Friday, October 23, 2009

a minor freedom

a group of us were studying the other day for a class when one of my fellow students, a student from france, leaned over and asked me, "how old are you?"

i told her - 36, if you're curious - and her eyes got wide. "i sink, in all ze history of frahnce, tat tere has never been a graduate student az ancient az you", she said.

ok, that's what i heard. that's not really what she said. but she did say something like, "i think in france, one does not see graduate students as old as that" or something like that.

i guess i'm glad i spent some time in germany and france, for two reasons: one, i know that different things are taboo to talk about and ask people about there as compared to here; and two, i know she's pretty much right. both of these together mean i can't really be offended by what she said.

first off, people in at least germany, and i'm guessing france, are much more willing to comment on your - or anyone else's - weight and age than americans are. it's just not taboo. i think the reasoning is that they are both obvious characteristics; why bother pretending you aren't curious or shouldn't know or couldn't guess? you could also argue they are far, far less obsessed with youth culture, image, and anti-aging. although they generally are more 'made up' than we are, they are also far more comfortable, in the aggregate, with human bodies and thier imperfections. (what do we, as americans, have no compuction talking about that they do? money, of course. we talk about money to the point of discomfort for many germans i knew.)

second, it's true that there probably aren't a lot of 36 year old grad students in france. if the system is much like germany - and i'm guessing it is more like germany than like here - university is something you do straight from high school, and if you continue on, that's right after that. period. in germany, your track - whether to a general high school degree, a vocational high school degree, or to university after high school (excepting professional programs such as MBA or skilled training) - is traditionally mostly set at age 10. in fifth grade is when you are sent to one of the three types of secondary schools and that, friends, is pretty much all she wrote*. i have asked germans about this and while it's technically possible to buck the system and switch tracks, or go to university after completing a different track, it's so difficult socially and culturally that it doesn't happen very often.

so although my inner american nature automatically bristled at the implied "you're old!" comment, i just smiled and said, "yes, i think you're probably right. it's different here; here you can go to school pretty much whenever you want." of course with the caveat of being able to afford it (no wonder we're so obsessed with money; getting a college degree in the US is highly correlated with family income; rich kids are far, far more likely to go to college than poor kids, for lots of reasons). but it's also true here that you can barely pass high school - or not finish at all - and maybe have a kid, or maybe screw around a while, maybe have some jobs and whatnot - and still decide to go to school on your own terms, without your parents' backing if needed. and go. and once you've gotten the first hurdle down - a four-year degree - you can take some time and go back and continue whenever you want. whenever! you put in the application, have the requirements, get all the documentation you need, and it's your choice.

it's not perfect here (i wish it wasn't so connected to family income, for starters), and it's a minor freedom in the grand scheme of things, but it's a specific and identifiable one, and one i'm particularly glad to have right at this moment. sure, it would have been nice to be doing this at 25 or whatever, when i had more energy and more free time. but i made other choices then that i'm happy with. isn't it nice to get to choose something totally new now? instead of fighting off offense, i should have thanked her for reminding me of this fact - that it's far easier for me to make this radical shift at 36 here, than it would be there.

plus, joke's on her! i wasn't even the oldest one there.

*note: there is work to change the german system to a more flexible, integrated, american style one. but that change is painful and not everyone agrees with it. the old system has its advantages, too.

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