Monday, October 15, 2018

Life as a Vacataire, Part One

I walk into the classroom with a harried look and a stack of photocopies.  I have a big bag and keys and folders.  I probably look like a teacher, I may even act like a teacher, but I don’t feel like one.  I feel like an imposter.  

It’s like a weird dream where I have been plopped in front of a class and everyone thinks I’m the teacher, but I’m not.  And yet, it’s not like I’ve hidden my non-teacher past.  It’s not like I didn’t submit my non-teacher CV.  I never pretended I had any experience on the battlefield, and yet the school administration has seen fit to send me to the front with a wooden gun and no ammunition.  

I try to act like a teacher, mostly based on what I’ve seen in the movies, blended with a few mushy memories of high school.  I try not to act like those boring drones who made me hate school, but like the few sparkly ones who made class interesting enough to stop looking at the clock and learn something.  Unfortunately, those teachers had training, and I do not.

In this dream, I find myself walking down the hallowed hallways of major French universities, mighty edifices where the likes of Pierre and Marie Curie played with radium. Huge reverberating corridors that haven’t been remodeled since the dawn of the Fifth Republic.  Students bust a gut to get into these places, enduring in most cases a “prepa,” which is a highly selective prep school where you spend two years cramming your head with encyclopedic knowledge on a variety of subjects in preparation for the adjective-defying entrance exams.  Words like “awesome” and “daunting” slide off the shiny surface of these gun-metal hard tests that can only be cracked by those with the strength and endurance of an angry buffalo.  

Any French student who has made it through lycée has already endured the baccalaureat exam, a comprehensive test that overshadows the last two years of high school, so it doesn’t really phase them to learn that in order to get into an elite school, they will be required to beat their brains out for another two or three years, and then submit to an exam that takes place over days, in hangar-like buildings, with thousands of other students.

People get annoyed when you use words like “sadistic” and “self-defeating” to describe higher education in France. Or if you point out that the system is a machine designed to discouraged anyone who is not super confident or super brilliant.  “But it’s virtually free,” they huff, pointing a long finger at the USA, where annual tuition at even the semi-elite schools now cost more than many people make in a year. 

This is true.  There is no denying it.  Even the most expensive schools in France generally do not go over 4,000 euros per year and most public schools are much less.  The non-elite universities cost next to nothing. The problem is, they have so little money that for non-essential yet required courses like English, they hire people like me.  Native English speakers with limited, if any, teaching skills.  Then they throw them in front of a classroom without a textbook, syllabus, program or any guidance to speak of.  You are lucky if you get a chance to sit down and talk to the person who hired you (most do it by e-mail), and if they bother to show you where the bathroom is, let alone explain how any equipment works, if it actually does.

Yes, we are the vacataires.  The “temporary” professors.  The Great Unwashed of the French university system.  

To be continued…

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Who Cut The Cheese?

Normally, a crime committed with a knife at a dinner table would involve blood and screams.  Mine was different.  The meal was almost over.  We had waltzed through the appetizer and main course with a deceptive ease, pausing to refresh ourselves with a bit of green salad before soldiering on to the cheese course. 

That was when it happened.  A slight mishap with a cheese knife and my reputation was ruined.  Yes, I admit it.  It was I who cut the cheese—the wrong way.  When I passed the cheese platter, I was met with an accusing stare, which traveled from my bewildered face down to the bit of cheese I had just cut.  It looked perfectly fine to me.  It was the end of a piece of Comté, and I had done what I assumed was the logical thing, I cut a straight line across what was left of the slice.  Leaving a small piece of cheese with rind on three sides.  Quelle horreur!  That is just not done.  Seeing my confusion, my tablemate, who just happened to be my husband, took pity on me, a poor, ignorant foreigner, and patiently instructed me on the Fine Art of Cutting Cheese.

It’s not as easy as it looks.  The idea is to cut the cheese so that everyone has a go at the tender core, where the crème de la crème lies, soft and sweet.  Cheese cutting is a decidedly democratic act.  Everyone at the table is entitled to the same level of quality.  Quantity is a more personal choice.  No one will blink if you decide to sample a nice wedge of every cheese on the plate.  They will, however, cringe if you mangle the morsels with your deficient cutting skills.  Once you have shared in the communal platter of pleasure, it is passed on down the table like a holy relic.  Which means that should you mess up, your gaffe will be immediately obvious to the person sitting next to you.  When it comes to cutting the cheese, there’s no place to hide.

To make matters even more complicated, cheeses come in many different shapes and sizes, from classic wheels, to soft rectangles, to heart-shaped cutie-pies.  Without taking out a slide rule or a compass it is difficult to carve out an equitable wedge, one that is perfectly placed to not only deliver the best of what your cheese has to offer, but also leaves a similarly delectable and easy-to-cut piece for your dining partners. 

What to do?  Fortunately, several cheese lovers have made instructional videos for the great unwashed and uploaded them to YouTube. Even if you don’t understand French, you will appreciate this one, posted by the Franco-German TV channel Arte, designed to teach the basics to Germans and is easy to follow.  This video is particularly heartwarming because you can see that even the French reporter interviewing the cheese vendor makes gaffes at this delicate mealtime moment (note the look on the cheesemaker’s face when she cuts the blue cheese).


Never fear, after you absorb a few rules, you will get the hang of it.  Basically, do unto others as you would have them do unto your own wedge of cheese.  Leave the good stuff for everyone, take your share of the rind, and when possible, cut a wedge.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

On Communism and Bottle Openers

I hated my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Carson.  This was probably very unfair, because she really was just trying to get with the times, which were a changin’.  Without revealing my advanced age, let’s just say that she was prone to having us discuss our feelings, world events and asked us what our “bag” was.  I thought she was ridiculous and would complain about her being a phony, because after all, she was a middle-aged woman and looked like someone’s mom, not a young thing with frosted hair and go-go boots (like Miss Terry).  One morning, I was chatting with my friends in the school bus and we started dishing about Mrs. Carson.  As I warmed to the subject, Carrie—who lived in an gated community known for excluding minorities—had a scoop.  She lowered her voice to a whisper:  “My dad says that Mrs. Carson is….a communist!”  In Orange County, California, this was tantamount to announcing that Mrs. Carson participated in satanic rituals. 

I was taken aback.  Not only did I doubt Mrs. Carson was a communist, but I was flummoxed by the use of the word as an insult.  If she disapproved so whole-heartedly of WASP-y Mrs. Carson, what would she think of my parents, lefty Jews from New York City?  Was being a communist really that bad?  Did they even really exist?  After all, none of us had ever seen one. 

Imagine my amazement when a couple of years later we were living in France (thanks to my father’s sabbatical leave) and we went to lunch at my mother’s cousin’s house.  A cousin who was…a communist!  Favik had come to France from Poland before WWII to study medicine, and his doctoring skills and various strokes of luck helped him avoid being deported by Vichy. He sure didn’t look like a communist, whom I had imaged all being grey and thin and serious.  He was fat and jovial and lived in a big house in Argenteuil.   In fact, he seemed to have lots of money.  “How can a communist have lots of money?” I asked my dad, who waved me off as he parked the car.

Since then, I have learned that in France, you can be a communist and still have fun.  You can have a good job and lots of money, you simply have to vote and talk a certain way in certain situations.  A dinner with a communist need not involve Molotov cocktails but simply alcoholic ones, especially now that the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall only exist as material for historic spy novels.   Aside from a supporting role during the social explosion of May of 1968, the masses of communists in France were never much of a threat to the established order, even if they did and do continue to march in the streets at the first whisper of a labor dispute. 

Because even if they have lost all semblance of political clout (though the party keeps huffing and puffing along), the communist spirit is alive and well in France’s powerful labor unions.  And perhaps that is as it should be.  Someone has got to at least shout back at the Captains of Industry, who have so clearly taken over the show on a global scale.  And while they can be painfully earnest (take a gander at the prose at Lutte Ouvrière), being French, they still know how to enjoy themselves.  A while back a friend of ours who has the unenviable chore of being a union representative at IBM, brought us a unique bit of paraphernalia from the CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail), the country’s largest trade union.  It’s a bottle opener (décapsuleur) with a metal bit that starts to play the Internationale when it comes into contact with a bottle cap.  I gave one to my younger brother as a gift, but the poor guy didn’t recognize the tune.  Ah, the days of revolution seem to be far behind us.  Or are they?  Who knows what might be required after the startling election results of last night.  It’s enough to make you want to start humming the opening lines…hey, come to think of it, this stanza sounds rather timely:

Let no one build walls to divide us
Walls of hatred nor walls of stone
Come greet the dawn and stand beside us
We'll live together or we'll die alone
In our world poisoned by exploitation
Those who have taken now they must give
And end the vanity of nations
We've but one earth on which to live
  

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Medical Tourism Comes to France


Ever since my un-expected encounter with mortality and the French medical system back in 2007 (see my post “Thinking about Having Brain Surgery During Your Stay?”), I have been encouraging my fellow Americans to come to France for medical care.  Not only do they have some of the best doctors and hospitals in Europe, but the price is definitely right. For example, a friend told me that an MRI can cost up to $6,000 in the US, while here it would cost $200 max (and I should know, I get them every two years).   For that price, you could come to France, take a tour of the Loire Valley, get your MRI and still have spare change.  The only tricky part would be the paperwork: stuff like visas, insurance papers, and making sure your prescriptions/doctor’s instructions would be accepted on this side of the pond. 

But it seems that is no longer an issue.  After watching from afar as Germany, Belgium and the UK profited from US medical pricing excesses, France has finally jumped on the medical tourism bandwagon.  As of November 1, the French public hospital network (Assistance publique-Hôpitaux de Paris) is launching a medical tourism program aimed directly at foreign visitors who wish to benefit from competitive prices and quality care.  And while that care usually comes in a plain brown wrapper here in France (bland waiting rooms, ugly doctors offices, minimal creature comfort options), this new program offers packages that include medical care, hotel stay and concierge service.  You simply send in your application with your medical records to a hospital specialist with a secure server, and they send you back a quote for the package. 

The only catch is they want you to prepay. Though some are complaining that the new program is meant to attract Arab sheiks and millionaires, I suspect that your average American could enjoy major savings, especially if they could get their insurance company to agree to pay part of the cost.  I can’t find an actually fee breakdown for the 110 treatments covered by the program (for both adults and children), and rumor has it there is a 20-30% price hike for foreigners, but judging from my own experience (a visit to a GP costs 23 euros here), I’ll bet the rates are quite competitive.

While I loudly applaud Obamacare, it is but a first step towards a democratic health system in the US, a mere thumbtack in the toe of the mega-monster that has grown out of unregulated medical fees (remember Stephen Brill’s amazing article in Time Magazine in 2013? Here’s an update). So why not make the most of medical tourism?  Especially now that it’s official:  you can visit France AND have hip replacement for a fraction of the cost in the US!  What are you waiting for?

Saturday, August 20, 2016

A Morning in Versailles

I thought I was being clever.  This was to make up for the fact that I was not clever last night.  Last night, I unintentionally locked the SIM card on my brand new iPhone.

Naturally, I panicked.  When I tried to unlock the SIM card, it asked for a code.  What code to put in?  The 4-digit code I used to use for the same card in my old phone, or the extended 6-digit one the iPhone made me create?   I put in the 6-digit one.  It didn’t work.  I put in again, no go.  Now I had one more chance before it locked up forever and I would have to change the SIM card and wipe out all my data.  Less than 24 hours as an iPhone owner and I was already on the verge of catastrophe.  Should I try the 4-digit? My SIM card’s existence was hanging by a thread.

Here’s where I made my clever decision.  I decided to go to Versailles.  In Versailles, aside from a famous castle, there is also the closest store where my service provider could help me with my SIM card problem.  Not only that, right next to the store there is a fabulous covered market where I could do my food shopping.  I put on a dress (I was going to Versailles, after all) and hopped on the RER C.  The car was empty, no doubt due to the fact that it was August (see previous post).  Where were the tourists?  The RER C direction Versailles Chateau is usually full of them.  Perhaps they were sleeping in. 

Seven minutes later I was in Versailles, a little surprised to see tour guides hawking their wares in the train station.  You won’t see that my sleepy suburb.  I also saw a clutch of soldiers in camouflage holding machine guns. They’ve become part of the scenery around here since the terrorist attacks.   I gaily pulled my shopping cart out onto the sidewalk and headed across town, past the enormous Versailles-esque city hall and across the gigantic boulevard that leads to the chateau.  Louis XIV was not kidding around when he decided to set up camp here.  The avenue de Paris is the width of the Champs Elysées and splits the town in half.  Two other boulevards head away from the chateau on an angle on either side, further chopping the town into wedge-like quarters.  Though Versailles is not small (some 85,000 inhabitants), those boulevards make it feel bigger than it is and deprive the city of a center, other than that massive palace at the end of every road.

This was one of the reasons that we decided not to live there.  The other had to do with the town’s reputation for being…well, a little snooty.  Yes, centuries after the last of the Louis had packed up his bags and had his head chopped off, the inhabitants of Versailles still see themselves as something special.  There is a prominent population of practicing Catholics, and a significant number of noble families.  I’ve since been told by people who live there that there is another part of Versailles where “regular” people hang out, but I’m still dubious.

So this morning I was pleased to see how much more charming the place was than I remembered.  The tourists (they had been in the front cars) all streamed off towards the castle and I plunged ahead into the quartier Notre-Dame, which was predictably empty.  I got to the store and low and behold, when I tried the 4-digit code in front of the nice lady, it worked.  My SIM card was saved.  I celebrated with a coffee and a croissant at a pretty café next to the market.  Which was remarkably quiet.  And this was because, as the waiter helpfully explained to me, the market was closed on Saturdays.

Refusing to be daunted, I decided to explore the quartier St-Louis, the neighborhood where the “regular” people supposedly hung out.  There was another open-air market in front of the cathedral.  St-Louis was an early effort in orderly urban planning on the part of Louis XIV, who was always eager to be a trend-setter.  As a consequence, the neighborhood is laid out on a grid, a little like a 17th century Manhattan.  Perhaps this is why yuppies accumulate here.  Anyway, when I arrived, the market was tiny and though the cathedral of St-Louis looked lovely, I hesitated visiting with my shopping cart. 


So it was time to head home.  The train was delayed so I ended up taking the bus.  And while I hadn’t really accomplished anything by going to Versailles I was glad I did, because it is a beautiful place, full of lovely cafes and markets (when they are open), and a great place to spend a sunny morning in August.

Friday, August 19, 2016

August in Paris

It’s August, and in the quiet of the Parisian suburbs that means there is not a soul on the streets.  What is normally just low-key is now silent, save a few lone inhabitants, aimlessly wandering the streets like survivors of a nuclear blast. There is nothing post-apocalyptic about the scenery though, which is a pleasant mix of cute little houses and boxy modern apartment buildings.  The best part is the greenery, which is lush.  We are just a few steps from a forest, and the neighborhood is dotted with some nice old trees, like the huge weeping willow on the corner, which is literally the size of a house. 

Most of the stores on the main drag, if you can call it that, are shuttered, with notes taped to the metal shutters announcing their summer closures.  The mini-super market is open, as is one bakery, to feed those few who are not on a beach somewhere, slathering the sunscreen and trying not to get stepped on by the hordes of fellow vacationers.

I prefer to stay on my deck chair in the back yard this summer.  When the sun is out, I can close my eyes and pretend that I am at a luxury resort on the Riviera.  After all, it’s the same sun beating down on my face, the same warm breeze caressing my limbs, the same quiet massaging my temples.  OK, I’ll admit that instead of the cry of seagulls I hear the twitter of sparrows and instead of the distant roar of crashing waves, I hear the distant thunder of the RER C.  But by and large, what I lose in pampering I gain in the relaxing effects of sleeping in my own bed and not needing to get to the airport. And it’s not like I could ever afford a luxury resort to begin with. 

Then I decide to go to the movies.  I waltz into my private screening room that the owner of MK2 Parnasse has so kindly opened for my personal benefit.  Or else it certainly seems that way—I am the only person at the 1:30 matinee and get to enjoy Florence Foster Jenkins without any one near me crinkling wrappers or munching on popcorn.


But the best part of my home-grown luxury vacation is the silence.  The muted calm that you pay for at a ritzy resort is a standard feature of any residential neighborhood in Paris after July 14.  In fact, Paris in August is what some evil-minded tourists dream of: Paris without the Parisians.  Be advised, however, while the Parisians might be gone, their places have been filled by thousands of out-of-town guests, who clog the arteries of every major attraction.  It may be a nice playground, but one you will have to share with the other kids, who might not want to play they way you want them to.  To them, it might be fun to scream or run around or push people.  

So beware.  Or be willing to strike out into the quiet corners and park benches where if you close your eyes, you could be just about anywhere warm and peaceful.


Sunday, December 27, 2015

Christmas Aftermath

There was a whiff of hangover in the air yesterday at the covered market.  It was strangely quiet, as if a mute pedal had been applied to the noisy instrument that generates the usual cacophony.  Both the customers and the merchants were bleary eyed:  this one walked off without his package of fruit, that one forgot the order he just took. 

I can’t say that I was much better off, as I was recovering from an epic Christmas lunch, one that started and ended with champagne and included all sorts of deliciously noxious substances in between.  Apèros with champagne are all the rage these days, so I started off with munchies and a flute of bubbly, which hit my nervous system like a spray of sequins and quickly infiltrated my blood stream.  Soon it was time for a succulent slab of foie gras with a glass of Sauternes from a bottle that was so old the liquid had turned the color of an antique wedding ring.  It tasted like pink gold too.  Chablis was required for the oysters and smoked salmon, and a nice Bordeaux for the leg of lamb and the subsequent round of cheese, and after all that, why not haul out the rest of the champagne for the bûche?  A bûche is a traditional, log-shaped, rolled Christmas cake that everyone complains about (eww!  It’s too sweet!) but everyone gobbles down when it appears on the table at the end of a long meal. 

Suffice it to say that I barely remember who gave me what when we unwrapped the presents and I am embarrassed to admit that I collapsed on my son’s Jumbo Bag and fell into a deep sleep at 6:30pm.


Today, I joined the ranks of those who doggedly attempt to eliminate the alcohol and calories of Christmas at the pool.  “I don’t know what happens,” a woman was moaning to her friend in the dressing room, “I just have no control when it comes to chocolates.  I can eat the whole box.” Just in case you thought that French women really don’t get fat.  It’s not easy to resist when exquisite chocolates are constantly shoved under your nose during the holidays.  But I’m trying to be strong.  After all, it’s only a week until New Years.