At the library the other day, I spotted a book about Paris I hadn’t seen before. It was by a young American woman who had spent a year in the city, learning Life Lessons and fashion tips (not necessarily in that order) and who earnestly wanted to share the wisdom she had gained. I don’t think she missed a single cliché about the lives of Frenchwomen. It made me smile.
It also made me realize that in six years of blogging, I have never described my own experiences as a student in France. It might be time to do so. They are not the kind that would be published in a book with a beret-wearing, poodle-toting, Sabrina lookalike on the cover, but it is, in fact, possible to experience France without those things.
Mine was not a Junior Year Abroad. I had finished one degree before I went, in history and biology at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia. And I did not spend the whole time in Paris: I lived for the first half of the year in Angers, in the Loire Valley.
The idea to go to France came from my father, who thought all Canadians should speak both official languages proficiently. At Christmastime in my last year of university, when I was home in Toronto for a couple of weeks, he suggested I spend the following year in France. Since I had no better ideas about what I should do after graduation, I agreed.
In the New Year, I located the French department at Dalhousie and knocked on the first door I came to. The professor in that office told me that just about every university in France offered courses for foreigners who wanted to learn French and that I should send inquiries to universities in cities or towns that I thought might be interesting places to live. It was good advice.
Paris never occurred to me. I wrote to Angers, Montpellier, and Toulouse. The first and warmest response came from Angers, so Angers it was, at the Université Catholique de l’Ouest (and no, I’m not Catholic).
In the fall, my parents combined a holiday in England and France with dropping me off in Angers. This is a photo my father took of me on the ferry between Dover and Calais.
In Angers, I had been assigned a “place with a family” by the university housing office. My parents took me to the designated address in their rented car. We pulled up in front of an attractive house near the university. I thought I had landed on my feet. The woman who opened the door greeted us politely but distantly, and walked us through the house, out the back door, across the garden, and into another house. That was where the students stayed. I was given a room on the top floor. The bathroom facilities were down three flights of stairs and across the garden. Not quite what I’d been led to expect.
I wondered aloud what it would be like in winter. My mother was horrified.
Back to the housing office. The woman there offered some other addresses. One, she told us, was usually given to French students, because it was a long way from the university. That’s the one we picked, after looking at some rather dodgy arrangements elsewhere.
I ended up in the attic of a small house on the edge of town. Here is an image of the place from Google Street View. It appears closed up (Google must have passed by in August), but otherwise, it is as I remember it. One in a sea of similar-looking houses.
There were skylights at the back, so I did have natural light in my room, but my only view was upwards. The attic was sparsely furnished but spacious. On two sides of the room, the ceiling came down close to the floor. I learned to avoid sitting up suddenly in bed.
I saw little of the family downstairs, who were pleasant enough, but busy with their own lives. After all, they had not signed on as hosts for a foreign student; they normally offered lodgings to French students. The entrance to the attic was through the garage door and up a flight of stairs, so I could come and go independently. That was fine with me.
But the best part was that I had a French roommate. Anne-Marie spoke no English. My friendship with her made all the difference to my experiences of France. She laughed merrily at my mistakes (come to think of it, she still does), and we ate often dinner together, always with a French-English dictionary on the table to help keep the conversation going. If I had stayed in the place I’d been assigned originally, I probably would have spoken English to the other foreign students and learned much less.
We shared two rooms, a toilet and sink (I was allowed a bath downstairs twice a week), a tiny fridge, and a camping stove (which once caught fire while we were cooking). We made our own evening meals. Once or twice, the family invited me for Sunday lunch.
Most weekdays, I got a midday meal at the restaurant universitaire. There were several in town, for students from my university and those from the Université d’Angers. We queued up in what had once been an orchard; there was a plaque on the stone wall about a man who had bred a special type of pear there. I found a photo of the plaque on Wikipedia, although it is now attached to a different wall from the one I remember.
I say “queued,” but actually, French students don’t line up tidily when waiting for a meal. They crowded around the door and when it opened, they surged forward en masse. On occasion I had to step back hard on someone’s foot to gain a bit of breathing room.
On the days the restaurant universitaire served boiled tripe, I filled up on bread, cheese, and vegetables. Otherwise I ate everything in front of me. Everybody complained about the food and everybody ate as much as they could. It was plain fare – none of those famous French sauces. Lots of lentils, I recall.
I bought a moped. Many of the students did (Anne-Marie had one, and so did several of my classmates). Angers was a quiet place and buses to my suburban lodgings did not run after about 7 o’clock in the evening. With a moped, I could get to class and back quickly, and get around in the evenings, too.
Here is the main university building, the one shown on the brochure; our classes were in an undistinguished modern building behind it.
The classroom building was cold in winter (some of the windows didn’t close properly) and we kept our coats on in class. Most of the other students were British, but there were also students from Scandinavia, Iceland, the Netherlands, Japan, and the United States. There were plenty of parties and get-togethers, and I made friends with a couple of the British students, but most of the Brits went home after a couple of months (this was all the time allotted in their university programs).
It was like going back to high school. We had a home room with a teacher who focused on the basics, and then we could choose from an array of optional classes.
I particularly enjoyed Synthèse in which we learned how to summarize articles and write a précis (an invaluable skill that has served me well ever since). A class in translation from English to French (mostly using newspaper articles) was taught by a lively young man with blond curly hair who couldn’t manage the name “Philippa” and so called me “Fifi.” A lugubrious prof who taught us composition carried on a personal crusade against wasted words and insisted on concise, efficient writing (another valuable skill, in any language). An older gent in a blue smock, who had written a short dictionary of slang, taught us random bits of French culture.
Here are some of the students from our class. I don’t remember who took the photograph. And I don’t know why there are no male students visible; I did have male classmates. I am at the far left, and our homeroom teacher, Madame Pajotin, is fifth from the left.
There was also a language lab for working on pronunciation. On the way to and from class, I would wrap a scarf around the bottom half of my face and practise rolling my Rs with the noise of the moped engine to cover my efforts. I am proud of mastering French Rs this way.
I joined the university choir. Thank goodness for the moped, since we had evening rehearsals. Fortunately, I could read music, so even though my French was still a work in progress, I was asked to lead some section rehearsals (where the choir splits up into parts to learn a new piece).
I have very few photographs of my time in Angers, but I do have a photo of the choir. I am at the very far left. At the centre is our wonderful director, Mireille. The choir was a lifeline: I was one among equals there and I no longer felt like a foreigner.
At one point, the choir was invited to join the chorus at the Grand Théâtre (shown below) for several performances of Tosca. The only parts of that opera house I ever saw were the backstage area and the stage itself, since I never attended a performance there as a member of the audience.
During my time in Angers, I had a couple of accidents on the moped, and in both cases, strangers rushed to help me. When a tire blew out on a busy (but slow-moving) road, the couple in the car behind me picked me up, took the moped to a nearby gas station, drove me to class, then promised to go back and got my moped and take it to the dealer for repairs. As I gasped out my thanks at their generosity with their time, they kept saying, “C’est normal.” And people wonder why I love the French.
My language skills improved, partly because of Anne-Marie’s coaching and partly because she went home to Caen on Fridays. I spent many hours on the weekends reading aloud to practise my French pronunciation, memorizing vocabulary and conjugations, and completing assignments for class. This was the reason for my eventual move to Paris: I was already in the most senior class and I needed a bigger challenge.
But before I left, I spent Christmas in Caen with Anne-Marie’s family. I became very fond of her parents and her sister Françoise (she also had two married brothers who lived elsewhere, but I didn’t get to know them well). Her mother was a wonderful cook, who added Calvados (apple brandy) to many dishes. She wasn’t the clichéd elegant Frenchwoman: she paid little attention to her appearance, but she was kind and reassuring, and I learned more from her than I can ever acknowledge.
Her husband was equally welcoming, and very proud of his corner of France. He simply could not imagine the point of travelling abroad when everything one could ever want could be found in Normandy. It was hard to argue the point.
Like the family in Angers, Anne-Marie’s parents and sister hadn’t signed on to host a foreign student, but perhaps because of that, I was treated more like a relation than a foreigner. My experience of France was very much shaped by those few weeks in Caen.
On Christmas Day, dinner started at 1 p.m. and continued until late into the evening, with a brisk walk in late afternoon for fresh air. The “trou Normand” was a feature of the meal – a shot glass of Calvados knocked back quickly to aid digestion of the mountains of food. Everyone watched me to see how I would react and I did not disappoint: I choked and coughed and my eyes watered, but I got it down.
New Year’s Eve was a party with family and friends at a half-finished house that Anne-Marie’s parents were fixing up in a tiny hamlet about forty minutes’ drive from Caen. I do have a photo that I took of Anne-Marie there.
Her parents had bought the property when the municipality of Caen closed the allotment gardens where they had previously grown their vegetables. They found a bit of land in the countryside with a tumbledown farm building attached. First they established a garden to grow fruits and vegetables, with hutches for raising rabbits on garden scraps. Then they started to fix up the house.
On New Year’s Eve, we ate and drank and played silly games all evening and then went for a walk under the stars at midnight. At about three in the morning we collapsed into sleeping bags on a concrete floor in the half-finished house.
A few years ago, Norman and I revisited the house. When Anne-Marie’s father showed us around, I was delighted to see that almost nothing had changed in the hamlet.
There were exams in January and a break in February, at which point I moved to Paris. But that is another story for another blog.
A happy Canadian Thanksgiving to all our readers, Canadian or not.
Text by Philippa Campsie, photographs from various sources.