The Process for the Next Day and the Next Day and the Next
Amy: an English assistante, my roommate, easygoing, she studies French and business and is interested in painting.
Rocío: a Chilean assistante, my second roommate, curious and happy, she’s a translator.
Erika: a Canadian assistante who lives in another apartment here on the school campus, generous, loves rugby, Doctor Who, and knitting.
Lorena: a Spanish assistante, Erika’s roommate, a big city kind of woman, she’s training for a half marathon.
Lindsey: an American assistante working in another region, organized but flexible, my ideal travel companion.
An apartment at Lycée Marguerite de Valois in Angoulême, France.
My town, Angoulême, is a fortified town of 50,000 people (100,000 in the urban area) in the west of France in the Bay of Biscay. It’s situated on a plateau, so there are great views of the countryside from the top of the plateau and the city itself ispicturesque from the bottom. The streets are small and the houses are made of light stone and have red tiled roofs. The countryside is nearby and the city itself is well-equipped without being too expensive.
My school, Lycée Marguerite de Valois, is a high school located on a large gated campus. There are actually three schools on the campus: Lycée Jean Rostand, Lycée M de Valois, and Collège M de Valois. (A collège is a middle school.) Jean Rostand is a professional school meaning the students are preparing for trades. M de Valois, on the other hand, is a high school for students preparing to go to university. Apparently, it has the longest hallways of any school in Europe. Some students board at the school from Monday to Friday.
My apartment is in one of the front buildings of the school and overlooks the theatre building. There are three bedrooms, plus kitchen, dining, living, balcony, laundry room (#spoiled) and bathroom (with a really useful separate toilet). Since it used to be the apartment of the proviseur (principle), it’s quite spacious. It was recently redone and is therefore very clean and modern, but not very homey. Everything has a very modern air: square corners, light wood, white walls, uncomfy couch.
Winter is going to be hard.
It’s January and my window is open. It was getting stuffy in here. I’m sitting on my bed in short sleeves. Outside, my students are going home: it’s a Friday, and even the boarders leave for the weekend. I hear suitcases on concrete.
How do you say “I am an artist?” It seems like a non sequitur, but it’s not. It was getting stuffy in here, remember?
Before I left for December Break, I dramatically enacted this anxiety to a friend, and finished by resolving to study artists when I returned, to gain inspiration and knowledge. Now here I am, and it’s above fifty degrees but grey as grey can be outside. The sunsets I have exulted in these past three months are hidden by clouds. Most of the time it’s raining, and when it’s not raining it’s thinking about it. I miss snowflakes stuck in my hair and the annoyingly blinding sunlight of winter in the northern half of America. I miss the cold that makes you appreciate hot tea.
When I arrived in Angoulême I was using the word dramaturge to describe my profession, that and costumière. I can be a costumière, apparently; that doesn’t seem to be a problem, but dramaturge, well, it’s pretentious. (I’m not sure how a country that calls philosophe a career gets off calling dramaturge pretentious, but here we are.) I am not a dramaturge. Instead I écris des pieces. I am not a playwright. I write plays. I am not a writer.
What this boils down to is a linguistic rejection of the career that I’ve been trying to create for myself for my whole life, and a confirmation of that creeping monster that is imposter syndrome. Believe me, I’ve encountered a good amount of linguistic rejection in my life (and all the other kinds), and I really wish I was better able to handle it by now. I’m not.
A friend of mine once told me (actually she told me quite often), that she was working on calling herself a writer, and on not denying it when other people assigned her that label. I’ve been waiting my whole life for someone to call me a writer. That doesn’t mean I don’t still cringe. The essential tension of being an artist, I believe, is this: desire and denial. Now, just as I have begun to feel that I warrant the title, I am not a dramaturge anymore. And if I am not a dramaturge, which is empirically the artistic endeavor for which I am most qualified, then I am certainly not an… Artiste.
Okay, yes. I understand that this cultural linguistic difference shouldn’t be getting me down so much, but it is winter and I don’t even have the pleasure of hot cocoa and cuddling in blankets, because half the night I’m too warm for my blankets and I feel shitty. I had all these great plans for how productive I would be in France and, well, I’ve been exceptionally productive! Hooray! It worked! I have produced massive amounts of work! And still, I feel like shit.
In preparation for this artistic growth spurt, I brought a lot of art supplies with me from the States. I was nagged by the fear that it would be hard to find an art supply store in my town. Newsflash: high quality art supplies (reasonably high, much higher than expected), are available at the discount mega supermarket next to my house. Ah, France. On my first trip there I bought of 100 pages of high-quality paper and it cost me 3 euros. Say there’s something they don’t have at LeClerk? Well, I’ll just hop on over to the bookstore in town.
I am an artist, and France is good for that. I have time and access to materials. I have new experiences to inspire me. I am an artist.
It always surprises people when I tell them how easy it was for me to enter the world of costume design. I’m not going to say I didn’t hustle. I hustle at everything I do. I have a problem with hustling. (I also have a problem with undervaluing my own hustling.) But comparatively, it was easy. With costume design, nobody told me it was an unreachable goal or a dead-end career. In fact, from the very beginning I had plenty of people telling me I was good at it. Now, in my professional theatre life, I’ve had much more success getting jobs in costuming than in writing. You can argue that that may be because I’m a better costumer than writer. You can argue that, if you want. I argue it all the time. It’s not true… probably… at least, not to a measurable degree. So when I think about being a writer, about not being a writer, of fiction of plays, of poems, of this blog, the stakes have always felt higher. But this fall, I had the sunset every night and that felt a little bit like beauty to me.
There is a lot of talk about homesickness among us expats, and yeah, I have some of that sometimes, but I’ve been pretty fortunate in fending off the doldrums thus far. For most people it sets in around the holidays, but I did okay with that. For many TAPIFers, it sets in once the novelty of only working 12 hours a week wears off and we have to figure out what to do with ourselves. As you can see, I have that covered. But now it’s winter and another six weeks of teacher (well, five now that it’s Friday) are spread out in front of me before my next adventure. I’m not exactly homesick, exactly.
The winter is going to be hard. Yes, I’m studying artists. I’m also watching hours and hours of series in French. I’m noting vocabulary words and doing flashcards. I’m reading in French; I’m trying to read only in French. I’m searching out submission opportunities and one of these hours I’m going to submit. I’m going to revise. I’m writing a screenplay. I’m doing yoga. I’m teaching. I’m a teacher. I love to teach. I am terribly afraid you will think I cannot do.
Okay, okay, enough wallowing. I have hours and hours of grey that does not change to attend to. I’d better go.
Costumière: Costume Designer
Dramaturge: Playwright, but like… Tony Kushner, not me.
A number of weeks ago, a teacher asked me to prepare a presentation on gun culture in the US for her class. They would be starting a new unit and she wanted me to introduce it, from an American’s perspective. When I sat down to work, I hesitated. I had no idea how to structure a lesson about such a complex and contentious issue. I’ve now presented the material to three classes and moderated a gun control debate for a fourth. The first presentation was November 9th.
Then there was Paris. Then there was Colorado.
In my presentation I started at the beginning, not with the Constitution but before it. What made us write this freedom into that document anyway? We needed guns. We needed guns for freedom from monarchal rule and we needed guns to take the land we wanted. Guns were our first allies as we fought on both fronts.
In his speech following the attacks in Paris, Obama cited France as our first ally, and if we’re talking countries, sure, that’s true. Guns don’t ally with people; people ally with people. I’ve been telling my classes abut this over and over again: we’re allies. That means support. That means friends. France was America’s first friend. Like America walked into kindergarten on the first day so scared we almost peed our pants, but then France said bonjour, and we knew it would be okay. We’re allies.
When I taught my students about gun culture, I also taught them to break down the second amendment: we need to be able to defend ourselves (from tyranny). We talked about the good things: guns can be beautiful, historic, sentimental, and fun. They can provide food and yes, they can also keep us safe. We talked about the types of arguments used by pro- and anti-gun lobbyists: statistics, humor, history, visuals, comparisons with other countries, fear.
When my teachers asked me to talk about 9/11, I told my students about fear: what it does to you when you’re not looking. My teachers wanted me to speak to the classes because I am American. They didn’t ask the same thing of my non-American assistant friends. There might be other circumstances that went into that decision, but after all, they were our first friends and we were, effectively, theirs.
It wasn’t a presentation about gun control. It was about gun culture. It wasn’t a presentation about politics, it was about people.
By the fifth time I gave the talk on terrorism, I thought I would know what to say, but something different always came out. I didn’t have a slideshow to guide me. As the situation evolved, so did the students’ questions. No longer where were you, what did it feel like, but now what happened after, what did you fear.
I subtitled my gun presentation: The Right, The Regulation, The Responsibility. I’m a writer: I like alliteration. I also like responsibility. I couldn’t talk about gun control without talking about self-defense. It’s in the Constitution. We need to be able to defend ourselves (from tyranny). I couldn’t talk about self-defense without talking about Trayvon Martin. I’m sure there are a lot of people who could. I couldn’t. It wasn’t only about gun laws; it was also about race. But it wasn’t only about race either.
A few weeks after Paris, one of the teachers checked in with me: Are you doing alright? I know it probably brings up another trauma. I now suspect it was motivated by an email from the rectorat, checking in on us, the assistants. That doesn’t make it worth less. I said I was fine. And I was fine. I volunteered to talk to her class. She wanted me to talk about Boston. If it becomes too much, you say stop and we’ll stop. Of course, it’s already too much.
In my gun culture lectures, people asked me if I had a gun, if I knew people who owned guns. But when I showed them the map of mass shootings in the US, no one asked me if I was afraid. No one asked me how it felt to live in a country where these things happen every day. No one asked me if I needed a moment.
On the day after Paris, my couchsurfing host told me: il faut vivre, one must live. Later, the mother of my private student identified me as the first of a generation that would grow up like this. She talked about her son, her youngest, who doesn’t understand. She seemed to be asking me what to do. I told her: Il faut vivre.
My most recent class on gun culture was on December 3rd, the day after San Bernardino. My students were constructing their problematiques, the abstract questions they will explore in the oral expression portion of their exams. They talked about the sources they had studied, texts and videos of presidents and presidential candidates debating gun control or lack thereof. The wrote questions like “To what extent does gun control divide American politics?” and “How does the gun debate influence American life?” They divided their opinions into binaries like Democrat/Republican, good points/bad points. They placed these words into a neatly printed series of boxes that emerge from the question to splice and conjoin until they meet in a single answer.
I’ve been living in France for almost three months now and still the thing that gives me most pleasure in the language is a simple exchange. The moment when I arrive at pronouncing “bonne journée” with an impeccable accent is the best moment of my day. It is simple. It is not a phrase I have to search for or a grammatically complicated sentence. For one moment I can be understood like a native.
Here in France, as in Boston, people still tell me I have great French. More than anything else, they tell me I have a good accent. When my couchsurfing host tells me the same, I ask her to elaborate. I am beginning to note the differences in the accents of French people from different places and walks of life, but not to the extent that I can tell what the differences mean or try to recreate them. I have no idea how real my own accent sounds. I know it’s not American, I’m know I’m making an effort, but I assume there are deficiencies my ear cannot discern. My host tells me that she can tell I’m not a native, but couldn’t place the accent if asked.
I begin to be proud of my accent. I begin to understand that I can get by with a lot of mistakes as long as I am able to pronounce the French “r” more than half the time. I begin to see that my faults in French are largely excusable in conversation because everyone mumbles anyway. If I carry myself with confidence, no one will know the difference (except when I forget the order of operations: subject, ne, indirect object, direct object, helping verb, negative, verb, clauses and on and on). I begin to think I can speak French.
Then my friends and I talk about fluency as a goal and I cannot imagine how I will ever achieve it. Most of us agree that we never know how to categorize our language skills. My French is good enough that I can live in France without (very much) difficulty. My French is good enough that I can discuss the modernist movement as it relates to war with the history teacher I’ve befriended. My French is good enough that I can translate for my students when they look completely lost. Sometimes I appear fluent, but I am not. Is that… conversational? We search for definitions.
I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s missive to Italian and I bask in feeling understood and I begin to understand my level. I begin to see that I have arrived at a level that she fought for over many years. I place a higher value on the work that I have done throughout my life to achieve this level, this conversationality. I read on and discover that she’s written the piece in Italian. I despair that I will ever make steps forward.
When I tell them I’m a writer, my teachers ask if I write in French. I tell them no, I don’t have the level. They disagree. Maybe they are right and I am wrong and I should, like Jhumpa Lahiri, begin to write only in my second language. Maybe if I built it, the level would come. But then I’m not established in English yet. I try to explain that in order to write plays I would have to know how people really speak French, and not just the idioms, most of which are beyond me anyway, but also the undercurrents, the intonations, the dialects, the humor. I despair that I will ever write a play in French.
Maybe I should read more. Maybe I should write more. I begin to journal in French. I turn on French subtitles for my English shows. I search for French movies to watch with English subs. I hate dubbing; it drives me crazy, but maybe I can endure it. I make themed vocabulary lists: theatre, cooking, technology. I memorize the words. I rarely use them in conversation. I should meet more French people so I can practice speaking, but first I should review the subjunctive so I can use it in conversation, but first I should start talking to people because that’s why I’m here, after all, and I can review the subjunctive any time.
I go to class and my teacher addresses the students in French, in fact she addresses them in French for half an hour while explaining what they’ll do for the baccalaureate. I understand everything she says. I swell. I go to lunch. The room is thick with ambient noise. I catch half of what the teachers are saying. I deflate. A stagiaire (student teacher) complains to me about how both her English and her French are deteriorating: her French because she’s always speaking English, her English because she’s always speaking English to her students.
My French is worst after speaking English, which, since my job is teaching English, means it’s effectively worst all the time. My brain is less like a light switch and more like a faucet, the moments spent waiting for the water to switch from cold to hot. Sometimes you’re in a public restroom and you turn the handle all the way to red and wait,
until you realize the French will never come and dive into the cold. It usually doesn’t happen like that, but you can never depend on these things when you’re not at home.
In November, I spend my five-day trip to Lyon speaking only French. It is both freeing and exhausting. Without the pressure of cold water that made it freeze, my brain swims fluidly in the language (still, fluidly, not fluently) and I feel my mouth begin to tire, the muscles you don’t realize you have to develop to speak. I think I should designate French-only days at home too. Will I ever have enough willpower?
Speaking another language is like a sport, if you want another metaphor, or, more accurately, it’s like anything else: practice makes perfect. It’s amazing to me how often we use this sport metaphor to remind ourselves that all of life is like exercise. Painting requires the strength and steadiness of both hands and brain. Singing requires perfect fucking posture. (You will laugh at that until you’ve attempted it.) No one who has ever sat at a sewing machine for eight hours will consider it anything other than a sport. And there’s good form for typing and children, are they not 40-pound weights? But sports are the thing we think of when we think of strength and value. So, speaking a language is like a sport or an art, or parenthood. You can’t get better until you play with people who are better than you. I move to France.
I move to France and I live with English-speaking people. I work teaching English with English teachers. I travel to countries where the common language is English. When I was learning French in school our teacher encouraged us to sing along to French songs. I ask another stagiaire for recommendations. She has none. She prefers Mumford and Sons.
In order to write this post and satisfy my desire to quantify, I did some googling. According to the International Language Roundtable (ILR) scale developed by the US State Department, I am probably a 3 of 5 possible levels, a 2 if I’m being hard on myself. After working on French for half my life, I am halfway there. Maybe.
Under the Common European Framework for Reference Languages, I am a C1 (yes, I took a quiz), which comes after A1, A2, B1, and B2, and before C2. That makes me feel better, but to be clear, ILR level 5, bilingual, doesn’t exist in the CEFR. Level C1 is described as “Effective Operational Proficiency or Advanced”. To be clear, I only sometimes feel operationally proficient. Maybe the quiz was wrong. I’m tempted to take an actual test to be sure that this is true because I’m insecure about it, but they’re expensive and then I would have to study. I love tests. I love proving things. It feels dependable. It is weird that I’m a writer and not a scientist.
Ron over at Language Surfer says, “In my professional opinion,” (he was a translator) “you are fluent at Level 3 (or C1). And I’d even go so far as to say that someone at Level 2+ (B2) could claim fluency.” Well, gee, that makes me feel good. But only temporarily because I am, as you know, a perfectionist.
This morning I pay my rent and all I have to say is “voila” and “merci” and “bonne journée”. I am filled with a surge of joy. I go to my computer. I am filled with disappointment. I am writing this in English, after all.
Now that I’ve been teaching in France for a good two months (minus holidays), I thought you might enjoy some observations and broad generalizations about French schools! I’m going to repeat that word:
Lycée, or high school, is three years: seconde, première, and terminale. Unlike in America where we count up to grade 12, the French count down. Students at lycée are placed into tracks based on what they want to study. For instance, some of my students have a very high level of English because they are studying English literature. Another class that studies mainly science doesn’t have as many hours per week of English lessons. Classes are usually 20-30 students, and some classes are split into two lab sections once a week.
I work at a lycée général, which is to say, a general high school that teaches the sorts of subjects one would expect to find at an American high school. Some students instead attend a lycée professionnel, where they study anything from metal work and sewing to how to be an international secretary or paralegal. I think it’s cool that students can choose to study a more technical profession (sewing!) at the high school level. I think some students would thrive in an environment of hands-on, practical learning. I am also not naïve enough to assume that students’ learning styles or aptitudes are the deciding factor in this division into lycée professionnel and général. Throughout the following, please consider that my experience relates to général only.
Scheduling at my school is all over the place. Classes generally meet two or three times per week, but that might be, for instance, 3pm on Tuesday and 9am on Thursday. How anyone manages to remember anything is beyond me. Some classes meet every other week. My school alternated between a week 1 and week 2 schedule, so some students only see me (and their teachers) once every 14 days. Obviously, learning their names had been a rather hopeless endeavor for me.
School is in session from 8am to 6pm each day, except for Wednesday afternoons, when there is no class. It’s hard to say how many hours students spend in class each week because their schedules are so variable. They definitely have a number of free periods.
There are no passing times, meaning one class ends at 8:55 and the next begins at 8:55. Students who don’t have a class the hour before will generally be waiting outside the door, but for those who do, we wait. My school apparently has the longest system of hallways in Europe (???), but it usually takes the students a maximum of three minutes to arrive. It seems that those who are in the same study track generally have most classes within a short distance of one another. So there’s no time to pee between classes. There are, however, morning and afternoon breaks of about 15 minutes each during which all of the teachers gather for coffee in the staff room and chat.
By the way, my school is also a pensionnat, which means some of the students who live too far away to commute board at the school during the week. This is also why there was an apartment available for me to rent at school. (No, I do not live with the students.) Last week a pipe burst so school was canceled on Wednesday and all of the boarders had to go home. Since I happen to also live at the school and have no other home to retreat to, I just had no water. That was fun.
It’s a bigger deal here than in the US.* Students wait outside the door until the teacher invites them in. Students stand at their seats until the teacher invites them to sit. Students must place their bags on the ground and their workbooks on the table to prepare for class. Most days, we don’t start until everyone has done this. Students say hello and goodbye. I mean every single student. Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello. They also say thank you. The only time students ask to use the bathroom during class is when they’re sick. Even though there’s no passing time.
*Remember, this is in the lycée général. The lycée professionnel is a different story that I can’t speak to.
And, embarrassingly enough, I am the only person in the class who reacts when the bell rings. (The bells at my school also happen to be part of a popular song, but I have a hunch that’s just us.) French students and teachers will finish what they’re doing when the bell rings. Yes, even though there are no passing times. Yes, even though it might make them “late” to their next class. It’s a far cry from American students packing up their books five minutes before the bell. Once I finish my sentence, my students don’t leave until I tell them they can go. It’s common courtesy. It’s polite. It’s unsettling.
As in the US, teachers here come in different styles. Some are soft-spoken and run their classes with humor. Some are direct and efficient and depend on the above structures to create an environment of respect. But overall my impression of French teachers is that they are blunt. As I read one teacher’s comment at the top of a student’s paper that said, “You need to learn better!” I thought, in the US that would translate to “You need to try harder.” Maybe it is a marker of respect that teachers are honest with students and don’t create false assumptions or inflated senses of self. After all, it is America’s favourite myth that if you only try harder, you will succeed. Maybe the French have a Yoda-esque attitude: there is no try.
My students always use pen, never pencil. Consequently, white-out is a big thing here. It’s super common to write in two or three colors of pen. Teachers use two different colors of marker on the white boards to section of different topics or create flow charts. Students use different colors of pen to annotate their notes. When homework is handed back it’ll be written in black, marked in red, and corrected by the student in blue. This shit is clear. Consequently, the French have really taken a liking to those pens where you can switch between a few colors. I flipped a shit when one lesson asked students to color code a passage of text based on past, present, and future actions of the characters. Color coding!!!
The French also use differently sized paper. A4 is slightly taller and thinner than 8.5 x 11, but A3 (11 x 17 –ish) is surprisingly common. Teachers will print four pages of text on it and fold it in half like a book rather than stapling multiple A4s together. I know: no one cares about paper sizes but me.
But in other organizational news, let’s talk about French students’ notebooks. None of this papers sticking out at all angles, coffee stains on the edges, I covered my notebook in leopard print duct tape bullshit we’ve got going on in the US. Instead, my French students paste their assignment sheets into their notebooks, then complete the assignment on the next page. And their folders are organized too! Guess why: because all their old papers are pasted into their notebooks in chronological order. I am sufficiently impressed.
I suppose I could file this under another category: mechanics, curriculum, respect. I couldn’t choose. As I learned throughout my years of French lessons, most assignments are graded on a number scale, likely 0-20, and those grades are no secret. French students all know how the others are doing in class. There’s no passing back papers upside down, no marking the grade on the final page of the essay. When students ask for their scores after class, the teacher doesn’t clandestinely flash them the grade book. They just announce it. All of this leads to a greater candor among my students about what they’re good at and where they struggle. That’s good. And bad.
I first came across the French concept of “Notions” when one of my teachers introduced a new unit to her class. While they had previously been studying surveillance societies as seen in 1984, now they would discuss consumerism and its consequences, i.e. conflict diamonds. The teacher told her class: “Sorry, but we are going to be studying the same notion.” And I was like: Hold up, hold up. Consumerism is altogether different from Big Brother.
Luckily, one of the few nuggets of wisdom that did come out of our otherwise largely pointless orientation days was an explanation of this idea of Notions. There are four: Mythes et Héros, Places et Formes de Pouvoir, L’Idée de Progrès, Espaces et Echanges. These seem pretty self-explanatory, but for clarity: Myths and Heroes, Paces and Forms of Power, The Idea of Progress, Spaces and Exchanges. Teachers (English teachers, mind you) seem to be able to create lessons about just about anything so long as they can be looped in to the larger ideas expressed in these Notions. For their baccalaureate, their final high school exam, they are required to present three documents (two from school and one of their own choosing) and make connections to one of these themes.
Frankly, I think it’s brilliant. Now my students are studying consumerism and surveillance societies and learning how they relate to each other under an overarching theme. My literature students study American Westerns, Grapes of Wrath, and stories of Mexican immigrants crossing the border under the heading of Myths and Heroes. Sure, there are problems with the bac as well. There’s teaching to the test and there’s teaching around the test. But I am sufficiently impressed by these basic frameworks because they teach students to connect their schoolwork to a bigger picture. Yes, for now, we’re doing this for the test. But keep in mind that Grapes of Wrath has something to do with the bandes dessinées you idolize. There are heroes there too.
Because of this freedom, most of my classes don’t use textbooks, but rather load of materials individually curated by the teacher for that lesson. It’s… a lot of work. But what it means is that my students seem to be learning about things that were beyond my reach as a high schooler. When they talk about 1984, they talk about Facebook privacy settings. They’re connecting migrant workers in Steinbeck with migrant workers today, and not as an afterthought. They’re watching Woody Allen and talking about Maupassant. To be fair, I don’t always know what kind of work went into my teachers’ lessons, but I don’t remember such a profusion of different teaching methods. And, except in one case and they know who they are, I don’t remember being taught connections.
The other thing this freedom means is that my teachers end up teaching things they’re passionate about. They think critically about their lessons before they ask the students to think critically about them. Of course they have to, but they also want to. I see connections in the themes my teachers present to their students at every level. I see my teachers living through their work instead of being effaced by it. And I’m just going to leave it at that word:
Although it was written some time ago, this post was put on hold because of the Paris Attacks.
As I write this, I am not at home. It’s the story of my life these days, to be not at home, but then, that was always (if less literally) true.
Rather, I’m having an adventure, this time in Bordeaux, Lyon, and Grenoble. It’s an adventure within an adventure, you see. Adventures seem to be consuming my life.
“Quelle chance!” you say.
“Bien sûr,” I respond, because in truth my whole life has played out as an adventure.
When I said in my bio that I rarely stand still, I meant it. Although I might sit at a desk all day writing, that’s what moving forward looks like for me. I am someone who is never satisfied, not with myself and not with my surroundings. It makes life hard for me, and sometimes it makes life hard for the people who love me. Because it makes my life harder, I haven’t always appreciated this part of myself and I’ve often attempted to remain static in order to satisfy that other part of myself that longs for comfort, for simplicity, and for familiarity. It’s never worked.
Here in France, I am more social than ever; I take more weekend trips than usual; I have lofty backpacking goals. All this plus the simple fact of living abroad makes the feeling of unbelonging even greater, and the feeling of dissatisfaction more present.
Of course, this essential dissatisfaction is also the reason I am a writer and a costume designer, the reason I can cook and the reason I can run, and the reason I am living here in France. I’ve long since familiarized myself with the feeling of unbelonging that comes along with constantly displacing oneself. (Familiarized but not desensitized.) One would think I could not always be torn in two. And yet…
I love adventure stories because they speak directly to this part of my experience. It’s not the fight against evil that draws me to The Lord of the Rings, not the promise of a Grail that draws me towards Arthurian legend. It’s the fact of a journey. It’s the same reason I prefer TV to film. I don’t care for endings and if things must end, they should be worth the trouble. I don’t care for things that go by quickly and in which we invest little of ourselves. I am always invested. I had had enough of complacency before I was born.
Too often we confuse questing with the desire for an object or a result, the desire to obtain. Of course, I’ve also said I like planning, list making, goal setting, and it’s true: I often achieve my goals because I work towards them. But if all I wanted from life was to achieve my goals, I would very quickly be satisfied. In reality, a goal is just a direction for this energy. The results are a happy byproduct of living my life.
My soul is a quest narrative that seeks to see itself in the world.
So, as I sit on a plane having voluntarily displaced myself once again, let me tell you an adventure story called “Toussaints.”
After two weeks of teaching in France, the first school break was upon us. My friend Lindsey and I planned a trip around northern Europe that would take us through Amsterdam, Cologne, Berlin, Prague, and Krakow over the course of two weeks. I don’t generally get excited in advance of things, but once the moment arrived, I was very pleased to be walking to the train station, as strange as it felt, very pleased to arrive in Paris, and very pleased to take my night bus to Amsterdam (if not entirely rested). I expected to be tired, hungry, and uncomfortable with regularity. I expected to have setbacks, language barriers, culture shock, directional issues. I expected to make mistakes. And in addition to that, I hoped to have a great overall experience.
That first morning in Amsterdam was rough, but not insurmountable. Since there’s really nowhere to get a map at five in the morning, we had to make it to the hostel on our own. It shouldn’t have been as hard as it was, but we were exhausted and of course, we don’t speak Dutch. Thing is, after that first morning most everything was simple. Amsterdam is easy to navigate, (thanks, canals!) and most everyone speaks spectacular English. In fact, spectacular English was a recurring theme during our trip, which all but eliminated the language barrier (sadly we also don’t speak German, Czech or Polish). As for culture shock, well, there was that very awkward restaurant interaction in Prague that I’m pretty positive was cultural differences at work, although poor translation definitely also played a role.
In Cologne I couchsurfed for the first time with a great woman called Lotta. I must admit that I was unsure about the whole idea of staying with a stranger at first, mostly because I fear and loathe small talk, but I came around immediately. It was absolutely true that I learned more than I otherwise would have about the culture by staying with Lotta.
In Berlin we delved into the museum scene and I remembered that I love art! And I love history! So I love museums. (Hey, when you have as many interests as I do, it’s sometimes hard to remember them all, okay?!)
In Prague we drank hot wine at a fair and I bought a scarf that’s like a blanket, and we discovered what it would mean for Europe to have been untouched by the wars.
In Krakow I fell in love, ate pierogis and learned the legend of a dragon.
So did my dreams come true? Did I have a good time overall? It certainly sounds like it. But on the train home to Angouleme, I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was all worth it in the end. Two weeks free to travel around Europe and I wanted to scream yes! It was life-changing! But all that came out was the question.
The problem is that it wasn’t life changing, at least not immediately. There was no instant gratification for traveling. I haven’t blogged lately not just because I’ve been away and therefore short on time and internet access, but because I haven’t even been able to begin to parse my feelings about it all. The scope of what I discovered about the world and about myself within my first three days (in Amsterdam) was more than enough to keep my mind busy. The rest has just been overwhelming. What I discovered about culture and privilege, about friendship and discomfort is stuck in the bottleneck of my eyes that wondered, my ears that perked, my legs that carried me; stuck in the tentative strength of my fingers, whose familiarity with this keyboard beguiles me into believing this is easy, to write down words.
But it wasn’t life-changing, not in the way of films, not in the way you might expect.
I consider myself hugely lucky to have had the opportunity to travel and I can now truthfully say I’m glad I did it. But as I sat on my train back to Angouleme, even that felt like a lie, and it’s another gift and fault of mine to value truth above most things.
The whole truth is that this trip was rough. All the things I expected to feel were absent, but last minute housing changes, monetary miscalculations, and a cancelled flight home were not on my to-do list. I might be one of the most organized travelers you’ll meet, but because I’m not an island, these things were placed at my feet.
In the end I was safe and once again stronger than I knew, but the question remained: would I do it again? And if I would not, how would I approach my upcoming breaks, knowing that the desire to travel, to move, to be dis-placed, would once again spur me on?
Now that I’ve had a week to digest it all, I can say that I’m glad I went, that I had a good time, and that I did indeed bien profiter des vacances. I can say there are things I’ll do differently next time, but that overall what plagued us most was coincidence and that which was beyond our own control. The fact is, adventure stories don’t exist without sadness and without trials, and I find happy endings disingenuous. (See my NaNoWriMo list.) In which case, I can’t expect them for myself. You might find this depressing. I find it honest and just. And anyway, it’s not about the Grail.
I wasn’t planning to travel much in the month of November as I have plenty of other things to do, but the quest surprises you, and here I am again, writing at 30,000 feet. I hope to debrief more of my experiences over the next few weeks, but for now, the bottleneck prevails. And anyway, I’m on another adventure, ready or not.
At the start of this blog, I enumerated some of my many goals for the year. Now that I have been at least mostly grounded in my French life and equally dislocated by travel, it’s time to get serious about another goal: that whole writing thing.
Enter National Novel Writing Month. Or International novel Writing Month, as may be the case. It’s a challenge I’ve completed before: write 50,000 words in the month of November. (Travel shenanigans have delayed this post, but yes, I have already begun.) Normally, this takes the form of a novel, the “No” in “NaNoWriMo”, but since I write in many forms and since NaNo has sparked myriad sub-challenges for various genres, I will accept any form of textual creative output from myself as words that count towards my goal. Plays and poetry will have less impact on the word count, because there are fewer words involved generally. I will, however, also count any substantial, well-crafted blog posts I write during this time under the category of “creative nonfiction.” This is a concession I have made in order to be able to continue to uphold my commitment to this blog during NaNo, but I expect the majority of the word count will still come from fiction. Rest assured that I’m not cheating out of my own challenge. (Even though I’m sure I am the only person who cares.) Blog posts are more work than the novel in any case: the latter doesn’t undergo revisions during the process, while these surely do.
I originally planned to participate in NaNoWriMo as a way to manage my time and direct myself toward the production of new work. Since completing my graduate program, my attention has been pulled in many non-writing directions, something fine and natural for a polymath like myself. As I prepared to move to France, I worried that I was taking a step away from the careers I had been pursuing for the past few years. In order to combat that fear, I laid a plan to focus my attentions. I also hoped that that same focus would keep my brain from wandering to homesickness. While my participation still means a serious commitment to new output, it’s become less a matter of filling time or combating homesickness than I thought. At the moment, I have little of both. Mais, c’est la vie, non?
I’ll leave it here with another incomplete list, this time of the things I find thrilling in fiction:
- playful or inventive style
- strong and various female characters and characters of color
- killing main characters
- integration with nature
- well-crafted romantic suspense
- sentences that punch once every 50-100 pages
- sadness within happy endings
- invented species
- references, allusions, reimaginings and generally palimpsestic writing
- sense of history
- high stakes in quiet prose
- cycles, repetition, tradition
- doomed love
I asked my students what they know about America. Here’s how they responded:
- New York
- Fast Food
- Everything is bigger.
I suppose you can draw your own conclusions.
These responses did lead to me having some interesting and unexpected conversations about school shootings and #BlackLivesMatter in my classes, so I can’t complain. And in fact, I’ve already been asked by one teacher to do a lesson on gun culture in the US, which I look forward to. The question now, dear readers, is:
What do you want French teens to know about the USA?
Are you okay?
Yeah. I’m fine.
Are you sure because you look… I mean you don’t look okay, you look sad.
I swear. I’m not. That’s just my face.
You’re hard to read.
I’ve been told that before.
Awww… she just does everything for her kid. It’s sweet.
Yeah, I think that’d be a problem for me if I had kids, though.
What, you wouldn’t want to do all that for them?
No, I’d want to do too much.
I can’t really imagine you with kids.
Do you miss your boyfriend?
I mean… What do you mean by miss? Like…
Like do you wish he was here?
But are you like sad when you think about him?
Not really. I’m thinking about him right now and I’m not sad.
You must talk like every night.
Like once or twice a week.
And you don’t miss him? How can you not miss him?
I just don’t miss people that much, because I’m more just…
A cold-hearted bitch?
happy to be where I am in this moment, in the present.
it’s not a new story. fin.
For more info on the who, what, when, where, why, see my new Frontmatter page.
When living in another language, it quickly becomes apparent what words and ideas are most important to you. In my first few days, the word I asked after most was “cozy”. There isn’t a direct translation* (je ne sais pas exactement ce que celui-ci dit des Français), but this is what I’ve learned to use in its place:
On se sent chez soi.
Sentir: v. to feel, to smell
We feel at home. We also smell at home because we’ve now all had multiple baths since our travels.
Setting up life in a foreign country is, as one might expect, no small feat. Before I left the US I read and reread just about every blog I could find on the topic. In fact, one of the reasons I decided to write this blog is because those put together by other TAPIFers have been so useful to me. I’ll be collecting my experiences and advice for TAPIFers in a separate area, but for now, here’s an overview for my mom.
J’ai de la chance. A lot of one’s TAPIF experience depends on luck and I’ve been very lucky on almost every front since moving here. As I’ve told many of my friends, I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
The luck started toute de suite when I received my acceptance. When applying for TAPIF, one is allowed to indicate one’s preference of region, city size, and school level. I asked for a secondary school in a mid-sized city in Poitiers, which is exactly what I got. Of course, there are external factors that made this a strategic choice for me: some regions or academies are more popular than others (like those nearest Paris), large cities are more popular than small towns, and there are many more positions for assistants de langues in secondary schools than in primary. It just so happened that my preferences were not the preferences of the majority.
Secondary school includes both middle and high school, and I was also lucky enough to be placed in a high school or lycée, which I strongly prefer. I am working at only one school, Lycée Margeurite de Valois, a lycée générale, which is probably the perfect place for me. Most of my students have a (comparatively) high level of English and are (comparatively) happy to be studying it. Whomever looked over my application was probably a smart cookie who saw that I have lots of teaching experience at universities and decided to place me with primarily college-bound students. Most of the other assistants I know in Angouleme are working at two or three schools. I think working at two schools would make for a nice variety, but working at one school does make it easier to organize my schedule. Plus, since I live on the school campus, I don’t have to buy a bus pass or a bike.
Schools are not required to provide housing for assistants, but again there are factors that make it less likely (big cities, Paris region). Not only did my school have housing I could rent, the apartment they’ve supplied for us is huge, furnished, and newly renovated. My only complaint is that the walls are literally not much more noise-proof than a sheet of paper, so my roommates and I are going to get very close. Some other TAPIFers in Angouleme have not been offered housing, and some have been offered dorm-style placements. I’m grateful to have a full kitchen.
The other English teachers at the lycée have been extremely nice to me. They’ve invited me to their gatherings, taken me on day trips, explained school elections, gossiped about my boyfriend (Hi Alex)… They’re very friendly with each other and they have definitely taken me in. I’ve read that other TAPIFers have had teachers who were not very interested in getting to know them. So while I was hopeful that at least one teacher would be willing to show me around a bit, I certainly was not expecting the welcome I’ve received.
(Mes profs d’anglais, si vous lisez ce blog, merci.)
My biggest worry pre-departure was definitely who I would be living with. Being an introvert, it’s super important to me to have a space I can feel comfortable in at the end of a day of socializing. I can “cozify” my room (and I have, more on that later), but I’ve learned the hard way that I can’t always warm up naturally cool relationships or smooth out ongoing tensions. I was a little flummoxed not to have heard anything from the school about my future roommates, not their names, not their genders, not their smoking habits. I am very happy to share that I have two wonderful roommates whose living habits thus far seem to gel with my own. We are a bit cluttered, we are really terrible at taking out the trash, and we loving sharing meals.
(I’m not just saying this because it’s public, okay?)
After attending a fête de crêpes and a photography exhibit, having a walk in the country, exploring Angoulême, figuring out our administrative needs and picking up basic housewares, my friends and I, on commence à se sentir chez soi. Filling a house with food and thrift shop candles does a good trick, but a night in watching Gilmore Girls with new friends takes the cake.
If you’re out on the road…
*En fait, I’m told the French sometimes use the Anglicism “cozy” to describe things since on se sent chez soi is a bit cumbersome.