First Week in Tours

Bonjour! Je m’appelle Justine. J’ai fini mon première semaine à l’Institut de Touraine!

Immediately after finishing finals and arriving home, I packed a fresh suitcase and found myself on the way to France for a six-week language program at the Institut de Touraine.

The Institut is located in Tours, France, which is a city slightly larger and denser than South Bend. After an exhausting day of travel, I finally arrived at the Gare de St. Pierre des Corps from Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport by TGV, which is a fast train ride of about one hour and 40 minutes. My host, a wonderful retired woman, was already there to meet me. Unfortunately, I soon realized that I could barely keep up with her rapid tongue. (Since, that has changed! Seeing the slightest improvement is very exciting.) There are a total of three students living with her: me, a young Japanese woman, and another American about my age.

As soon as classes began, however, my fears of being in a very unfamiliar setting were assuaged. Interacting with other students, I was reassured that I would catch on quickly. Some students who had already been in Tours for the past few weeks took me in, showed me where some good local lunch spots were, and helped me acclimate to the school’s environment. By the third day, classes started going more smoothly, as I had more practice speaking, writing, and reading French.

Still, while I have been practicing French in the classroom, some of my best learning experiences so far have come from verbal interactions with shopowners, my homestay host, and other students during our down time. Since I am already aware that I need to improve my speaking skills, any opportunity I have to speak the language is very valuable. Even at the dinner table, we try our best to speak French, even though us three students can speak English. Sometimes, it would make things much simpler if we could resort to our native tongues, but we all enjoy the challenge of trying to explain our thoughts in French.

At the Institut, I will be in the Intensive Course for 3 weeks (22.5h/week), and then I will switch to the Regular Course (15h/week). The difference between the two are the addition of culture-related lectures in the Intensive Course. The two that we were exposed to this week were French genres of music and the French schooling system. I found all of these very interesting, but what was just as intriguing was hearing about all the other student’s cultures in their home countries. Within my class of eight, there are two students from Japan, one from Thailand, one from Switzerland, two from Saudi Arabia, and one from Taiwan. We often discuss how one aspect of French culture compares to its counterpart in our home countries. It is really quite fascinating all of the things I have learned about these other places, as a result of having to unite our different worlds through something we have in common.

My French courses at Notre Dame have prepared me very well in terms of understanding grammatical concepts, so I am trying to bridge the thought translation process between the concepts that are repetitively memorized and the utilization of them in daily conversation.

À la prochaine!

Freiburg: Weeks 5 & 6

The last two weeks in Freiburg have been much the same as the previous weeks, yet also different. The city has become familiar: I no longer worry about getting lost; I less frequently seek out new places and focus more on getting from one destination to the next. The daily routine of class, homework, and free time has become predictable. In some ways the familiarity makes daily life less stressful, but it also fosters a certain amount of boredom. With fewer distractions, I feel a greater degree of home-sickness. Some aspects of German culture irritate me more than they did at first: the brusqueness of waiters in restaurants and of cashiers in the supermarket; everything being closed on Sunday and on public holidays; the constant vigilance required to avoid getting hit by bicycles; punks obtrusively asking for handouts; the need to pay for almost everything with cash. Learning the language is an agonizingly slow process, and even though I spend the greater part of each day in class or doing homework, I find it discouraging that I can only sometimes understand native German speakers. I feel I would have to stay here at least another four months just to cover all the grammatical bases and to acquire a functional ability to speak German and understand spoken German. Since putting my life on hold for that long is not an option, I remind myself that first, I don’t need to be fluent in German–I live in the US, after all–and second, that I came here specifically to improve my ability to read German.

I find it interesting that, although I am living in Germany, most of the people with whom I interact on a daily basis are not German. For example, none of my classmates are German, nor are any of the students whom I have met at the Goethe Institut. My teacher is also not German, though she has lived in Germany for many years. I am, however, extremely fortunate to be part of such a diverse community. Everyone has their own story: where they are from, what their home country is like, where they currently live, why they are learning German, what they hope to do in the future. They share their views about Germany, about world events and politics, about America. During a conversation over lunch about American’s role in various Middle-Eastern and European conflicts, the US presidential election came up. Several people in the group expressed their opinion that Americans have a particular responsibility to take an active role in politics, specifically voting in the upcoming presidential elections. In their view, America possesses great wealth and power and therefore exercises considerable influence on world events. Americans ought to choose their president with care: they have an obligation not only to themselves, but also to others. I was taken aback by this view, since I have always regarded politics with considerable skepticism and a degree of apathy. I wondered if they could be right, and whether I should re-consider my own involvement in American politics. I especially appreciated this conversation because I have been curious how people from other countries think about the States. When I was preparing for my trip to Germany and informing people that I would be away, the response I received was overwhelmingly positive: “You are going to Europe?!”; “That’s so awesome!”; “You are going to have a great time!” I don’t get impression, however, that the feeling is entirely reciprocal; for example, when we learned about places to which Germans like to travel, the US definitely did not top the list. Germans prefer to vacation in their own country, in Spain, in Italy, in Greece. When the people in my class talked about places they would like to visit, no one mentioned the US. Of course I cannot generalize based on this limited sample size, it did give me pause to consider that not everyone thinks that American is the coolest place ever. It’s kind of like, “America may be a big player in world events, but we think our own countries are pretty awesome, thank you very much.”

Freiburg: Weeks 3 & 4

I can hardly believe that I have already spent four weeks in Freiburg! Although I miss my husband and family acutely, I am grateful that in a sense that I am only halfway finished with my language training. At the beginning of the course, I greatly overestimated how comfortable I would be speaking German after four weeks; I can interact with the local population on a very basic level, but I still must resort to English for any exchange of detailed or complicated information. At the same time, I feel more comfortable attempting to speak in German, even if I am not certain that my grammar is 100% perfect. Much of the information that I have learned in class has proved extremely useful for daily life, and the classroom also provides a “safe” place for me and my classmates to try new things, make mistakes, and learn how to speak or write correctly. We recently learned the dative and accusative cases, as well one of the past tenses, which greatly increases what we are able to talk about.

Around the beginning of the third week, I contracted a virus that was circulating in my class; although being sick was itself unpleasant, I had the opportunity to visit one of the many pharmacies (die Apotheke[n]) that dot the city streets. Germans cannot buy o.t.c. medications from the supermarket, as we do in America, which explains why there are so many pharmacies (whereas in the US, I find it a little confusing that there are so many Walgreens and CVS pharmacies, when we can easily get medication from grocery stores). Given my limited vocabulary, I could not explain my symptoms in German, but fortunately an English-speaking employee directed me toward the pain-killer, decongestant, and throat lozenges. Of course I had to take her word for it that these were the appropriate medications, since I could not read the labels, but I decided that the medications were likely quite safe, since Germany is such a modern and developed country.

In addition to attending class and completing homework assignments, I have had the opportunity to explore Freiburg, visit several of the city’s museums, and occasionally hike in the Scholssberg (although the prodigious amount of rain that we have received has limited the accessibility of the hiking trails). On April 20 I went with some students from the Goethe Institut to tour Freiburg’s Münster tower; the inside of the Münster is breathtakingly beautiful, as is the view from the tower. We were fortunate enough to visit the Münster on a sunny, clear day, and were able to see the whole city, as well as some of the surrounding region, from our lofty vantage point. I also later visited the Museum of Modern art, which is currently featuring the work of Peter Zimmermann, and the Freiburg Mundenhof. I look forward to visiting the Museum für Stadgeschichte and the Museum Natur und Mensch, as well as Staufen, the Titisee, and the Triberger Wasserfälle.