In class, one-to-one with a young woman. Her limp ponytail drags between her slumped shoulders. I’m patiently listening to her gulpy, whispered half-responses. Gently, I ask for a full sentence, and she’s staring down at the table, cold. Out of my peripheral vision, the television in the next room plays a special report: death rituals in some faraway country. The desiccated, hollow, toothy face of a man’s dead father comes up onscreen. My eyebrows twist in morbid fascination as he explains the bathing and offering of food and cigarettes to the mummified body of his father.
My attention whips back to my student, and I tune back in. It’s been almost a full minute of silence. I rephrase in favor of a black-or-white question. She continues staring down, frozen in time.
The full-length window facing the sidewalk buzzes with passersby. One figure looks in, then turns and stops. Staring at me through the window, vulgar, slack-jawed, grimy canvas vest, clutching a tattered shopping bag. I flush when my eyes meet his, and hurriedly tune back in to my student, who is just finishing her carefully composed response.
My eyes crinkle with a plaster-toothed, dry smile. “Great,” my voice creaks.
“Yeah, when I was in New York on business…”
“Those 2 weeks I was in the U.S…”
“The food is terrible… all those hamburgers and hot dogs…”
“American culture? What culture?”
“There’s not much history there, is there?”
“Ugh, that American accent… I can’t understand a thing!”
“The thing about Americans is…”
I mold my teeth back into a stiff-lip chiclet smile. Heh, heh. Very amusing. They look so comfortable, self-assuredly snickering at a caricature of a country they love to shit on.
I observe with fascination the smug joy in their eyes, the derisive wheezy laugh. All driven by a glaringly misguided, yet gloriously seductive need to be better than.
Why should I rain on their shit-parade? I wouldn’t dare spoil their moment of naive delight by questioning their pseudo-intellectual, stunningly brash hubris. There are indeed plenty of things to criticize, sure, but they’re pulling at low-hanging rotten fruit. The bland revelation is too simple, too deliciously satisfying to resist.
Is this how they go through life? Satisfied with a facile, self-serving version of reality, with no desire to learn more?
I’m not offended at their (perhaps unintentionally) injurious comments; that would be too easy. No, I’m learning. This is a pernicious trap of logic, a hasty generalization. Such exchanges remind me to work to avoid this pitfall myself.
“Mm-hmm. Whatever you say. On to page 2…”
No, no no…
My class was meant to start 2 minutes ago.
I’m upstairs, fumbling through my bag, ripping through the contents.
Where is it…
I’m aggressively breathing, forcing air through my constricting airway. I feel flushed, my heart is racing, and hot tears are starting to erupt.
I find my homeopathy tablets and shove some under my tongue. Breathe, take control.
I feel trapped. I’m deeply uncomfortable. I want 5 minutes to go outside and breathe. I want to walk and keep walking until I get home. I want to walk straight out of this reality, if it means I can get myself back. But for now, I have to swallow those needs and do my job. The only thing I can control right now is my breath.
I crunch through what’s left of the tablets, take a gulp of water, and paste on a smile. I descend to greet my student, who looks a bit annoyed at being kept waiting. I’m 5 minutes late.
A thickly sweet voice says, “Thanks for your patience. Shall we begin our class now?” A body goes into a classroom.
Me dissolves. Breath remains.
“I don’t get it.”
Hands up in the air, head shaking, breath hissing in exasperation, body leaning back as far as humanly possible from the table. Downturned haddock mouth, brow furrowed, head slouching into a temple massage, fingers tense and aggravated.
It never ceases to amaze me, that this behavior comes from grown-ass adults: parents, doctors, lawyers, accountants, managers, generally functioning members of society.
Sometimes, I stare blankly back in response. No follow-up question, no attempt at clarification. I see expectancy and hope looking back at me; these are eyes that just want the answer, dammit!
When I see my adult students react poorly to frustration, I think back to my childhood. When my father spoke to me in Spanish and I didn’t understand, or when I had a difficult homework assignment, he’d nod his head in exasperation and exclaim: “Aprende!” Learn!
If only those were the magic words. “I don’t get it,” and instantly, you’re exonerated from the responsibility of mental exertion.
In a perfect world, I just give the damn answer, and we can all move on!
In the world of language learning, that just doesn’t cut it.
The moments of frustration, mental blanks, forgetting what we’ve seen dozens of times before… Years of experience have taught me that that is where true language acquisition happens. Learning to navigate through those difficult moments, to roll with them, not allowing them to completely block us: these skills differentiate between those who will succeed, and those who will not.
Alleviating a short moment of frustration by giving the easy way out does a disservice to the student. They are freed from the obligation to try, and thereby cheated out of an opportunity to learn. I want to echo my dad’s simple, yet timeless nugget of truth: Aprende!
I’ve been working in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) here in France for just over a year now. Of course, every student is a unique person with specific needs to address, but it’s difficult not to recognize certain recurring learner trends. I made some observations about my adult Korean students in a previous post, and it’s high time for a post about my adult French students.
One thing that I’ve noticed about my students is that they can find the process to be extremely demoralizing and stressful. Making mistakes and/or looking “ridiculous” in front of other people seems to be a fate worse than death.
It feels like it goes beyond the very normal element of shyness and hesitance to make mistakes. In the past year of teaching English, I’ve never heard so many apologies for making errors. I’ve never heard so many curse words muttered out of frustration, either. When it comes to learning English, there doesn’t seem to be much room for patience and forgiving oneself for not getting it down perfectly.
Is it related to saving face? Or unwillingness to “dumb-down” and flatten what would be articulately expressed in their native language, to roughly translate their ideas into a foreign language?
The number of students, especially higher-level ones, that revert to using French is surprising. Oftentimes, rather than using English to convey their idea with the words they can, they’ll ask me for a translation from French. Fortunately for them, my French isn’t perfect, and there are plenty of words that I don’t know yet. Those tend to be precisely the kinds of words they’re searching for.
I also find it funny when they are dismayed at the irregularity of English rules; it is a decidedly hard language to master. But now I’ve spent a long time intensively studying French, memorizing the maddening irregular verbs and genders that don’t make logical sense, along with the hugely different ways of interpreting and expressing time. French is a beautiful, intricate language that is also difficult to master. “Hello? French isn’t exactly a cakewalk, people!” It’s not unfathomable to learn a language with very irregular rules. Why the dismay?
I get part of their frustration. The English language education system here wasn’t terribly focused on promoting speaking skills and real comprehension. Now, more and more people are trying to make up for lost time in learning English for their job, to improve future prospects, or to facilitate communication while traveling. And learning English later in life seems to be a common regret.
The recurring word here: criticism.
Sometimes I feel like I need to be part cheerleader for my students, to tell them that making mistakes is normal, that it’s okay not to master a new grammar point just a couple days after learning it.
Of course, as a teacher, it’s my job to understand their needs and respect certain limits; but at a certain moment in time, I like to encourage them to push those limits. Speaking in short phrases, using the same old tired vocabulary/phrases that are sure to be perfect: in the end, they’re crutches that won’t be useful in getting through the plateau. And to illustrate the importance of breaking these habits, I tell them all the time: “You’re not a robot, so don’t speak like one!” In the kindest way possible, of course. I wouldn’t like to be a slave driver of a teacher: from what I can tell, they’ve had enough of that already.
Encouraging them to remember that English can be a pleasure, and that with it they can connect with a wider community of people, seems to give incentive and boost their morale. And that’s what I’m there to do.
All right, time to do another visa-related post… this time, I will outline the maddening process of getting into France as an American. The path I chose wasn’t the easiest, but it was the quickest and surest way of getting here, considering my lack of other options. You who are reading this now, I assume you found me through an Internet search; welcome! Please take this information as an example, not as gospel. This is the type of blog post I wished existed when I started this process back in 2012. Be prepared to do A LOT MORE googling to get the answers you need to make your decision.
Things to know off the bat:
-I don’t have direct ancestry in Europe, so applying for citizenship through family wasn’t an option for me. If it is for you, good on you!
-I’m not a student anymore. There ARE programs that help get American students out here to work (most notably the Teaching Assistant Program in France), but you should have a good level of French first (B1-ish or low intermediate), or be below a certain age, depending on the program.
-The information I put here is specific to my situation as an American coming to live with my partner in the Maine-et-Loire department in Pays de la Loire; beware! Other regions and people of other nationalities may have a different battle on their hands.
So, you want to come to France…
A bit about me: I met F, a Frenchie, while I was working in South Korea. We both ended up leaving the country, but we wanted to stay together. There begins the adventure. In the end, I found out that coming to France, while difficult, would be easier than finding another foreign country where we could both live and work. It was definitely easier than trying to get him to the United States, especially as we were an unmarried couple trying to stay together, and trying to reunite as quickly as possible.
[Phase 1 : Job Search]
The job search: I came to France twice, to try and find a job–I’m an English teacher, and there is plenty of work here… for people who already have a visa. Without a visa, it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to get your foot in the door.
[Phase 2 : Back to School]
So, no job without a visa and no visa without a job offer… What to do? I took the advice I received multiple times from other Americans, and decided to enroll in an intensive FLE (Français Langue Etrangère/French as a Foreign Language) program; 20 hours a week/visa sponsorship. The downside? The cost. Yes, university is free here… degree programs, that is. I wasn’t prepared to go through the entire process of university admissions again, nor was my level of French good enough to get into a program here. FLE programs in France are expensive, I’m warning you now (between about 1500E-2200E per semester). The upside is, students have the legal right to work part-time, so once you arrive, as long as you’re in a decent-size city, you should be able to find some work if you dig deep enough.
[Phase 3 : PACS]
I went to my local Tribunal d’Instance and picked up the paperwork to apply for a PACS (Pacte civil de solidarité–it’s like a civil union. It counts in France to establish ties, which makes the visa application process easier, but it doesn’t count for beans in the US.) The paperwork was relatively straightforward to obtain, except for one document: I had to make an appointment at the American Embassy in Paris to sign a document that certified that I was not already married or PACSed. Pain in the butt and expensive, but necessary to get the PACS.
You can get PACSed at any time–but in order to apply for the 1-year carte de séjour (residency card for partners of French citizens), you must prove that you and your partner have lived together on French soil for 1 year.
[Phase 4 : Visa vie privée familiale]
Service-Public. fr (French) – Start here for information about the partner visa. Then, be sure to visit the webpage for the département where you live, and get the necessary information.
Maine et Loire (French) – The list of forms for different types of visa applications for the Maine-et-Loire department.
I’ll update this section when I get the results of my application–I’ve applied for my partner visa, and I’m awaiting the results. Hopefully I’ll update with good news within the next month or so…
[UPDATE: November 21, 2015]
Well, things weren’t as easy as I had hoped. Just over a month ago, I received an OQTF (Obligation de Quitter le Territoire Français), which is an official order to leave the country. I will write another blog post about that experience soon, but I did make a couple mistakes that ended up making the process much longer and stressful than it should have been.
First, I was applying to a Préfecture that, as it turns out, is very much wary of handing out visas to foreigners. There were several factors that counted against me in the rejection letter:
-F and I weren’t PACSed for long enough before I submitted the application to change my visa status. One year is preferable. Keep in mind that as a foreigner, obtaining documents for the PACS takes time, so if you’re under pressure
-I wasn’t in France long enough to have established “deep and long-lasting” ties to France. I listed my parents and siblings as residing in the United States, which also counted against me. So, if you are in a similar situation as I am, get as much supplemental proof as possible. If you are employed, get your employer to write a letter. Ask your partner, your French friends, teachers, in-laws, and anyone who can vouch for your ties to France to write you a letter of support. I had to do so during my appeal, but I believe that would have helped if I had it from the start.
-Third, you should know that there are lawyers, associations, and in my case, local politicians who will be sympathetic to you in case your application is rejected. My rejection letter took nearly 6 months to get to my door, and by that time, I had an expired visa with no other recourse except to appeal the decision.
There are 3 steps to appeal a decision from the Préfecture:
1. Recours gracieux (resubmit your application with more information and additional proof, and hope that they will accept your claim the second time around)
2. Recours administratif (appeal to the higher-up of whoever issued the decision)
3. The Tribunal (going to court. This requires hiring a lawyer, some of whom accept governmental aid, if you qualify for it)
So, I finally got my visa. Lesson learned: navigating French administration is not for the weak-hearted.
- France Diplomatie – Coming to France (English)
- OFII/Office Français de l’Immigration et de l’Integration (French)
You. Must. Learn. French. If you’re hell-bent on coming here, it’s really a non-negotiable fact. Many of the documents you need to understand are in French, and there is business you’ll have to take care of in French. I started learning French when I had nearly zero in my bank account back in the States, so it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg to get started, either. Here’s what I used:
- Alliance Française – find your local Alliance Française and see what they have available. My local chapter had classes, as well as free conversation sessions at a coffeeshop twice a month. Seek out the francophiles around you!
- Duolingo – A free, cute, fun interactive program (or app on your smartphone) to start getting those basics down.
- Coffee Break French – A great podcast, free on Itunes. Short, manageable episodes that build gradually and leave little gaps where you can repeat aloud.
- Comme Une Française – More geared toward the ladies headed to France, but this website/Youtube channel has great little videos that explain bits of French culture and language that you can’t find in textbooks. You know, the useful stuff you wish someone would tell you before you make an embarrassing mistake.
- Expat Blog post – This is advice given to an Australian about getting the vie privée familiale carte de séjour. It was posted in 2014.
- PACSing and the right to a carte de séjour in France – A blog post that set me on my current path. It’s from 2008, so it may not be 100% up-to-date.
- Expat Forum – France – This forum is chock-full of information, and people who can offer some advice/wisdom. Do a thorough search of the archives before you ask a question; there’s a very good chance someone’s already asked!
- Honest advice about moving to France – A post on the FUSAC (France-USA Contacts) website that lists advice collected from Twitter. As the title claims, it’s honest and useful.
Not too long ago, a guileless younger Me thought she could avoid the “young and struggling” phase by working abroad. Having invested 4 years into my new career, steady income with which to make student loan payments AND live comfortably, then returning home to invest in my CELTA, I thought my international experience, zeal for learning language, and work ethic would give me extra brownie points.
Now, it’s clear that my skills read as dime-a-dozen on a resume, even if I have employers and colleagues who would be willing to vouch for me and say otherwise. At first, I felt the indignation of someone wrongly passed over: “Hey, wait! It can’t be possible that anyone can have a resume similar to mine! I want to be unique! I want to stand out! Hire me!!” Well, I can now say with confidence that a healthy dose of rejection does wonders for the delusional ego. I know that I can’t sit on my heels and let my experience talk for me.
And while it may be psychologically soothing to think back and reflect on my more self-sufficient days, those days I miss terribly, it shouldn’t be a habit. The game changes every day, and there’s no time to sit back and rehash old times and old memories ad nauseum. Reflection for the sake of growth is one thing. Reflection for the sake of reliving the past, in order to avoid the unpleasant task of accepting the new reality, is another affair entirely.
The difficulty I’ve had in finding a job related to teaching—and the ensuing embarrassment and frustration—has been integral in becoming a more savvy, well-rounded woman. By no means do I claim to have completed this phase. But for the first time, I’m able to relax in my perfectionism. I’m willing to work hard, no matter WHAT job I am able to get, with the knowledge that it’s going to work out. In 4 month’s time I’ll be in France on a student visa, studying my ass off to achieve facility in French (fluency being the long-term goal, but I’m trying for a less lofty goal in the meantime), living with my boyfriend in a region where I’ve never felt more peaceful.
I’ve come to accept the fact that my English-teaching career is pretty much at a standstill. I’ve realized that I’m meant for a career with more oomph, for lack of a better word. I don’t yet have the resources or requisite experience to pursue a DELTA, nor the necessary conviction to select a focus for a Master’s degree. All I have the money for, and the motivation to pursue, is studying French and indulging in my passion for cooking.
I’ve also realized that maybe now isn’t the time to obsess over career development, and that I have more pressing need for personal development.