I bought a donkey milk soap

I just checked-in my Cathay Pacific flight back home. With less than 48 hours left in the French Republic, my feelings are as bittersweet as those Lindt 90% Dark chocolate bars. Sometimes, waking up in the morning to my host sister bisous-ing my host mom for work, I have a passing but acute feeling that I’ve lived like this for as long as I can remember. Hard to imagine that I only moved out of Notre Dame six weeks ago. The French humor and way of life, as amusingly cynical as it can get, seemed to have soaked into my being.

My bike and comrade, Louis IV, with whom I passed many memorable hours

The past week has been both eventful and calm. Saturday, I finally traveled to the much anticipated La Rochelle, a coastal city looking onto the Atlantic. A test of physical endurance it was biking across the bridge to Île de Ré, where I discovered the most beautiful little port villages. An episode of my French experience on the island: while I was buying this heavenly scented, donkey milk soap, a local speciality, everything was going smoothly until the shop assistant started blasting out French at me. After a few futile attempts to make of what she was saying– The scent? The price?– and her sighs, I finally responded, in all my dignity, “Je ne comprends pas.”

After five weeks of French course, I’ve encountered teen slangs, rare vocabs and the extravagant past subjunctive. My ears have grown accustomed to LIVE sport broadcasts,, midnight radio news, dark love comedies, and fervent debates among non-native French speakers with a myriad of accents. But there are still many occasions when I fail to understand the most basic French in front me– not knowing what meat I just ate at the dinner table, paying less or, even worse, more than I should at the cashier, having a totally misled conversation because I mispronounced “buffet.” And now here, the simplest deed of buying a donkey milk soap.


Even when in Île de Ré, I can never escape Notre Dame

If this happened when I first arrived, I would have been too timid to demand the shop assistant to repeat and show me, as she finally did, that the soap in the box is actually heart-shaped. I would have been quick to dismiss with “Oui, d’accord” without actually knowing what passed– for goodness sake it could have been anything– the soap could have been for cattle not humans. I would have lived the entirety of my life wondering in agony without an answer. Maybe that’s what it takes– after five weeks of living in France and battling with all sorts of grammatical exercises, I’ve also acquired this habit and courage of simply shrugging it off and admitting that I don’t understand something, accompanied by a realization that I simply still have a lot more to work on.

Watching World Cup with my host dad and asking many dumb questions about the Spain-Portugal game

Daily life in Tours continues to please me. Just two nights ago, I had such a deep and fruitful conversation with my host mom over dinner, from American conservatism to European history. Being from the far east, I’ve always unfairly assumed that the Europeans and Americans are probably pretty similar, at least compared to my culture, until  my host mom described the reception of homosexuality, the practice of religion and issues of immigration in France. We exchanged our views on xenophobia and the values of lineage, the French standard of living and university system. I know my picture of the French perspective is quite narrow, but over that pot of cassoulet I’ve had one of the most eye-opening meals of my life. Then I ventured to ask her whether her grandparents or parents had been involved in the World Wars– and what a conversation it turned into– with the German occupation of much of France, the tension between the French civilians themselves, their resistance to war, the denouncements and underground effort to save the Jews and even the Franco-Saxon romantic relationships that occurred. In WW2, her parents had lived under the same roof with the Germans who occupied their house, the only one in town village with a bath. For someone who doesn’t know anyone who fought in wars, I felt truly blessed to see all my high school IB history come to life. I was so full in the stomach and heart that night.

Now I’m starting to think about packing– the few old paperbacks by Camus and Sartre, bargain-priced face creams and shampoo, good old rillettes and crepe biscuits. Albeit the woe of leaving my friends and host family, I’m also looking forward to going home, all the more because I truly think I’ve lived my six weeks to the fullest. I have tackled about all modes of French transportation there is: local buses, overpriced shuttle buses, long distance buses, biking on the bike path, biking on the highway, taxi after missing a train, carpooling, and, on the rail, TER’s, interstices and TGV’s. I went to class, did homework, ran along the beautiful Loire, explored seven castles, argued with my host family, traveled alone and with friends, ate cheese, pretended I don’t know English, biked and got lost, spoke, listened and misunderstood some French. The only regret, if anything, is that I don’t have enough money to buy a house in La Rochelle.

Nantes, De Vinci & more French

While I’ve been falling in and out of sickness for the past two weeks, things continue to happen outside my petite chamber– it was more than refreshing to read about the Trump-Kim summit from a local source and in the French language. The French’s detest for the current White House is often avidly pronounced, and I appreciate their honest expression and genuine concerns for current affairs, which I think is lacking in my own country or even at Notre Dame.

I passed a young weekend in Nantes, a city of rich history and green innovations, the hometown of Jules Verne and the LU biscuits. A beautiful episode of human kindness occurred when, while trying to buy a ferry ticket from Trentemoult to downtown Nantes, I had stepped aside because I was slightly short of coins (for the machine), the family behind me simply bought an extra ticket for me. Touched by their generosity for a total stranger, my hope for humanity restored.

Taste of Heaven

While France is a wonderful country, I’m also learning about many of her struggles– immigration, racism and many safety issues. At Nantes, I’ve had the fortune browsing the exhibition on slavery at the Chateau des Ducs Bretagne. What a reminder it was that the French also participated in the transatlantic slave trade– not just the United States who committed this horror. From what my host mom would say about her past students, I think there is an element of racism here that is geared towards the Arabic population. Oh, and the weather. A comfortably sunny morning of 26 degrees could easily turn into a 17 ℃ thunderstorm by lunchtime.

Apart from the the few kilos that I gained from all the saveur vanilles and biscuits, I’ve also noticed my own thickening skin when mispronouncing a word or making a grammatical error in French. People here are fierce about their language: my host mom noted that I will have flan for “dessert” ( like “de-sssss-ert”), not desert (de-s-ert); the negative affirmative question between “si” and “oui” always draws a few minutes of silence contemplation at dinner; and when I failed to utter the “s” of “Amboise,” the SNCF ticket vendor made sure to hiss like an offended python before taking my bill.

I don’t always free ride on other people’s guided tours, but when I do, I’m unnoticeable among a group of French businessmen and women.

At the institute, we’re fighting on all fronts– reading, writing, speaking and listening. Repeating and self-correcting are big for improving one’s language. After the teacher returned our graded essays, it was extremely beneficial for me to cross out my mistakes and correct them even if I was just copying what the teacher had marked. In class, when the teacher corrects my pronunciation, it doesn’t hurt at all to repeat– three times louder and half the speed– that impossible syllable. Pronouns, the subjonctif, the future, the conditional, the proceedings of a French lawsuit, ecological footprints, and so forth.

As I begin to shop for local olive oils and supermarket chocolates while keeping a keen eye on how much Euros I have left– you know the beginning of the end has arrived.



French by the Ocean

After the initial trajectory of cultural shock, binge cheese-eating and my eventual adaptation of the French ways, I think today is a perfect time (not too early after four weeks) to talk about my improvements in the French language.

Absolutely beautiful and sunny in St. Malo

When I first got off the Ouibus at Tours, I called my host mom for the first time to let her know I have arrived. Ten seconds later, I was left dumbfounded with a disconnect tone. A few questions crossed my mind: Is my host mom coming to pick me up? Is she already here? Is she bailing out on me? Was that even my host mom, or did I dial the wrong number? Did the woman on the other end of the receiver speak French or Arabic?  Last Sunday, my host mom called me to see if everything was okay, since my host family was out of town, leaving me alone at home on Saturday night. It was a real dialogue. She asked me if I had already woken up, if I had enough to eat (I could eat whatever in the fridge), whether my excursion on Saturday had went well, if it rained and blablabla, then she told me how to microwave the pasta box she had prepared for me. It was only after the phone call ended that I realized how much my oral comprehension has improved. It’s at a whole new level.  

After three full weeks of French radio, Youtube, spotify and everyday life, my ears are now a lot more accustomed to the bouncing flow of this new tongue. While I could write, read and even speak at a higher level, they didn’t mean much until now when I can actually respond like a human to cashiers and waitresses, to my classmates and host parents. Another weakness I have noted is my limited vocabulary. While I seem to sail smoothly with grammar and even phonetics (which is surprisingly easier to comprehend than anticipated), I know no vocab beyond the outdated “1000 Most-Used French Words for Beginners.”  Now that my phone is set in French and I have purchased a second-hand “Père Goriot” by Balzac, I might actually learn a few useful words, just in case I need to elaborate on the value of wealth in the conditions of human existence.

I am also absorbing more of the subtle, slangy words in French:

So this is the dinner table at my host family. Just kidding: It’s the royal dining salon in the castle of Azay-le-Rideau.
  • Instead of saying “je suis,” it’s more French to say, “chuis.”
  • It’s rude to say “Bonjour” a second time as it indicates you have forgotten the person you’ve already greeted.
  • The first time someone sneezes, you can respond, “A vos souhaits!” If they sneeze again, you say, “A vos amours!”
  • “T’as qu’à le faire, toi!” means, “Why don’t you do it yourself!”


On a more personal note, I’m also feeling pretty wholesome. Morning classes are usually pretty bearable with varied exercises. After a €3.25 (Bon marche) lunch at a university dining hall, I like to wander the town with its pretty boutiques, book stores, chocolatiers, bakeries and parks. I especially like hanging out in the supermarkets and noting the different gourmets: absurd Lindt flavors, LU biscuits, cheap yogurts, and the unbelievable many varieties of French cheese. Jogging by the Loire is also extremely pleasant, especially as I pass all those panting French bulldogs. Day excursions on Wednesdays and Saturdays allow me do more touristy sightseeing: from visiting local chateaux to going all the way to Normandy. The sun sleeps late in the Loire Valley; after dinner, it’s always lovely to sit by the river with a few drinks and observe the French (who smoke a lot, dress super chic and like to sit in a circle.)

                      Moment of pure bliss: A Taiwanese girl in front of Mont Saint Michel





P.S. Last week I ranted about how the SNCF strike is messing up my travel plans, especially how I am going to go to the airport in Paris on the day of my departure. I found a solution. Two nights ago, after certain skilled negotiation, on top of a few heart wrenched pleas, I finally struck a deal with a driver on BlablaCar (very popular carpooling App here in France), to take me to Charles de Gaulle with my gigantic suitcase. Voila.

Complaints, hein?

How time flies. My time in Tours is reaching the midpoint, yet I still feel I have only just arrived from Charles de Gaulle last night. In my two previous posts, I seemed to have the false impression that my life here is all last-minute adventures and sudden epiphanies of Francophone culture. But really, my daily routine, consisting of morning classes and dinners with my host family, is what I’ve fallen in love with. As cliche as it sounds, I’ve certainly experienced moments of “C’est la vie.” Just two days ago, I was standing in front of the formage section at Monoprix for twenty minutes, simply observing the 400 varieties of French cheese.


Although my second weekend was spent in Tours, it was anything but peaceful. On Saturday, I’ve decided to faire du vélo, or go biking, a popular family pastime here in the Loire Valley. The bike trail along la Loire is magnificent, all trees and bushes and birds along the flowing water. Thought I as I hummed and proceeded towards the Villandry castle on my €10/half day hybrid bike. Of course, good things don’t last, after a few casual (wrong) turns, I found myself on a highway– the “bike trail” under my front wheel incidentally narrowing. I decided life was more important than a 16th century castle and turned back, confronting the stares of stunned car drivers. On Sunday I thrived– morning markets, VitiLoire (annual wine festival with over 400 booths for tasting) and mother’s day.


I miss my old classroom

Every four weeks, students get resorted into a different class with different teachers, according to their levels of French. On Monday, the first day of the new sequence, around one hundred students arrived from the United States, mercilessly upturning the ambiance of the institute. During recess, groups of American students (many of whom from the same university) would swarm the courtyard to speak their mother tongue, accompanied by bagels and Starbucks. Even during class time, some are prone to responding in Anglais… “Bonjour” is replaced by “Hey,” “Quelle est ta nationalité?” by “Are you American?” I feel like I’m back in Indiana.

While it’s a shame that the diverse groups of Thai, Korean, Taiwanese, Arabic, Canadien and Europeans students seemed to have faded from the institute, I’m also very grateful that I had started two weeks ago and had already grown used to only conversing in French, as was the norm before Monday. The perk of being Taiwanese (or just non-American) is that if I keep my mouth shut and only smile, people often assume I don’t speak English, which is only perfect for exercising French.

The end of the previous sequence also meant adieu’s. On Sunday, I accompanied the Thai girl to the train station, and I was devastated. It’s miraculous how I’ve already made friends that made saying goodbye so hard– rare friendships that persisted despite limited French vocabulary and half-finished sentences.

Still sad from my friends’ departure, I strived to distract myself by posing all sorts of (sometimes sensitive) questions at the dinner table. In one conversation, my host mom has slipped out very strong feelings on the Trump administration and Macron.Between two bites of poulet grillé, I also finally gathered the courage to ask if the French and the British really dislike each other, which I’ve been dying to know since watching Dunkirk. At school, I’ve learned much about the French way of doing things: the inefficient *cough** political system, the French income tax rate, which the teacher had said was non-progressive, being 24% for everyone (not sure if it’s actually true), and also how slow the French time passes, making it okay for the teacher to always be 15-30 minutes late. An observation of the French civilization is incomplete without addressing la grève, or the railway strike. How much France has achieved has not ceased to amaze me– all the philosophers, cosmetic brands, gourmet and NGO’s– despite how laissez-faire, whiny and inefficient they are at times. Currently, two out of every five days are affected by the strike, and since my flight falls on a strike day– I will have to seek an alternative means of transport. Not easy given the limited availability of bus. This strike, however authentically French it is, will be the end of me. Stay tuned.

You have probably noticed by now how much I’m complaining. I’ve learned this is their most iconic habit, making one a true French national. As I continue to eat more yoghurt and pains, speak more bonjours and escape more dog poop (everywhere on the streets here), I’m also realizing my own potential of becoming cynically French.

Château de Chenonceau looks even smaller next to my gigantic head
First excursion with the institute!

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.

From South Bend to Tours: L’Apéritif

After 9 hours on the airplane and 8 hours of bus ride (in total), I finally arrived in Tours with two plastic adaptors, some fresh Euros, and a +33 number. My host mom picked me up from Gare de Tours and, while driving through the petit downtown, started speaking a language that seemed to loosely resemble ROFR 20200.

We arrived in the appartement before I could finish my third sentence, at 21h00 (that’s how they say 9pm here). Within five minutes of arrival, I was having my first French meal: le pain avec le rillet de canard (bread with a meat spread), la galette (a savory crêpe), la salade, le coulommiers 

(a type of cheese– so good!) and crème à la vanille (for dessert!) I should’ve also taken le cafe with my dessert, but, being the little kid I am, I refused in the fear that the caffeine will kill my sleep. (only to learn later that the French drink decaf coffee at night) This is the four course dîner that I fell in love with immediately and continue to look forward to every night : l’entrée, le plat principal, la salade et le formage et le dessert.

After dinner, I finally showered since leaving my dorm at Notre Dame. All relief washed over me as I looked back to the 50 things that could’ve prevented me from making it to my host family in this small town in Val de Loire, from my 20-minute connection in PHL to all the SNCF strikes in Paris. But I didn’t have time to get too sentimental– I was to show up at 8am the next morning at my language school, L’institut de Touraine.

The apartment is four minutes away from l’institut by foot, which is even shorter than walking from my P-dub (my dorm) to O’shag. I’m truly blessed. On my first day, I took a very brief placement test and immediately went to class. With around 10 other students from all over the world, we would go over different grammatical points, discuss French legislations and culture and engage in all sorts of activities to enhance our oral comprehension. Each morning for three hours, we sit in an antique, high-ceilinged classroom. It only seems right. The institute is diverse: with many students from Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Canada, the US, Europe, the Middle East as well as the rest of the world. Even though a lot of us speak other common languages, we still prefer to communicate in our broken, robotic French. How neat is that.

On Tuesday, I made a Swiss friend. Twenty words and three awkward smiles into our conversation, we’ve already decided to travel to Bordeaux together this Saturday, the only long weekend I will have during my six-week stay in France. What’s funny is that it’s not even weird; everyone here is so friendly and approachable. All you need are a Bonjour and whatsApp (sub for other chat apps).

After l’ecole each morning, I would go to the nearby Carrefour or the cafeteria for a local university to have lunch. The French cuisine is life. In fact, I’m living my best life right now. I’ve adjusted so well that I’ve started to wonder if I was born into the wrong country. I’m not even jet-lagged. The only thing that slightly troubles me is that I occasionally starve. The French eat a very small breakfast, with only baguettes with jam/butter and a cup of coffee. Lunch, often only a cold sandwich or a rice platter, rarely lasts me until the 20h00 dinner. At around 5pm, about the time I eat at Notre Dame, I start having flashbacks grilled chicken breasts and taco meat at NDH. Other than that, I have nothing but the highest respect for all the French cheese, chocolate, flan, yoghurt, bread and wine. The list goes on.

My host family truly feels like home away from home. It consists of an amiable couple in their 60s and two other students like me: a graduating senior from Toronto and a 17-year-old girl from Bangkok, Thailand. Dinner is my favorite part of the day, both for my growling stomach and for the conversation we have at the table– from the little things we have done that day to fashion in Thailand and military service in Taiwan, all in French. Over the past four days, I’ve spoken more français than I’ve in the past two years at Notre Dame. Besides feeling at times defeated by my poor French (especially after my quiz yesterday), my life in Tours is all elegant streets and savory food.If my stay in Tours is a traditional French meal, this is only L’Apéritif! A bit of French never killed nobody.  À bientôt! 

View from my bedroom: @Heart of Tours