Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Everything but French


This spring, I'm taking a French class at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid.  As part of my job, BU gave me the opportunity to take a class at the UAM.  I selected French because I like learning languages and because it's spoken widely throughout the world, meaning that speaking French will facilitate future vacations. The catch is that I have to start in level two even though I have never taken a French class in my entire life.  In order to prepare for French II, Marissa gave me a crash course in French I.  Thanks, Lil' Simz!

The UAM French class is part of the grado en turismo.  A grado is like a track of classes for a major or a concentration.  The class I'm taking is part of the concentration in tourism.  I'm pretty sure the intention of this concentration is for the students to work for the tourists, not be the tourists, but whatever.  Close enough.

I almost never feel "culture shocked" anymore in Madrid, but beginning at the UAM was a big exception.  As always, I don't promote the stereotyping of groups of people.  That being said, some Spanish stereotypes came true this week for me.  While talking with a student at the UAM, she asked me what I thought of Spain and the Spanish people there.  In keeping with my usual, politically correct ways, I explained that as far as I had observed, it seemed there was more equilibrio between life and work than I was used to back home, and that I was learning to enjoy the more even balance.  I don't want you to think I was censored by my manners.  The other girl both read my mind and spoke it, responding, "So true, we don't like to work here."  She said it first.  It's out of my hands.

-French at the UAM-
lundi le 23 janvier - 3:30 pm
I go to the first day of la clase de francés, from 4:00 - 5:30 pm.  I know very little French, and am really hoping the professor speaks mostly in Spanish, at least at the beginning.  Since I am a bit nervous, I have prepared all the things I need for class one day ahead of time.  I arrive at the UAM about 30 minutes prior to the beginning of class and find the classroom soon after.

3:50 pm
I start to question whether or not I am in the right place.

3:57 pm
Andrea, another student, shows up.  She confirms that we are in the correct classroom.

4:07 pm
Ten minutes later, after the class should have begun, I comment that it is strange that there are no other students.  The professor isn't there either.  Andrea tells me that people just really don't like the first day of classes at the UAM, so they often don't show up.

4:15 pm
Andrea and I wander over to the cafetería and meet two other students whose French classes are also MIA.  After chatting for a while, I visit BU's UAM office and discover that several of our students' classes haven't happened today either.  I chat for a few minutes then leave the UAM and go back to my apartment to celebrate my birthday with my roommates.

mardi le 24 janvier - 10:00 am
Arriving at work at BU's office in the Instituto Internacional, I share my fun birthday stories and my bizarre UAM story.  The professors tell me they are not surprised to hear that everyone in my UAM class, including the professor, had cut class on the first day.  They tell me it's normal to skip the first week at the UAM.  Oh, Spain...

-Everything but French-

2nd First Day of French: 7:30 - 9:00 pm
7:20 pm
I arrive at the French classroom, and am pleased to see other students in attendance.  We chat and introduce ourselves.  All the students are Spanish except for one Italian guy and me, the extranjera from the other side of the world.

7:40 pm
The students try to call both of the professors who teach this class.  Neither answers.

7:41 pm
One professor shows up.  I am expecting a typical "first day of the semester" class - nothing special, but a reference to a syllabus, a brief description of the course, or even the name of the professor.  Apparently my expectations are unreasonable.  Without erasing the stuff written on the chalk board from the previous class, the professor writes a few things on the board.  From a visual standpoint, it looks like she is annotating the writing from the other class.

She says something about the past tense verbs but then starts talking about present tense verbs and how the "il" and "ils" forms for regular "-er" verbs sound the same and that you have to use the context of the sentence to figure out if the subject is singular or plural.  Thanks to the notes from Marissa, I realize the professor has switched to talking about verbs in the present tense.  The concept of a verb sounding the same despite the change of subject doesn't really phase me since verbs hardly change at all in English.  It's a big change from Spanish though, so I get her point.  Fortunately for me, the professor speaks in a mix of Spanish and French.  I don't have a hugely difficult time understanding the French, but I really can't respond because I don't know how to pronounce anything.

She also tells us this is the advanced class.  How did I end up in here?  Yes, I've taken honors and AP classes for my whole life, but that's irrelevant to this.  It doesn't take a genius to know that you can't take level two of advanced French if you don't speak French.  I close my eyes, sigh, and think to myself, "Oh, Spain..."

7:55 pm
Professor #2 arrives.  I am using a number instead of her name here because, due to the lack of a syllabus, I have no idea what either of their names are.  I don't know where their offices are.  I don't have their emails.  I have absolutely no idea how to contact them if I have questions.....and I have a lot of questions about this how to get out of the advanced section...

8:00 pm
Professor #2 announces that she is scheduled to teach two classes at the same time and that she wants to change our schedule.  A chaotic discussion about other times at which the class can meet erupts.  Additionally, Professor #2 doesn't want to teach our class on Fridays, and the students agree that they are unlikely to show up on Fridays.  The Italian student doesn't speak Spanish and has no idea what they're talking about.  He speaks some English and some French, so I explained about the schedule changes.  No definite version of the schedule is set, but we move on.

The whole scene is a mess, but my grade, whatever it turns out to be, will never count for anything, so I don't really mind.  I find myself grinning and trying to contain a burst of laughter at the unusual UAM practices.  If this had happened at BU, I wouldn't have taken it so lightly.  But let's be real, this would never happen at BU.  Not at BU in Madrid either.  I think it's safe to assume next year at UChicago isn't going to be like this either.

8:20 pm
Professor #2 begins to hand exams and projects back - a strange activity for the first day of class.  All the students are walking around the classroom and chatting with each other.  I lean back in my very uncomfortable, wooden seat, which was attached to like three desks, and think to myself, "Oh, Spain..."

8:30 pm
Professor #1 gathers her belongings and leaves.  In Italian, the Italian student asks me, "Where is she going?  We have 30 more minutes."  In English, I answer that I don't have the slightest idea.  All the Spanish students leave.  Two Spanish students, the Italian student, and I get on Cercanías to go back to Madrid.  Minding the gap (Yes, I said it.), while subiendo al tren, I think to myself, "Jolín, Spain!  Teach me French or I will cut class next week and go to France!  Or Belgium!"

8:45 pm
Cogemos el tren and the four of us sit down together.  The two Spaniards want to know all about us - why we're in Spain, how long we've been there, how we like it, etc.  They're welcoming and friendly, as most Spaniards are.  The Italian student speaks to all of us in Italian since he knows no Spanish, and he gestures wildly with his hands, just like in the movies.  And I, in my politically correct, comparatively still, slightly detached, American way, speak to all of them in Spanish, more or less understanding the Italian since it's not that different.


I have been brought up to disregard stereotypes as much as possible and to recognize each person as an individual.  Tonight, I saw many different stereotypes come true.  I'm not going to explicate a lengthy discourse on "culture," whatever that is exactly, but I will share one important thing I learned.  My take home message is not a French lesson (Oh, Spain...); rather, it's the realization that if you put four very different people together who can more or less communicate, you'll make some new friends.  Maybe I'll learn French next week.


  1. français* not francés lol. i love how you used the word french as a verb. " maybe i'll french next week." I miss you!!!! I'm glad what I've taught you was helpful :) i can keep teaching you if you'd like! <3

    1. Yes please, keep teaching me! The last sentence was actually a typo that I fixed yesterday. I was missing the word "learn." But you're right, I often make my own verbs (see blog post, "Language Mastery = Language Regression?). "Francés" is how you say "French" in Spanish.