dimanche, juin 29, 2008

08.06.29: DELF B2, Problem Solving 101

Two subjects: demonstration of foreign language capability; basic problem solving skills.

I decided that after 2 years of french lessons and, oh by-the-way, living in a francophone country, perhaps I should officially document the level of french language proficiency that I have achieved. (And I'm not even completely sure that last phrase is grammatically correct in english). There is an official exam, recognized by the EU, for example, and administered by le ministères français de l’Éducation nationale, which is called the DELF/DALF. Multiple choice for which level you would like to demonstrate: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2, from lowest to highest proficiency.

I decided to go for the B2: "Independent." Has a nice ring to it. I am no longer completely dependent to rely on the kind graces of the local population to survive. I can perhaps, from time to time, express my own wants and needs with my own poorly pronounced words and phrases. Powerful. This is the official description: The B2 has acquired a degree of independence that permits her to argue, defend her opinion, develop her point of view and negotiate; demonstrates an ease with social conversation and self-corrects her errors. Also, this is the level needed to enter french universities or to attain certain levels of employment within the EU.

I sent in my check and registration at the end of May to Paris office of L’Alliance Française. My check was cashed within days.

I begin the preparation with my french teacher. In the last few weeks I have written and presented argumentative essays to solve most of the world’s problems: I have defended the rights of spammers, argued for the continuation of the tradition of bullfights in southern france, deplored the promotion of anorexic models in modern society, and campaigned for the adoption rights of homosexuals. Well, whatever. I signed up for this.

Problem solving.

We note often that there is a significant gap in demonstrated problem solving skills between americans and french. Seems like in the US, when you explain a simple problem to someone who is in a position to change a little something, they make the change. In France, often seems like the opposite. The more solutions you propose the more intractable becomes the problem.

I called L'Alliance Française this week to find out the times for my exams. I spoke to the woman who prepares the test material; she does not arrange the scheduling. Brief synopsis of our phone conversation:

  • I cannot help you. My colleague does the scheduling. I doubt that she can call you back; she is quite busy with all the planning, you know. You can come to Paris after the 10th of July and look at times posted on the board to find the schedule.

  • I don't live in Paris.

  • You don't know anyone who lives in Paris who can come to our office to read the posting for you?

  • No.

  • You don't know anyone in the suburbs who can ride a train into Paris to look at the posted times on the board?

  • No. Do you think you can mail me the information?

  • Oh, that is not possible sir. Then we'd have to mail one to everyone.

  • Hey, how about you could post the info on your web-site?

  • I agree that that is a good idea, but I don't have access to post info on the web-site?

  • Perhaps you know the person in your organization who manages the web-site, and you could request them to make the posting for us?
(After she corrects my pronunciation of 'twenty-first century')...

  • Well, certainly I know very well the web-site manager, but it's very, very difficult to make changes to the web-site, and with summer vacations and the other responsibilities, and believe you me, I agree it's a good idea, but I am sure there is a very low probability that that will happen. Did I tell you that I only manage the test material; our tasks here are very well defined and separated into little tiny boxes. My colleague takes care of the scheduling; my other colleague manages the web-site. We don't overlap on tasks.

  • Do you think you could send me an e-mail?

  • Weeeeell, exceptionellement, perhaps I could do that.
She notes my e-mail address, which I spell for her about 3 times.

  • I will try, this is not guaranteed, and you know, sometimes e-mails don't go thru. But very exceptionally for you, I will try.

Oh-la-la. Crisis averted. And I had that whole conversation in french.

Can I have a few bonus points for the upcoming exam based on this phone conversation?

Some links for amusing yourselves:
Info about the DELF/DALF: http://www.ciep.fr/delfdalf/
L’Alliance Française: http://www.alliancefr.org/rubrique.php3?id_rubrique=2339

dimanche, juin 22, 2008

08.06.21: Bordeaux-Paris, à vélo

In the cold dark grey of winter, it's easy to commit to anything.

So there I was, surrounded by a bunch of french guys, all talking all at once, way too fast for me to understand, and then the president looks at me and says: You wanna do Bordeaux-Paris with us don't you Pat (or something reasonably equivalent in French). My history is that the president looks out for me. He tells me when to pay attention; he invites me to participate in events that he thinks I will enjoy. So of course I said: Yeah, sure, why not. I am thinking of Bordeaux wines, sunny days in the south of France with a pleasant migration north.

Later, like a month later, I asked the president what is this Bordeaux-Paris thing anyway, like a 5-day bike ride, enjoying the scenery and good wines of france? No .. it is a 620 km bike ride in a week-end, non-stop. By this time, I had already said I would do this, and I don't back out of anything them frenchies challenge me to do. I do my part to sustain some national pride; there are not a lot of north americans in these parts.

So off to training, which turned out to be a bad experience this spring. Every cold grey damp sunday morning I got in line with everyone else in the club, and nearly every week I blew up. Some sort of strange behavior of the cardiac under stress. Never seen before by me, but rather unpleasant to limp home every sunday, the last 80 km or so, with a heart rate unregistreable by my heart monitor. Good intentions, slow moving legs. What a pisser.

I already said I would do this.

Off to the médecin generale, eye-nose-throat specialist (oh yeah, had a bout of laryngitis in the mix), then cardiologist. Lots of wires hooked up for stress tests EKGs and probably some other stuff I didn't understand. I only blow up on the road, in public, apparently. Best the cardiologist could say is I probably have a sort of arrhythmia that can manifest itself under some forms of extreme stress.

And, I already said I would do this.

Next several weeks, every week-end, trying to extend the distance I can do comfortably. One Saturday, 230 km, no problem. Following week-end, blew up 80 km into 120 km ride. Following week-end, hard ride on Saturday of 180 km, followed by blow-up on Sunday 30 km into 150 km ride. I watch the other guys in the club regard me with doubt and suspicion. I use the language barrier as self-protection. I cannot explain what is going on, and I am not going to back out of this.

Cardiologist recommends I cancel the plan. But, I already said I would do this. He gives me a fancy heart recording box; tells me to keep with me on the bicycle, when (not IF) when I blow up again, I am to calmly dismount the bicycle, sit on the ground, relax, take the magic recording box out of my pocket, and then register my heart movements through my fingertips in this box. OK, why not. He can use it later for a diagnosis, he says.

Friday, 20-juin, am. We assemble at Michel's load up the bikes and equipment. Drive to Bordeaux. Uneventful. Michel is 67. Today is the first day in his life that he has driven on the auto-route. He knows every back road in France; doesn't like to drive too fast. We check into Kyriad; assemble at Buffalo Grill for early dinner. I chuckle. I am in France, with all french folks and we are eating in a resto with red vinyl seats, pictures of cowboys and indians on the wall, and Budweiser and buffalo burgers on the menu. They ordered the red wine from California, just to give me a hard time. For dessert, I ordered a ' crumble', tried to pronounce it like I thought a french guy should; the waiter did not understand me until the third try; they in fact pronounce closer to how we would say it anyway; he then starts to tell me the origin of the word is english and the meaning; he takes it pretty good when I tell him I american. Have to be careful about correcting french in public, they really really really don't like to be embarrassed in public.

Sat, 4:30 AM. Chanon's alarm watch goes off. Light breakfast; leave the hotel at 5:30; pedal the few k, to the starting line. 6:00 AM sat AM, 21-jun, 1500 bicyclists are lined up to begin a non-stop ride to Paris. What the hell is wrong with this?

Nothing. I said I would do this, after all. The friendly french meteorologist promises nothing but sun & warmth, nothing but sunshine on this longest day of the year. Also, in France, it is la fête de la musique. I am expecting little break-outs of music all along the travel route.

We roll out together, I join a peloton of about 100 riders doing about 30 km / hr. It feels good. We stop 100 km and a little over 3 hrs later. I have not blown up; my legs, lungs and heart check good. Mr. President decides we should ride a little slower; we have yet a long way to go. So we let the peloton go, us following in a smaller group rolling a little more casually until we hit the region 'vallonée', then I continue as a small group of 1, doing what I can, knowing I can usually catch the others when the route flattens out a little. The day remains sunny, the temperature climbs, the route continues the next 200 kms of 1 km ascents followed by 1 km descents. I gain no net altitude, but I work hard to do it. Early afternoon, full sun, 35 deg C, longer gradual climb of 5 km and I think I am going to blow up. But, I said I would do this, so I tell myself to continue until I really do blow up. When that happens, it is all over. I am fatigued, but my heart retains its rhythm, elevated, but not unstable. 9:00 PM I stop for pasta re-fill, simple road-side self-clean, rest for an hour, and decide if I want to continue. I am cooked, but the heart beats steady, I continue. The sun sets, the temperature drops, we mount lights on our bikes, and reflective vests, and continue in the dark. It is stone quiet except for the pedals, the chains, and the wind, and breathing. We are 4, together, rolling at 25 km/hr in the dark with merely our small handlebar lights to see, on french country roads in the middle of france. I recover, slowly. This is some of the most enjoyable bicycling I have done. 8 wheels, 8 pedals, 8 legs, all in sync, in the quiet, in the dark. No thoughts but pedal rotation in a steady manner. Temperature perfect, copains also.

There are 3 levels of participation in this event: slow, medium, fast speeds. The slow group leaves Bordeaux on Fri AM, the medium group leaves Bordeaux on Sat AM and the fast group departs on Fri afternoon.

We enter the southern region of the Loire Valley after midnight. At 1:00 AM the leaders of the fast group pass us. They are in the same darkness as we, except they have a chase vehicle directly behind them with spotlights lighting the road. They appear to be rolling at about 40 km/hr, in a peloton of 30 or 40, in the dark. They will ride the 600 km in less than 15 hours. We will not.

4:00 AM, Romorantin, 435 kms down, supposedly less than 200 to go. I stop for tea and ramen. My legs are unstable. My heart beats steady, if still elevated. I have been awake for 23 hours, and mostly on my bike for the last 22. I am not thinking very clearly, I am fatigued. I have this thought: if you fall in the dark, you will break your collar bone. This is not a good thought. Fear creeps in, in my fatigue and wins the moment. I put my bike in the van, crawl in, and fall asleep un-wake-able for the next 4 hours.

I did not finish. I am OK with that. I said I would do the best that I can. My first attempt at a long-distance ride. I enjoyed it; I did not blow up; I did not get hurt.

I will be back.

dimanche, juin 08, 2008

08.06.06: D-Day, Birthdays, 9-11

I met a super nice french couple when I was in Senegal about a year and a half ago. We try to stay in touch with some e-mails, an occasional phone call, and an infrequent visit to their place in Normandy. This June, they both are turning forty and decided to throw a big party in their own honor. As it turns out, the same week-end as the anniversary of the D-Day landings on Utah, Omaha, Gold, Sword, and Juno beaches.

Before going to the birthday party, I had the afternoon to do a little exploring, so went to Le Mémorial in Caen to see the French national WWII memorial. This week-end was the opening of a new exposition at Le Mémorial ... Where were you on September, 11 2001 at 8.46 AM? which is a display of objects found in the rubble of the World Trade Center, displayed to accentuate the very personal side of the tragedy.

A piece of an exit sign from the WTC, a fireman's boot, a laptop computer, a payphone. Normally mundane objects all, but each carrying a small piece of a tragic story forward to remind us of the day that everything changed.

A badge found from a police officer, next to a 10 foot banner displaying her photograph, her previous acts of heroism as an officer, words of remembrance from her colleagues and family. Next to similar posters of a financial advisor, a fireman, a flight attendant, and a nurse. Each story personal, real, unforgettable.

There is a life-size poster of several people walking down the streets of New York in the moments after the collapse of the World Trade Center, the sky darkened by the airborn remnants of 2974 deaths, survivors covered with soot permeating every pore of their grey-ed skin, and the backdrop is the carnage depicting the day the world ended.

All of this, in a memorial in France, for gods-sake, that commemorates the heroic deeds of the UK, Canadian, and American forces 64 years ago to bring the beginning of the end to WWII.

There are also videos of George Bush speaking to the United Nations the day after. And a video of Osama Bin Laden, speaking to persons united against the US.

Here is what I thought:
Osama Bin Laden is still making videos, and Al-Qaida is likely planning another attack on the US.
And $500B of our military resources is being squandered in Iraq.
And it is 6 1/2 years later.
Our president and his administration are a national disgrace.

Bush's birthday is July 6.
I think I'll send him a birthday card this year. Or 2, 974 of them.

Our government's primary duty is to protect the citizens of the US; they have failed to bring an end to Al-Qaida and Osama Bin Laden, the group that committed the most serious attack against US citizens on US soil.
And we are complicit in our complacency.