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.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Da Vinci's last home

The Chateau Clos Luce was built in 1471 on 12th century foundations. The main building has an octagonal tower with elegant buildings in pink brick and tufa stone. It's handily located 400m from the Royal Chateau Amboise. Le Clos Luce was bought by Charles VIII (the one who died from hitting his head) in 1490 and for two hundred years it was a royal residence and summer residence for te Kings of France. despite all the famous personnages who lived in or visited Le Clos Luce it is Leonardo da Vinci who is most famously linked to it.

King Francois 1st greatly admired Leonardo and appointed him First Painter, Architect and Engineer of the King. The residence was given to him to use as well as a handsome allowance of 700 gold ecrus a year. His works were financed and all he had to do in return was to talk to the King. This became a daily occurrence. Leonardo lived happily here for the final three years of his life. He is thought to have contributed to the design of the spiral staircase at Chambord. He certainly designed wondrous celebrations for the king's events.

Leonardo was 64 when he left Italy, having competed artistically with Michelangelo and Raphael, created war machines for Cesare Borgia, the duke of Milan and other italian nobles who were constantly warring amongst themselves or against Charles VIII of France

He travelled by mule over the Alps with some disciples and he brought with him three of his favourite masterpeices in his leather saddlebags. They were Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, Saint John the Baptist, and La Joconde (the Mona Lisa) which had been commissioned by the late Giuliano de Medici, the original of which now hangs in The Louvre. Da Vinci died at home on 2nd May 1519.

The first part of his home you come to is a climb up the watchtower, the last surviving piece of medieval architeacture here, the rest is renaissance. You walk along a loggia and arrive at Leonardo's bedroom.

He loved the view of the royal castle of his friend Francois I. His drawing of this view is in the Windsor collection. The bedroom contains  a fireplace with the royal arms, a tapestry, a mother of pearl cross said to have belonged to Mary Stuart, the carved canopied bed  with red drapes and other furniture.

There's another bedroom that belonged to Francois I's elder sister Marguerite de Navarre, containing tapestries, furniture, a four-poster bed and portraits. The terracotta floor tiles are stamped with the monogram of Marguerite of Angouleme.

In the 18th century Le Vlos Luce belonged to the Amboise family. It was skillfully saved during the revolution. The 18thC salons are rooms that were used as a studio by Leonardo because they are bathed in light.

The small salon is tastefully decorated but it's important to be aware that not all the furnishings and furniture are of Leonardo's era. Most of the contents are from the century following his death. The tapestries are like most, faded and missing most colours except green but they must have been wonderful originally. Flat-backed Louis XV chairs are upholstered with fables from la Fontaine and rosewood chests of drawers can be found.

Naturally the engineering genius of da Vinci is on display.Several rooms and much of the park are devoted to displaying his models and designs which, in many cases, would become commonplace objects in the 20th century; parachutes, powered flight, paddle boats, helicopters cars, swinging bridges. The basement is devoted to his inventions which were 500 years ahead of their time.  So inside and out there's plenty of his inventions to discover.

I gave a cursory exploration of the park that contains many models of Leonardo's inventions but JC's knees were playing up and the afternoon was wearing on so I stuck to the environs near the chateau. It's a lovely spot, quite atmospheric with lots of trees.

There's a vegie garden. Da Vinci's cook was a vegetarian cook so having a garden would have been quite important.There are plenty of facilities to make your visit comfortable with toilets and cafe eating, a souvenir shop of course. Parking is nearby but requires a short walk.