Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Here's to 2015

So that was 2014. It's had its ups and downs so thank goodness every year is a bit different. This year has been slightly more stable than previous ones because I had my contract renewed for its final year and there were no relationship wobbles. The only thing you can be sure of is the past. I keep telling myself that I'll just have to keep trying to deal with the massive uncertainty heading my way in 2015 but it's not so easy.

Will I get a job? Will I lose my apartment? Will I be tossed out of France with nothing? Or... will I get another short term contract (long-term ones are pipe dreams in France). Will I secure all the documentation to finally apply for French naturalisation? Yes, by the end of September I'll have lived and worked in this amazing and frustrating country for five years.

A few months ago I passed the language assessment test required to prove I have enough French competence to survive here so that's step one ticked off. In a few months time I'll need to spend a fortune on obtaining official documents from NZ, paying high prices to have them translated into French by official translators and negotiate the vagaries of the French immigration civil servants. Being optimistic but, hopefully, realistic I'll get my dossier together correctly to the State's satisfaction and then I'll have to wait up to two years to find out if I'm acceptable or not, all the while remaining employed at a certain level of income to satisfy the authorities, and trying not to worry about 'what if's. OK, I can do that. So 2015 could be a key year in my destiny, assuming everything else stays stable. I was reminded recently that even folks with comfortable and stable lives can have everything overturned.

Jean-Claude was diagnosed with prostate cancer. We think it has been caught fairly early (still waiting for the post op results) and he was saying he wasn't worried, he just wanted it out and to get back to his life. Naturally he was concerned though he tried not to show it. Then he seemed to think it was a good cancer to have because it's so treatable. His confidence and optimism were about to take a bruising.

The endoscopic operation knocked him about for several days and he decided not to go home as early as he was permitted. He didn't like all the tubes coming out of him and he was very uncomfortable, with so many restrictions. It's coming up to a month since the operation and he's frustrated at how he can't go back to the life he had. Despite the surgeon's best efforts there are depressing consequences to prostate surgery: urinary incontinence and impotence. Wearing ladies sanitary pads in your jocks is not a morale booster for a guy even if it's only there to catch a few wayward drops throughout the day and night. He's gaining more and more control as the weeks go by but what he really wants is to not have to wear pads.The jury's out on that.

We try to laugh about his new 'follies bergere' look. Operations of this nature now require patients to wear special black stockings to minimise the risk of developing blood clots. Trouble is, they irritate the skin and cause painful welts, don't stay up and make him look like a cross-dresser. He hates them and can quite understand why women prefer not to wear stockings these days. Happily he can consign them to the rubbish bin in a few days. His mornings have to be structured around the visit by the health nurse who comes to inject him in the waist with blood-thinning products or take blood samples. So, it's turned out to be a more complicated process than going into the clinic, having the prostate removed and then carrying on as normal. Normal is obliged to redefine itself.

 Tonight we'll get together over a glass of champagne and celebrate another year; 2014 - a year of visitors from NZ, a trip to Corsica, starting a gardening project together, my modest successes with my university students. I'll be celebrating that I'm still hanging in here with my job, he with his health.

2015 will see each of us changing decade milestones. I'll be 60 in the first part of the year and he'll be 70 in the latter.  Hey, no pressure, but 2015 could be a make or break year. Exciting! I don't need to make new year resolutions, simply to be resolute. How about you?

Photo comments: JC ready to attack his birthday pavlova (note his beautiful 19th Century candelabra); in hospital and able to eat real food at last - but he hates green beans.

Other photo sources:

Friday, 19 December 2014

Tertiary 'cultural' surprises

I think I'm approaching burnout from all the evaluations I've had to do for close to 250 students. There's scarcely a week when I'm not evaluating a class. It leaves precious little time for actually teaching. While it may be necessary and a good challenge for the students to work on oral assignments (indeed I agree with this requirement), the classes are mostly too large for language learning. It gets a bit tedious for the students and me to sit through oral presentations and debates for 6 weeks of a 12 week course. It would be alright if classes were smaller but with 25-37 students in the classes it's not ideal.

Now we're in exam week. Each class has a two hour exam. This is a lot softer than the usual three hours in NZ. I was also rather surprised to find the French system doesn't actually require students to attend class in order to have a final mark. A student contacted me this week (week 12) to announce his existence and to tell me he needed an evaluation in order to complete his course. Thing is, he never attended a single lesson and was never on the attendance list. He had decided to make his other classes or his extramural work a priority and so wasn't available to attend any of my lessons. He wasn't available to attend the final class either yet I'm expected to give him a mark. Too bad about the injustice of this situation compared to the students who do turn up to class and do their assignments as requested by the administration. He spoke in English to me for 10 minutes and this had to be enough to pass a course. The administration tell me that's how things work in France.

When I was studying for my degree in Auckland we had to attend virtually every lesson and pass each assignment plus the final exam in order to pass. Clearly, France has different standards. I think this is very evident where foreign languages are involved. I don't see how one can develop competence in a foreign language if one doesn't actually study it in class. Some of my students (I'm not always aware of their existence) are in what is called contrôle terminal. That means they are excused from attending classes and doing assignments. They just need to turn up for the final written exam and pass that. Pedagogically, I don't understand how that's supposed to give you language competence. So what do their degrees really mean?

I come from a different culture and I have different values so I found myself suffering some more culture shock this week, just when I thought I was now vaccinated against it. I never cease to be amazed at how different social, political, educational and moral systems can be. France is not the land of égalité when it comes to tertiary education. The Grandes Ecoles get the cream of French students and the universities get the 'left-overs' and my students complain to me about feeling like second-class citizens.  has this to say... 
"More than half of the students with a Baccalauréat général continue their curriculum at university. University corresponds to European standards and offers the degrees License, Master, Doctorat which correspond to Bachelor, Master and PhD. French universities are open to all bacheliers, that is students who have passed their baccalauréat. However, while some types of degree course are open to all, scientific and medical courses are usually only open to students who have passed a scientific baccalauréat. In most of the countries in the world, the institutions providing the finest centres of excellence, are universities. Not so in France where the education pinnacle is represented by Grandes Écoles, small and highly selective schools which provide a cosseted higher education to the future elites. "

It's a pity, as the more capable and motivated students in a population can lift the efforts and aspirations of others in class. The consequences of this elitist system are evident in the lack of maintenance and cleanliness and facilities at French universities. Most days it's very difficult to find a toilet that has any toilet paper in it, black-out curtains that move, or even internet in a classroom.

I don't ever remember anything approaching this state of education in NZ when I was studying for my degree. Do you know of students passing without attending class or sitting exams - does this system exist in Aotearoa; or universities unable to provide basic toilet cleaning in New Zealand?

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Saturday, 13 December 2014

French family life-the statistics

Just what constitutes a French family these days and how does it differ to New Zealand families?  Information is taken from my own observations, as well as from Le Point 9 October 2014 and national statistics provided by INSEE;  Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques, French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Research. It collects and publishes information on the French economy and society, carrying out the periodic national census. Located in Paris, it is the French branch of Eurostat, European Statistical System. INSEE was created in 1946. Le Point is a right-wing weekly political magazine.

France is a conservative country. It's only recent that Gay Marriage was legally permitted. This action saw large protest marches throughout France and they still crop up from time to time.
More than 7 out of 10 children are living with both their parents. The traditional nuclear family remains the norm. The French social security system tends to encourage baby-making and child-rearing. In 1999 17% of families consisted of one parent. This has increased to 21% in 2010. One in 10 Children live in a reconstituted family.

Forty-Five percent of families have one child, 38% have 2 children, and 17% have 3 or more children. I suspect this is higher than in New Zealand. What is especially of note is that 75% of children live with both parents.

The figures for people living alone continue to explode (as they do in NZ). Fifteen percent of adults live alone. That's more than double the  the 6% in 1966. Some of this is explained by the aging population.On average a man will spend 10 years of his life alone while for women this is 15 years.

Women with degrees are less likely to become grandmothers. This is explained by the fact that in France, the more children you have the less likely they will succeed in higher education. The less children you have the more likely they will have degrees and less children. The more education you have the more likely you will live in a same sex household. The more educated you are the more likely you will live alone even if you are in a couple relationship (rather like me and Jean-Claude).

One in five people aged 75 or more will never become a grandparent. Those who do have on average 5.2 grandchildren. There are 15.1 million grandparents in France today; 9.9m are women who become a grandmother at an average age of 54 years, while 6.2m are men becoming grandfathers at an average age of 56. The highest concentrations of grandparents can be found in Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Lorraine regions. Grandparents are least evident in Ile de France.

Of course, despite the generous encouragement, by the government to make babies in France, the economic situation makes unemployment a real possibility and this may affect things in future. 
Eleven percent of French are unemployed and the country is in a financial mess. Check out the latest figures from INSEE on gross domestic product and the business climate

A few of my female students were brave enough to say they won't be having children, even though family life is traditionally very important in France. Yes, it still is but some of the old traditions are fading. Women are working more now and so those long lunch breaks are less spent in eating several courses at home, than eating in a cafe or in the staff cafetaria. Jean-Claude may be French but he buys a lot of pre-prepared meals and the growth of facings of such products is evident in any supermarket. We don't have time to spend two hours cooking after work, even if most French don't sit down to dine until 8pm.

  And what about NZ's situation? Statistics New Zealand's latest family and household projections show that couples without children at home overtook couples with children at home in 2008 for the first time since at least World War II. Traditional families of Mum, Dad and the kids are projected to shrink further from 31 per cent of all adults aged 18 and over in 2006 to just 23 per cent by 2031.

For info on NZ families today go to:

Image source:

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Kiwi weapons of mass destruction

What do you  get for the’ man who has everything’ for his birthday? It’s the perennial wail from many a woman and totally applicable to me.
Last month Jean-Claude celebrated the end of his 60s. He’d also be having an operation to save himself from his prostate cancer so I thought it would be appropriate to acknowledge his milestone and raise his morale while he’d be recuperating. But what to get ? He has everything he needs and isn’t interested in collecting things. He had no ideas to offer.
He’s never been to NZ but I couldn’t afford a trip. Why not give him a taste of NZ all the same ?
I imported foodstuffs originally from NZ. They travel by boat to the United Kingdom and from there you use a website to order them into France. The items are getting a bit pricey and closer to their use-by dates by the time you get them but it's not as if you'd do it every week.
I went to a lot of trouble to wrap his pressie in the spirit of things. I cut up an old calendar of NZ and stuck the pictures around the sides of the boxes, but he scarcely noticed in his fixation to open them.

 Note: I ordered from

Here's what he found inside- carefully chosen to represent NZ tastes and culture:
12 bottles of Mac's Gold beer
Griffins Chocolate Chippies
Griffins Chocolate Macaroons
Griffins Afghan Biscuits
Cadbury Jaffas
Bluebird chips
Pascall Pineapple Lumps
Whittaker's Peanut Slab
Cadbury Coconut Rought _ King size
Maggie Onion Soup (for making dips for Christmas)
Trident noodles
Hubbards Breakfast Cereal
Whitlock's Mint Sauce
Whitlock's Tomato Chutney Sauce
Bell teabags
L&P Lemon & Paeroa
Watties Creamed Corn
The whole lot (almost) lasted him 2 weeks. Being a self-confessed 'gourmand' if it's there he eats it. I explained that some of it should be reserved for after his operation, to lift moral. He agreed, but that didn't happen. So, what was the verdict? His reactions were interesting.

His favourite item was undoubtedly the pineapple lumps, declared awesome. I was surprised when he handed me the packet a week later and he had thoughtfully left ONE in the bottom reserved for me. What a symbolic sacrifice. My god that lump was good.
He decided to try the Vegemite. I explained that product is actually Australian and that there is a kiwi equivalent but that my preference had been Vegemite. I explained you put it on sandwiches and toast and in soups. He reached for a spoon to dip into the pot. Just a small spoon I advised, it's not like jam you know.
Tentatively he tasted it and then put the lot in his mouth. It looked like a nuclear bomb had exploded inside him but he was desperately trying to be 'cool'. As I looked away he disappeared into the laundry. I popped my head around the door and saw him retching and desperately trying to wash his mouth out with water. He declared it absolutely inedible - this from the Frenchman who states he can eat anything. He was incredulous when I told him we kiwis love the stuff, such products are a national treasure. We tested it on Baika his dog. She licked for a few seconds and all seemed well but then she too thought better of it and refused to try any more - this from the French dog that eats everything.

The beer was declared quite good, the biscuits - in particular the afghans - were demolished in short order, the chocolate coconut rough was very much enjoyed and he shared a 'taste of home' with me on one occasion. The peanut slab wasn't his thing. The cereal was mostly eaten but it lacked chocolate (hey, he's French and must have some chocolate in his breakfast cereal).
He was cooking lamb leg chops for lunch so I suggested we crack open the bottle of mint sauce. He has the typical French attitude to English-style sauces - they are to be despised. With a bit of nudging he plopped a bit on his plate and watched how I ate mine. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him reach for more, seconds and thirds. It was hard not to smirk but I managed to keep it in. In the end he said it wasn't for him but he'd keep the rest of the bottle in the fridge for the next time I wanted to eat some lamb with mint sauce.He declared it bizarre how the English like sugar in their sauces with meat dishes. Certainly this dietary practice is looked down on in France, land of patisseries.

There's little left from this exploration of NZ but it's a certain thing that if NZ airdropped pots of Marmite or Vegemite over the islamic extremists, the coalition troops would then have an easy time of it, mopping up these radicals bent double by a kiwi delicacy. Prisoners could then be doused in mint sauce et voila! Sheer torture.