Thursday, July 14, 2005

Internship at the St. Petersburg Times

I started my internship at the St. Petersburg Times this week. Though I feel much less excited and giddy about this opportunity than my first internship at a real newspaper, the Times is decidely more romantic. Its offices are located on the second floor of a proud old building on St. Isaac's square. The tall, west-facing windows in the press room open to a fantastic view of St. Isaac's cathedral, one of the most grand and beautiful in the world. The neighborhood is full of history and stories, with the Mariinsky Palace (a former royal residence and now the City Council building) on the north side of the square. The picturesque canals and bridges all around the area complete the romantic, European feel.
The building, as I said, is old and decidedly in disrepair. But I couldn't help grinning to myself while walking across the creaky, unfinished wooden floorboards. The press room seemed so stereotypical: old newspapers and magazines cover every square inch of shared table space and private desks are loaded with stacks of old articles, sources and stylebooks. The dozen or so reporters no longer tap on typewriters, but it almost feels like they should be. The busy silence in the room is occasionally punctuated by one or another of them shouting a style question to no one in particular or announcing a fresh news item.
Personally, I was put to work on a feature story about the 11 summers Johann Strauss Jr. spent here in Petersburg. Information on that long of a time period, even that long ago, was not too hard to find. Much easier, I'm afraid, than it will be to find information on Herbert Hoover's visits, my next assignment.
But overall I'm very happy with my internship because my editor is nice and because I have really no pressure to finish the articles for any real deadline. It's also nice to be able to write in English, although, I'm warned that I'll probably have to do some interviews for the pieces... and that means talking to Russians. Hmm...

Friday, July 08, 2005

Safe like any other country

Ask most any Russian and he or she will tell you that Russia just has a bad reputation and is as safe as any other developed country. In the same breath they will warn you of the many dangers to be found here. It's safe, they say, but be careful.

The first danger is pickpockets. I've become totally paranoid since coming here. I lost my metro card last week... at least, I think I lost it. I put it in a deep, hidden, outside pocket of my bag, which is always in front of me and in my sight. I really don't see how a pickpocket could have gotten it without my knowledge, or even known it was there. But then, I don't know how I could have lost it either.
I'm also missing my digital camera, but I'm not ready to blame that on the Russians yet. I think I might have left it somewhere in Paris. But that means there will be few pictures from St. Pete's I'm afraid. I bought a really cheap film camera. We'll see how the pictures turn out.

The second danger in Russia is pollution. Tap water is undrinkable unless boiled for 10 minutes to kill the giardia found in the pipes. But air pollution is the most (ob)noxious. Exhaust smells are everywhere and they tell me that what few gasoline controls exist on the books, they are rarely enforced. This makes it hard to eat anything on the street because the smell of petroleum permeates your senses.
Which you're not supposed to do anyway, eat street food that is. Sadly, no one told me this until it was too late. I tried a tasty fried bread filled with meat and spices, called Khichin (хичын). The consequences are too gruesome to detail, but let's just say, don't do that. I spent the entire next day drinking only tea and staying in bed from the nausea.

While I feel very safe walking down the streets alone, even more than in France because men never accost me here as they do there, I've yet to find the "good" side of town. I'm starting to think there isn't one. Everywhere is dirty (not littered, but poorly taken care of) and both men and women drink openly on the street (though according to a new law, at least 50 ft. away from a school).

I'm very cautious with money, but there's nothing much I can do but hide my wallet. The money here, the ruble, has stabilized of late, but you can exchange dollars and euros literally on every street corner because people use to have to keep their money in more stable currencies. Euros are worth more than dollars but both are about a 1 to 30 ratio. Ten rubles for a Russian, however, is the buying power of one dollar for an American. For example, a bottle of water in a supermarket costs about 10 rubles, a good bar of chocolate costs a little over 20, etc. It's hard to break a 1000 ruble bill (which ATMs will only give you if you ask for that amount or higher), even in pharmacies and supermarkets. It would be like trying to cash a $30 bill, so I still haven't figured out why that is, but I can only assume that not many people have 1000 ruble bills.

Unfortunately, the nationwide discount that comes with this exchange rate stops at the supermarket. Anything considered a "luxury" item for normal Russians, such as French clothes or quality electronics, is therefore priced for Western consumers. Additionally, as a hangover from the good old days of the Soviet Union, museums and tourist attractions have held on to the "foreigner price" tradition, making entrance fees to places like the Hermitage museum, fully 3 or 4 times more expensive for foreigners than for native Russians.

So what does this mean for me? Well, with all the frightening stories of thieves knifing bags open and taking out the contents without the owners even noticing, I try not to carry more than 500 rubles ($15) at a time and I never bring my debit or credit cards with me when I'm not going to use them.

So, yeah... I wouldn't be the first to agree with a Russian that here is just as safe as anywhere else.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

From Paris to Petersburg

When I left Paris it was raining. It followed my mood, as saying good bye to loved ones – lets be frank here – hurts like hell. I took Pulkovo Airlines direct to St. Petersburg. Russian airline, Russian airplane, Russian mentality. Pulkovo was running over an hour late, departing and arriving. The plane itself gave one very much the impression that a couple of guys just got together to make an airplane. American airplanes, and most American products for that matter, show very little signs of human construction or involvement. I would be hard-pressed on an American airplane to tell you what exactly a human being did. But on this airplane, you could still see droplets and brushstrokes in the gray paint on the metal tray table. An hour into the flight, the exit door I was sitting next to starting sweating with condensed water pushed in from the outside. When the plane finally did land safely, all the passengers applauded. I asked a Russian girl sitting next to me if this was because it is unusual for Russian pilots to land successfully. I was only half joking.
It was after midnight when I arrived but the sky still had the glow of twilight because of the White Nights. My ride was an old Soviet Lada with no seatbelts and a driver who spoke no English, and grumbled quite loudly in Russian about having to work so late. He took me down long, enormously wide streets, past widely spaced, large drab buildings and across railroad tracks. I had never really thought about the Cold War being a factor when I decided to come to Russia, but once here, I suddenly realized that not too long ago, I wouldn't have been allowed to come here.
I arrived late and retired to my host mother's small, second-story apartment. My room would be the pride of anyone who loved the 1970s. The entire room is dark brown or fake wood with a particularly spectacular photograph of an autumn lake landscape covering the largest wall. Bookshelves filled with impressive-looking works of Russian literature occupy the wall space that isn't taken up with old photographs of people whom I can only assume are Irina's family members. I have a rather large bed and chair, both of which are covered in the same brown upholstery. But for all that gaudy decor, my desk is the only thing I really can't stand. A pane of glass covers thousands of pictures of dogs and other memorabilia. Even when it's clean, I constantly have the impression that it's cluttered.
My host mother, Irina, seems like a good match so far. We mostly stay out of each other's way but when it's time for dinner we find stuff to talk about... well, she does most of the talking so far. She's a great cook too, so that's also good.
I had to wake up at 6 on the morning after I arrived to take a level test at my language school. The school seems very good as it provides many services and has a small cafeteria. I enjoy my classes so far, but I feel like I have to work hard to catch up with my group. There are four students in my group, but two of them don't really take the classes seriously, so my only real classmate is an Austrian woman who knows, I believe, four other Slavic languages, so she picks up Russian pretty quickly. Speaking of which, I really ought to go study.

Friday, June 24, 2005

In the sweltering heat of Lyon, the full moon shines brightly on my problems

Well, this last week has been interesting. I have been putting out fires literally as soon as I walked out of the Lyon airport, back from my brief visit back home for my brother's wedding.

The first was my landlord. I was moving out and I have had nothing but problems from the guy ever since I moved in.

At the end, it was even worse. First, I had to go down to the Treasury to pay a habitation tax that the landlord normally pays. Then I had to let him in my apartment for a "pre-final" check, totally unheard of, to make sure I didn't break anything. At this check, he brought out a list of charges that I owed him, amounting to over 400 euros. After a lot of fighting from me, my boyfriend and the Centre Oregon, we were able to bring that figure down to around 300 euros – but it still hurt.

Because he is such an asshole, however, my boyfriend Rodrigue and I knew that we would have to thoroughly clean my apartment or else he would ding us for something else. The day arrived to move out: I had started packing the night before and continued through the next morning. In despite of insupportable 95 degree heat with high humidity we moved everything across town and spent the entire afternoon cleaning our 18 square meters until it shined.

With the next morning's final check at 8:30, I didn't have a prayer of catching up on the lack of sleep I'd been nursing since I got back. But finally, at 10 a.m., I had what was left of my deposit and that story was over.

From my appointment with my landlord, I went to finish up with my second dilemma.

The day after I got back from the States, I went down to the Visa office to give them my passport and an application for a Russian visa. I had worked for months and paid 25 euros to get the required letter of invitation that my language program normally gives quickly and easily. My being in France apparently complicated things. Anyway, I finally got the letter with one week to spare before my flight and had to apply for an urgent (read: more expensive) visa. At the visa office, however, they said that in order to apply for a visa in France as a foreigner, I had to have a visa in France that lasted for three months after my application for a Russian visa, even if I wasn't coming back. This turned out not to be true for Americans, but put my relocation to Russia in jeopardy for a good week. I got out of the whole deal for a measly $165 euros.

Many other minor problems or tasks came up, but nothing of note. Just all the loose ends to tie up when one moves. All the paperwork to do. All the friends to see whom you might not ever see again. All the experiences that you soon won't have the chance to have.

But all that is done and I turn now towards my summer in Russia. My host family consists of a mother and her daughter who is my age. They both speak French, so if I get stuck, we can still communicate. They live four metro stops from my school where I will be taking 20 hours per week of language classes. In my spare time, I'll meet a couple of friends I already know in Russia and I'm even crazy enough to try walking in for an internship at the English-language St. Petersburg Times. Wish me luck.

I leave from Paris in the afternoon on Sunday and arrive before midnight during a White Night in St. Petersburg when the pearlescent sky never quite darkens. I will have a cell phone number soon after arriving so email me if you'd like it. I don't know how available internet will be, but I will find a way to keep in contact.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Leaving France, heading to Russia

The end of my adventure is in sight. In a few days I'll be home again, surrounded by friends and family and the familiar countryside that I've known for 21 years. I'm trying not to let it depress me too much.

I've had such a wonderful time here. It's been so exciting and I've had very few mishaps along the way. Though I still feel like "l'étrangère," I have become really attached to my life here. I feel very much like I was "meant" to be here, if you'll allow me a little bit of New Age philosophy. Doors were opened to me when I knocked. Opportunities presented themselves at every turn. My life here was like something a novelist would invent.

I started out my year on Quai St. Vincent. My room had a romantic view of the river Sâone and the Old City so I could sit by my window and ponder the differences between my culture and the French one. My host family's apartment itself was a spacious converted monastery dating from the 16th century, providing a good atmosphere for dinners and evening get-togethers.

Though I wasn't looking for love, it quickly found me in the form of a dynamic and intelligent young Gabonese student named Rodrigue. He lived four hours away by train, but our "coup de foudre" proved to be the push he needed to move to Lyon, something he'd been wanting to do anyway. The ensuing relationship (8 months and counting...) would teach me about African culture with an intensity second only to actually living in Africa.

With the blossoming of a love story came the wilting of a welcoming household. My stay at the Araignous' permitted me to ease into my life here and provided me with a little insight into French family life, but the wasted expense on food that wasn't being provided and a family that was rarely there finally outweighed the good. On the last day of November, I walked out of that apartment with the two suitcases I had come with and started a new chapter.

I moved into a studio apartment on Rue de l'epargne ("street of savings," seriously) with a panorama of Lyon. My nearest metro stop is Sans Souci, "No worries," and I can walk to the nearby Boulevard of the United States by taking a left down the Avenue of Europe from the Road of Eternity. If my life really were a novel, people would laugh at how cheesy the choice of placenames was.

I soon after started work at my dream internship at the second-largest regional newspaper in France. The name of my paper, "The Progress," also has a metaphorical effect, certainly much more than other French papers, who have names like "Liberation," "World," or "West-France," would have. 
To this day I have no idea how I got this internship. I frequently ask myself exactly that; usually when I'm about to interview some French person in French and then write my article on it in French. Ça craint. But I tell myself that difficulties I encounter are of the "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger" type. It's the bootcamp of newspaper journalism. From now on, unless I'm in any physical danger, I will always be able to say "this isn't as bad as the time when..." 

For the holidays, my brief stint back in the States was an opportunity to see normally distant extended family. It was also an opportunity to look at the northeastern United States with the eyes of an adult. Would I want to go to Graduate school there? Would I want to work there? Would I want to live there? The next stages in my life demand the answers to these questions and the visit allowed me to explore the idea.

My life back in France was calling, however. My best friend, Kaci, an American I had met on the program, had just broken up with her boyfriend and was in need of emotional support. The details of how she found out that the scoundrel was cheating on her are also so unbelievable as to only be found in a novel, but since they actually happened, you all will just have to guess.

My classes at the ILCF were going so well that I graduated into one of the highest levels for second semester. Luckily, most of my friends from the first semester were there too and many students in the class, including me, were the only one of their nationality, which made for a very interesting cultural mix.

As Spring vacation approached I became restless to leave Lyon, but my plans kept falling through. At the last minute I was invited to Italy with three friends from the Centre Oregon program. The trip was a taste of a voyage within a voyage that I was looking for. It gave me a vacation and some fun times but mostly allowed me to appriciate the stability I have in Lyon.

The life I've lived since has been calm and more or less the experience of living abroad that I was wanting. I've been able to experience a lot here, and I hope you all have enjoyed reading this blog, the novel of my life. But the best novelistic touch came this spring when, while shaking my rugs out the window, I looked down at the ground. Being five floors up, I was sure I was mistaken, but when I went downstairs to look, there they were. A patch of wild Shasta daisies, blooming up right next to my apartment building. I haven't seen them anywhere else in France. Maybe I, too, have made my mark here.

Look for the next exciting edition: Shasta in Russia

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

"Today they make walk even those without feet."

I watched a documentary last night about Cuban immigrants in America. In my psychological preparations for going back home, I've thought a lot about the States. I had forgotten how sad it can be.

To be sure, the documentary was about the underbelly of American society, but just seeing the streets of New York, Philadelpia, Miami, Alberquerque, I remembered what life is like for "white trash" and America's other poor. I was reminded of the sadness and hopelessness they seem to eminate in their daily struggle. And I was reminded of what "struggle" meant in America: televisions, cars, a nice house, and fat. Incredibly fat poor people. The whole situation just screams of unmet needs: the unseen, spiritual kind.

In France, I don't feel the same sort of dispair, even from the poor. There are a few crazies and drunks who hang around the train station, but otherwise everyone still has their dignity. Fat people are rare and so the perfume of a self-control lost doesn't permeate daily life. The Africans I've come to know are truly poor but have an intact set of morals. Even if I don't agree with them sometimes, they have rules they live by and thus preserve their dignity. Even the Arabs, the French equivalant of Mexican immigrants, rarely sell drugs and usually follow their religious beliefs. 

The difference, I believe, is self-respect. The Arabs were sent for to reconstruct after the war and then discarded. The poor French are victims of an elitist system, which gives upper-level management positions uniquely to graduates of "Les Grands Ecoles." The Africans are working against widespread racism, trying to snatch back the lives taken from their ancestors. 
Everyone blames the "system" or the rich Frenchman and everyone is happy. Well, maybe not happy, but at least they hold their heads high, because there was never any choice. Because there's not really a sense of self-determination like in the US, you get to blame someone else for your social position.

It's an interesting situation. A lot of people are very unhappy with the French system. But a lot of people who support the American system, don't seem as happy and fulfilled as the French people who don't like theirs.


In other news, I attended an elementary school's field trip through local history today. Here, local history consists of the German occupation of France, and the resistance movement's heros and martyrs. We stood in the square where Jean Moulin, a founder of the Council for the Resistance, was captured and later killed by the German gestapo. The children sang a violent song — with angelic voices and no obvious recognition of the words — that was sung by the resistance.
"Oh, Partisans, workers and countrymen, there's the alarm!
tonight the enemy will know blood and tears."
And so on.
Afterwards, the children encircled the old, uniformed former resistance fighters and asked them questions such as "What was the gestapo like?" and asked for autographs.

In France, history is hard to forget. Nearly every road or square is named after some historical person, event or date (yup, date. I live not far from "Nov. 11th 1918 Place"). The historical people ones are the best because on the street signs they write in small print at the bottom why this person was important, because he or she is usually not a household name. Or at least, they wouldn't be if the street weren't named that. It's a great everyday reminder of history and helps people not to forget the stuggles and acheivements of their ancestors. The American system of numbers and letters is practical, but it's very impersonal. Even the few times we do come up with people, it's just presidents or maybe MLK Jr.


Finally, I wanted to make the following annoucement: It takes only about 30 minutes to walk from the mall to my apartment. Thanks to a sudden strike throughout the entire public transportation system (metros, buses, tramways, even the funicular) I am now initimately aware of this fact. Though transportation strikes have occurred about five times since I've been here, they have never been this bad. Usually it has just meant that everything was running slowly. And usually there were warnings a few days in advance that there would be a strike. This was total, sudden and complete. Following what they would only describe as an "aggression" against a driver, the whole network threw in the towel.

I was unfortunate enough to be on the complete other side of Lyon (technically in a different town: Cuire) from my apartment when this happened. After walking all over Cuire with the elementary school kids, I was obliged to walk back to the metro stop instead of taking the bus that had brought me there. The metro was still working at that moment but the terminus still left me 20 minutes walk from the office. After checking the internet, I realised how serious the strike was and decided to try and get home with the #36, which, they said, was operating at 67%. I walked to the mall and waited for nearly an hour for a bus that never came. I had never walked from my apartment to the mall, but it seemed like a very long way, as the bus travels on very fast, straight roads.

When I finally made it home, I had very tired legs and feet, a rather bad sunburn and a rather large (mercilessly unpopped) blister on my right foot. On my way, a lady looking as tired as I was said to me: "Today they make walk even those without feet," and continued on her way.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

After three weeks of vacationing, I need a vacation

There are two types of vacations. The first is when you don't go to work or school and sit around not doing a whole lot of anything. The second type is where you travel around a bunch, which, while very interesting, is not incredibly restful.
So when I say I just got back from three weeks of vacation, you know which one I mean.
After my mom arrived we spent the first week exploring the city that I have come to call home. We saw lots of the major spots to see in Lyon, and even though it's not a big tourist draw, I think mom would agree that there's enough to do here to fill a week.
But she didn't come all this way just to hang out, so we rented a car and drove to Beaune, the capital of the Burgundy wine region. It was a very cute little mediaeval town with an awesome public hospital called Hôtel-Dieu built in 1443. The hospital functioned with reknown all the way until 1971 and was enriched along the way by donations from the upper classes making it into a real "Palace of the Poor" with many works of art and the home of the most famous wine auction in the world.
Mom and I also tried a few samples of wine, of course, and dined very well while there.
The next day, after I got us lost, we got to Annecy, a cute little town near Geneva on the edge of the cleanest lake in Europe. I was mostly interested in old town, however, and enjoyed walking through the streets with old, quasi-Swiss style houses and touristy shops posed at the edge of the little river that feeds the lake.
For the final four days of my mom's stay we were in Paris and really had an enjoyable time. We walked a little more than I wanted, but in such a big city and with so much beautiful and interesting stuff at every corner it's hard not to want to see it all! And we came pretty close too. From the Eiffel Tower to Versailles to cafés at the Bastille and Notre Dame, we saw pretty much everything, except Musée d'Orsay, which wasn't open because of the holiday.

Then I came home to Lyon for a day where I worked all day at Le Progrès writing my first real article! It should be published sometime next week! The next day I headed off again, this time on a bus trip to the Dordogne region in the south of France with just about everyone in the Centre Oregon program. It was great to get to see everyone again and see how the past year has treated them, and to see which ones turned out to have actually learned French and which are just drinking away their parents' money... ;-)
The trip itself was really interesting as well. We stayed on an organic farm that welcomes tourists and feeds them twice a day with products from their farm, including organic wine (very bitter, not recommended). During the day we took trips, one to Sarlat, an ancient little town with wisteria hanging everywhere and foie gras shops on every corner. In the afternoon we took canoes down the Dordogne river and floated by lush countryside, beautiful bridges and very cool rock houses, some built directly into rock walls lining the river. Some were so old and so well camoflaged you only noticed them by the windows in the cliff face. The next day we saw a pretty cool castel and learned about its defenses. Then we had an awesome lunch at a two-star restaurant (French give out stars sparingly. One star means it's exceptional). We rolled out of the restaurant to go on a boat tour and then to an incredible garden with bizarrely shaped hedges on a hillside looking out over the entire Dordogne valley and its castels. Before going home we stopped off at Lascaux II, the site of near-perfectly preserved prehistoric paintings (where Jean M. Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear series takes place).

I finally got home last night and must now concentrate on all the things I have to do as we ramp up to the end of my stay here. I have classes to pass and editors to impress, ends to tie up here, and plans to make for Russia. The unfortunate part of the last three weeks is how much time I spent speaking English and how quickly my French deteriorated because of that. In my final weeks here I hope I can accomplish all I want to, but it's scary to think how quickly all that will disappear...

Thursday, April 14, 2005

A day in the life of a French newspaper intern

Just got done with one of the craziest days of my life. I actually took everything pretty calmly all day, but it's 1 a.m. and even though I woke up early today, I can't sleep. Maybe I'm in post-stress-whatever. Here's how it went down:
6h00 Wake up definitively after a night spent between waking and sleep, despite taking a sleeping pill at 22h30.
7h20 Walk out the door to see the bus coming quickly up the street, five minutes early. I run across three lanes of traffic to catch it.
7h33 Arrive at the Sofitel business hotel where I'm supposed to meet a reporter from Le Progrès to cover an 8h00 breakfast press conference on a new public/private partnership for public works projects. Decide to walk around a bit in order to not be the first one there.
7h50 Arrive at the 9th floor dining room and admire the beautiful view while trying not to look out of place, which of course I do — the fact that I keep scanning the room looking for my reporter being a clear hint.
8h03 Realize the guy is not going to show up. I then eat breakfast in a roomful of rich, white, old French men in suits while five slighter younger white guys in suits give a two-hour powerpoint presentation full of technical intricacies that I would be at a loss to understand in my native language, let alone French. I dutifully take notes anyway, in the fear that my crazed editor will want me to write an article anyway.
10h20 He does.
11h45 And he also wants me to go with this other guy to another conference this afternoon.
12h20 Finish article and leave it on the desk of the reporter who was supposed to be there, as per my editor's instructions, and leave before anyone can fill up my lunch hour.
12h45 Check email at Centre Oregon.
13h30 Return home for lunch to find my apartment in disarray. Half my fault, half Kaci's, who came over to do laundry.
14h30 Go out to catch same bus.
14h36 Bus should be here.
14h40 Bus really needs to get here.
14h43 What the fuck? Should I take the tramway? No, that'll take too long. Just wait for the next bus. When does it come? 14h55?? Crap! What if that one doesn't come?
14h44 Bus comes.
15h03 Arrive at Club de la Presse, worried that the conference started without me.
15h10 Conference starts (good old Frenchies). Conference consists of me, my reporter guy and four members of a transport union who think it would be a great idea to dig waterways connecting four of France's main rivers.
17h00 Return to the office being abandoned once again by my reporter who might be able to clarify important, journalistic-like details such as, "What river-making project are they talking about?" "How are they planning on paying for it?" and especially, "Who are these people?" This, in addition to the inevitable help I would need in WRITING AN ARTICLE IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE, a concept which does not appear to particularly concern nor impress anyone, despite the rather obvious clues that I'm not fluent that regularly fly out of my mouth.
19h30 Finish article. I go to another reporter I followed once to ask her one or two style questions to polish it up. She takes the article out of my hands and bleeds corrections all over it.
19h40 Trying simultaneously not to hate her for "helping" me and to cheer myself up with the fact that her corrections were mostly of my French and not of my journalistic style, I set back to work.
20h00 I set the final copy on my reporter guy's desk and leave before anyone can tell me anything else to do, fully 12 hours after I started work that morning. Ugh.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Why French? Why Russian? Why languages?

"Obsession" is technically defined as the uncontrollable persistance of an idea or feeling in the mind, usually associated with a psychiatric disorder. But I think it's fair to say that the word has been banalized to mean something like "a strong, atypical interest." This is how some people (monolinguists and multilinguists alike) seem to perceive my interest in languages, especially considering that:
1. I was not born to bilingual parents
2. my career aspirations do not even remotely include being a linguist or teaching language, and, most surprisingly
3. I'm not only a native angliphone (English being a highly desired skill nowadays), but an American, who are notoriously (and in some cases justifiably) egocentric.

This leads to a question I am asked with annoying frequency*: "Why?" Why spend all this time and energy learning languages when the rest of the world is, if not eager, at least willing to learn mine? Or more specifically, why learn French when Spanish is easier and more useful in the U.S.? Or indeed, why on Earth learn Russian at all?!? (Most frequently asked by Russians themselves.)

I'm tired of never having a very clever response to this. I either respond rather lamely that languages just interest me, or rather over-impressively that I want to be an international journalist (people always assume for the NY Times and I don't do much to dispell that).

But though those reasons are essentially true, it isn't entirely either one. How to define an interest? What makes someone interested in biology, or airplanes, or even American Idol? Why does it please someone to know something about that? Who knows but the brain surgeons, and who knows if they really know. 

I think my answer to this question lies in the fact that I'm really impressed by people who know many different languages. These people are usually not angliphones and the way they take it as given that they have to know more than their native language is inspiring. If they can do it, why can't I? Or more accurately, if they have to do it, why shouldn't I? I just think it's so amazing how they are able to lift the veil that covers interaction between two cultures. I, too, want to be on the other side of the looking glass.

I want to know the world. Traveling is great, but compared to *living* there it's like watching a lengthy Travel channel program with smells and sensations. If I want to really get to know different parts of the world then, and how the people there think, I'll have to know their language. I will never know them like I know my own people, but I will know them better. I will be able to get outside of the microscopic area of existence I have so far occupied on this planet and see the various human realities. As a relatively rich and fortunate member of the human race, why would I be content to see the same reality day after day? It would be like having the means to own a time machine or a spaceship and never getting around to using it. What exactly else is there to life if not experiences? I guess I'm just trying to have as many positive ones as possible.

As to why French, it is a major world language and useful in international affairs, and it's close to English so it's relatively easy to learn. French is also a core language in the European Union, another concept that fascinates me. But so is Spanish, people say. I suppose I just identify with the French better than with the Spanish. Besides, everyone has told me that Spanish and French are quite similar, so if I ever needed to learn Spanish it wouldn't take that long.

As to why Russian, why not? There are 80 million russophones in the world and nearly all the Eastern European languages are strongly based on Russian. I can already look at Czech and recognize words. It's a language with just as much utility as more typical choices like French and Spanish, indeed even more so for the rarity of a native angliphone that has taken the trouble to learn it.

But I suppose all of that is too lengthy to respond with to such a conversational question. I guess I'll just stick with: 
"I'm impressed by people who know (French) (Russian) (etc?) and I wanted to be one of them."

But you all will know the real reasons.

*I understand, of course, the sentiment behind this question and I too have heard myself ask it. It's a natural way to start a conversation, but it's a non-question, like "How are you?" or asking if someone is "excited" to study abroad. What exactly are they supposed to respond? A short answer is too brief for such an important question, but a long answer would make the other person uncomfortable.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The French Stereotype

In French class today, the teacher asked us to list our country's stereotypes of the French and our preconceptions before arriving. My friend from Bosina and I glanced at each other with a knowing look and a roll of our eyes. We've been asked to do this excercise numerous times already this year. But even with a classroom full of different nationalites the same general idea of the French comes out: fashion, cheese, Eiffel Tower. There are, however, some amusing differences, like the guy from Mali who thinks the French are wonderfully punctual while the Japanese scorn (in a very polite fashion, of course) their inefficiency and penchant for strikes. 

In my leisure time too, I've also been reviewing the typical French stereotype. I'm reading "Le Divorce," a novel about two American sisters who find themselves in Paris. Not a book I would particularly recommend, but I find it interesting because it's filled with all the standard characterisations of the French and the idealized life of an American in Paris. I find it interesting to juxtapose these ideas with my actual experiences here in France. Do I feel more cultural and artful? Do I know people who act like the well-bred French characters in the book? Do I feel romantically bewildered by the general (but pleasant) confusion of everything being slightly off-color from my own culture? No. Not really. Nope.

That is, until a few days ago. A few days ago, my Russian friend Lana invited me to a Russian party on a boat in the Saone river. It was there that I met Dina, a Russian, and her French fiancé, as well as Richard, Lana's French boyfriend, and their friend, Fabrice. Fabrice, in his own words, is an independant film director, spends most of his leisure time in poorly lit pubs drinking cocktails, and loves the couple weeks he spent in New York. When I laughed lightly saying he fits perfectly the "arty French" stereotype, he said "Oh yeah?" "Yeah," I said, "and here you thought you were all 'independant' and 'counter-culture.'" He took this good-naturedly.

The next day I went rollerblading to the park with Lana, Dina and their francophone significant others. It was in spending the afternoon with them that I realized I didn't spend much time with many actual French people, and maybe that's why I didn't see the stereotypes around me. (Richard was even wearing a blue and white striped shirt, for Christ's sake.) I noticed that, for instance, the two French boys had the same sense of humor as Gillaume, the only other French man I know very well. What I found to be more or less unique personality traits in Gillaume, I then realized were just part of being a 20-something French male. Going back to Richard's apartment afterwards for tea, the differences became even more apparent. The overdeveloped sense of taste in decor and the rather expensive possesions in a college student's (not to mention male's) apartment, harkened back to the descriptions of "inherited faience" and "savoir-vivre" in the novel I'm reading. 

So yeah, I guess I don't really hang out with that many French people. This fact then leads me to wonder whether my experiences are therefore less valid as a commentary on French culture? What is being French? 
Is it being descended from generation after generation of Frenchmen? Nicolas Sarkozy, a rather Bush-like, third-generation Pole, would be a shoo-in if presidential elections were held today, so I guess even the French don't count that far back (but they still notice). 
Is it just being born in France? French law says any child born here is French, but I met a self-described half-Tunisian, who was born in France and has spent his entire life here. In America he would probably say he's American, period. Is it his fault or the fault of the reigning culture around him that makes him feel foreign in his home country?
What about just being in France? If the French bougeoisie are one sector in France, surely the sizable population of foreigners here, either fixed or temporary, or the lower-class French make up the same quantity of people, or more. But those people are definitely different than the stereotypical French and ignoring their roots ignores a large part of who they are. Does this diversity, what the French call "mixité," then still count as an element of French culture?

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The process of learning a foreign language

Process of learning a language:

Step 1. Learn key words and phrases. 
At this stage one feels rather satisfied with what one knows and is impressed by his or her own ability to already carry on a conversation (usually based around a staged subject such as how many brothers or sisters one has or asking for directions).

Step 2. Learn bits of grammar, 
Which are hard and usually have rules with many exceptions. Feeling discouraged but with an urge to continue as learning how to say more complicated things is kind of fun.

Step 3. Realize you know nothing. 
This usually happens when one is expected to converse with a native speaker or is placed in a situation where skills are actually needed. (It is important to note that this is the point where American university requirements end.)

Step 4. Slow climb out. 
During this stage every word seems new because it was just memorized and had no attached sentiment of meaning or emotion, or, most importantly, how it fits into the melody of the language. 
While talking to people, one works really hard at deciphering what they're saying. People who are talking to this student of language, in attempts to be nice and helpful, break down the words of an unimportant sentence, or repeat the part of the sentence that was easily understood. This results in conversations that sound like this to the student:

"I'm going to the *ffeo#el* to buy some *qfjl* for dinner tonight. But then I figured you could buy it."
"I figured you could buy it."
"Okay, but what did you say before that?"
"I'm making dinner."
"Yes, but.."

And so on. This also results in the second annoyance of this stage. After spending so long figuring out what was said, it is almost always something rather mundane and unimportant that one wonders why he or she spent so much time figuring out what it was. This particularly happens when native speakers try to start a new topic of conversation. Like this:

"I saw Mary at the *fedeoqa& today."
"I saw Mary at the mall today."
"I saw Mary at the mall today."
"No, I understood..."
"Okay, well she had a new shirt on."

And the student is left wondering "So what?" because both parties were so concerned about getting the meaning across that they forgot the goal of the conversation. Being that most human conversations are on nonessential subject matter, this feeling occurs quite frequently when one is paying so much attention to what is being said. (Most conversations I have with people back home are like this. The awareness that the phone call is costing one or both of us money or that since we haven't talked for a long time it should be on matters of consequence, usually renders one speechless.)

Step 4. I can understand!! No, I can't. Yes, I can! No! I know nothing! Ahhh!!
The brain is a funny thing. It seems to stop working whenever one is really trying to make it work. In this stage, one experiences brief periods, from an hour to a day or two where everything seems suddenly easier and he or she can understand seemingly anything. Students may even encounter someone with a lower comprehension level than them and suddenly realize that they are now that someone that they admired earlier in their development.
This elation is ended by a writer's-block-style brain stall in which one is thinking so hard about being able to understand that they can no longer understand. (This happens to me up to this day during news transmissions because I heard from so many people that once you can understand the news, you have mastered the language. Understanding PPDA [the affectionate name given to Patrick Poivre d'Arvor, the top French newscaster] is therefore psychologically impossible.) Brain function goes something like this:

~The weather tomorrow will be sunny and 22 degrees in the Rhone-Alpes region...
"Oh my god, I understood that. That is so rad. I am sitting here, watching television that everybody else watches and I understood that PERFECTLY. Wait a second. Shit! What are they saying now? Damnit! Shut up, I can't concentrate on what they're saying! Crap, what did she just say? Be quiet! I can't understand!"
~ Three hundered schoolchildren were xvn;wqed today in Russia.
"What?? What did she say? Damnit! I can't understand anymore! Will you shut up, I'm trying to listen!"
~ Government officials are in negotiations to release the hostages as quickly as possible.
"Oh god, what's happening!? Hey, I didn't know 'negotiation' was feminine... Shut up!" 
And so on.

Step 5. How did that happen? 
I know it sounds like some sort of fairy tale, but seriously. One day, after many months and lots of work, one just sort of wakes up and realizes he or she can express and understand nearly everything that goes on in a normal day. Yeah, there is one foreign word or more per article in the morning newspaper and the nightly sitcom used some weird slang that leads back to brainstalling, but for the most part, you've got it.
This stage also leads to awkward situations between people who have two or more languages in common. Which to use? For example, a classmate of mine from Maritius, by way of the UK, and I went out for coffee after class one day. We'd known each other for about a month but always in the context of class or with other classmates around speaking French. So when we no longer had any real reason to continue speaking in a foreign language to each other, it was actually hard to switch to English. It felt like opening a forbidden door, or that we somehow wouldn't be able to understand each other. Same thing with my Russian friend. She speaks fluent English and French but has taken it upon herself to help me with my Russian. So she usually texts me in English, greets me in French but speaks Russian as much as possible so that I can learn. It's all very confusing.

Step 6. 
Not sure because I haven't yet attained it. Depending on which route you take, I heard the knowledge just grows along in manner of Step 5, or if you actually want to continue higher studies or work in a foreign country, you find yourself back at Step 3 – the "I know nothing" stage – and work your way out.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Life is happening at this very moment. Right. Now.

With the purchase of my ticket back home and preparations underway for my upcoming summer in Russia, I've been thinking a lot about home. I wouldn't call it homesickness necessarily, because I think the definition of homesickness includes sadness associated with nostalgia. I don't feel sad; I just have random memories that keep popping up in my daily life. Sometimes I relive those memories as if they only just happened, and then it feels weird to come back out of it to my current life, which is so disconnected from that. It makes me think a lot about what it will be like to come back. Will my life now disappear like smoke, when I come back and everything around me is so familiar? All this around me and all these memories — so disconnected, will they seem only like the half-lived experiences from a dream?

Time is funny that way. Well, maybe not time, but memory. The big people always told me that my age "seems just like yesterday," or that they couldn't believe "how big you've gotten." In an effort to avoid this common pitfall with the only children I really know, my cousins, I think of them every once in a while as the 9- and 11-year-olds they will soon be, probably by the next time I see them, instead of the 8- and 10-year-old people as they are imprinted on my memory. But I can see that as I get older, as life gets more complicated and as the people I know become more numerous, some will slip through the cracks of my mind and suddenly I'll be faced with a person whose mental image I totally forgot to age.

My grandmother just turned 93. I was with her in Montana for her 90th birthday and I thought a lot about time then. I was so young (and still am in many ways) that the idea of being that old ranged from unfathomable to frankly amusing. Think about it. Imagine being 70. You have lived through most everything that anyone expects to experience in life. School, jobs, weddings, children, friends, houses, cars, political events, grandchildren. You have lived through thousands and thousands of days and seen many things. You are very old.

Now imagine you live another 20 years.

At that point in my life I hadn't yet attained 20 years and this concept blew my mind. What on earth would it be like to live that damn much? You would have to just spend all your days sitting around not believing how old you are. I'm still only just 21 and I can't imagine living through the totality of my life's experiences another three and a half times. But that's what my grandmother's done. And if I have any luck, maybe I will too.

But maybe it becomes easier. As the big people say, life seems to go by faster and faster the older you become. Of course, as brain surgeons would say, this is because memory has no inherent time meter on it. There's no reason certain chemicals which mark memory would feel "older" or "younger" than certain other chemicals. What really counts is the paths your brain makes to get to the memory. If it takes a path past marker-memories, concurrent events that could have only happened during a certain time period, that's how your brain figures out how old the memory is. Otherwise, the memory could have happened two hours ago or it could have happened thirty years ago, or hell, it could have been a dream. It's hard to know.

Taking into account how relative time is, one night three years ago in my aunt's Montana ranch house I decided to try an experiment. I made a distinct memory of me sitting in my bedroom there and referred back to it periodically to see how long ago it seemed. The next day, when I thought about every second which had passed already between now-me and then-me, it already seemed like a lot of time had passed. When I think now about how much has happened in the time span between now-me and then-me, it seems like a ridiculously long time ago. Or does it? I can still remember the feeling of the quilt top on the bed in that bedroom in my aunt's house. And yes, many things have happened to me since then, but do I feel like a different person? I'm still here, contemplating time and memory. Was that really so long ago?

My mom has a good expression that I find useful when I start to feel time slipping away from me. "Life is just made up of days." It's true, too. Every day, you wake up and that's life. The French have an expression: metro-boulot-dodo. It rhymes and means "subway-work-sleep." That's it, folks. Sure, it's punctuated by vacations and certain unforgettable experiences, but most people (myself included) wait for life to happen and forget that it's happening at this very moment, at this very second. Right. Now.

And why do people forget this basic truth? Simply because its too much to handle. If life is really so immediate, then that means this very instant is consequential, and oh my God, what am I doing with it? So we forget. Forget that time is passing by so that the things we enjoy, which, incidentally, make time go by so much faster, come sooner. Then suddenly we see a marker, like a grown child or a changed landscape, and we realized how much time has passed while we were ignoring it. We are shocked by this and, depending one's temperament, we either forget again or go into a mid-life crisis, trying desperately to hold on to old memories. 

It's sad letting go of the past. That's certain. But I try, as advises Desiderata, to "take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth." I force my nostalgia to be content with good memories and noteworthy accomplishments. I hope that will be good enough all the way until I'm 93.


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