One of the many email lists I had signed up for was one from French Affaires, a business run by a woman in Dallas. She puts together some trips for clients, and leads tours. She is definitely a Francophile, with a Ph.D. in French. I saw an email from her last fall proposing a two-week trip to Provence, with language classes in the mornings. The classes would be at the IS in Aix – we found out later that IS stands for Institut Suedois, or Swedish Institute, as it was founded for Swedes who want to learn French. (Don’t be fooled by the English home page.) In the afternoons and on weekends the group from French Affaires would have some excursions planned, some group meals, etc. We were really interested in the classes.
After discussing it with my wife, I contacted Elizabeth New Seitz, the lady who runs French Affaires, and asked if the tour still had seats. It did, so we decided to go ahead. We found out later that the trip was very popular and she had lots of people hoping someone would cancel.
One of the first things we were asked to do was to complete an exercise for the Institute. There were questions in French, and we were to answer as best we could. The exercise was supposed to be used to determine what level we were at, so we would be grouped with students with similar skills. The institute has students from all over the world, with varying degrees of expertise. So we did that, and emailed them off. Never heard a word about it afterwards.
We had an hour or so meeting with Elizabeth, where all the people going on the trip got together. It was at a building near SMU (may have been part of SMU). She went over the basics of how we would get to class, what time the classes were, and other things relating to the trip. While we were responsible for our own travel arrangements, Elizabeth was very proactive in recommending flights, and warning us of schedule changes. She arranged transportation to/from the airport in France. The school is in Aix-en-Provence, around 30 minutes drive from the Marseille airport, under normal conditions.
As it happened, we were dealing with some difficulties at home which could conceivably have caused us to have to cancel this trip. I did purchase some trip insurance, looking for both a reimbursement on expenditures and also possibly having to leave in the middle for some reason, but none of that happened.
So the day for the trip came quickly. The day before, there were storms where we live, and our power went out. We were able to report the outage via cell phone to Oncor, and were given an estimate of 10 AM the next day – the day we were leaving. Fortunately, it was a cool day. We went out to eat dinner (not that there was a choice) and while we were eating I got a text from Oncor saying they had fixed something and our power should be back. When we got home it was fine.
Our itinerary had us going from Dallas/Ft Worth (DFW) to London Heathrow (LRH) to Marseille (MRS). The first flight was on an American Airlines 777. They dragged their feet about boarding the plane, and the gate agent had a major attitude. After a while they halted boarding, and in fact unboarded everyone who had boarded. They needed to change a tire on the plane. This took over an hour. We had a very long layover in Heathrow, five hours or so, and we had no worries about missing a connection, but some of the passengers did. We were on a newer model 777, with an extra seat in each row of coach. It was pretty unpleasant. The flight crew made one pass with the beverage cart, after the meal cart. That was it for 9+ hours. The seat belt sign remained illuminated for the entire flight, except for a few minutes.
We got to Heathrow only a little late. We landed at Terminal 3, and our next flight was out of Terminal 1. I had thought we could hang around in the Admiral’s Club for a while, but to get to it we would have to go through the check point, and our boarding pass was for T1, so I didn’t even try. Given our long connection time, we probably could have done it. Instead, we boarded a bus to go to Terminal 1, which drove around the bowels of the airport for quite some time. Not the most attractive welcome to London.
Since we were connecting to an onward flight to another country, we were not required to be admitted to the UK. This was fortunate, because the lines at passport control were very long.
We got to T1, and had to go through security. I failed to take out my iPad from my carry-on, and got a thorough inspection along with a tongue-lashing from a security agent. We didn’t get along. Afterwards, Jody and I found a restaurant that was serving breakfast, and had a good meal with some hot tea.
We had to wait a long time in Terminal 1, and they don’t post the gate number until they are just about ready to board. Our flight to Marseille was delayed, but there was no indication of that on the board – they just didn’t post the gate. Eventually, the gate was posted, after our scheduled departure time, and off we went. The flight from LRH to MRS was very nice, and they even provided a little snack. They had something vegetarian available as well. I always enjoy flying British Airways – they helped me out tremendously when I injured myself in Ireland back in 2000, and had to rely on their help in London to get around the connecting airport (then Gatwick). When I have a choice I fly with them.
We got to Marseille and had two vans waiting to take us to Aix. On our way to Aix, the vans were rerouted by the police and delayed because, we found out later, there had been a head-on collision on the road we were supposed to take, with three fatalities. So we went to Aix by some back roads, and the drivers had to get their phones out and look at some maps because they had no idea where they were.
On arrival at our hotel, Elizabeth greeted us and we were assigned our rooms, or, more accurately, our apartments. Ours was the first one off the lobby on the ground floor, but it was not noisy or anything. We quickly dropped off our stuff and rejoined the group, who were heading out to dinner. We had a long dinner with a fair amount of very good Cote de Provence rosé, and got to bed at around 10. Very, very tired, but excited. The room was nice, with a very comfortable bed, adequate storage, a well equipped kitchen with a refrigerator, stove, microwave, etc. Internet was via an Ethernet cable. The internet was not great, but it was usable. It was interesting how many US websites don’t come up in France – I guess they don’t like a non-US IP address.
The one downside of the apartment was that they gave us one flimsy towel each, plus a hand towel. We use better towels at home to clean up cat puke. It was a constant source of amusement among our group. Some went to Monoprix (think French Target) and bought some towels.
On Monday morning, after breakfast at the hotel, Elizabeth led us over to the school. We were sent to different rooms, but most of us were in the same classroom, which included people who had no French at all. I was disappointed. They had us fill out some questionnaires, similar to what we had filled out earlier. Nobody looked at them as far as I could tell. Then we were called out one at a time to speak with one of the teachers. I met with a woman named Felicia for a few minutes, and she asked me a variety of questions, in French, which I answered as well as I could, not having practiced French in a couple of years. She said I was far from a debutante. I could have told her that, but ‘debutante’ is one of those French words that have been adopted in English but have a different meaning. She meant I was not a beginner. Somehow she had been told that I was.
We came back after a break to find our class assignment. They have groups from 1 to 9, with 1 being little to no French and 9 being the best. I was level 5; Jody was in 3. While I missed not having Jody sitting next to me in class, it was probably better for both of us not to have each other to lean on.
My class had 9 people. We had three Americans, including me, one of whom was from the French Affaires group and one was from somewhere in California (she had a mumbling problem and I couldn’t understand her in French or English). We had two Swiss, one of whom was also an Italian citizen, and the other was from the part of Switzerland that speaks Romansch, a Latin-like language, and whose name was Pius, after Pope Pius XII, who died the day he was born. (Pius is not a Catholic.) We had a Swede, Anders, who sat next to me, and we became fast friends. He was very reserved, very formal, but had a very dry and very wicked sense of humor. There were three young women, one from the Netherlands, one from Japan, and one from South Korea. The Asian girls were really hard to understand, and the Korean girl disappeared after a while. Among this group, the only common language was French.
The class was intense. The teacher spoke only French, and it came out in a torrent. At home, our French classes in the evenings were taught by an American, and while her French is excellent, she does not speak one tenth as fast as a native French speaker. It was really, really difficult to force yourself to listen to the incredibly fast stream of words.
As a beginning exercise, we each were asked to speak for a few moments about our hometown. We were given a few minutes to prepare. It’s very hard for me to speak extemporaneously, or nearly so, but to do it in French is ridiculously difficult. I had to remind myself that I would never see any of these people again so it didn’t matter how badly I did. I found that my ability to form sentences in French was weak – I could handle the present tense pretty well, and the passé composé, but my vocabulary is very limited, and it was very frustrating. I have memorized a lot of key phrases and sentences over the years, but having to come up with something from scratch was really, really difficult.
The other students were pretty much in the same boat, but some of the Europeans already spoke two or three or four languages so their adjustment was much quicker. The two Asian girls had a hard time. One dropped out pretty quickly. The other I couldn’t understand at all. She just didn’t do consonants. While I find French difficult, someone whose native language is not an Indo-European language is going to have a very hard time learning French.
The classes had some exercises that were handed out, and we would take turns doing them. This was not like our French in Action classes in Texas where the answers are in the back of the book. I struggled with things I thought I should already know, but in a different context, it was very hard to recall things when I needed them. I was not alone.
One interesting thing about the IS is that they assign two teachers for each class, and they alternate days. This really worked well – they obviously were used to collaborating in this manner and never missed a beat, but the interesting thing was that you had a different voice speaking to you (in French, of course) each day. It helped us to focus and made it easy not to tune out the speaker. And these ladies were intense, and animated, and made eye contact with everyone, and made everyone participate no matter how reluctant they were to participate.
There was no textbook but there were well thought out exercises. There were some audio clips to listen to, and some video. They would run them once and start asking questions, and got nothing but blank looks until they ran the clip a second or sometimes a third time. That was difficult for all of us.
We also had homework! This was a problem for the members of the French Affaires group, because Elizabeth had all these wonderful outings and activities planned for us during many of the afternoons and evenings, and we had paid for these activities, but it left us with minimal time to do homework. We ended up doing our homework in between breakfast (which began at 7 AM at the hotel) and the start of class at 9 AM.
There is something wrong with being pressed for time to do homework when you are supposed to be on vacation. We have to think this one over next time.
The biggest challenge for most of the students was that we had to do a presentation, on any topic we chose. Amazingly, Anders (the Swede) volunteered to do his right away, ex tempore. He was really good. I needed some time to prepare, and the first topic I tried to research didn’t pan out. There has been lots of discussion in the media about how Americans don’t have passports and don’t travel internationally. There are statistics available to back this up. I wondered if other countries had anything close to this. Does everyone on Switzerland have a passport? How about Italy, or Japan? I could not find any articles on the Internet about this topic except about the USA. But the one point I could make was that having a passport was exceptional, for an American.
I then launched into the topic of how I got my second passport (Ireland), figuring that if you had one passport you were an exception, then having two made you and exception to the exception. So I prepared as best I could some notes about how I got my Irish passport, what documents were needed, how I got them, how some could not be gotten due to the explosion and fire at the central records repository in Dublin during the civil war, and so forth. I did a terrible job of saying all of this in French, but they didn’t kick me out.
Some of the other presentations were much worse.
During the second week, the pace picked up. We had to do another short presentation, on an article in a journal from our country, and we had lots and lots of exercises and lots of homework. The classrooms were set up seminar style, which promoted conversation and eye contact.
I haven’t talked a lot about our non-class activities, which were extensive, because I wanted to talk about the experience of studying French in France in a true international setting. I expected a lot, and it exceeded my expectations. But I still can’t speak French worth a damn. A little better than before, though.
Once our classes were over, we had an early morning van ride to the Marseille airport. I found out that one of our group really spoke French well, when the van driver started talking about how the American forces in WWII had been all over this area. He spoke too quickly for me, but one lady in our group had a French mother, and she was all over it.
Our trip home was okay. A shorter layover in Heathrow helped, as did access to the Admiral’s Club. One smart thing we did was to hire a car service for our ride to/from DFW airport, so we didn’t have to drive while totally exhausted.