Post-Program Reflections: Tours, France

One month has passed since returning to the United States from Tours, France, enough time to consider my study abroad experience and pass along advice to future applicants who might stumble upon this page.

My first suggestion is this. It’s important to have your language skills as sharp as possible before you study a language abroad, both in terms of general advancement and in terms of freshness of mind. The Center for the Study of Languages and Cultures is right to demand that students possess language skills of a certain level in order to be eligible for the reward, because you need a certain language capacity before beginning to reap the particular benefits of studying abroad.

La Mer Méditerranée

At the Institute of Touraine, where I studied, there were many complete  or almost complete beginners who were having a miserable time of it. That shouldn’t happen with a study abroad experience. You should be uncomfortabe, even exhausted after each day of communicating in your foreign language, but you should also enjoy the difficulty because it is the good kind of difficulty, the type where you know you’re working on something challenging but which will bring its own satisfaction in the end. You can’t work through the tough times when it’s all frustration and no glimmer of future satisfaction.

In certain cases, as with languages not offered at Notre Dame, this requirement can’t be met. But even then, I believe it important for students to have some familiarity with the language before studying abroad. You’ll get the most out of every experience in your chosen country.

Un littoral des Îles d’Hyères

In terms of practical considerations, it really is necessary to research your language school beforehand and to understand their specific manner of teaching the languge. The Institute of Touraine has a longstanding reputation, and many Notre Dame students have studied there in the past. Still, I should have researched a handful of things more deeply before committing to Tours, including the number of national holidays that would coincide with my time in France (not the institute’s fault, of course). I lost about three or four class days due to the French refusal to work more than is absolutely required. I wish that I would have familiarized myself with the specifics of the afternoon activities offered by the institute, however, because they cost a pretty penny and were not very helpful.

In the end, much of your experience will be a result of the luck of the draw. I was moderately happy with the languge instructors my first month in Tours. I learned at a steady pace that month, but at the time I was disappointed that I was not progressing faster. That changed quickly once I moved to the next month’s session and gained new professors. These two professors were among the best language instructors I’ve ever had. The students in this course were also exceptional. There were fewer Americans, and they were more serious about learning the language instead of sightseeing (there may be a connection between the two clauses of my sentence).

I believe I learned more in the two weeks I spent in that second class than in the entire month I spent with the first class. Some of this can be attributed to having been “warmed-up” to speak and think in French that first month, but more, I believe, had to do with the specific elements of that second classroom. I wish I could have stayed another month with those professors and students.

Une Baie à Coté de la Mer Méditerranée

In closing, I’d like to explain that the images between the paragraphs in this post were taken on a trip I made to an island near the Côte d’Azur in Southern France, where a very good friend lives (il est français), after my studies in Tours were completed.  I would also like to thank the donors for making this experience possible.  My French is better than it’s ever been, and, most importantly, I now know exactly how far I have to go. I think that I can get there, too.

Merci bien, mesdames et messieurs, et au revoir.

Un Bon Séjour en France

I have finished my French language studies at Tours for this summer. My last professor, M. Jean-Jacques Bolo, was one of the best language instructors I’ve ever had, and I profited greatly from his instruction. Upon leaving the institute, I received my exit evaluations and discovered that I had moved from the low-intermediate level to the upper-intermediate level in all facets of the language. M. Bolo encouraged me to continue my studies, telling me that I’ve come too far to not keep working.

This sort of encouragement is absolutely necessary when studying a language. If I’ve learned anything this summer, it is how difficult a task it is to attain fluency in a foreign language. The space between not speaking a foreign language at all and speaking fluently could not be more vast. In the great space between these two poles, there lies a frustrating realm where you can sometimes make yourself understood, can sometimes fully understand others, and yet more often than not are frustrated by your limitations. To receive encouragement from an experienced professor, and a native Frenchman at that, helps buoy the spirit when it dips.

Upon taking a step back from my studies, I can say that I’m very pleased with my time at Tours and the gains I’ve made. I certainly speak better French than when I had arrived, my reading comprehension has increased greatly, and I can now write more complicated phrases than this time two months ago. Above all, however, I am pleased to say that I “hear” French much more ably now than I ever have before. The bane of every French student is the dreaded listening comprehension exam, which consists of listening to native speakers partaking in a conversation at everyday speed and then responding to questions about what you’ve just heard. There is a large difference between taking part in a conversation, which progresses only as fast as you let it, and trying to keep up with a conversation between native speakers that you are overhearing.

Two months ago, I was hardly able to overhear a conversation between French children, let alone adults discussing complicated subjects with unexpected turns of phrase. Thanks to my time in Tours, after listening to French conversations daily, and being forced to follow these conversations and respond in turn, I can now distinguish sounds and make sense of phrases more ably now than I ever could have from traditional studies alone. There is just no way to reproduce the experience of hearing native speakers use the language for extended periods of time. I certainly have a very long route to take in order to be able to passively listen to full French conversations and make sense of them, but thanks to this SLA Grant and my time in Tours, I’m closer than I would have ever expected two months ago.

After my final day studying at the Institute of Touraine, I traveled to Paris for the weekend and became a tourist for a few days. This was my first time in Paris, in Europe in fact, and I was amazed to see the architectural and artistic achievements of French civilization. I visited Notre-Dame de Paris (the leading image of this post), the Eiffel Tower, Le Panthéon, Le Château de Versailles, Shakespeare and Company book store, and finished with a boat tour on the river Seine. Among these sights, Le Panthéon was by far my favorite place to visit. Originally a Catholic church dedicated to St. Genevieve, the building was repurposed during the French Revolution to become a momument to radical democracy. It is the final resting place of the heroes of the revolution. It is also the home to one especially famous literary intellectual and one philosopher.

Statue of Voltaire in Le Panthéon
Tomb of Voltaire in Le Panthéon. It reads: “Poet, Historian, Philosopher. He enlarged the human spirit and taught it to become free.”



When you descend the steps and enter the crypt of the Panthéon, you will find two monuments on either side of you. To your left, you will discover a statue and an engraved tomb dedicated to Voltaire, author of Candide, ou l’Optimisme and Traité Sur La Tolérance .

To your right, you will discover an engraved tomb dedicated to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, author of the French Revolution and other more textual works. Sixteen years after his death in Ermenonville, France, Rousseau’s remains were disinterred and brought to Paris for a ceremonial burial in the Pantheon, sponsored by the Jacobin Club, agents of the Revolution. Rousseau’s influence among the revolutionaries probably could not have been higher. Having died in disgrace, it may have amazed Rousseau to know that he would be buried less than twenty years later in the most prestigious funerary location in all of Europe. Then again, perhaps he would not have been surprised to discover his lofty position in the world he helped create.

Le Bon Sens Est La Chose Du Monde La Mieux Partagée

This weekend I visited Descartes, France. Once called La Haye en Touraine, the small town was rechristened “Descartes” in 1967 in honor of the famous French philosopher’s birth in the city in 1596. My eventual dissertation may involve a study of neglected aspects of Descartes’ philosophy, including the understudied influence of his philosophic project on the historical development of Europe.

The fame of Descartes’ “method,” in which he first doubts all things of which he is not certain, and then constructs a new system of knowledge upon the edifice of this doubt, conceals a more supple philosophic mind than most philosophic commentators have appreciated. The Descartes you were taught in “Philo 101,” in short, hardly resembles the real man. This trip was therefore a wonderful opportunity to discover a living memorial to one of the towering geniuses in the history of Europe.

M. René Descartes, Maison Musée René Descartes

The town has turned the family home of Descartes into a museum, which turned out to be far more elaborate than one has a right to expect of a museum in a town this size. After an initial awkward conversation with the woman working the museum, I was outfitted with an audio guide and given as much time as I wanted to tour the birthplace of M. Descartes. Or was it? The first piece of information given me by the audio guide was in fact local gossip. Legend has it that Descartes was not actually born in the home, but in a carriage on the way to the home as his parents rushed to arrive before the baby. But, as the audio guide counseled me, let’s not bother ourselves with such spurious rumors.

Full-paneled reproduction of the original title page of the “Discours de la Méthode”

Inside the museum, I discovered the resolution to a question I have wondered about for some time: could Descartes read Ancient Greek? The answer is “yes.” The museum had on display a replica of Descartes’ schedule and curriculum at the famous Jesuit school of La Flèche, in Northwest France.  He studied both Latin (never in dispute) and Ancient Greek at the school. This information helped resolve, for me, the further question of whether Descartes had read Aristotle in the original Greek or whether he had only read the Latin translations of William of Moerbeke and the scholastic interpreters of Aristole. It is likely, to the point of near certainty, that Descartes had read Aristotle in his own tongue.

Beyond this important historical fact, the museum itself offered one fascinating panorama after another about the life and work of Descartes, including panels on his famous friendships with Fr. Marin Mersenne, S.J., Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, and Queen Christina of Sweden. I was pleased with how many of the panels I could make sense of without needing to search for English translations in the audio guide. Although I certainly had to work to interpret each display, I could follow the developments in Descartes’s life. I was aided by the fact that I was already familiar with many of these developments, but it was a reassuring moment in my French language studies.

A panel dedicaed to one of Descartes’s closest friends and interlocutors, Fr. Marin Mersenne, S.J.

Before this weekend visit to the town of Descartes ever took place, however, I was witness to the most interesting and contentious dinner conversation I’ve yet experienced in France. My host family invited a family friend over for a wonderful dinner, preceded by the opening of a bottle of Champagne( from Champagne…) and political discussion in the living room. While the French are keen to keep political discussion away from strangers, they are eager to engage in political dispute among family and friends. In truth, I was the precipitating cause of the dispute. I posed a question I thought would be mostly factual: How is it that so many people of Northern African descent ended up settling in Tours? I asked this question in part because immigrants from former French colonies had settled, or so I had thought, for the most part in the South, along the Côte d’Azur, and in Paris.

My question set off a conversation that outlasted the pre-dinner apéritif and dinner itself. The main point of contention was the extent to which the French had a right to demand that immigrants adapt to the French way of life. The particular point of dispute was not whether the French had a right to demand this—all were of accord that this right existed—but rather the degree to which it could be demanded by French society.  Of particular importance was the question of whether the French, an historically Catholic country with a secular constitution and increasingly secular mores, should demand secularization from Muslim immigrants of Northern African descent. The table was certainly not of accord on this point.

Le Vignoble de Bordeaux, Le Château de Montaigne, et La Ville de Saint-Émilien

In every French class I’ve ever taken, no matter the professor or subject, we have discussed cultural stereotypes. My classes at Tours have been no exception. The professors here often contest the stereotypes that students hold about French culture, but there is one stereotype that invariably elicits a verbal sign of agreement (“ça, c’est vrai, ça”) from the professors: the notion that the French love their food, leur nourriture, in particular their bread, their cheese, and their wine. It is in this French spirit that I voyaged last weekend to the vineyards of Bordeaux to discover a different part of France, the famous home of arguably the best wine in the world.

The trip to the vineyards was in truth a happy accident. Some friends and I were first motivated to visit the Château of Michel de Montaigne, the estate of the sixteenth-century man-of-letters who was one of the progenitors of the Enlightenment. The best book on Montaigne, to my knowledge, has fittingly been written by a Frenchman, the political philosopher Pierre Manent. In “La Vie Sans Loi” (Life Without Law), Manent has gone farther than anyone in establishing the political significance of Montaigne’s thought. As students of political philosophy, we were therefore excited to discover the place where Montaigne had been born, worked, and died. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that the Château was located in the heart of France’s wine country and that Montaigne’s estate had contributed to establishing the region’s reputation in the first place.

Le Chateau de Montaigne (reconstructed in the 19th-century)

Upon arriving at the estate, I was pleased to discover that I could carry a conversation with the charming French girls working the register, only to discover just as quickly that my confidence was misplaced. I first paid for myself. One of my friends had lost his wallet, and I then asked if I could pay for him next. One of the girls said something to the effect of: “Oui, si vous-avez assez bien de monnaie?” I heard the phrase “de monnaie,” and must have smirked a little bit when I responded, “Oui,  j’ai de monnaie,” because the girl spoke English a few moments later to clarify that she was not asking if I had enough money to pay, but if I had exact change. She was worried that my poor comprehension had left the impresion that she was rudely asking if I could afford the second ticket. We all shared a laugh, as I became the one who was left embarassed and apologizing.

This episode illustrates well the difficulty of  transferring knowledge of a language from the classroom to life.  At some point I had learned this phrase in one class or another, but this knowledge escaped me when I encountered it in the world. And yet this painful lesson also illustrates the benefits of studying a language abroad, mistakes and all, as I can promise you that I will never forget the meaning of the phrase “de monnaie” as long as I live.

The ancient tower of the Château of Montaigne.

The château itself was impressive, even if less grand than I had imagined. After departing from the estate, we journeyed to the small town of Saint Émilien to have dinner and spend the night. When deciding upon Saint Émilien, we had no idea that it was one of the most renowned small wine towns in France. This second happy accident allowed us to sample wine in an underground wine cave and learn a little bit about the strict labeling procedure that accompanies all wines in Bordeaux. Only vineyards growing certain grapes of a certain quality are allowed to label their wines with the local branding. For example, not all wines made of grapes from St. Émilien can be labeled as a vintage of St. Émilien. If you are fortunate enough to drink a bottle with the St. Émilien label, you know you’re experiencing the real deal.

The young worker who explained this procedure to us himself represented an important cultural insight. One of my friends asked him what he studied, and he said simply, “le vin.” The production of wine is a serious field of study in France. I have since learned, thanks to a professor at the institute, that this study even has a proper name: L’œnologie. The first line of the French Wikipedia page informs us that “L’œnologie est la science qui a pour objet l’étude et la connaissance du vin,” or in other words, that it is the science of the study and knowledge of wine. It encompasses everything from how to grow the best grapes, to the best methods of fermentation, to the best food with which to serve a specific vintage. The extent to which this study is a competitive and highly esteemed profession has no analogue in the United States. For while I am certain that there are serious people in California studying the production of wine, I am equally certain that no one looks upon them as cultural heroes.

Quelques Problèmes En Voyage

The composition of this third post was delayed due to a series of unfortunate traveler’s errors. I experienced a minor crisis last week due to both of my debit/credit cards experiencing issues and having only 10 Euros left in my wallet. The issue occurred because of a problem with the online security system of the major transportation provider in France, SCNF, which denied both of my cards when I attempted to use each one in turn to purchase a train ticket back to Paris for my return flight. The credit card companies then placed a block on my cards, leaving me a very poor student in a very bad situation. I used my remaining 10 Euros to purchase a French SIM card and a small number of international minutes, only to have the most frustrating series of phone conversations with customer service representatives of various countries.

My very cheap cell phone plan cannot, it turns out, call American numbers directly, despite ostensibly functioning as an “international” phone service. In spite of this difficulty, and in a moment of desperate intrepidity, I discovered that I could work my way through the international phone directory of Mastercard and have myself transferred from department to department until I found the one that could help me. Unfortunately, this elaborate series of maneuvers required that I explain the situation afresh each time I was transferred to a new department. Eventually, around the third or fourth transfer, I developed a script which I then delivered to each new representative that sounded quite a bit like a hold-up at a bank: “Listen, don’t speak, just listen. I have a problem that you can’t resolve, but I know someone in your company can. I am going to calmly and quickly explain my situation to you, and you are going to transfer me to someone who can help. No questions will be necessary.” 

Upon reaching the final transfer to the specific Fraud & Security subdepartment that I needed to reach, I was unceremoniously disconnected from the line– I cannot say whether by accident or design–and found myself at an even deeper impasse. The situation has been temporarily resolved thanks to the even more intrepid efforts of my mother, who devised a way I could use the second card by corresponding with her through email while she spoke with a Visa customer service representative. This method is, in a word, inconvenient, but it did the trick well enough for me to buy the necessary train ticket.

 La Fête de La Musique à Tours; fêtards devant une église 

All of this having been said, I am happy to report that conversations with my host family and other native French speakers have become more involved in the past two weeks. My classes at the institute reinforce my ability to speak with my host family, and my experiences speaking with my host family reinforce my ability to understand French better in my coursework. Even an activity as simple as listening to my host parents discuss French politics helps me learn the internal rythms of native French speakers. The French utilize a number of verbal tics which are essential to almost every French conversation, even short ones. Par exemple: “Alors,” “En fait,” “C’est ça,” “D’accord,” et “Voila!” Each expression has its proper place, and I am beginning to learn the nuances of each word in relation to a proper French conversation. For instance, I am just beginning to break my American habit of saying “Ok,” or making the sound “hmm” when expressing interest in what has just been said, when I should be saying “D‘accord.” Any language learner knows that there is a real difference between knowing a rule or a specific utilisation of a phrase, and using it correctly without effort. I hope that I am beginning to reach that point with certain French expressions.

Last week there was a Fête de La Musique at Tours, an event where bars remained open until 2 am on a weekday (rare in Tours) and different musical groups played music throughout the night in separate locations. It seems that summer music festivals like this are common to every French town of a certain size. The roads were blocked at a distance from the festival, and drinking in public was common. All of the images in this blog post are from the Fête, including the leading image of Le Palais de Justice lit up at night for the Fête.

Batteurs en train de performer leur cadence

Les Politiques Français: L’Élection Parlementaire

For a student of politics, now is a fascinating time to be in France. Emmanuel Macron, young, handsome, and inexperienced, won the French presidency less than two months ago under the banner of a new party, En Marche! His most famous campaign slogan, La France doit être une chance pour tous (literally: France must be a chance for all), stood in stark contrast to the campaign rhetoric of his main competitor, Marine Le Pen, and her party, Le Front National. Macron won the presidential election with 65.9 percent of the vote. A victory this large would normally represent an electoral mandate. For an imperfect comparison, consider that Barack Obama won what was considered a decisive victory in the 2008 United States Presidential Election with 52.9% of the popular vote. Yet the unique nature of this year’s French election, which included a high abstention rate and many voters choosing Macron solely to keep Le Pen out of office, has led Macron to treat the first month of his presidency as a continuation of his campaign, with an eye on the French parliamentary elections taking place now.

As with the presidential elections, France conducts two rounds of voting for its parliamentary seats. The French went to the polls for the first round on Sunday to winnow the field from, in some districts (circonscriptions), ten or more candidates to two for the final round of voting which will take place next Sunday. I accompanied my host family to the polls today and discovered campaign advertisements along the way.

Campaign poster for the legislative candidates of the extreme left. Note how large the image of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, presidential candidate of the extreme left, looms.

The decisive question for Macron at the start of the day was whether En Marche! could attain enough seats in the National Assembly to enact legislation in the coming year. Because En Marche! is a special creation which arose in response to the widespread discontent with the traditional parties in France, few citizens, perhaps not even Macron himself, know exactly what the party stands for and what a France led by En Marche! will look like. Moreover, in speaking with my host family, I’ve learned that the French are notoriously private in political matters. Campaign stickers and yard signs are considered tasteless. My roommate tried asking which candidate and party my host family preferred, but was promptly shut down: “C’est privée! “

The campaign poster for Philippe Chalumeau, legislative candidate of En Marche!

The early returns this evening for En Marche! were strong. It will take all night to determine the final numbers, but En Marche! certainly performed well enough for many of its candidates to move on to the final round of voting next week. More importantly, it appears to be a real possibility that Macron will be able to form a parliamentary majority and enact legislation. What this legislation will entail remains a mystery, for the most part, but Macron has already proposed revisions to the French Code du Travail, or work laws, which has caused quite a stir in France. Part of Macron’s campaign message was to promise to loosen labor restrictions in order to allow for more labor mobility. This most likely means, of course, that it will also be easier for businesses to fire employees. Based on the initial French reaction, the country seems surprised that Macron is actually attempting to fulfill his campaign promise.

List of candidates at the voting station.

In less consequential news, I played a game of pick-up basketball with some French locals yesterday. The game involved a mix of English and French phrases. The locals did not know enough English to speak with us only in English, and my roommate and I were not capable of thinking quickly enough in French to speak only in French during the game. To continue my earlier lesson from the first blog post, that you can only claim to know a language when you can use it in a crisis, I would now add that you can only claim to know a language when you can speak it during sports. à bientôt!

Bienvenue en France! La Première Semaine: Les Sports Français

I  have completed my first week of studies at the Institute of Touraine in Tours, France, a city about an hour-and-a-half southwest of Paris. It is comparable in size to Cleveland or Pittsburgh when you account for the respective surrounding suburbs of each city. My arrival was unfortunately more complicated than I had hoped it would be, although I cannot say the difficulties were entirely unexpected. I knew upon arrival that the only available train from Charles De Gaulle Airport (CDG) to Tours, until 16h30 (4:30 pm), left within half an hour of my arrival at 9h (9 am). Airport security and customs staff are not known for their speed, of course, so I expected to miss my TGV high-speed train to Tours. I arrived at the TGV station, which is beneath CDG Airport, and quickly realized that I had no idea how the train system worked or behind which door I would find my train. I attempted, in French, to ask an attendant where I should go, and realized just as quickly that he had no idea what I was asking. He instructed me, in English, to descend the stairs behind Door 3 and find my train. I walked through the third door to find my train pulling away from the station in front of me. Zut!

This episode taught me a painful lesson in foreign language study: you only know a language when you can use it in a crisis.  So began my six-hour wait at the airport before a two-hour train ride to my host family.

I began my course at the language institute the next day with an oral language assessment. Last summer, I began learning French in the excellent language immersion program at Middlebury College in Vermont. That placement, too, began with an oral language assessment, and when I could not say anything more than my name in French, I was placed at the beginners’ level. I was thus very interested to see where I would begin here at Tours. Happily, I was able to place into a much more advanced class this year. Learning a foreign language can be extraordinarily frustrating, because the effort does not always match the progress. It was thus satisfying to know that my efforts before the program have taken me from a complete beginner to an intermediate student. I am eager to see where I will come out after six weeks of hard work.

My host family took me to a truly unique place this first weekend: au Parc Équestre Fédéral.  Their granddaughter competes in the equestrian activity of “Pony Games,” and I was able to accompany them to see her team compete. I was told by my host family that between 5,000 and 6,000 teenagers and young adults compete in various equestrian sports in the months of May and June in France. Below is a picture of the clubhouse entrance.

There were three different equestrian sports on display yesterday: the aforementioned Pony Games, “Horse-Ball,” and “Horse Polo.” Their granddaugther’s team came in first place on the day in Pony Games, which consisted of a series of obstacles and tasks, including picking up a ball off the ground and placing it on a cone as one rides by on a horse. Incredibly difficult for anyone, yet alone teenagers.

Des Chevaux et des chevaliers

“Horse-Ball” and “Horse-Polo” involved two teams competing against one another to advance a ball across a field. “Horse-Ball” was especially fun to watch, as it was like basketball except on horseback. I was told that “Horse-Ball” is an especially dangerous sport, because the two teams are often jostling against one another and someone can easily fall beneath the horses. I saw no falls in my time watching the “Horse-Ball” games, but I was amazed to see the skill involved. The players had to balance their bodies, control their horses, and coordinate with one another all at the same time. It was an amazing sight.

I look forward to more unique French experiences throughout my time at the institute. My first week of classes were beneficial, but I hope the next five weeks prove even more profitable.  à tout à l’heure!