jeudi 29 janvier 2009

National Pastimes

Today Josh and I went down to Marseille for my official medical visit for permission to stay long-term in the country. They checked my height, weight, and whether or not I had tuberculosis. Pretty routine. I had lost 2 kilos since my last doctors appointment, and when I jubilantly informed the nurse, her response was, “Vive la France!” Long live France, indeed.

The office receptionist was not as friendly, and I was surprised when she didn’t give me any forms to fill out when I arrived. Filling out paperwork is, apparently, the French national pastime. I have already filled out more papers in three months than I would fill out in five to ten years in the US, including college applications. I can only imagine that the receptionist failing to thrust a clipboard into my face was some kind of lack of gentility and warmth on her part. She also mumbled; perfect for someone whose only job is to interact with foreigners.

She wasn’t the only disgruntled French person today; the entire country went on a “pause café” (coffee break) as government offices went on strike to protest against the economy. I think it was something more specific, but perhaps not. I wouldn’t put it past anyone here to protest a concept; after all, headlines declared that the big snow storm a few weeks ago was “un scandale!” Incidentally, I finally got around to asking someone why there is a national fascination with Marylin Monroe, and the answer was, “le scandale.” I think because the French word has such big, floaty vowels, it’s much more fun to say, and therefore more often employed, than the American translation. “Scandal” just doesn’t sound as glamorous as “scahn-DAAAHL.”

Anyway, today the streets of Marseille were packed with protesters wielding signs, and even firecrackers, and Josh and I had to walk an hour both ways to get from the bus station to the doctor’s office. At several points we had to cross right through the “parade route.” I expected to have some trouble—after all, people were shouting and waving around things that were on fire—but we were able to walk right through the procession without anyone noticing us. I didn’t even need to use my really fabulous plan B, which was to take a marker and write some sort of strike-related slogan on the giant envelope I was carrying with my chest x-ray (proof of clean lungs), and then pretend to be part of the strike as we snuck through to the other side. But “les greves” here in the south are not at all scary, and we were safer crossing the strike route than we are crossing a regular street at a crosswalk. If you want to see what it looked like, here's the BBC article with some good video footage:

After my doctors visit, I took advantage of being in the big city to continue my obsessive hunt for a good pair of boots. Every shoe I picked up fell into one of two categories: it had a sole made out of some material closely resembling linoleum, or it was an American brand. I now have a solid theory about why the French so often indulge in their other national pastime: complaining. I used to rag on Americans for always wearing sneakers, but now my USA nostalgia is beginning to extend to footwear. Viva la Aerosoles!

mercredi 21 janvier 2009


When I studied abroad in Spain, I was really able to embrace my host family’s way of life, maybe because I decided before leaving that I would pretend I had grown up with them. I watched movies they saw as kids, read their old books, ate anything they put in front of me, imagined that I shared their political beliefs. Maybe I would never pass (or want to pass) as a real Spanish person, but I had a good experience there.

It was a nice, sound, middle-of-the-road way of doing things, and for some reason, I haven’t done it at all that way this time. Instead of strolling down the middle of the road, I find myself trying to hop along with a foot on each side. On one side, I refuse to give up my cultural “comfort zone.” I’m not willing to put my schoolbooks in a big purse instead of a backpack. I haven’t stopped rolling my eyes (and sometimes threatening civil disobedience) when faced with classic French bureaucracy. I’m judgmental about French educational methods. I boil with anger when I try to get on the bus and six or seven people squish into the door in front of me. I know I should just push ahead, too, but how can I do that in good conscience? Plus, I like my own culture, and I like acting like an American. When my friend Kim and I went to Ikea just before Christmas, we were waiting to take the spot of a woman who had two giant boxes she was trying, alone, to cantilever into her trunk. So, I hopped out to give her a hand (and get the spot sooner). She looked at me like I look at people who I think are trying to get me to join cults: at little nervous, a little weirded out, and very uncomfortable. I felt badly invading her personal space . . . but I figured, hey, she should be thankful for the good-neighborliness of Americans, and she couldn’t have gotten those boxes in the car on her own.

At the same time as I hang on to my “American-ness,” I have this expectation of being able to fit in and seem completely French. I think I’m getting a tiny taste of what immigrants must face—this question of the “A” word: assimilation—trying to keep an intact identity and intact links with home while wanting to have that same old sense of belonging in the new place, too.

But, slowly, we find a balance. It helps that I love French cheese. I can hold my head up proud in the grocery store as I pick out the same chèvre that all the French mamans pick up. And my adorable little students are very accepting. They’ve heard my garbled French, but that didn’t stop two seven-year-old boys from getting in an argument over whether or not I was a French native. Um, guys? I don’t conjugate my verbs.

Lest you think, from my students’ mistake, that I’m managing to fit in, I’ll tell you what happened on my way home that evening. As I waited to get on the bus, the woman in front of me turned around and asked me where I was from. When she saw how puzzled I was, she explained, with a chuckle, what the giveaway was: “You waited to get in a line to get on the bus. Only Anglophones do that.”

dimanche 18 janvier 2009

Celebrating an Accomplishment

Good news! I’ve reached one of the language-learning goals I set for myself when I started studying French: being able to tell people off.

This might seem absolutely ridiculous, but let me tell you what it feels like to be hair-raisingly annoyed by someone and disgusted at their behavior, and to know that if you were to open your mouth to say something, nothing intelligible would come out. It feels like wearing a straitjacket. (Which, yes, I have worn—although only on stage. So far.)

By the last month when I studied abroad in Spain, I managed to “talk back” to a shop girl who insisted that I try on the bathing suit tops separately from the bottoms since I had too many items to take into the fitting room at once. (I won that one). That was when I realized the freedom that comes with being able to express strong disapproval without completely losing your dignity at the same time.

Until recently, all I have been able to do in French in similar situations is try not to cry.

But all that changed! Our next-door neighbors like to have late (and LOUD) parties. Josh has gone over a couple of times, as well as written them a letter. (Josh is our elected family representative to noisy neighbors, even in the States.) Sometimes a gentle cajoling gets them quiet. . .for an hour or so. So, around midnight a few nights ago, when Josh was sitting on the couch looking weary and bewildered, I threw on my shoes and marched outside. I stood in the alley in front of both our apartments and yelled until someone came to the window (don’t ask me what I yelled, I don’t remember, but it worked.) Our conversation went like this:

Me: Bon soir. Je suis votre voisine. J’habite la. Je ne peux pas dormir. (Good evening. I am your neighbor. I live there. *point* I can’t sleep.)

It might look simple in writing, but it was accompanied by my teacher face. It did the job.

They apologized, and showered me with flippant niceties (good night, good year, health to you, happiness to you. . . ) as I gave them another firm teacher glare, and went back in the house. They were quiet long enough for us to fall asleep, and my sense of accomplishment has lasted a lot longer.

dimanche 11 janvier 2009

Winter Sports

Surprisingly, we’ve found January the perfect time of the year here to practice our favorite sports. Josh finally got in touch with the city’s ultimate frisbee team, and today he’s wearing a t-shirt and shorts and playing in an ultimate frisbee tournament on the beach in St. Tropez. He called about an hour ago to say that he could see the Alps from the beach. His comment about the tournament: What else is the French Riviera for?

I’ve had similar luck with my favorite sport: shopping. January is one of two “soldes,” sale months, here. Basically stores save up all their clearance merchandise, and put it back out starting January 7th. January 7th was also the first day of “The Big Chill,” as the newspapers were calling it. We were hit with six inches of snow, which closed the highways for at least a day and cancelled school for three. It snows so infrequently here that there are no snow plows. There were, however, some very happy children (and children at heart) who built snowmen in the squares, had snowball fights in the streets, and skied to the grocery store.

Six inches of snow is nothing for a girl from Central PA, so on Wednesday afternoon, I ate a good lunch, strapped on my boots and headed out to rock the soldes. Now I’m lounging in my amazing new yoga pants that gather in bows at the ankles and would make Princess Jasmine jealous, just starting to study for the exam I was supposed to have on Thursday. La vie est belle!

On another note: we finally understand why everyone in Central PA runs out to buy bread and milk when the forecasters call for snow. Delivery trucks couldn’t make it into town, and on Friday our supermarket was almost empty of all the everyday staples. Paté, anyone?