Sunday, November 22, 2009

Peace Making

It just happened again. I am sitting aboard a high speed TGV bound for Paris, and my train has just passed another, both at pushing on at however many hundreds of miles per hour. When this happens you can feel the force of the other train whipping against your window, the glass vibrates, the entire cabin shakes with a violent doomsday rumble, and it seems certain that your train is about to lose this intra-track confrontation. I can’t help but a give a little gasp at this great crash of intangible forces.

Somehow, the SNCF engineers measured just the right track-width that is necessary for a scrape-free train ride. Still, every time, I am rather astonished to have survived.

I skipped class this morning. French class. I had too much to get done before my 1 pm departure for Paris with my group of Americans. When we all convened at the train station, my classmate Andrew told me that our language instructor Dominique had gotten “a little hot under the collar” today, when the pair of Swedish girls in our class had a side conversation a little too loudly in their native language. “He was like ‘Speak French!!’ Andrew said. “’You don’t speak French, you don’t do your work, you never show up on time, I am not sure how you ever expect to learn what you all came here to learn!’”

This made me feel kind of bad about cutting his class, and it is fair of Dominqiue to say. Language instruction at the Centre Universitaire des Études Françaises (CUEF, as we all fondly call it) may be one of the more unforgiving jobs a person could have, something akin to forcing middle schoolers to write resumés or climb poles or anything else that would only inspire resentment and unwillingness in their little souls.

I guess the CUEF kind of takes the opposite approach to teaching, but with the same result: extremely low level instruction as well as expectations of the students. So it was not entirely fair of Dominique to put all the blame on his students. In the CUEF, there is no incentive to do homework, since we go through it every single day step by step, and since we have never had an exam. In the CUEF, we are assigned one “devoir” every two weeks, a 500 to 600-word composition on any variety of subjects, such as “The History of the Sorbonne”, “Using all forms of the passé, write about a fond childhood memory”, “If the earth wasn’t already threatened by global warming, how else might all humans meet a collective/horrific end?” Also, “Write an appraisal of French higher education.” Eek. And, class is at 8:30 in the morning. You can’t help thinking to yourself that your morning would be better spent watching the puppet news channel and letting linguistic osmosis do its thing.

However, what keeps me going to the CUEF (at least most days) is the class themselves. The students consists of me and four other Americans, Melissa and Lena, two South American teenaged girls, aspiring translator Tomo from Japan, Dong and Shan from China, Inga and Louise from Sweden, posh red finger-nailed Fatima from Madrid, an older woman from Kazakhstan who is married to a French man and lives in Grenoble, and an El Salvadorian ex-pat kid who drops in every few weeks.

And when we are not reviewing the usage of “tout” as an adverb versus an adjective, Dominique often distributes photocopies of French op-eds columns clipped from Le Monde and Politique Internationale. We read the French perspective on all sorts of contemporary issues: global warming, genetic engineering, women’s reproductive rights, nuclear weapons, the role of the internet and its effects on culture, the rising cost of higher education.

And then we discuss these issues. Heatedly. Often as representatives of our native nation’s stance. Does global warming exist? Not if you are a governmentally-loyal Chinese citizen like Dong, according to whom, these 75 degree November days we are having here in the Alpine capital are but little teasers for the naturally-occurring coming climactic epoch. Some Americans think that the 2000 presidential elections were problematic. In Ecuador, according to Lena, governmental corruption is so widespread and accepted that the Constitution has been changed eleven times since its first publication. Most recently for the current president to extend his time in office. In Colombia there is only one news channel, the one approved by the government. Money talk: the class was appalled by us Americans and our horrific tales of college tuition (which, even at the public level, is frightening in comparison to the few hundred dollars (max!) the rest of the world pays per semester). We felt a little better when we heard from Tomo that Japanese medical students pay upwards of one million dollars to get through school. Until afterwards, when we did the math and realized it’s not much different in the US.

It can all feel sort of like a high school Model UN Club -- only way better, with real international people representing their countries.

A couple of weeks ago, we had a couple of French language professors from North Korea sitting in on our class, taking notes on the CUEF pedagogy. They wore their flag pinned to their lapels. One of them took diligent notes on a legal pad throughout the class. But as Dominique lectured about the subjunctive, I watched the other one as he struggled to keep his eyes open. He eventually succumbed to the drone of Dominique’s voice and fell asleep, his face cradled in his propped-up hand with the first two fingers slightly fanned out in order to veil his shut eyes. Brilliant. To Dominique, he might have appeared to be deep in subjunctive-related reflection.

Friends, what I just described is precisely my own classroom slumber technique. Sure, it was only a few days before that our class had discussed human rights issues concerning nuclear weapons. But what can I say. Skipping class may be a lot more conducive to my French language scholarship, but how else would I ever IN MY LIFE discover that I share something so fundamental (or anything at all) with a middle-aged, red-star sporting North Korean French professor?

So thank you, CUEF. You held my hand as I made one infinitesimal step towards world peace.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Doing Dishes

My host mom Claudie works as a middle school art teacher four days a week, has two kids to raise pretty much by herself, cooks dinner every single night without fail, does the laundry for herself and four others, cleans the house, pays the bills, and has never once asked for my help, other than to please put the sheets in the washing machine if I would like them washed.

I have done the dishes every night in this house since the first dinner I shared with my host family. The dishwasher was broken since the day I got here. So, giving the tableware a hearty manual scrub has been my way of saying a meager thanks, of removing one unappetizing obligation from Claudie’s stacked agenda, and above all, of staying on her good side.

Because it’s pretty easy to blunder about in this tiny house of five. Let’s see: I’ve leaked permanent ink onto my pretty pink bedspread, I flooded the bathroom the first time I showered with the detachable showerhead (apparently bewildering to me), I’ve left lights on, I’ve tracked rain and scum into the house, I’ve misplaced all sorts of household items, I’ve left my heater on with a cracked window (although to be fair I did not how to completely shut off the heater at the time).

Claudie leaves little notes for me every time I make these petits bêtises: a post-it note on my door, a message scrawled on the chalkboard in the kitchen, or non-written communications, like a closed window in my room that I did not shut, or my toothpaste placed quietly in the cup with the toothbrushes instead of on the windowsill. Duh. Or a vacuum, awaiting me in earnest at the top of the stairs.

I don’t think I am doing that badly as a guest in this house, though. I should make that clear. Like I say, it’s a small house, we are five people, and so there is simply not a lot of room for my silly gaffes. Thus, to maintain an even score with my host mom, I wash the dishes.

So what started as a polite gesture is now the household ritual. My Canadian brother dries. And, Claudie has said, we win points for being the first North Americans to do so.

Claudie has been talking about getting the dishwasher fixed since the first night I took up the task (note: just now, I forgot the dishwasher. I could only remember la vaisselle. It took at least ten seconds to summon the English word from the dusty files of my English linguistic storage. Linguistic regression is going smoothly I see). Or really more like threatening to get it fixed. Threatening to slash my enormous handicap in this game of household mini golf, or something, if I knew what a handicap was.

“One of these days I’ll get running again,” she’s always saying, as I hand off a sparkling salad bowl for her to put away inside some hidden dish stash. This makes me nervous. I laugh nervously. “Ha ha ha! But you have me! Ha ha ha!”

To which she always shakes her head and says, “But Laura, not forever.”

This dishwashing gig is how I know (or like to think) I am at least being tolerated in this household. My raw hands are how I counterbalance the ink-stains and the wet floors.

So when evil arrived at this house, it came dressed as the French version of the Maytag Man. Yes, I came home from class sometime last week to discover a strange mustachioed man in the kitchen, tinkering with the backside of a gleaming new dishwasher. Claudie hovered over him, with a brimming smile on her face, apparently overjoyed that the day had at last arrived. I shook the man’s hand. “Merci,” I said, but inside I cursed him and his craft. Now I would have to actually start being a respectful host student, rather than one desperate to please.

The machine ran beautifully, and I was out of a job. I would hurry to class in the mornings, distract myself in my studies from the sudden instability of my home life, and on the way home I would consider purchasing flowers on the way home, chocolate, tea, anything to delight the host mom.

Of course, I hadn’t done anything wrong. And it is not actually that often that I mess up. It’s just that I have ultimate respect for Claudie, and want to avoid as much as possible the chance of her thinking me lazy or inconsiderate or particularly reflective of any American stereotype. As the ninth or tenth host student to have lived with her family in the Treehouse garret, I would sure like to make a good impression. And then, I kind of do want to stay here forever, doing the dishes, eating chestnuts by the fire, discovering that Césare had been using my toothbrush for an unknown duration of time. All of which has happened. It’s idyllic (seriously).

Two days ago I came home to find that the brand-new dishwasher had stopped working. “I have some luck,” Claudie said. I made a sad face. “Mon retour!” I said. "Ha ha ha!" Internally I rejoiced, and also felt badly about the curse I’d laid upon the repairman’s head. I wish him the best in Grenoble households that actually need their appliances. But so long as I am here, he is not welcome in my Treehouse.