bread with tastes like this: they danced across my tongue. After five minutes of blissful nibbling, my tonipain was gone. Now all I have to do is justify spending a euro forty every morning for breakfast . . .

Customer Service

One of the first lessons we’re learning here: the difference between French and American ideas of customer service. Imagine that you walk into the AT&T store. Not a single employee acknowledges your presence. Even the guy over in the corner filing papers stays focused on his drudgery. You wait several minutes. Nothing happens. You wait several more minutes. Finally, the guy who was filing papers is done. He looks up and says hello.

If this happened in the US, you wouldn’t have waited past the first several minutes. Here, things are different. I have already spent more time waiting to be acknowledged than I have spent in museums and at sidewalk cafes combined. At first, I was frustrated. Actually, I’m still a little bit frustrated. But I have to acknowledge the flip side of the coin. As soon as it’s your turn to buy bus tickets, ask a question, or file a form, you have the person’s undivided attention until you have completed every task with which they could possibly help you. The woman at the bus station talked us step-by-step through purchasing month-long passes as if we were sitting on her back porch drinking iced tea. Never mind the twenty people in line behind us. They’ll get good service when it’s their turn.

Meeting Up

When we got here, Josh called Madame Lehman, his boss at the Academie. He felt slighted when she told him, “I’m too busy to talk right now. Call back in ten minutes.” But when he called back, he got, “Let me see if I can help you—and does your wife want a job, too?” Of course I did! It means that I get to spend six hours a week with adorable French children, and someone else has to file my papers to get permission to stay in the country.

So, off to orientations, as language assistants and at the schools where we’ll be studying. Our language assistant orientation took place in Marseille. A forty minute bus ride away, the city is big, dirty, and wonderful. It sprawls over hills on the Mediterranean, with a deep blue jewel of a port, flanked by medieval fortresses, nestled in the heart of the old city. We used one of our lunch breaks to sit on the docks and watch white sailboat masts bob against the blue sky.

Most of our orientation involved sitting around filling out forms, waiting to fill out forms, or waiting to hand in the forms we’d just filled out. It gave us lots of time (but still not quite enough) to talk to the other assistants. There was something spectacular about being in a room full of people whose ideas had so closely aligned with mine that they had just made the same weird life decision. It was one of the best “meet‘n’greets” I’ve been to.

Madame Lehman (or, as Josh calls her, Monique) was the protagonist of the week. The “grande coordinatrice” of our program, she’s a US Marine, a grandmother, and MC Hammer rolled into one. When I first met her, I made my customary error of backing up in surprise when she went in for the “nice to meet you” cheek kisses. She grabbed me and planted them on. Many of my conversations with the other assistants were about something Madame Lehman had said or done. They went from, “Did you see her with the girl that was crying? She patted her on the bottom!” to, “I’d skip out on this orientation, but I’m afraid of Madame Lehman.”

And Madame Lehman had a special place in her heart for, as she calls him, “Jo-su-ah.” I had to explain to the other assistants why she called on him to do things like help her load a powerpoint presentation at one of our big meetings and to make announcements on the bus. Unfortunately, I didn’t know what to tell them.

When Friday morning rolled around, we were prepared. We’d heard from second-time language assistants that at the big meeting with everyone there, Madame Lehman would call on a few of her “favorites” to come up and do various things in front of the assembly (speak Chinese, tell a joke, throw a football). It seemed like she was showing them off as representatives of how great she thought we all were (confirmation of this view: she had photographers roving around taking pictures of us). The humiliation part of the assembly would happen after the long and boring welcome speeches, but before the visit by the regional official (whose entrance would be preceded by trumpet music). Luckily we decided not to bail on the whole event. The first several welcome speeches came and went, each about forty-five minutes. A few of us assistants were called on to undergo public humiliation and answer questions asked too quickly in French. Another language assistant came out playing the violin, at which point the regional official came down the long flight of stairs from the back of the auditorium.

And then it happened. After the regional official finished his own welcome speech, Madame Lehman joined him at the front of the room. She took the microphone, and: “Josua?” Josh looked up from his reading. “Josua?” “Maybe it’s not you!” I whispered. It was him. “Ou est Josua?” He stood up. She called him to the front. He and the regional official exchanged some kind of communication unintelligible to the rest of us. He scurried back to his seat. The procedure was repeated with another victim (I mean language assistant). When he got back he told us what had happened: Madame Lehman had simply told him to “speak French.” She wanted the regional official to guess where he was from. He began by saying, “Bonjour” in the thickest American accent he could muster. He turned to Madame Lehman. Her face was stone cold. He proceeded to say something in his real, “French person French,” and then the regional official guessed that he was an anglophone. And then he was free.

Why are they doing this? We all asked each other. Our only guess is that this is the French idea of team building. Madame Lehman seemed to be enjoying it like a proud parent at kindergarten graduation.

Lest you get the idea that our orientation was not pleasant, let me give you a few details: bottles of wine set out for us on the college cafeteria tables. Patisserie and free meals every time we turned around. “Formacion pedagogique,” teacher training. And best of all, meeting the American consulate.

Madame le Consul had a special presentation for American language assistants to give us a welcome speech (surprise) and tell us what the consulate could do if we needed it. After years of French orientation, being “presented to” by an American was a relief. In fact, it felt nostalgically like our college orientations. And Madame le Consulate not only welcomed us with a speech. She welcomed us into her home. Thursday evening was crowned by a visit to the official consular residence. Sweeping seaside views from the terrace and delicious regional specialties awaited us. I had: provencal tabouleh, eggplant terrine with red sauce, two kinds of quiche, meatball stuffed tomatoes, frangrant grapes and cheeses, and meringue topped with sorbet and ice cream.

But best of all was Madame le Consul herself. She manages to seem, at the same time, like both your favorite aunt, and your gracious monarch. She has all the dignity and decorum of a head of state, but is down to earth enough that I bet she could talk about how much dog poop there is on the sidewalks here. The majority of students I talked to or overheard were completely in awe and suddenly planning careers in foreign service. Madame le Consul warned us that it takes years of difficult and demanding posts to earn a position as clutch as Consul in the South of France. I know that she’s managed to work her way through some pretty adverse situations (she spent years in the Middle East). But she never alluded to the part of the job I’m sure must be the hardest: thinking before she speaks. I know I could never do it, so I guess I’d better give up dreams of living in a seaside mansion and giving out emergency passports. I’m sure teaching English has its own perks.

One last brush with French office life: Friday afternoon, we were finally done, but I had one more paper to drop off. I went with two of the other assitants, Michelle and Julia (who’s from Central PA—woot, woot.). Julia just had to turn in a bank information card—A “RIB.” Banks print them out in sheets of three and you need them for most major financial agreements, like phone contracts, or to get paid by your employer. Julia had carefully torn one off the top of the sheet, and handed it to Madame le Office Person. There was a kerfuffle in French, after which Julia handed over the rest of her sheet of RIBs, and Madame le Office Person pulled out a pair of scissors to cut off a different one. When we were back outside, I asked an indignant Julia what that had all been about. “She didn’t want a ripped one! She actually said, ‘Is this the best you have to give me?’” “Can I put that on my blog?” “Please do.”

mercredi 1 octobre 2008

Some Photos

Sitting in the snack shop across the street eating a nutella crepe while I share some pictures. . . too bad I can't share the crepe, too (for you, anyway). The first picture is the street near our apartment. That's the bell tower of Saint-Sauveur. The picture was taken about five feet from where I'm sitting. We spend a lot of time here.

This crepe is really good.

The second picture is part of the old town walls of Aix. This tower was built during the hundred years' war against England, to protect the town from roving groups of soldiers who had gone AWOL.

The third picture needs a little more explanation. It's a door across the street from my school, and I took a picture of it because it's completely unremarkable. It falls right in the middle of the spectrum of cool doors in Aix. It's actually pretty boring, as doors here go. So, if this is boring, imagine how cool the cool doors are.