Thursday, November 30, 2006

Several things

Today is quite possibly one of the most beautiful days ever. It's cold, a couple of degrees beyond brisk, and foggy, but not too much - my absolute favorite kind of day. I'm hoping it will be like this tomorrow too since it's my birthday tomorrow and I'd like the world to comply with my grand plans.

And don't go wishing me a happy birthday and all that. I'm entering into my late 30's tomorrow, which feels kind of funky. Like I need more funk this fall.

The crows that stand on my face each night while I'm sleeping to leave their prints have started to invite friends and really, I think that's just rude.

Boy1 has told me he's had it with school. It's "interesting and all that" but he's tired of it. Shall I tell him he has at least 11 years left?

Boy2 gets miffed if we call him anything but Spiderman.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

What's up with that?

I left the United States 9 years ago. That's a long time in some ways and a very short time in others. Regardless. In that time, some things have changed for the better and some for the worse. Television has gotten both better and worse, and I know you know exactly what I mean. The country has had to live through what will some day be referred to as the Very Bad W Bush Years. (You're free to disagree with me but I don't want to hear about it. I've very closed-minded that way.) You can get a soy mocha at just about any coffee shop, even in a small city in the midwest. No comments about the midwest, please, I'm from there. But feel free to comment about soy milk if you feel like it. I'm very open-minded that way.

Anyway, telephone lines have clearly taken a turn for the worse. I have 3 friends, and you know who you are, who have the most evil phone system ever. I suppose it's great for you to be able to filter out the riff-raff, the telemarketers, the scammers, the stalkers and the prank callers. But take it from me, being on the other end of it totally bites.

I called one of you last week. The evil phone voice told me I was not recognized by the system. Then EPV told me I needed to enter a code, but you can't do that from overseas. Then EPV told me to press 2 if I wanted to try to get through the acceptance process anyway. I said my name after the beep. EPV announced my name several times. But I was not accepted. You, my friend, were not home. But instead of letting me leave a message like any other CIVILIZED phone voice, EPV told me to get lost. She used more polite words than those, but the message conveyed was definitely get lost. Of course, I was charged international phone rates for this abuse and I didn't even get to leave a message. You didn't even know I called and was thinking about you.

Progress, schmogress.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Here we go again

Boy1 started speaking early in both languages. At about 3, he spoke both languages very well. And we were totally surprised when he started to stutter, about 2 months after Boy2 was born. At the time we consulted our parenting books, most of which said that many children have a stammering phase between 3 and 4 and that it usually passes. So we waited. It got worse, much worse, and then, slowly went away. Mostly. I have an aquaintance who is a speech therapist (she's bilingual and her expertise is stuttering) and after spending an afternoon at the park with us, she recommended that we take him to see a speech therapist. Which we did. He confirmed a stutter (though light) and they have spent 30 minutes together weekly for the past year. Boy1's stutter is long gone, and more recently they've been working on some pronunciation issues, which have also been resolved. His last session was last week.

From my aquaintance I have learned a few things about stuttering. One of which is that it is much more common amongst bilingual children than their monolingual coutnerparts. They don't really know why, but most assume that the constant switching from one language to the next along with the already established linguistic and cognitive stages of childhood development are the perfect cocktail for developing a stutter.

Two weeks ago, just one week before Boy1 finished his sessions, Boy2 started to stammer. Usually on the first word of a sentence, or at least the first word of a new idea. When I went to pick Boy1 up from his session last week, I mentioned it to Mr. B. He smiled and said, great timing, I'll keep the slot open, although you never know, it may go away on it's own, it's not a real stutter at this point. Wait and see.

Where have I heard that before?

Monday, November 27, 2006

How's that for funny?

Gas caps. I've never really given them much thought. I don't believe I've ever lost one, or at least not in the past 10 years. My car (a Fiat) has a cap that can only be removed and replaced with the car key so you can't really lose it. Husband's car (a Ford - I know, I know) has a cap that's attached by a squiggly cord so you can't really lose his either. Who knew that we actually needed to progress beyond that?

Because apparently, we do. I have a client who works for a company that is developing a gas tank that doesn't have a cap. He's a very nice guy, the classes are enjoyable, and as a bonus, I'm learning all kinds of useless (for me) technical automotive jargon.

I've also learned that the particular capless system my client has developed is not exploitable in the US. Why, one might ask. Well, the country that pollutes more than any other country on the planet has stricter permeation standards than Europe. Kind of funny, don't you think? So, the permeation thing, from what I gather, is about the allowable amount of toxicity that can permeate the material of the capless system. We talked about the ridiculousness of such a situation and then we laughed, because, really, what else can you do?

Which is not to say that I think it's a bad thing to have strict permeation standards. Au contraire, I think we should all be very strict about toxic permeation levels, in all areas of life.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

It's all about me

Every year, or at least every year since 1996 or something like that, the city of Laval decorates the city center and all streets leading to it for Christmas. I mean REALLY decorates.

You know that crazy neighbor you have who puts up as many lights as his/her house can hold? Or maybe you are that crazy neighbor. Anyway, that's what Laval is like. It's positively laden with Christmas lights.

They choose a theme each year, and the main bridge downtown is the peak of light-ladening frenzy. They actually have to start putting the lights up in September because there are so many of them. They don't turn them on until the last weekend of November or first weekend of December, depending on the calendar. Since my birthday is December 1st, I usually tell the boys they're lighting them to help us celebrate my birthday. I think Boy1 no longer believes my lies.

They'll be turning them on this weekend, saturday night at about 8:00, with fireworks. The theme this year is Monsieur Ubu, who I do not know. He's some famous character of some famous Laval-born writer, Alfred Jarry, or something along those lines. Anyway, if you get a chance, I think the city of Laval website has video and pictures of my birthday party the light lighting celebration.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Ah, l'aide juridictionnelle

Husband is currently on strike. Not as we speak. But on thursday he and many other lawyers will refuse to participate in trials. They've been doing this every thursday for the past month and will continue to do so until the system of aide juridictionelle is revised.

Aide juridictionnelle is governmental financial aid for people with limited revenue who need legal help. Of any sort. Well, maybe not the frivolous sort, which is not very popular here, but all the other sorts.

Legal fees are all lawyers earn here. There's no getting 33% of damages or anything like that. And the problem with the legal aid is that the fees are ridiculously low. A typical case of wrongful termination might take 15 hours of work (which includes everything, including trial time) and the legal aid pay scale estimates that all wrongufl termination cases takes 3. So the lawyer is paid €150 (50 an hour). Which is not to say that the lawyers want to determine it themselves, which could obviously lead to scams. They just want the hourly rate to be increased.

The reasoning behind the system is that everyone should have access to legal council, and not just if they're accused of something. Wrongful termination, workman's comp, property disputes, they can receive aid for that too. The aid is to help pay for the legal fees involved in something like that. Can you imagine? They government actually GIVES people money to sue someone. Incredible.

Friday, November 17, 2006

In today's news

I had an appointment in a village about 20 miles from Laval, in the middle of the mayennais countryside. It was a perfect day for it - it's chilly, the sun's in and out of the clouds, the leaves are colorful. And I saw a heron standing in a field. He winked at me.

In other news, Ségolène Royal has won the Socialist Party Primary. Which is very interesting. She's got some very atypical things to say about typical PS topics. For someone on the left, she's pretty rightesque about things like the (catastrophic) 35-hour work week, for example. Right and left are different here, much less about 'moral' issues (like abortion) and much more about economic and social ones. Thankfully, they leave religion and other muddy waters out of the already very muddy arena of politics.

And finally, last night I made a loaf of ciambella with raisins and lemon zest. I had a big slice this morning with coffee for breakfast. Best breakfast I've had in a long time.

Lorraine has requested the ciambella recipe. This is loosely taken from one of Marcella Hazan's cookbooks.

8 tablespoons butter melted
4 cups spelt flour (or you can use regular but honestly the spelt gives it a little extra something)
1/2 cup brown sugar (although white sugar is ok if you don't have any brown)
2 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
a big pinch of salt
Zest of at least one lemon
1/4 cup rice milk (you can use any kind of milk you want)
lots of raisins
2 eggs

Preheat oven to 375°. Butter and flour a baking sheet (unless it's non-stick)

Put flour in a large bowl. Add sugar, butter, cream of tartar, soda, salt, lemon zest, raisins and milk. Mix. Add 1 whole egg and the white of the second. Reserve some of the yolk of the second egg for an egg wash and add the rest to the dough. Mix well.

Put onto work surface and knead for a few minutes.

Shape dough into a large sausage roll about 2 inches thick, and make it into a ring. Pinch the ends together to close. Brush with the reserved yolk mixed with a little water and score a few times with a knife.

Bake for 35 minutes. Once cooled, wrap in foil or store in a tin cookie box, but do not refrigerate. It tastes even better the next day.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Tante Nicole

I've always liked my name. I've never wanted to change it or have it shortened into a nickname. I've never answered to Nicki but I was called Nic a lot during undergrad, mostly by the people I worked with in a restaurant. I wrote Nic on my tickets because it was faster than writing Nicole and it stuck. No one here calls me Nic - it sounds just like nique which is a bad word for a loving act.

Anyway, Nicole is a French name. But I'm the only Nicole in my age group here, or anything even near my age group. Everyone has a tante Nicole, and they're usually around 60 years old. Sometimes people look surprised when they hear my name, it's like meeting a 30 year old in the US whose name is Hilda or something like that. It's just a little odd.

I bring all this up because I've been watching the 5th and final season of Alias. Although I'm only half-heartedly watching in because it's in French and I'm so not into Alias in French. I'm thinking Husband should get me Season 5 for Christmas and maybe Seasons 1 and 2 of Grey's Anatomy too. Anyway, no snide comments about Alias please. I've always loved tv shows where pretty women kick ass, ever since I was little. Wonder Woman, Charlie's Angels, Buffy, Alias. So, on the last season of Alias there is a French woman, a young French woman whose name (in the show) is Renée. The possibility of finding a 28 year old French woman named Renée is absolutely nil. Elodie (her real name), Céline, Sandrine, Chyrstelle, Aurélie - those are the names of young French women today. The French names we think of (Michelle, Renée, Colette, etc) are actually the names that were popular among French immigrants in the US and are quite common among the 60 - 65 year old set.

Names apparently ride waves of popularity. Am I ahead of my time or behind it?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Even though you can't see me, believe me, I'm scowling.

I'm in a foul, black, evil mood. It started on Monday and I'm not sure what it's all about and honestly, I don't want to talk about it , spewing negativity is just not my thing. You'd do best to just carry on.

Anyway, Lorraine (Here's the thing over on the links list) is coming to France in 2008. And that's just about the coolest thing ever. I love visits. Maybe that's part of the problem. I need more visits.

Sometimes living in a foreign country is the most freeing thing ever. And other times it's like a lead blanket. It's a lead blanket week.

On top of everything, Charlie (Highland Dreams, also over on your right) is visiting my mother's home state of North Carolina this week. And he's writing all about his travels (he lives on a strange island somewhere most of the time) and reading it is making me miss home even more. Even the bad stuff. And the silly stuff. And the inexplicably American stuff.

I haven't been home in nearly 4 years and I think that's just too long.

I wouldn't move back - it's not that. I guess you just have to go home sometimes to resourcify your roots. So I suppose that's it. My roots are feeling groundless and sourceless this week. Time for a touch-up.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Like a virgin

One of my current employers has asked me to provide a document from the Casier Judiciaire HQ in Nantes certifying the virgin status of my judiciary file (un casier judiciaire vièrge). Written proof I'm a judiciary virgin, or at least, virtuous in the eyes of Justice.

Because apparently, without said document, I'm unfit to teach in a private establishment, according to the public inspector's rules (government inspector of private institutions). Never mind that I've been teaching on and off for 10 years in public establishments and have never had to prove my judiciary virginity. Apparently you don't have to be virtuous when you work for the government. Who would've thought.

I should receive the document next week. I feel like a better teacher already.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

What's your soul state today?

Mine's unsettled right now but transitioning into something better. It'll be a good state to live in by the end of the week. (I can think of some other states that will be better for living now too. Nice elections.)

Ah, l'état d'âme.

Different from a state of mind or an emotional state, the state of the soul is certainly not given enough press in English. Maybe we pretend that souls don't have states, they just are what they are. Or maybe we don't talk about it specifically because we don't have special words for it. Like l'état d'âme.

Quite honestly, I don't like much the way we use those words in French. They're usually used negatively to describe someone's capriciousness and/or egocentricity and rarely to mean what they really do mean. For example, "I don't have time for his états d'âme." Of course, I use it literally and never negatively because I just think it's such a perfect expression.

So back to my question. What's your soul state today?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Yeah right.

In a couple of weeks, I have to teach part of an intensive English training week for a business woman finance person. She's also the mother of a boy in Boy1's first grade class. She's very nice and smart and successful and all that. She needs to improve her English quickly and there are 3 of us who will be helping her accomplish that over a period of 5 days, 9 hours a day. I'm only doing a little bit. But the bit I'm doing, I learned yesterday, has a troubling title.

Module Interculturel.

Because, let's face it, the longer I live here, the more I'm convinced that there is really no science to intercultural communication. The best you can do is go for damage control.

There are loads of books out there, and I've read many of them, that can explain and give reasons and background and whatever else. But the fact is, when you're trying to feel understood, none of any of that really helps, it just makes you feel better afterwards.

So what on earth am I going to teach this woman for 8 hours about intercultural communication? Here's my course outline.

1. Don't stand too close to Americans, we need more personal space than most French people when talking face to face.

2. Don't interupt Americans. It's considered rude and it is interpreted as a sign that you are not interested in what we have to say.

3. Expect long answers. The French often ask questions symbolically - to show interest in maintaining the flow of conversation, and, therefore, don't expect long answers. Americans, on the other hand, ask questions to get the entire answer, and therefore, answer accordingly.

Of course, these are generalizations and are probably not true for half the people I know. Which means that they may not always be useful suggestions or even accurate.

So, there are the first 3 minutes of the course. Wow, I am SO worth my salary.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Whose hick are you?

Cars in France are registered within the département where the owner of the vehicle resides. Each department has it's own 2 digit number, which is used for administrative purposes, including license plates and postal codes. The code for la Mayenne, the department I live in, is 53. All 5 digit postal codes within the department begin with 53. Laval, being the préfecture of the department is 53000, for example. On license plates, the last two digits are the department code. Although this may not last - a Europe thing.

Anyway, this weekend I was in Nantes with the kids. I left early friday after my 8:30 class. The boys and I stayed with Husband's parents and had a lovely weekend. I neither cooked nor cleaned, my idea of a very lovely weekend. I drank much coffee in my favorite cafés in Nantes, Les Flesselles and La Petite Epicerie.

While driving around in extremely hazardous downtown Nantes (so much road construction going on and rerouting of traffic it was dizzying), I noticed that the 44 (the Loire-Atlantique - Nantes' department) cars were giving me a lot of space. Strange.

Husband and I discussed. It's a hick thing. Everyone knows that people from Mayenne are hicks. And of course, drive badly. Oh, like the Mayennais think of the Sartois? I asked. (La Sarthe - an agricultural department to the east of la Mayenne). Yes. And it would appear that there is even a hick pecking order.

For the 44's, the real hicks are the 49 (Maine et Loire - the department of Angers).
For the 49's the real hicks are the 53's (Mayenne)
For the 53's the real hicks are the 72's (Sarthe).
Of course, for a Parisien, a 44 is a real hick.

Everyone is someone's hick. Husband thinks that Parisiens must be Londoner's hicks and Londoners, New York's. But we're not sure.

So back to my question, whose hick are you?

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Ah, les pauvres

Legal Alien (Gladly Suffering Fools over on the link list, which I swear I'm going to update very soon because I read some great blogs that aren't up there) made a comment a couple of days ago in reference to my remark about the very well known and throughly documented French language learning deficiency gene.

Ask nearly any French person if they speak a foreign language and you get a repsonse along the lines of "Well, I've studied English for 8 (or 9 or 10!) years but you know the French suck at foreign languages."

And actually, to be fair, most of them don't have a level of ease in English that should correspond to the number of hours spent in English class, but it's not their fault. Until university, languages are not taught to be spoken. Seriously. Communication is not the goal. Writing, translation, and lofty literary texts have been the cornerstones of language pedagogy here for years. Centuries, even. Although recent times has seen a serious wateringing down of the lofty thing. I believe a waste of paper book by Mary Higgins Clark was actually on last year's required reading list.

Those who go to university get a slightly more practical version of English, depending on what their main course of study is. And people who go into fields where English is necessary (especially those who study in specialized universities or private colleges) finally get language classes like they should be, more or less.

Then everyone enters the work world and some of that everyone need English to work. Those who got some good instruction after high school get by. And those who didn't, well, they sign up for private lessons at the Chamber of Commerce or a private language school and start all over again, all the time thinking the reason they don't speak it well is because they suck. Poor things.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

La Toussaint

It's All Saints' Day today. Nearly everything is closed, although I did manage to find an open café. Along the river there are flower merchants selling chrysanthemums and heather to people planning on visiting the cemetary. I'm not sure why it must be those flowers we put on gravesites - maybe they're the only ones that will last in November weather.

On a recent visit to Husband's sister's grave, I saw a strange notice on the tombstone nearby. It said that as the plot fees hadn't been renewed, the family had a certain amount of time to contact the administration before 'action' would be taken.

I asked Husband what kind of action could possibly be taken.

I shouldn't have asked.

Apparently, graveyard space is tight. It's small country, for years everyone was against cremation, there are graves dating back centuries, people keep dying, etc. Before, you could buy a plot forever. Now you lease one, for blocks of time, for minimal fees. 25 years, 40 years, 50 years... After which, you renew, or someone in the family does. If no one renews, despite efforts to contact said family by mail, phone, and the notice on the tombstone, eventually (like 2 years later), the grave is DUG UP, the tombstone is TAKEN AWAY, and the remains are DEPOSITED into a MASS GRAVE for those who have been forgotten.

I suppose I'm being melodramatic, as usual, but that just seems awful.

Friends and family, take note, please have my remains incinerated and throw the ashes into the Atlantic, so no 'action' will ever have to be taken and so I can always be in between my two homes.