Wandering into the Fray

My friend Marie-France had kissed me good-bye as I was leaving Aix-en-Provence, and told me to drive straight north to Lyon from Aix, and then turn left and drive another hour and a half west.  She knew this, but had never actually been to Clermont-Ferrand.  Indeed, my announcement to friends in Aix that I was moving to Clermont-Ferrand was met with aghast looks, much lip pursing, and eyebrow raising.  Why Clermont-Ferrand?  Was that the only place in all of France where there were any social psychologists, they wondered?  I didn't know.  No one had given me a choice of cities.  "What's wrong with Clermont-Ferrand?" I asked.  Well, they told me, it is very dark.  "What, the weather," I asked?  "Non, non, it is the volcanoes, the rocks.  It is all dark."  I could not actually visualize the dark volcanoes and the dark rock.  "Aren't there universities in all major French cities?" my mother asked, writing the word “Clermont-Ferrand” on a note pad next to her phone and underlying it several times.  "Where is Clermont-Ferrand? And what is wrong with Aix?"  I just didn't know how to answer the questions.

My brother said, "Hmmm, Clermont-Ferrand.  When I hear the name, ça me dit quelque chose… les pneus."  Tires.  "That's right!" I shrieked through the phone, "how did you know that Michelin Tires is based in Clermont-Ferrand?"  How did he know?  My brother Simon is the master of minutia. Somehow he finds time to acquire this minutia, which has always impressed me, but then he also seems to be able to retain and retrieve it on command, which impresses me even more.  Once when we were traveling together in Poland, a man walked up to Simon on a train platform in Gdansk and said a sentence that seemed to me to end with a word that sounded like guppies.  Was he going fishing and asking about a nearby bait shop?  My brother reached into his pocket, extracted a pen, and handed it over.  "Wow, what did he say?"  I asked.  "He asked me if I had a pen, you idiot," my brother said shaking his head. He had glanced briefly at Polish vocabulary before traveling to Poland with me.

Although I do remember that it was not dark, I remember little of the city of Clermont-Ferrand from my first days there.  I had come to teach my 192 hours a year, and was so paralyzed by the idea of teaching my social psychology courses in French, because my French was almost nonexistent, that all of my time was initially spent preparing my classes and asking different people to correct the wording on my overhead transparencies [which we used before powerpoint].  Well, really, rewrite the French, on my overhead transparencies.  It should come as no surprise that a 6-week course in a language does not prepare one to teach university level psychology courses in the language.  I had asked a colleague back home to send me my old lecture notes, and I dutifully translated those.  My dictionary was not always helpful, not having the scientific vocabulary required.  But my various grammar books were invaluable.

Furthermore, while I had found an apartment to live in, it was not available until a month after my arrival in Clermont-Ferrand.  So I initially lived in a tiny hotel room, in a very small hotel, a five-minute walk from the university.  At night I often ate dinner out of a plastic bag from the local grocery store and drank my Bordeaux right out of the bottle. Although the director of the laboratory invited me to dine with him in a restaurant once a week, I did not know anyone else very well, was not invited out, and was too shy to invite anyone out myself.

Sometimes while eating my dinner of cold chicken, poulet rôti, with pickles out of a jar, and sitting on my hotel room bed, I wondered if anyone else in my professional, besides myself, would extend a sabbatical in this way.  Then, while washing out my underwear with hair shampoo in the bathroom sink, thinking about my colleagues at the major research university where I was still officially on the faculty, I would shake my head.  No.  Certainly no one else would ask for a leave of absence and come to the situation I was in now. 

The morning that I taught my first class, which was scheduled in the pathetic newcomer time slot of 8 a.m. Monday morning, I decided to go to the university around 6 a.m.  I was not finished making all the transparencies I needed, and I was so nervous that I could not sleep, anyway.  So, I dressed and crept downstairs to the lobby of the hotel.  And found the door locked and requiring a key for exit.  What a fire hazard.  While fuming and rehearsing my heated discussion with the hotel manager, I installed myself in a chair and read over my lecture notes.  I was planning to just read them, or at least read off of the transparencies. 

Finally, almost an hour later, an older lady came down the stairway.  I sprang to my feet, collecting my course notes together.  "I need much go to the university," I said, "I teaching in this morning, but the door being locked!   Why is it locked, the door?  What happens when peoples are coming home late?  What happens in the case of an incindiary?"  The woman glowered at me and my poor French. She shrugged as if I was complicating things that had been so very easy for so very long.  "Relax, it is only 7 o’clock, no one is at the university" she told me.  "Therefore, I have it, a key, and I would desire to be working in my desk there in the university!!" I replied.  The old lady shrugged again and puffed out her lips.  Incomprehensible that I might want to work before things officially opened.  She opened the door slowly to emphasize how ridiculous I was, so poorly raised and living outside normal social customs.  It was obvious that I had not eaten breakfast either, a fact that made it all that much worse.

Posted by Paula Niedenthal at 7:33 AM JUN 20, 2011