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.


Small Victories (Requiring a Marathon Post)

It's been nearly a week since I posted - apologies. I have been both busy and tired. I will try to briefly* sum up (I wanted to say resume, but realized that only works in French - apparently the language immersion is working!) what I've been up to.

Thursday: Meeting with M. Paoli to choose courses. That was something of an organizational nightmare. On the one hand, we are much "freer" than French students in our ability to pick and choose what we want to take. On the other hand, the system really isn't designed for that. Practically everything I wanted to take was on Monday or Wednesday. The schedule I came up with doesn't particularly closely resemble the one I'm following this week. Oh well. Afterward we had apéritifs with the group, on the college (buying alcohol for its students? Cultural education, I suppose...). Several of us decided that smoothies were a legitimate alternative to cocktails. The funniest part was listening to other people trying to order a White Russian or a Bloody Mary - pronouncing them in English and not being understood by the waitress. I left early, courtesy of the bus system. Sigh.

Friday: "Cultural orientation" meeting with Viviana, to learn about even more forms to fill out and things to buy, including housing and civil responsability insurance. As it was explained to us, if, in opening your shutters in the morning, you should happen to knock a flowerpot of the windowsill and onto someone's head, civil responsability insurance will pay for their hospital bills. It was a very long and somewhat stress-inducing two hours, but we were recompensed with pretty amazing pastries. Macaroons are not the same thing as they are in the states - they are squashier and far more delicious. That evening we (my host parents, Christelle and I) had dinner at the new house of Magalie and David, friends of my host family who had been staying with us the week before. It was delicious and included homemade tiramisu. Then Christelle abandoned ship to go hang out with her friends, leaving me to be dragged by Brenda, Bruno, Magalie and David to a real live French discothèque, Les Bacchantes. I was already exhausted, so I watched them dance exuberantly to 80s music (which sounds the same in any language, apparently) into the wee hours of the morning (2 a.m., to be exact). It led me to wonder whether my middle school teachers rocked out like that on the weekends...I did in fact see some very good ballroom coexisting with the gyrating on the same tiny dance floor, including lindy hop, a complicated waltz-like thing, and even some two-step. I was, however, grateful to get home and collapse into bed.

Saturday: J'ai fait la grasse matinée -- literally, "the fat morning" -- i.e. I slept in. We did some house cleaning, I read more of La gloire de mon père. In the evening, Christelle invited me to come with her to the house of one of the women who goes to her church, an American ex-pat who's been a French citizen for 20 years now. We played Guitar Hero, for which I have developed a certain fondness, and some trivia game on the Wii, which I did not excel it given that I don't read all that quickly in French and don't know much about French culture/history. Which Christelle went out of her way to choose at every opportunity, in retribution for my beating her at Guitar Hero. Anyway, it was fun.

Sunday: Church turned into church + picnic + dinner/Guitar Hero/Wii tennis at the house of the same friend. I learned to play pétanque, a traditional Provençal game quite similar to Bocce (but with more rules). I'm not very good at it. It's really fun, though, and it's like a scene right out of an old-ish French movie set in the countryside - a group of men gathered around a cluster of boules, gravely discussing the scoring and using all sorts of unlikely implements as impromptu measuring sticks. My language comprehension probably improved in leaps and bounds that day, as that's the largest number of people I've interacted with at any one time. It's getting marginally easier to understand people I don't know.

Monday: First day of classes. I arrived early, as instructed by M. Paoli, to check the bulletin boards, since we'd been assured our classes probably wouldn't meet when and where they were supposed to. Sure enough, I ran into the professor of my first class as she was marking the new time (about fifteen minutes from that moment). Only one other girl and I showed up for the new earlier hour, so she sent us away and told us to come back at the regular time and we'd just have a shorter class. The other girl invited me to go have coffee (so much for stuck up French people, right?), which was nice. The class was not so pleasant. It was basically sentence diagramming, but in French, so I didn't understand any of the terminology. I'd decided to drop it within about fifteen minutes. I was hoping to change to the first-year version, but alas, it doesn't fit with my schedule. I then had a good long time to kill until my next class, so I went into town to open a bank account (turns out I need one if I want to apply for something called the CAF, which reimburses a portion of what you spend on housing - which is a lovely thought), which actually went smoothly. I was a little impressed with myself, since the last time I did anything of the sort, it was in English and my mom did most of the talking. My second class of the day was the thème section of my translation class; in other words, French to English. I ended up in the wrong class for the first fifteen minutes, which was awkward, but eventually made it to the right spot. The professor is British by birth, and rather stuffier and more brusque than any French person I've yet encountered. The focus is more on utility than literary nuance, which isn't what I'd hoped for, but it will still be good practice. It's also weird translating into British English, especially as the professor is quite sure that her answer is the only correct one. In sum: it was a long day.

Today: Second day of classes went much more smoothly. The oral interpretation section of my translation class is going to be great - the professors (one French, one American) are really nice and there's no lecture, just lots of practice. Today there were no grades being given, so in a completely uncharacteristic move I volunteered to go first and translate a short introduction, given in English by the American professor, into French. I was shaking like a leaf, but I think it went passably well. Then we had the version section of the class, English to French. That professor is what I was hoping for in the other class - very interested in literary conventions, given to long speeches about word choice, etc. Only it's translation into the language in which I don't really understand nuance. Too bad. Also, he was very adamant, even threatening, about the sanctity and purity of the French language (not kidding) and how he would dock the most points from our translations for misconjugated French verbs. I'm going out to buy Le Nouveau Bescherelle: l'art de conjuger before the next class so as not to pollute his native tongue with my gross grammatical errors. My third class was in comparative literature, and was a bit of a mess. Nobody had the books, including me, even though the professor swore she'd ordered them at several bookstores in town at the beginning of the summer. There weren't enough presentation slots/subjects to go around, so I don't have one and thus have no idea where my course grade is going to come from. When I asked her, all she said was, "We're a little disorganized in this department. Don't worry about it, everything will work out" (the French equivalent thereof, anyway). So we'll see.

Now it's dinnertime, and a rather tasty odor is emanating from the kitchen, so I will bid you adieu, faithful readers.

*So yeah, about that being brief...if you made it this far, you deserve a medal. Thanks for your attention!