Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Supposedly Fun Thing that's Actually Really Fun

I am a bit frustrated at work these past few days, dealing with some people who are, let's just say, difficult. I would love to have a big rant about this, but I am aware that public rants about professional issues can sometimes be a little bit harmful to one's career development, so I will keep the details to myself.

Instead, I'll tell you about a little side project I have going on, along with supposedly a couple thousand people around the world. Infinite Summer is a three-month long project in which people read and discuss the book Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. It's a three-month-long project because the book is more than 1,000 pages long, including many many endnotes, some of which refer to other endnotes or have endnotes of their own.

I first heard of DFW when I met Nate; he (Wallace) is his (Nate's) favorite author. I'm pretty sure it was on one of the very first times we went out that he told me about IJ and its notes, the reading of which is essential to understanding the novel. I remember specifically that he talked about one particular endnote, an eight-page filmography of one of the book's characters. He said it seems kind of excessive but turns out to be really important. Intriguing!

Then last September David Foster Wallace killed himself in his home in California. Like lots of fans, Nate was very sad to hear of his death, and set about collecting as many non-published works as the internet could provide (he already owned all the published works.) It's unfortunate that a tragic death can create a whole new wave of fans for a writer or artist, but it is so. I read a few of his "easier" non-fiction pieces, including A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (about a luxury cruise) and Consider the Lobster (about Maine's annual Lobster Fest.) With a writing style prone to endlessly contorted sentences, detailed reference from everything from pop culture to linguistics to biochemistry, reading his works is both challenging and frustrating, but for these same reasons is also very rewarding.

But so anyway, being away from boyfriend and family and friends, living in a quasi-nunnery in France with no money and no TV, as it turns out is a situation that's very conducive to reading a complex and massive novel like Infinite Jest. I'm currently on around page 800, but when the Infinite Summer project started up on June 21, I doubled back to start again from the beginning, reading a first and second time simultaneously to keep up with my own schedule but also participate in the scheduled and spoiler-limited Infinite Summer forums. This means I am using four bookmarks (two for text, two for endnotes) and it means that I will have plenty of reading material for the rest of the summer, including this weekend, when I'm leading a group on a weekend excursion. And I'm not going to go into detail on why, but let's just say at the end of each long day I'll be glad to retreat to my room and read in solitude.

Monday, June 22, 2009

La stagiaire

I have now reached the halfway point of this internship: four weeks behind me, four more to go. Out of the seven groups of students coming over for summer programs here, six have arrived, and of those, three have already left. So as it happens, just as I am getting into the swing of things and learning the names of people and streets, the number of people who get to benefit from my increased knowledge keeps getting smaller.

I have to say it's a strange thing being an intern (stagiaire) again at age 33. I have supervised enough student interns in previous jobs to know that the range of capability and initiative can vary greatly from person to person. And I recognized some apprehension at first in the assignment of new tasks, when colleagues wondered just what end of that range I would occupy. Of course, I'm capable of managing my own work, so I don't think they are too worried about me.

My colleagues are busy with their own work, so I'm trying not to be that intern that constantly needs to be helped with her job...but the French language keeps getting in my way! Sometimes people have to explain things to me slowly, or a second time, because of some unfamiliar vocabulary. Sometimes I have to ask for help with wording of a phrase or interpretation of an e-mail I'm writing or reading. In short, I need a little more supervision than I want, which is sometimes frustrating.

And another thing! In general, I think I have a pretty good sense of humor and in general I like to make jokes and laugh with colleagues. Unfortunately, in my experience, the ability to show your full sense of humor is one of the last foreign-language skills to develop. I'm getting there, but not quite as quick on the draw with wit as I would like to be. I should work on this, because I'd much rather be remembered as the intern who was funny but didn't always say things right, than as the intern who spoke perfect French but was really boring to have around.

But overall things are going really well. I have finally learned enough about Dijon and the school to be considered some kind of expert for students with questions. I'm working on an extensive list of upcoming events in/near Dijon: in summer months the music festivals and free events abound! I'm keeping close track of exchange students' fall course registrations; I am involved in serious discussions re: student behavior and how beer pong is not an accepted part of French culture; I have nearly memorized the English-speaking doctor's phone number, and just today learned the word for "rash" (the itchy skin kind, not the behavior kind.) I get to be part of all kinds of fun tasks and activities, and who knows what is in store for the next month!

Monday, June 08, 2009

Bonjour Dijon

Two and a half weeks ago, I was at home putting the final touches on a semester-long group project, proofreading our 60+ page proposal, getting ready for our final presentation, and not really thinking too specifically about my upcoming internship in France. In quick succession the unresolved elements of my life came together: we succeeded in subletting out our apartment for the whole time we’d be away, I’d finished off my final assignments one-by-one. Nate and I had worked out our travel plans: he, on tour until mid-July, will come to France afterwards for two weeks and we’ll return together. On the very last day of classes, after a successful presentation, I was offered and accepted the job I had been hoping to get for next year. Whew! The end-of-semester fog of stress cleared and it was time to pack.

Two weeks ago, I was sitting in my little room here at the Tremouille Young Ladies’ Residence in Dijon, France, exhausted after 24 full hours of car-train-plane-bus-plane-bus-train-bus-train-taxi transit. The residence, mostly for students, is female-only (as you may have guessed from the name) and run by Catholics; the room décor and furniture are spartan and what I imagine to be nunnery-like. It’s clean, though, has common kitchens and lovely gardens and terraces, and best of all is very very cheap, which is important on my measly intern stipend. It felt great to unpack after carrying luggage all around all day in the 90 degree heat. Bedtime was early because of jetlag and to prepare for an early start to my first work day: 5 AM meeting time with a colleague to ride together to Paris to pick up two groups at the airport. Both groups are U.S. college students, participating in summer programs abroad at Burgundy School of Business, my employer for the next two months.

Last week, I was settling in. My supervisor, absent at a conference the previous week, had returned and given me lots of tasks. I was getting to know my colleagues and finally had a proper tour of the building where everyone was very nice and welcoming. My French is doing great and I’m having no trouble communicating. I had realized with a shock that I’ve been speaking this language for twenty years, and decided it’s time to stop worrying about the words I don’t know or don’t pronounce right. I was finally beginning to know the answers to some of the questions asked of me by the group: Where is the student restaurant? How do I access the wireless network? Why did it take so long for the waiter to bring my coffee? Where do I go to get medicine for this sore throat? What does that sign say?

This week, I’m taking on more responsibilities. A new group arrived yesterday, and I gave them an introduction to Dijon and a tour of the school, and tomorrow lead two groups on a visit to the Regional Counsel. I’m enjoying the little perks of the job, like the opportunity to participate in field trips and the occasional wine tasting. I like the way my involvement in these programs neatly connects my past and future careers: tourism and education abroad. Of course, my clothing and shoes are all wrong and with no budget for shopping I will have to resign myself to always looking like a foreigner…but I don’t mind so much.

For photos of my first couple of weeks, click here.