Tuesday, July 14, 2009
The Triathlon, Part V - or - how I paid my way to Cape Cod with French
I've been busy. Running, swimming and biking take up a lot of time. I'm getting better at swimming, but it's still hard. I swam 15 laps in a row once last week and was really proud of myself; I've been doing "bricks," where I do two of the three sports in quick succession; and one day I did all three parts - with breaks, over the course of about four hours.
Then I got an email about getting paid to be a test subject for a French fluency exam at Northwestern University. The timing was tight - there were two days of listening comprehension last weekend, and two days of reading comprehension next weekend which I can't do because I'll be on Cape Cod. They were testing during the week too, so I could squeeze the reading test in just before departing this Thursday for my sporty journey to the east. I could sign up to do just the listening comprehension test and get paid $280, or sign up for both and get paid $560. I've been keeping a mental list of the costs associated with the triathlon, and it goes something like this:
Flight to Boston $180
Race registration fee $65
Bike and helmet rental $50
Wetsuit rental $50
Running shoes $80
Swimming lessons $120
The allure of covering my triathlon costs was strong, my French fluency almost never results in cash rewards, and I can't think of another time when I was offered money in exchange for taking a standardized test. I signed up for both sections.
I heard about the test through an email from the Groupe Professionnel Francophone. I attended a couple of their meetings a few years ago while on a job search, I wanted to find a job where I could use my French skills and thought it might be a good networking opportunity. I signed up to be on their email list, and have been receiving communications from them ever since. They meet on the last Thursday of the month in the restaurant of the Renaissance Hotel on Wacker Drive, and their meetings generally start with a speaker, followed by wine and hors d'oevres. The first meeting I attended went well; the speaker was from the Haitian consulate, and I managed to speak French with a number of people without slipping into English. The next time I went, a roundish man in his fifties who recognized me from an event at the Alliance Francaise sat next to me at the bar, and after talking to me for a few minutes asked me for my number, ostensibly so that we could practice speaking French with each other. I froze and submitted to his request rather than politely declining. I sat next to him, mute and powerless, as he dialed my home phone number on his cell phone. He explained that he was doing this so that he'd have the number programmed into his phone and wouldn't lose the scrap of paper that I'd written it on. My secret hopes were realized when he held the phone to his ear and said:
"Allo?" in a tone of genuine surprise. "Someone picked up," he said to me.
"Yes, my husband," I said. I haven't been back since.
Early last Saturday morning I took the #93 California/Dodge bus from the corner of Lawrence and Kimball to the campus of Northwestern University in downtown Evanston. I hitched my bike onto the rack on the front of the bus so that I could bike the nine miles home in the afternoon, fulfilling the need for continuous training. I'd never been on the Northwestern campus, so I parked my bike and asked a woman seated on a bench nearby if the building in front of us was University Hall.
"Yes, for ze French test?" she said, in a French accent.
Inside people were milling around a lecture room on the south side of the building. My friend Carla spotted me and I sat near her, we know each other from taking classes at the Alliance Francaise and I'd forwarded the information about the test to her in case she wanted to cash in too. The woman who'd emailed us the information was standing at the front of the room with a name tag hanging around her neck on a lanyard. I asked her if I could come back on Tuesday and Wednesday for the reading portion of the test.
"I don't know," she said from under a helmet of dyed, dried and sprayed blonde hair, "I am not the one administering the test." The testing hadn't even begun and already I was being subjected to French, not just the language but the bureaucracy and minimal customer service. If this had been a test for English, the woman wearing a lanyard would have distributed pencils at the door and thanked us all for taking time out of our weekends to join her for this important, final phase in creating a fluency exam. I sat down and waited for the test administrator, whoever that might be.
A slight, gray-haired man in ironed khakis and a polo shirt entered the room carrying a stack of test booklets. He placed them at a podium at the front of the room and addressed us in a calm, French accented voice. There was a problem, he said. The announcement about the tests had resulted in an overwhelming response, and while he was very happy with the turnout, there were only twenty-five test booklets and about fifty of us in the room. Would it be possible for half of us to leave and come back on Monday? A handful of people stood up and left the room. Someone asked if it was possible to make copies of the test booklets. Yes, the man said, but this would take time, and the test had to start in a few minutes. The woman seated to my left suggested that we split into two rooms, and each room take a different section of the test, since there were four sections to be administered. It took a few minutes for the ironed-pants man to consider this logic; it was out of the box thinking, and he was staying true to the French ideal of making everything more complicated than it needs to be. Eventually he acquiesced.
The booklets were distributed, along with answer sheets. The test was multiple choice, and the answer sheet had round circles to be filled in with a number 2 pencil, like the SATs. At the top of the page there was a spot for marking our name, test section, and testing location. Near that were sections asking for military rank: officer, enlisted, or civilian, and branch of service: army, navy, air force, marines, or other. I'd had a hint that this was for the Department of Defense, the email had mentioned something called the Defense Language Institute. I felt a sudden pang of discomfort, and soothed myself with the thought that at least I'd be getting some of my war tax dollars back, and since I was doing this in the name of physical fitness it couldn't be that much of a conflict of interest. I signed a confidentiality agreement stating that I won't divulge the contents of the exam, so I can't tell you what the questions were or I'll end up on a list somewhere.
I spent ten hours over the course of the weekend in that room listening to recorded questions emanating from a small CD player propped up at the podium, and filling in circles with a pencil. Although I wasn't directly interacting with anyone, by the end my fellow test takers were getting on my nerves. As time passed, the amount of sneezing, coughing, and sighing increased markedly. One person even blew their nose as the rest of the room strained to listed to an audio question.
There were more subtle annoyances too, things that ordinarily wouldn't bother me became irritating due to close proximity and time elapsed. One woman showed up to the test wearing a dress made from fabric that had the map of Paris printed on it, just in case anyone was wondering why she was in the room, and a woman in the front row did everything possible to draw attention to herself. Her hair was cut short and dyed dark red, and she wore chunky Chanel glasses frames. She sat on the far left side of the room, and adjusted her chair so that she was sitting at a jaunty angle to the rest of us. She made a grand demonstration of erasing pencil marks from her answer sheet and brushing away the eraser remains with her right hand, creating continuous background noise to our test-taking activities. During breaks she turned around in her seat and asked questions like:
"What did you put down for number twenty-seven?". On the second day of testing I arrived early to find her writing things on the blackboard and explaining the finer points of French grammar to the only other person who had shown up as early as me.
Annoyances aside, it was a satisfying experience. I got paid for using my brain, got to pretend I was a student at a prestigious university for a couple days, and the bike ride home was gorgeous. I headed west to McCormick Boulevard and followed the North Channel Trail all the way home, and even spotted a baby bunny on the way. Yesterday I went back for the first two parts of the reading comprehension test, which was easier since everyone goes at their own pace and there's no audio cues to listen for. Today I'll bike to the Y to swim my 15 laps, and then take my bike onto the #93 up to Evanston for the two remaining sections of the reading test. Then I'll come home and pack my things for the flight to Boston in the morning. Four days and counting till the triathlon...