France, 17Apr2014, aka Yesterday

Bonjour mes amis!  I am now in France, visiting my friend Sarah and her boyfriend Vitalik.  Sarah and I went to high school together, then lost touch when we went to college.  She’s been living in the Northeast of France for five years now.  When I arrived from Switzerland, she picked me up from the train and gave me a walking tour of Besançon, including some beautiful churches and a Citadelle!

Cathedral in Besançon.

After touring the town and having dinner, we went back to Sarah’s house, which is in a town about an hour away.  The next day I got a walking tour of the town and a driving tour of the surrounding area, which is the most picturesque French countryside you could possibly imagine.  We passed green fields dotted with little daisies, saw cows and horses relaxing under the shade of huge, spreading trees, and a tiny church on a tiny cliff.  It was taller than it was wide.  I’ve never seen a cuter chapel!

Speaking in French is refreshing and exhausting at the same time.  It’s been two years since I used my second language, and I am rusty!  I can understand nearly everything Sarah and Vitalik say when they talk to each other, though his accent is a little difficult for me sometimes.  I have to really listen though, with all my attention.  I definitely miss a few words here and there, and I probably lose some of the nuance, but at least I can understand.  I can also respond with a little effort, so conversation is – not exactly easy, but not difficult either.  I just have to concentrate.

Keeping up the level of attention I need to comprehend what’s being said around me is tiring though.  In English I can catch the sense of an overheard conversation without any effort, but in French I only get scattered words, unless I start really listening.  Tuning in and out of a conversation is impossible.  I lose the thread entirely.  I suspect that as I get used to hearing French spoken constantly I will get better at eavesdropping, but for now I have to content myself with one conversation at a time.  I’m glad to be going through the adjustment period with friends, rather than on my own!  Sarah is completely fluent in French, and speaks with barely an accent.  Vitalik is also fluent, and has a Ukrainian accent.  He speaks less English than I speak French, so I speak French with him.  Sarah switches effortlessly between the two languages, and I am jealous every time.  

Today I visited the school she teaches at, to give the kids a little presentation about Easter in Boston.  I talked about the Easter Bunny, Easter egg hunts, and family traditions.  We also listened to “Here Comes Peter Cottontail,” and decorated paper eggs together.  They are in the equivalent of eighth grade, so the chance to do something besides work was very exciting, and they made approximately four million eggs.  Sarah and I have since drawn and laminated two large baskets to put them all in, as a surprise for tomorrow.

We also talked about the differences between French and American schooling.  The French kids have a day off on Wednesday, but to make up for it, they have class from eight to five the rest of the week.  By the end of the day their concentration is shot and they are unable to sit still, which I find unsurprising.  I noticed that they were exceptionally worried about doing everything “right,” even coloring their paper eggs.  Several kids asked whether they would be graded on the project, even though there was obviously nothing to grade.  At the same time, I don’t remember any of my middle school classes being as unruly and loud as these kids.

Their level of English is much higher than my French was at the same age, because they start younger.  They also study either Spanish or German, and have the option to do Latin as well.  One girl told me in halting, but understandable English that she has a private tutor at home, who helps her with her schoolwork.  I wonder how common that is?  

According to Sarah, the biggest problem the education system has is that it does not teach the kids to be independent.  When she gives them projects to do on their own she has to tell them exactly how to do it, because she cannot rely on their creativity.  Even the simple task of drawing, cutting out, and coloring an egg was the cue for a myriad of questions.  ”Madame, I don’t know how to draw an egg.”  ”Madame, can I draw patterns?”  ”Madame, is this too small?”  ”Madame, I don’t know what to draw.”  Once they figured out that they could do pretty much whatever they wanted, the eggs turned out fine.  There were a lot of stripes, hearts, and zigzag lines.  At least two girls referenced One Direction, and one made a Justin Bieber egg.  I guess bad teen music is universal!

I leave tomorrow, but for now I’m living in the moment.  Sarah has been feeding me the local cheeses and dishes of the region (minus the meat), and I am just about ready to move to the countryside and retire in a mountain of cheese and bread.  I had forgotten how good French cheese is.  We also got croissants and desserts from an amazing local boulangerie, which melted in my mouth and took me on a brief and addictive tour of nirvana.  The lifelong Hunt for the Perfect Eclair has started off strong, with a beautiful chocolate specimen last night.  Further updates forthcoming as I continue my quest.

My charming hosts, with our dinner of potatoes with local cheese sauce (baked with white wine, I nearly expired when I tasted it, it was that delicious), local wine, salad, and two more regional cheeses.  In a side note, someone actually said “Enchantée” to me today.  France!


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