war & peace & confetti

My shoes were full of confetti. My purse was full of confetti. My bra was full of confetti.

My heart was simply full.

It was April, my second-to-last week teaching primary school English classes. Early that morning, I had sat waiting for my ride to school, dressed professionally but staring blearily at my hot lemon water, willing myself to wake up.

Bleep. A text from my ride, one of the teachers I work with. “Did you know that today’s le carnaval?”

First reaction: I don’t have to teach today!?

Second reaction: what is le carnaval?

She continued: “I’m worried you’ll be bored.”

Far from it. When I arrived at school I saw clowns, princesses, and ladybugs. Cats, ducks, pirates complete with eyeliner mustaches. A tiny boy from the youngest class wore a Spiderman suit, muscles included. As he walked he beat his fists on his artificial pecs.

I sat at the desks with my fifth-grade class, English class disrupted for the day, as the full-time teacher handed out bags of confetti. I was the only one not wearing a costume, much to the class’s dismay. “Sorry guys, I didn’t know!”

“Eh ben,” one of my sweet students said. “T’es déguisée comme prof d’anglais !” (You’re disguised as an English teacher!)

After a quick ten-minute French lesson about language registers (I won’t lie, I took some notes myself), class was dismissed. The kids started whispering, making plans. “Jessica, will you help us ambush le maître?”

Uh, sure. I didn’t know quite what this entailed, but they laughed wildly. It wasn’t until later that I heard the term bataille de confettis.

Confetti war. Okay, I could get down with that.

We lined up the kids outside, un petit défilé, a parade march into a nearby park. There were fountains, evergreens, and bright pink magnolia trees. Hidden around a few turns five minutes from the school, I’d never seen this park before.

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I followed the teachers, some dressed like clowns or birds or pirates, all of us trying to keep wayward little costumed people in line.

We stopped at a square where a Thursday morning market was taking place and crowded around a large, colorful character on a float. She was called Carmentrau, I found out later, the official personnage of the festival. img_1471

A group of cool-looking guys in blazers and jeans played dance-worthy tunes in a brass quintet. The kids buzzed with excitement.

If there was an official directive to start throwing confetti, I missed it, but after my first face-full, the battle was on.

Students approached me slowly, with a gleam in their eye, as if I had any doubt that they were about to shower me in colored paper. I’m not a natural confetti warrior, I must confess. When I sensed an attack was imminent, I tended to shout oh lala ! which just gave me a mouthful of paper.

It wasn’t just children, either.

Le maître of fifth grade, who bears a resemblance to Dennis Quaid with his handsome paternal charm, who rides to school on his motorcycle and who commands respect from his class without ever raising his voice, grinned as he tossed handfuls of confetti into the air…or into the faces of students, colleagues, and passersby alike.

After a while, the band lined up kids to start another parade. They marched around the market three or four times, following the joyful flatulence of the tuba. img_1470

They marched around the farm eggs and the herbs in pots, the flowers and the salmon packed on ice. Mostly around. One child stepped–splaton a tomato plant ripe with fruit.

Kids–or monkeys, witches, and Batmen–starting scooping up fallen confetti, and with it, handfuls of gravel. That was about the time we headed back, just in time for recess.

I still had no idea what this festival was, so I went to chat with the directeur, who told me that this school event marked the beginning of the Bœuf Villé, Montluçon’s version of le carnaval that takes place all over France in late winter. Le Bœuf Villé isn’t just a small-town interpretation of the famous Niçoise fête, though. It’s actually unique to Montluçon.

Bœuf Villé takes place at the end of Lent, instead of before it. The name of the central character, Carmentrau, is a patois of the words carême (Lent) and entrant, so that she represents winter and the entering into Fast. The goal of this festival is to chasser l’hiver, faire renaître le printemps: to chase away winter and to welcome the rebirth of spring.

We hunt winter by hunting the poor Carmentrau, who is “caught” by the children on Wednesday, paraded around the town for several days, and finally burnt at a ritual crémation by characters who represent life. Her ashes are then sprinkled in the Cher river. img_0957

I was puzzled by the bœuf connection until I learned that the end of Lent was traditionally celebrated by eating a big meal featuring beef, a food prohibited during the fast. Montluçonnais today, then, celebrate the return of spring with a community meal of the no longer “forbidden” food.

Interestingly, the word carnaval is itself connected to meat. Since cows would be killed as a sacrifice to mark the end of Lent, carne comes from the Latin caro meaning “flesh” or “meat,” and carnaval, then, means “to God the meat.”

I went home for lunch, shaking confetti out of my hair, my scarf, my oxfords. I felt cheered by the music, the laughter, the joyful silliness of the morning, all of it unexpected.

Later in the week I would see the culmination of the Bœuf Villé, this crémation of Carmentrau, at a city-wide festival where I saw dozens of my students.

It was a beautiful day to wish winter away as we stood under la sourire du soleil (the smile of the sun) and watched Carmentrau burn. img_1473img_1472 img_1474

Goodbye to winter, to Montluçon, to these students who are dear to me, to a strange, dark, cloudy season that gave me occasional glimpses of great joy.

 

kids’ stuff/next steps

I have five more weeks of teaching left, and it feels…manageable. Like successful organization might be possible.

I really enjoyed teaching this week; the time away made me feel like myself again, energy and optimism available in large quantities. It was a week where things got done. We talked about pets, we talked about objects in the house, clothing, new grammar. I was impressed by many of the students’ good memories even after the break, particularly one class that rattled off Robinson Crusoe vocabulary from weeks before. Parrot, gun, saw, axe, island, canoe! 

Color me impressionnée. 

I still get such a kick out of their faux-sophistication, the way they rattle off French phrases and verb tenses that took me years of study as an adult to master. The way a class of baby-faced 7 year olds clad in sweatsuits chide each other for not paying attention. Eyes rolling to the ceiling, that French sigh: pffftCan you believe this guy? He’s not even listening. 

At this age, it’s still cool to do what you’re told, to make the teacher happy, which is a relief for me. I make them laugh; they make me laugh, genuinely. It reminds me sometimes of my job this summer, where I watched a sweet “four and a half” year old and his baby sister. Not only was I getting paid, but I genuinely enjoyed hanging out with these small people. Their delight at a frog or a feather, their un-self-concious laughter and dancing. It reminds you what it is to be human.

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It’s the same at school. Almost never do the kids bum me out, on the contrary, they’re what I love about this job. They’re so cute, with huge personalities and creativity and curiosity in spades. I jive well with that.

We have fun together, like in our games of mime where I show them a flashcard of animal words we’ve been learning and they act it out for the class. This week, the enthusiasm was off the charts. They good-naturedly hopped across the room like a rabbit or dropped to  the ground, much to my surprise–you really don’t have to do that!–to wriggle across the floor like a snake.

They clearly don’t mind looking silly, which is an absolutely essential part of learning a language. It saves so much time. For example, French kids don’t tend to hear a difference between angry and hungry or teacher and tee-shirt.

Everyone say ‘shhhh.’ Now everyone say ‘ch- ch- ch-.’ We go back and forth for awhile. Teee-chur. Teeee-shhhhirt. And they get it.

There are so many little moments, little epiphanies: Jessica! ‘Turtle’ is like ‘tortue’ but backwards! It’s the same word!

I am summoned whenever there are questions or comments about other languages or places. I might be going to les États-Unis this summer, Jessica! Maybe I’ll see you there! 

Did you know my mamie lives in Spain? 

Is it hot in England? Do kids study French over there? 

At recess, I am offered a piece of homemade birthday cake by a grinning little girl (8 today!) waiting for a few teeth to grow in.

Two little boys come up to me as I’m reading a Margaret Atwood collection. On the front is a drawing of a crow. What’s that about? I’m pretty sure we have that book at my house. Oh really? I try not to laugh. Wow, she’s old! When they see the author photo.

I am asked to translate their little sweatshirts and backpacks adorned with inexplicable English phrases. Smile cat love! Always energy dream! 

 And so. It’s the stress, the planning, and the inconvenience of life here that occasionally get me down, but almost never the kids.

I wouldn’t do this job forever, but one more year? I think so. So, I’ve applied for a contract renewal for next year in a new académie in a new region.

As I’ve said before, this experience is not easy but it’s worthwhile; I haven’t regretted it once. I’ve complained, anguished, and stressed, and here I am, signing up to do it again. So that tells you something.

I also got into a French graduate program at Middlebury College that comprises a summer at the Vermont campus and a full year at the Sorbonne in Paris. This program interests me because it’s really intense, like a serious bootcamp for the language skills, and it would allow me to study things I’m really interested in (French culture, linguistics, instead of medieval lit, for example). Besides the skills boost, I would finish the year with a Masters in French. Is this private college and this degree worth the high price tag? I’m not sure yet. I’ve yet to figure out what I want to “do with my life,” but one idea is French-English translation. I want something exciting, challenging, useful, and conducive to traveling. If I want to be competitive in this realm, my French will need a serious upgrade, something I would get with this program.

For awhile I was stuck between the two options, but pragmatic Mary forced me to send a bunch of emails and I think I have my answer. I feel good about it, anyway. While Middlebury doesn’t offer an official deferment option, they will keep all my application information for two years. So, should I decide to go for the Masters next year, it seems I will basically be all set. In the meantime, I can research scholarships. That way, I don’t have to pay a hefty deposit (due this week!) for something I’m not totally sure about.

For now, I’m excited to hear back about next year: who knows where I’ll be then?

automne malade

Automne malade et adoré. 

It’s the first line of a poem I love. Apollinaire describes autumn as “sick and loved,” lonely and liminal. He writes:

“how I love this season, its murmurs; the fruits that fall with no one to gather them; the wind and the forest crying all their tears in autumn, leaf by leaf”

(my loose translation/interpretation)

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Every year I have lived in a place where fall takes over the wind, trees and air, as if by magic, and here in central France it’s no different. I watch with the joy of a child: pure exhilaration as the world explodes in color and light.

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But it has always been a complicated season for me. It’s a dying season, an annual reminder of change and mortality. It is limited, transitional: unlike summer, it’s impossible to lose myself in the illusion that these days will last forever.

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Mixed with my delight in the bright new reds and brilliant golds is a sense of dread. I fear that constant cloud cover that seems to sit on my very soul. It’s here now. The days are short and the light is gray, no discernible change between 8 am, noon, 3 pm…it’s only just before 6 that the gray changes to black. Every year around this time I find myself reading bleak dystopian novels and wondering how the days can drag on but pass so quickly à la fois. 

I thrive on excitement, newness, sunlight. This time of year: weeks built for existential poetry, for hiding under the covers–brings an agonizing pause.

It feels wrong sometimes, this slowing pace of la vie quotidienne, but it is natural, good. I’d do well to remember that, and I try.

I look for little things: surprise sunsets on my walk to work, the contrast of red roses and dead leaves, spiderwebs holding dew. The strange, stark beauty of bare trees who have wept away their leaves.

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I burn crème de marron candles and make soup and go on heart-pounding runs, returning just as the sun sets. I watch French movies with my brilliant roommate and order (regrettable) foie gras pizzas.

I savor autumn even as I dread what it brings. It’s malade, adoré. It’s temporary, I remind myself. Just like anything else.

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happy luck

Mary has moved in and finally we’re settling into the rhythms of small-town French life. Together we can grumble about the lack of buses on Sunday and celebrate when we find a café with wifi. We can practice our French, unless we’re tired, in which case we devolve into our own brand of franglais.

It’s nice to have someone to laugh with. We do that a lot as means of survival, for the inconveniences can be really frustrating. For example, our house is lovely but also a forty-minute walk from most places of interest. Normally the bus serves us well…except on Sundays where you’d better get used to walking. It’s fine until you have to do it four times in a day and feel the blisters and bruises forming on your feet.

But I have a sense of optimism and so does Mary, something I really appreciate about her. We’re good at finding the at least, like: we may have missed the bus by two minutes but at least we’ll get more acquainted with the route. My feet are killing me but at least when we get to the café we’ll really appreciate it!

That’s what happened yesterday, more times than I should probably admit. We kept missing those rare Sunday buses…except for our first trip into the city, where we got off the bus at an unknown stop and found ourselves right in the middle of a Sunday morning market.

That’s the other side of the frustration coin, that the smallest success feels like a victory. When you don’t always know what you’re doing (or where you’re going or how to get there), life is full of happy surprises.

I love the French market, vendors yelling about how good their tomatoes are; skeptical older women making sure they get their money’s worth: are you sure the tangerines are bon?

Mary bought some sausage with bleu d’Auvergne (a cheese from the region) from a solidly-built man with a mustache so classic you could almost hear it say Je suis français.

I made a beeline for a little fromagerie and gazed at all the lovely, crazy cheese in unexpected colors. I saw cheese I recognized from my job at Lucky’s–Port Salut, Brillat-Savarin–as well as dozens of cheeses I didn’t. img_2481

I tried the green cheese, colored from basil (what else?) and bought something similar, but flavored with truffles instead and decidedly non-green.

I bought a bag of figs that were so good we ate them in one sitting, right across the street. Mary went back and bought a kilo. img_2483

We talked a little with the produce vendors, who were interested in our origine. This happens a lot. Then when we say we’re American, people tend to jump at the chance to try out the little English they know. I’ve had people stare at me, repeating a word like good! or Miami! Yesterday we were sitting at a bus stop, speaking English, when a man did a double-take: he turned around and walked back and asked us, in French, if we were American. His suspicions confirmed, he smiled and wished us a good day.

It’s fun to be here, as I’ve never felt so…rare. We clearly wouldn’t enjoy the same reception in Paris.

After the figs, we sat at a café where we had a view of the shoppers and enjoyed a simple breakfast: coffee and orange juice and tartines. We saw a man ride through the crowd on his bike, three baguettes stuffed down the front of his down jacket like it was nothing. La France, country of understated elegance and pride in personal appearance, where it is also acceptable to stuff bread down your shirt. img_2485

We had a grand bread and cheese lunch at home and then made our way back to centre-ville to work on lesson plans at a bar. We then walked home, walked back to a pizza place to get the little personal pizzas we had ordered–blue cheese and crème fraiche and lardons; goat cheese and honey–and walked home again…it took us longer than we thought. It was dark and our pizzas were growing cold so we snuck bites out of the boxes like raccoons in the night, making up silly French songs about how bad our feet hurt.

We may not know where to go to buy a baguette on Sunday, or, let’s be real, a lot of other things, but we do have joie de vivre (as a French guy told me the other day).

As I was writing this at the little café where I’m quickly becoming a regular, an older man began speaking to me too quickly for me to understand. When he learned where I’m from, he tried out his English. Hello! Goodnight! How are you! As he left, he wished me happy luck with my work.

Happy luck. The mistranslation made me smile. It’s a nice phrase, actually. I thought how it is what you might call happy luck that I am here, in France with a new job and new friends and new challenges. Happy luck indeed.

bringing missouri to montluçon

Many of my students have never met an American, so I didn’t want to teach cliches.

Burgers and fries, big cities and celebrities? They’ve seen enough of that, maybe only that, on TV. I wanted to share what think of when I think of home.

So rather than trying to introduce the whole country in one go to children who think I regularly hang out with Obama, I took a local approach. There are now dozens of small-town French children learning about float trips, caves, the Gateway Arch, and gooey butter cake.

I’ve explained the term “America’s Heartland” and shown pictures of KC barbecue and played black-and-white YouTube videos of 1920s jazz.

I’ve told them how to say St. Louis with an American accent and shown them a picture of the arch at sunset, city lights glowing against a purple sky. That one always elicits gasps of awe. Mais c’est trop beau!

I’ve shown them a photo of Mizzou’s Jesse Hall and the columns that got the same amazed reaction. A university?! You’d think it was a castle! Does the president live there? When I tell them the enrollment number (30,000 to keep it simple), they think I must be mistaken. Trente-mille ?!  One little girl wondered how on earth so many students could fit in that building.

Of course I had to talk about sports, showing a picture of the MU Tigers. Ah oui! Le football américain! 

I even talked about armadillos, those prehistoric-looking creatures that now line Missouri roads.

The presentations have gone really well and I am mobbed at recess and in the halls. When they’re not talking to me, trying to impress me by saying a word they know-blue! fish!-or a phrase–my name eez Akim-I hear them talking about me. Mais elle est belle ! Oui, elle est belleElle parle anglais ! Elle est anglaise ? Elle vient des États-Unis en fait ! Elle parle français aussi !

They’re kids. And they’re French. So naturally, frankness abounds.

But the attention is enough to make a girl feel like Beyoncé.

At the TAPIF orientation, we were told to always link language with culture, and it makes so much sense now that I see it in action. I get why they brought us here: the kids are naturally curious about us, so we can help translate the enthusiasm about us into enthusiasm about English. We can show them that learning a language is a real, worthy pursuit that goes far beyond scholastic exercises.