Sunday, November 14, 2010

C'est comme ça

In my first few weeks as an English teacher in France I quickly learned that the French public school system is extremely rigid, and that this is especially true with the English language curriculum. There is literally a template document generated by the education ministry, called le Bulletin officiel, or B.O., that is distributed to every public school in the country, and its instructions are law. After my first look at the B.O. I was surprised and a little horrified by what I saw, like a parent who finds out their child has been watching R-rated movies at a friend's house while another parent stood idly by ("How could you let them learn that?). There were too many contractions (an attempt to teach more conversational English); the example dialogue, which brought to mind scenes from Back to the Future 2 ("Great Scott, Marty!"), was pretty outdated; and there wasn't enough emphasis on the fundamentals--conjugation, syntax, identifying the subject and verb (also part of an attempt to teach conversational English).

When I and the other English speaking teachers raised these issues with the pédagogue, the teaching specialist in charge of our training, he listened patiently and acknowledged our criticisms. "Yes, I know it's not perfect," he said, "I know it has its problems. But in our rigid system, it's difficult to change. C'est comme ça." This reply had an air of gloomy finality. And there was that c'est comme ça, which literally translates to "it's like that" but means "that's just the way it is." Something about this expression was annoyingly blockheaded and resigned. What I heard was: "As much as we'd like to see changes, unfortunately on the planet we're on--in the real world--an alternative does not exist." He seemed to be saying that it's just comme ça and thus cannot possibly be anything else than what it is. That it has a certain defined nature; a dog is a dog and a cat is a cat. I didn't see it like that though. A thing has a certain nature, sure, but to me that nature is usually more of an outline than anything else, and that outline can be redrawn. (A dog is a dog? Well it doesn't have to be. Let's take it to the lab and make a half-cat half-dog. Can you say shoe-in for Best in Show?)

The American instinct is to constantly be improving, to never settle. The nature of something is merely a starting point, an opportunity to make it better. And if you're not working at it, you're failing. It's said about Michael Jordan that he would stay out on the court to practice jump shots while his teammates took water breaks. I doubt that this story is completely true, but what it says about American society certainly is. This story, even if it's a myth, comes out of the our culture of fifteen minute lunches, eating with one hand and responding to emails with the other. There is always something more that can be done, and there's not a minute to lose in doing it. Perhaps only because I learned its meaning in this American context, "that's just the way it is" seems to contain an underlying optimism about finding a solution. I envision Jordan reassuring his teammates about Patrick Ewing's dominance in the paint, "He's dominant," Jordan says, "that's just the way it is. But here's how we can still beat them..." C'est comme ça does not have the same optimistic echo in it, and this is probably because I learned it in France, where people are much more comfortable with the status-quo, or to put it another way, are not such obsessive, problem-solving workaholics. In America, you can always take more jump shots, and there are always more hours of the day you could, and should be working, improving. In France, the entire world shuts down between 12:30pm and 2:00pm, as family members gather at their homes for a relaxed meal. And if something needs to get done during that time... But that's the point, it doesn't need to get done. Ça va aller, it's going to be fine.

Even though they translate to exactly the same thing, c'est comme ça and That's just the way it is, are different to me. Any French expression is going to be drenched in the French culture that created it. But maybe it's better this way, to learn how to appreciate c'est comme ça as it is, a fully un-American expression. When you're living in France you have to accept that some things are as they are, and that not everything is an opportunity for American ingenuity and sleeve-rolling-up. So take a deep breath, sit down to a long, relaxed lunch, and accept that, c'est comme ça.

Bernard Hinault, the great French cyclist, and one of the closest things France has to Michael Jordan, once said, talking about his victory at the 1980 World Championships, "I slept like a baby the night before, because I knew that I'd win the next day." Hinault, at the top of a sport famous for the intensity of training required, probably trained as hard or harder than Jordan ever did. But Jordan wouldn't have said a thing like that; his talent was the sum of his hours of practice, and he would have credited his tireless work ethic. Where Jordan won because of those extra jump shots, Hinault won because that was the nature of the thing, immutable and true: he was the champion, c'est comme ça.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Big world, little trashcan

In my daily life in France it can sometimes feel like I’m once again a pubescent fourteen year-old—I’m constantly knocking into things, misjudging ceiling heights, and generally struck by the feeling that I’ve suddenly become taller, ganglier and clumsier. This has to do with the fact that everything in France is much smaller than it is in the US. This can sometimes mean things are neater and more tucked out of the way, but just as often it can mean that spaces, such as rooms, are compressed, even though certain contents that cannot be economized anymore than they already are—toilets, for example—remain the same size. I’d just about had it the other day when, using the bathroom in the home of a friend in Paris, I banged my head on an exposed water heater, placed perfectly at tourist head-smashing level. To make matters worse, when I instinctively drew up a hand to nurse my wound, my forearm caught a framed picture hanging on the wall. (Thankfully I caught the picture before it fell, making my head the only damaged article in the room.) Walking out of the bathroom—the walls of which had seemed in the process to close in even tighter like the trash compacting room from Star Wars—rubbing the sore spot on my head, I praised my reflexes, which I’d never more felt were a result of my American genetic make-up. I will surely need those reflexes to survive in this dollhouse of a country.

And the flip-side is not as nice as it sounds. In fact, it’s often really infuriating as well. Take for example the absurdly miniature trash cans commonplace in homes and public buildings alike, such as the thimble-sized one above. (To my eyes, these tiny waste containers do not have the capacity to house the tissues of one single nose-blowing episode from a family of mice, let alone a day’s waste from a human being: the French generate a freakishly small amount of waste.) After locating, under a table in the kitchen, say, the Honey I Shrunk the Kids trash can—the location of which can be extremely difficult in and of itself, because not only is it normally not at eye level, it’s probably not at chest level, or even waist level, but probably at something more like ankle level—I find myself having to bend down to insert my trash in ways that my body, previously accustomed to human-sized trashcans, just cannot bend—are all French people gymnasts? At this point, after nearly pulling one or both of my hamstrings, I’m furious at this stupid, ridiculous, exasperatingly small trashcan. All I want to do is kick it, yell at it, and (not so) proudly walk out on it, knocked-over and defeated on its side.

These episodes would be much less infuriating and make a lot more sense if French people were considerably smaller than we are. But—fat jokes about Americans aside—they’re not really. (Ok Americans are bigger, but the point is trashcans and bathrooms have been bigger in the US since way before we became the diabetes nation.) For this reason it can feel, at times, like a personal rebuke to America’s large-and-wasteful-but-proud-of-it mentality. And so, even such mundane interactions as the trashcan episode kick my patriotism into gear. Of course, it’s not that—a personal rebuke of American culture—, but it makes me feel bad about myself nonetheless, like a neighbor who regularly recycles when you don’t.

These moments of exasperation with life in France—a fully First World country—make me feel spoiled and needy, and as a consequence moody and defensive of the reasons for my feeling spoiled and needy. What these moments of exasperation also lead to though, is the awareness of how much the tiny little cultural differences matter—the size of trashcans and of glasses of water at lunch, or the spatial arrangement of bathrooms—and how much I love and appreciate the way it is at home.