Sunday, August 30, 2009

Weekend Mini Break!

We took a mini break this weekend to watch my brother play in the first football game of the season at his university. Yes, my baby brother is a big, bad football player. Well, he isn't so bad, he's a pretty good kid, especially considering the fact that he's on a D2 football team. He is, however, extremely big. His biceps are the size of my head and can bench press about five of me. I don't pick on him too often these days because he could do some damage if he decided to go after me.

Unfortunately the weather was terrible, it was only in the 50s and it rained the entire first half, but his team pulled out a 20 point win! My brother only played on special teams, he was disappointed that he didn't get any downs as his position (he's a linebacker), but he's Number One Backup if one of the starting linebackers gets hurt.

My brother is six years younger than me so he's always been "my" baby. I remember when he was born, I remember holding him as a little baby, how he used to want to dress up like a girl to be like my sister and I (don't tell the football team I said that!). It's so strange to see the little orange baby I used to hold turn into a gigantic, and mature man. He's never been a big talker and it's always been a struggle to get him to communicate about anything besides football. Since he went away to school last year though, he's changed so much, he talks, he lets me hug him when I see him, he volunteers information without us having to pull it out of him! It's a huge change, and it's because he's so happy and blossoming at college, and I'm just overjoyed to see it. He has such nice friends, his coaches are crazy about him, and it looks like he's pretty popular with the girls.

I'm not overjoyed about the girls, but I'm guessing it makes him happy, so I probably won't mail them threatening letters.

Here's the big entrance of the football team onto the field. Can you spot my brother? He's in there somewhere...

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Les etudiants francais toujours aussi nuls en anglais

That was one of the headlines of the France 2 evening news tonight (check minute 25) and the title of an article in Le Monde.
Umm, toldja so?
This is after the results of the 2008 TOEFL exam came out and found that the French finished 69th out of 109 countries in the world ranking, tied with Belarus and Latvia. Out of European countries, France was 25th out of 49, and as far as the results on the oral part of the exam, only Monaco, Cyprus, and Italy scored worse than France (I assume she meant out of European countries but she isn't totally clear on that point).

Why do the French have so much trouble with English? According to the woman who wrote the article in Le Monde, the French may have a genetic blockage when it comes to learning English. I won't go into the ways in which that is a ridiculous statement.

France 2 interviewed a few people who gave reasons that I definitely agree with: the program in primaire doesn't use effective methods, namely that it doesn't start early enough (which I don't really agree with, I think it's more a matter of insufficient class time), but she also mentions the lack of native English speakers teaching English in primaire, that the teachers themselves aren't good enough in English (oh boy do I agree with that! 2/20 on your habilitation does not mean you can teach English!), and the fact that the French are nervous about being judged by others when they speak English (absolutely agree!). I read some comments that offer good explanations too: shows are always dubbed in French so you can't hear the accent and learn pronounciation, not enough time speaking in class, not enough class time period.

To all of this I would add the fact that the English curriculum itself is pretty terrible. Elementary students have only an hour and a half of English a week, and we all know that kids forget everything right away and especially over the two month long summer vacation. At the end of elementary school they are supposed to have acquired level A1 in the Common European Framework of Reference for Language. I won't go into the whole list of skills they have to learn, you can look it up online, but suffice it to say it's waaayyyyy too much for the amount of time they actually have in English class. You have to spend so much time reviewing things they've already learned and forgotten that it's difficult to learn very many new things. Most of them end up getting a solid base in the very basics of English, and some kids really excel and learn everything you throw at them, but most of them don't get up to the level that the government thinks they do each year, and I assume it's the same in secondaire.

My main recommendations to improve their English skills: stop dubbing the TV shows and movies, get teachers with higher English levels into primaire classes, make English in primaire exclusively oral (maybe introduce some reading and phonics in CM2, otherwise work on them intensively in 6eme), either change the primaire curriculum entirely so that A1 is no longer necessary at the end of CM2 or add class time to English in order to achieve A1. Since I don't know much about English in secondaire, I can't offer many specific recommendations except to have the kids speak more in class and to use more entertaining teaching tools (games and songs never get boring!). I heard universally from teachers and former students and their parents that in college the kids rarely have the opportunity to speak and just sit there writing and reading.

What do you guys think? Why do the French have so much trouble learning English? What can be done to improve their results?

Friday, August 21, 2009

France as a Knowledge-Limiting Society

This is an idea I've been developing for a while. I think that French society is one that is built around the idea of compartmentalized knowledge, that no one should know everything, that you learn from those who already know something, the idea that you have a certain set of knowledge, and you should not stray beyond your knowledge box.

Take fonctionnaires at the préfecture, for example. They always know better than you what papers to bring in. Even if another fonctionnaire told you to bring in a certain set of documents, the next guy you talk to will give you an entirely different list! You have no way of knowing what is true because you, not being one of those fortunate employees of the préfecture, do not have access to The Definitive List. You are completely dependent on them to give you information.

Or doctors. Many French doctors (my jerk specialist, certainly, but not my generalist) believe that they are God and that you, the lowly patient, cannot possibly comprehend anything about medecine, medications, or how the body works. What right do you have to know what is happening to your body and why when you cannot possibly understand any of it without having been through the same extensive schooling as they have? When I disagreed with my doctor's medication plan for me (because he was wrong) he told me that he is a world acknowledged "expert" and that I should basically shut my mouth and do as he said, without any real explanation as to why he was correct besides his self-described status as an expert. Even nurses are reluctant to explain things and answer questions. Without their level of schooling, we cannot ever hope to attain the same exalted state of enlightenment, regardless of years of experience dealing with our own medical problems or knowledge that we can harvest ourselves over the dreaded internet.

What about their obsession with certificates and qualifications? Despite the fact that I have a four year college degree I would probably never be hired to work in a retail clothing store because I don't have the silly sales certificate. In order to have a management position at a factory, you have to have a BTS, so a guy who has worked on the line for 20 years and has proved his worth but doesn't have a BTS can't earn a management position based on proven experience, knowledge, and leadership skills.

Even the public schools are part of this, although that is changing. Who else has worked with old school teachers who expect the kids to sit down, shut up, listen, and then regurgitate everything the teacher has said without ever questioning it or learning critical thinking and analytical skills?

While the fact that Einstein flunked math in fourth grade and that Bill Gates dropped out of college are very well known in the US, few people in France tell these stories. I can only think of one story I've ever been told about a French person who picked himself up by his bootstraps (to use an extremely American expression) and earned their way to success without having all the trappings of the elite: Nicolas Sarkozy. I knew that story, however, from reading American newspapers, and not because someone French told it to me. This is perhaps not the best example because we know how unpopular Sarko is, but in general the French don't seem to value these types of stories about self-made people who rose out of nothing to become successful. The idea of the "self-made woman" is one of the most important components of the American Dream, whereas in France it barely exists. Justice Sonia Sotomayor's personal story was a huge component of the discussions about her candidacy for the Supreme Court. Even if these people who rise from humble circumstances to great success do exist in France, their stories are not told and admired the way they are in the US.

This isn't meant to be a critical "France is so terrible because...." post, I'm just putting some observations that I have made out there as sort of an experiential sociological writing about what I learned during my time in France. These are of course just my experiences in "my" France, and I would be interested to hear what others think, especially about the idea of the self made person in France, because my experience on that topic may be part of the fact that I lived in the second worst département in France.

I also think this idea of knowledge limiting goes hand in hand with France as an extremely hierarchical society but that is a post for another day.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Dear France

Please take me back.

I know we've had our differences in the past, but I'm ready to put them aside and compromise if that will help. Look, even before I left I started speaking in French with my jerk specialist so that we could have peaceful office visits! Doesn't that prove my willingness to adapt myself to you and your needs? If you take me back I'll smile at every rude bureaucrat and Monoprix checkout lady. I'll even try to be more patient with the illiterate neanderthals who live in my small town.

Okay, okay, I know that last one wasn't sincere, we both know I'll kick that guy in the balls if I ever see him again (and that you would thank me for cleaning up your gene pool). Sorry, I'll try to avoid exaggerating.

But you have to help me out here. Everything here is so bland and boring compared to you. I know there were many times that I was lonely and bored when we were together, but then I could just hop on a train and be somewhere new in an hour. Here I could drive for an hour and be in ... Detroit. Or Canada. Or a wheat field. And there are so many more places in France I want to visit! I'll spend lots of money traveling if you let me come back, wouldn't you like that? If I throw some money at those selfish, constantly-on-strike SNCF employees?

Sorry, sorry, that was uncalled for. But you know it's true.

I got such a sense of accomplishment out of speaking in French all day, every day. I love speaking French. I have so much more to improve on! So much more to learn! Doesn't that make you happy? That I want to learn your ridiculously difficult gendered language? English is just so easy, there's no challenge, no struggle. Well, except for the fact that I'm still having trouble producing coherent sentences in English. Is that what you want? That I become better at English than French?

Do you really want to condemn me to life without your delicious, buttery pastries? I tried a croissant here the other day and it was not good. You are the only place I can get good croissants. Are you trying to force me to go back to Oreos and Ho-Hos? Really?

It isn't just culture shock, this isn't just going to go away once I get acclimated to life in the US again. This is a loss of the life I was leading, of a life that overall I really liked, and I want that life back. I don't want the life that's been here, waiting for me to come back to it. I want my France life back. In France every day feels new, I know I'll learn something new and make fun memories, I feel like I contribute something, I feel like I'm in charge of my life and my destiny, I feel that the world is literally my oyster (or my matzah ball, to use an allusion that's a little more halachic). Here is just so predictable, always the same, never changing, a place where I have little control over what happens, where my life is rolling forward on a path I didn't chose to start yet.

Would it help if I started eating listeria-infested raw milk cheeses? Or maybe if I made an effort to like flammekueche? Or even *gulp* some sort of intestinal product?

On second thought, I'm not willing to go that far. I don't like you that much.

Think about it. I'm confident we can work this out if we both compromise a little.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Day Trip to Chartres

I finally uploaded pictures from the last month I spent in France and realized I forgot to post pics from my day trip to Chartres!

Chartres is a city about an hour south of Paris by train and famous for its cathedral and the beautiful blue color of the cathedral's stained glass. The cathedral is well worth the trip, the sculptures and stained glass are fantastic. The town is cute but not one of the cutest I've seen.

The cathedral is a place of pilgrimage because it houses the Santa Camisa, a tunic that belonged to Mary. Such an important relic needed an equally important cathedral; the best artisans came to Chartres to sculpt and create the stained glass. The cathedral can be seen from distant fields, rising above the surrounding landscape to guide pilgrims. The towers are different styles because one of them burned down (along with a good part of the city and half the cathedral) and was rebuilt in the new gothic style.

I can't even tell you how blown away I was by the sculpture on the cathedral. Back in the Middle Ages most people couldn't read, and they certainly couldn't read Latin (this was before the Bible had been translated into the vernacular). The doorways of the cathedrals contained fantastic sculptures meant to be like giant picture Bibles for the people to "read" and the stained glass inside was for the same purpose. Everything in the house of God had to be beautiful and grand to glorify the Creator. I always try to imagine what it must have felt like back then to be a poor peasant who lived a life colored in mud and hard work in the fields with no extra money or time to buy or make beautiful things, and then to come to a cathedral and be confronted by the beauty of the sculptures and stained glass, how awe inspiring that would be.

Picture of one of the portals on the west facade (the main entrance of a cathedral is always on the west side. Maybe so that the altar points east to Jerusalem? hahaha). I think this is Christ in Majesty, and the animals around him represent the four apostles.

Close-up of one of the tympanum sculptures, I think this represents Mary enthroned with the baby Jesus and the death of Mary.

Saints on either side of the door. The distorted, elongated style is typical of pre-renaissance sculpture, but notice that they fit the shape of the door jamb quite nicely.

More saints, love the sculpture on the base of the columns

The detailing on the columns above the heads of the saints is unbelievable.

How wonderful is this column??!!

Even the flying buttresses had statues in them! I like the hunchback-like guy in the middle, makes me think of Quasimodo.

This is the most famous example of the Chartres blue color in stained glass, Mary holding the baby Jesus. Unfortunately my photos didn't turn out that well (I'm a terrible photographer, if you guys haven't realized that by now), so if you want a better image go google it.

There are other examples of Chartres blue throughout the cathedral. Here is one of the rose windows with either saints or kings in the windows below.

This is the chapel where the Sancta Camisa is kept.

These guys were in a garden behind the cathedral, some kind of modern art exhibit. Wouldn't surprise me if it were Jeff Koons (is his stuff still stinking up Versailles?).

Eglise St Aignan is a delightful, small church located on a side street.

It's interesting because the interior is completely painted, which is actually how all churches used to be back in the Middle Ages, and if I'm not mistaken it was during the Victorian era and their fascination with the Gothic style that the interior paintings were either scraped off or painted over. The outsides of the churches were also painted. Over the years most of this color would have peeled off anyway. (side note: just spent lots of time looking through various books and websites for the definitive answer to why churches are no longer painted on the inside and can't find it. Done looking. If you have other info, do share)

And some pictures of the town:

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Le francais me manque

I really miss speaking French all the time. Every day that I speak French and understand spoken French is a victory. I'm really proud of the fact that I learned another language and am relatively fluent in it. One of the reasons I want to go back to France is so that I don't forget all the French I've learned, and to continue learning and improving. Of course that is something that will always be true; whenever I leave France for good I will risk losing all the French I've worked so hard to acquire.

I was very excited to find that there is a French conversation group that meets every week here in Ann Arbor. I went tonight for the first time, and wow, it was so great to speak French again! I was a little rusty after not speaking it at all for two weeks, but after about 20 minutes I felt en forme. In general I don't like speaking French with other anglophones because I think you pick up bad habits and bad accents, but beggars cannot be choosers, and as it turns out most people have a pretty good French level, two of the girls have very good accents, and one of the guys is actually French. It works for now, but in the long run, it's a poor substitute for speaking French all day, every day.

I really hope I get to go back to France, but I know that the chances of that are pretty much 0. I am reevaluating my initial opposition to going back as a student. We'll see. Otherwise I can try to get internships in the summer.