Monday, December 15, 2008

Europeans and Kansas

This past weekend, I went to a Christmas party thrown by one of my Irish colleagues and her Irish roommate. Part of the merriment of the party was that we lecturers at Nanterre could finally relax and actually talk to each other about stuff other than school. And we got to talk to people that we just never see at the university because of our schedules. Naturally, everyone still wanted to know exactly where everyone else was from. (Probably so we can make little judgments or little jokes about it.) Although I've lived in Wisconsin for the past several years, I always tell new acquaintances that I'm from Kansas. It's still "home" to me, as it's where my family and some very dear friends are. Anyone from Kansas can imagine the kinds of responses I got, each one different.

The Irish roommate asked if I knew Clark Kent by chance. This is the first time anyone has asked me this and being a superhero fan, I was tickled. This has to be the best reaction anyone has had about my origins.

The two Irish friends who lived in the country and who were prone to sheep invading their yards said that to them Kansas seemed like such a magical place. Magical!?! Well, they explained, it was a place they associated with the Wizard of Oz. Of course it was magical. I think this is possibly the nicest version of the "Dorothy and Toto" response that I have ever gotten. I decided I liked these Irish folks.

The last response came from one of my English colleagues who had perhaps the most critical question to ask me. "Kansas, eh? How's evolution going down there?" Sigh. Fair enough question, but I cringed as I explained to the other Europeans about the creationists who want to have religion taught in science classes. They were both amused and horrified I think.

And so I've concluded from all this that in the European mind, Kansas must indeed be a mystical place. Although a seemingly humble state often represented in films as nothing more than farmhouses, livestock and fields, it is Superman's home. Dorothy and Toto were whisked away from Kansas to an magical kingdom with talking lions and tin men. Even The Onion compared Kansas to the Bermuda Triangle at one point. And of course, there's creationism. Who would have thought that my home state would seem so fantastical to the folks on the other side of the pond?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


I love teaching. To me, the whole profession is incredibly rewarding even with the long hours of planning and correcting. When I'm not doing that, I'm in front of my students being the odd combination of teacher, talk show host and comedian. (Okay, I can only be a comedian on my really good days.)

The only thing I don't really like about teaching is grading. I should clarify. Correcting copies is fine. Sure it can be tedious, but it lets me know what my students still don't understand. It's the actual assigning of a grade that I really don't like. Ugh. Maybe I just don't like to give my students bad grades even when I know that those are the grades they earned.

In France, marking is particularly hard simply because the point of it all seems to be to let the students know that they don't know anything. Their marks just seem to scream at them, "You're so incredibly stupid !!" For one thing, the grading system is not out of 100 points but out of 20. Yes, twenty. It doesn't leave much room for variation, and you certainly can't lose very many points without failing.

To make things even worse, you can't simply adjust the grading system to the American version. That would be too easy. Nobody ever gets 18/20 or higher unless they've completed the assignment as well as a professor. A perfect score or even nineteen out of twenty is the stuff of legends. Give the students a grade like that and they'll think it's a mistake. The best score most students can hope for is a sixteen--an 80%. A low B by US standards. So why don't they grade out of sixteen points instead of out of twenty? I have no idea. All I know is that 16 is very good, anything below ten is failing and anything in between 10 and 16 is considered good or average.

So here I am going through my poor students' copies, correcting their little English mistakes, suggesting better ways for them to organize their essays and then trying to assign them a French grade even though I have the "feel-good" American system stuck in my head. I know that they will be surprised when they get their exams back. I can already hear the comments: "Mais, c'est très gentil Madame." This is really nice, Ma'am. Meaning "too nice." Whereas most French teachers would fail around three quarters of their students, I just cannot do it. Sure the students' work isn't perfect, but in most cases, I wouldn't say it was at the level of failing. So why fail them?

And so it is with this sense of fairness (or pity?) that I assign my students their "too nice" grades. And most of them will not only pass my class, but will probably pass it with a "good grade." That's okay with me. I tell myself that my high marks will tip the scales just a tiny bit in the direction of encouragement and maybe, just maybe, allow my students to continue their studies at the university. But in reality, it's more likely that such marks will only give me the reputation of being the silly, easy-grading American teacher. Ugh.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Music in the metro (the good, the bad and the ugly)

I use the Paris railway system (metro, RER, SNCF) nearly everyday and think that it is absolutely fabulous despite any delays or cancellations. And I do think that the railway system does make efforts to make public transportation a pleasant experience. For example, there is almost always music on the Paris railways and in the stations. Music in the metros is probably on my list of the top 10 things I love about Parisian life.'s also on my list of the 10 things I hate about Parisian life. I tend to classify metro music into one of three categories.

The first category is comprised of the professional musicians. To play in the Parisian metros, you need to audition for the job and you are given a sort of license to play there. Different stations have different musicians. Just the other day, I was in the Palais Royal station where a man was playing lovely music on his violin. It was so calming and so fitting for a station that leads into the Louvre. In another station, I've heard the most amazing accordion player. Yes, you read that right. I'm usually not a huge fan, but this guy can play all the parts of Vivaldi's "Winter" on his accordion. It is just incredible.

In the second category are the guys who are not licensed to play in the metro, but who are trying to earn some cash with a little entertainment. This can be hit or miss, but usually these guys aren't too bad! A few days ago, I was in a very crowded RER train and a guy shouted out that he was going to sing a little tune for everyone's enjoyment. As it turned out, he couldn't sing at all which he admitted afterward. He then said that he really just wanted a little extra money and that he was sad because it was Christmas time and he had no girlfriend. The whole thing turned into this great little comedy routine. Everyone was laughing. Excellent. Unfortunately, I couldn't see who he was and so couldn't hand him over the change from my pocket.

The last category is the only one that I really just cannot stand. It has apparently become a trend for people to "share" their music with everyone on the train. This means that they open the music they've loaded onto their cell phones and turn the volume all the way up. They seem to have this idea that they're doing everyone an incredible favor by playing tinny-sounding hip hop through their crappy little phone speakers. Why why why? I thought it was part of this need to be the center of attention--like they're on a reality show. Gaby's theory is that they can better pretend they're in a music video if they're playing their music out loud and everyone's glaring at them. I think he's onto something.

How to deal? For category 1, no problem. I love it. For category 2, I have my mp3 player and earphones ready just in case the entertainment's not so entertaining. And for category 3? Well, I've started carrying around a hammer so I can ... ... I mean, I'll just turn up my own music and hope it drowns out theirs. SIGH.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Files d'attente or Waiting in line.

I hate waiting in line. There are instances where I manage to stay relaxed and patient, but usually I'm thinking of all the better things I could be doing if I were not having to wait.

And the problem in France? French people do not know how to wait in lines because they never really FORM any LINE. Their idea of queuing is more like crowding and then pushing past everyone else to get to the front first. It doesn't matter what the line is for--the ATM, the lunch counter, the metro ticket window, the checkout desk at the library--I encounter this crowding problem everywhere. Most times I'm not even sure where to stand because it's absolutely impossible to tell where the line begins and ends. Just so you have an idea, this is a random picture of a French "line." No beginning or end in sight.

To make matters worse, there's always the little crowd of people who are just standing around next to the line and who seem oblivious to the fact that some people are trying to actually get something.

In the US, I would have fewer problems with this, even if "queuing" and "crowding" were synonymous there as well. If someone tried to cut in front of me, I would not hesitate to tell them that they need to wait their turn like everyone else. But saying something to the same effect in French seems rather...daunting. The last thing I need is some snotty French girl (it's always been snotty girls who have cut in front of me) bitching me out in the kind of rapid slangy French that I don't understand very well.

So what to do? At this point, I'm considering playing the foreign card. Yes, after having lost my place more than half a dozen times, I would do it. I'll go wherever I want in the, and if someone complains that I've cut in front of them, I'll just say, "Uh...Daysolay...Jay nay paRlay paw fransay" and feign ignorance over any signs they might make about going to the end of the line, wherever that might be. And they can think I'm a stupid American as much as they want. I'll still be getting my sandwich first.

French apartments

Sorry for the hiatus, but we've been moving. We finally found a new at the beginning of November. This is cause for celebration (much like the carte de sejour was) because as anyone who has lived in or near Paris knows, finding an apartment is an arduous task.

The last time I lived in Paris, I searched for a month. This did not mean browsing the housing ads and circling a few places that might interest me and then calling when it was convenient. No. Apartment hunting means WAR. It means calling at least ten places every single day and making appointments and then trying desperately to please the landlord and hope that (s)he'll take pity on you and let you have a place to live.

This time Gaby did all of this for us. My hero!! Still, the apartment hunt seemed to be an uphill battle.

The first problem was with the ads themselves. Just because they're posted and the paper says they're "new" doesn't mean that they really are. Many times, we found out that the apartments in our "new" ads had been rented for several weeks already and that the ad was more than a month old. Another problem with the ads was that some landlords just lie about their apartments. For instance, "10 minute walk to the train station" often really means "10 minute sprint but 25 minute walk". Oh, and when they say an apartment is 30 meters squared, they are counting every single space in the apartment, including every single stair and even the closet with the water heater in it. I've seen some very small "30m2" apartments.

Second problem? The landlords ultimately get to choose who lives there and their criteria can be very subjective. It's almost like going to an interview if you're dealing with the landlord personally. My last landlord picked me because I was an English teacher and he wanted extra lessons. Gaby and I were not so lucky in one case. We visited one very charming studio one Friday evening during an open house. What we didn't realize was that the landlady had already decided she wanted a single female student to live there. So, she told any young girls to visit the apartment on Thursday and any young guys or couples to visit on Friday. What a waste of time for us! By Friday, she'd already chosen her new renter and we were just there...well, I don't know why we were there.

Last problem. Money. If you go through an agency, (which we finally did out of desperation), they absolutely require that you make not just double the rent of an apartment, but THREE times the amount. As a lecturer at the university, I make very little money for big-city living. Under their criteria I would often not be able to rent a 9m2 studio. Nine meters squared is the size of a walk-in closet by the way. But Gaby and I together were fine with his fam as co-signers. Whew!

Now for the good news. The apartment is fabulous!! It's not a studio which is nice because I like having my rooms separated. It is literally 2 minutes from the train station, but not facing the train station so we don't have a noise problem. And the best part? It overlooks the Seine.

Okay okay, that's not exactly our view. But it almost is! I took the picture below from our living room window.

Autumn here was gorgeous. All the leaves are gone now, but that just makes it easier to see the ducks and swans swimming in the Seine.

And the inside? Well, we're still busy decorating which is hard to do when we're both desperately trying to finish papers or dissertation chapters. In any case, it's good to have such a quaint place to call our own. :)