I will start off with some funny things adults have said in English, before I dive into the kids’ shenanigans.
A woman was talking to me in English about the US. She asked, ‘Do you know mes chaussettes?’ At least that is what I heard; it means ‘my socks’ in French. I was confused and asked, ‘Is that a company?’ ‘No, it is a state!’
I was talking to another lady, and somehow obesity and the US came up. I asked her, ‘Why do you think obesity is such a huge problem in the United States?’
She said in a mixture of disbelief and exasperation, like it was obvious,’It is because of the cheesecake!!!! And the BIIIG cookies!’
Someone was telling me about their sister’s ‘sausage’ dog. I said, ‘That is funny, because in English we call them ‘wiener’ dogs.’ And the guy raised up his fists into the air in a victorious manner and said emphatically in English, ‘Like, I’m a weeener?’ I died of laughter and subsequently felt terrible for doing it.
Back to the kids:
In my more advanced class, the ten year olds, I showed them cartoon characters like Dora the Explorer and Russell from Up and had the kids describe their appearance and personality for me. When I showed them Homer Simpson, one kid said, ‘He has got stupid!’
In one 7-year old class I handed the kids a worksheet about numbers and I was surprised to see how many kids made this mistake on the word search… Why make it easy when you can be creative?
I asked the kids to respond to the question, ‘How are you?’ on their personal white boards and then show them to me. Spelling mistakes were rampant… But this one made me smile. One girl wrote, ‘I’m fine, tank you!’
I have to speak French to the kids a lot because they are complete beginners, to explain activities and make the lesson clear and to keep order and discipline. I have improved tremendously since the beginning of the year but I know I make a lot of mistakes when I talk. Some of the 8 year olds are not afraid to correct me either. The other day, I was explaining that they were going to listen to a new song. A kid raised his hand and I called on him thinking he had a question, instead he said, ‘In French we say nouvelle chanson not nouveau chanson.‘ (I had used the wrong form of new because I messed up the gender of the word song) Normally I like being corrected but this was a bit forward.
We were learning commands, and I mined them for the students so that they could guess them. I put my finger to my lips for the command ‘be quiet’ ‘What is this in English?’ I asked, one kid did the action and said ‘Shhhhhhh!’
I used the book ‘Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?’ with a lot of my classes. In one class I handed out different sheets of paper with animals from the book to kids and had them line up in order in front of the class, and then we went through the book animal by animal. ‘Blue horse, blue horse, what do you see?’ Then we came to the end and I didn’t have a teacher drawing, so I had the teacher come up and I asked the kids, ‘After the gold fish, what’s next?’ One kid said excitedly, ‘ooo je sais, a black teacher!’
Like a typical French woman, she was wearing all black!
One day we were working on the alphabet in a class and it was hilarious! After working on the alphabet already for two weeks with songs and worksheets, the teacher wanted to make sure that the kids really knew their stuff. She chose names (French names that the kids would know) and spelled them out for the kids to guess. It is a split class with two grades, 6 and 8 year olds, so she let the 6 year olds write the letters down on the board so that it would be easier for them. The teacher said, ‘I!’ A little girl named Annie in the front wrote down the letter A. The teacher saw this and gave her a tap on the head with her yardstick. Annie said, ‘Aie!’ ‘Exactly, that’s it!‘ (Aie means ouch in French and is pronounced I)
Then we had kids choose a name and spell it out for the rest of the class to guess. We encouraged them to choose a name of someone who wasn’t in the class to make it harder, but a lot of the kids did anyway. One boy spelt out the name Annie. She was completely oblivious. ‘You didn’t recognize your name Annie!?‘ Annie smiled the most adorable, guilty smile.
When it was the turn of one little six year old named Constatin, he started by calling out ‘C!’ The teacher interrupted quickly, ‘but not your own name!‘ He gave a start, ‘oh!’ And then he changed his track.
Then we started playing hangman (with French words of course, they don’t know enough English ones yet for it to be a challenge).
One of the little kids made a request, ‘Est-ce que vous pouvez choisir un prénom d’un animal?’ ‘Can you choose a first name of an animal?‘ (first name???)
The teacher chose phoque which means seal (not an easy one to guess with letters). The kids were desperate to find the answer as they were about to lose. One kid asked the teacher, ‘Is it a name of an animal that we know?‘ She laughed and said sassily, ‘No it is the name of an animal that we haven’t discovered yet!‘ The another kid asked, ‘Does it live in the sea?!?!‘ She responded, ‘My lips are sealed!‘
The 6 year olds were not very strategic in their letter choosing. One little boy, Guilluame, the cute one from the dinosaur claw story, always chose W when he was called on. The 8 year olds would groan in frustration and anxiety as the teacher drew another body part on the hangman.
After the lesson, as the kids were leaving to go out for recess, the teacher stopped Guillaume. ‘What is in your mouth?!‘ He didn’t reply and stubbornly kept his mouth shut but it was obvious that there was something in there. He tried to keep his mouth still but he couldn’t help giving whatever it was a little chew. A little crowd of 8 year old girls gathered off to the side to watch. The teacher tried to shoo away the girls and ordered him to open his mouth and tell her what was in there. Finally he relented ashamedly, ‘A fingernail‘. The older girls eavesdropping yelled ‘Eww! Gross!‘ And in unison ran away to recess. The teacher and I laughed so hard. Kids are gross!
On a rainy, gloomy day I asked the kids, ‘How is the weather today?’
The kids raised their hands and responded,
‘It is cloudy.’
‘It is rainy.’
‘It is cold.’
‘It is sad!’
‘Yeah the weather is depressing to me too kid!’
I use head, shoulders, knees, and toes with some of my classes. They love it! But even though they can sing the song doesn’t necessarily mean that they have mastered the vocabulary.
I quizzed my 6 year olds after singing the song with them. I pointed to a picture of toes and a kid said, ‘andtoes’
Other kids had no idea what the vocab was when I pointed to a picture of knees, for example. I gave them a hint, ‘Think about the song guys, you know the song!‘ Still nothing from some kids. Then I would prompt them by softly singing the song. ‘Head, shoulders, …..’ And then they could add, ‘Knees?’
One time was teaching the kids about morning routine (wake up, brush your teeth, etc). When I got to’ wash your face’, one girl could not contain herself. ‘Wash your fesses?!?!?’ She just could not get over the fact that it sounded like the french word for butt (pronounced ‘fess’).
In a seven year old class, we sang a song about weather that had the lyrics ‘It’s rainy in the U.K.’ I explained that the UK stood for United Kingdom. Did they know what that meant? (It is Royaume Uni in French) I gave them hints, ‘It is an English-speaking country that is close to France.‘
They were not even close at the beginning. I should have known though, this is the class where a boy asked me if lived in France or still lived in the US.
‘China?’ ‘Nope that is far and they don’t speak English.’
‘New York?’ ‘Also far, and a city…’
‘Florida?’ ‘Nope… Guess again.’
Eventually they got it right.
On April 4th one of the teachers announced to her six year olds, ‘I have some sad news, this is Erin’s second to last week teaching here. So, she will be here this week and next week only. And then we won’t see her anymore.‘ The kids went ‘Awwww!!’ but one of them spoke up to her table mates determinedly. She said in a know it all voice, ‘I know what this is, guys, it is a poisson d’avril (April’s fool’s joke)!’
The next week when I entered the classroom, the little boy nearest to the door said excitedly to me in a sing-song voice, ‘We have a surprise for you!!‘ The girl sitting next to him shot him a look and snapped, ‘But seriously, why would you tell her that?!‘ He shot back, ‘Well, I didn’t tell her what the surprise was…‘
So indiscreet! While the teacher and I were getting ready for the lesson in the front of the class, one of the kids yelled over to the teacher, ‘But I didn’t finish my gift!‘
She rolled her eyes at me and laughed and said in a stage whisper ‘Well do it quickly while hiding it, but hurry up!‘
Then the kids right in front of us started talking about their presents, and the teacher shushed them, ‘Remember, Erin understands what you are saying.‘
(I have been speaking French with them for months now)
One of the kids in front asked me, ‘Do you understand a lot? Or do you just understand a few words?‘
I smiled, ‘I understand a lot.‘
He puffed up with pride, ‘Well, me, I understand a few words of English!‘ And that is what I love about this job!
At the end of the class they all ran up to me and handed me drawings that they had made.
All in all, my last week at the schools went well. I received drawings from some of my classes and a purse from the teachers of one school, which was completely unexpected!
I brought in candy to give out to the kids, but I made them work for their treats by answering questions. And I varied the questions I asked too, which was even more difficult for the very young because I know that they are used to listening to what the other kids answer and responding in the same way. So when I asked kids, ‘What is your name?’ I got a lot of, ‘It is blue!’ 🙂
A few times in Europe I have had the strange experience of realizing that foods I thought were part of my ‘European’ heritage actually don’t exist over here. It has been a little disappointing, disenchanting, and frustrating.
St. Patrick’s day kind of snuck up on me, and I had no real desire to drink green beer in an overcrowded Irish pub. St. Patrick’s day isn’t big in France anyway so that wasn’t much else to do. As I went over my options a thought popped into my mind…what better way to celebrate than with a heaping plate of corned beef and cabbage? And once I thought about it I couldn’t let it go. I had a craving that only salty, savory corned beef and cabbage could satisfy.
I am a wee bit Irish. (But really, I have proof!) My mother’s maiden name was Reilly, a heritage she received from John Owen O’Riley (He changed his name to Reilly when he arrived in the US). He was an Irish farmer who immigrated to the US in 1872 and homesteaded a farm which was also passed through the generations to my mother. I grew up there, a fact that I am very proud of.
My mother made corned beef and cabbage rarely. When she did it was on St. Patrick’s day. I remember her explaining that the Irish ate the brisket cut of the cow (the fatty neck part) because it was a cheap cut. They were often poor.
So on St. Patty’s day, I searched the net long and hard for Irish pubs serving the dish. Nothing. At most, I found posts of American expats in Paris discussing how to find the right ingredients to make it here. Turns out if I wanted to do it myself I would have to special order the brisket from a butcher because they don’t parcel up the meat in the same way here.
I dug a little deeper and found out that the Irish don’t actually eat corned beef and cabbage. Bacon is considered very traditional in Ireland because it was inexpensive. However, when floods of Irish immigrants landed on US soil, they found that pork was expensive, and beef was cheap, so they changed their eating habits. The story is actually quite interesting; I suggest googling it. In the end I wasn’t too disenchanted by the fact that it isn’t Irish. It is something uniquely Irish-American which I think is pretty neat.
The only ray of hope to find the dish would be to find an Americanized Irish pub in Paris. In my dreams! So I was left with a very intense food craving that I wasn’t able to satisfy. At least I didn’t go Ireland and expect to find corned beef. I would have been really disappointed.
Two years ago when I traveled to the Czech Republic I encountered a similar bit of food disenchantment. I expected to find my Great-Grandma Tuma’s kolackies and vomacka there, but couldn’t.
Those foods are the main connection I have to that part of my heritage. I turned down an opportunity to run for Miss Czech Slovak a few years ago because I thought I would feel like a phony running for such a prize. Now I realize that it probably would have been a compelling opportunity to learn more about what being a Czech-American means.
I made some casual inquiries to to my tour guides and other people while I was in Prague but I had no luck. So I turned to the internet.
Turns out that kolacky it is actually a general term for a pastry traditionally made for weddings in Central and Eastern Europe.
The picture below is how I remember my Great-Grandma’s ones looked and (surprise!) this picture was taken in New Prague, the town right next to where my Great-Grandma grew up. Apparently, there are a lot of variations, but the kolackies as I know them are from a small area in Minnesota. It is decently easy to find kolackies at bakeries there, but none of them can touch the ones she used to make.
For vomacka soup, the only hits I found on the internet during my frantic search for info came from the small area of Minnesota that my great-grandma came from. Vomacka soup, by the way, is a creamy, vinegary vegetable soup (although Great-Grandma Tuma added chicken too).
My mission to find the foods in Prague was a failure. I wasn’t able to eat either of those foods while I was there. I was really upset. I think it hit me hard because at that point I had been in Europe for 4.5 months and I was emotionally exhausted and ready to go home.
I think it also boiled down to me missing my great-grandma and some regrets I had about not asking her about her life and heritage or not eating more of her Czech food when she was alive. As much as I adore vomacka now, I didn’t like it when I was little. When my brothers and I went over to her house after school she always made the same thing, at our request: pizza rolls, cottage cheese, and jello. I was only 13 when she died but I feel like I could have done a better job.
Maybe I had also hoped to feel a little bit of a connection to Prague or the culture there, but I didn’t. I felt like just as much as a tourist and stranger as I did in places like Italy and Croatia.
Cyril didn’t understand at all, which was frustrating for me too. One of his grandmas immigrated from Belgium to France after WWII but I only found that out 2 months ago. He never mentioned it because he doesn’t think of himself of being part Belgian. It is a very American concept to think in terms of being 3/4 German, an 8th Czech, with a dash of Swiss and Irish. If you told a French person, ‘I am half German, half Italian,’ they would think that your mother was German and your father was Italian and that you are a duel citizen of the two countries. The subject never really comes up here like it does in the US.
Another sad but true food fact. Chicken alfredo is not Italian. It is a dish that Italian Americans created. Luckily I learned this from my Italian language classes before I headed over to Italy, and I have never had a sentimental or emotional attachment to the dish. For me it is just a fun fact but for some others it is quite disappointing!
Until next time!