Thursday, March 27, 2014

Hands-on Education

There are three campuses that make up the Centre de Formation des Apprentis Agricoles des Pyrénées Atlantiques: in Montardon, north of Pau, where we were from October through January; in Hasparren, near Bayonne, where we were for two weeks this month; and here in Oloron-Sainte-Marie, where we will not have classes at all, which is unfortunate because if all the classes had been here it would have saved me a whole lot in time and travel frustration and possibly rent money. Oh, well. These three lycées are vocational/technical schools, an alternative to the university track. In France, general education goes through collège, which is what we'd call 10th grade or so in the United States, and then the 15-year-old student graduates (or not) with their diplôme and has to choose what to do next - or has the choice made for them if they haven't done well academically. The next level is the lycée, and this can be either more general education in either arts or sciences in preparation for going to university, or technical studies leading to a career in a specific field. This latter usually involves one or more terms of apprenticeship. The CFAA focuses on agricultural work, including food sciences, research in biology and microbiology, farming, tree-trimming, and lawn and garden care. Of the students in my class, some have defined goals, others (like me) are pursuing dreams, and a few are there, I think, because they couldn't figure out what to do after graduation and so are happy enough being paid to attend class with no real plans to use the information they're ignoring in the classroom. I expect that in the general student population, there's the same split. It must be hard for young kids to make the decision at 15 or so as to what they want to spend the rest of their lives doing - and for the most part it will be, as job-changing isn't as easy here as it is the US (in principle anyway). If I'd been set firmly on a road by the education system at 15 I'd be ... what was it at the time? Marine biologist, maybe, or perhaps I'd have gone for concert pianist. Or maybe I would have dropped out and married my high school boyfriend Walter. That was a weird year, 15.

We arrived at the campus and immediately started learning about new regulations coming up around labeling requirements for fresh and processed food, so we didn't get into the dormitories until 6pm. Actually, we couldn't have gotten in the dormitories earlier, because the dorms are locked down from 8:30am to 6pm. And the classroom buildings, including the only room with computer access, are locked down from 8pm to 8:30am. And dinner is at 7pm precisely, and you must go in a specific order by class designation, and oh my gosh there were so many rules. But when you're dealing with 15-year-old boys, that's probably a good thing. There were girls among the students, but not nearly as many.

We hadn't been told to bring bedding, but they scrounged up a set of sheets for me, which included a pubic hair from a previous occupant of the room. Between the restrictions and the dormitory and the no-computer situation (after I had been ASSURED that there was wi-fi available) I was frazzled and, frankly, rather a bitch that evening, and I ended up in a room of my own on a hard single bed. Though I did tell the RA that if another female student needed a place to stay, I wasn't that much of a bitch, and they were welcome to move in and use one of the bunk beds. Fortunately, I had the room to myself for both weeks. And I've requested a single room during the next two terms.

"So how was dormitory life?" asked Mom when we were chatting on Skype yesterday. Okay, once I got used to it. The private room helped. But the light-sensors in the toilets were not designed to encourage long visits, and I had to keep waving my arms over my head while I peed so that I wasn't peeing in the dark. I had to whack the shower button every five seconds to keep the water running, but at least the water was hot. The food was well prepared and tasty, which was good because they usually served the leftovers from lunch to the reduced number of students staying in the dorms (most students arrived by bus, car, or shuttle every morning for class). But it was starch and fat and sugar for breakfast, starch and meat and fat and sugar for lunch, and starch and meat and sugar for dinner. There were times when I was reduced to begging other students for the lettuce leaves under their sliced-salami or hard-boiled-egg entrées, just to get something green. I'd taken gluten-free bread and oatmeal, so breakfast was okay - the coffee wasn't great, but there was lots of it - but by the end of the first week I'd complained so much to the chef (okay, maybe I was that much of a bitch) about the lack of vegetables that he started putting aside extra for me. He was very nice, actually, that chef - he always had a piece of fish or something that I could eat when the main course was tartiflette (sliced potatoes with cream and bacon and melted cheese) or another gluten- or dairy-filled dish.

And the classes were more interesting, because they were more practical. We had several days of microbiology and nutritional analysis classes, and tested samples of piment d'Espelette for bacteria and molds and other nasty things. We got a chance to apply our marketing and communication skills to a project for the official AOP regulatory group, who want to do an outreach program for kids between 7 and 12 years old. My team came up with a trifold brochure using cartoon characters who walked a little Basque boy through the cycle of cultivation-ripening-processing-seed-saving, which I did up in InDesign, and I think it was well received by the AOP representative. We're into fiscal management now, not just accounting and bookkeeping, and I am learning (and promptly forgetting, the damn details just won't stay in my head) more than I really wanted to know about the French tax system. English words and phrases pop up at the strangest times and in the strangest ways; we were told at one point that profits are shared "fifty-fifty" among three associates. And we're finally starting on our personal projects, which I really need to do some work on soon, because there are only two months left to pull that together, and since my project requires responses from people I haven't even sent letters to yet, what the hell am I doing writing blog posts anyway?

The lovely Adeline measuring in precise micromillilitres.

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