Traveling, Eating and Living French: L’Entrée

I have come back safely (& sober) from Bordeaux! Although I was somewhat hesitant to travel so soon after arriving in France, I am very pleased now that I have braced my only long (3 day) weekend the right way: four museums, wine tasting, and a World Heritage town listed by UNESCO.


Bordeaux, hub of the wine-growing region Aquitaine, is the first major French city I set my foot on. When we arrived Saturday afternoon, we were beyond thrilled to find out it was Nuit européenne des musées. With more than nine free destinations at our disposal, we passed a rich night between Cité du Vin, Musée du Vin et du Négoce and Musée de l’Histoire Maritime. Along the Garonne on Sunday, couples sipped beer, families biked and whooshed past strolling tourists, teens skateboarded, my Swiss friend and I breathed the air of the red wine capital. Besides the famed attractions, from Grand Théâtre to the Place de la Bourse, this spontaneous trip has endorsed me to speak French– in all sorts of contexts. At the Marché des Capucins, a French couple had chatted us up about our travel and studies after the husband, who is originally from Vietnam, turned to me and asked me where I came from. After a few seconds of confusion and internal panic, I resorted to the ultimate response, “Oui.” Just as Germany restored to its present glory after WWII, we too managed to force a coherent dialogue. It was a real conversation: the old couple told us where they lived in the city, where the locals go for food (and the market was the rightplace) and where they recommended we go for the remainder of our stay. Life tip: If you want to impress someone, let them have lows expectations of you. Hence, seeming to have forgotten my initial pathetic lingual failure, the wife had, before getting up to leave, said, “You actually speak very good French.”


On Monday, which was also La fête de la Pentecôte, we visited Saint-Emilion. For a renowned wine town and a UNESCO World Heritage site, there was surprisingly little to do. Anyway, my brain was able to absorb more French through osmosis during an one hour guided tour Eglise Monolithe de Saint-Emilion, the largest underground church in Europe and the highlight of my voyage. I might have missed 53% of the material, but hey, no pain no gain. I definitely learned a few words here and there about the “moine” and the “ermitage.”


After that, we had pasta and risotto at a local Italian restaurant: my first time eating out at a real diner in France. The waiter, after years of experience serving in a tourist-crawling town, had tried to guide us to a table and to take our orders in English. I was feeling slightly defeated that he wouldn’t speak French to us; not only is one of my SLA goals to be treated like a local, I was also wondering: do I really look that foreign?  My brief moment of inner chaos was interrupted by my Swiss friend, who, in being such a fighter she is, insists on responding in French at all odds. “How many?” “On est deux.” “Water?” “Oui, l’eau si vous plait.” “Tap water?” “Oui.”


Back at l’institut, learning continues. Varied exercises, from film discussion to charades, have been helpful in boosting my listening abilities. I have also reached a new low in my academic career after my first oral comprehension quiz. Not only is my class ethnically diverse, each student’s exposure to the language also spans across a wide spectrum. There is a mature lady who has learned French for five years, a post-graduate who has lived in France for three months and also other university students like myself. Between atrocious quiz results and constant corrections at my grammar and pronunciation, I’ve learned that each one of us acquires language at a difference pace, even in a different way. Some are naturally better at speaking but might lack vocabulary for writing, while others struggle at pronunciation but are able to read at a higher level. My personal priorities remain the same: to improve oral comprehension and production.


As my second week is nearing the end, I’m also realizing how short six weeks will pass. Hence, I’m trying to make the most out of my stay and the resources readily available. After devouring the most liégeois vanille I can for lunch, I sometimes spend my afternoons in the library, reading different French dailies, magazines, and novels. My two go-to newspapers are Le Monde and La Croix. Listening to the French video, FranceInfo, also helps a lot with my listening as well as being informed of what’s going on.

A few things that I am learning not to question about France:

  1. How much time it takes to eat a restaurant ( about 49 minutes for the waiter to notice that you need the bill)
  2. Milk here does not need to be refrigerated (due to a different method of Pasteurization)
  3. Actually how little vegetables they eat (but still so slender)
  4. How small their cup of coffee (espresso) is


Ps. My stomach is also adjusting to the French meal timetable. I am now a lot more accustomed to a small breakfast, which is actually easy on my stomach, and a late, but worth-the-wait dinner. To counter the constant state of hunger, I take coffee and a small snack in the afternoon.