Monday, 30 December 2013

Year's End

It's the end of 2013 and I'm feeling bored and restless. It's not as if I want to be working flat out all the time. During the lead-up to Christmas I was working day and night marking exam papers and trying to complete all the admin I needed to do as an English teacher. I'm not certain when I start back. The teaching establishment is bankrupt and needed a bailout of several million euros from the government just to pay the staff and keep the doors open. Much of the blame for this can be put squarely at the door of the previous head and her administration. There have been student protests around the cuts to hours, classes, degrees, conditions. The current CEO even started a 'save our school' petition and launched it online. I was rather surprised at this. It created a lot of worry amongst staff. So it's in this environment of uncertainty that I'm trying to look at the approaching year with some balance and optimism.

That's not easy. At the moment I think I will have my maximum number of classes again but I don't know if my contract will be renewed for its final year, I hope so. They need teachers but can't afford them. I've got an idea of what classes I might be teaching this coming semester but nothing's confirmed yet so I'm on holiday, sort of, needing to go back to the uni to drop off marked papers to various academic secretaries next week.

This Christmas, as before, I've spent the festive season at JC's so I'm not alone but I'm not in an environment where I can do what I like. Naturally one must fit in. All the visitors have gone home now. I've made a pavlova and an apple tart, brandy balls and choc-dipped strawberries but the feasting needs to stop. I can read or potter on my laptop or watch a DVD in French but that's it. I'd really rather do something to advance myself but how? Without spending money there are few hobbies I can do. I'll go back to the mairie in January and try to find out why my offer to the mayor to do volonteer work for the city hasn't gone anywhere. I really wanted to contribute and make contacts and feel part of things here but there's been no reply to my written offer of 6 months ago so I'll follow that up.

I've started working on my book again, especially the final chapter. That's something constructive I can do. My French language competence doesn't improve in leaps now but I continue to pick up snippets here and there. Yesterday I helped JC in his garden though in the middle of a European winter things to do are strictly limited. This constant incertitude over how long I can stay in France, in my apartment, is corrosive to efforts at putting down roots.  It's hard to know what direction would yield any results.

Finding employment is always top of my priorities but it's a needle in a haystack situation. I can do so many things competently and I'm frustrated at not being able to use even half of my abilities in my current job. International relations interests me. Europe is interesting but being a kiwi is a major problem.

Despite being a member of the Commonwealth I can't even live and work in Britain and I can 'thank De Gaulle' for forcing Britain to relinquish its ties to NZ in order to be allowed to enter the EEC. I grew up in an era where the emotional (and economic) ties to Britain were still strong. We stood up in the cinema to sing God Save the Queen as a photo of her was displayed each time before the main feature. We ate boiled mutton with parsley sauce, had apple dumplings and watched Z cars and The Saint. And there were scones, rock cakes and Louise biscuits. Alas, my British heritage isn't working for me and neither is my French one.

 As I look back it's been a year of changes as well as some stability. I've changed job/career, I've taken measures to stay in my apartment a bit longer because I feel comfortable there. I enjoy living in my town and having access to other places via the train station. I also enjoy some independence with my little car. JC and I  are still in each other's lives. My shoulders have improved quite a bit thanks to time and physiotherapy. I'm happy planning my daughter's visit next year and am looking forward to also having a high school friend come and visit me. I've spent another year here and that's an achievement but I'm not at ease because I have no idea where I will be this time next year and certainly not the year after that. Living in the moment isn't something I can master more than a few hours or a day at a time.

 It's a no-man's land, biding my time, waiting and hoping when really, I'd rather be acting on something concrete to get my teeth into for the next few years. While writing this post I've just found out my daughter has been mugged in Thailand and lost her wallet. Thank goodness for social networks to help communicate during times like this. They bring people who can help together. And it shows you can't plan for everything. I hope 2014 is better for everyone. It won't be, of course, but I hope it will be for YOU.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Paris Christmas Markets

I noticed them last year when JC and I went to Paris to see the first Hobbit movie at the Gaumont cinema. All the lights, the crowds, the merchandise. What was it all about? I was determined to find out this year.

JC and I braved the chill and the long car journey with the associated traffic hassles to get to Paris to look at the Christmas markets. They are temporary
structures, merchandising cabins really. To fortify ourselves we started with a hot drink in a nearby cafe in the ritzy fashion district.

There were wall-to-wall people and pickpockets. I left my wallet in the boot of JC's car and he put his wallet in a zipped compartment on the inside front of his jacket. Just as well. As he was collecting his hot roasted chestnuts he realised his pocket had been picked. Only a few coins but in Paris wherever there are crowds of tourists you have to take serious precaustions (as I unhappily discovered at the same time of the year in 2010).

Both sides of the Champs Elysee at the Place de la Concorde end are involved in this market where the wares include lavender, meats, cheese, dried fruit, toys, touristy souvenirs, ornaments, hats and gloves and handbags and scarves, ice-skating. There were stalls offering hot wine and hot soup. There were plenty of weird and pointless consumer goods for sale too. And food, food, food.

JC and I bought what turned out to be one of the most disgusting sandwiches we've ever eaten. It was made of two enormous round buns filled with cooked onion sand fatty ham bits. Beurk! The bread and ham were tasteless mushy, floury gunk and the onions weren't properly cooked. Just as well, said JC, that he and I like each other. We tossed our sammies in the rubbish bin. See, industrialised crap food can happen even in Paris. It was a shame.

One thing I did enjoy was the featured lighting in a couple of areas near the Grand Palais. It was set up so that members of the public could take photos of each other with a festive backdrop - a great idea. And of course La Grand Roue ferris wheel is always  pretty. It's now a permanent feature there, not just at Christmas.

The merchants didn't make a killing out fo us. JC bought his hot chestnuts and I bought a tiny bottle of Lavender oil for my diffuser. We simply went along for the experience, the atmosphere.

The photos show the merchandise on offer, a statue of Clemenceau, JC in front of the photo opportunity area, street lighting, entertainment. 

I had some problems with condensation inside my camera due to the low temperatures here now. In future I'll get some silica and store it with my camera.

Friday, 6 December 2013

What students think

Another of my  English classes consists of students studying human resources. As third years they are a little more competent in their English though the ability level is very wide. I try to find topics that will interest them and also be useful to them. We are together from 9-11am every Thursday this semester. We do a variety of activities including team debating, personal presentations, watching educational videos, grammar, themes linked to human resources, impromptu role-plays, reading and writing, listening and speaking. Themes have included the Christchurch Earthquake, the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior and the creation of nuclear-free NZ, CV's and job interviews, writing media releases, women in management (or lack of), HR in organisations, writing emails, the French in NZ and the establishment of Akaroa.

I like to have discussions but it's not easy getting them to offer ideas and participate in a foreign language (English). I haven't included any photos of them as they didn't want that so I'm  respecting their wishes. I'd like to thank them for their honest input into this blog and their encouraging feedback. So... here are the students' comments....

My first impression of our teacher was that she is very dynamic, more so than us students and we very quickly learnt that she loves France. It's a good thing that we have a dynamic teacher who teaches with energy and gives us  fun activities to teach us English. For example, to learn the parts of the body we played a game: someone had to go to the front of the class and say the name of a part of the body while the rest of the class had to show which part it was on thier own body. it was really fun and different. In class we talk about a lot of subjects such as nuclear-free New Zealand, human resources, equality between men and woment etc. Like that we learned a lot about New Zealand because it's not a 'famous country'. We also learnt things about CVs, job interviews and things relating to our speciality which are useful in finding jobs in Anglo-Saxon countries.

I am very pleased to have a New Zealand teacher because it really helps to know the culture of the country and the real pronunciation of the language. I always had French teachers, which is not bad, but it's different because those teachers, even if they travelled in Anglo-Saxon countries, are not part of that culture. Besides, some of them had a really bad accent. When I go to English class I expect to practice the language as if I were in the country: USA, Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia. I know that French is a beautiful language but honestly, I would have liked to be born Anglo-Saxon, so when I go to class I want to learn the customs, culture, anecdotes, the cities, the landscapes. I have to say that with Miss Harrison my wish was granted.

Miss Lawson has an accent which is difficult for us to understand. For the majority of us, this is the first time that we have met someone from this country, but I think it's interesting to hear different English accents- a new experience.

Our teacher never spoke to us in French so we had no choice but to speak English. The topics were very interesting, especially when we talked about nuclear testing in the Pacific. The debates were fun. Personally I'm shy so it was a good means for me to practice speaking and
see where my difficulties in English lie.

The classroom really sucks as it sounds like a goddamned church. People in the class are cool, even the teacher Miss Lawson who seems to really enjoy her class, her work and even France, which is pretty weird.

 I like the energy of Miss Lawson for teaching us on Thursday mornings. At this hour we are like zombies. I like the videos we watch in class (Mr Bean for example). But I don't like the acoustics in the room. In fact, often we don't understand the instructions because there is a lot of echo. We have to speak louder, very slowly and clearly to be understood.

Our class is very heterogeneous: some people have a good level of English but others are backward. It's a shame the university doesn't divide the students into 'level' groups. In this way, students could progress according to their own competencies and at their own rhythms.

After my third year I'll want to leave and do a Master in HR in a university. I really hope, in my future study, that there are English, law and history courses to continue developing my competence.

This place is good for those with long term goals who know how to work and think and its easy to get into and not expensive.

We did a lot of oral work which is good because it allows us to speak English in front of the class. I did a debate on racism. My favourite video was on job interviews because it teaches us how to deal with these interviews and how to do a CV and the differences between English and French CVs.

Miss Lawson is a good teacher because she has, on the one hand experience, and on the other hand she is a New Zealander so she speaks very well. This progresses us faster than a French teacher who speaks English. It's the first time that I have had the impression I'm making progress with my English.

The teaching is motivating and practical but the teacher needs to speak slower for me. In the next semester I think more work on CVs and cover letters would be a good thing. For the past 3 years I didn't take English as an option but now I'm going to take English as an option every semester.

I liked dictation and your accent when you speak English.
I think we need to do more listening comprehension
I'd like us to study a newscast from the USA or a TV series like Breaking Bad or Dexter, or Game of Thrones.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

French sports students learning English

I'd like to introduce you to one of my favourite classes - my STAPS students. They are all studying sport but English lessons are mandatory for them. Rather than write this blogpost completely by myself I thought it might be fun and useful for my students to have a say about what they think. They are all French students studying  their chosen sport and also the rules of other sports. In order for STAPS students to have the best opportunity to improve their English they are divided into three classes to keep class sizes down. I am responsible for one of these classes.

My students spend most of their week studying sport at two locations with activities at various stadiums. Although their level of oral English is not high they are a very personable and open-hearted bunch willing to display their personalities more than some of the more academically oriented classes I teach elsewhere. Roguish charm and a willingness to help their classmates characterises these students. You can see this in the photos and they were comfortable enough to agree to a class photo. This also sets them apart.

I like travelling by train and bus to work from my home in another region because the train is more direct and the city where I work is charming and super bourgeois. It's also the only campus where I get to have a short conversation meeting other other English teachers. The teaching campus contains the sciences faculty and sports fits within that. Those of you will think it ironic that someone who is not into sport (though into dance) should end up teaching sports students but it has been an interesting and rewarding experience.

The class runs for three hours on a Wednesday. For several weeks we practiced the words and movements of a traditional NZ haka. I wanted to give them a unique 'sporting' experience, get out from behind our desks and have some fun. It was an uphill struggle to get them to display the menace and intimidation required to do a more authentic haka. I kept asking for more testosterone  and we all laughed about that. Goodness know what other students who walked pass thought.

We practised in wind and rain outside because somehow it was always too loud for neighbouring classes. I would have like to have got them to performance standard but it wasn't important to them, more the experience. French culture doesn't have anything comparable. So there I was, Frances Lawson Haka coach in France, a unique experience for me. I also enjoyed introducing students to key NZ sportspersons and the concept of extreme sports of which NZ excels. There's a lot more I'd have like to do but there's so much evaluation/testing required it gets in the way of actually teaching. This is, after all, university level.

I'll leave you with the ideas and opinions of my sports students:
  • In  my opinion studying English is very important for all students, not only for sports majors.
  • During our class with Miss Lawson we watch videos about sport, we debate sports subjects and we do grammar. The class is very entertaining. I like when we work on the whiteboard.
  • I'm studying sport. We practice different sports like dance, swimming, football/soccer, judo, gymnastics, horse riding. During our studies we learn about the  movement of the body with biology, anatomy and biomechanics.
  • I decided to study sports because I would like to become a physical trainer for professional athletes one day. Therefore it's important to learn English because then we can train English, American or German athletes.
  • I like learning about other cultures including NZ culture
  • It's fun, not boring in our class
  • We study for nine months from September to May.
  • My class has a very good ambiance.
  • I like playing games in class where there is a little competition
  • I like doing the worksheets
  • I don't like speaking because I am shy
  • I don't like learning grammar
  • I don't like writing or reading in English
  • I like doing the haka because not many classes do it
  • Grammar is boring and difficult
  • I like the interaction between students and the teacher but I don't like the debates
  • I don't like evaluations/tests
  • I don't like having to go outside because the other teachers can be annoying - they don't want to be disturbed by our haka
  • In English with Miss Lawson we learn how to have a conversation in English and debate sports topics. There's also listening comprehension
  • I like doing the haka when the temperature is cold
  • I like doing the Poutini haka,it's fun. I think I like everything
  • The whole class is interested in playing games in class
  • I like talking about real life in English
  • My best memory is the haka; it's a very good experience for me

Sunday, 17 November 2013

What to do when evenings get chilly in France

European winters are so long. It's November and the big chill has begun. I'm finding it intolerable to work in JC's garden or even in his garage because I get chilled to the bone. Ex-pat forums have turned towards discussing the misery of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) as we face ice, snow, rain, minus degrees and especially gloomy grey skies until April 2014. I'm surprised the Brits are commenting on this. Aren't they used to that back in Old Blighty?

There's that pervading question now, "What can I do to amuse myself or be productive indoors?" Options are limited for me. I don't have a social network or any regular friends except JC so I'm reaching out to encourage French folks and any expats living near me to meet up and see if friendships develop. It's early days. I tried this some time ago, several times but nothing went anywhere. Last week I met Jocelyne who lives in a little stone village and teaches ballroom dancing. maybe I'll meet Jacquelyne, who is American, next week.

To amuse myself and do something that moves me forward I've been researching and organising what to do during Laura's visit next year. It will be three years since I've seen my daughter and each of us will have changed a bit. Recently I got to thinking about a sub-dream I had years ago, back when Laura was around 14 years old. I thought I'd have had my house paid off in Auckland, that I'd have steady employment and that I could have saved up so the two of us could have a little tour of France and Italy after Laura finished High School. Circumstances put paid to all  that but the idea bided its time and popped out recently and I've realised that, crikey, I'm going to make it happen.

OK, so the red Ferarri won't be there. It will be substituted by trains and buses but Laura and I will at last be swanning around the French and Italian Riviera together. I've found myself spending hundreds of hours late each night learning about distances, cheap accommodation options, transport costs, day trips, activities in places I've never been and those I touched on back in 2010 (see blog posts for June of that year).

This time with a bit more French language competence and general confidence I'm focussing on us having more contact with locals and getting out into the countryside, not just visiting the ritzy spots like Cannes and St Tropez (which may not even be on my list). There are other cool things to do. Borrowing against my tenanted house in Auckland is making a week in the South of France possible for us and helps me pay my rent for a year. Very sensible of me to keep my old home as a source of funds for emergencies.

JC and I attended an evening concert in the old Orangerie at the Chateau de Maintenon (Eure et Loir) which is near where each of us lives. It was a piano duet recital by two young ladies who have teamed up to spread their love of this type of music. An old lady sitting next to me kept wanting to have a conversation with me. I think she was lonely, so I did my best to speak to her and when I couldn't think of anything to say or I couldn't understand her I made the usual French 'noises' and interjections which indicated I'm in complete agreement and am actually very wise. Works every time as the French make a lot of 'noises' in between words and love onomatopeia.

I enjoyed the concert by Aurelie Samani (France) and Gabriela Ungureau (Hungary). They played pieces by Dvorak, Enescu, Schubert, Debussy and Pitts. Not my favourite pieces abut exceptionally well played nonetheless.

It's the end of harvest time. JC has baskets of walnuts. Quinces and apples have fallen from his trees and are being transformed into varieties of jam. I had never had apple jam (not jelly) before. He's been experimenting and sometimes I help with the peeling and stirring. naturally I want to profit from the odd jar or two.

The golden apples off JC's trees are organic and so not pretty to look at but good for jam. The quinces were rather small so they were supplemented by bought ones which are much bigger and come from Spain.  he has made apple and cinnamon jam laced with Calvados, Quince and apple laced with polish vodka, apple jam with three sorts of raisins laced with Calvados - and he's just getting started but I must admit the peeling is the worst part. However, I have a couple of jars in my fridge now for my contribution.
OOOh those quinces- they are fabulous in jam. Reminds me of
 the jams my Gran used to make. That's one of the things I enjoy about France - I can rediscover things I enjoyed about NZ 50 years ago (foods, wildflowers and British weeds etc). They've all but disappeared in NZ but they continue in France.

And then there are the things I only saw in cartoons when I was small but which really exist here. I looked outside JC's bedroom window this morning and saw a Woody Woodpecker foraging in the lawn. They're bigger than you think, almost as big as a pigeon or a large starling, with a red splosh down the head and neck. Very cool. There was no Wile E Coyote today.

Monday, 11 November 2013

When Bretons get armed and angry

When something doesn't suit the French they shrug their shoulders and say  C'est comme ca, c'est la vie. That's just the way it is.  They'd rather put up with  things that don't work for them than do something about it, they usually don't fight the system. But lately there has been a sea-change, at least in North-western France.

Up to 30,000 protestors in revolutionary red caps promised to turn Brittany into President Fran├žois Hollande’s “cemetery” last weekend. Riot police were pelted with stones and flower pots as a consequence of  anger over tax hikes and the depressing economy. The Breton town of Quimper has become a focal point fanger at the truly unpopular “ecotax” on heavy goods vehicles. Last week a protester had his hand blown off by a teargas grenade during clashes with police. 
The government  hoped to stop the revolt by “suspending” until January the tax, aimed at encouraging environmentally friendly commercial transport by introducing new levies on vehicles transporting goods weighing over 3.5 tonnes. But  tens of thousands of demonstrators returned  to vent a wider anger at Mr Hollande’s failure to halt many closures and layoffs in Brittany, and his dismal handling of the economy. The problems are compounded because Holland and his government come up with ill-conceived ideas, try to implement them, receive serious flack and then backtrack. It's an unstable situation.
Mr Hollande is France’s most unpopular president ever, and one survey found that 91 per cent of French people want him to change policies or his government before local elections next March.

There is even deep discontent  among his core Socialist supporters, with 85 percent of those on the Left demanding change.

Bretons are the most likely to get 'stirred'. Maybe it's their Celtic origins. They've chosen as their symbol to wear “bonnets rouges” — red caps symbolic of a 17th century uprising against a stamp tax in Brittany imposed by Louis XIV for his war fund. They also became an official emblem of the 1789 Revolution.

This time it's not just a few angry farmers and transport companies and they are not letting the matter drop. The demonstrations brought together a disparate crowd of local bosses, farmers, fishermen, poultry workers facing redundancy, right and left wing extremists, Breton autonomists and thousands of ordinary French disappointed with the Socialist government. Stones and iron bars were hurled at police and even pots of chrysanthemums, which the French traditionally place on graves of their loved ones on November 1 (Toussaint). Protesters said it symbolised “the death of French jobs”. Police responded with water cannon and tear gas.

 It's possible the malaise could spread further as the unemployment rate is now 11% and not likely to improve for at least a year. France's rating with Standards and Poor slipped again this month due to inadequate government economic reforms. Much of the protesters’ fury is against the 30 billion euros (£25.4 billion) in tax hikes imposed this year, as France seeks to meet its European budget deficit commitments.
 France must abide by her European Treaty obligations, which means reducing the deficit. Since the spending ministries do not really want to make hard cuts, the only way is through more taxes. French people pay a lot of taxes and so do their employers.
The Breton militancy won't fix things but it HAS been effective at getting the government's attention. The toll gantries erected on toll roads designed to collect the ecotax have had to be taken down, speed radars have been destroyed, burnt out. Hooligans love to join in and I'm opposed to wanton destruction  but somehow France has to wake up and find a solution that is fair and improves the economic situation here.
Photos taken from the internet.

Protests over the new “ecotax” on trucks, which aims to encourage environmentally friendly commercial transport, kicked off in earnest last month in the northwestern region of Brittany and eventually forced the government to backtrack and suspend the levy.
Wearing red bonnets, the symbol of a 17th-century anti-tax campaign in Brittany, the protesters — small business owners, fishermen and food industry workers — marched in big, sometimes violent, rallies in the region, which has already been crushed by job cuts and would be hard hit by the new tax.
Some destroyed radars set up in advance along roads to screen passing vehicles and determine whether they need to pay the tax, which would apply to French and foreign vehicles carrying goods weighing over 3.5 tonnes.
Under pressure to rein in its state deficit, France’s Socialist government has announced about 3 billion euros ($4.1 billion) in tax increases for next year, and protests in Brittany come on top of wider opposition to tax hikes.
The ecotax was actually adopted by the previous right-wing UMP government in 2009 but its implementation had repeatedly been put off.
And while the Socialist government suspended the levy last week over the unrest, protesters asking for the tax to be completely abandoned have continued to destroy radars, mostly in Brittany but in other parts of the country too.
On Tuesday, the transport ministry said 11 such radars had been vandalised since the beginning of the protest movement, as had four big overhead road structures equipped with cameras and radio receptors.
This equipment would identify trucks liable for the tax thanks to a GPS box installed inside the vehicles.
Controversy has also started to swirl around Ecomouv’, the firm contracted by the previous government to collect the tax, amid “questions” over how the company was awarded the contract.
Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici on Tuesday said the contract signed with the firm — which is majority owned by Italian company Autostrade per l’Italia — would have to be renegotiated.
“We can question the fact that the collection of a national tax was handed over to a supplier with foreign origins,” he said.
And while protests have so far been concentrated in Brittany, there is concern that the unrest may spread to other parts of France.
Last week, market gardeners staged a rally in a region near Brittany to demand an end to the levy, and several ecotax radars have been destroyed in other parts of France. – AFP
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Tuesday, 22 October 2013

French women don't wear (much) makeup

It's a trifle difficult to reconcile what I see everyday with what one might expect from such a large cosmetics industry in France. France is synonymous with beauty products, fashion, haute this and that, and all those makeup companies but I ask myself, where's the evidence French women are buying the stuff? I'm not seeing it. In more than three years of working with French women, travelling on public transport trains, metro and buses I'm hard pressed to see more than one or two females per day wearing makeup, and I'm not out in the back-blocks.

That's right, they don't. Certainly not the ones my age. I usually do, always when I work. I don't wear much now because it all just runs into the wrinkles and disappears or smudges giving me panda eyes but I do at least make some minimal effort with mascara, pencil and blusher. Occasionally I might use some eyeshadow, even foundation. This is more than the rest are doing.

I don't understand it, where are all the chic, ritsy, bombshell Parisiennes? Where are the normal females who must like fashion, beauty products the whole shebang? How is it France's cosmetic industry isn't going down the toilet? It's extremely rare for me to see a colleague wearing makeup, they usually don't bother at all though much younger women might make some effort. Maybe it's the fact I work for a university? Mais non, it's like that on the buses and trains too. If I see a subtle line of pencil it'll be on a young female. Do women over 40 feel it's not worth the effort and expense to use makeup these days? Goodness knows how the lipstick manufacturers are surviving because if there's one item of makeup that seems to have all but disappeared it's lipstick. I must admit I don't wear it much because Jean-Claude doesn't like it. Is it a general turn-off for men? Distasteful to, well, taste?

One thing you CAN rely on with French women is that they will wear a scarf today, 365 days a year, no matter the temperatures. It's an obligatory item of apparel here. So I've plunged in, integrated myself and have followed suit, not that many but more than I actually need to keep warm.

And perfume. For heavens sake Paris/Grasse and New York are the perfume capitals of the world but you wouldn't know it except for all the Sephora stores everywhere which specialise in perfume. Beautiful stores but how much are they selling? JC explained to me long ago that a true woman must always seduce everyone she meets, male or female. This doesn't mean you have to have sex with them, just leave a positive, classy and alluring impression on them at all times and the way you smell is an important part of that. JC bought me perfume early in our relationship; some I liked and some I didn't. The bottles are still half full but sometimes I remember to leave my apartment presented 'seductively' and that means makeup and perfume. I always dab some on when I visit him.

But here's where the theory and the practice don't sync. My olfactory sense isn't picking up on any perfume on the public transport or at work. WHO'S BUYING THE STUFF? Tourists? France is full of nice clothes, even budget ones are interesting but most women I see aren't wearing them. Am I living in some sort of Matrix where nothing's as it seems or is there a weird black hole that sucks up all the women who actually buy cosmetics but who are never seen again? I await enlightenment from one of these mystery women...

Friday, 11 October 2013

An English teacher in France

I'm starting to settle into my new job. For me it was an abrupt start to a new career teaching English at a French school so I've spent hundreds of hours and some money buying books, preparing lessons as I've started with absolutely nothing. However, I'm pleased to be doing this job.

 As a maitre de langue I teach fewer hours and am paid slightly more than a teaching assistant but it's still not enough for me to live on even modestly so remortgaging my former home in Auckland was the only way I could raise some living expenses. I'm not the typical candidate - a young student with a masters degree probably studying for a PhD and being paid for that, so I'm lucky to get this position which is the only way I could have stayed in France longer.

The position is for one year and it's possible to renew it for a second year but not beyond. My teaching duties are spread across two campuses. No, there's no glamour in this job. In fact I'm surprised by the teaching conditions and it's not a good look for France. I ask myself if I'm in an alternate reality living somewhere in the old Soviet bloc.

I have no office, no computer supplied, nothing. There is nowhere for me to leave anything at one of the campuses, even for a moment, so I lug my heavy personal laptop and videoprojector, documents etc with me everywhere, even to find some lunch. I was stunned when I saw my first classroom. There were a couple of tiny stubs of chalk and a blackboard, that's all. A blackboard? In a uni? Fifty percent of my classrooms are like that, no whiteboard. There is no internet there either. The school does not supply internet to the classrooms or public areas so I can't teach or work on my laptop. My carefully planned lessons were useless because I had integrated videos and interactive language sites into my activities. After all, two hours of sitting on one's bum isn't very stimulating for students if there's no variety. Oops, scrap that idea. The Versailles campus is better for technology use, and aesthetics.

So I taught myself how to download YouTube videos onto my laptop which is virtually full and overheats. This helps and the students enjoy it but most sites don't permit me to use this method of downloading so language learning sites still can't be used and not all my classrooms can block the light sufficiently to see anything. I'm looking forward to the long dark winters now for this reason.

There's nowhere for teachers like me to meet other teachers and there aren't regular meetings. It's a lonely experience. It tends to be the non-French resident teachers like me who are struggling with the situation. Two American teachers still haven't arrived to start the year because the school's admin left their visa applications sitting on a desk all summer long, un-actioned. So, no teachers for the students, the school still has to pay the teachers in the US as they are under contract and then has to pay the substitute teachers like me to fill in with extra hours.

I spend a lot of time catching trains everyday and am hoping I will receive a Navigo pass soon to keep travel costs down a little otherwise I'm up for 20 euros per day- prohibitive.

How do teachers teach without any paper materials at all and no text books? That's what I'm discovering. Huh? Well, for most of September the one photocopying machine for all the teachers was broken down. They had all summer to sort it out but since public servants don't  work in summer for two months clearly nothing was prepared for the new semester. We couldn't photocopy anything for our students. For one week only have I been able to get anything copied. I've been waiting a week to have some stuff done. The guy who does it said the stuff still isn't ready. Why not? There's no paper, see, nothing on the shelves. Why is there still no paper after a week? He mumbled something about no money to pay for it? The unis in France are under severe budget constraints. What am I to do with a total of 160 students  in my week across different levels and subjects? I use my own printer and ink to make the original copies but I can't make copies for all the students to subsidise the uni.

I'm keen to give the students my best but it's physically impossible and emotionally stressful under these conditions. I can't imagine it's near this deplorable state in New Zealand.

My students are very multi-cultural, many from Senegal, Congo,  Mauritius, Morocco, muslim and non-muslim. many will leave with no qualifications, other than a baccalauriat. There are almost no mature students as France does little to assist anyone needing to retrain into another career through higher education. You are locked in permanently and just get the one shot.

Wikipedia states that since higher education is funded by the state, the fees for students who go on to university are very low; the tuition varies from €150 to €700 depending on the university and the different levels of education. (licence, master, doctorate). One can therefore get a Master's degree (in 5 years) for about €750-3,500.

Additionally, students from low-income families can apply for scholarships, paying nominal sums for tuition or textbooks, and can receive a monthly stipend of up to €450 per month.

The tuition in public engineering schools is comparable to universities, albeit a little higher (around €700). However it can reach €7000 a year for private engineering schools, and some business schools, which are all private or partially private, charge up to €15000 a year. Health insurance for students is free until the age of 20, so only the costs of living and books have to be added. After the age of 20 the health insurance for students costs €200 a year and covers most of the medical expenses

With uni being so cheap this brings huge problems. A high percentage of the students shouldn't be there. They have no academic aptitude or interest but what else are they going to do? Many of them are forced to take English classes so they don't really want to be in them and after 8-10 years of learning English the level is pretty bad in many cases, having been taught by teachers who can't speak English themselves but who have passed some exam which is all written. in French.

My students come from subjects such as law (the most competent with English), economic sciences, sociology and transversal studies such as human resources, and then there are the sports students, an initially unruly bunch who are shaping up now to be fun to be with  even if they don't understand much of what I say. One told me I was a great teacher, none of them wanted to move to another class to make up the numbers there but some were obliged to.

This is an opportunity for me to promote information on NZ of which they truly are ignorant. The best they can remember is the All Blacks, maybe some scenery but this knowledge is by no means universal. They are being introduced to the country via the Christchurch Earthquake, sports (especially extreme sports), NZ's film industry, famous NZers in diverse fields, international relations case studies (guess which one) showcasing NZ's anti-nuclear stance, the Treaty of Waitangi, NZ's Akaroa settlement and I'll come up with more. It's an eye-opener for them. Some of my sports students want to learn a haka. I said we'll do that just before final exams (my 1970s teacher training on kapa haka still sticks). As a kiwi I'm a very rare bird in a French university.

Weekends and evenings are consumed with  trying to find ways to provide lessons in these unsatisfactory teaching conditions. It's not a balanced life but I need to do it to be as effective as I can and to minimise the stress of being in front of classes with no other support than my wits and English ability. There are many teachers and admin staff who are very nice. I enjoy the creative side of putting lessons and materials together (under better circumstances) and delivering to students who want to be there so I'll continue to try to help, even the one's who are not making an effort. I remember back to when I was teaching in NZ decades ago and that I did make a positive difference in a few lives. I want to do that here, in France, as long as I can. I'm grateful to the school for giving me that opportunity.