Tours week 6: learning french cuisine

My host family has finally let out her frustration about american cuisine. At the dinner table one night, she suddenly laid down her fork and knife, cocked her head to one side and inquired, “do you really just eat burgers and fast-cooked meat in the States?” It was such a silly question that my roommate from Michigan and I was too surprised to answer right away. But given our stay here we have experienced first-hand how the French cure, smoke, bake and cook their meat, and to be honest, the “American way” just cannot compare. In our household, the simplest steak is first soaked in spices or sauce then sautéed in melted butter. To add to that we were sporadically served French Terraines or slow cooked roast, and for dessert souffles and home-made gelatos. The unhurried way the French make their food, every dip and taste, sauté and frappé is thoughtful and measured. My Madame showed me her recipes—each christmas she collects ideas and traditional recipes from her family all across France and publishes a little booklet of recipes, which she distributes to each family member. It has become a little tradition within the family, she explained as she waved her hand theatrically over a little pile of twenty or so booklets.

One evening, I decided to join Madame in the routine dinner preparation, after all, what better way is there to learn conventional french? When Madame heard that I would like to learn gastronomy, she was both thrilled and flabbergasted. After a short while we decided to try a pistachio chicken french terrain. The process was surprisingly complicated; we pureed three different concentrations of cream fraiche and chicken, smashed the pistachios, and boiled the sauce. Then we assembled the layers in a traditional terrain pot and laid it in the oven. The whole procedure took about 3 hours and by then end our hands were clay and our foreheads were beaded with sweat. About an hour later, my first terrain was ready! Once turned over, it held its shape well and had four different colors and layers. But what was most exhausting was communicating in french, especially when learning techniques, I had to combine the movements gestures and words to slowly understand what I’m supposed to do. But in the end it all turned out a huge success—both the food and my gain in vocabulary!

Chateau (Sha-Tow) Villandry field trip

After a month of hesitation, I’ve finally signed up for a château (castle) tour offered at the Institute de Touraine—and I’ll never regret that I did! Tours is a village that embraces the Loire valley, the only natural river that flows from the sea straight through the heart of France. Probably because I walk past the river every day, I have grown used to its roaring body of water, but if you zoom out on a map until tours is merely a point on the line that resembles the river, you’ll see that old, amazing castles dots the river all along the way. These castles date all the way back to the middle ages and they look as if they popped out of a fairytale book.

A profile of me in front of Chateau Villandry in Tours, France.

A profile of me in front of Chateau Villandry in Tours, France.

Castles are a great part of the culture at Tours—it is what draws tourists from all across France and from all the world. A bike tour following the river is rated one of the best family vacation ideas since the Loire du Velo project, which built safe and well-guided biking trails along connecting all the castles, was launched.

The one that I went to this week is Chateau Villandry, which is well-know for its magnificent gardens. It is rumored that the botanist who designed the gardens of Villandry was ordered by the french King to plant herbs and flowers in the great gardens of Versaille. We arrived at the south side of the castle, which faced the river. This side was made to resist attack from other dukes and foreign power; all of its towers facing the outside were well-rounded (so projectiles will physically scrape the walls but won’t accumulate much damaged). To add to the defense look, there was an actual drawbridge complete with chains and old-fashioned turning wheels. Yet once you cross the bridge to enter the tunnel, come out into the courtyard and look back, the castle looks like one taken from the film-production of sleeping beauty. All the windows are large with decorations and some with terraces. What’s really amazing is the gardens, which had intricate designs, from a walkway sheltered with vines to fountains in a field of lavender. I was more then relieved that I could understand everything the tour guide was saying in French; I felt that my french has improved and my vocabulary grew immensely.

Tours Week 4

Like always, my week was filled with events and was even more busier than before. This week, a couple of festivities have drawn all sorts of people from their homes, and never before have I seen Tours so crowded. First, on Tuesday there was the Music Festival of Tours which attracted visitors from all over France. Each plaza and park was packed with people and temporary stages were built to host various musicians over the course of the day. Each and every type of music could be heard; in fact, one every other ten feet. A walk in the park at the center of Tours made me feel like I just walked into Georges-Pierre Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”.  During the evening after dinner, we went to Place Plumereau (the iconic plaza surrounded by old European style buildings) to enjoy the tip of the iceberg, and we were awarded with delicious treats and wonderful music.

Also during the week is the national bi-annual sale, and the central pedestrian road, Rue Nationale, was packed from start to end with people hoping to land a deal. I loved shopping in the grand shopping malls and little shops, but I loved to walk around the markets even more. There, one can find flowers and second-hand jewelry, fresh pastries and fruits, and what’s more, one can sharpen french oral and bargaining skills. All of the sellers love to chat with you, and each one is eager to hear about stories from United States and my hometown, Beijing.

On the weekend, my host family took me to a charity club meeting, of which my Madame was the president. We cooked finger foods in preparation for the event and then drove to the reception close to the castle Villandry. The meeting composed of a casual pot-luck dinner and a handicap representative who gave a speech thanking the board for their efforts throughout the year. Even though they were reluctant to speak in English, all were very nice and tried to explain to me what was going on. During the dinner, I found myself talking members of the charity on issues such as handicap facilities in the USA, the presidential election, and the EU referendum—all in French!

Tours Week 3

Week 3 passed by in such a blur! My friends and I are just starting to get to know Tours— even though it is a village about half the size as my hometown, it has a lot more to offer than meets the eye. This week the sun came out for the first time since I came to Tours, and the village under the sun looked like a completely different city. It was as if all my worries melted away with the clouds, and the nice weather brought a new kind of vitality to the classroom and the dinner table alike. I went out more and explored restaurants, chocolate stores and patisseries. I welcomed challenges in the class and outside, offering to order for my group of friends at restaurants and participating in the excursions. During this week’s excursion, we went to the Cathedral at Tours. The architecture was amazing, even better than that of Notre Dame in Paris in my opinion, because it combined the works of different artists from different generations. Because the Cathedral experienced destructions and reconstructions, and the length of the construction allowed different fashion and techniques to form with the old. Listening to the guide was no trouble at all, especially since the guide, who was also our art history professor, was extremely passionate about the Cathedral and the story it tells about Tours and France.

Our main professor, who teaches writing and grammar on Mondays, Wednesdays and Friday, impresses us each afternoon on those days with his knowledge of history and culture in France as well as in a lot of other countries. His lectures are always engaging and intriguing. My French improved tremendously these days—I can read stories which I never thought I could understand in such a short amount of time, and communicating with the locals is much easier. Whereas before, my attempts to speak french in restaurants and shops were often met with strange looks and shrugs, now the locals are able to understand and interpret exactly it is I needed. On Wednesday I had to buy allergy medicine at a pharmacy, and while I stumbled over some words, I could communicate my needs to the seller without major hiccups.

At home, I am starting to learn french traditional cuisine with my Madame. Each night we prepare a three course meal for a total of three people living in the household. I have begun to recognize common herbs, the names of the most typic sauces used in dishes, wine and types of cheese. While preparing the meal, Madame is always very helpful in explaining the new vocabulary and demonstrates the simple procedures every time for me. The conversations we have over the kitchen sink have greatly boosted my confidence and oral skills, which have proved to be more than useful every day!

Tours, Week 2

It’s hard to believe that it has been two weeks since I have arrived here. At times, it seems as if I have just gotten off the train yesterday, and yet at times it seems to have been months. The start of this week rolled out smoothly, with only tiny hiccups such as the malfunction of the trams which my roommate and I take each morning to go to the Institute. At first, we all thought it was a strike, which so typical in France that no one bats an eye if the train workers are calling for a strike; in fact, Air France has just announced a strike for next week and all the planes originating from CDG airport may be canceled or delayed—a real inconvenience for the people who are coming for the Euro cup. However, the trams next to my house has stopped due to an accident further south and would go back to work after three days.

At school, I am getting used to the weekly schedules, the amount of homework and the different methods each french professor adopts. It has became a habit for me to read the textbook and list general questions for the professor beforehand, and surprisingly, the classes became a lot more easier. After a while, I learned the each professor’s distinct way of teaching, which makes participating in class much easier. Once I knew the sequence of activities and what the teacher expects from me in terms of participation, the class became more enjoyable and fruitful.

Back at home, Madame Remion is very helpful in assisting our adaption to the French lifestyle. Every day at dinner she would explain the origin and tradition of each dish, and also practical things such as how to buy the various ingredients at the markets. Soon as I cooked up the courage to venture outside my room and initiate conversations with my Madame before and after dinner, I found out a lot more about her life, the history of the old house we live in, and the stories of other international students learning french who have stayed in her house before. I still find it hard to carry out a conversation without stopping now and then to search for a specific word or phrase. But I think I’m more open to speak in French with native speakers and I can understand a lot better compared to when I first arrived.

Tours Week 1

Reportage pour Ville de Tours. Tours-sur-Loire 2012. Photographie Cyril Chigot.

Reportage pour Ville de Tours. Tours-sur-Loire 2012. Photographie Cyril Chigot.

It has been exactly a week since I have been in Tours, and I have seen 3 hours of sunshine, ate 7 whole baguettes, and more cheese than in all my life added together. They say I have experienced France in the most authentic way so far. Yet while not feeling like a tourist, I’m not feeling completely in my element either. The fully immersed experience is also a scary and difficult one. From the moment I arrived at the train station, I was a fish out of water, reading the foreign signs, tripping over my tongue trying to speak French, and looking for my host family in the grand train station. Estranged in an unfamiliar city by yourself, even just for a few minutes, leaves a bitter taste and a hollow feeling in your stomach long after finding your place. The first few days in my host family was also tough. Like a kid, I observed and imitated each daily activity; assembling the different silverware for a five-course dinner, cutting the cheese and baguette, and strangely, wearing formal attire at dinner tables, even if only family members are dining together. Navigating Tours to get to class is easy enough. There is a long pedestrian street with a distinct tram track down the middle that cuts straight down the village, and whereas the Intitut de Tourrain is on the south of the street to the west, my home was north of the street and two Rues eastward. I could easily walk for 20 minutes to get to the Institut or take the tram. Finally, the courses at the Institut is intensive indeed, with classes from 9 am to 12:30 pm, writing and oral workshops in the afternoon from 1:30 pm to 3 pm, and then extracurriculars until 5pm. I’m taking gastronomy and art history, all taught in French and aims to strengthen one’s writing and presenting skills. There are students from all around the world in my class of nine students– Japan, India, Paraguay, Korea, China, The United States, and England. Only one other student apart from myself is from the United States. Even though we fly through grammar concepts and readings, we always pause when there is a question. Thus, when come a situation when the professor needs to explain or demonstrate a concept, s/he would use simple french and gestures instead of English. At noon, classmates often head to local restaurants or the Institut’s cafeteria in groups, and small chatter in french can be heard all over the place. The restaurants in Town center are simply amazing; situated in the historic part of town, these restaurants serve all kinds of cuisine with student-affordable prices. The Chocolatiers and Patisseries boast their historic heritage and proudly display their products in their polished windows under the ebony frames. The city center is also quite lively on weekends; known for its huge population of students, the heart of Tours hosts happy hours from early afternoon to well past midnight, where under the string lights and evening stars all kinds of languages can be heard.