Published by In Her Place on November 29, 2011

Islands

by Melissa Reeser Poulin

“There is always one night where you stand
insufficient before the sea.”
Lorand Gaspar, Islands.

I’m in St. Malo, on the eyelid of France, to teach English to high school students. I work a scant twelve hours a week, which isn’t much even by French standards. But what the days lack in length they make up for in width.

Each day I stand alone in front of a classroom full of bored teenagers, gesticulating wildly, trying to teach myself how to teach. I had put my hope in the one-day training session provided by the Ministry of Education, but the course taught nothing of classroom psychology. My students talk out of turn, slump, sleep, fix me with sullen stares, and I sweat and try to steady my voice. My lessons succeed or fail with little indication of what worked and what didn’t.

Meanwhile, beneath my racing heart, I battle myself. I’m here because of my love of language and a desire for cultural exchange—specifically the French language and the French culture. But I am also here out of despair. Deeply disappointed in my country’s arrogance and aggression, I am the caricature of sheltered disillusionment and shock. I’m here, out of my element, because my element feels sick, poisoned. France somehow seems the saner sister to the U.S.

There is no rest from that here, of course, no way to reconcile my disappointment with my country and a love for a culture that (gently, subtly) disdains mine. I long to speak French and immerse myself in the French way of life; instead, I’m meant to speak English and talk about “what it means to be an American,” exactly the thing I’d like to forget.

All of this clamors for my attention amidst photocopies and administrative tasks, the confusion of vocabulary jostling about in my brain, and that cold, dry-throated feeling you get, at any age, when navigating the echoing halls of a high school.

I do the best I can. I put in my time. Then I shut my locker and head for the sea.

I take the same long loop most evenings, starting from my tiny flat, my cheeks stinging with cold and salt as I walk. Depending on the tide, I go down to the beach or follow the seawall to the heavy stone perimeter of the old walled city.

St. Malo is a tidal circus. Four times a year, at each equinox and solstice, the grands marées unleash ocean against stone. Swelling with unrest, the waves rise with alarming speed, rearing back and rushing forward again. Over and over the waves stampede against the walls, shooting skyward like geysers, then overflowing and rushing onto cobblestone and asphalt. By morning, the sea has calmed and receded, leaving everything strewn with seaweed. Malouins come out in tall boots and windbreakers, with buckets, fishing poles, and nets, to gather the edible creatures among the rocks. The police pace the beach, too, scanning for WWII bombs disturbed in the upheaval and washed on shore.

The city is layered with history, but the sea is a clean slate—eternal, impersonal, indifferent. It’s a narrow inward jutting of ocean, the English Channel. La Manche: the ‘sleeve’ between France and England.

In my daily life, the threads of English and French tangle my thoughts into impossible knots, and it’s comforting to unravel them as I walk, to stare at the islands that have no names, craggy and gray on the horizon. There are 365 islands off the coast of Brittany, one for every day of the year, and many are simply jagged rocks where nobody goes, their rough-edged peaks hostile to the flesh.

On Wednesday nights, I go to a language class at the Alliance Française. A multiplicity of accents—Chinese, Slovakian, Ethiopian, Colombian, Guatemalan, Scottish, English, American—lap up around the strange contours of French words. Their shapes are foreign in our mouths, but we laugh and talk about our lives in St. Malo, our lives back home. One way or another, we get the main feelings across, whether through detours and pantomimes, or translation byway of English.

Here among other étrangers, strangers navigating day-to-day life in a foreign language, the particulars seem to dissolve. We share the same desire to communicate, the same frustration with our awkwardness in a strange culture. This somehow renews in me a sense of compassion for my students, who arrive in a foreign land each time they enter the English classroom.

But unlike here, where English is as welcome and useful as a rescue raft to a shipwreck survivor, for my students it is the assumption of English as the common denominator that grates, that distances us. On top of their resentment that English has become the default common language, my students reserve special scorn for the American accent. They prefer British English instead, which is seen as more proper and more desirable to prospective employers in Europe. In class, I try to draw them out, asking them to tell me, in their British English, about their hopes and fears for the work lives ahead of them.

They are aspiring kinesthesiologists, engineers, nurses, firefighters. In their quiet answers to my questions, there is the unmistakable ring of certainty. Whatever they make of it, there is a place for them in the future. Most imagine themselves working for a French company, living and raising a family in France. I am struck, as I will be during countless family meals with students and teachers, by the depth of their rootedness in their country and culture.

Later, through the caffeinated crowds in the teacher’s lounge, the joke-cracking philosophy teacher hands me a copy of Le Monde Diplomatique, and points to an article entitled “Contre le Tout-Anglais.” Against All-English, All the Time. It touches on 1994’s Toubon Law, which made it mandatory for all French firms located in France to use the French language. The debate over the right to “create, hire, work, access information, and enjoy leisure in one’s own language, in French,” has reached a deafening pitch of late. Not surprisingly, there are fiery emotions on either side of the argument.

In the resistance to English, and the partial mandating of French, some see a clinging to former glory and the remnants of colonial condescension, an attempt to suppress other languages with one’s own. In the embrace of English, some see a sign that France is making the emotional shifts necessary to embrace an inevitably globalizing world—an extremely painful process for a country with infamously strong cultural pride. This shifting is tectonic, explosive, as the European Union consolidates land masses once regarded as islands.

An American CEO starts a firm in France, and requires that all workplace communication be conducted in English, violating la loi Toubon. “Since the national and the international are tightly woven,” the article’s author asks, “what could be more natural than that the language of the Dow Jones index and the City [New York] should be at home everywhere, in the street as in the workplace?” The word choice here is illuminating: in French, the word for language is feminine, and in this article ‘she’ is described as being chez elle [at home] everywhere ‘she’ goes. The translation does not quite capture the sense of indignation, the suggestion of arrogance on the part of the English language, as an extension of American arrogance and presumption to essentially take over wherever it sees fit.

Not so long ago, it was French making itself chez elle in countries all over the world. French is still the official language of almost half of all countries in Africa, and predominantly spoken where not official. It is spoken in the countries identified as Maghreb. It is spoken in places once considered part of France— Laos and Vietnam—and in places still considered part of France: Corsica and French Guyana, Guadeloupe and Martinique.

Certainly, there are consequences to mandating a language. The most direct is the loss of diversity. The dialect of Brittany, Breton, almost died out completely when the state forbade children from speaking it in their schools. Once seen as backward, Breton has only very recently regained value as an important piece of cultural heritage. It hangs on to life in university programs and language schools for children.

Toubon does not say that firms must use French exclusively—important in an era when European firms must communicate globally to compete, and when such conversations are overwhelmingly conducted in English. Yet there are excellent reasons for safeguarding a worker’s right to work in their own language.

There’s the 2008 radiation overdose in Epinal’s central hospital, which resulted in the deaths of four cancer patients whose medical technicians misunderstood computer software that was not translated into French. As part of his election promises, Nicholas Sarkozy vowed to uphold the right to speak French in the French workplace.

A related law mandates that a certain number of songs played on French radio stations must be in French, that the majority of films at movie theaters come from France, and that foreign television shows must be dubbed. This extends to a percentage of commercials and advertisements. For all this, my students know more American pop songs than I do; when I ask “What else?” in class, prompting them to elaborate on a response, they erupt into laughter. I’ve just repeated the tag line of a current television ad for instant coffee, featuring George Clooney.

When the pressure to globalize hardly feels like a choice, and when technology and commerce speak English because in recent history, the countries in control of the most resources have been Anglophone, how can I blame my students for their resentment and distrust? I, too, am wary of a globalizing world, where we is a pronoun used as a weapon. I did not think of myself as a we before leaving the U.S., which in itself speaks volumes of my cultural conditioning, having grown up in a country with a naïve (at best) understanding of independence.

I’m beginning to wonder if it’s really possible to escape the self, one’s own image, in a globalized world. Don’t look at me, I want to say, I’m here for the French. But the students look at me, because I’m the one at the front of the classroom, waving my arms and talking in a funny way, “like gargling rocks.”

English – my mother tongue, mother language, my langue maternelle. There are lovely mirrors in French: mere, mother, and mer, ocean. English is my ocean language. It has a rhythm of its own, an archipelago of memories that go deeper into my consciousness than I can. All associations between signifier and signified were originally entered in English in my mind—specifically in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that governs memory and language.

One Wednesday night, the Guatemalan au pair tells me that when her father suffered a stroke in this part of the brain, he emerged from a month-long coma with his mother tongue literally yanked from his mouth. Previously fluent in English, with Spanish as his first language, he now speaks only in Spanish-accented English. How deeply connected are we then, to these neurons? How much do the words we speak really define who we are, who we think we are?

Hippocamp is the French word for ‘seahorse,’ and a character in Robert Desnos’ serial poem Siramour. Desnos was a French Surrealist poet, an active member of the Resistance arrested by the Gestapo in 1944. He died of typhoid in a Czech concentration camp; over sixty years later, in a city still haunted by the memory of the Occupation, I haul out a giant dictionary to decode his poem, a kind of love letter written from l’hippocampe to a mermaid, sirène. The mermaid’s identity is mysterious: is she the sea, the muse, the spirit, the self? She’s a little of all of these, and always just beyond grasping. L’hippocampe becomes utterly lost in the great mystery, daring to fall in love with her.

Une algue perdu au large, détachée d’on ne sait quel haut-fond et travaillée par les phénomènes de la dissolution et de la germination. (Seaweed lost in the abyss, detached from we know not what heights, worked over by the phenomena of dissolution and germination.)

I want to dissolve here, in the rain and the salt wind. I want to dissolve my sense of self as American, to experience this foreign culture from the inside out. But no matter how well I learn the language, I continue to feel alone, apart. In the streets, on the train, in cafes, I listen in astonishment as two- and four-year-old children float blithely in the sea of sounds, mimicking and babbling back more perfectly than I can through years of concerted effort. Their proficiency almost frightens me, showing me how I received my mother tongue, innocently, through open ears. Language is impersonal as the moon.

And yet as we grow older, the sponge-like absorption of our youth gives way to a stranger, more sophisticated acquisition process. Conglomerations of words, memories, and emotion attach to our sides slowly, like barnacles on a whale. The relationship is symbiotic; language grows and evolves as part of the organism.

In the classroom, I am humbled by the students who do want to learn, who can spot a poorly-planned lesson a mile (or 1.6 kilometers) away. Quel leçon louche, one student mutters under his breath when I am caught without an answer to a good question. What a lousy lesson.

I cannot disengage from the part of me that is American, utterly and irrevocably. Those parts of me are inextricable from the rest. They form my memories, my way of seeing and saying and being. Who would I be without them?

So, too, my years in France lodge in the cells of my being. French words, lilting above the market stalls and cried out on the beaches and streets, carry my memories of these years. They contain the tastes and scent of fresh bread, sea salt, cigarettes and coffee in the high school courtyards. For years, long after I leave France, whenever I hear French out of context I am washed over by this particular sea of emotions.

I still cringe at words that call up failed lessons, tears shed in the bathroom or while turned to the window, hidden (so I think) from the appraising stares of those impossibly aloof French teenagers. I tongue the words that hurt like loose teeth, the ones that tore ruthlessly at my romantic ideals. Again, I try to swallow the paltry phrases I offered when asked for my opinion on world political issues, the debates that wore away at my conception of myself as knowledgeable or worldly, my hope that the French language could somehow save me, strip away the ugliness of my country and give me a new identity.

I hovered, in that year between languages, in a kind of word-saturated limbo where meaning and definition canceled each other out. As an unnamed island is defined and shaped by the waves surrounding it, I felt what it is to belong exactly where I come from, and precisely where I stand, both at the same time. I am still finding and redefining that shape, here in the country of my birth— home, in spite of myself.

Read Melissa Reeser Poulin’s bio »