January 29, 2008


So, as part of my French language training, I read Tintin. Everyone in France knows and has read Tintin. There is no comparison in the US. Tintin is a bande dessiné (a comic book), but that translation is not exact – les bandes dessinés are much more popular and well read in France than the sort of cult following of comic books in the United States. A Belgian artist (Hergé) created Tintin originally around 1930. (Xavier tells me that the largest part of comic books come from Belgium). Hergé depicts a young reporter and his dog Milou, who travel the world looking for adventure. They save empires, find stolen artifacts – they even go to the moon (long before Neil Armstrong made it there). Tintin is rife with the post-colonial paternalism of the first half of last century, but even still, Tintin is a classic. (And reading that mind-set helps me to comprehend French politics surrounding immigration a little better). I love reading Tintin because I pick up very proper French (no slang, no language shortcuts) as a result – Tintin is written in the clean, proper French of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. (Tintin cries: “Au secours!” (Help!) when he needs rescuing. Your average Jean-Pierre would never cry for help in this manner. Basically, you would know you were about to rescue Tintin if you heard that cry).

However, Tintin has produced a bit of tension between Xavier and me. One night, in the midst of one Tintin’s adventures in South America, I asked Xavier how old Tintin is. He looked at me like I was brainless and told me without hesitation that Tintin is in his early 30’s. I laughed. Xavier looked back at me, irritated, and asked me how old I presumed he was. This little guy is not even twenty. More like 15. Look at him. He is approximately two feet shorter than anyone around him and he has the hairdo of a newborn baby (who was born with hair). Xavier tried to convince me. His argument was that no 15 year-old has a job as an international journalist. No, no, I retorted, that is Tintin’s charm for kids. He is like their age and doing remarkable stuff (kind of like Spy Kids). I’m still convinced that Tintin is just a go-getter Belgian teen.

Paying Customers

A couple of weeks ago I attended a faculty meeting at the American study abroad program I will start teaching for in June. There were a total of 15 teachers there. The meeting began by everyone introducing himself and stating what she teaches. The mélange was interesting. There was a South African who teaches business ethics, a German who teaches literature, an American who teaches a human rights course, another American who teaches marketing, several native French teachers and one French woman who teaches a film course in English. She was the gem of the meeting.

The first item on the agenda was discussing student evaluations from the previous semester, which had ended in December. Many of the European teachers seemed reticent to have a look at what the students had to say about their course. In fact, the director of the program had to insist that each teacher come to his office to examine their own evaluations. She started in right about here. I glanced over at this one – the French darling – my age, no older, tomato red sweater, boring haircut, pretty enough face – in a French way – and she was literally puffing out her cheeks and her eyes were rolling away (she was enormously put out).

My eyebrows raised and I wondered why she would respond this way. Apparently, the idea of a teacher modifying her approach based on feedback from students (especially American ones) is unseemly. When we all learned what the feedback was, it became even more so. The American university students asserted (pretty unanimously) that French/European teachers grade too severely. Context: within the French educational system, student marks are rather severe. A 12 or 13 out of 20 is considered good work – anything above a 16 usually unheard of in any sort of subjective branch of learning (philosophy, literature, humanities). American students generally have a different perspective. If a student is able to achieve a set of pre-determined requirements outlined, she can earn an A. Period.

I continued to watch this French one throughout the meeting. She interrupted people to insert (continually speaking in French in an all-English meeting) that she would not lower her standards to accommodate students. American students, she maintained, are spoon-fed their material and their education and they remain spoon-fed until they die. The director kept addressing her in English, even though she kept insisting on her mother tongue (and despite the fact that she teaches in English). She was making her point indeed. She almost had a little temper fit upon hearing that teachers would be required to provide their students with on-line class readings through the program’s database. Rising out of her chair, eyes high in their sockets, her dissent came out in the form of leaving the meeting, getting a bowl of peanuts to be employed as her support team, plopping herself back down in her chair, and sucking on each peanut slowly and resentfully.

It ended up being an interesting cultural discussion though. The American students (and faculty) felt that the European teachers, regardless of their own marking standards should mold to an American model (where every student in the class can potentially get an A). This is an American institution and the students return to American universities after they are done here. These teachers were apparently giving only 2 students maximum in each class an A.

In the end it came down to a basic money argument: the director pointed out that the students are paying something like $15,000 to spend a semester here. If their GPA is submerged as a result, it is a deterrent for future students (who would be good paying customers, wink). The Europeans almost had a collective heart attack upon hearing this line of reasoning. After all, the idea of paying for higher education (or education at all) is outlandish and non-existent all over Europe. And deeming students ‘customers’ – well, that is really going too far.

January 14, 2008


After spending Christmas in Washington with all the Johnsons, Xavier and I flew back to Paris to spend New Year's and the week after with the Joly family and Marguerite, of course. Marguerite is a crack up. She is hyper-wordy and intensely mimi (cute, in french, and this is also how she says my name). She loves pronouncing all the things people say around her. But she is extremely polite with her words and body; she has immediately picked up the French tradition of saying 'pardon' each time she passes someone (or something, in her case). While zooming past her blocks on the floor with her wagon, she says 'pardon' directly to the blocks. She almost shouts "pee-pee" and "ca-ca" when someone steps toward the bathroom. And every meal is accompanied by her survey of the current amount of food – the final conclusion is consistently: “Y'a plu" (Il n'y a plus = there’s no more).

Christmas chez la famille Joly is full of new traditions for me. One of the most novel rituals was la galette des Rois (the big cookie of the kings - and that translation is direct from Xavier). The 6th of January, for the French, is the day of celebration for the three Kings who visited Christ after his birth (Gaspard, Balthazar and Melchior). They celebrate their stopover with a ritual that revolves around a cake made of pastry pie, filled with frangipane (almond and pastry crème). The ritual went something like this: Louise (8) hid under the table. Her mom, Marie, cut the cake into even slices and as she served each slice on a plate, she asked Louise whom the piece was for. Louise would call out a name and continued doing so until each person had a piece in front of her. La fève (literally the fava bean) was hidden in one of the pieces. (The server makes sure that la fève is in the piece of one the youngest members of the family). So, after Louise had crawled out from under the table and was eating her piece, she cried out in disgust, “there is something hard in my cake!” (All the while, I sat watching, not knowing what to expect). Since Louise found la fève in her piece, she got to choose her queen (or king). She chose me and placed the traditional paper crown on my head (the crown comes with la galette des Rois when you buy the cake in la patisserie).

This is the point where most French families stop. It is simply an honor to be the queen or the king for the day and to eat the scrumptious cake. However, the Joly family takes it one bizarre step further. Once the crown was on my head, everyone got out of his or her seat and Marie filled my glass of water to the top. All eight Joly’s surrounded me closely and Marie instructed me that no matter what happened I needed to keep drinking the water in my glass until it was gone. (A reassuring preamble for what was to come). The minute I touched the glass to my lips, all eight of them started screaming repeatedly, as loud as they could into my ears: “La Reine boit” (The Queen drinks!). The queen who is able to continue drinking her whole glass without interruption is supposedly a good, focused one. Having grown up in the Johnson house, I made a splendid queen.

I was also lucky enough to participate in a Joly family game of Trivial Pursuit – French version, of course. As in most games we play, I am considered a severe handicap for my team. The first time we went to Baugé (where their family home is), just after I arrived in June, Xavier recommended we play pictionary, reasoning that, it is, after all, a drawing game. How wrong he was. It is most definitely a word-based game. Since no one else wanted me on their team, given my historical aptitude for games in French, Xavier and his dad got stuck with me for Trivial Pursuit. And I most definitely proved to be a total wreck for their team. You see, I am past the point of patience in French – I no longer just shut up and listen to what is going on around me. Bored easily, I need to interject. However, I was up against this: Après le défaite de 1870, qui dirigea le gouvernment provisoire de la France? (After the defeat of 1870, who directed the provisional government of France?) and A quelle occasion le Comte de Lauzun devint-il Duc? (On what occasion did the Count of Lauzun become Duke?) and Qui était Fulgence Bienvenue? (Who was Fulgence Bienvenue?). These questions were well out of my range of knowledge (on a number of levels). But the French make everything their own. Rather than a "Sports" category, the French version of Trivial Pursuit included a "Leisure" category - including numerous questions about chefs, restaurants and the occasional Formula 1 driver; sports really are not their thing. A good example of a question from this category: Quel jouet est soporifique? (What game is sopoforic? [Yo-yo]).

Upon our return back to Paris after the holidays, I finally received my carte de séjour – well sort of (I mean I had obtained a ‘receipt’ for the visa, which allowed me to work, but had not yet obtained the actual card to stay). After a complicated and long process (I arrived last June, after all), we were finally sitting in front of the woman who would ordain me legal in France, legal to work and legal to stay. We carefully sorted the expansive folder of required documents and as she asked for them, I handed each over to her gingerly. She explained what was required for me to continue my stay in France: "You must renew annually for three years, at which point you can apply for citizenship." Hearing this, Xavier querried, "Is the renewal process any less complicated?" The woman squinted her eyes at him and tilted her head as she responded with a sincere sounding question, "Complicated?" - as if he'd just asked an absurd question.

It's getting better all the time. In the beginning of February I will begin teaching English at the “Wall Street Institute.” The institute is a large organization and pumps out a huge number of French students who can speak (as the institute claims) “Wall Street English.” I have no idea what that means, being a native speaker myself. I certainly hope that as an instructor I will not be required to employ a lexicon of stocks and bonds. They will be sorely disappointed if so. Most of my students will be business people, whose companies have sent them there to perk up their English skills.

More excitingly, I will be teaching for an American study abroad program here in Paris accredited through the University of New Haven, starting in June. I actually have to create the course I am teaching (which is quite cool). The course will be focusing on women expat writers here in Paris during the Belle Epoque and Interwar years: Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes and some other such beauties.

I enjoy French more and more. Expressions that amuse me thoroughly:

- Xavier’s mother to her 8-year old granddaughter Louise: "Tu ne laves pas une casserole, tu brosses tes dents!" (You are not washing a pan, you are brusing your teeth!)

- In Le Monde after the Iowa Primary: La blogosphere est quasi unanime sur Hillary: quand on est annoncée incontournable et qu'on prend un gadin, ca sent le sapin. (The blogosphere is pretty much unanimous on Hillary: when someone is announced unstoppable and then they are defeated sharply, it smells like a pine tree. The reference is, of course, to coffins.)

And then cultural things every day that I just don’t decode in a ‘natural’ way: for example, how very specific childhood smells. Xavier approaches me and says, “close your eyes and smell this.” It smells sweet, it smells sickly sweet to me. It is Colle Parfumée (almond glue). That is his childhood in a smell. But it is certainly not Elmer's Glue.
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