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.

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