Friday, December 31, 2010

Winter clouds and landscapes

Christmas in so many ways

The season has taken over my head, my heart, my space. It's been a time of decorating the house, bringing Christmas into our visual world. It's been a time of baking and contemplating. But also a time of learning, exchanging querying.

I haven't spent many Christmases in France. Once early on in my marriage, once when Jonas was born (early December), two years' ago shortly after the divorce, and this year. I'm not quite practiced at the act you might say. I don't have my bearings, I'm not an experienced adept. And yet, having lived here for 15 years, few in my circle 'get' that.

So, amidst the joys of the school Christmas market and the marvelous village of gingerbread (aka pain d'épice) in Jonas' class, the presentation of the Jeux de Noel by the teachers in school, the stars folded and created by Jonas and brought home to adorn my windows, the Christmas fairs lit up and delightful in every city, the lights hanging over the roads... I've absorbed some of what happens here.

In my own home I blend traditions -- I've my tree with my collection of ornaments acquired over a lifetime, and my Provençale crêche acquired from my years of touring to the village of Séguret where my favorite santonnier lives. I put candles around the room (the kitchen) and made an advent calendar with a little help from Cultura -- our cultural book/cd/art supply store chain. I made my raspberry chocolate bûche (see the recipe in my blog from exactly this time last year) - an item 'de rigueur' for my children and myself now. I tried to hang stockings by the fire -- I wanted to -- but they didn't arrive in time from NY (they'd been stored at Mom's). I do hope the Post Office hasn't lost them!

This was a year of both joy and melancholy. It is peculiar being a single mom in a country which is almost but not quite yours. I thought I might spend Christmas with the new beau, but in fact, that didn't work out, for many reasons, amongst them a French tradition that deems Christmas an intimate family affair. We'd been seeing each other gently this fall, but there's no declaration of more for the moment, and it is simply not appropriate, done, approved, of blending families for such an event. Ah well.

And so I looked to girl friends. I didn't quite feel up to spending Christmas alone. This being Erick's year, I was able to keep the boys for Christmas Eve, but then passed them to him for this week. And, I realized that here too, this is an intimate family event. And, my status and confusion being a last minute thing... it was a bit of an imposition to bring it up.

However, life is evolution, shifting, gifts, change. My dear friend P had spent Christmas alone last year -- like myself, a divorced mom who gets the kids one year in two. And she open her house, her kitchen, her couch and her family to me and mine. We were invited into the bosom of her world to share Christmas Eve with her and her boys, her new beau and his son and their respective parents. I brought my bûche, my squash recipe (which I'll tack onto the end of this post), my bread and home-made granola, plus some sparkling wine from Domaine D'Eole in Eygalières, one of the organic wineries I've worked with and visited for years.

The boys piled into the boys' room with our extra mattresses and sleeping bags (5 altogether!) and I settled happily onto the couch in the living room, and Filou (yes he was included) slept on the floor by the couch on a nice rag rug (the house cat fled to another room during this time).

We ate, drank, sang a bit, lit candles on the tree and opened presents all on Christmas Eve. The boys played together beautifully and truly enjoyed this different Christmas. We've decided that P and her boys are our cousins in Provence. She is like a sister, close, affectionate, but also honest with me. She is a teacher, a mentor, and a fellow traveler in this life that is not quite like we expected it to be when we were young.

I dropped the boys off with Erick on the 25th, went home for a bath, to check in, and then returned to the warmth of P's home to spend one more night. It just felt lovely to be 'part of' to be included. And, well, she did a splendid job of bringing Christmas to her home.

After all this, what did I truly miss? 24 hour radio stations with Christmas carols, singing in the church with Ma, and a snow storm. Provence is probably the only place this past few weeks that hasn't had snow!

Tian de Potimaron (Baked Squash)

The Squash, the pumpkin, and all its varieties is of course, and import from the new world. But, we have at least 200 years of enjoying this hearty fall vegetable in Provence. The most popular preparations are either in soup/potage or as a gratin or tian. In Provence there are now many different squash available on the market. The most abundant is the Potiron which most resembles a pumpkin, but has a slightly more watery flesh. This grows to quite large proportions and the vegetable sellers sell it by the kilo, in large slices. More rare, but much more flavorful with a meatier flesh is the Potimaron. It can be either orange or green skinned, and is 6-10 inches in diameter, and quite dense, thus heavy in your shopping basket.


- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 3 slices of bacon cut in 1/4 inch (1cm) short strips
- 2 onions minced
- One 1 1/2 kilo (3 pound) squash peeled, sliced and cut into 3/4 inch (4 cm) cubes
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 garlic cloves crushed and minced
- a couple grates of nutmeg
- salt and pepper as needed
- 3 tablespoons of honey (you can use a strongly flavored honey like chestnut, or garrigues, or a more mild, depending on availability and your preference).

In a large deep frying pan, pour in enough olive oil to cover the bottom, reserving the rest for later. Turn your flame up to medium high, and add the bacon bits and onions. Sautee till the onions are sweated and the bacon cooked. Add the squash and the remaining oil, and sautee over a medium flame, allowing them to lightly brown, for 10-15 minutes. They should start to become tender.

Now remove the squash from the flame, fold in the bay leaves, the minced garlic, and nutmeg. Salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to a baking dish/tian/gratin dish and place in the oven at 400F or 200C. Let bake for 30 minutes, or till tender. When just about done, drizzle the honey over the top, return to the oven and bake for another 10 minutes or till the honey caramelizes.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Self motivation in a young 'Arabe'

It doesn't take long, once you've arrived and truly begun living in this country, to sense the deep crevice that separates the French French from the immigrant population, majoritarily from North Africa, i.e. the 'Arabes'.

Most slurs, most annoyances, most grievances, most fear towards young people, most accusations for violent crime, fall upon the heads of the young male Arabic population.

Yes, there are sufficient incidents to prove a basis for this belief, though their grievances and reasons for acting out, burning cars, etc., are as numerous, if not more so. There are also as many other individuals who are trying tremendously hard to adapt to French culture, work in school, get ahead, be honest, strive to succeed in this country their parents chose to move to.

However, France is a country lacking in civil rights laws. Americans have these, by necessity and by belief. It is still a fact that people will hire more easily new employees who resemble them, with whom they feel at ease, etc., and thus whether you call it nepotism or simply the freedom to choose, it ends up with a slant towards hiring young white men and women from 'good' backgrounds. Particularly in a country where firing people after a short trial period is quite difficult.

I bring this sensitive topic up as I went to get my IPhone fixed the other day. The screen was smashed and I hoped to be able to replace simply the screen, and not the phone. Orange, who provided me with my phone, would take it from me and charge me a bundle, but that was not my preferred solution, particularly as I do not want to be separated from my phone, nor did I want to pay a hefty bundle.

A friend mentioned an Arab run phone/internet/etc., shop in Avignon. I found it (pretty easy to do) and discovered that the individual who repairs the phones is actually in Le Pontet. They gave me his number, I arranged to go by the next morning and thus get my phone fixed on-site while I waited, rather than leave it over night.

After scoping about a bit -- the shop is not in the easiest to spot place, and only young Arabs have any idea where it is, which I discovered after asking at a magazine store, and the Post Office. I found one such young Arab, the server of a little cafe filled with Arab men, and asked him where I might find Salin to fix my phone. He gave me good directions, told me that the shop has a name - Deblock Phone - and I went on my way.

I was graciously received, my problem solved, and a pleasant half an hour was spent in the presence of a very young man, Salin, who shared his story as a Parisian who upon graduating from high school sought out internships, etc., and was refused point blank at each stop. He had put together his resume/CV as suggested by his guidance counselor, he had been well-dressed, excessively polite, but no go. He became disgusted with the system, and decided to take the situation into his own hands. He is now the main person in our large area (including many villages, and local cities) who repairs a bit of everything, computers included, but most particularly cell phones.

A good situation evolved out of pain and rejection. He is very bright and skilled and thus could create a niche for himself. But, the chip on the shoulder remains. He's successful now, and can hire others to work with him, lease out his talents, etc., And yes, there are others like him who run the internet cafes, long distance phone card sellers, etc., They are working hard, creating businesses that everyone needs, and getting ahead. But, they still feel dismissed by the powers that be.

It's not easy living amidst racism, judgment by your origins, etc., I can see that the demographics are changing, that these young men and women are striking out on their own, adapting to the real conditions of this country and in so doing, learning to their chagrin and pain that the system set up for white French people doesn't always apply to them. I wonder for how much longer we'll hold to these rigid formulas of entering the working world when they only work for a portion of the population?

School - internships - first job(s) - hired for life.

Whether we wish it or no, things will change. Keep watching and reading.

When to be severe? When to take it mellow?

Mmm it's now been over two weeks that I've been doing my darndest to put some English into the heads of these 17 fifteen year olds. I must say, it's not been easy. A good half the class actually does its homework, tries to be present in class and are pleasant. But there's a good handful that make it excessively hard to keep order and have sufficient calm and silence to teach.

Okay, what are the many methods to get their attention available to me? So far, going silent and waiting for them to get themselves together isn't working as those who don't care, clearly care nothing for their 'friends', i.e. fellow students and even less for eventually speaking English. Okay. That works for the math teacher, but not me. So, there is separating the difficult ones, calling them on their pranks, ejecting them from class, and now, threatening detention for those who've not handed in their homework.

Oh this is not how I wanted to teach. I see that I've a job of bringing the class together as a class. For example, in trying to get them to learn and read aloud the poem Twas the Night Before Christmas -- and to work on the irregular verbs in their past tenses -- they don't hear each other, and they don't listen to me, and thus we are never in sync. This is unusual in a Steiner school where kids have music, poetry, rhythms and group activities from the early years. However, in this class there are only 4 kids who've been in the school from 1st grade. Most are recent arrivals over the past two years. And I feel the difference. I get that for the Steiner kids, learning the poem, saying it aloud, memorizing it and getting to the point of being able to recite it is completely doable. But for the new kids it is an insurmountable mountain. And, they just don't care.

It seems most sad that I need to force them to learn. But I suppose this is the state of many a teacher? I should be grateful, and I am, for the kids in the class who are bright and do all their homework in neat and easy to read handwriting, and try, truly try to learn what I'm conveying to them.

So yes, I am not too proud to ask for help. But I am sad that this help is in the form of teachers who have stronger personalities, and yes, who threaten detention after school hours, notes to the parents, etc., But what to do with apathy and serious attitude? What to do with kids who clearly don't want to be there and who don't care that they're destroying the chances of others to learn? The age of fifteen -- nearly adult? an age to be held responsible, and yet also an age where adult authority and anger can at times sway behavior, or simply provoke it further.

Meantime, I've mostly conveyed the various possibilities of the future tenses -- and suggested they listen to the Black Eyed Peas song Showdown which features the classic phrase "when there is' in the present followed by 'there will' in the future." As the equivalent phrase would be future - future in French, it is just another example of something the kids need to integrate. A rule to memorize.

Getting ready to begin the conditional -- now for this there are oodles of songs, both old standards and new ones, including the French singer Soprano's song about Hiro, that can be used to get the lesson across.

However, I opted, nonetheless, to begin O'Henry's The Gift of the Magi yesterday. We shall see how much I can get through with them, how much they understand, and whether they are willing to do the work.

Onward I go. Stretching, pulling, tugging, nudging, optimism and zen my main states of being.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Teaching English

For most of my ex-pat life, wherever it has been, I've either had 'normal' jobs, i.e. worked with the locals, or been my own boss. Whereas so many ex-pats go through some period of English teaching in their lives, in seventeen years of living abroad I've mostly managed not to. And this with two professor parents and a professor brother.

I did a short English teaching stint last fall as a desperate effort to earn a bit more during the tourism off-season, but didn't particularly relish the effort of teaching demoralized, depressed and not always particularly bright adults who were out of work. Sorry! I'm not the best of teachers, given a three hour stretch, for encouraging such a 'publique' to learn something they've been told to do but don't truly want to do.

Yet here I am, quite excited about my new activity. It is meagerly remunerated -- as much is at the Steiner school here -- but it is a fun and interesting challenge. I am the new English teacher to the 9th grade class, aka 17 fifteen year olds, at my kids' school. I actually really enjoy adolescents, and at least half the class is quite bright, and though there are a very small handful of seriously not-interested kids, the majority seem eager for me to be there and give them some intellectual nourishment.

I'm filling in for a teacher who left early on maternity leave, and at this time, it's just a 6 month assignment. With the end of May I will return to my tourism activity full-time. And during April and May I will juggle tourism clients in-between the 3 weekly classes I have.

And so, as per my contract, I have an hour Monday, 3/4 hour on Tuesday and 2 hours on Friday of teaching time. They had a good teacher last year, poor teaching the two years prior and a mixed bag before that. In addition, more than half the class has been in the school but one to two years. As such, the Steiner style is still new to them.

I was told I needed to review as much grammar as possible with them, and that I could focus on American Literature and Culture. (Last year was focused on British lit and culture). And so I dug into my brain for ideas of my favorite American authors, remembered what I'd loved reading in 5th grade, considered, checked the internet, ordered books from Amazon... and prepped away.

I've now 5 books of English grammar for foreigners on my desk (I had never taught the préterite before), copies of O Henry and Edgar Allen Poe short stories, and--downloaded from the internet--the complete texts of Lincoln's Gettysburg address , JFK's inaugural address, this latter plus MLK's I have a Dream speech I will play for the kids with my IPhone and speakers.

With tons of prepping, discussing with colleagues to get a reality check, observing my most gifted colleague (a Brit who is truly a fantastic teacher and happily is Leo's English teacher at school. She also makes a mean mince-meat pie!) etc., I went into class Monday afternoon all ready to conquer the hill of "WILL, WON'T, ..."

I was able to present one element of grammar: "I am 30 years old. I will be 31 years old on the 15th of July." Yes, from simple present to simple future. And I discovered that they need revision on numbers, all those "st; nd; th; etc," on our numbers are just completely baffling to these kids. OK, note taken.

I then switched to the poem we're reading and memorizing together, Twas the Night Before Christmas. In good Steiner fashion I put a short bio of the author with it, though the time was too short to discuss him. We played the game of what Christmas and winter words they already know, and then began reading through the poem to recognize words they knew, and then attacked the new vocabulary. We read but two stanzas. But in there you've :'kerchief, snug, nestle, stockings, stirring... Some good words, don't you agree?

Homework -- two short exercises for the grammar, memorize the first 4 lines of the poem, learn the vocab.

Next day -- one child had done his. Ah well, t'is quite likely I spoke too quickly (a tendency of mine) and yes, the class time was pretty much up when I gave them their assignments, etc., So, I said alright. A day of Grace. I accept the possibility of my requests not having been clear. So, here is the work for Friday, let there be no mistake!

And then we started our Tuesday class-- a far more brief 45 minutes, so I was less ambitious. We began by reading the irregular verb past tense list -- yes, boring you might say, but our school's technique is simply to read it aloud every day as if it were a poem, and then over time, they've got them down pat, without the pain and boredom of 10 per night, etc., I put it at the beginning of the class when we're all standing for the 'partie rhythmique', a brilliant element of the Steiner school.

Thus, I will be beginning each class standing and reciting our poem altogether (having them memorize a stanza per class) followed by the verbs, and perhaps I'll get my list of vocab words out and let them sit down one by one as they successfully give the correct answer, and /or speak the lines of the poem from memory as I'd requested for their homework.

I am hugely inspired by my colleague and her bag of tricks -- never let them get bored, every game is a source of learning, keep them present and interested. As such, no individual lesson element goes longer than 10-15 minutes, and there is as much participation and positive reinforcement as I can muster "what words do you know in this paragraph? what words can you hear as I read the poem." and only after we've established what they already know, do we attack the new.

hmmm t'is a very interesting challenge. Shall we get through The Gift of the Magi? We shall see.