Tuesday, October 26, 2010


i have been in france for a month and a day today.  
the time has passed with varying speeds. the first 5 days here felt like 5 years and i couldn't imagine how i would make it to december, much less to may. 
but of course now it feels like december is speeding towards me and time is flying past. we're on holiday for toussaints right now so i'm getting a little bit of time to catch my breath. it's nice to have a break, but it's also difficult to not be able to get into a rhythm here.  between all the breaks and strikes, i haven't been able to get into a routine yet. we also have wednesdays off. a mini-weekend in the middle of the week is great for running errands, but not so great for me keeping track of what day of the week it is. 

also, my birthday is in two weeks. i'm trying not to, but i'm definitely getting anxious about it. i'm not worried about the birthday so much (though i am getting incredibly old and this is the beginning of the downward spiral to 30), but more about the fact that i won't be spending it with my family or friends from home. there is no one here whom i've known for more than 6 weeks and something about my birthday makes me want to spend it with people who have known me, who have been around for the past year i'm celebrating. 
but i should really stop worrying and being a brat because the friends i've made here are amazing, and there's something about being in a foreign country together that bonds people together very quickly. 
a friend here has a saying that it will either be a good time or a good story. i love that way of looking at life. it will be a great day regardless of my worrying, or it will be a miserable day upon which i will eventually be able to look back and laugh. i'm in an exciting place in my life and i have so much to look forward to in my 24th year. 

that said, if you wanted to send me some mail, that wouldn't hurt either. 
b.p. 60010
13181 aix-en-provence
cedex 5, france

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


this morning was my first class by myself where no students showed up. and yes, i know this was because of the strike. 
but the pitiful picture was this: me all nervous, sitting alone at the desk in the front of the classroom with my little name written on the chalkboard behind me and my lesson plan laid out. 
and no one shows.
i couldn't help feeling a little bit like i had been stood up. 

Monday, October 18, 2010

exceptional stereotypes

between the strike and two professors being out of town, last week i only had 6 of the 12 classes i will normally have. “normally” assuming the strike actually ends at some point.

the classes i had last week were my first time with those students and were mostly just an introduction and observing the professor.  for my introductions the students asked me questions about myself, which included where i come from, how i like france, and how old i am. i was hoping to avoid the age question since some of the students in my bts classes are near my age, and one is actually older than me. but given the fact i still get asked if i’m majeure (over 18), i understand their curiosity. i tell myself it's just that french teenagers look so mature. 

a few of the professors asked the students to say what their idea of a stereotypical american is. this proved very informative. turns out that in addition to probably carrying infectious pulmonary diseases and warranting a separate scale of attractiveness, americans are FAT.

all of them.

americans are fat because they are always eating mcdonald’s.

americans have to retire later in life because if they stopped working when they were younger, they would get even fatter.

a typical american is a teenager eating a cheeseburger.

the professors invariably countered with “well, here you have an american right in front of you. and anna is not fat.” (i’ve resigned myself to being named anna for my 7 months here. just like you would go by pablo in spanish class or greta in german class, while in france, i am anna.)their response to a real live non-fat american right in front of them tended towards “oh well yeah but she’s an exception” variety.

and that’s part of the odd and difficult thing about being a cultural representative and teaching about america; in a lot of ways, i am an exception. i’m just one person and i can really only speak to my personal experiences. and not all of those are typically american experiences, if such a thing even exists.

so no, i’m not obese, but america does have a problem with obesity. and yes, students didn’t makeout in the hallways of my small private high school like they do in this lycée but that doesn’t mean all americans are prude.

more than trying to tell them that some of their conceptions of america are wrong, i’m trying to say that they’re overly simplified. that for any country, and especially a country as large and varied as america, blanket statements don’t work.

however, nuances are not usually funny and a lot of the time we might just want the absolutes we've been told to be true.

it’s just kind of a bummer the french get to be the skinny romantics while americans are fat prudes. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

la grève

today is supposed to be my first day in classes but today is also a grève générale (general strike) here in france. quelle surprise, non?

i’m trying not to take any political stance; i know some of you are socialists while others of you believe socialism is a willingness to pay for other people’s crack. so i’m not making any judgments here and i’m sure my own opinions will change and develop as i’m still learning, trying to understand and experience first-hand as much as possible. 

it can be hard to get people to talk to me about the strikes, as it seems that they’re aware of the common foreign perceptions of their strikes, and also hesitant to get too political. so my understanding of it is very rough, probably incomplete, and potentially incorrect, but this is france through my eyes, so welcome to my world of ignorance and confusion. 

the lycée is surrounded by a fence with a large gate at the entrance and students gathered this morning and locked the gate and barricaded it with trash cans. the protesters allowed students who wanted to go into the school to pass and they were let in through a small side gate. conversely, while i was outside watching, i had a couple of teachers who mistook me for a hesitant student tell me “allez-y, mademoiselle”, to go ahead and join the demonstration (sidenote: as assistants, we don’t have the right to strike). after a few hours the police arrived and moved the trashcans inside the gates, to prevent them from being burned, which apparently has happened before. the students let the trashcans be moved and sat down in front of the gates, with no altercation between the police and the students.
one of the secretaries told me that not all of the students demonstrating outside the school were from this lycée, but that students from other schools gathered here and she thought the majority of our students were in class. striking is, however, completely within their legal rights as long as they don’t damage property or become violent. by 1 p.m. all the protesters were gone.

now what was this strike actually about? all the information i have is coming from education unions’ pamphlets about the strike and teachers and school employees giving their opinions, so grain of salt as they obviously have a bias and i’m blind to a lot of the nuances that are probably present.

the students’ demonstration was one piece of today’s general strike, which included “employees in the public and private sectors, youth, retirees, and those deprived of work”, striking and demonstrating here in aix and on a larger local scale in marseille.  the strikes are generally against sarkozy’s policies that aim to lower the national deficit. to me, the most focused-upon issue appears to be retirement and pension reforms, which involve, among other things, pushing back the age of retirement to 62.  the chatel education reforms are also being protested. i honestly am still unclear on the full extent of these reforms, but they involve budget and job cuts and a reduction of instruction in certain subjects.  the pamphlet by the snes (one of the largest education unions in france) also cites exclusion and inequality by the government, which i was told refers to the recent expulsion of illegal romanian gypsies from france, and gender inequality.

striking is most definitely a part of the french way of life and of the caricature of a French person. they smoke, eat baguettes and cheese, wear berets, and will strike if only because it’s a tuesday. and while there is some seed of truth in all of those (except for the berets—I’ve yet to see a real live french person wearing a beret), it’s also a very one-dimensional portrayal. they know that this is a part of their foreign identity; i’ve had more than one person remark to me today that i’m getting “a real french experience”, and ask me if i didn’t wish i was back in america where it was calm. 

the strikes are definitely disruptive to productivity, and there probably are some people involved who don’t really feel passionate about the issues at hand. despite that, i‘m impressed by the lack of political apathy. there is a real belief that if enough of them stand together in protest, change will have to occur. students who aren’t even old enough to vote are taking action against policies with which they don’t agree. retirees who will never be affected by the current pension reforms are in the streets demonstrating. so whether or not i agree with their political stance or believe striking is the best way to produce change, i can’t help but admire that they are optimistically taking action with empathy for the problems of others. it highlights for me the problem of political apathy in america, especially among the youth.

that said, you have your good and your bad everywhere. for instance, publicly urinating on sidewalks is not tolerated in america, while for frenchmen it unfortunately seems to be the status quo.  

Thursday, October 7, 2010

looking up

a lot has happened since last thursday’s somewhat pathetic post, the most important of which is that i’ve met a lot of people and am feeling much happier and more at ease here. 

the majority of people whom i’ve met are also assistants (american, british, italian, egyptian, german, chilean, etc.--one of the things i’m enjoying most so far in this experience is the multi-lingualism, but i’ll go into that another time. if i let myself get started on words, this will turn into me rambling on forever about cultural-anthropological linguistics, which probably about 5 other people in the world would find interesting.) but in addition to assistants i’ve met students, neighbors, the random frenchman at the bookstore. being thrust out of my community reverts me back to a kindergarten-like stage of friend making, where it’s a necessity rather than a luxury. this leads to meeting and investing time in people when i might not have bothered under normal circumstances.

a lot of the weekend was spent trying to keep all the acronyms straight (caf, ofii, rib…) and get all the necessary paperwork and appointments in order for them. i also spent a good amount of time wandering around the town trying to get oriented. i'm horrible with direction, but i'm still trying.
sunday night i went to a church off the cours mirabeau i had heard about. even far from home, being there felt so familiar and it was comforting to think that at exactly the same time my family was doing the same thing in virginia.

i had to go into marseille 3 times this week, for the medical visit, orientation, and my personal favorite--dinner with the consul. all of the american assistants in aix-marseille were invited to her home where our passports were checked at the door and we went up a couple sets of stairs, each of which leads to a garden or terrace and an increasingly breathtaking view.
the dinner included pastis (of course), a brief talk, chicken nuggets and pizza as appetizers (i guess they figure we’re homesick for american food?), lots of delicious food and wine, and my having to be dragged off the terrace when it was time to leave. i can’t imagine ever going indoors living there.

wednesday was our orientation, which i had been looking forward to, but was a huge letdown. my annoyance may have been aggravated by the fact that i was upset and anxious the night before and literally hadn’t slept at all, but regardless it was an inordinately long day for very little new information. those of us teaching in lycées have our journée de formation in marseille on monday that is supposed to actually be interesting and helpful though. 

and then tuesday i actually start teaching... 

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

americans: ugly and probably have tuberculosis

monday i had my appointment at the ofii office in marseille. to be allowed to stay in france for an extended period of time and receive a carte de sejour, you have to go to ofii for a medical visit. the sole purpose of this visit is to x-ray your lungs and make sure you don’t have tb. this only applies to people from outside the european union. so our friend who is canadian and lives in canada, but also has a belgian passport, didn’t have to go to the visit. because eu passports are imbued with tb antibodies or something. i don’t know.

a whole group of assistants are told to show up at 1:30 and made to wait in an area on the steps and listen for a frenchified version of their names to be called over the intercom. luckily, my name (“anna steel”) was called early on. so i left behind the not-so-lucky ones like my friend madeline who came in with me and was still waiting to be called in when i was walking out of the visit an hour and a half later. 

everything was going pretty normally until the actual x-ray of my lungs. i’m taken into a small room to change and told i can keep on my tank top, but that i have to take off my bra and cardigan for the x-ray. so i’m standing awkwardly in this big, cold room in front of the technician. he takes the x-ray and i’m about to leave when he says to me “si je puis dire, vous êtes très belle pour une américaine”  which translates to “if i may say so, you’re very beautiful for an american.” 

i was completely taken aback and not sure what to be more upset by:
  • the inappropriateness of a medical professional remarking on my looks at all, and especially during a procedure while i'm in an uncomfortable and somewhat vulnerable position
  • the fact that he tacked on “for an american” at the end. 

in my shock i didn't say any of this, just mumbled/stuttered something and scurried back into the changing room.

to follow that up, then i go in for the doctor to check the x-ray. i tell him that no, i’m actually not a student, i’m teaching here, and he asks me how old i am. i tell him and he just squints at me and says i don’t look old enough to be teaching anyone.

on the bright side, i do have very healthy lungs and definitely do not have consumption. 

Friday, October 1, 2010

les vacances

i got my school schedule for the year today and it pretty much boils down to this:
i work 3 weeks, then have 2 weeks off (all saint's holiday)
i work 6 weeks, then have 2 and a half weeks off (christmas holiday)
i work 7 weeks, then have 2 weeks off (winter holiday--not to be confused with christmas holiday...they're very different and warrant their own time off)
i work 5 weeks, then 2 weeks off (spring holiday, which brings me to the end of my work contract, so i'm actually done at this point). 

i don't love french bureaucracy, but man, do i love french vacations.