And so concludes the most memorable week of my life! Each day this week I tried at least one new food, met a person from a different country and learned new French vocabulary. I found myself lost multiple times and was accidentally tear-gassed by the French police. I attended mass in a cathedral built in the 300s and a wine festival featuring more wines than I thought was possible. As a result, it feels much longer than one week ago that I landed in Paris after an 8-hour flight from Washington, D.C and boarded the train for Tours.
It seems to silly to me now how nervous I was as the train pulled up to the Tours train station, unsure of what the next six weeks would hold. While the first few days were definitely the hardest, every day has been an improvement and I already am noticing a vast improvement in my ability to understand and hold conversations in French. The second I saw my host parents, holding a home-made sign with my name, waving and smiling at me, I knew I had nothing to be worried about. They are a wonderful and kind couple that has hosted students for over twenty-five years!
That being said, my first couple days in Tours were definitely the hardest. While my host mom accompanied to school the first day on the tram, I decided for some reason to try the bus the next day. I assumed the bus and the tram would let off at the same location near my school, which I soon realized was not the case as I looked out the window and saw the Loire river below me as the bus left downtown Tours for the suburbs. As a result, I was 45 minutes late to the first official day of school. The bus mishap was only the first of many times I got lost. In addition I struggled conversing in French outside the comfort zone of my school and host family. A puzzled look coupled with the phrase “je ne vous comprends pas” was a common response I received the first couple days.
While initially I was frustrated by continually being lost and misunderstood, it was those processes that were actually the most rewarding. In being lost I stumbled across some of Tours’ best shops and in being misunderstood I gained a better understanding of French language. For example here is a word I will never forget: manifestation (protest).
During an extra long répose (break) last week I decided to return home in between classes on the tram, and on my return trip, the tram abruptly stopped in the center of town. When I asked the driver why the tram stopped, he pointed forward and said “manifestation” and then opened the tram doors and said “sortir.” Ignoring the first word because I did not know its meaning, I followed his directors to “sortir” (exit) the tram and began to walk to school, which happened to be in the same direction he pointed when he said manifestation. Suddenly I heard chanting in French as I was encircled by swarms of people holding signs and looking very angry all around me. Then I saw rows of armed guards slowly marching towards us and before I was able to get myself away from the protestors a huge cloud of white smoke engulfed us. Suddenly my eyes began to sting and everyone around me grabbed parts of their clothes to cover their faces. I soon realized the police were dispersing tear gas to break up the “manifestation.” I covered my face with my sweater and ran away from the gas as fast as I could. I was late for school but I when I explained to my teacher why, he seemed very happy I had this “first hand experience of the French revolutionary spirit!” He explained to me the definition of manifestation and how the French view the right of protest an integral part of their history. The manifestation I witnessed however was unusual in that its part of a larger movement against the new labor law implemented by the French government. Protests are occurring across the entire country of France in fact and many workers are on strike.
In addition I am learning the importance of phonetics to the French language. Often French words differ by the slightest phonetic change in a syllable. Outside of the classroom, I am not understood if I don’t pronounce the phonetics exactly. This happened when I tried to buy a watermelon (pastèque) but the seller thought I was calling his fruit plastic (plastique), and when someone asked me how my first cours (course) of school was and I began to explain the route I jog each morning because I thought they asked about running (courir) – (these were some of those puzzled looks and “je ne vous comprends pas” instances).
I lucked out though because my first week at school was a special week focused on oral skills and so by the end of the week already noticed a vast improvement in my ability to hold to a conversation!
I am also expanding my food palate. As my family and friends know well, I have never been an adventurous eater. My usual diet rarely detours from vegetables, chicken and fish. Yet in the past week, meats I have never had before in my life appeared on my plate each night. Much to my surprise, and I think more to the surprise of my family and friends, I found myself liking almost every meal. Of course it doesn’t hurt that my host mom comes from three generations of professional chefs and worked in a restaurant for twenty years herself!
One of the aspects I love most about my time in Tours so far has been my interaction with other cultures in my home and at school. At school the first week I was one of two Americans in my class. One activity in particular I enjoyed was finding advertisements from our respective countries and explaining them to the class. I chose to cover Superbowl advertisements, and people were shocked to learn that commercials could be so expensive and so many celebrates appeared in them.
While I was alone the first three nights in my house, I now have three housemates who are also students at L’Institut de Touraine. On my floor is a very sweet woman from Japan studying the French language and wine to improve her skills as a wine consultant in Japan. One the floor above me lives a boy my age from Ireland and a girl from the United States. We eat dinner together every night at 8 pm and talk only in French – the common language amongst us. Often the conversation turns into a comparison of cultures that goes well over one hour. The inevitable mix of culture, gastronomy and socializing of the meal has made dinner one of my favorite parts of Tours.
I love exploring Tours and all of its treasures, meeting new people and learning French. I cannot wait to begin my month long course on Monday and start excursions to other parts of France this week. À bientôt!