Thursday, January 30, 2014

Teaching English in France

It is quite possible for Anglophones to find a job teaching English in France. The posts abound, but you must know some of them are well paid in a nice atmosphere whereas others are quite the opposite.

Coming from abroad
Now coming from abroad, there are three possibilites.
The first is by far the best: being a lecteur in an English department at a French university. The salary is great and you only work 12 hours per week. The classes are not difficult to prepare either. Basically you just talk with the students! Paradise. Unfortunately, you are entitled to a one year non-renewable contract. Many of these posts are covered by exchange agreements with British or American Universities, but enough of them remain for you to find them yourselves. Contact French universities and pester them. It's common practice in France not to answer application letters and to throw them away like junk mail. A French department head once told me he got so many letters from people in the US asking for employment he just pitched them all without ever opening them. Call, no e-mail, no snail mail! Do not be daunted when they say no! That's also a common practice. The other good thing about a lecteur post is they arrange to get you a work permit, which will be useful if you want to stay in France afterwards. Oh, by the way, you need a Master degree (in anything) or be working towards one.

The second is taking a job as a language assistant in a school. There are even more of these posts available than for the lecteur jobs. It is the same kind of position: twelve hours per week conversation classes. However, they are not so well paid and you cannot work elsewhere. It's the law. Giving private classes, 25-30 euros per hour is possible, but you have to find them. You also get a work permit, and sometimes it is possible to live in a furnished room in the school. Go on the French embassy website in your country and you'll find the recruitment process.

The third possibility is working in a language academy. Here, there are tens of thousands of them everywhere. Look on any billboard, in any newspaper, and you'll see advertisements. However I must warn you though that they pay peanuts, so you'll have to work long hours (30-35 hours per week) teaching grammar, business English and conversation to small groups. They do give contracts but rarely help you get a work permit. So you have to get them while in France. I don't know if I'd recommend this type of work, but if the goal is just getting to France and experiencong life here... Besides that, the qualification of most of these places is just to be a native speaker of English and be able to tell a verb from a direct object. Yes, they are sweatshops of language.

Getting work once you are settled in France
When you are residing long term in France, some doors open, others close. No more chance of getting those lecteur and assitant positions. You can still work in an academy but who could stand that permanently?

If you have diplomas you "can" give classes at the university, and they pay really really well. Working there is a real privilege. However, there are only two ways to do so: become a French civil servant or be an adjunct teacher. Unfortunately the first option excludes almost all anglophones for one reason or another. First, only European citizens have the right to sign up for the competition exam. Americans, Canadians and Australians, forget it, unless you have dual nationality. Second, the exam is really difficult. You must speak, read and write fluent French. Much of the exam is in French and tough translations characterize it. For instance, if you know the words "jagaree, yellow bream, and hogtrotter" and know their French equivalents plus speak with ease about things like the Great American vowel movement or life in England under Charles II, you just might be prepared. Otherwise, consider the adjunct route. But, there is a hitch here too. You may only take French public service adjunct positions if you have either another full time job or you work 300 hours per year in another. Strict proof is needed even if they ask you months after you have started teaching.

Another possibility if you have already gotten that work permit is to apply at the Chamber of Commerce or write a letter to the local Rectorat. In the first case, it's a step above the sweatshops though it parallels it. You can get contracts, often do face to face work with businessmen and the pay is around 25 euros per hour. If you can get 300 hours a year there you can complement that with the university classes. Try applying for both of these positions around August and September. Again, do hassle. It pays off! The rectorat will hire foreigners to sub at high schools or middle schools when the normal instructor takes ill, has a baby or otherwise has to be absent for long periods of time. There are more and more of these positions available as the current government policy is to eliminate civil servant posts by not renewing them when the current teachers retire. So, sometimes you might get lucky and get a post for the entire year nowadays. (I know of someone who has made a career out of subbing). If you're not picky on where and when you teach and you have a few qualifications it's more and more likely you can get these posts. Thank you Sarkozy! They are pretty well paid, not as well as if you were the civil servant yourself, you do get all the benefits and holidays, but on the flipside you are the high school teacher, not the assistant, and you have all the burocratic, busy, desk work connected with it, (this is France and there is a lot!) and besides there are usually 30 students per class and you have corrections to do. The normal number of hours you can teach in school is fixed at 18 hours per week by law. You can also do overtime at the university easily as you already have a contract with National Education.

What not to do
Do not contact local schools or local universities about job opportunities. They have no right to hire you, and they don't pay you. The regional rectorat takes care of that. Any promises by anyone (principal, teachers, secretaries) in that school are worthless. Actually, more often than do not know the rules themselves.
Likewise, do not start teaching anywhere unless you have a contract or a letter of mission (temporary contract) in hand and it is signed by everyone who needs to sign it and is stamped. It is quite likely you will not be paid for your work if you don't have one. Without it you have no proof, you do not exist in the system and have no rights or legal recourses. Often wonderful perky people will declare they love you and will urge you to start immediately. They can be in a desperate situation if school starts the following week and they have no teacher. They assure you their word is good and you that you have been hired by them. Again, I stress that not many people know the rules (or perhaps only part of them) since accountants far away in another city take care of paying you. Also jurists will study your case only later on to see if you legally have the right to work, be paid, and subsequently only afterwards will draft the contract. As a rule of thumb, you need papers for everything in France. If you're not given them or asked for them, something is wrong. Unfortunately, I know trusting anglophones who teach semesters at university and are never paid. Why not? No contract was ever issued to them by anybody. Later on, they try to get paid and are asked for proof of working 300 hours elsewhere. They haven't, of course, so their work is legally declared invalid or non existent, which means the same terrible thing. Zilch! Ouch!

By the way, there are lots of lucrative $1000 translations available in France. Do not hand them in until you have been paid for them. When you meet the individual you must agree for him to pay you by personal check. You have to make clear from the start that your translation is personal and not official. Also, you do not have an official translation company (if that is the case, do what you want). In France you may not offer services nor write invoices if you do not have your own firm (question of taxes and social costs in this country). Therefore, the company must write you a letter of mission (contract again), in that case, they consider you their employee, or else (more likely) you must come to your own personal unofficial arrangement. Let them suggest something, not you. It's technically illegal. In the event you have not talked this over before translating and you do the work and hand it over to them, they have no legal obligation to pay you. At best, they will say, send me an invoice. In which case, you will be in breach of law, if you don't have a company, of course. My advice, get that letter of mission, with signature and stamp.

Put an ad on the net or in the local newspaper. Private classes abound. Almost everybody is learning English to some degree, though they never succeed. Get books from a local bookshop. Ask 25-30 euros per hour. Don't accept less, even if is your first time. At a language academy they would have had to pay 40 euros, and at the afformentioned universities or chambers of commerce it is 70 euros per hour. If they seem reluctant for any reason at all, break contact. There are other fish in the sea. Also get your payment right after each class. Ask for cash only. Some people start cancelling lessons and you never see them again in your life. Arrange to meet in a café. This can be a substantial source of income, really, it can.

Bonne chance

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

French Resolutions

This year my resolutions are strong and I have a thirst for change.  Honestly, I haven't written many posts for this blog for a few months for one simple reason.  I'm supposed to tell you wonderful stories about my life here, and since I really can't it's better for me not to write.  To be honest, I do not like Metz anymore.  I do not enjoy teaching English to people who do not wish to learn it.  Moreover, I have no desire to go out in this town anymore.  I know all the streets, shops, restaurants, cafés.  Even meeting new people here brings me no new pleasure.  It's drab routine in a climate where it rains everyday and gets dark at 4pm.  Believe me,  I wish I were not announcing this awful fact, but it's true.

My Christmas break has served me to realize I absolutely must have change, perhaps even drastic change.  For the last couple weeks, I have been working hard to get rid of as many possessions as I can.  So far I've managed to throw out about half.  The destruction actually reinvigorates me.  Have any of you ever felt the pleasure of smashing a table because it's the only way to get it out of an apartment?  My goal is to get down to 5 or 6 boxes but I'm still too far away from that.  Few belongings brings freedom, and face it, you are only mobile when you're light.  I have handed in my notice to escape my apartment and soon plan to quit every single one of my jobs.  Sometimes it takes a leap of fate, a hail mary pass for a better life.  It's possible I'll have regrets.  I really hope not.  I never thought I would identify so much with Tracy Chapman when she sang "I want a ticket to anywhere!"

My life here will always be the same.  I can have the same jobs forever, live in the same flat, buy my groceries in the same supermarket, go to the same cinema.  I do have that security in this town. I acknowledge many people would love to have it.  I have a beautiful view of the cathedral from my window.  Yet, I cannot deal with tedium anymore.  Perhaps this is what is meant by provincial life.

It won't be easy nor swift.  I'm starting as of now.  So, my lesson for you today is, remember, nothing is quick in France.  Rental contracts are not easily broken.  You must give 90 days notice before you can leave an apartment.  Getting electricity, water, phone or internet service disconnected is a headache too.  In France you have contracts with them as well.  Banking is a huge mess. It's difficult to change banks since you are assigned to one particular local agency, the one in which you opened your account.  A Banque Populaire client may not deal with another branch of the same institution.  In some cases, contracts cannot be suspended.  Monthly deposits, bills and tax payments are almost always automatic transactions in France. In addition, as you may know, work is measured out from an end date backward here, not a starting date forward.  For example, when you teach a course they give you a contract with a set number of hours already planned out. After every class you cross out one day.  I suppose it does give job security to see clearly you have guaranteed work in May, but nowadays I tend to see it more like a prison sentence.  For each class I take on, I do time until I'm free from it.  This gives a very different feeling from creating something new and original step-by-step.

All in all, I'll be around Metz for many many more months, but I shall leave.  That day will be ever so sweet!  The big question is where to next?  That, my friends, I have not figured out.  Perhaps you can give me some tips. :)

Friday, December 27, 2013

Documents needed for French Naturalization

I'm in a cleaning mood.  I'm happily throwing out lots of papers I've hoarded for far too long, but before I throw out this I thought I'd share the contents with you.  It wasn't easy to compile this list.  It took me a while to find out the requirements by visiting one organization or another and/or talking to different civil servants in France.  Some say you need to see a lawyer, but almost no one does.  It's a waste of money.  Anyway, here is the list of paperwork you need to become a French citizen.  It's for asking the "privelege of being naturalized French".  If you marry a Frenchman, have French blood, or were born in France there is a slightly different process.  In those cases you are asking for the "right of being naturalized French".

French Naturalization
1)  Fill out the naturalization form (twice).  It's found on the site or available at any prefecture.  It takes a lot of time to fill in.  They ask for extensive information about family, studies, jobs, lifestyle.
2)  You need an original certified copy of your birth certificate with an Apostille on it (official seal from the state in which you were born).  This all must be translated into French by an official certified translator.
3)  You also need a copy of your dad's birth certificate, your mom's birth certificate, plus their marriage certificate.  All of them must also be translated by an official certified translator too.
4)  A copy of your original foreign passport
5)  Four photos of a certain size (don't remember, but you can get them easily from any photographer in France).  The photomaton machine at the Prefecture is fine enough.
6)  A photocopy of your "titre de séjour" or "carte de résident".  You must have lived in France legally for five uninterruped years.
7)  Three years of work contracts and payslips.  The contracts must indicate salary, starting and end date, and job occupied,  Slips guaranteeing monthly unemployment allowances also count.
8)  Go to the Trésor Public in your French town and ask for a "Bordereau de situation fiscal" for the last three years.  This proves you have paid all the types of taxes you need to pay and you are in a good situation.  For this you must go to the National Treasury Office
9)  Photocopy of your "Avis d'imposition" for the last three years.  This is a document also related to income taxes and revenue that you can obtain at the Income Tax Office (le Fisc).
10)  Photocopy of rental contacts for the last three years or documents showing you have bought a house.
11)  Photocopy of EDF bills (electricity bills) for the last three years or telephone bills for last three years.
12)  Copy of a bank statement from your French bank
13)  A "Extrait de casier judiciaire"- a police/ military document certifying you have committed no crime in the last ten years.

14) After you have taken those documents to the Prefecture and they have been approved, you will be told to schedule an interview with the French Gendarmerie (National Police, equivalent FBI/CIA) which will be a thorough investigation into your background.   (This is the most stressful part, but goes well if you have nothing to hide). They will ask many personal and professional questions.
15)  You must schedule an oral exam at the nearest prefecture to prove fluency in the French language.

These were the requirements as of December 2013.  Perhaps they have changed since but I doubt it.  It has been the same for many years already and the government is reluctant to amend this.  Hope it can be of some use to somebody.  So, yes, once again, France is a nation of paper and bureaucracy.  Do not get rid of any important document.  It could come back to haunt you.  If your goal is to become French, start thinking about this a few years in advance so you can be sure to have all the required documents.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Catalan independence movement

As I wrote a few years ago about the tug of war between Catalonia and Spain as well as the use of the Catalan and Spanish languages in this area, I thought I would give an update on the situation.   Previous posts:  catalonia2 and catalonia1

The independence movement in Catalonia has grown in the past year and just might have a majority, slightly over 50% of the people in favor of breaking away from Spain.

There are two types of secessionists in Catalonia:  the nationalists and people who think independence would result in a better life.

The first group I mention is always more or less for Independence, 25% on a beautiful day, up to 35%+ on a bad rainy day.  This is most likely the latter nowadays.  Recent surveys have shown a paradox in the use of the Catalan language in the region.  More people than ever (more than 90%) understand the language and can use it.  Around 75% can also speak it.  Besides more audio-visual material, be it books, translations, internet use, TV, movies, radio, has also increased dramatically in the last few years.  However, on the flipside, actual daily use is down.  People with Catalan as a mother tongue has decreased to a historic low, 35%, and it is said that more than 70% of conversations in Catalonia are in Spanish.  Plus within Catalan, the use of a lighter version mixed with Spanish is also commonplace.  As such linguistics predict that within the midterm future if nothing changes Catalan will not die, just melt into Spanish as a regional form of it.

In this atmosphere, the new government of Spain has striven to re-centralize the region.  Since the Supreme court has made null and void most of the laws making Catalan the preferred language of Catalonia, they have pushed reform to reintroduce Spanish into the school system and set up a 50-50 quota between Catalan and Spanish in all areas.  The idea they propose is simple:  people should be able to use whenever they choose whichever of the official languages.  In light of the studies, nationalists now believe that Catalan language and culture cannot survive without independence.  This group also surmises that the central government actually aspires for it to die.

Besides language use, the Spanish rightist government of the Partido Popular has enacted many other laws to effectively undermine the large autonomy granted to the region in the 1990's.  They aim to take backs rights given by previous administrations to Catalonia and other regions.  The reason is the economic crisis the whole nation has been suffering since 2008.  Apparently, there was a lot of corruption in autonomous areas where budgets were misused for grandiose projects and a frenzy of building that never ended up benefiting anyone.  Laws became vastly different from one region to another.  The politicians in one area or another were of different political nature and this added to a culture of mutual contempt and little desire for cooperation or harmonization in policies.  At times shady deals between ministers and private companies and assumed embezzlement into Swiss bank acccounts were almost commonplace. Meanwhile the past central government turned a blind on this situation.  Nowadays, however,  fueled by the demands of Europe, Mariano Rajoy is striving to cut expenses drastically and abolish privileges that had come to be considered as rights of the people.

Catalonia, arguably the richest region in Spain, was hit hardest be the crisis.  Many jobs in industry and service have been lost.  Expenses here are at the highest.  Promoting the Catalan language is expensive.  Consider just the subsidies given to entities sponsoring the language as well as to the film industry to dub and subtitle movies for use in Catalonia.  The social network is also more highly developed here than in the rest of Spain. The result was bankruptcy and a bailout by the Spanish government that was not unconditional.  Cutbacks in Catalonia are the highest, re-centralization is de rigueur, and taxes have risen.  Protests are frequent and the response of the Spanish government is "Too bad!  Our way or the highway!"

The nationalists have promoted the idea that their nation has been invaded by Madrid, and is bleeding it dry. If Catalonia is suffering in spite of being the richest region and other regions in Spain aren't, the reason is simple. Spain has unfairly taken all their money through taxation and budget allowances, then unbelievably forces them to beg for a piece of it back, just so it can humiliate hardworking Catalans.  And to boot, it insults their languages and revokes their inalienable rights to govern themselves as a people. Politicians show the new highway system in Madrid and the high speed rail linking Madrid, Valencia, Seville and Galicia as pilfering their money for others' comfort.  Besides, other poorer regions have balanced their budgets in recent times despite their lack of industry and/or dependence on agriculture.  All in all a percentage of non-nationalists have been convinced that Madrid is the enemy and that Catalonia could make it better alone if it didn't have to pay Spain tribute or be submitted to its laws.  Even the idea that Spain hates Catalonia and has planned to kill it has made inroads.  But, imagine the prosperity that freedom could bring!

At the present time a game of chicken is being played out.  After Madrid refused to change its policy and offer Catalonia a new tax system it splitting resources, the nationalist leader Artur Mas called for new elections on an independence platform.  Surprisingly he lost support but still managed to claim victory after forming a coalition government with other leftist, more radical secessionists.  He has vowed not to comply with a number of the new Spanish laws, including the ones enforcing the use of Spanish or demanding more cutbacks and plans to hold a referendum on independence one way or another.  Madrid, however, pledges to force him to comply.  As per referendums, the Spanish constitutions forbids them and declares Spain to be united and loyal to its king.  They will suspend autonomy and take direct control of the region if needed.  This has already happened in the past in the Basque country, so it is not without precedent.  Artur Mas, in the meantime, says he's up for a fight, in Spain, in Europe, in the Hague, at the UN, wherever.  Using the metaphor of a ship, he states that it is better to fight the armada and lose then end up wrecked on the rocks.

Stay tuned for what happens next!

Friday, August 30, 2013

End of summer blues

Well here I am, back in France. My welcome home party included a leaky toilet, a broken refrigerator and a tax bill. What cold water to be thrown on my summer fun. I spent 5 whole weeks disconnected and relishing in the worst americana possible: chain stores, road trips, junk foods, cheesy pop music. Ashamed to say I loved every second of it.
It's almost time to figure out what's going on this year: meetings, classes, job opportunities, future plans, apointments, apointments, apointments. I see fog everywhere. Disconnection carries a price. For now it's a massive clean-up operation on my apartment, calls and e-mails galore, papers, organization of undeniable chaos, and unpacking that suitcase. Which order? Oh, my achy head.
Two bises to everyone and bonne rentrée!

Copyright 2012 Merquiades

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Partir, c'est mourir un peu

Partir, c'est mourir un peu,
C'est mourir à ce qu'on aime :
On laisse un peu de soi-même
En toute heure et dans tout lieu.
C'est toujours le deuil d'un vœu,
Le dernier vers d'un poème ;
Partir, c'est mourir un peu.
Et l'on part, et c'est un jeu,
Et jusqu'à l'adieu suprême
C'est son âme que l'on sème,
Que l'on sème à chaque adieu...
Partir, c'est mourir un peu

Edmond Haraucourt, 1890

As I prepare for my annual pilgrimage to the US, these words of the great French poet, Haraucourt, from the nineteenth century come to mind. Leaving, is somewhat like dying. The telephone which remained silent for weeks starts to ring. Every friend and acquaintance absolutely needs to see me, have a drink with me, talk to me, have lunch or dinner. Frenchmen consider departures even for as little as a few weeks as a loss. As the poet states, it's a mourning for what could have been and never will be. The scent of the person lingers in the air long after he has left. For France and me our summer 2012 has come to an end. Good-byes are excruciating for the French. The moment when people part lasts forever as people take your hand, look in your eyes and profess their regrets for the hours you will not spend together. They wish you all the best for the journey and your life. Breaking away is hard. They kiss you over and over. You continue to wave until someone has turned the corner. And that is the supposed moment of death.

Americans don't generally get this lump in their throats when someone goes away. It seems so normal to leave unless you are hopelessly in love and won't see your lover anymore. Welcoming someone home however is more emotional in the States. Strangely enough, that is lacking in France. When I return no one will be there to greet me and life will resume quickly as if I had never left. "Et ben. Te voilà". There you are again

The morose atmosphere always ends up getting to me. Knowing the French I try to hide my day of departure but they always sense it. Buying a baguette, cheese and some Marseilles lavender soap my favorite grocer let out a "Awwww. It's tomorrow, isn't it? Oh what a pity!" Walking through the square I looked up at the Gothic cathedral. The clock chimed two o'clock. The sun came out for once. A group of passer-bys chanted "j'aurais voulu" (I would have wanted). The word tomorrow resonated in my brain over and over. There are always so many things to do before I leave it's overwhelming. It never gets easier. No matter how much I try, I leave in the middle of something. There is too much to do. Doing my laundry, packing the suitcase and sorting through my mail is tedious work. What have I forgotten? I planned three days to do it. Not! I stop at a sidewalk café for a Monaco (beer, lemon and grenadine cocktail), sat down to make my list and feel the sun on my face. The waiter informs me tomorrow will be a beautiful day. My cell rings. It's friends calling to say bye! yet again. I sigh.

Now I'm writing this post to capture the day-before-tomorrow spirit. Oh, forget the damn suitcase. Leaving is a little bit like dying. As Monsieur Haraucourt puts it so romantically, our soul is lost and spread far and wide with each adieu. Today is the last line of a poem. Phew!

Copyright 2012 Merquiades

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Internal logic

One of the toughest aspects of life in a foreign country is "Internal Logic". It won't be addressed in any guide book, language, culture or history class. It's intangible but definitely present. Even after years of living in France I ask myself seemingly rhetorical questions... why? why? why?... all in vain. I am left to fret.

Last week in Paris I helped out a desperate American tourist running around the metro looking frantically for a way back to the airport. He asked one Parisian after another and got blank stares. A few shrugged their shoulders and suggested he take the subway line towards the Champs-Élysées. He sighed. Fortunately his instincts knew that was wrong. Then he met an attendant who urged him to get out of the underground and walk. Say what? That, of course, was certainly impossible! So what was wrong?... Frenchmen do not refer to the airport in Paris as Charles de Gaule. That was a former president, maybe stretching it a traffic circle around Arc de Triomphe, but definitely not Roissy airport. Yes, of course, it's named for the city it's in, just like any other airport in the world, right? Who doesn't know the name of that Parisian suburb where it is located? By the way, you take a train there. Subways are for Paris only!

Another classic example. Americans are often amazed when they get a cereal bowl full of milk with a small expresso on the side when they so innocently asked for a café au lait. It's so exasperating when everyone around them seems to have that big mug of French coffee they so desired. Why so? Because they asked for coffee with their milk and that's definitely what they got. They should have gone for café-crème (creamy coffee) or café noisette (strong coffee with a touch of milk). How to know that if you haven't lived in France?

Mores are even tougher. It takes time, energy, and interest to learn that in France salad is eaten after the main course never before. Coffee follows the desert and they are not drunk together. Forget that and eyebrows will be raised. You must kiss your friend's girlfriend 2 or 3 times cheek after cheek otherwise he will be offended. What else? You should take a present, chocolate or flowers, but definitely never wine when invited to someone's house for dinner. By the way, don't even think of helping them clear the table or do the dishes. Faux pas! More importantly it also means now they consider you a true friend so you need to reciprocate in some way in the near future. Finally, let's not forget those businessmen who suggest a business lunch to French colleagues. Working and relaxing do not go together, and you need to enjoy your food too!

Sometimes you just have to accept the logic without question. It is repeated over and over ad nauseum: No swimming for an hour after eating. No using a knife to cut salads. Parking on the sidewalk is preferable to going into a garage when you won't be staying overnight. Driving a stick shift is inherently better than driving an automatic. You can have three glasses of wine and still drive, but not four. You can mix champagne with black currant juice and it's sublime, but mix it with orange juice and it's the worst sin ever. Ketchup is supposed to be sweet. Mayonnaise should contain mustard. You take elevators up, not down.

If I have written this post with ease until now, it's largely due to my experience. I have learned it all-- sometimes the easy way, sometimes the hard way. Yet, it is only the tip of the iceberg. I still make blunders without knowing it and often have the terrible feeling of not knowing what is really happening around me. Why again? No one ever tells you any of this stuff, you have to stumble every day like that man looking for Charles de Gaule.

From the minute you are born you start picking up the invisible truths of a culture. I heard recently it begins when French moms pull their kids over to them, tell them to sit still and Americans tell them to go off and have fun in the playground. It all means something. Yes, there are faux pas! for children too. When they fall down and scrape their knee, Gallic mom says "See. I told you not to do that. You didn't obey me, did you?" and her yankee counterpart utters "Ah. That's okay, sweety. Now you know what happens when you run too fast" it moulds them. Likewise, every year spent in school adds layer upon layer to the labyrinth of French savoir-faire . There are the cultural icons, the games, the socialization, the formal and informal learning, the values, the take on life, and the morality lessons. Moving to a country as an adult puts you at a clear disadvantage. There is an ocean of invisible evidence to assimilate.

America is probably more lenient and open due to the universal immigrant experience but -- perhaps an immigrant might see things differently. I've heard Frenchmen complain about American waiters who are so bothersome and won't leave them alone to eat in peace. The French obviously have to be explained what a tip is-- not just when to leave it or how much to put down. Further, they ask -- who is your friend in America? Why doesn't friendly mean friend? Everyone's got their work cut out for them, I guess.

France, on the other hand, is not nearly so indulgent. Recently I've been confronted with trying to understand how the education system really works here. How do teachers give class in France? What is a good course supposed to be like? How does one write an essay? How does one make a presentation? Should students work alone, in pairs, in groups? What is the role of the teacher and the student? How do they interact? What are the expectations? Why do those so-called bad things like imagination seem inherently good to me and the good things like analyzing image after image seem like a waste of energy? How will I know what is right and what is wrong? Those questions race through my head. An expat has no Gallic instinct. When you don't know... the sanction is unexpected and harsh. You have to fit in and react according to role.

In many senses, I still feel like that teenager who was hit with a broom by a pastry chef in Tours many years ago for sitting down at the wrong table. How was I supposed to know that was soooo bad? What to do? Why...... My ruminations continue.

Copyright 2012 Merquiades

Thursday, June 6, 2013


CROUS (Centre régional des oeuvres universitaires et scolaires) is a nationwide group of cafeterias found pretty much anywhere in France at or near schools and universities. Whereas they were set up primarily for students and teachers, people from far and wide go to have lunch there because the food is cheap, copious and of excellent quality. You get four courses; salad, main course with meat and vegetables, cheese, fruit and dessert. It's well worth it even if the daily dish is not your cup of tea. Just pass on the pork cutlet or veal's head and go for the rest. Yet, normally what they prepare is delicious. This week when I went there they were serving "brandade de morue" (cod, olive oil, bread and potato casserole). Since in France lunch is from twelve to one without exception, I usually pass on going to CROUS. I'm busy, at home, still working, not willing to queue for fifteen minutes, or not hungry, or so hungry at noon. Yes, even after a decade in France I have not adapted to the culinary habits here. So, all in all, I go two or three times a year to CROUS always with the promise to return more often, yet alas, c'est la vie!

Last Friday I finished my class early, was by chance right next to a CROUS (one of the best in town actually), and was utterly famished. Perfect! Now, mind you, I usually go there accompanied. When we get to the end of the line, my lunch mates usually take out their CROUS card and pay for us both. As the price of a full meal equals that of a tall coffee elsewhere, I usually invite them to a café afterwards. On occasion I pay, it's usually around five or six euros, a bit more than what it costs with the card. This is what I intended to do this week as well. Yet, when I took out my wallet to pay for lunch, the cashier let out one of those exaggerated gallic gasps.

-- Oh là là, Monsieur. You don't have a card. My God, no! But, you've been here before, what did you do? Who were you with?

-- I was with a friend or else I paid.

--You just can't pay here, like that, monsieur. Who do you think you are? whew whew whew. Thérèse, Thérèse... monsieur doesn't have a card!!!!!

As the line started to back up and people turned their heads to see what was happening, I repeated I was sorry for the problem. I had never had one ever before. I would be willing to pay more if needed, take a card right now, whatever....

--How come you don't know where to get a card? You expect me... meeee... to tell you. How should I know? I don't have any here. That's not my job. Are you even eligible to get a card?

I let her rant on for a few minutes.... doo dooo dooo

--I don't know what to say Madame. It's never been an issue before. Sorry, you are right. I can only offer to pay or get a card.....

--Of course I am right...still. Where do you work? Jean-Loup, do you know this guy? Who did you come with before? Tell me! Oh là là. Well, sign your name here...on this sheet of paper. I just can't believe this is happening to me. You better come back a.s.a.p. with a card, or this will come out of my pay, you know.

I moved on to a table, sat down, tried to eat my brandade as the lady proceeded to repeat the story of the freeloader to everyone who followed in the line, pointing indiscreetly in my direction. Le voilà!

--And monsieur didn't have a card. Can you believe it?..... You know, I think he was a.... foreigner. Swiss, Polish, English or something... I know he won't ever come back with a card.

Strangely enough, I have looked into getting a card. When I ask people where they got theirs...most stare into space pensive. They possess one because... I guess... they have always had one, inherited it, or were given it by someone. Otherwise it's... go across town, see so-and-so between 9:30 am and 9:45, fill out a dossier, take two id's and a proof a residence, get five signatures and mail to this address in Paris by April 15th. They'll contact you if and when they decide to give you a card.

Sometimes I think my so-called-life in France is all about getting cards.
Moral: avoid CROUS (or at least some CROUS) if you don't have one.

Copyright 2012 Merquiades

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Thinking of you, Cáceres

Once in a while I remember you, Cáceres, and the memory is so vivid it transports me back decades. I'm in a time warp, flying magically over thousands of miles of scenery long forgotten. Presto. I'm back on Paseo de Cánovas sipping watermelon sangría as the afternoon sun peaks its head over San Jorge cathedral.
What usually brings me back to you is the pungent smell of diesel fuel spewing from an old bus and blending ever gently with a distant scent of garlic and olive oil. Add the tune of some old bolero, and that's the recipe. I'm back on my journey on that Enatcar long haul carrier, destination Cáceres.

It was 1991; I was still wet behind the ears, both exhilarated and apprehensive as we rode deeper and deeper into the mysterious heart of Spain. The flat barren countryside went on for hours, dotted periodically with a sudden cluster of houses, a castle, a casino or two. The bus started and stopped with thuds as Spaniards in red jeans and black leather jackets hopped on and off at villages with grandiose baroque sounding names... Talavera de la Reina, Quintanar de la Vega, Arroyo de la Luz. On the radio, Cadena Dial played long bittersweet ballads of love forlorn. They came in and out with static as we grew ever farther from that fading signal in Madrid. "Me dijiiiste que me queríias... ......pero todo fue mentiiiiira. (You said you loved me.... but all that was a lie). Then a flood of guitar music and repeat, repeat, repeat ad infinitum... Finally, after we struggled to climb up a rugged hilltop, I could see the medieval city of white washed houses and red tiled roofs stretched out before us in the valley. Next stop, Cáceres! Just let it happen.
María Dolores met me as I got off the bus with a "Wow, Vikings do exist, don't they?" and promptly rechristened me as Roncho, short for Roncho el Grande, my Spanish alter ego... well, some remote play on words between my name and a Visigoth king who resembled me. It stuck. That was the only time I remember being greeted with such gusto from a stranger and actually seeing one of those arrival "welcome signs" with my name scratched on it in huge letters. Ok, so it WAS misspelled with several strange H's placed at random, but I could clearly recognize it. My head still spinning from the journey, I felt lost as anyone could be in the world. We watched the 1950 Pullman take off toward Seville, and we both burst out laughing. Diesel was now garlic.

Cáceres is a blur of souvenirs with no beginning nor end, where evening started at noon or rather nights lingered on well into the afternoon. The Spanish literature prof spoke of the Libro de Buen Amor for months on end, the geography prof insisted on the olive grove giving birth to Iberian civilization. The frequent breaks at the bar may have been longer than class time. The morning pick me up was a small insanely strong espresso diluted into a tall glass of rum. The waiter played "Camino" over and over. That was the only place I ever did a back flip or even attempted to. Cáceres gave courage to a push ones limit. The student strike was a welcome festive atmosphere. We marched round and round the city with banners reading "No Spanish blood for oil"! Didn't matter no one knew what the march was about. Did we need an excuse to be rowdy? In the meantime, we partook of tapa after tapa, lots of exotic fish, omelettes, spicy peppers and sharp sheep cheese washed down with gallons of sweet Spanish wine so thick it was like syrup. Of course, every day we had madalenas galore, not to mention the ever-present Galletas Fontaneda. Those crackers tended to show up everywhere. There were the nights the Canary Island girls danced on the bar of Montana with their own cosmic fandango choreography to the B52's "Lov Sack". There were the gypsies sitting on the steps to the old town strumming their guitars "Si tú me dices ven, lo dejo todo" (Just say the word and I'll leave it all for you). I see myself dressed as Pancho Villa for carnival, jumping on human chairs and chanting "un, dos, tres". In a dive decked out all in red, known to locals as the Leaning Tower of Babel, I translated Montse's favorite song for her "If I said you had a beautiful body would you hold it against me?" to which she surprisingly retorted, "I've been waiting for you to say that all night. Now what?" So was that her I accompanied back to the convent for her 6am curfew or was it Inés, the blonde who asked me for every possible way in English to translate the maneuvers she liked do with her long mane of hair? Braid it, pull it back, curl it, tease it, tweeze it, gel it. Haze. I then see myself with a group of people on a farm applauding a gory pig slaughter, and watching them pour the blood into vats of steaming potatoes. What a local delicacy indeed!
I met wannabe bullfighters at a novillada in Cabeza del Buey and poets who weren't aware the golden age had ever come to an end. Amazingly every town, every street, every house seemed to be famous or infamous for some reason or another. They would say... "that's where Ana Pérez's brother's sister-in-law was murdered. She still roams around there on some evenings crying revenge." Yeah, uncanny, but in Extremadura I do have to believe everything. At some point in time, I went to a parent teacher's conference for the six-year-old in the house, played bocce on a rooftop, had party after party, woke up in strange apartments, and went to a wedding of a couple I didn't even know existed. Time rolled by in Cáceres like in a David Lynch film. Before you knew it you were appearing in Chinese restaurants, at the bullring for a quick faena, at a poetry reading, on the balcony of some loft, or chilling and watching Pretty Woman dubbed into Spanish. "Guay, guay" said Julia Roberts. It's either quite magical or a sign of distress when Friday becomes Tuesday and Monday morning is always the beginning of something extra special. In Cáceres, someone's always ready to meet you at the clock tower for a whirl around town. The anecdotes come back when I least expect it like a tap on my shoulder. "Whatever happens, just remember, man. Nothing better in life than pissing a good ale".

Cáceres is like a slideshow image of old pictures projecting onto the wall in any old order without rhyme nor reason. My stay came to an abrupt end the following June. Though the departure day had actually been planned long before I even arrived, I found myself throwing my clothes frantically into my suitcase an hour before the bus was to leave. Why was I at Sala Capitol till the last minute? I definitely wasn't ready to leave, yet I had used up six of my lives there. I didn't even bother to say good-bye to anyone. I wasn't sure at that point if tomorrow wouldn't be just another stroll from the Uni to the Plaza Mayor up the street and to that new home of mine I seldom stayed in for more than a few hours at a time. Lola drove me to the bus station, kissed me affectionately on both cheeks and pronounced the famous farewell saying of spaniards. "A ver si nos vemos, Roncho". (I guess I'll be seeing you sometime). Thus, I got on that rickety old bus. The same old driver took a victory lap around town and then I was gone. My carnavalesque experience was over and I never went back.

Sunday, June 2, 2013


The Holy Ascension occurs exactly 40 days after Easter Sunday. It's the day that Jesus Christ ascends forever into heaven. On this sacred day, he's not the only one floatin'. I'm floating right here, in France.

Every week in May has a holiday in France. Today is the third in a row. First, we have Mayday on May 1st, followed by Victory Day 1945 on May 8th, and today is the Ascension. Next week we've got Pentecost. Just by having a glance at any French calendar, the first thing that strikes you is that there are lots and lots of public holidays here, especially in the Spring time. Basically, in a nutshell, we celebrate the end of every war and every Catholic event, however important or not it may be. This is actually quite ironic, because if you stop any Frenchman and ask him what the holiday refers to or why it's celebrated, he'll give you that big Gallic shrug, roll back his eyes, and let you know one way or another that he doesn't know, nor care, but if anyone ever ever considered removing one, he'd be the first in the street to protest. By the way, as a side note, most French people nowadays are atheists. Look in one of those huge Gothic cathedrals that only exist for American tourists and Art students.

A previous government tried to get rid of Pentecost a few years ago. The logical reason was that millions of dollars are lost in May because no one works, and the country kind of comes to a standstill. Four public holidays in a row are an exaggeration and cause havok. This is particularly true because of the French custom called the "Bridge". This means... well.... I've got the perfect example at hand. The Ascension Holiday is on Thursday. A number of people, if not the majority, take Friday off too, and decide to make it a long weekend. And if... say they saved up some personal days and the next holiday is the following Monday... well, that means a public holiday or two bridged together turns into a 10-day vacation. I know a "civil servant" who by juggling around 6 or 7 personal days, a few sick days, and cheating here and there -- who will ever know? -- managed to get out of the whole month. Mind you, this doesn't include the real 8-week holiday which is coming up in July and August, or the 2-week Easter holiday we just had last month. You get the point, huh? Anyway, that government directive, well, it didn't happen. It turned into an option, then a theoretic possible for practicing Catholics, then everybody and finally became the so-called "Day of Solidarity" where you can work, if you really want, out of a personal desire to make money for the country so it can fund generous social programs. Now that's gone too! And by the way, that goverment fell!

For me, these public Catholic holidays are both a terrific Godsend and a cross to bear, and add quite a bit to my floating in France. Today, for instance, everything is closed except for a few restaurants and some North African kebab shops. The sky has turned grey again, this time apparently from Icelandic volcano ash, and it rains from time to time. So, here I am at home, in my own little world. It's great cause I can do any old thing I want... bad, cause I need structure... and money. But, I've listened to radio, watched tv, surfed internet. What did we do without it? I can listen to NPR, then France Info, Radio Catalunya.... read virtually any online newspaper, and as of yet, I love those internet word reference forums/fora (what is the plural?). I learn so much. Anyday can be a full language class in 5 languages. What could I have become if they had had this when I was 13 and had no exposure to foreign languages. Zilch. One activity rolls into another, one hour into the next, morning into evening. I feel so dizzy from spending so much time cooped up with myself, thinking....

Just before my offical blog writing time, I finished reading the novel, "La Mort Heureuse" (The Happy Death) by the awesome writer Albert Camus. It deals with the crazy life of Patrice, in French Algeria, in the 1950's. In this novel, no one works, they set around drinking pastisse, listening to bands play old French tunes, take excursions in cars, drive 500 miles per hour on small coastal roads, have love affaires, take sun baths on the beach, and above all, complain about the torture of life, the sheer boredom that weighs down their soul, the terrible existentionalism that occurs naturally when one has too much time to do nothing. I guess not much has changed today... Some love Camus for his ability to explain his reality in such beautiful eloquent French. It's true... I read it out loud... Others complain because his Algeria shows no Algerians at all. Yes, living in a bubble is so typically French. Oh la la!


Tuesday, May 7, 2013

La France Éternelle

La France Éternelle - La Liberté Guidant Son Peuple
Joan of Ark leading her crusade against the English

Fighting to be Muslim and French

La Lorraine est française!
Lorraine is French!
Metz, oh chaste house of the old long-haired Franks / The vulture has those hills and those meadows under its wing/ And yet, all of that is our Eternal France. Victor Hugo

All French children learn in school "Nos ancêtres sont les Gaulois" (Our ancestors are the Gauls), a historical lesson complemented by the accounts of Julius Caesar who upon conquest of the region in 50 BC portrayed the Celtic people living West of the Rhine as proud, arrogant, fun-loving, and feisty but not vicious. Many of the anecdotes from the Gallic wars are brought out in popular Astérix comics for children. From there our lesson moves on to the vast cultural legacy the Romans left, the accomplishments of the Norman-vikings, and the arrival of the Franks culminating in the great empire of Charlemagne. History books show triumph after triumph in the building of a modern French nation, a huge European melting pot coalescing around the French language and Gallo-Romaine culture.

The blending of peoples didn't stop there. Throughout the Middle Ages and Modern times many different peoples found their way to France. The Langlais, Langlois, Lallemand surnames testify to those left behind after years of war with neighboring countries. Likewise, movements of Slavs, Germans, Scandinavians, and Latins have also been dully documented. The French republic saw it a duty to welcome those fleeing undemocratic regimes. One of the latest examples occurred at the beginning of the 20th centuries when Armenians fleeing Turkish genocide were given asylum in Southern France. After WWII, as the economy expanded, large number of immigrants came from Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Poland to add to the workforce. They were followed by North Africans and Equatorial Africans after independence was given to French colonies. Most of their children are French-speaking and have integrated without a trace of their origin. Being accustomed to the proud immigrant groups in the US, it is surprising to note that in France assimilation is total and swift. The examples are countless and immigration continues unabated to this day. In fact, some of France's great has immigrant origins: Chopin, Marie Curie, Vincent Van Gogh, Ionesco, Picasso to name but a few.

Whenever I start a new class I immediate look at the official class roster. The majority of last names are not Gaul sounding. It's actually extremely rare to find Le Gall, Le Maire, Le Roy, Le Blond on these lists. In a recent evening class, all the participants had parents born in foreign countries. As we can imagine migration was one of our favorite subjects. Antoinette, a 35 year old accountant, spoke emotionally about being cheated out of her Italian heritage. Much to her chagrin, she was never taught Italian and avoids family reunions in Italy since she cannot speak with her cousins. Linda, born in Algeria, gave a similar family story of quick cultural assimilation with ties with the homeland forever broken. Alain, of Vietnamese descent, summed it up like this. If you are French you are French. The French don't eat rice for every meal or pray to Buddha. If you want that, your place is not in France.

With this prevailing attitude, it seems so odd, then, that in recent times protecting France from foreigners is on the lips of so many Frenchmen. But protection from what? Eric Besson, the former minister of immigration, led a highly publicized debate on National Identity during the first Sarkozy government. Should France be allowed to change into something different? Could continued immigration dilute the character of the French people beyond recognition? Is Islam a threat to the treasured French attachment to secularism? Religion should not be seen nor heard! Is it just the mere presence of foreigners that is so bad? Or is it their lack of integration? Should we deport them all? Must we require them to speak fluent French even before they arrive? Could that work? Or, is it about much more than speaking French and knowing the culture? Some people now believe being French is a question of genes, or at least a set type of attitude towards life, if not a raison d'être. How could one possibly be French if one refuses to drink wine and eat ham? Can the definition of Frenchness evolve over time or is it eternal?Quite literally, the French were officially invited to define "La France éternelle".

Unsurprisingly, much of the anger appears directed toward muslims. "Anti-islamic" laws were put in place to control the spreading influence of this religion and reinforce secularism. First, the head scarf was banned from public buildings. Girls were denied entry to schools if they wore anything on their heads. Women were denied help in government buildings if they didn't take it completely off. Those men with their long beards had to shave to have any rights. Second, the burka and similar garments covering the face were outlawed everywhere like a firearm. In France faces are uncovered at all times! Finally, the institution of French Islam was founded in Paris to promote an official French version of the religion. No following any of those dictates from North Africa or the Middle East. Nursery schools became available after age 3 as it's never too early to start Frenchization and break a sense of Arab identity.

Marine Le Pen upped the ante. For her, France is tangible, incompatible with "new" immigrants who might well end up becoming more numerous than "old" Frenchmen. Should that happen the Muslims may end up ruling over the entire country and will certainly impose their anti-french ideas. She reiterates she is fighting for the rights of those people who have no homeland to go back to. Her party, the National Front, is in favor of closing borders, stripping rights away from foreigners in certain circumstances and deporting them to their nation of origin. Their symbol is Joan of Ark, the legendary savior of France who upon hearing voices from God led an army to expel the English during the Hundred Year's War. About 20% of the French voted for Le Pen in the last election, so 1 in 5 support FN ideas. They would ban islam outright. Former president, Nicolas Sarkozy (whose father was hungarian), accepted quite a few of their precepts in an attempt to attract voters from the right. He agreed to seal up borders and expel half of the foreigners. During his presidency he also deported the Roma to Eastern Europe.

So, the debate goes on. The Socialists recent return to power gives a push to the proponents of the melting pot. "La France éternelle" is an ideal of liberty, equality and fraternity. Everyone finds his/her place granted he/she accepts all the ideas related to the French republic, its constitution, including the official language, the culture and secularism. In my modest experience, this is already a fait accompli, for better or for worse. Here is an interesting anecdote to conclude. My boss, a very strong advocate of Le Pen and the National Front, proposed the traditional end of year trip to a restaurant. This year she decided to choose a North African couscous establishment for the event. She apparently does not even consider the contradictions between her actions and her beliefs. Besides, her surname is German-sounding and husband is from Serbia. Complex la france éternelle...

Copyright 2012 Merquiades

Monday, April 1, 2013

Floating between tu and vous

Last week, a colleague in the staff room where teachers have coffee between classes, floored me by using the dreaded "vous" word with me. Why so dreaded you say? Well, according to my calculations he is most definitely part of the group of people who should have said "tu" to me. We are about the same age, do the same job, are on a first name basis and everyone else we mutally know say "tu" to one other and to us. When this situation occurs, I become literally paralyzed. I don't feel comfortable asking this guy why he decided to "vouvoie" me after all. I guess I could have chosen to answer him with "tu", but I don't like forcing the issue either. And just what if after using "tu" he insisted on saying  "vous" to me? Could he get offended by my "tu" and make a fuss out of it? Women here seem to have it much easier. Some quite naturally would have called him out on it. The trick works like this: "Hey there, use only 'tu' with me! You hear! I'm not your granny. Ha ha." Literally this kind of situation cuts the wind out of me. Out of principle, I just simply will not answer with "vous". I cringe at the thought. I take this situation like someone throwing icy cold water on me on a winter's day. When "vous" is unexpected, it makes a statement: "Notice there is a clear barrier between us. I don't want your friendship and keep your conversation on a professional level. Then go away. Got that?" As a result, addressing him felt really awkward as I resorted to the third person just to avoid saying "you". I was hoping so much for someone else, anyone else to come into the room so I could use the plural you. Luckily in French -- contrary to Spanish, Italian or German-- in the plural there is no difference. Needless to say our conversation came to an abrupt end. If he had wanted to create distance, that's a big "if", it certainly worked. I won't be talking to him again any time soon.

Strangely enough in my life now there are quite a few people floating between "tu" and "vous". In these cases I cannot clearly assign them a category. I have noticed there is considerable hesitation going on in both directions. When I see one of these individuals, I rush to ask them first the omnipresent "Bonjour! Ca va? - how's it going question?" because if they ask it to me first I then have that terrible burden of answering "fine,and you?", which means I have to choose "tu" or "vous"! Actually we go to incredible lengths not to have to make the choice. The "royal we" works splendidly, the general "one" too, we also mysteriously include friends, family and/or coworkers --all of whom are not present -- into the formula just to be able to get to those safe plural forms. "What are you guys in the technical department up to? Did you all have a good lunch?" If it becomes really bothersome to handle anymore, it's also possible to search out a third person to bring into the picture; a person who says "tu" to both of you. That will work to tip the balance. For example, if I accompany a certain lady I know to the technical department some day I'm sure I'll come out using "tu" with all of them. Mission accomplie.

As I'm writing I'm feeling more mift at that colleague in the staff room. There's no reason why he should have come out with that damn "vous"!

I must say, I'm not by any means against "le vouvoiement" though. I have an excellent rapport with two elderly ladies who I will always say "vous" to. Yes, similarly I'm on a first name basis with both of them, yet since they are of a certain generation and social class, besides they pay me to teach them English, I know our "vous" is permanent. I'm totally fine with that too! When Lily pours me tea, smiles and asks me with "vous" if I want one lump of sugar or two, it sounds so delightful and sweet.

In complete contast, all my bosses use "tu" with me without exception and have so since the very first day. They never gave me any choice in that matter. Despite the kisses on the cheeks every time we see each other followed by 5 "tu's" in a row, we are far from having an intimate relationship. I don't even want to socialize with them! The idea I guess is that all people working in a certain organizational structure form a "family" bond so they must use "tu" together.

Besides that, I don't mind using "vous" with students, anyone in any kind of administrative capacity, or authority figures. That feels right to me. It's obvious I don't want them to get too familiar with me. I celebrate the thickness of those walls. I also believe there are some contexts where a little bit of respect is more than welcome.

Further I'm afraid of Freudian slips. I have a tendency to drift ever so naturally to "tu" without wanting to. I've been known to be talking in "vous" and for some strange reason switch to "tu" in the middle of a sentence. This can even be with someone I must definitely "vouvoyer". I hear it immediately when it comes out but then it's way too late. The damage has been done. Obviously that immediately puts the other person on the spot. They do have to decide whether or not to follow into "tu" or reaffirm their opposition with a clearly audible "vous". I've had both happen. At least after that moment, it's clear where you're headed... The other day when I said good bye to a certain nurse I used "tu". A real "faux pas". There is absolutely no justified reason why I should have permitted myself to use "tu" with her. Using "tu" when you shouldn't implies you have no respect for someone nor the job they do. Mind you, all insults in French are with "tu"! I regretted my "tu" immediately. It just blurted out of my mouth. I saw in her eyes she didn't know to handle this. She avoided addressing the issue, smiled and walked away. It'll be interesting to see what happens next time. I'm going to make sure I say "Bonjour. Ça va?" first. I bet she answers with "vous"!

Finally what prompted me to write about this issue right now is what occurred tonight. Out of the blue "Laurent" the owner of a restaurant I frequent started using "tu". It was really unexpected. After that, everyone connected to him magically followed his example with "tu" all around. I wonder if I should feel honored or offended. He did force it on me and I am his customer! Yet, I have a warm feeling about it. I totally felt the barriers falling down around me.

Compare the waiter with my colleague experience. I scratch my head in bewilderment!

In school we learn that are precise rules governing when you have to use "vous" and "tu" in French. Unfortunately, in my experience there is absolutely no logic to it. In reality, much of the time there are substantial grey areas that are more or less uncomfortable. After ten years in France I still have not cracked the code.

Copyright 2012 Merquiades

Sunday, March 31, 2013


This week I had a pretty awful adventure, but most of my friends tell me it's the most French of all experiences one can have in one's lifetime so I kind of see it like a baptism of fire.

The agregation was set up after the French revolution and is one of the pillars of French society. It's an extensive examination that lasts one week long. It's 7 hours a day of constant writing. It's extremely difficult and tests your ability to think rationally, and above all write French style essays called explications de texte. That means, you typically get a quote and must use your knowledge of an extensive reading list mixed with your so-called general knowledge on a variety of related subjects to put together a fifteen page analysis with introduction, body and conclusion with three citations, dates and comparisons. This is the explication de texte bien écrite. Everyone in France who takes the agregation must begin at the exact time wherever they are located in the country. The rules are read out loud as if they were miranda rights and the subjects are taken out of sealed envelopes with pomp and ceremony. "The envelop is open. You are no longer free to leave!" Then the doors are locked and you're at your desk for seven hours. Time is given hourly. "You have five more hours. The agregation will end at 1600 hours". You may not use dictionaries or any other document.

It's difficult to explain the relevance of this exam to non-French people. It reminds me somewhat of some Ph.d exams (though it's not connected at all with the university or degrees) and also of a bar exam for a lawyer. It is a bit of a license per se. Those who are successful at the agregation get the title of agregé and are guaranteed lifelong employment at a high school or university, although many end up working in other state organizations or anywhere really. For example they can become official translator, administrator, researcher, librarian, ambassador. Actually they can do about anything they want to. Agregés are given privileges far above any "common" folk, can take the position they want and whenever they want it. They work few hours per week and get enormous benefits. They have considerable clout in society. For example if they ask for loans or mortgages in banks they are never denied. When you hear someone is an agregé, you get those oohs and ahs, and yes, many of them quickly get a big head. They can become so snobby they have been known to refuse to talk to coworkers who don't have this status. I have certainly seen this. Once I held a university post that was taken over by an agregé. For them my degrees and exams meant nothing.

There are agregations in every discipline possible ranging in everything from physics to cooking, art to math. Almost all the people I know who have tried to pass these exams have failed. Some get obsessed with them and take them year after year. I knew an American girl who tried to take the English agregation four years straight in a row and failed every time. Once she narrowly lost out. She became totally crazy. Conversely the only two people I know who have succeeded at these exams did not really seem so bright to me, giving credence to the widespread belief that passing the agreg depends not on your real knowledge but on your ability to fit into the mould and write these essays some really specific French Cartesian way. Others, those who have failed and given up obviously, insist that the whole system is a sham, really corrupt with some people getting through because of their connections in high places. I do remember going to one of these agregé's week long celebrations in the south of France after she passed. It's almost like winning the lottery. Anne literally fainted when she received the registered letter confirming she had earned the agregation.

So, I had to try! I took the Agregation exam in Romance Languages last week. For too many years I was so angry I couldn't take this exam because you have to be a French citizen to be eligible to do so. I say that... just in case some American is reading this with the illusion he/she can do it. Some of my most bitter moments in France have occurred when I have been branded as a second or third class citizen because I had not achieved this status or any other more inferior one -- like the CAPES or the PLP --for that matter, and then... to be told just a few minutes later that I was for ever excluded from even trying to get that "status"! All in all, I still don't think this system is fair, for French citizens even. Agregés work less (12 hours a week), do not have to prove their competence, worth or merit ever again in their entire life, and are paid much higher salaries then everyone else for doing the exact same jobs. Don't forget they receive the status of semi gods too. All for an exam.

I'm pretty sure I failed the first round. It took such a toll on me physically. I had to take a taxi home the last day I felt so weak. I had a diet of candy bars, the only thing I could take into the examination room. All in all I wrote about 50 pages (by hand!). Total punishment! Some of the subjects were so absurd I just looked at my paper for two hours with no idea of what I could possibly write about. I ended up making up about half of my essays. Literally it was my fiction. Absolutely pathetic! The translations were also hefty. A good deal of the works to be translated were literary and had old words from the nineteenth century. I also discovered my ability to write for long periods of time in French is limited. Without a dictionary I'm not sure of my spelling at all. Also I don't have my thesaurus to help me find synonyms.

The results should be in on May 31. Usually the correctors eliminate about 60% of the agregatifs (those who took the test). Afterwards the remaining 40% are summoned in June to take a week long oral exam. This year it's in Toulouse. I'm sure it's an utterly terrifying experience! I still can't imagine being grilled for 45 minutes. I'll have to get some kind of drugs for that. Then, yet finally another 60% are eliminated making the trip to Toulouse a waste of time. It's not centrally located for those who don't live in Southwestern France. In July the chosen few receive their letter of congratulations.

Copyright 2012 Merquiades

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Escape from America

I wanted to share with you this interview I had with Julie R. Butler this past winter about my life in France published in the magazine Escape from America. She and her colleagues have done a lot of research of Americans who have moved abroad. There is a lot of invaluable information about the current situation around the world, how to make the move, fit in with the locals and tap into the expat community. They even tell how to buy property and enroll your kids in school. Julie herself is an excellent writer who has documented her own experience in South America and is the author of several insightful guidebooks. Please check them out. They are well worth the read.
Expats Living in France
By Julie R Butler / Jan 12 • Categorized as Living Overseas
As one of the largest countries in Europe, France features a rich and diverse history, culture, and geography. While the French are famously defensive about maintaining their “French identity,” it is not at all singular. Influences range from Ionic Greek in what is today Marseilles; to Celtic rein over ancient Gaul; to Roman conquest of southern France and the eventual spreading of Roman cultural influences throughout the country; to incursions by various Germanic tribes, most notably the Franks, from east of the Rhine; to Celtic Briton settlement of Brittany in the northwest. Figures such as Charlemagne, Joan of Arc, Cardinal Richelieu, The Sun King Louis XIV, and Napoleon Bonaparte stand as icons of a storied French history, and the Eiffel Tower stands out among the world’s most recognizable symbols, representing all of the vibrancy and romance of Paris, the City of Lights.
The geography of France holds as much diversity as the culture does. The posh Riviera in the south, the stark limestone cliffs of Normandy in the north, and the lovely Atlantic beaches of the southwestern coast offer beach-going experiences that seem worlds apart. In the southeast, the Alps and the Massif Central mountain ranges are cut through by the Rhone River Valley. Whereas this river flows west out of Switzerland and then south to the Mediterranean, the Seine, the Loire, and the Garonne Rivers feed the rich agricultural landscapes throughout the rest of France, with the different regions producing the many varieties of wines, cheeses, and other gastronomical wonders that enrich the refined French palate. In the southwest, the Pyrenees divide France from Spain, while the northeast is an economic and cultural crossroads with strong German influences as well as connections with Belgium and Luxembourg.
Metz, Lorraine, Northeastern France
The region of Lorraine is in the northeast, with the city of Metz as its administrative capital. This city’s history dates back 3,000 years. Julius Cesar identified it as Divodurum, the walled fortress that served as the capital of the Celtic tribe known as the Mediomatrici of Gaul. It became a major center of wealth and power under Roman occupation, then of the Frankish Empire, followed by centuries of contention between what we would today call French and German influences.
Today’s Metz remains a major cultural and economic center, not only for Lorraine, but also for the SaarLorLux Euroregion, a transnational cooperative structure that takes advantage of the region’s centralized location, despite national boundaries. An ambitious urban renaissance is currently underway that includes a high-tech park specializing in information technology, an impressive new museum of modern and contemporary art that is a branch of the Pompidou Center in Paris, and high-speed rail connections. Metz is also known as The Green City due to the large amount of green space that has been designed into the city’s history-filled framework.
Rontay is an expat from the United States who has been living in Metz. He offers an interesting perspective of expat life in France with his thoughtful answers to this familiar set of questions about living abroad, and you can read more about his life in France at his blog, Floating in France.
J.R.B. Where did you come from originally?
I’m originally from Cincinnati, Ohio
J.R.B. Why did you choose to live in France?
Since childhood I had always dreamed about Europe, its history, its architecture, its beauty and the way of life here. I was interested pretty much in every country, but especially France, Spain and Italy. This led me to study abroad and take longer and longer trips. When I learned of an opportunity to teach in France for two years, I jumped at the opportunity. It was a dream come true for me, and I ended up staying. I’ve been here for twelve years now.
J.R.B. What do you like about it?
In America I developed an aversion to the rat race culture. I was a bit of a slave to my datebook. I had to think months in advance to book a lunch with a friend. In December I was planning July, and in July December. This is not to mention all the driving around every day. In France we don’t have this lifestyle. We live day to day. Life is more spontaneous. On a beautiful day people make time to have a croissant with coffee at a sidewalk café, take a walk in the park, meet friends, or go to an art exhibition. They take advantage of each moment and have an eye for detail. How to make tonight’s dinner party perfect? What wines to choose? What vegetable goes best with the roast? And never forget the dessert! Or the flowers for the center piece! So many examples come to mind. Savoir-faire is priceless. I’m not sure I could do without it now. It’s become a part of me.
J.R.B. What don’t you like about it?
Well, I think it’s the flipside of what I love about France. It’s a country entrenched in tradition. We live in such a beautiful place, are privileged to art, cuisine, philosophies and ideas centuries old that have withstood even terrible wars, cultural revolutions and social upheavals. By nature, France is resistant, even allergic to change. Being American I have a tendency to want to change things, evolve as a person, see a progression to something different, better, greater or at least step back and look at the big picture. This is all lacking in France. Sometimes I feel like I’m a prisoner of what I love about France. If I were from Los Angeles I might find life here so monotonous. Case in point, spending the day in Paris (two hours away) is exceptional here whereas for Americans it just might be a daily commute! Likewise, the goal of the weekly meeting at work is the meeting itself since everyone knows beforehand no issue will be addressed directly, let alone resolve J.R.B. What has been the most difficult aspect of life in France for you to adjust to?
One word: bureaucracy, a French word after all, translated literally as “busy work at a desk”. I would compare this to the scavenger hunt. It works like this: you are told by X person that for your wish/need to be granted you have to prepare a dossier and to submit it to a committee of experts (all of these French words too!). There are about ten items on the given list to include in your file, yet soon it becomes apparent that each of the items actually constitutes another dossier in itself. They can include affidavits with stamps and signatures that are impossible to come by. And all of that can be to do the most simple of things.
J.R.B. What has surprised you about France?
I suppose this could be an essay on its own. Every day there are marvelous little surprises reminding me how much I love France mixed sometimes with setbacks and crazy little issues that have to be solved yet prove surprisingly daunting. There would certainly be fewer of both in the United States. Or else the concerns would be different. One of the most surprising aspects of my life in France has been a resurgence of my American identity. This is shared among most expats I know. Before coming to France I never deeply identified with America and could certainly never have been confused with a patriot. Nowadays it’s different. I have dual nationality and am as Frenchified as I will ever get. My French is fluent and even French people can be surprised I wasn’t born here. Yet, I feel more American each day. Most of core of who I am is directly related to my origins. I have great pride in being American, and the joy I feel when I go back to Cincinnati is indescribable. Now really that is the biggest surprise of them all.
About the author: Julie R Butler is a traveler, blogger, writer, and editor who has authored several books, self-published as eBooks, including Nine Months In Uruguay and No Stranger To Strange Lands (click here for more info). Julie presently lives in the sunny wine country of Argentina, where she co-edits and writes for Expat Daily News and Expat Daily News Latin America.