Sixth Week in Tours

The last week is always bittersweet. Some of my friends had left before me and the goodbyes are always accompanied by this weird feeling/reminder that your own time is coming to an end soon. Classes proceeded as usual, except with a few exams thrown in. I maintained the same grades as I had in my previous course, so I was fairly pleased.

The previous weekend I had visited Paris and got to meet up with my best friend from high school, which was very nice. We wandered around Le Marais and Bastille areas, which were less crowded with tourists, but had a lot to offer for interesting things to do. We also visited the Notre Dame area, stopped by Shakespeare and Company, and sampled lots of desserts. To get back to Tours, I took a covoiturage, which was essentially a carpool with other people who are going the same places as you are. I was hoping to get some rest, but the whole 2.5 hour ride was an engaged discussion of French and American politics! It gave me a very good chance to practice conversational French, since that isn’t something I got to do much in the classroom. I was happy to note that I could understand what the others were saying by piecing together context clues. And I tried my best to give sufficient responses to their questions about the American political system and the current election. Our discussion also included some social justice topics, such as racism in France. The other passengers told me that there is a lot of racism towards immigrants, regardless of their skin color. This was interesting to hear, because historically, racism in the United States followed the same theme. Even nowadays, it seems, though, that racism in both the United States and France follow very similar themes. The Orlando massacre also shocked many of the French people that I spoke with it about, but many said that the same types of violence exist in France too.

As I mentioned in previous posts, there are current large demonstrations and strikes across France because of some new laws. Even walking home from the Institut, I would pass marches down Avenue de Grammont (one of two large roads going through Tours). Luckily, in Paris, I did not run into any issues with demonstrations, but I was definitely conscious about them the entire time.

Right now, I am back in the States, but I think back to my time in Tours a lot. I still am in touch with some friends from the Institut, and still get notifications from the Facebook groupchat by those who are still coordinating events and hangouts in Tours. My last night was very sweet, because my host mother decided to have a lengthy dinner, during which she shared some life stories with us. It was very endearing of her to share with us these magnificent stories of her travels in France and abroad. I hope to keep in touch with her as well.

My time in Tours was wonderful, and France is a country very rich in culture. I hope to carry these memories with me, as well as the friendships I made. I feel like I am more at ease with French-speaking situations now, especially if I focus intently on the conversation. It can get exhausting at times, but I can sense improvement. Thank you SLA!

Fifth Week in Tours

This post is long overdue! I had written it earlier and was not able to upload it, because my last week in Tours, I was both sick and running around everywhere trying to make the most of my last week.

My fifth week in Tours progressed as normal class-wise. My classes had picked up the pace a little bit, and my instructors really pushed us along a little more. I liked this better because it is always easier to catch on to what you don’t understand than to be stuck in the grammatical details. Hearing the grammar used in example sentences or conversation greatly helps me. However, even though my class was a little more challenging, I wish that we did more speaking exercises. Since a few weeks earlier we had an oral comprehension focused week, I know that most of my improvement comes from speaking a lot.

This week, I also immersed myself more deeply in the gastronomic things that Tours had to offer. I went to different restaurants and markets for lunch, trying new things, but also sometimes packing my own lunches of baguette, cheese (camembert), arugula, and salami. There are many popular and inexpensive sandwich shops that students frequent. One interesting place that I visited for lunch was called Mamie Bigoude, which had very dolled-up and kitschy decorations. A lot of people recommended it to me, and the crepe selection did not disappoint. There are a lot of good restaurants in Place Plumereau (which is a giant restaurant/bar area near the Institut) that serve a variety of crepes, burgers, and salads. There are also fast food places that are the equivalents of our Chipotle and Blaze Pizza.

I asked my host mother and some other adults what traditional Tours food was like. The majority of responses included goat cheese (chevre), which the region is known for, and Touraine wine. Often times, meals at home begin with a salad and perhaps other finger-food appetizers, proceed into the entree, and end with a cheese plate and dessert.

Friday of my fifth week, I also visited Chateau de Villandry with a few of my friends from the Institut! It is fairly close to Tours, and my friend’s host mother offered to drive us, which was very kind of her. Villandry is on the smaller end of the chateaus in the Loire Valley, but it has very large, beautiful gardens. We spent perhaps 45 minutes looking around the house, but nearly 2 hours strolling around the grounds.

Fourth Week in Tours

I can’t believe that 2/3 of my time here has already passed! I keep thinking back to where I was after two weeks in Tours, and it’s so bittersweet that I only have two weeks left. My fourth week was productive, but classes returned to the normal schedule and were not oral comprehension focused, so I definitely felt my improvement slowing down. The most interesting thing is that I find myself often mixing French words into my English when I am speaking. Translating between languages is very difficult, but somehow I manage to do this on a regular basis, especially when speaking with my host about life in the United States. I learned Chinese when I was younger from my parents and language schools, and in order to keep it up, I often call home and make myself speak only Chinese with my parents. Recently though, I have begun mixing French into some things I say. I find this hilarious, but mainly an indication of how my brain is working to translate between the languages that are familiar for me as I form ideas.

I have spent some time exploring Tours more as well. Some interesting sites I visited have included the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Tours, Cathedrale de Tours, and the Jardin Botanique. The Musée des Beaux-Arts de Tours has a beautiful and well-curated collection from mainly French, Dutch, and Belgian artists. I have a deep appreciation for the arts, so I really enjoyed my visit there. The Cathedrale is also magnificent and has beautiful stained glass windows. I hope to be able to attend a mass sometime, which I intended to do much sooner but my house is a significant distance away. The Jardin Botanique was absolutely beautiful. Some friends and I wandered around for two hours looking at the different plant species before we eventually sat down for a picnic.

I am trying to make the most of my time here, and hopefully will be visiting some Loire Valley chateaux in the next few days! I will also be posting about traditional foods. There are many good eats here, which is something I’ll definitely miss.

Third Week in Tours

I just began my fourth week (time is flying by!), after a week focused mostly on oral comprehension skills. It might be that I have acclimated to the learning environment and know how to make the most of my studies, but I noticed a greater rate of improvement during my third week than in the first two. I have advanced a level in the past three weeks, which is exciting!

To anyone who is interested in doing a language immersion program, I would definitely recommend studying on your own outside of class. Classes can move slowly or quickly, depending on what concepts you and other students know. Because everyone has had a different course of study, we all have different strengths and weaknesses. I find that my grasp on grammar is beyond the level of my course, but my speaking and listening comprehension skills are appropriately challenged. So to try and close the gap, I often practice reading syllable-by-syllable and making vocabulary flashcards.

On the weekends, I do some local travel and often get the opportunity to use my French on the road. A lot of people that I have started conversations have been really open to letting me speak French with them. Through these conversations, I have learned a lot about French culture. In my last post, I mentioned that I got the opportunity to speak with many local citizens about the political climate in France, through a class activity. I found it to be one of the most memorable things that I have done so far, and I really enjoy hearing the responses people give me. Thus, I have chosen to pursue the topic a little further and often try to start conversations about the protests and political situation in France.

The Nuit Debout movement is gathering momentum and while there is a definite tension (people are worried about travel, etc.) and I have seen protesters gathered outside the Hotel de Ville at night since I’ve gotten here, I think it is quite fascinating that many people are passionate about their opinions, even if they aren’t directly joining the protests. I met a group of young people who were traveling to Paris for a concert and decided to talk to them about what sort of social tensions currently exist in France. They had many interesting things to share about the protests and issues like racism in France, which seems very similar to the kinds of tensions that exist in the US. We spoke about US situations as well, like Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson. Having visited Ferguson and participated in the Social Concerns “Realities of Race” seminar, I am personally interested in race relations in the United States, but this is my first time really thinking about it in the context of a different culture and country. The people that engaged me in this conversation spoke a lot about geographic racism and segregation, which I found very interesting. What I gleaned from the conversation is that many immigrants are forced to move to outer parts of cities, often due to socioeconomic reasons that force the poor to move into housing projects. As in many cities in the US, these areas used to be occupied by the middle class, people who eventually deserted them because of the increasing poverty and immigration, moving to nicer suburban areas. In addition, these areas are often isolated by fewer transportation lines and thus higher unemployment rates. Based on what I discovered upon visiting St. Louis for my SCS, these situations are very similar. I wish I had more advanced French knowledge in order to be able to pursue the topic further with the lovely people that I met, and I definitely hope to do some more comprehensive reading on this topic. If you’re also interested, here is an interesting article I found that outlines the issues of race in Parisian suburbs better than I can articulate it:

As for more about my classes, I have switched from the intensive course (22.5 hours/week) to the standard course (15 hours/week) for this week. I originally signed up for it this way, and I hope to use my extra time to further explore the city and use my French in a daily context, which I think will be more beneficial for me than sitting in extra classes. Now that I know good methods for practicing phonetics, I hope to do more on my own. As I previously said, sometimes the pace of the class can hold you back, and self-motivation is key to more efficient improvement.

I have met other wonderful students, with whom I hope to attend a local music festival, picnic, and visit surrounding areas of Tours. Food is a huge part of the culture here, and I really enjoy getting lunch with my friends and dinnertime with the other students in my host family. I have done some grocery shopping for when I have to make my own lunches, and my staples definitely include the stereotypical baguette and cheese (favorite so far is camembert, even though the local speciality is chèvre). However, for dinner, my host makes a wonderful variety of delicious foods, always beginning with a salad and ending with a cheese plate. I have tried a variety of delicious crepes, quiches, and desserts, as well. Other cultural aspects that I have really enjoyed discovering include French music. I took a culture class two weeks ago that explained the different genres of French music and the popular artists of each genre. It was really engaging and now I try to mix my playlists of songs in English with those in French.

I can’t believe that three weeks have already flown by. I have felt an incredible amount of personal growth, which is really comforting after just completing my first year at Notre Dame. I am meeting so many cool people and love the challenge of being alone in a foreign country, surrounded by so many welcoming new friends is really special. I hope I can make the most of the next 2 and a half weeks! I don’t think I’ll want to leave.

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Photos: visit to Paris, sitting by La Loire (a river marking the Northern part of the city center in Tours), a view in the classroom.

Second Week in Tours

My second week in Tours was great, albeit cut short by a long weekend. Classes continued as they had before, mostly lecture style with constant chances for students to participate. I find these lectures to be effective, but more slow moving than my French courses at ND were. I am getting a good review in grammar and am learning a lot of more specific metaphorical phrases; I have definitely seen a vast improvement in my writing skills, surprisingly. My speaking skills have slightly improved (I think I am far more fluent in asking questions in French during class), but my listening comprehension still needs work.

I am surrounded by a lot of really motivated students, which is a great experience. I am trying to do activities outside of class to enrich my learning, such as practicing my phonetics by reading newspaper articles aloud and making copious amounts of flashcards. Now that I have some important grammar skills in place, vocabulary is my main focus, as with any language.

This past week has been my favorite week so far. Because a session just ended and many students are coming/going, this week is a special oral comprehension-focused week. I wish it were like this every week because we have been doing more speaking and listening exercises. A really interesting activity involved creating a questionnaire/survey and going out into Tours to interview willing people on the street. I wanted a challenge, so my partner and I decided to focus on the current French political scene. It was definitely a challenge understanding many of the complex responses, but we asked a variety of interesting questions from “What do you think about La Nuit Debout and other protests?” to “What do you think of the current presidential election in the US?” We interviewed a variety of people from different demographics, but got many similar responses. Just for some background, La Nuit Debout is a social movement/mass protest against new labor laws in France, and has been going on since March 2016. Most people responded that the protests reflect poorly on the government and that people have a right to be upset towards the new laws, a situation which only worsens with the high unemployment rates and poor economic situation. Many responses expressed that adolescents would be more involved in social activism, since they mainly have the same political sentiments. This activity was a really good experience! Many people refused to talk to us, but the ones who gave answers did a really detailed job.

I hope my last three weeks in Tours will be three weeks of rapid improvement. Now that I have settled well into life here, I am trying to add small things to my daily regime. I hope to start reading more newspaper articles and go to the cinema a few times. A few friends and I hope to bike to visit some chateaus in the Loire Valley. It is absolutely beautiful and inspiring to be here. Unlike Paris (I visited this past weekend), people let me attempt speaking French with them when I’m in bakeries, restaurants, and shops. In Paris, upon hearing my accent, many people would immediately revert to English. I’m really in love with Tours’ culture and place, and hope the remainder of my time will be well spent. There have been a few times when I have let French words slip when calling home!

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!