Mémoire soutenu

Posted in Education at 17:20

Ouf! I defended my Masters thesis today at noon. It lasted an hour, all in French (naturally), so I was kaput near the end. Overall, the jury – my thesis advisor and another comparative literature and anthropology professor – thought my research was original, well-done, and well-reasoned; the main critique was on the multiple directions I took (it was indeed difficult to pull together consistently). The “note” (grade) was 14/20, enough for a “mention bien” which is equivalent to our American magna cum laude, or “high honors”. Highest in France is “mention très bien”, the US summa cum laude, to which can also be added “avec les félicitations du jury” (literally, “with the jury’s congratulations”, while a better translation would be “with distinction”), and plain “honors” are “mention assez bien”, the US cum laude.

“Mention bien” is acceptable for a PhD, French doctorat, if I so wish. I would very much like that! However I had a rough time getting my Masters pulled together in a single year while working full time, and the two professors also recommended taking time to think about and prepare for doctoral studies before officially beginning them. In France, a doctorate is required to take 3 years of study/research/thesis writing; a fourth year can be added, but only under highly exceptional circumstances. In order to be able to work on a doctoral thesis properly, I would need to find funding for it. There are some scholarships and PhD funding sources available, so taking time off will allow me to delve into that more.

As I just told a friend elsewhere – it’s a bit like a write your own adventure!

Heritage days

Posted in Education, La France at 21:17

Avenue Marius Raveu

Over this past weekend in France were held the journées du patrimoine, heritage days. Many museums and historical sites were open for free, and some had special tours. I once again sacrificed outings for my thesis, mainly because I’ve been to most of the places already, although I have yet to see the inside of the Villa Arson. Improving the French language in my thesis before printing it today was much more important, however! My defense is scheduled for next week – I am starting to feel more nervous, but also looking forward to talking about my research and writing.

After printing and binding my 155-page tome (volume), I went to deliver it, having taken the afternoon off to do just that. I got off a few bus stops too early, so decided to walk to the Université de Nice to deliver copies of my thesis to the two jury members’ mailboxes rather than take the bus. UNice, as it’s also known here (not spoken UNice, but written), has several campuses in Nice, as well as in Sophia Antipolis. For literature and languages, the faculté (college) is at Campus Carlone, located on a hill. I started at the Fabron musée d’art naïf and walked up a narrow road with switchbacks. It was nice, as it ended up being my own sort of heritage day! I had been unfamiliar with that part of Nice until now, and enjoyed visiting.

Above is a street plaque I crossed. I searched for Marius Raveu online, and found the best information gathered together in this French WWI history forum. Raveu flew bombing missions in WWI, was awarded the croix de guerre and continued as a civilian pilot afterwards, “beating several records”. He died in an airplane crash at the end of 1925.

I also passed a few beautiful villas, including one with gorgeous iris frescoes beneath the eaves (taken with my smartphone, so the quality isn’t great, but you can see their complexity by zooming in). I love these under-eave frescoes here.

Tout va bien

Posted in Biographical, Education at 20:26

It’s been a long while since my last post. Thanks to all of you who patiently return to my site! As you can imagine, I’ve been busy working, whether at my job or on my Masters thesis.

I finished the bulk of my thesis a few days ago, and am now wrapping up translations of cites that were in English originally. Not an easy thing to do, since French is not my native language. I didn’t start learning it early enough to gain as much fluency as in English, beginning only at age 11. Just soon enough to have a good spoken accent, but not quite young enough to soak in an instinct for French phrasing. I really notice it in my French writing. Where in English I barely have to think twice, or when I do, it comes relatively easily and I know how and why, in French it’s a bit like pulling teeth. The demoralizing bit is that I can see that it doesn’t “read French”, but I don’t exactly know how to tidy it up.

My thesis defense will be sometime this month, in any case before the 30th since that’s the final deadline. Having picked a subject that I love, and having thoroughly enjoyed the research and writing, even when it gave me headaches, I’m actually looking forward to it. Oral presentations were my bugbear in youth, but having lived in three countries and fumbled around in several languages has served to wash away most of my embarrassment when speaking. Why worry about a subject I enjoy and discuss happily, when I can remember shopping in Finland on arrival and the only words I knew were “kiitos, kiitti, anteeksi”? (“Thank you, thanks, excuse me” respectively.) Why worry about mutual comprehension in a language I’ve spoken for decades when I can recall talking like a 2-year-old and entirely enjoying “discussions” I had in basic Mandarin Chinese with taxi drivers and artisans? Years of traveling have taught me the golden rule: try to speak their language, listen, and recognize that all humans know what it is to feel silly. Trust that they’ll relate, and the vast majority of the time, they will. Those who don’t, or who make you feel uncomfortable, are giving you valuable information – namely, to find someone else to speak with.

Life aside from my studies has been going very well too. I’m finally in a place where I’ve been able to start relaxing and enjoying the fruits of years of hardship and sacrifice. Where I can just sit in my adorable apartment with my adorable cat and enjoy life.


Posted in Journal at 20:17

I’m making the most of our four-day weekend, thanks to yesterday, the 14th, being France’s national holiday, and working as much as I can on my thesis. Overall, it’s on comparative creation myths (comparative meanings, not value – I’ve never been one to hierarchise much of anything, however I’ve always been interested in meaning). My favorite part is on Skywoman/Aataentsic (“All-Knowing Wise Woman / Ancestress / Mature Flowers”), a legend that has many versions among Iroquois-family tribes, as well as a version often known as “Strawberry Legend” among the Cherokee. The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois League/Confederacy) version is overviewed by the Canadian Museum of Civilization; a Seneca (Iroquois) Creation Story is available thanks to Archives Canada, and the Cherokee Nation has its version at The Beginning/Legend of the Strawberries. An excerpt from the latter:

The Creator found that his daughter laughed and sang too much; and she talked constantly. She asked too many questions. Why do the leaves of the Tree of Life shine? Who created the Upper World? Who named the plants? Creator still loved her, for this was his daughter, but this constant laughter and questions, what could he do? The Creator had told them many times to stay away from the Tree of Life and not to play around its trunk. But like all curious children she had to see why her father said these things. First Man would insist that she not go to the tree but every day First Woman would climb the tree to its highest limbs. One day she found a hole in the bottom of the trunk and started to go in. First Man was again insistent that she stay away from the tree but to no avail. She went in and fell out of the bottom of Ga-lun-la-ti.

Creator returned home to find First Woman was missing. He asked First Man “where is my daughter?” to which the young man replied “I told her not to go into the hole in the bottom of the tree, but she would not listen.” Creator did not know what to do as he peered over the side of Ga-lun-la-ti and saw his daughter falling toward the awesome ball of water.

There’s an excellent documentary on the Huron-Wendat (Wyandot, Iroquoian but not members of the Confederacy/League) available online thanks to the Canadian National Film Bureau, Kanata: Legacy of the Children of Aataentsic. If you understand French, the original is at Kanata : l’héritage des enfants d’Aataentsic. It includes an oral retelling of the Aataentsic/Skywoman myth, as well as further symbolism and its relation to their way of thinking, which I found heartening as well as interesting.

In a quirky turn of events, I actually did not know of the French-language Huron-Wendat versions before beginning my thesis… which is in French. I had been prepared to translate one of the English versions, and then discovered Aataentsic, “Celle de toute sagesse”.

Reading and writing

Posted in Biographical, Cats at 20:26


I haven’t posted in a while because I’ve been busy, working both at the office, and at home and at the university library on my Masters thesis. Above is a photo of the pile of books currently at the foot of my sofa – several others I’m also using are sprinkled judiciously throughout my apartment. This pile actually has 15 books in it, and there are another three around the corner, not quite in the picture. The fall semester of my Masters degree had three courses, two of which I’ve received grades for, and I’m happy to say it went very well, with grades (“notes” in French) of 16/20 and 17/20. In the humanities, it’s practically unheard of to get 20/20; a grade of 19/20 is extremely rare, 18/20 is quite rare, and 17/20 is, well, very good! When I was in the fourth year of my bachelor’s degree as an exchange student in Lyon, I had an average of 14/20, which was already very respectable for a non-French student, and good for a French student too. I honestly didn’t expect I’d do better than that in this Masters program, so it’s a very pleasant surprise, and has definitely motivated me to work even more carefully on my thesis.

Kanoko checks in on me from time to time, poking his head in the open French doors to remind me that there’s a life outside, and by the way, if I could refill his treat bowl with tuna, that would be mighty fine. Recently I decided to stop giving him pre-made wet cat food as treats, and instead buy canned fish, which is healthier. (He already eats good “carnivore” dry food, mainly Orijen and Acana.) As a result, I bought one can of every type of plain, non-seasoned fish at the supermarket and did a week-long taste test, one at a time. He disliked mackerel, found sardines only mildly acceptable, liked salmon, and, naturally, adored tuna. So now he gets tuna and salmon during the week, for his evening treat. (For info, cats shouldn’t be fed a tuna-only diet since it lacks taurine, which is essential to feline health. Kanoko’s dry food gives him everything he needs, and the fish is a perk.) It’s fun to watch him eat it because he’s very methodical: first he licks the fish dry, without eating any of the meat, then he saunters outside to enjoy some fresh air and watch birds. An hour or so later, he comes back inside to eat half the fish. Another hour later, he comes in to finish it off, and has a sip of water. Just a few days ago, he then began crouching over his empty treat bowl to meow at me weakly and sorrowfully, as if to say that without a refill of fish, he might faint. I call him a silly cat, he looks at me, nonplussed, and returns outside, his weakness suddenly gone.

Bonne année 2011 !

Posted in Cats, Journal, La France at 19:28

Treats, and cat

Kanoko, as you’ve often seen, likes to stick his curious self into otherwise-still lifes. These are some of the treats I’ll be having to ring in the New Year, with egg and pine cone added for symbolism (the New Year being associated with rebirth). Pine cones are also neat for their math: their scales are arranged in Fibonacci number sequences, as are shell spirals and many other things. As for Kanoko, I’m pretty sure his mathematical basis is most closely related to chaos theory.

When not nerding out over snail shells and pine cones while drinking French wine, I’ve been playing my new digital piano (it’s as nice as I’d hoped) and writing a paper for one of my Masters courses. Once it and a second paper are finished, the first three-fourths of 2011 will be spent focused on my thesis. (As a reminder, I’m working on a Masters in comparative literature.) My initial research has been going well, in spite of, and even thanks to, a few setbacks, because they piqued my curiosity and incited me to look places I wouldn’t have otherwise. My advisor is great as well, and has recommended works I was unfamiliar with, that are a huge boon. It’s a good foundation, and working on these two smaller papers has helped develop ideas I’ll use in my thesis too, so I’m looking forward to the challenge. Yes, I am speaking in generalities on purpose — the topics involved are things that people often feel strongly about, whether they’ve analyzed them or not, so I prioritize my own peace of mind over attracting readers to my site with something more piquant.

That said, Kanoko is quite piquant. (In French, piquant can mean “pointy; sharp” in addition to “spicy; provocative; stimulating”.)

Happy New Year to everyone, all the best for 2011!

A new chapter begins

Posted in Education, La France at 21:10

Circumstances and my own reserve about uncertain plans conspired for some very last-minute news: I’ve been accepted for a Masters degree in comparative literature at the Université de Nice Sophia Antipolis, starting this October.

Although the process began in April this year, I only received confirmation yesterday evening. For a couple of years now, I’ve wanted to go back to school in order to find a career better suited to my character. While I enjoy translations, as time passed, I realized that what I most looked forward to during the day was the time I spent reading and participating in discussions on meaning, and related cross-cultural and sociological issues that any discussion of “meaning” brings up once you start going into depth. At first, given my background in IT, I thought that librarianship might be a good path — I could use my literary, technological and analytical skills to help people in their own research at a library. I looked into other possibilities as well: certifications via France’s CNED (National Distance Education Centre) and at the University of Nice, in case anything caught my eye. Which is exactly what happened!

At my US university (the U. of Oregon) and the one I attended in Lyon (Univ. Lyon II), I had taken a few comparative literature courses, which I adored for their combination of foreign languages, anthropology, psychology, sociology, philosophy, art, and, of course, literature. So when I saw that the UNice offered a Masters in comp lit that could lead to secondary school teaching certification or to a doctoral program, I read everything I could about it. Increasingly motivated by what I discovered about the UNice’s research groups and courses available, I decided to apply. Preparing my application was a test in itself!

To shorten what would be another long story, the process was complex, being 1. a non-EU-citizen foreigner 2. in France (not a foreign country) who had 3. studied at a French university 4. but never been registered in one (as an exchange student, I’d been registered at my US university while at Lyon), 5. was over the age of 28 (a cutoff age for French students who have been previously registered at a French university), and to top it all off, 6. needed to continue working full-time in order to support myself. The fact that I’d be working full time during the day wasn’t a problem, according to the program director — it’s possible to do the Masters as a “distance” program. As they say in French, je sais plutôt bien me débrouiller (I’m pretty good at sorting out chaotic situations), so I got through the maze and reached the final hurdle: I needed to prepare and submit a thesis proposal and statement of purpose along with my officially-translated transcripts.

At that point, I still didn’t know which comp lit Masters to apply for specifically. See, in France, Masters degrees can be just one year (called Master 1) or two years (Master 1 followed by Master 2). This is quite recent; the Master 1 used to be a maîtrise and the Master 2 used to be a DEA/DESS (roughly equivalent to M.A./M.S.). I thought a Master 1 would be good to start out with, to get back into the swing of university and help clarify whether I wanted to continue with an education-oriented Master 2 or a doctorate-oriented one. I was very interested in doctorate possibilities, but honestly didn’t know whether it would be for me. I decided to be honest about my uncertainty in my motivation letter, specifying nonetheless that I was excited at the possibilities available through the UNice’s research groups for doctoral candidates. I also tailored my thesis proposal for such an eventuality — for the research (doctorate-oriented) Master 2, a thesis proposal needs to have a statement for the Masters thesis, and the potential for directly-related doctoral studies; ideally even a subject area appropriate for a professoral career in comparative literature.

I sent in my letter and proposal at the end of August, knowing the evaluation committee would meet in September. They met last Friday, and I received notice in the mail yesterday: I was accepted into the Master 2 research program! The full French name, for those curious: Master 2 Recherche Lettres mention Littérature comparée. It’s really ideal: I live just a 15-minute bus ride from the campus, and it’s a public university, so will cost me only 271.36 euros for the entire year (there are no TA scholarships for Masters degrees in France, only for doctorates). Readers might be wondering if the decimal point is in the wrong spot or if I made any typos — nope, that’s two-hundred-seventy-one euros and thirty-six cents. I’m very excited to be able to do something I love!