Signing Off

Well, this is the last hurrah. I’m sorry, but there are no pictures for this time.

It’s been quite an unforgettable time these last few weeks in Brest, and while I’m sad to leave my new friend(s) and host family, I am so excited to start my semester at Angers.

If I could share perhaps the most important thing that I realized about language learning, it’s that immersion is immensely important. I feel that a huge difference has been made in my speech, comprehension, and reading having spent so much time only using French. In fact, I imagine the same courses that I took would have less efficacy had I taken them say in the United States or another non-French speaking area. Such is the importance of the immersion in my books, just my two cents (and there’s a Euro coin for that here strangely enough, I don’t see why but there is).

As for cultural differences, I thought the ones I had to deal with were quite easy to manage if one had an open mind. There were big examples, like the bathing suit controversy I had, to smaller things like when we ate, what was acceptable to say, and how to interact with strangers. I found that just being a friendly, outgoing, and most importantly willing to learn American was sufficient to get by and have people like you.

To recap, my goals were to speak confidently, express myself with greater sophistication, read more quickly, and better understand the grammar and style of French writing. I would say that I can do all those things, and this became particularly evident when I introduced myself to my host family here at Angers and we immediately had a lengthy dinner featuring many fluidly flowing conversations about myself, my aspirations, and my opinions.

Yet, I am hesitant to say that I am fully ready to accomplish my overarching goal of writing on some aspect of French history. As I mentioned in my grant report, while certainly the SLA was vastly helpful, it was not the entirety of my plan, as I am spending a semester in the ND Angers program. Further into the semester, I think I will more fully know if I am truly ready to produce significant academic writing using my French.

When I reflect on the SLA Grant overall, I realize how much I took for granted back home. The daily things in my life from a car, to AC, late night snacks, and ESPN are so much more precious to me now knowing what it’s like without them. Also, like a LOT of people smoke in France, so having mostly fresh air back home is another thing I miss. This summer abroad has also changed my worldview of Europe. I really thought that everybody liked America in Europe, but that is not the case. In lieu of the universally agreed upon great nation and promoter of democracy, some people here had more negative views like environmentally wasteful, politically meddlesome, and culturally ignorant. To each his own.

And so to advise any potential applicants or study abroad folks who end up reading my blog, I would say prepare for a time where you don’t have a lot of the same things like back home, and people don’t necessarily think the same way as you. But those aren’t huge things, you can get over it really quickly.

Lastly, to build on my summer, I will be studying abroad in France for a semester as well. I hope that by my return, I can then use this combined experience to write scholarly works using my French language skills. I am not certain on the historical writing, as this experience really showed how much of a ways I had to go before mastering French, but at the very least I plan to pursue a supplementary major in French as well. Thus, if not used for history, I will at least have gained conversational fluency with a second language to be used for other academia. Further down the line, I believe my French skills will be useful for building my marketability and value in my intended future profession as a lawyer. Not just on in a linguistic/academic sense, but spending some time in France has imparted valuable personal/professional insights on culture which will also be invaluably useful.

I thank you, valued reader of my blog, for keeping up with me so far. Its over now, and so I say, Cheers to you, Good Night and Good Luck.

Sometimes Less is More

I learned this week a cold lesson on French grading: if they don’t ask for it, they don’t want it. I just received my weekly test from last week to discover that I lost points on a particular section for writing too much. The section asked a true or false question, and then said (this is a translation), “justify your response with a quotation from the text.” And so I feel like that would mean to quote the text, then justify your choice talking about the text. But no, the professor just wanted the phrase from the text. So regardless of the fact that I CORRECTLY answered the question and CORRECTLY cited the text, I lost points. Thus I dropped from potentially having the highest score in the class…

Anyways, it hit me this week that I am closing in on the end of my time here in Brest. Time has really gone by so quickly! For me, I think once I started getting into the groove, the days just zoomed by. I especially noticed this week that time in class just seems to go by faster than the say first three weeks, perhaps because of my improvement it’s easier to stay absorbed in the material.


Things are looking good to me, also Brittany is a beautiful region

For my last community interaction, I discussed thoughts on the US with some acquaintances that I made here. They asked to remain anonymous, so to maintain their privacy, so I will rather generally describe my interviewees. One was a woman in her thirties with a kid (#1), one was an older lady in her fifties (#1), and the last was a male, 20 something master’s student (#3).

To begin, they all had an overall positive view of the United States, especially regarding our films and music. However, they had some interesting views on specific issues.

Interviewee #1 visited America, and found us to be quite friendly to strangers. Not to a fault per se, but just so friendly that it was strange. Like when she opened her map, people stopped to help/give directions, everyone smiled and waved when eyes met, stuff like that. I thought that was just being a normal person, but to her it was all weird. And I do get why that is, because no one here says anything unless spoken to, and no eye contact is made between strangers. Her biggest concern was the wasteful American environmental mentality, in example, the unnecessary AC blasting everywhere. She said she lived in SE Asia for a while, no AC, so Americans could live with some heat, it’s just a mental challenge. Also, the lack of public transportation was wasteful too, as everyone driving their own car is bad for the planet etc. We could stand to learn a few things on being green from Europe, with energy especially, because we all share the Earth. She, and pretty much everyone else I talked to, were accordingly shocked to learn that many people (Republicans) in the United States deny climate change.

Interviewee #2 had many criticisms on the United States. We may be an economically powerful country, but that has made the government rather focused on money and the people too US Centric in thinking. To her, that meant the political elites are all tied up in allegiance to some big companies and rich people, which stops progress for laws. As for the US focus, it leads to a general ignorance (not me though, she added haha) on other cultures and languages, which is frustrating for people like her, because Americans tend to think that things should be done a certain way (the American way) for everybody. Next, from watching the news (I assume with the police shootings, protests, gun violence), racism seems to be a big problem in the US. It is nonsensical how we can treat some of our citizens so poorly, yet try and change other countries too. Lastly, as an educator, she felt that the US public education system lacks all-around quality throughout the country, because it appears that at one end you had top schools filling up the best universities, while some schools can’t afford all the things they need.

Interviewee #3 focused on the political problems as well. The media seemed to be the biggest issue. With the differences between say Fox News and the host of liberal outlets, how can we know what’s actually going on and good for the country? At the same time, everyone is so entrenched in their views from the two party system, it’s hard to have a conversation. But while that goes on, the political elites keep running the show, and it looks like average citizens have really little input on political life.

And that was it. It was tough, because internally, I wanted to defend my home you know, but they chose various, hard to argue points. Because it is true, we do have issues with media coverage, the government does have politicians backed by huge donors, and the US could reduce its environmental impact in my view. I’m glad at least that the whole every American is obese thing didn’t come up, what a relief. But I was a bit saddened to find that when people think of America, it was always “You’re great, but…” So the bad stuff outshone the good to non-Americans. C’est la vie.

That’s all for this week, final thoughts approaching in my final post!

Build Me Up Butter-Cake

Thanks for tuning in.

A little change here, I will start with my community interaction.

So, if you’ve been following along on my adventure thus far in Brittany, you’d recall that my host family dad and I had tried our hand at making the traditional Breton cake called Kouign Amann (literally ‘Butter cake’). Well here’s the second attempt, as you can see, a little less brown on top, but we don’t seem to have mastered the requisite creation of layers. Don’t get me wrong, it was still delicious by all means (sugar butter what’s not to like?), but perhaps a more rustic (read messy) in presentation.


Just my two cents, but this is definitely the best The Shirt of my three years here. #AlwaysReppin 

Unfettered by the disappointment of failure, I traveled to a local bakery to discuss this regional dish. In a short talk with the baker, I learned a little bit about the humble Kouign Amann. A couple highlights:

  • It was a 19th century creation made in a little town in Brittany (I found online the name to be Douarnenez, did not get the spelling right at the bakery)
  • A good Kouign Amann’s pastry is supposed to be airy, light, and flaky, similar to a croissant. So our thick, dense cake doesn’t quite fit the bill of a proper creation. We must not be doing something right; we sure aren’t missing any ingredients, because it’s just flour, sugar, and butter.
  • And he didn’t have to tell me why its popular, because I know these cakes are just freaking delicious. Although I will say that while the French are much more concerned with controlling portions and maintaining health in general (heck the end of their McDonald’s commercials feature warnings to eat 5 daily servings of veggies and not too much fat/sugar/salt), that kind of restraint does not seem to be present in the preparation of their pastries. I’m a stereotype fulfilling American, and I was surprised with the amount of butter and sugar we put into our stout-sized cake. I assume frequency of consumption is better managed.

And there you are, now turning to school.

Our group of B1.3 switched professors as a group of 40 Mexican collegiate students arrived Monday, so our last prof went to take some of them. However, I did get my test back from last week, and it was the highest I had ever gotten on a test (17/20 which is ok by US standards, but excellent in France).

Nothing truly new to report from the classroom, I feel like I’m learning a lot and making good progress. Perhaps what’s most indicative of that is my conversational ability with other international students. For example, my best buddy here is Swiss, and I feel like I just have a lot more I can say to him after five weeks. I remember the first week when we met, where I just could not always get a coherent message across, and now we can have a lengthy, much more fluid conversation.

On a related note, something that I’m most excited about is my fluency with the different tenses. I don’t feel afraid anymore of using the future, past conditional, or subjunctive tenses. Instead, quite naturally, I’ll just be talking and Whoop there it is just popping in like no biggie. Yay me!

And that’s all for this week. I haven’t decided the theme of next week quite yet, so I’ll leave my one reader in suspense for now.


4th Down and Goal to Go

A little sports reference there because I really miss being able to watch sports (less than one month for CFB!!!). It’s the Olympics, and I swear the people in charge of broadcasting in France must hate real entertainment, because I’ve been getting ping-pong instead of Team USA Basketball… just disgraceful.

Fun fact, I was chosen to speak to a local journalist about my school C.I.E.L Bretagne. However, I ended up mostly just talking to the director of the school about myself, as she gave all my info to the lady who wrote the article. Here’s the photo from that newspaper


Not ashamed to say that I love cargo shorts, but this is a bad picture. I was running late that day just threw things on…

I think by now I have pretty well adjusted to public transportation here in Brest. By that, I mean that I am no longer timidly getting on the bus, or struggling to find the stops. Also, in shops, people have mostly stopped replying to me in English when I speak French, so that seems good too. I can go in, order food, ask questions about prices, all in French. Next step is to get my hair cut…

This week in the higher level was great. The focus was on different tenses like the Anterior Future, the Conditional Past, which I had knowledge of, but not mastery, so as usual, it was time well spent. The oral comprehension is definitely less challenging now. I can now understand some parts of readings and priest’s homily at mass (which is up from absolutely nothing the first few masses). And at the dinner table, it’s also definitely a solid improvement as well, though the arguments are still not fully comprehensible. These oral comprehension gains have thus translated to my schooling as well. I struggled with those sections on my prior weekly assessments but I think I did much better this time around (when I get my test back we can confirm my suspicions).

On a side note I’ve found that in my spare time, (mostly weekend nights when I’m not going to the beach, walking around Brest, or spending time with my hosts), watching French movies/TV with French subtitles is really useful for learning and retaining vocabulary. If there are new words, I write them down, while seeing the ones I’ve learned thus far helps solidify my understanding and memorization. I’ll admit, I have what they say in French the heart of an artichoke, which is to say I’m a sucker for romantic stories. Thus, I really liked Les Emotifs Anonymes,  a fun lil’ Rom-Com on Netflix.

This week’s community interaction as actually really convenient to do at home, as I live with an immigrant family. My host dad is the son of 1st generation Portuguese immigrants, while my host mom came here from Vietnam as a child. I was relieved to learn that they did not think they were treated any differently here in Brittany for their ethnic minority statuses, except for a few remarks made towards my host mom in school (I totally understand that experience given my background as an Asian American. Even the week before I left for France, some elementary school kids at my neighborhood basketball court made imitations of Asiatic languages towards me, and said that I didn’t speak English. But I digress, that’s just bad parenting).

On the other hand, my hosts both agreed that racial discrimination and prejudice is stereotypically more prominent in southern France (think Marseille area, they noted), and it goes towards the Muslim Arabic communities, especially right now with the refugee crisis. I thought this might explain why my hosts didn’t receive particularly different treatment, because neither of my hosts are a part of this demographic.My hosts obviously were quick to condemn such behavior from their countrymen and the Front National, which they said was just no good. But based on that description, it would seem to me that the social climate here with Arabs is similar to that of the United States with African Americans, but perhaps not as historically problematic (as in there was no slavery or Jim Crow).

If I could give a comparison of my views as a denizen of Northern Virginia (as I cannot speak for all of the United States) with the views of my host family here, I would say the views are similar. We agree that racial discrimination is an abhorrent abomination upon free society, and acknowledge that at times, certain minorities have had a different experience than the majority population; while none at this house have been an outright target, we recognize that discrimination exists to this day.

Whew, that was an intense tea-time snack I’ll tell you that.

And there you go, another week gone. I’m officially over the hump! Thanks for reading.


The Tyranny of French Swimming Pools

I would like to begin by decrying the blatant, heinous, backwards, draconian regulation that is the French swimwear standard at public pools. APPARENTLY, due to hygiene concerns of dirt and etc being brought into pools, men must wear compression style, polyester/spandex blend, jammer swimsuits of Olympic swimmers in order to swim in municipal pools. This “Speedo or Go Home” dictatorship thus prevents me from going to the pool with my host family and friends. It’s utterly antithetical to the capitalistic principles of a successful business, not to mention nonsensical, as obviously, one’s level of cleanliness should not change based on their attire. As they say, when in Rome… go to the beach.


Me discovering that my swim shorts are non-compliant

Anyways, here we are three weeks in, this is the part when I break free (Shout out to my fellow Ariana Grande fans). In spite of my perceived struggles, I have officially moved up from my starting level of B1.1, to B1.3‼! This leaves me within striking distance of B2, at which point I’ll be able to further my education by taking any class while studying abroad next fall at Angers. Woot woot‼


Gotta pay your dues when you’re moving up in the world

Perhaps because this week covered food and culinary verbiage, or maybe because I have reached some level of acclimation to France, I felt much more at ease speaking to my classmates and family outside of class. I seem to have begun overcoming over my problem of circumlocution, as everyone seems to better understand what I am saying, and conversation is faster flowing. Still not 100%, but I can see clear progress.


Cheers from Brest as me and my fellow students explore the city.

And the lessons appear to have improved my reading as well, for I now can read the morning’s articles on my Le Figaro news app at a reasonable pace. The journey of a 1000 miles begins with a single step, but I’m on the way from news to novels to documents, all in due time.

One particular challenge remaining is the French ‘R’ sound in my pronunciation. As an Anglophone, as well as a heritage Korean speaker, the ‘R’ in such words as Parler and Merci among countless others, is difficult for me. I’d like to think the rest of my accented French isn’t so horrendous, but my professors are ever so quick to point out that particular mishap. Practice makes perfect, but personally I’m ok for now with giving myself away as American (which I am), because the default assumption is Chinese (which I am not).

That’s all for this week. Next week I’ll discuss something about the local community, likely the minority experience here in Brittany.

One-Liners, Caramel, and Striped Shirts

Thanks for tuning in, here is an observation for the week:

I realized one day during our familial afternoon snack that Nutella and peanut butter sandwiches are shockingly NOT a thing in France. Apparently, as peanut butter in general is scarcely found in your typical French households, the idea of putting the two together in a sandwich was strange to my host family. In the end, they did try it, and said it was better than they thought it’d be. At the same time, they unanimously declared  that stereotypical Americans enjoy mixing sweet and salty (fair enough). Instead, they put straight salted caramel on bread, which is an interesting and literally mouthwatering experience.


Thankfully, it’s also pronounced CARE-A-MEL in French. None of this CAR-A-MUL business…

Turning now to my French,

Well, I feel like my oral comprehension has vastly improved from last week (or should I say recovered, I thought that at ND I did ok understanding French), as evidenced by picking up on more things at the dinner table. I can now consistently follow the general flow of conversation, and I even recognized some sarcasm and jokes (Like what do you call yogurt in the forest? Natural yogurt ‼! My kind of joke right there). However, when arguments take place, the French somehow becomes even faster, at which point I lose track, so I just smile and eat until I can rejoin. And so it goes…

The problem for me seems to be circumlocution; it’s tough to find ways to talk around my holes in vocabulary. I never realized until now how many words you need for decent conversation. And there’s no help from my family, as none of them know English more than I know French. So at times I find myself desperately gesticulating my thoughts while my family gives me a depressing bewildered look. It’s getting better beyond a doubt, and I’ve got like 100 new words already down, but more work need be done.

This week in class, we delved much more into new grammar: expressing regrets, giving reproaches, and objective pronouns. At this point, I feel quite satisfied with my ability to learn in the classroom (that is to say, obtain theoretical knowledge of French), but various intricacies and random rules continue to nuisance me in writing. And while I do think I am well retaining what I learn, we learn specific aspects of the language that I sometimes only infrequently practice them. One silver lining, I did well on my first test though, so there you go.

On a lighter note, I am learning French through interacting with the family outside of meals too. By just participating in random aspects of daily life, I learn some vocabulary and expressions for the occasion. For example, last Monday, my host family dad and I baked a Kouign Amman. That’s Breton (not French) for butter cake, and you can get it at our Hesburgh Library ABP, 2 for $5.  I’d like to say ours was better, but we forget to let the dough rise so it really wasn’t. Still, it was good practice to read through a long recipe with Mr. Da Rocha, and over the next few weeks we vow to improve.


Mr. Da Rocha says it’s essential to learn the language AND the food of France. So here we are

Now here’s a little bit on a quadrennial local holiday. Since I arrived, I had been seeing these signs advertising for “Brest 2016”. My host family simply told me it was a festival celebrating Brittany’s maritime heritage, and for 15 euros, you can go on boats and listen to Breton music, as well as buy food and knickknacks. I later talked with the tour guide who works for C.I.E.L Bretagne, and well, yeah more or less it was the same thing. She gave a bit more detail on its origins as the expansion of a popular boat rally held at Brest in 1980, but yeah, there’s nothing substantially important about this holiday than enjoying the traditional nautical culture. Simply put, Bretons like boats, and everybody get together every four years to have fun on them.


Ships are what’s it’s all aboat during Brest 2016

So I went on Thursday, and….


I saw lots of boats, heard lots of bagpipe music funnily enough (Is that from the Gaelic influence? I couldn’t tell you), and went through a bunch of stores. I did buy a chic Breton striped shirt, which is called a marinière in French (I learned they were originally made to identify sailors who fell overboard) and bought this thing advertised as a Breton Hot Dog (a sausage on a baguette served with mustard, fries on the side) which was amazing although quite expensive. But overall, not exactly a great deal for 15 euros in this humble American’s opinion. There wasn’t much there I could do that I couldn’t already in the city.


Me with new friends and a new shirt. Ahoy!

So that’s all for this week, I think I can say much general improvement has been made, but learning a language is tough work. On to the next week!

Le jeu commence

Hey everybody! Thanks for joining me. My name is Kyle So, and this is the end of my first week in Brest, France studying at C.I.E.L. Bretagne. How’s it going you ask? Well…

Pic 2

That dear friends, is the ocean

First things first, the weather in Brittany is absolutely gorgeous. It’s been a sunny 70 degrees since I’ve arrived, and I even wear pants instead of shorts most days (except when hiking of course). In short (*bad dum tss*), it’s a rather welcome change from the ridiculousness of 100 degrees, 100% humidity back home in Virginia. Not to mention that my school is a stone’s throw away from the Atlantic Ocean, so I’ve been experiencing a great nautical view each day.

As for my host family, I’m living in the quaint suburb of Le Relecq-Kerhuon with a family of five (the two parents, three girls), so it’s a full house if you will. And from when they first welcomed me into their home, I learned that they’re some of the nicest people. I’ll be honest, I had some fears of entering a situation where the family didn’t like me (or more importantly my humor), but that doesn’t seem to be the case as far as I can tell. Instead, they happily made sure I had everything I needed from lamps, extra pillows, etc, kept me extremely full with big meals plus snacks, and even laughed at my numerous puns/jokes; there’s not much more that I could want.

On a less excitable note, I realized from the get-go that my oral communication was not at its best. I thought I was in the clear coming home from the rail station with my host mom, as I was answering her various small-talk questions with authority.

Where you from? Boom, Washington D.C. metropolitan area in the state of Virginia.

How was your train ride? Bam, just fine thank you, a tad warm because there was no AC, keep em coming.

And so it went the car ride home. I thought, à la George Lopez, “I got this !!”

Then the reality of my situation became apparent at the dinner table. I discovered then how lucidly and more importantly, how slowly my professors at ND had spoken in class. We sat at the table, then suddenly Jesus Mary Joseph! everyone’s zooming by at a bazillion miles, excuse me kilometers, per hour in French. Meanwhile, I’m left there, mouth agape, looking like a fool, and desperately trying to follow any line of conversation. In an instant I became the uncouth American abroad, clumsily trying to express my thoughts in a foreign tongue. This wasn’t all bad by the way, as it left plenty of time to eat all their delicious food. Nonetheless, it was very humbling, as I could only really talk sporadically, or when they addressed me. It has gotten enormously better since then (to be fair I started with a low bar), but with my relatively poor hearing and the rapidity of native Frenchmen in conversation, I have to be completely focused to maintain comprehension.

The entrance to my school, C.I.E.L. Bretagne

Given my struggling debut at home, I thought that I might experience a similar stumble out of the gates at school.  Thankfully, I discovered that I was a bit more comfortable in the classroom. At C.I.E.L. Bretagne, they place students enrolled in the intensive course (20 hrs/week) based on their level, no matter how long you’re there or where your from. I for example, am in a class with six other Americans, an Englishman, one Swiss man, and a Spaniard. Thus, you learn similar things but you may not move up as much in difficulty depending on the length of your stay, as you increase after each week (with my stay being longer than most, this meant I would progress further than some of the folks I started with). Happily, I found the format of the class to be much like the one I just took at ND (props to Mme Escoda-Risto), so I was ready to learn. To summarize the week, we solidified and expanded upon my rhetorical foundation in French (almost exclusively the more difficult stuff I had just learned), but I also was learning many new things, most especially in the realm of  vocabulary and pronunciation. To conclude, its been a gradual process overall thus far, but I expected as much with the culture shock, the rust with my French (I haven’t used it much since I left ND) and heading back to school after being on break. Once I am back in the swing of things, I fully expect my difficulties to diminish, and my growth in French to thrive.

And that’s all I have to say about that. One Week down, six more to go, the time is just flying by! Tune in next week to hear about a local and culturally important holiday, oh la la.