Since I passed my CAPES to become a tenured English teacher in France almost 8 years ago (what?!) the more intense, more difficult agrégation has been lingering as an option in my mind. I always told myself I’d do it a few years from now, once I really felt like moving on from lycée teaching and once my potential future kids were older.

But being on the edge of burn-out has led to a slight change of plans. I was inspected (=evaluated) this spring and an inspection these days is suppose to be an opportunity to reflect on your career. So, I reflected on my career. And I started to think that I may need a way out earlier rather than later. So I decided to attempt the agreg next year.

Like I said the inspection is supposed to be a discussion of your teaching career, so I opened up to the inspectrice about this and she had only encouraging things to say. So while I have no illusions (I hope) about my chances of succeeding this year given that I will have no time off for it and I have a toddler, I’m still game to do as much as I can.

I hesitate to talk too much about what being agrégée would do for my professionally, but essentially since I would being doing the externe exam for the public system, it would allow me to work in public schools, prépas, some university positions, and, I hope, open up the possibility of other related positions in the fonction publique.

But that’s all a long way off. For now I’m cracking into Middlemarch (one of seven books I’ll need to read/re-read) and trying to figure out what a dissertation is (a French type of essay-writing).

Reading in French

I still mostly read in English thanks to my Kindle which allows me to so easily buy books in English and carry them around with me on trips. Every once in a while I read in French though and I’m starting to notice a pattern with the books I like.

They’re all essentially nonfiction by fiction writers.

Last weekend I finally picked up Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano who won the Nobel Prize a few years ago—and that’s when I bought the book. I threw it in Littlest’s diaper bag on a rock-climbing outing just in case I needed something to do and it turns out, it’s a really fast read. I finished it yesterday. I found it fascinating and wonderful—though wonderful in terms of the writing and the concept, since it is essentially about the Holocaust. I did some research afterward to try to figure it out—and it’s all true. Modiano actually did become obsessed by a missing child ad while he was reading an old newspaper (from 1941) and eventually do extensive research on her, and that’s all chronicled in this book.

So that’s when I noticed a pattern with the French books that I’ve really loved.

Annie Ernaux: Les Années: Read on the recommendation of a French acquaintance years ago. This doesn’t even really tell a story—it recounts the life of an anonymous French woman in post-war France who essentially represents all women in the decades that have passed since the war.

Frédéric Beigbeder: Un Roman français: I never read 99 Francs which was made into a film. But I adored this book he wrote afterward that’s centered around an arrest and garde-à-vue experience he had. Again, all true.

Fatou Diomé: Le Ventre de l’Atlantique: I fell in love with Fatou Diomé when she was interviewed on TV a few years ago and when asked the question, “Are you afraid of Marine le Pen?”, she answered, “No, Marine le Pen is afraid of me” (and then explained very eloquently why). So I had to read her book. Turns out, again, it’s all about her: her childhood on a tiny island off the coast of Senegal, and her little brother who stayed there while she moved to France.

Maybe it says something about French writing that the books I love are not actually fiction. I mean I have read actual French novels—but even the ones that people recommend to me, I haven’t liked that much.

On that note—any recommendations out there for reading in French (that’s not Marc Levy or Guillaume Musso)?

The Past Week(s?)

Not a whole lot has been going on lately because I’ve had my butt on the couch most of the time since knee surgery.

J and I did get out to see Anaïs at our village hall last Sunday. No kidding, the local music association got Anaïs to come (well, they paid her obviously) to come to our little suburban village, in the hall where we got married. Anaïs’s last album didn’t take off, but she gave a great show and you could tell she is really talented.

Yesterday morning J left with the regional youth climbing team to this place and I am a bit jealous though okay with not having to take care of any teenagers 24/7 for the moment. That time will come for me, when I go to Slovenia (yay!) with my students in the spring.

We came across a French television series the other night that we actually liked: Dix pour cent. But I still don’t understand why French TV channels think it’s worth it showing two episodes per week on the same night.

Finally, that professor at my alma mater won the Booker Prize.

So, that’s all, I’ll just go back to sitting on the couch now.


I read books, every once in a while, when I find something I want to read. Actually, I really love reading. And recently I bought a book for my kindle called Wanderlust: A Love Affair with Five Continents, by Elisabeth Eaves. Highly recommend, at least, to anyone who is even slightly addicted to traveling. In the book, Elisabeth travels extensively, to put it mildly, going on lots of different types of trips—some like trips I’ve taken, some like trips friends of mine have taken, some trips that I would never take.

I’m not trying to write a book review here, but trying to understand why I liked this book so much, and why I read it right now. I think it would have been different had I read it four years ago. And different if I hadn’t started it right before J left for India.

I used to say on my couchsurfing profile that my current activity was “wanderlusting.” During my first year in France, I went to Belgium, Spain, English, Scotland, and Germany. My second year, I went to Ireland, Poland, and Morocco. My third year, I spent three days in Turkey and a weekend in Barcelona. Since then, I’ve been wandering mostly around France. In short, the traveling has seriously diminished. That’s okay, in part, I mean, it used to be sort of manic, and I never much planned for it financially. And then, my desire to travel has also always been mixed with my wish to live in France. I remember flying back from Morocco in the summer of 2008, and seeing Paris below me as the plane started to descend made me smile and take a deep breath of satisfaction. I always enjoyed the sense of adventure that living in France gave me, and yet longed for the stability of a permanent titre de séjour and a permanent job.

In Wanderlust, Eaves says at one point:

Travel is life-changing. That’s the promise made by a thousand websites and magazines, by philosophers and writers down the ages. Mark Twain said it was fatal to prejudice, and Thomas Jefferson said it made you wise. Anais Nin observed that “we travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.” It’s all true. Self-transformation is what I sought and what I found.

I think moving to France and, maybe more importantly, living in French, did create a new personality for me, maybe a new soul, the way Anais Nin put it. When I went home to Texas for my masters in 2008 I was afraid of losing something in the move back, and I think that “something” was this new “state” I had discovered by forcing myself to move to France (and I did force myself). I did things I didn’t expect I’d ever do, like wandering around Poland alone and driving in Morocco, staying in strangers’ homes and letting them stay in mine.

What’s the point of this post? I miss discovering new states. I’m jealous of J for getting to go so far away and for having the means to do it. I want to go somewhere very far, like China, or Australia. Instead, I talked my American friend Dan into going to Spain for a week next February (not much convincing necessary, really), and am hoping I can find a travel partner to go back to Ireland with me next summer. Any takers?

The CAPES "2011" écrits

Well, what to say? I took the CAPES Tuesday and Wednesday and I feel so. much. better now. The whole thing felt so shrouded in mystery. I’ve taken so many American tests that I hardly blink at them anymore, but this one felt like diving into foreign territory. And in a way, it was. But the experience itself was totally chill. I had to take a taxi in on Tuesday morning because I didn’t want to deal with the strike, but once I actually got there it wasn’t too stressful. The surveillants were totally nice, and they checked my copies both days to make sure I’d filled everything in right (though I did finish early both days). The room was about half empty the first day—that is, half the spots marked with names were empty. It’s not too surprising because lots of people had to register for 2011 before they got their results for 2010, but on the concours forums people are reporting in with much lower numbers than usual. Of course this is all informal information-gathering but it’s still interesting.

We were in the same room with the German CAPES and there were only three of us anglicistes doing the CAFEP. The girl next to me turned out to be an American—one of those slightly strange situations where you THINK you hear an accent but can’t presume, so we spoke French the whole time until Wednesday when we left the room at the same time and finally it came out that we were both anglophones.

If anyone’s curious, the commentaire was about an excerpt from Thoreau’s Walden (boy did that bring me back to high school), the thème was from Houellebecq, La possibilité d’une île, and the version was from Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. I’m not sure whether it helped that I’m a fan of hers and read the book when it came out. I won’t go into detail on each of the épreuves because, well, that’s sort of boring. But I feel like I did as well as I reasonably hoped to do, and that there’s a good chance I’ll be admissible. But we won’t know until the end of January! I haven’t decided if I’ll start working on the orals before I know if I’m going, but I’m leaning toward not, since the orals are in June (in Lille) and I’d like a big break from the CAPES.

Back to normal life! (for the time being)

I haven't blogged in a while,

sorry about that. It’s mostly because I have nothing cohesive to say. So here are just a few thoughts:

1) Some of the things the CNED profs correct me on in theme (so, in English) are adorable and wrong. Not so much wrong as unnecessary. Adverb placement where someone who’s read more in English would realize you can play with it more in certain instances. Eliminated pronouns where, actually, yes that’s fine. Turns of phrase that they don’t like because I guess they just haven’t seen enough English to realize that they’re possible and not that uncommon. (I’d be happy to give examples if anyone’s interested.) It’s weird to me because I know these are professors who’ve read lots of literature and literary criticism and translation. Next time I send in a theme I’m sending in a note that I’m a native English speaker. Unfortunately I can’t do that the day of the concours—I have to hope the actual jury is just a little more with it.

Also, one funny thing about using American English: it’s perfectly acceptable, but often the comment is added (not just by the CNED profs), “Be careful to be consistent.” Am 100% sure that comment doesn’t come up in the opposite instance, which is dumb, because I’m always consistent! My attitude is to take no risks and thus use no Britishisms.

2) Casino Géant > Monoprix. Like, 10x. I don’t know what I’ve been doing shopping at Monoprix all this time. Géant is on the way back from work and I’ve started shopping there and there’s soooo much more space and soooo much shorter lines and soooo many better chances to get SNCF S’miles for buying a certain toilet paper (40 s’miles!!!) or yogurt (more like 10). I’d been living in this horrible Monoprix world with no idea of what a better Géant world there was to be had.

3) Speaking of worlds, I just read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which just came out as a movie (also written by Ishiguro). Highly, highly recommend. Understated and sad with a little tinge of horror hidden behind the scenes and underplayed. I picked it out on my Kindle because for the concours I’ve been trying to brush up on English-language authors that I know very little about but find interesting. I thought about getting Remains of the Day but then saw that this was available and am so happy I did. It’s a super fast read. I’m sure the movie won’t come here so I’ll have to rent it when I’m home for Christmas. Next I got Paul Auster’s Timbuktu which also looks pretty sad. (Yay for my Kindle.)

4) Am going to Paris tomorrow very, very quickly (like, 24 hours) to get fingerprints done from the woman at the American Aid Society for my FBI background check which might be required for the concours, might not, but I’m taking no chances. So I’m covoituring tomorrow afternoon up to Paris to see ex-students A and C, then have my rendez-vous Monday at noon, and afterwards see Sarah K. and Lauren newly in Paris for the year. Then I catch my train back at 7:45. I have work to get done Tuesday afternoon in preparation for my first second-year class of the year on Wednesday. It’s gonna be fun, we’re going to do the Texas project.

Alice Kaplan, French Lessons

The first book I bought for my Kindle was Alice Kaplan’s memoir, French Lessons. I’ve read a few books about anglophones trying to make their way in France, and I enjoy them, but this book was different. Kaplan is a teacher and an academic, so her interest in French promised to be different from Sarah Turnbull’s or Polly Platt’s. (Almost French is a favorite of mine though—I even used it in class this year.)

The book was pretty much all I hoped it would be, and more. Of course the parts that spoke to me most were about her love of France and French and her feelings about teaching and learning languages. But there are other interesting chapters about what might be “fetishism” of French in American French departments, the relationship there among Anglophone and French expatriate professors and their relationship with the French language. That’s a career path I’m never going to go down but even from my limited experience with French departments (I was a French minor in college and took three French classes in graduate school) I could see some of it ringing true, or at least lingering (the book was written in 1987). And the bits about studying literature—even the parts about deconstructionism—were interesting to me as an ex-literature student.

My favorite parts, though, were about

1) living in and getting attached to a second culture and language
“Why do people want to adopt another culture? Because there’s something in their own they don’t like, that doesn’t name them. … French still calls out to me in the most primitive way. If I’m in a crowded room and there are two people speaking French all the way on the other side of the room, I’ll hear, loud as day, as though a friend were calling my name.”

“I’ve been willing to overlook in French culture what I wouldn’t accept in my own, for the privilege of living in translation.”

2) teaching languages,
“Talking cures: like analysts, language teachers are always in search of the foolproof method that will work for any living language and will make people perfectly at home in their acquired tongue.”

“Language teaching methods make for a tale of enthusiasm and skepticism, hope and hope dashed.”

“Moments like this one make me think that speaking a foreign language is, for me and my students, a chance for growth, for freedom, a liberation from the ugliness of our received ideas and mentalities.”

3) our relationships with our students, ,
“PhD students write their dissertations, and I don’t want to fail them the way that de Man failed me. How do I tell them who I am, why I read the way I do? … What do students need to know about their teachers?”

4) and smaller, sillier things that I remember about learning French myself.
“To this day I hesitate when I write ‘bras,’ still tempted to spell it without an ‘s.'”

The next time someone asks me why I like living in France, I might just tell them to read this book.