Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Une couchée de soleil*

* A sunset

After my history exam, I went into Monsieur Melin's office (the director of CIDEF and my translation prof) to say my goodbyes. He's a very dynamic character and so interested in his students (nosy even - he loves digging around to see what juicy information he can find out, but you just have to laugh!). He's practically a part of the walls of this place. Starting out as a student at La Catho, then becoming a moniteur (teacher of oral expression), then a fully-fledged professor, and finally the director, he has given more than 30 years of his life to CIDEF. I can't imagine what the programme would be like without him, but apparently he's a couple years away from retirement. I told him that I'd lived the best year of my life at CIDEF, and even though I'm sure he hears that often, I think he appreciated the comment. We did la bise (cheek kiss) and I went on my way.

Next item on the agenda was to meet up with my group of friends to begin a weekend from heaven in Mayenne, Matthieu's home département (kind of like the French version of a county, but with its own level of government). I grabbed a sandwich from the excellent boulangerie on Rue Bressigny and went back to the school campus to have a picnic with Matthieu, Adrien, Matt, Aurélien, Laura, Hélène, and Lucie. Maëlle couldn't come with us because her thesis was due the following Monday. We had a quick bite under the leafy canopy of the school gardens, said goodbye to some other CIDEFiens who were around, then packed into the cars. One hour of autoroute (highway) brought us to St Saturnin du Limet. Matthieu's house is on a hill overlooking the rooftops of the cosy country village. The countryside was breathtaking. Fields and forests forever. As a city girl, it's easy for me to get excited at the sight of cows and chickens, and there were plenty. Matthieu's farm is so beautiful. All the old buildings are a warm reddish-brown stone capped with the region's signature slate roofs.

I was practically in a swoon over the charm of the whole scene. The company was so génial, the day was so hot (with a forecast of thunderstorms for later!), and the countryside was something from a fairy tale. We set out on a walk to check out Matthieu's favourite spots. I slid on the gravel driveway like an idiot and delayed our journey while Matthieu disinfected my ripped up leg. Beauty. Then off we went, down a wooded path, through cow fields and corn fields, stopped to eat cherries right off a tree, under a bridge with incredible acoustics, up a steep dirt staircase, across an old railway bed, and into the village. We took pictures and videos every stop along the way, wanting to record every moment. In the village we played like small children in the local park. When the heat got too suffocating, we trudged back home to melt in front of a fan.

As we were sitting around the kitchen table, Matt, Lou, and I got a text message. From Maëllie: "HAAAALLLLLIIIIFFFFAAAXXXXX". She had applied for a teaching position with the Alliance française, an organisation that teaches French around the world, and which has an outpost in Halifax. She found out that she was accepted and will therefore be spending all of next year a mere two hours drive from us. I'm not sure if I've already mentioned it, but Adrien and Matthieu are moving to Vancouver in September. They had planned to go before they had even met us, but the fact that they will be in the same country, and that Maëlle will be so close, and that Hélène has met my family... I don't know that I believe in fate but I think this is as close as you can get. If any number of circumstances had happened a year earlier or later, none of us would have come together in the way we have. But due to some incredible spot of luck, this dream year and these friendships we've made will continue miles beyond the borders of France into the true north strong and free.

After that piece of fantastic news, some of us went to the grocery store to get sustenance for the weekend. When we got back home, we ran into Matthieu's aunt who offered to take us to see the milking of the cows. The front room of the farm building was dedicated to the milking. The cows would line up to have their udders connected to a giant pump. The back rooms housed the calves to one side and the adults to the other. The calves were adorable. When you stuck your hand towards their noses to pet them they would suck on your fingers like a baby with a bottle. We watched the adults push and shove each other in an attempt to get a prime spot at the trough. Such entertainment.

Back at home, we prepared ourselves a full meal of a salad and pasta. In between the two courses, Laura and I called everyone's attention. She and I had prepared a duet of a song called "Lie Down" by the group The Good Lovelies. They had performed at the Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival last summer (a music festival near the cottage in NS) and we had loved their music. It's a fun song, upbeat enough to not make people sad but sweet enough to be moving. At the end, we translated the chorus into French. The look on our friends faces was all we could have hoped for. Here's the music video:
And our version of the chorus:
À côté de moi
Pendant un moment
Enlève tes chaussures
Donne moi un câlin
Tête sur le coussin
Et ferme les yeux

It wasn't a big thing, but it was lovely just to be able to make our friends smile. And to hear people humming the song for the rest of the weekend.

We cleaned up from dinner slowly, acting a bit like bumblebees drifting dazedly in the heat. I took to cleaning the dishes (I always try to clean up after dinner at Matthieu's or at Aurélien's in order to show my appreciation for being hosted, and always they try to chase me away. I guess in France when you host someone chez toi for dinner, you don't expect them to help with the cleaning up. In my attempt to be a helpful houseguest, I try to do the dishes before they come into the kitchen and scold me) and was joined by Matthieu. He called me his ange de la vaisselle (angel of dishwashing) and began to make up a fantastical story to go with the name. It made for a lovely moment, standing in his kitchen with hands full of soap and heads full of daydreams.

Just after dinner wrapped up, it began to rain. It started out softly but within minutes we had a downpour. But the best part was the sky. Behind the farm were the darkest, most menacing clouds. Towards the village the sky was a glorious, surreal fire tone with the sun a vibrant orange. The boys whipped their shirts off and we all tumbled pell-mell towards the field. The view nous a coupé le souffle (took our breath away). Everyone stopped, spread out across the top of the field, each lost in his or her own thoughts. And then -- "Regardez ! Un arc-en-ciel !" We turned to see a rainbow blossom across the storm clouds behind us. I had to laugh. It was too perfect. We stood there, half laughing, half crying, occasionally giving each other hugs and dancing around as we become increasingly drenched by the pouring rain. The sun gleamed off the wet village and off the hay of the field. It was just... well, I don't know that there are any appropriate words.

Then we got the party started. We blasted music from the garage and ran around the property like hooligans. Every once in a while we would stop to watch the sunset again. Aurélien had had the bright idea to bring a skipping rope, something that seemed so fitting for the countryside. We jumped, we danced, we sang. Then came the storm. The sky was suddenly illuminated by enormous éclairs (lightning bolts) and the faintest rumbles of thunder. Everything was electric. The air was thick and heavy and humid as the rain held itself back for theatrical effect. We were all wired as excitement and life and music (and beer) coursed through us.

We eventually settled down to a card game. We switched back and forth between French and English at will, relishing in our capacity to express ourselves any way we wanted and to nonetheless be understood. The dance party continued after the game. At one point, Matthieu called me up to the loft of the garage and we sat pouring our hearts out until everyone came up to cuddle up together. We ran back through the fields to watch the sky. We had a water fight in the river flowing from the eavestrough. I sat down with Adrien and we had a beautiful discussion about the progress of society and how any number of things we might want to have happen will be possible in another ten years time. Then we danced again. The absurdity and the raw emotion that had been our evening caught up with us around 3am, at which point we stumbled through the dark of the house onto the pile of mattresses awaiting us on the floor.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Les partiels*

* Final exams

I got two exams out of the way on Saturday - Études Socio-Culturelles and translation. For translation, let me give you a little taste of what we had to translate: "The shepherds observed the stars in their inexorable course." I think most of us ended up putting a French spin on some English words and hoping for the best. It was such a great course though that I can forgive our prof for the ridiculous exam. I've learnt so much. 

On Saturday night I joined the students from Notre Dame University on a scavenger hunt. We had to jump into the fountain in the Jardin du Mail (which I can now check off my bucket list!), buy a chocolate panini, and get a shot from one of the bars, among other things. Perhaps going out on the town mid-exams was not exceptionally responsible, but hey, carpe diem. And doing a scavenger hunt was on my bucket list as well! Two birds with one stone. 

My host family had told me that they wanted to hold a barbecue for me and any two friends I wished to invite on Sunday. That morning I went for one last mass at the Cathedral and then came home to welcome Matt and Élise over. We had a nice conversation with the family, and of course my host parents took well to them. Unfortunately, my host family had very little contact with my Korean roommate Miseon. She speaks very little French and is quite shy, which caused my host family to eventually stop their efforts at communication. It breaks my heart, because she's an absolute gem. She speaks a little more English than she does French, but our relationship is proof that a friendship can be built on laughter and mutual good-will. Our family didn't invite her to the barbecue, which appalled me, Matt, and Élise, who is Miseon's oral expression teacher at CIDEF. Not feeling it was our place, none of us said anything, but her absence was a thorn in the side of an otherwise lovely meal. 

Tuesday was the day of my soutenance de mémoire, the defense of my term paper. Each student's paper was marked by two profs to whom we then had to present our arguments for why we wrote it the way we did, what we learned, what we would have done differently, etc. The two women who marked mine were highly interested in my subject (France = secular country, Catholic roots), and we ended up having a great conversation about religion and culture. That paper was a huge part of my life this semester. I don't know that I've ever put so much effort into an essay before. It certainly helped that it's a subject that I find fascinating. I just wanted so much to do it well and thoroughly. When it was assigned to us, the idea of writing 3000 words in French was horrifying, but in the end I had to take out a few parts in order to cap myself off at 3500. 

None of the students had an exam on Thursday because it was a jour férié (public holiday). France, thank you for your vacation-respecting population. Therefore, Wednesday night seemed a natural time to do a little exam stress relieving. A huge CIDEF-wide picnic was organised. I think at the height of the evening, there were seven countries represented, French and foreign. Around midnight the temperature drop forced those of us who were left to make our way to Soft. As soon as the dance floor was empty, we flooded on and started shimmying away all the blues of finals week. We danced like a bande de fous (group of crazies) until closing at 2am. 

My friend Bénédicte had already given up her apartment in Angers and had moved back in with her parents outside the city. My host family had left for a week of holiday that morning, so after the picnic Béné came and stayed over chez moi. First time I'd had a friend over other than the lunch the weekend before. She was to start her summer job at a campground on Thursday, so we had to say goodbye first thing the next morning. She and I had started out as conversation partners but after a couple months of regularly seeing each other she became a dear friend. It was awful to watch her bike away down my street. 

Thursday afternoon was not particularly strenuous. I was invited to my friend Alessandro's apartment for a Brazilian lunch. There were about fifteen people there, some of whom I knew. Everyone brought something to eat and drink. Matt and I ended up staying until 4pm, when we finally decided it was time to get our rears in gear and get some studying done. We had to say goodbye to Élise, our monitrice de vie (life coach - teacher of all things we don't learn in class). A blubbering mess, I got back on my bike and went home. When I got there, the last thing I wanted was to be alone, so I texted my friends to come over and benefit from my (absent) host family's pool. Adrien and Matthieu brought their computers over so they could get some work done (it was the day before Matthieu's masters thesis was due!). We soaked up the sunshine and the pool water for a couple hours before settling down to any real work. Laura and Aurélien came over after dinner with a case of beer, and the five of us sat enjoying each others company until way past nightfall. Mamie et papi (grandma and grandpa, aka Laura and Aurélien) called it a night around 11. Matthieu and Adrien stayed for another couple hours. It was so incredibly, impossibly wonderful to have friends over at my house. Just to be there, relaxed, together, and sans souci (without worries) was special. I struggled that evening with a combination of joy at having them over mixed with sadness at how soon the end was coming. When they finally took their leave, it was with a full heart that I said goodnight. 

I started Friday off productively, making my way through a series of useful wikipedia articles (what better way to study). Our final exam was History of France the following morning, so I started trying to remind myself of the various important moments of the French Revolution, the wars, the presidents, etc. Laura came over around noon to study. We didn't even crack open our binders until around 2, when Matt arrived to join the 'study session'. It was a sweltering day and we could hardly focus in the heat... well, the heat wasn't the only cause of procrastination, but I'd rather blame something other than my own lack of motivation. By 6pm, we had gotten as far as Napoleon (the second topic of the semester). At that point, Laura went home and Adrien, Matthieu and Hélène came over. Matthieu had now handed in all 138 pages of his thesis on socio-linguistics and was feeling light as air. He and I floated around my pool for a while having a beautiful conversation. By dinner time I had still not moved beyond Napoleon. I had promised some classmates to meet up with them at Soft at 9, so I whipped myself up a quick meal and headed into town. I stopped in for a brief chat and some hugs there, then went to say goodbye to my friend Josh, and then on to Élise's for one last bisou. By the time I got home, it was near midnight and all efforts at studying seemed entirely futile. Packing appeared somehow more practical... Once my suitcase was half full, I set my alarm for several hours before my exam (had to study at some point!) and went to sleep. 

I think I was the first person at the school that Saturday morning. It was another scorching day. My friend Bridget came and joined my last-minute cramming, and at 10am on s'est retrouvées (we met up) with the rest of our class to write our very last exam. When it was done, that was it. I was officially on holiday!

Le temps des fleurs*

*The time of the flowers (title of the French version of "Those Were the Days")

When we returned from Élise's house, we had only one week left of school before exams. A little last-minute learning and course review made our classes unremarkable, but it was nonetheless a busy few days.  On Tuesday was the final Soirée Internationale, a night of cultural performances given by CIDEF students. Matt and I had signed Canada up for a spot, not having any idea what we would be doing. We tried to get our fellow Canadians to participate, there being ten of us, but in the end they just wished us luck and told us how confident they were that we would come up with something brilliant. Well then...

It's awfully hard to portray our culture in a way that's not exploiting ridiculous stereotypes. And the country is so vast that there isn't really one kind of music or other performance art that represents the entire pays. Matt and I had to think long and hard about how best to show our "Canadian-ness." It was Matt who came up with the idea in the end: why not do a skit showing the various cultural misunderstandings we'd had during our trip? We picked three incidents: my dealings with French bureaucracy at the local Prefecture, Matt's mispronunciation of the expression en route (on the road/on the way) by saying en rut (in heat), and his inquiry after a jar of peanut butter at the grocery store (in France, peanuts are cacahuètes, not arachides as in Québec. Matt, having looked up the new word, asked for beurre de cacachouettes... roughly translated as "awesome poop butter"... needless to say, the supermarket was all out of that).

Our practice run of our skits was not very funny nor very put-together. We sat down for an hour and hashed out a proper script before going on stage. It ended up going quite well, and we were the only country to do a performance of that sort. Here are the youtube links: and It's all in French, but I think you'll get the idea anyway.

Part of the Soirée Internationale tradition is to go out and celebrate the semester afterwards. We convened at Soft, our favourite bar. Bénédicte had come to the Soirée to cheer on Matt and me, so she joined us at the bar along with most of our other favourite Français(es) and several CIDEF students. By about 1 a.m. we had the dancefloor to ourselves and full control of the playlist. Cécile, the lovely barmaid, is very fond of the CIDEF moniteurs/monitrices because during the summer, the CIDEF students are almost the only people around to fill the bars near the school, and therefore bring in some much appreciated business. All the citadins (city dwellers) vacate for July and August to enjoy a couple months en famille. So we danced our buns off until closing, when the music stopped and we had to make our ways home.

The next few days passed without incident until Thursday night, when we had to say our first goodbye. My friend Mary, from Chicago, had to leave on Friday, at least a week before anyone else. A group of us gathered on a spot of grass in the middle of the city for a last little gathering. Then we went off to Soft where we had to say a rather tearful goodbye. Mary was the baby of our group, being only just out of highschool. I hear Chicago is a fabulous city, so maybe we'll get a chance to reconnect there one day.

Oh, something that did happen that week was the beginning of my adventures with a boy who's name I never did find out, but whom my friends and I called Creepy Creeperson (the poor thing). He was a sturdy boy of a rather ambiguous age who had begun to study regularly in our corner of the library. He wasn't someone that anyone recognised, but he placed himself across from Matthieu at the table in the middle. One day, my friends got up to go home around mid-afternoon, and I was left alone with our new friend. I had my earphones in, and had almost forgotten about him when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I flung myself around, having been startled out of a period of concentration. I took out my earphones and looked at him.
"You are English?" he asked.
"Um, no but I speak English... I'm Canadian."
"Aaahh le Canada. I have been to ________ [some north-eastern American city]."
"Oh. Ok, oui ce n'est pas loin de la ville d'où je viens. Je m'appelle Annie." (Ya that's not far from the city I'm from. My name is Annie.)
"Ah, Aaah-neee. Vous parlez français." (Annie. You speak French.) - NB. This guy was approximately my age. In France, children, teenagers, and young adults may always use the pronoun "tu" with one another, rather than the more formal "vous". For one young adult to use "vous" with another is really strange. It suggests either a desire to be distant or a strong inferiority complex. It's just "not done." I therefore wasn't sure how to react, whether to use vous with him or tu. Had I missed out on an important exception when learning this rule?

The conversation continued, with me telling him a bit about CIDEF, and him telling me that he was a student at the science faculty of La Catho, and had come to the quieter arts library to study for his finals. He also told me he was 23 years old. The conversation came in breaks and spurts. It was rather awkward - I had been on a roll in my studying and was keen to get back to it, but he seemed to have something he wanted to say but dared not. Every time I went to wish him good luck with his studying, he cut me off with another question. I eventually had to excuse myself, and he returned to his table. As I was packing up to go a couple hours later, he approached me again. He hovered, looking hesitant.
"Vous manger où le midi?" (Where do you eat lunch?)
"Um.. je prends un sandwich à la boulangerie juste à côté ou je vais à la cafétéria." (I get a sandwich at the nearby bakery, or I go to the cafeteria.)
"Ah ok. Vous voulez prendre un sandwich?" (Do you want to get a sandwich?)
"Um... maintenant??" (Now??)
"Non, demain peut-être, ou le jour d'après..." (No, tomorrow maybe, or the next day.)
"Ah oui... peut-être!" (Ya... maybe!)
He stepped back and thrust out his hand. I looked at it, unsure of what to do. Shaking the hand of someone my age was like using "vous," it was simply not done. You cheek kiss or you just say goodbye. Hand shaking is for meeting your boss or your banker. I shook his hand and off he went. Utterly perplexed, I packed up my things and mentally prepared myself for reviewing all the etiquette lessons I'd learned. Something I noticed in France is that you can't just go up to someone and start a conversation. Their rules of interaction amongst strangers are more strict than ours, and I was quite taken aback by this boy's combination of boldness and nervousness. I wasn't sure if he was looking to go on a date, or simply to make a new friend, but he was so incredibly awkward that not even the latter scenario seemed like that much fun.

He continued to return to our studying headquaters, shaking my hand when he arrived and when he left. I thought we ought to switch to the bise, but my attempt at that was thwarted by his hand once again thrown stiffly in front of himself. My French friends and Matt watched the proceedings with comic disbelief. As Matthieu and Adrien explained to us, this guy was a true weirdo. For a Frenchman to do all I described was really strange and rather unsettling to them. He continued to ask me bizarre questions, and to ask me to lunch, and I made up lame excuses about having classes soon or lots of studying to do. He accosted Matt one day, having recognised him as my usual desk partner. He went through the same awkward first conversation, and then asked him to lunch too. Phew, not looking for a date then. There was one particularly hilarious moment when he came up behind Matt, hand outstretched, while Matt rummaged through his backpack. Feeling a presence behind him, he sat up and screamed out loud when he found this boy practically standing on top of him. Creepy (as I say, I never did catch his name. Sorry for the cruel nickname.) later explained that he was studying for his Bac, a series of brutally difficult grade 12 exams that determine whether one will get into university. Hadn't he just told me he was 23 and studying for his university exams?

Now, for all that I've learned about socially awkward people in my life, I really ought to have been kinder. I think he was looking for some friends, and just didn't have the sweetest clue how to go about it in a non-creepy way. But his presence became so uncomfortable that Matt and I began studying in new parts of the library so as not to have to come up with excuses to not have lunch, or go for a drink, or go back to his house (did he still live with his parents, considering he was still a high-school student??). He was, as my mother would say, an odd duck. Poor guy, I didn't really give him a chance. But he certainly spiced up my last week of school (and the week after that).

On Friday, I ended up missing my last three classes of the year to take a government French proficiency exam. It was 5.5 hours of oral and written comprehension and expression. Each stressful hour was followed by another and my hopes at getting an official diploma seemed to be waving me goodbye. Anyway, I found out a month later that I ended up passing the damn thing. Wooohoo! Now I have something I can put on my résumé that proves that I'm reasonably capable in French. It will also allow me to apply to a French university without having to write a language exam first.

That Friday night was the first one the whole year where I didn't go out at all. I figured I'd try to be somewhat responsible and stick my nose in a book considering I had two exams the next day. CIDEF was wasting no time - classes ended on Friday and exams started the next morning. T-minus two weeks until the end.