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.

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