Monday, December 21, 2009

Back on Home Soil!

Monday, December 21, 2009 0
I'm currently camped out in Newark airport, waiting for my flight which leaves in 3 hours. The influences of France are still evident - I'm dressed in all black, munching on the last of my chocolate cookies from Carrefour (French supermarket), and I still blurt out "Pardon!" every time I accidentally get in someone's way, which is a frequent occurrence in an airport during the holidays

Since this morning when I was waiting in the check-in line at Charles de Gaulle, it's been too weird trying to re-adjust to American accents, tennis shoes, and conversations I can understand even when trying to ignore them. The sudden holiday rush of American-ness is simultaneously too familiar and strange after a 5-month hiatus. But also coming back is my sense of complete comfort and security with where I am. Like riding a bike, the nuances of our culture - which I now respect much more - are flooding in unconsciously.

Nonetheless I'm thankful that I get to acclimate over the holidays.

My exams seem ages ago now, yet I only finished on Wednesday. Thursday through Saturday Jonathan was here - it was the perfect ending to my European journey, though it was much harder to say farewell to him than to Nantes itself. The euphoria was soon over as Heidi and I caught the TGV to Paris Saturday night. We spent yesterday exploring the Christmas displays at the Galleries Lafayette and the Carnivalet museum, which chronicles the history of Paris.

As I'll be home in about 4 hours, I'll save the details to tell you all in person. Until then, I'm of to start reflecting on my journey over an overpriced airport sandwich.

Thanks for sharing this experience with me!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Engima of 16

Thursday, December 10, 2009 0
Yesterday morning I had my first exam, which I was sure would be my hardest: an oral explanation of a term from my Intro to Linguistics class at the university.

I was convinced it would be impossible to do well. There was way to much information to study. I had no idea what sort of knowledge level the professor was expecting, or how long she was expecting me to speak. And there was no way I'd be able to memorize 20+ definitions verbatim in French in the few days leading up to the exam.

Yet I received a 17/20... an A in the French system is a 16. In other words, an "impossible" grade. And all I had to do was repeat the important points of a certain theory we had gone over in class, along with some supplemental information. It barely took 5 minutes.

My host mom has gotten into the habit of teasing me each time I come home with an exceptional grade, simply because the first time it happened I was incredibly surprised. But I wasn't just being modest - it was a history mid-term, composed of several short-answer questions. And I knew I had forgotten several important details. Yet I received a 16.

As you all know, it's not that good grades are anything serendipitous for me. But with only a mid-term, perhaps a paper, and a final to evaluate my progress for the semester, it's been hard to determine if my work level measures up to the French education system, even at IES. There's no cushion to cultivate the learning curve.

With our system of more frequent, progressive evaluation, professors can really foster their students' learning, until the students themselves want to learn more about the topic than what's covered in class and form their own opinions on the subject.

I have noticed that I'm not as excited about my grades here. Perhaps because a 16/20 still leaves room for plenty of mistakes. But why is it that we shoot for perfection, while the French aim for a mysterious level showing a certain amount of knowledge? Are American exams easier? Do our professors expect more of us?

I'm still trying to figure it out. 3 exams to go!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Le Début de la Fin

Sunday, December 6, 2009 1
This is it - the final push.

The good news: I passed the DELF with flying colors, as difficult as it was and as sleep-deprived I was from waking up at 4:15 that morning to catch the train at 6.
My birthday was lovely, though quite calm for a 21st. After my class at the university, I spent the morning and much of the afternoon wandering around the center of town. The Christmas decorations have certainly given the city a new sense of life in the form of LED lights and garlands hanging from every balcony. Heidi and I had tea at La Cigale, the most reputable restaurant in Nantes. However I was in bed by 9pm thanks to that test.

But I'm certain I'll have plenty of chances to celebrate again once I return. ;)

Until then, I'm stuck with a week and a half of bad news: spending the majority of my waking moments studying for exams - two at the end of this week (naturally, the two hardest will be the week BEFORE our official exam week) and then three next week.

Thankfully I'll finish on Wednesday, which will give me some time to enjoy Nantes before we stuff our suitcases and take off for Paris on the high-speed TGV on Saturday evening.

In situations like this, reflecting on the passage of time proves nebulous; the way in which my senses feel so used to everything now makes me wonder how the time slipped past. And yet the summer day I arrived on Theresa's doorstep in Freiburg seems so far away.

How will I possibly be able to summarize the last 5 months in a few sentences when someone asks me about them? (Thanks to those of you that have kept up with my blog, and thus kept me from having to go through that painful process when I return home!)

With each significant trip I've taken, especially those in the past few years (India, London, Germany) I've been surprised at how what I've really taken from the places I've been doesn't actually occur to me until much later, when I'm in the middle of sharing a story from that trip with a friend or I suddenly discover a certain aspect of one place mirrored in another, halfway across the world. And it's then I realize how these places have shaped the person who I am in that moment, who I'm still discovering.

And so, in these final two weeks, what will I end up taking from my European experience? I guess that's a question that I won't properly be able to answer until much later in life. But I think all my reflecting in this blog has been a good start.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

From the Holiday Season to Exam Time

Tuesday, December 1, 2009 1
Thanksgiving was a beautiful evening as expected: dressed to the nines, our smiles got bigger as the night went on, thanks to a plentiful supply of red wine, cheerful conversation between family and friends, and merry entertainment from fellow IES students. (I even took part in singing Fly Me to the Moon with 3 others, acapella-style!)

Yet even though it was an evening to remember, it lacked that essential quality that defines Thanksgiving for me - family. I know I wasn't the only one who was especially homesick that evening. Indeed, it seems that even the French can't pull of a Thanksgiving feast like home: the turkey was dry and the "pumpkin pie" tasted much more like curry. But we appreciated the restaurant's efforts and reminded each other that in a month, we'd be even more thankful for a Christmas dinner at home.

Friday night I had the opportunity to attend a soccer game (or a football match, as they say in Europe), which seems to be a core part of European culture. Thanks to Theresa's friend Lutz back in Germany, I had a bit of an introduction to the sport, but this was my first live game.

I honestly don't understand why it's not more popular in the U.S. as it is just about everywhere else. The rules are easy to understand. The whistle doesn't blow every three seconds. And you can even see the player's faces!

Unexpectedly, when I told my host mom and brother during the week that I'd be going to the game, they looked at me in shock, or perhaps even horror, and then both burst out laughing. They then explained to me that in their household, they prefer rugby because it's a much more "intelligent" sport for gentlemen. My host mom did admit that the household is a little biased: her husband (who I haven't met because he's currently working in Morocco) has played rugby for many years.

So on Saturday night when the match between France and New Zealand ("the two best teams in the world" said my host mom) came on TV, they insisted I sit down and watch it with them. And I must admit that I enjoyed it, even though France lost. Imagine football with no pads or helmuts, few whistle interruptions, and no strange terms like a "down" to indicate that a team has actually moved horizontally. But it would never work in the states, not with all the blood and bruises on the players faces by the end of the game!

But alas, now it's December and the games are over.

As much as I love my birthday, for the past few years it's fallen at quite the inconvenient time: after all the Thanksgiving merriment, the coming of December reminds everyone that exams are not too far off, which causes the entire month to be consumed by massive cram sessions.

What's even worse is that Heidi and I have a double load. In addition to our five exams at the end of term, this Friday we have to take the DELF, a standardized French test which shows that we've reached a certain proficiency in the language. This test is actually even more salient than my exams, as the certificate is required for all Alma French majors.

It doesn't help that it's in Tours, and thus we have to take a train at 6 a.m. It will be a long day, but the upside is that we'll find out our results that same afternoon. If I do well, it will certainly give me more confidence for my exams, which start next week.

I'm trying not to think about the alternative.