Let’s talk about the weather (and grammar)

It’s May 23, and we’ve been dealing with freezing rain, temperatures in the mid 40s, and nary a bit of sun… or when there is sun, you’d better snap a quick photo of it, since it’ll disappear fast.  It feels somewhat like a land of perpetual November, the Doldrums of the Phantom’s Tollbooth or the legendary Winter presaged by Winterfell.  Thinking back to the Snowpocalypse of March, I almost feel like we had things easy.  Never in my life have I experienced such wet, gray, and bone-chilling cold in late May!

The city is surprisingly still humming along nicely, as people dodge rain showers like they would bullets in a war zone.  The people I see coming into the center to work on English are mostly frazzled, or cold, as it’s certainly the end (or beginning) of exam season, depending on what type of program you are following.  In many ways, the bad weather is good news for the company.  More people are staying in the center listening to English dialogues rather than risk an accident driving home in the pouring rain.  Brian isn’t in the kitchen, he’s standing outside the center munching on his sandwich during lunch break, and he would be foolish not to bring his umbrella.

On a somewhat more random note, I’ve been discovering a lot of peculiarities about the English language – the more subtle differences between British and American English than just the accent and the vocabulary (we all discover what the boot, the lorry, the jumper, the car park, and the loo are after chatting a bit).  Here are a few examples:

 As past participles of get, the words ‘got’ and ‘gotten’ both date back to Middle English. In North American English, got and gotten are not identical in use. Gotten usually implies the process of obtaining something ( he has gotten two tickets for the show), while got implies the state of possession or ownership ( he hasn’t got any money).

There’s also the present subjunctive, which apparently the British no longer use but Americans (who have studied grammar in school) still do:

The main use of the English present subjunctive, called the mandative or jussive subjunctive,[1] occurs in that clauses (declarative content clauses; the word that can sometimes be omitted) expressing a circumstance which is desired, demanded, recommended, necessary, or similar. Such a clause may be dependent on verbs like insistsuggestdemand,prefer,[2] adjectives like necessarydesirable,[3] or nouns like recommendationnecessity;[4] it may be part of the expression in order that… (or some formal uses of so that…); it may also stand independently as the subject of a clause or as a predicative expression.

The form is called the present subjunctive because it resembles the present indicative in form, not because it need refer to the present time. In fact this form can equally well be used in sentences referring to past, future or hypothetical time (the time frame is normally expressed in the verb of the main clause).

Examples:

  • I insist (that) he leave now.
  • We asked that it be done yesterday.
  • It might be desirable that you not publish the story.
  • I support the recommendation that they not be punished.
  • I braked in order that the car stay on the road.
  • That he appear in court is a necessary condition for his being granted bail.

Note that after some words both indicative and subjunctive are possible, with difference in meaning:

  • I insist that he is here (indicative, a forceful assertion of the fact that he is here)
  • I insist that he be here (subjunctive, a demand that the condition of his being here be fulfilled)

Notice that the subjunctive is not generally used after verbs such as hope and expect, or after verbs that use a different syntax, such as want (it is not usual to say *I want that he wash up; the typical syntax is I want him to wash up).

Another use of the present subjunctive is in clauses with the conjunction lest, which generally express a potential adverse event:

  • I am running faster lest she catch me (i.e. “in order that she not catch me”)
  • I was worried lest she catch me (i.e. “that she might catch me”)

And let’s not even go into the [correct] use of the past subjunctive… If I were you, I would avoid that tricky bit of grammar.

We can also blame the French for a lot of our pronunciation differences:

For many loanwords from French where AmE has final-syllable stress, BrE stresses an earlier syllable. Such words include:

  • BrE first-syllable stress: adultA2,B2balletA2batonberetbidetblasébrevetA2brochureB2buffetcaféA2canardB2chagrinchaletA2chauffeurA2,B2chiffonclichéB2coupé,croissantdebrisB2debutdécordetailA2détenteB2flambéfrappégarageB2gateaugourmetA2lamémontageA2parquetpastelpastillepâtéprécissachetsalon,soupçonvaccinematinéenégligéenonchalantnondescript; also some French names, including BernardB2CalaisDegasDijonDumasFrancoiseManetA2Maurice,MonetA2PaulineRenaultRenéB2RenoirRimbaudDelacroixB2.
  • BrE second-syllable stress: attachéconsommédécolletédéclasséDe BeauvoirDebussydémodédenouementdistinguéDubonnetescargotexposéfiancé(e)A2retroussé

A few French words have other stress differences:

  • AmE first-syllable, BrE last-syllable: addressA2 (postal), moustacheA2cigaretteA2limousineB2magazineB2,
  • AmE first-syllable, BrE second-syllable: liaisonA2macraméRenaissance (AmE also final-syllable stress)
  • AmE second-syllable, BrE last-syllable: New OrleansA2

My British and Irish co-workers run into this syllable difference when discussing certain key words, such as mobile (which Americans don’t really even use, preferring by far “cell phone”).

Words ending in unstressed -ile derived from Latin adjectives ending -ilis are mostly pronounced with a full vowel (/aɪl/) in BrE but a reduced vowel /ɪl/ or syllabic /l/ in AmE (e.g. fertile rhymes with fur tile in BrE but with furtle in AmE). This difference applies:

  • generally to agiledocilefacilefertilefissilefragilefutileinfertilemissilenubileoctilepuerilerutileservilestabilesteriletactiletensilevirilevolatile;
  • usually to ductilehostile(im)mobile (adjective), projectiletextileutileversatile;
  • not usually to deciledomicileinfantilejuvenilelabilemercantilepensilereptilesenile;
  • not to crocodileexilegentilepercentilereconcile; nor to compounds of monosyllables (e.g. turnstile from stile).

Related endings -ility-ilize-iliary are pronounced the same in AmE as BrE. The name Savile is pronounced with (/ɪl/) in both BrE and AmE. Mobile (sculpture), camomile and febrile are sometimes pronounced with /il/ in AmE and /aɪl/ in BrE. Imbecile has /aɪl/ or /iːl/ in BrE and often /ɪl/ in AmE.

If you asked me, the weather is getting pretty weird (how’s that for a second conditional with an elliptical structure!)

Categories: Daily Life, Seasons | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

It’s a small world (after all)

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It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears…

You all remember that obnoxious Disney song? (And perhaps the 50’s-esque theme park ride in Disney World, for those of you having been blessed with such a childhood experience). Well, lately, I’ve been starting to feel like it’s more or less true. The more you travel, the more people you know around the world, the smaller the world seems to feel. I remember a Swiss friend telling me once about a common habit the Swiss (who love Australia almost as much as they love Canada) have: when meeting an Australian, they have a tendency to ask him or her, “Do you know my cousin? He’s been there for about a year or two now,” as if there were only a handful of Swiss to know in the whole country. Surprisingly enough, this sometimes works in real life, as in the case of my mother eating out in a restaurant in Chicago only to find that the waitress was a high school classmate of mine, who happened to be following my blog.

You see where I’m going with this? I imagined the blogosphere to be some sort of benevolent void into which I sent blog post after blog post, testing my writing chops and working out the kinks in my long dormant reflects (and penchant for writing).  I knew that my relatives, whose presence on Facebook very much eclipses my own, would probably follow what I was up to, as well as some of my two hundred or something Facebook friends, an assortment of school acquaintances and close friends.  But I never expected to connect with someone, in a non-virtual way.  But apparently, not only are there too few English-speaking or American expats in Amiens, there are even fewer who have a blog (with the exception of your wonderful blog, Fliss).  Which makes me rather Google friendly.

To date, I have connected with one American couple, both virtually and in person, and I recently received a call from an international company who had found my blog, only to connect with me via Linkedin.  And what they asked me to do (it’s a company secret!) has required me to utilize my very limited but surprising networking skills: contacting friends formerly living in Amiens, friends currently living in Amiens, and current and former employers both residing in and outside of Amiens.  All in order to connect with three other countries for (hopefully) a virtual job well done.

I’m still not sure whether or not I feel like globalization makes the world more distant – you can just as easily “meet” someone in a virtual setting and never actually spend time with them in real life – or more connected.  Smaller or more technologically in tune?  I’ll have another opportunity to test the waters on this whole “global” thing by beginning an online MBA class with a university down the street from where my mother resides and next door to where I went to high school – a small, private university that happens to have campuses on three continents.  I’m even thinking, if this online learning works out, of taking the plunge with Coursera, in order to pick up a few valuable skills (Java?) and round out my repertoire.  Heck, if Duolingo can work for me, why not some other virtual classroom?  At least the teachers and classmates (all a million of them) are (theoretically) real people…

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The Visit

Welcoming the pilgrims

Welcoming the pilgrims

Remember that wedding I attended in August in the gorgeous Sand Hills of Nebraska? The (not so) newlyweds are finally on their honeymoon, backpacking across the Camino de Santiago de Compostela over a month-and-a-half period (crazy, I know).  But I was also lucky enough to have had the privilege of hosting my two friends over the past weekend.  They arrived last Friday, bringing with them beautiful spring sunshine and blooming flowers.  The entire day was absolutely gorgeous, and we made sure to take advantage of the Parc Saint Pierre in its full spring splendor.

When you have lived in several different places, be it a few cities or a few countries, one of the great rewards of life is to have a visitor from one of your “worlds” come and visit you at another.  I’ve had my Swiss sisters come to Omaha and see me in Amiens, and I’ve had multiple members of my family visit me in France and Switzerland.  This is the first time, however, that I’ve had close friends from the United States treat me to a visit, spending extra money and going out of their way to see me and my quaint little French town.  I felt like an eager kid showing off his preschool to his parents, everything from his playground friends to his favorite teacher, and I know that Hedi, long accustomed to living in Amiens, was able to view the city with the eyes of a tourist.  Wow, that Cathedral is gorgeous and look at all those old buildings!  Hedi was suddenly thrust into a world of English, and I kept speaking the wrong language to the wrong person.  Rarely have I had such an opportunity to constantly be speaking more than one language side by side, although I’ve already noticed a new stage in my bilingualism since working at a school where English is constantly spoken and returning home to speak and read in and listen constantly to French.

I had a bit of all my different worlds join forces together at My Goodness on Friday night: the old and the new, friends from College, from my Masters program, from my first study abroad experience, from my new job.  It was quite pleasant, especially to share stories about British English vs. American English, to talk about meeting one’s other half (and all the risks of the unknown), and to combine a bit of everything I have ever known.  We were American, English, Tunisian, and French, using a variety of languages and comparing the foreignness of our different experiences.

Time was spent in the Cathedral, walking around the city, visiting the beautiful floating gardens, playing Settlers of Catan, and cooking various delicious meals.  We went to the large souk-like market on Sunday and came back bearing halal roast chickens, more types of olives than my friends had ever seen in their entire lives, loaves of bread, and a variety of honey-saturated North African pastries.  We even got to Skype with a mutual friend to end a weekend of startling juxtaposition.  And off the pilgrims go, on their way through the Northwestern coast of Spain.  À la prochaine!

 

Categories: Amiens, Daily Life, Expats, Seasons | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Vacationless Vacation

I’ve got an hour to kill in the library, and it’s long past time that I update this blog.  So much has happened in the past three weeks, that I’m not really sure where to start.

I finally got that stable, permanent-contract job in Amiens, known in France as a CDI.  And I love it.  I’m teaching English to adults, following a specific method with a great staff and two fellow English-speakers, a Brittish girl my age and an Irish guy whose full-time passion is music.  The videos that make up the backbone of the learning method are pretty funny, and I’m learning loads about my own language in teaching it.  I have stable hours at a center not far from my apartment, stable (though very low) monthly pay and other job benefits.  Plenty of resources are available for me to use, and I’m gaining tons of experience.  There are nevertheless a few catches : I can no longer go to Italy this summer, as it’s a year-round job with few days of vacation until they’ve been accumulated throughout the year.  And, as a foreign student on a student visa, I am only able to work up to 20 hours a week.  I found a job I really like but am still not guaranteed the security to stay here in France, as in order to change my “visa status” from student to legal full-time worker, I pretty much need a Masters.  And my current Masters is becoming less and less interesting as time goes by…

The past two weeks were officially the semester “spring break,” two weeks without classes in which we were expected to advance on research, papers, or preparations for various concours, competitive contests or exams that pit you against the other candidates for a job.  Instead of focusing on my second semester studies or enjoying myself at the beach, I jumped head first into my new job, with insane 40+ hours the first week in doing both the new job and my old jobs (with various students around the city), and slightly more reasonable hours the second week.  I am starting to find my groove with the method and with how I explain things to students, while occasionally relying on my knowledge of French to explain grammatical points a bit quicker.  What I love about the method we use is that it’s based on communication, on hearing a language without understanding everything and about speaking as much as possible.  Which is pretty much the opposite of how English is taught in the French school system, which focuses on reading and writing instead of confident speaking abilities and correcting pronunciation mistakes.  Instead of being chastised for my “non-British” English and accent, I am valued as a member of the team who offers an alternative way of speaking, in an attempt to value diversity and a variant accent from the academic norm. Not that I don’t speak and write perfect English.  I got a 990 on the TOIEC (variant of the TEFOL exam to evaluate your English level) and always excelled at grammar and written expression.  But the whole point of the game is not to feel humiliated but to get your point across, then communicate – little by little – more confidently, more fluidly, more nuanced, finally assimilating cultural meanings and idiomatic expressions.  It’s what I’ve been trying to do for the past eight years in French, driven by an insane urge to perfect my second language, whether or not I can even advance past my current level (not for lack of trying, believe me).

In short, much of what I’ve learned this year has little prepared me for my current job: not the linguistic analysis of grammar, albeit fascinating in and of itself, especially not the complex literary translations into French in which my language level regresses and I feel like an incompetent idiot, and definitely not the specific points of methodology that are strictly applied to the writing of papers and summaries.  I think I’m a confident and competent teacher because I empathize with my students in learning their own language (French) as a foreign language, because I have spent hour after hour fine-tuning my explanations on specific grammar points and “language traps” such as the infamous phrasal verbs or faux amis, and partly because I stay calm and make it fun.  I’ve come to realize that part of why I dislike the French education system is because it’s an all or nothing deal – one grade you must pass or face redoing a whole year (in some circumstances), instead of a series of exercises that builds up your level, your confidence, your self-esteem.  It’s often about “being wrong,” being corrected as an example for the class instead of praised for your hard work, judged on the form and not the content.  It’s not about the learning process, the learning for the sake of learning that I have always loved about my teachers and my classes in school up till now, but that all-important diplôme that without which you are worth nothing.  You are put in a box : that slip of paper that tells that you are qualified to be a teacher, not because of your personality or your way with kids, but because you can translate from one language to the next without the aid of the dictionary.  And if you want to change careers… tough luck, you’ve got to start from scratch, because your diploma is for the wrong discipline.

Categories: Education, France, Working in France | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Week to End All Weeks

Here I am on Monday morning, thinking about my killer of a week, on my blog when I really should be studying, writing my thesis or preparing for an interview.  That’s right, this week, not only do I have five hours’ worth of exams, eight hours’ worth of Masters classes, and eight hours’ worth of teaching English, I also have a job interview and a presentation of my Masters thesis – that’s to say, it’s current state and how I am going about things in my research and revision.

This week is the crucible: it will indicate to me whether or not I might have employment for next year, whether or not I’ll pass the second semester (the first time around at least, as make-up exams are also scheduled for June), and whether or not I’m very far behind on my Masters thesis (likely answer, yes).  Despite a profound lack of motivation, I have only to get through this week to have the better part of my first year studies under my belt.  As with every long and arduous trek, we shall be rewarded with a wonderful two-week Spring break (not to be confused with our one-week February break, our two-week Christmas break, our two-week October break, or the four public holidays in May).  I’ll finally have time to get back into running, to produce two eight-page papers, one in English and one in French, and to churn out the rest of my fifty-page thesis before the end of June.

With the horizon in sight, it’s so hard to focus, focus, focus.  Yesterday we had a gorgeous blue sky and a sun that could almost melt butter.  Today it is back to those cold doldrums of April that are neither winter nor spring, but an ugly gray in-between.  I might as well get this ordeal over with…

 

Categories: Daily Life, Education, Seasons | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Riding the Bus

I wrote an earlier post on walking around Amiens (I have walked a thousand miles), but it doesn’t do justice to a full description of my three odd hours spent in the bus every week.  So I’d like to invite you to accompany me on a typical Saturday morning, when I take full advantage of the region’s public transportation system…

It’s eight o’clock on a Saturday morning…

and instead of sleeping in, faisant la grasse matinée (one of my favorite French expressions, which literally translates as “doing the fatty morning”), I’ve a steaming mug of coffee within inches of my face, as I think over my morning’s lesson plans.  Unlike with your average English teacher, my English classes are all a “plus,” meant to complement school, help prepare for an exam, or offer additional “speaking practice” with a native speaker.  I review grammar, correct pronunciation, and help with homework.  As a result, my teaching is rather idiosyncratic, reflecting a variety of individual needs, and often involves a lot of impromptu explanation or off the cuff teaching.  Nevertheless, I have to come prepared to each individual lesson, with the exception of a conversation class with a rather advanced student (where we’re literally just talking), and since I have around ten different students a week, I often find myself early in the morning reproducing my eighth grade English teacher’s verb conjugation chart or looking up obscure terms related to global warming.

This morning, I eat the last of a delicious homemade cake aux pommes (which ironically translates as “apple bread” in American English, although I’d call it a cross between fruitcake and banana bread, altogether delicious) offered to me by my Belgian classmate for helping her study for our upcoming Linguistics exam.  I take a quick shower, try to find a semi-presentable outfit (I really need to go to the laundromat!), and blowdry my hair.  It’s still in the forties here in the North of France, and I am happy to learn that today lacks the Siberian-like wind that nearly blew me across the street yesterday.  I walk the ten minutes to my student’s home, where I spend the next hour and a half teaching English.  To my delight, I discover that I will finally be “paid” today (both companies I work for operate on a coupon-based system, so now that my students have finally paid for and received their coupons, I can register them on the company website… I won’t get paid until the beginning of May for classes I have taught up till now, starting in the middle of March), as I receive coupons from both of my students, worth nine cumulative hours of class.  Once I finish, I idle over to my favorite sandwicherie on the main pedestrian-only shopping street that runs through the heart of downtown Amiens.  I have a good thirty minutes to kill before I need to catch my train.  I order my customary bagnat au thon (I don’t eat most French meat, so thank goodness tuna is ubiquitous) and splurge on a croissant aux amandes, my mother’s favorite French pastry, with its gooey croissant goodness and its flaky, powdered almonds.

I carry my bundle over to the train station, which is about an eight minute walk away from the sandwicherie/ pâtisserie. [French food vendors are typically designated by what they sell, which is why the same place can be called a boucherie/charcuterie (butcher and seller of cooked meats and pork products) or a pâtisserie/boulangerie (pastry shop and bakery), and France is known for its various specialty shops, from an épicerie (grocer’s), poissonnerie (fish shop), brasserie (brewery, but also often bar) to a chocolaterie (chocolat shop) and confiserie (sweet shop/candy store)].

I know the train station by heart, so I walk over to the automatic ticket distributor and begin my coded ritual: Départ immédiatAutresBov-Adultes 1, Cartes 12-25, Oui, [insert rewards card], [insert credit card], [enter pin], Non, [prints out ticket]. I then look up at the overhead screen where my 12:30 p.m. train is mentioned, to see whether or not my voie (platform) is indicated.  I am on the early side today, so I have to wait until I know at which platform my train will be arriving.  I then validate (composter) my ticket, which proves that I took my train at the indicated time.  If you forget this little “validation” step while in France, it can cost you a fine up to €25, even if you bought the right ticket!  (If you do forget, you can always look for the ticket inspector on the train as soon as you board, as he can “validate” it for you, without you having to pay a fee).  While waiting for my platform to be announced, I eat my round bagnat, made of a soft white bread with sesame seeds, unlike the distinctive crusty French baguette.  I save my croissant aux amandes for the train.  Once I know the platform, I can finally make my way to my train, a regional TER which stops at the nearby towns on its way to a bigger metropolis such as Lille, Reims, or Paris.

La SNCF et toute l’équipe TER vous souhaitent la bienvenue à bord ce TER à destination de Paris gare du Nord.  Notre TER desservira Longueuil, Boves, …

There’s always a group of students in the train from the neighboring towns, which heightens the feeling I get that Amiens empties in the evenings and on the weekend.  You can sit wherever you want on a regional train, unlike the TGV (train de grande vitesse, high-speed rail), and I rarely have my ticket inspected between Amiens and Paris, let alone a town ten minutes outside of Amiens.  It is the most direct and effective way for me to get to my next lesson, but unlike the bus, it’s not “free” (that is, I paid for an entire year’s bus access back in September).  There are few trains to and from Boves, a small commune in the department of the Somme with a population of about 2,600 inhabitants.  I settle down in my seat, munch on my croissant aux amandes, and arrive at my destination in the blink of an eye.  Not even enough time to read a full article of The Economist.

I have a ten-minute walk to the student’s home from the train station, which allows me to get a feel for small-town France.  There is one main street through the center of town, which I walk along, passing a cemetery, the town hall, a hairdresser’s and a few other shops.  I can see from one end of the street to the other, about a ten-minute’s walk in length.  In a way, it reminds me of small-town Nebraska, one of my only other experiences of small towns except that of Missouri, which is a whole different story, except here it is utterly devoid of the rugged and Western feeling of the Nebraskan Sand Hills.  I’m afraid of getting lost, so I tend not to explore more than this direct route to and from the train station.

Once the lesson is finished, I sprint towards the bus stop, one of two on this main street.  It is 14:12, and I know that the bus is scheduled to appear in two minutes.  I run on the opposite side of the street, into the incoming traffic, if there were any incoming traffic, so that when the bus turns the corner, the bus driver is sure to see me.  He sits at the stop for a full two minutes as I approach huffing and puffing. The doors swing open and I mumble a “Merci” for waiting and a perfunctory “Bonjour.”  I swipe my green and yellow bus pass at the scanner below the ticket feeder, and I make my way towards the middle of the bus, and am jolted forward as the bus takes off down the road, not stopping until I finally push the button “Arrêt demandé.”  I have to wait for a mere four stops (but too far to walk) before getting off the bus, as this is the only bus that takes me away from Boves.  I must next take another bus in order to get back to the center of Amiens.  Today, lost in thought, I almost miss getting off at my stop, but I get off at the following stop, which is on the other side of the roundabout from where I need to be.  It’s the terminus of this other bus line, so I always have to wait for a good ten minutes before the bus begins its next round. As usual, I am the only person on the bus, so I take out my Samsung phone and read through this week’s The Economist.  It’ll be another thirty minutes before I arrive back at the train station, compared to the ten minutes it took me to get out here.

Finally the bus starts up and we are circling around the periphery of Amiens, with its shopping malls and HLM(high-rise apartment complexes) and with its distinctly rural population and pronounced Picard accent.  I’m not used to taking the bus, back in the United States, although I have taken the Greyhound and Megabus several times over the past few years.  I’m familiar with the mixing of socioeconomic backgrounds that occurs on U.S. public transportation – that is to say, I am familiar with putting myself in a situation where most of the other bus users belong to an entirely different socioeconomic class – but I am not entirely sure what to make of the situation here in the North of France, in the department of la Somme, with much of its population rural, its unique infrastructure issues, and its less densely populated communes.  It serves in some regards as a commuter region, a cheaper almost-suburb to the sprawling, high cost of living that is Paris.  And yet it’s character is altogether different from the cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic melting pot of Paris.  Picards tend to stay in Picardie, and they are highly attached to their region, which is all the more surprising given its less than stellar reputation throughout France.

I once met a local who studied for a semester in Toulouse – you’d think that with its sunshine, colored rooftops and Southern France/north of Spain vibe, it would appeal to a French girl accustomed to partly cloudy skies and a chance of rain ten months out of the year… but she told me that no, Southerners were much more superficial, much less open and friendly than people back at home.  Part of this must have been due to a feeling of dépaysement, of being out of one’s comfort zone and away from one’s network of family and friends, but I have to confirm her description of the Picards people that I have met up until now.  Very friendly, somewhat loud, big drinkers, very community-oriented.

I get off the bus at the train station and walk the fifteen minutes back to my apartment, where I relax for the first time in what feels like a week.  Parts of speech are flitting through my brain as I try to forget about English grammar, about moving here and there and everywhere, and anchor myself to my bed, not moving anywhere.

Categories: Daily Life, Expats, Working in France | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

My one-year blogging anniversary!

It’s officially been a year since I first started this blog.  Thinking back on my last year, my fifty or so blog posts, my comments by and interactions with people in the blogosphere… I’ve finally found a way to make a project last a year!  I’ve learned that, while I’ve always loved to write, blogging is a way for me to engage in a subject and to make it my own.  I know that, regardless of whether or not I continue to live abroad longterm, my blogging will continue to develop, and – I hope – improve in quality.  Thank you to all of you who have been reading and following Expatlove.  Nothing is more delightful than to hear one of my friends or relatives (or even perfect strangers) telling me, “I love your blog!”

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It’s appropriate that my blog’s birthday falls so near my own birthday – I’ll be turning 23 on Friday!  I’m planning to have a small, intimate gathering of friends over to my apartment tonight, to eat crispy and delicious doigts de Fatma (I’ll be preparing them myself) and a moelleux au chocolat cake purchased from the boulangerie.  We’ll be playing my favorite game of all time – Settlers of Catan (Les Colons de Catane), albeit in a slightly more modern version (the roads are in 3D!) and with everything in French.

It’s amazing how quickly time slinks by!  As I reflect upon the past few years of my life, last year in particular, I have come to realize that what you do with your time – and I haven’t been able to afford doing much – isn’t nearly as important as who you spend time with.  This time last year I was with my fabulous, fabulous group of college friends, in Nebraska, having a wonderful joint birthday party with another close friend (HAPPY BIRTHDAY tomorrow, by the way!).  Today I am in the North of France with other amazing individuals who have brightened my past few months (no matter how dreary), enlivened my past few weeks (no matter how dull), and truly made me feel at home here.  And for a foreigner, let me tell you, that is no easy task.  Home is where the heart is, as we all well know, but when your heart is spread out over three continents and a handful of countries, “homesickness” loses its meaning.  And who knows where exactly I’ll be a year from now… but I hope that it will be surrounded by loved ones, with a nice fat chocolate cake.

All my best,

Colleen

Categories: Daily Life, Expats, Seasons | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Teaching English

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An avalanche can be triggered by the slightest of movements, a small rock rolling down the side of a mountain.  As it falls, it gains momentum and slowly a whole face of the mountain follows in its wake, cascading down in a deafening, blinding explosion of snow.  A powerful, lethal domino effect…

To put it plainly, that’s my metaphor for how I went from teaching one hour of English a week to, in the space of two weeks, seven to ten hours a week with eleven different students.

It started small.  An online advertisement sent by a friend.  Another online advertisement that led to a phone call, which led to an interview, which led to another interview.  And now I have more requests for English classes than I can fit into my weekly schedule.  This is why I tell all those would-be-haters, Ye of little faith, back home that while having a liberal arts degree certainly doesn’t stack the odds in your favor, people can and do find work with a B.A. in French.  That and a combination of people you know, being in the right place at the right time, and various other jobs/internship/qualifications.  The most important thing is to have that first job, that first experience, and you are a thousand times more likely to be hired.

All that being said, it’s hard to try to teach ESL classes in Europe, especially in France.  You go to the language centers, and they want CELTA/TEFL certifications.  You go to the after-school tutoring companies, and they want experience.  You go to the middle schools and high schools, and they want you to first pass a national exam and pointless Masters.  You try to freelance it, and you know nobody, and there are a thousand other advertisements online.  Plus the British can always trump you when it comes to visa requirements and hiring priorities.  You go to Paris, and your rent costs too much.  You go to a smaller city, and there’s not the same amount of work as in Paris.  You realize that you might speak your own language but you have no idea why you say what you say.  You realize that everyone outside of an English-speaking country learned jargon that you have never ever heard of (“phrasal verbs” or “modal constructions” ringing any bells?).  And that no matter how hard you try, some people can just not successfully pronounce the letter “H.”

But why should you try? Because, for one, you appreciate that while not everyone speaks English, they make a valiant effort to speak a language other than their own native tongue.  And that you are not more privileged than a non-native speaker English teacher, just because you happen to speak one of the variants of English without thinking.  Do you know how to explain to someone when to use can rather than could or shall rather than should?  Teaching English abroad forces you to question yourself, your language, your perception of the world.  It makes you appreciate being able to communicate in someone else’s native language, to even be able to teach someone in French, let alone a subject as complex and erratic as the English language.  Because, let’s face it, teaching English does not necessarily imply teaching in English, even for purists who insist on full-scale immersion and improving oral comprehension.  If someone is going to pay you fifteen bucks an hour once a week, you can bet that they don’t want to pass those sixty minutes understanding twenty percent of what you are saying.  All they need to do for that is to turn on an American TV show.

But oh what fun and what headaches and difficulties and epiphanies and joy and frustration it is to teach English!  Teaching in itself is tiring and time-consuming, but teaching a foreign language – when only half of your students are actually interested and the rest are either forced to learn it by their parents or required to to pass an exam – is the real gauntlet of the teaching world.  And teaching English in a country where you are barely there legally, and there are one hundred other people who would like to be in your shoes, and the hours are bad, and the pay is subpar… Teaching English in France is for the brave of heart.

I’ve done the Hokey Pokey, I’ve “I spied”, I’ve gotten locked up in London Bridge, I’ve taught the basics of Bingo, I’ve reiterated the rules for pronouncing “-ed” verb endings, I’ve sung “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt,” I’ve translated ad lib a dozen complex business texts, I’ve “How do you do-ed” and “Nice to meet you-ed” and I’ve traveled all over the city, running to and fro from bus stations and language centers, cafés and campuses.  I’ve worked with four-year-olds, ten-year-olds, fourteen-year-olds, seventeen-year-olds, twenty-year-olds, twenty-five-year-olds.  And somehow, I have still retained my sanity.

It’s language-learning in reverse.  It’s unlearning, relearning, faking it, ad libbing.  It’s scratching your head at all the various pecularities between British English and American English.  It’s knowing the superlative, the subjunctive, the passive voice, the present perfect, subject-verb inversion, relative pronouns, conjunctions, prepositions, and so much more.  It’s a whole lot of n’importe quoi.

And sometimes I say to myself, maybe I should move to Thailand or Korea.  I’ve heard there’s better pay.

Categories: Education, Expats, Working in France | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

I have walked a thousand miles…

For all the advantages and disadvantages of living in Amiens – it is a small city that few people have heard of, it rarely sees the sun, and it has the unfortunate quality of not being located on the French Riviera – one incredible attribute of my city, which is particularly important to me, is its walkability.  Partly for lack of trying, I can’t imagine being carless in either St. Louis or Omaha, but Amiens has allowed me to get by despite not being able to afford a car.  Once the clouds part and the sun comes out (sometime between now and July) I will consider renting a vélo vert, the really cheap green public bicycles, but for the moment I have survived the year thanks to a go-anywhere bus route that works 80% of the time and by wearing through a couple of pairs of sneakers.  As a student, I was even able to get a discount on my year-long bus pass, which I’ve probably got the value back on a thousand times over, what with the amount that I take the bus (for school and work).

When the weather’s nice enough, or the buses aren’t running (see La grève des bus or The Tempest: Snow Days in Picardie for two such occasions), or simply because I feel like I’ve been consuming too much cheese and chocolate, I book it on foot.  I live in the very center of Amiens, so I’m used to walking to get my groceries (5 minutes), to go to the bank (10 minutes), to head to the train station (15 minutes), to the Law library (10 minutes), to my favorite evening cafés (15 minutes), to my locavore meetings (15 minutes), to my classes (30-40 minutes uphill), to the park (15 minutes), to the south neighborhood of Henriville (30-40 minutes).  I don’t keep track of the kilometers I cover but the mere frequency of my walking is enough to give you an idea of my lifestyle. Carless, but then again… I don’t have to pay for car insurance, for gasoline, for a permanent parking spot, for the down payment on the car.  I don’t have to worry about finding a place to park it, about rush hour, or bad weather, or parking tickets, or speeding tickets.  For all the downsides and limitations of not owning a car, there are certainly many, many ways it’s “liberating” not to.

But I’ll probably have to invest in a new pair of shoes…

Categories: Amiens, Daily Life, France | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Tempest: Snow Days in Picardie

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That is what Amiens looked like and the surrounding Picardie region for a couple of days.  It started to snow Monday, but the buses were still functioning normally.  School was in session, shops were open.  Come Monday night, it started to snow without stopping, snowing into Tuesday morning with great gusts of wind that rattled my windows.  The snowpocalypse had hit.  Normally on Tuesdays (see my earlier post A+ Tuesday) I have six hours of classes – it’s my longest day of school plus I have a two-hour meeting with les Tombés de la Charrette.  I have class from 9 am to 5 pm and am unable to return home and relax until 8 pm at night.  So I found myself at 7 am, on Facebook, chatting with my fellow Masters students about the situation.  Many students, and professors, live outside of Amiens, as it is the only Masters program within proximity of Beauvais, Saint Quentin, and within reach of the major axes of Lille and Paris for those professors who teach at more than one institution.  The situation was epic: roads closed, buses no longer running, trains canceled, people stranded.  I was in my pajamas and not about to attempt the thirty minute walk uphill to find out whether or not my university was closed.  Luckily, a friend of mine ventured over to confirm for all of us waiting passively on our computers that the Campus was closed – not enough personnel had shown up and the scolarité, the administrative office that informs us of canceled classes, was locked.  We got the news an hour and a half later – the entire university system in the region of Picardie was closed for Tuesday and Wednesday, as were all the elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools.  We were faced with our first official snow days of the year.

You might have expected that I’d joyfully run down my five flights of stairs to make snow angels and snow forts, but despite the lack of vehicle circulation, there was still a lot of foot traffic. People were skiing down major throughways.  The snow had been cleared on sidewalks and roads, and the remaining piles of snow transformed into that ugly gray mess which resembles wads of chewed paper.  And as the day progressed and temperatures dropped, black ice began to cover the sidewalks and streets, turning walking into a very risky business.  I preferred to survey the scene from my balcony up above.  In the meantime, I’ve been watching TV, reading, and finally making progress on my Harry Potter thesis.  I just got an email this morning that my two hours of class on Friday have also been canceled, although the university will officially reopen this afternoon.  I have yet to determine whether I will still be teaching English tonight and tomorrow evening – the buses and trains might not yet be fully functioning.

I have survived the March tempest thus far and am looking forward to day light savings to finally come into effect here in Picardie – nothing like an extra hour of (hypothetical) sunshine to warm up though soul, à la chicken noodle soup.

View from the Tour Perret

View from the Tour Perret

Categories: Amiens, France, Seasons | Tags: , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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