9/18/08

Histoire d'un voyage faict en la terre de la France

Yesterday was a bit of a red letter day in that I spent more time enjoying myself than not. In other words: hurray.

My first class was called "Littérature et histoire: représentations de l'Amérique." I was hoping it would count for CMP credit (comparative cultures - i.e. other cultures with North America, because clearly we're the only people who count) at Midd, but it turns out the class is based around a book called Histoire d'un voyage faict en la terre du Brésil. The spelling is funny because it was written in the mid-1500s by a guy by the name of Jean de Léry, French Protestant missionary and explorer of the area around present-day Rio de Janeiro, which the French briefly colonized before being routed by the Portuguese. I think it's going to be a really interesting class, though the book is 600 pages of 16th-century French, which isn't hard to decipher, it just doesn't go nearly as quickly as normal French. Even cooler, Jean de Léry had a contemporary named André Thevet who was a Catholic missionary (so even though they were there at the same time, they didn't do much interacting - the Catholics had the island, the Protestants the mainland) who also wrote a book, of which there's a copy of the original printing in the Médiathèque François Mitterand here in Poitiers. So anyway. I'm going to spend a semester learning about cannibals and French missionaries. Fun stuff.

After a rather tasty pizza (which doesn't much resemble American pizza) at the cafeteria, I proceeded to "Théorie des genres et poétiques comparées: la mimèsis," which would have been not at all what I was expecting, except that I had no idea what to expect. Mimesis, for those who (like me) have forgotten all the technical terms they learned in lit class, is "representation or imitation of the real world in art and literature." We mostly read excerpts of Plato and Aristotle and talked about how Plato thinks mimesis is bad (one step further removed from the ideal) and Aristotle thinks it's normal (representation is how we give meaning to the world). It was more philosophy than literature, but quite interesting. We'll see how that goes.

I then ventured into town to look for books for my classes. There's nothing like the Midd bookstore (I actually miss it, even with its exorbitant prices; at least everything is laid out in an orderly fashion), more along the lines of Barnes & Noble crammed into four or five very small floors with amazingly inadequate signage. I did not spend €60 (nearly $90) on the recommended dictionary for my translation classes, going instead with the €20 variety (what's 100,000 words either way? If I need more I'll go to the library). I did purchase Bescherelle: la conjugaison pour tous, which is a magnificent little book that makes my nerdy heart glow. The first section is devoted to 88 tables with paradigms for every possible category of verb. The second section is all about the grammar of the verb, proper usage, etc. The third section is an exhaustive alphabetical list of every French verb in existence, with numbers to refer you to the appropriate paradigm for conjugation. And it's small and red and shiny and the charts are color-coded and I'm pretty much in love. I found the book about Brazil with no problem, but had significantly more issues with the books for my comparative literature class, La Locandiera (Italian) and Minna von Barnhelm (German), both in bilingual French/original editions. One bookstore told me they might be in Monday (our professor swears she ordered them at the beginning of the summer); the other told me they didn't think those editions were still in print. At that point I gave up and decided to go to the library.

Never having used a French library and having no idea how the cataloging system worked, I went straight to the computer to search, and miraculously found both books in the appropriate editions and available in the library I was in (not a given - there are university libraries scattered throughout the city by subject). So I went to a librarian to ask for help finding them, and was redirected to a pile of small yellow forms, told to fill one out for each book I wanted, and present them to the librarians at the long counter labeled magasins (stores). I did so, they went off to search, and came back 10 minutes later with the books I wanted (there was apparently some issue finding La Locandiera). Apparently they do not trust mere readers to navigate a library. I'm curious as to how they decide what goes in magasins and what in the big room full of books I saw through the door to my right. Oh well. I finished La Locandiera today and very much enjoyed it, though having the Italian and French side by side kept getting me sidetracked on suspicious translation choices.

In the evening I went to a Bible study group that Christelle is a member of, called GBU (Groupe Biblique Universitaire), which, as it turns out, is part of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, to which InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (the student group at Midd) belongs. Small world. Anyway, it was interesting. The point of the group is to be somewhat more academic than religious, making study of the Bible open to people of any or no faith, so there was no praying or singing or anything like that. Students in the group take turns presenting studies on shortish Bible passages; I wasn't overly impressed with the first one -- I thought everything they said was fairly self-evident -- but it's a good theory and I hope some interesting things will come out of it. If nothing else, I'll learn quite a lot of vocabulary specific to religious stuff.

After the meeting, we ate at one of the University Restaurants (or RestoU's), where we had galettes and crepes and sparkling cider (which, as it turns out, is alcoholic in France -- surprise surprise). There were a lot of jokes told, some of which I got and most of which I didn't. Humor and plays on words will probably be one of the last things I conquer. Still, it was fun, and everyone was very friendly and only a little mocking about having to explain everything twice for the American.

Today was spent trying to make a dent in the letters I owe people, which was only vaguely successful (turns out writing letters takes a long time, which wasn't an issue over the summer when I had lots of time), finishing La Locandiera, going to the post office, and working on one of the three translations I have due next week. I love translation so much. I think I'm spending way more time on it than is strictly necessary to do well in the courses, but whatever, I'm learning and having fun. I was surprised this afternoon when Bruno came home at an uncustomary hour with a friend of Brenda's in tow - he speaks no English, she speaks no French. I got some impromptu practice at interpretation, which was pretty cool. Brenda grew up in Zimbabwe, as did her friend Susan, who now lives in England. Tonight at dinner (which was pretty amazing and ended with chocolate soufflés) they told stories about childhood in Zimbabwe, their high school classmates who died in the army (mandatory conscriptions, such a scary thing), what it's like going back now. I was trying desperately to remember enough from my history of Africa class to put it in perspective, but mostly what I could summon up was that Robert Mugabe was/is pretty much a lunatic (now that I'm reading the Wikipedia article, I remember there were a lot of acronyms involved: ZAPU, ZANU, etc. -- what Susan and Brenda were calling the Bush War we learned about as the Second Chimurenga). It was really weird realizing that I was getting more or less the colonialist side of things (they're civilians, obviously, but still). As far as value judgments were made in our class, it was mostly in favor of Africans rebelling against colonial opression, but when someone tells you their high school classmate was killed by African terrorists, you don't really know what to think. Anyway, dinner conversation was incredibly interesting.

Now I should definitely go to bed, as it's up at 6:45 to get ready for an 8 a.m. history class. 8 a.m.'s suck even more when you have to take a 7:30 bus to get to them.