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?

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