Sunday, September 4, 2011

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.

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