A Travellerspoint blog

Read the Fine Print

Thursday, Oct 6, 2016

[Due to the Paris trip, I am quite behind in my blogs but I shall now make a big push to get many of them done, relying on quickly-jotted notes, many now long forgotten.]

During the Canary Island trip back in August, I had to make a call to Canada to discuss an important matter. I was fairly confident that the call was covered by my plan, and checked with Myriam to make sure. We again checked the website and validated that all calls to Canada, the US or the EU were included in my base rate. Therefore, I wasn't too worried about the 25 minute conversation. However, a month later, when I checked my 'facture,' I saw a charge of 57 euros! Myriam promised to call my provider and enquire. Today, she made that call. I sat by listening, with the key information at hand. Everything started off nice enough; her speech was slow and controlled -- I could almost understand it, in fact. After a few times of obviously repeating herself, she then started to get a bit agitated, an unusual state for Myriam. It seems the automaton on the other end of the phone was not good at responding to people's questions and concerns and could only repeat the company line which, by the way, differed from what was on their promotional website. He directed her to some fine print in the contract (also on line, but never sent to me), and that is where we found the one sentence defining the condition that any call had to originate and end in the same country (unless that country was France). Argghh. Therefore, he would not refund any costs. I thanked her for trying and said to let it go. However, Myriam was so heated after she got off the phone that she took several print outs of the pertinent information, highlighted them fiercely with a marker, exclaiming in angry French, and vowed to send them off to the main office.

For lunch, I delved into the back of my closet where I have been storing the KD for just such a day. As I prepared that slippery, sloppy orange treat, my mouth started to salivate, anticipating the true taste of Canada in every bite. Myriam looked dubiously at the package, reading the ingredients, and declined my offer to try it. I saved a small bit for Marine, as much as my appetite would allow.

At class today, we learned how to describe our typical workday (for me, it is endless 'courrier électronique,' interspersed by 'les réunions' and 'les présentations'). Franny (cute name, eh?), the young professor, asked for a few of us to make presentations without our notes. I was the second to volunteer, but as soon as I began, I started having flashbacks of Monsieur Nepveu's French 11 class, when I sputtered out nonsensical phrases and stuttered as soon as he corrected me. This time, while she also stopped me for corrections, it felt much easier than thirty-five years previously (I'm so happy to no longer be a teenager).

Posted by mzemliak 09:03 Archived in France Comments (1)

Teaching Take Two

Wednesday, Oct 5, 2016

Today was such a fun, varied and interesting day. It began with me attending school with Myriam. When we got there, I prepared for the classes I was to teach by photocopying the materials in the staff room. As you might imagine (I'm sure Ben can), it's the centre of activity before the school day begins. While there, I ran into several of the teachers I had met the first day and had snippets of conversations with each. It almost felt as if I belonged there; they can really make a person feel welcome and having not done too badly the first time, I think I have built up some 'street cred.'

Myriam had prepared a lot of potential exercises but after twenty minutes into the first class, I realized I would only get through about a quarter of what she had prepared. (But, as a teacher, it's always better to have too much than not enough.) The first class was with Christine's 8 and 9 years olds. They did not know the shapes very well so worked slowly. As always, there was quite a range of abilities so we needed to ensure we kept everyone up to speed. I taught while Christine assisted the students who needed extra help. After an hour with them, I made a beeline for Myriam's class, had two minutes to pause and then began again. She had been prepping her students beforehand so most of them were quicker. We got farther along this time but she could really see that this was a challenging lesson for them. Vincent, the third teacher, with the highest grade (10 year olds), was particularly ambitious and had expanded the grid to use all letters of the alphabet and numbers into the 20s. Myriam rolled her eyes and said I was going to have problems. After the hour was finished in her class, I met Vincent in his room, a bit dubious about what lay ahead. However, it seemed he knew what his class was capable of and he had prepped them well with knowing the shapes and letters so they picked it up really quickly. For one exercise, it was necessary to have the kids pair up; as there was an odd number, Vincent suggested I be the partner for one of the students. I knelt by Antoine's desk and we began to work on the task. After a couple of minutes, Antoine realized I was bending down and he graciously got up out of his chair and offered it to me. I refused, saying it wasn't necessary, but he insisted we change spots. OK, this guy is going to grow up right, I thought. Chivalry is alive and well after all.

I also met a real charmer in Myriam's class the first time I was there. He's this cute little guy (they're all little, at 9 years old) named Valentin (she calls him 'mon Valentine' behind her back, with a bit of a wry smile). Valentin's desk is purposely situated directly in front of Myriam's desk, within easy reach. He's bright but has a real tendency to talk and distract himself and others. In fact, when he called for some help last week, and I went over to assist, while I was checking his work, he took the opportunity to ask me if I would be eating in the canteen that day with the students. I told him I wouldn't and then directed him back to his work. After lunch, he snuck a quick look at Myriam and asked me in a lowered voice if I had eaten well (a French pleasantry). I quickly answered, smiled and put my finger to my lips to warn him to be quiet. Unfortunately, Myriam saw my gesture and cracked down on him with a sharp 'Valentin, parle pas!' She reluctantly admitted afterwards that he will likely grow up to be 'charmant' but right now, needs tending to.

One of the teachers drove me to Emmaus for my shortened shift in the afternoon. In fact, I was just in time for them serving the hot meal so enjoyed it with a few of the regulars. I am actually starting to feel like I've been accepted as a fixture as two of the old timers came by at various times during the lunch and spoke with me for a few minutes. It didn't seem to bother them too much that I could only understand half of what they said. It's sort of taken for granted in this atmosphere by the native French speakers. Amirouche, the 'grand chef,' and I also discussed weather -- always a good topic. He and I compared notes on Algerian and Canadian winters. He showed me pictures of the snow in Kabylia; it reaches 3-4 metres high even though it doesn't really get too much below zero there. I couldn't believe the pictures as the roads there just look like narrow tunnels in the massive snow banks. Sort of like the Maritimes once they've recovered from an Eastern snowstorm.

Since Mabinti was off today, I had to work alone in the clothing area for several hours. It was really good practice as I was forced to answer everyone's questions even though I had to bring in the big guns, Jean Paul, a couple of times. It actually afforded me more chances to have in-depth conversations. One father enquired as to where I was from and we got into a chat about language and such. Another man asked if I was Spanish (of all things) and when he found out I was Canadian, he wanted to practice his English (one of 5 languages he knew). When we talked further, I discovered he was a university Mathematics professor from Morocco! I had to share my love of and history in math with him of course; at that, he looked quite dismayed and said , "But why are you working HERE? You should be working with your math in another profession. That's really important!" I was able to assuage him by explaining the situation.

As the store quietened down, Jean Paul and I talked about Africa. He said the biggest problem there in the work world is quality control. As in, there is none. They will skimp on everything to get the most profit. He worked in the computer industry and he said his boss would promise everyone the moon to get them to sign a contract and get the upfront money and then ask his workers to do impossible things in the way of software and hardware support (sort of like IBM, I thought). He also said everyone has a "good deal" on something "their cousin made" and the 'knock offs' market is so strong there it's gotten to the point where a proprietor of an official HP store even sold HP knock offs in his establishment. When the HP rep came by to check him out, they closed him down because of it.

Posted by mzemliak 14:29 Archived in France Comments (3)

Étrangère than Fiction (sorry for the Franglais)

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

While still sunny, the mornings are quite a bit colder. I've now switched to my fall coat but am delighted autumn has been so long in coming. I headed to class this morning, and had lots of opportunity to practice French with a neighboring student from Columbia. It was interesting to note that while I mentioned 'skiing and skating' as winter activities, she mentioned going to the beach and sleeping. She said they really only have one season in Columbia, being only 500 km from the equator. After we finished our exercise on 'daily life activities,' we chatted about why each of us was in France. She has finished her bachelor's degree in engineering and is hoping to learn French this year so that she can do her master's somewhere in France. What a laudable goal but she has a lot of work ahead of her.

The class makeup includes two Syrians, five Columbians, a Venezuelan, an Iranian, two Turks, a Russian, someone from another Slavic country, a Sierra Leonean, a Japanese woman and the Vietnamese au pair I met earlier. And one Canadian. Instead of ESL, the course is abbreviated as FLE (for Français Langue Étrangère, or the French Language for foreigners). 'Étrangère' also happens to be the word for "stranger," and we certainly do make a strange group, especially when we're talking together and you can hear the different ways that people speak French. The Columbian sounds different than the Vietnamese woman, and I expect I sound different than both of them. A couple of times in France, I have had people comment on my 'very Canadian accent,' and that it is distinguishes itself even from the American one. And if people cannot pinpoint the exact country, they can often zero in on the language: at Emmaus, I've heard kids whisper to their parents (and even Jean Paul's wife to him), "Does she speak English?"

Aside from my obvious accent, my speech ends up being laughable sometimes as well. Josiane, another volunteer with whom I work weekly at Emmaus, is a sweet lady and a really good teacher as she gently corrects me and speaks slowly. During one conversation, when I mentioned that I had gained 2 kilos this spring, translating the words directly from English to state disparagingly "J'ai gagné cinq kilos," she smiled and said I actually meant to say "J'ai pris cinq kilos" which translates to "I took five kilos." Even though the second sounds more awkward to us, the word 'gagner' in French generally denotes a positive thing (to win, to earn a salary, to make a profit, etc.) so Josiane felt it was particularly ill-used in the gaining of weight!

The family is not going through the cookie supply very quickly so I am bringing them to my colleagues at Emmaus, where they are better appreciated. Granted, they don't taste quite as good as those made with our Canadian ingredients (the sugar and oats are different here) but they are still chocolate chip cookies!

This evening, Myriam went over the activities she had prepared for tomorrow's English lesson. I am to review basic shapes and drawing activities (erase, colour in, draw) with the kids, walk through the pronunciation of letters and numbers, and then get them to draw specific shapes in a grid according to the placement described by numbers and letters. All this is to be an oral exercise. Once finished, the kids are to replicate the process with a partner, each taking turns directing each other to draw shapes. After that, I am to describe five flags using the shapes and they are to draw them according to my directions. There are a couple of other exercises as well. It's all pretty ambitious but we'll see how it goes.

Posted by mzemliak 13:19 Archived in France Comments (1)

Frogs, Cows and Elephants

Monday, October 3, 2016

Class today was a review for me as we went over 'la routine quotidienne,' all the activities that we typically do on a daily basis. However, it was good to go over some of those pesky reflexive verbs again -- I just wish we would review them using past and future tense as that's what I especially need practice with. (Let's face it, I need practice with everything!). After class, I asked my friendly neighbour, Phuong Vi, the au pair, if she wanted to grab a coffee so we could practice our French but, alas, our schedules don't line up well.

I had to get one more blood test so quickly ran into the lab just before it closed for lunch. The French take their lunch hours seriously and often, businesses are completely closed for 1.5 hours. The school children, too, get 2 hours for a break and some go home during this time. Stealing myself for encountering the stern lab tech, I needn't have worried as the Friendlies were working there today. My French was passable and I now know the routine so could play along when required. I commented on a ring that the lab tech was wearing -- it's not every day you see a gold ring with a complete frog appended to it. I felt it deserved a comment, although I expect I'm not the first. She explained that she collected frogs and people would often give her items now, with this gift coming from her daughter. I then told her 'my animal' was 'la vache' (bequeathed on me unexpectedly when friends at university nicknamed me 'Mu') and that my mom collected 'les éléphants.' Collector types can recognize each other.

Tonight, I made real chocolate chip cookies, courtesy of the care package contents. It was good to taste a familiar recipe.

Posted by mzemliak 12:59 Archived in France Comments (4)

Art is in the Eye of the Beholder

Sunday, October 2, 2016

[I posted a bunch of photos of Sinai but I am not sure why they're not showing up sometimes. Maybe it's just me.]

On Sunday, we decided to do some more touristy stuff. Amazingly, everyone in the family was free so, on a cloudy afternoon, the five of us piled into Thierry's vehicle and headed towards Metz, the capital of Lorraine. The first stop was at the imposing Metz Cathedral, started in 1220 and completed in the 16th century. It has one of the highest naves in the world, and our necks were craning to see the ceiling. It is also renowned for its stained glass windows, the largest expanse (69,920 sq ft) of such glass in the world, constructed by various artists over the years. So as not to play favourites with the Catholics, we also visited the much less ornate (bare, even) Protestant temple called the Temple Neuf de Metz. Its glamour lay mostly in its exterior and wonderful placement on the Moselle. That was followed by a walk along the river, relishing the beauty of the place and watching the plethora of white swans swim below us. There were also a number of interesting buildings, with plenty of traditional French architecture.

We walked by the opera house, train station, and German gate (stemming from the 13th century) before stepping inside the Pompidou Centre, a smaller cousin of the one in Paris. Devoted to contemporary art, it offers two galleries of works in a variety of media. There were some interesting pieces on the ground floor (le rez-de-chaussée) , most notably the one made by nude women covering their fronts in paint and pressing themselves against the canvas. And how do I know this? Because, helpfully, there was a video of the process that demonstrated the artist directing the women. If truth be told, the video seemed to receive more attention than the canvas. There was also a piece containing the remains of a piano, the artist having destroyed it for the sake of his art. As he (Arman) explained: "I myself become heated as I work. By breaking a piano with a sledgehammer, I end up in an intense physical fury." Alright then. One that was a favourite of all of us was by Cerith Wyn Evans who created a piece entitled A=P=P=A=R=I=T=I=O=N that took up a complete room: a collection of hanging circular mirrors with speakers behind each one transmitting a cacophony of sounds. The top floor was more traditional, but largely still abstract, with sculptures and paintings. It was an interesting day and I was glad to see some more of the region.

Posted by mzemliak 10:36 Archived in France Comments (1)

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