Paris- Tout Seul!


Spring time near Parc Monceau

In the mighty pursuit of self-improvement, I’ve been taking intensive French courses for the past 4 weeks at the Alliance Française in London. They closed for a two week holiday starting 11 April, and upon learning that there would be no leçons for yours truly, I pinged a friend living there and a trip materialized.

I had lots of plans of my practicing my French, but more importantly, this trip represented four days mostly on my own. I’d do all the stuff I wanted to do for exactly as long as I wanted to do it.

Did I actually do it all? No, not even close.

Monday:

Mondays Wander (click to enlarge)

The first day, I took a 520a Eurostar, arriving Gare du Nord at 850… the things we do when the crazy early tickets are much less expensive! I met Olga at her office near the Champs Elysées to collect the keys and headed up to her digs, right near the Parc Monceau.

After settling in, I headed North and West and wandered around Montmartre with my camera, taking in the Cemetery and Sacré Coeur before heading to my planned lunch destination: Café Burq, on Rue Burq, at Darren’s suggestion. Unfortunately, the café was closed, but I managed to get my Croque Monsieur fix in around the corner at a local spot.

More evidence of Spring

I wandered back home for a bit, attempted a nap and then headed out to meet Pinar near Etienne Marcel. We had a nice walk and a drink along Rue Montorgueil and enjoyed the sunshine next to St Eustache.  I was back home by 10, awaiting the return of a late working Olga and watched Law & Order SVU en Français. I suspected I was coming down with a cold and wanted to ensure I caught up on sleep.

Even on this first day, I couldn’t help but notice how much I felt that living in London has changed me. For starters,  I kept walking on the left. I was initially a bit taken aback by the number of people who spoke to me, either asking for directions or for the sake of conversation, as I think I could easily spend a week walking around London without being spoken to by anyone. Even in shops, you are always greeted, which really is nice, even if it felt a bit alien. I think one makes a lot of observations when alone that normally go missed when in company.

Tuesday:

Musée DOrsay

Day II I set my sights on an ice cream cone and got to it via a scenic route. I left the camera home, deciding that I’d rather have my books.

Tuesdays Wander

I kicked off my walk by heading to the Musée D’Orsay, which I ended up skipping because it had a huge queue in front of it. I ended up writing off most of my museum plans for this trip, as I couldn’t justify being inside during  good weather. I can see fine art in January, after all.

After wandering by lots of galleries in St. Germain, I stopped into a café, right across from la Durée. This seemed like a good turn of events, yet the epic fail of the day continued when, as a settled my bill, a mob of 30-40 students came and completely surrounded the palace of macarons. I decided to come back later and contined my walk all around St. Germain, including to see the chuch that it is named for and walking along the namesake blvd.

My Andouillette

Heading towards the Quartier Latin, I chose a restaurant from my guidebook as my lunch destination. Christophe is a little spot on Rue Descartes, right next to L’ecole polytéchnique. The service was charming, and even my impressive French was tolerated. I ordered the special, an andouilette. The waiter asked if I knew what I was ordering and gestured to his gut, and I said yes, as I recalled reading that  Andouillette was a sausage encased in the pig’s intestine. What I didn’t realize is that it also contains a lot of pig intestine. The dish arrived, and well, I made it through about half, which was my plan given that I’m out and eating quite a bit! The flavor was extremely strong, and it is a bit hard to shake the smell, but I’m happy I tried it. While it was probably the only andouilette I’ll ever order, I’d definitely eat at Christophe again.

The prize.

Still on track for ice cream, I headed over to Île St Louis to Maison Berthillion, which was closed through 22 April. WTF? Fortunately, Île St Louis really should be called  Île Berthillion, as quite a few places sell it, even when the mothership is unavailable. I became the happy consumer of two scoops of some very tasty ice cream. I went with vanilla and praliné au citron et coriandre. The latter was possibly the best ice cream I’ve ever had.

Over the bridge I went and back home after nearly 10 miles. I was feeling really tired, which furthered my suspicions that I was developing a cold. I ignored them, and watched Wheel of Fortune on TF1. Le Roue is a bit different in France. The host has a dog with him, or at least did for the two episodes I saw. Incentivized by an opportuinty to practice speaking,I  eventually relented with a pharmacy trip.  The trip was a success, and I returned home with this head stuff and this throat stuff.  Then, I dropped into the cafe on the corner, Millesimes,  for dinner. I had an excellent tatin de tomate, and really the whole experience was lovely barring the wanker from LA who wouldn’t stop talking at his newly found Aussie companions. I don’t know if it’s that Americans speak much more loudly than the French or that my ear was quick to cling to the words of English speakers. I fear the former is true.

Wednesday:

Wednesdays Wander

Happiness is a Trip to Stohrer.

Wednesday, I woke up feeling solidly miserable, and after I failed to squeeze in a bot more sleep, I wandered out into the city, heading down Boulevard Hausmann to Le Printemps in search of some lovely La Durée macarons for my lovely host. Choosing macarons is hard work, in that one really wants two of each, as if preparing to survive a great flood. Shopped up, I continued down the Boulevard as it changed names, dropping in for a slice of quiche at Le Brébant, right near the Grandes Boulevards métro stop.

After that, sick or not, i knew i had to achieve my goal of a pastry at Pâtisserie Stohrer, Paris’ oldest patiserrie. (Stohrer was the pastry chef at Versailles before opening this shop in 1730). I opted for a pain aux raisins, which i blissfully consumed outside of Église St Eustache before a trip to Centre Pompidou.

By 4 o’clock, i was wiped out and went back to the flat to crash. I ended up staying in for the night, and sadly, I cancelled my dinner plans with Pinar. Not exciting, i know.  The highlight was watching a Lifetime movie dubbed into French, Le Pacte de Grossesse, aka: The Pregnancy Pact. I can’t help but think that Lifetime movies should stay in the States where they belong.

Thursday:

Thursdays Wander

Cathédrale Notre-Dame

Thursday, I was feeling much better, and ventured out with every intention of making the most of my last day. I started out (after a pain au chocolat, of course) by taking the Métro to Bastille for a wander around le Marais and through le Place des Vosges.

Heading south from there, I found myself at Pont Marie: a gateway to the now renamed, “Île Berthillion”. Naturally, I had to go over that bridge and have more ice cream. This time, I complemented the praliné au citron et coriandre with a bit of le pistache.

Inside the Cathedral

Next stop was Île de la Cité, where I visited le Cathédrale Notre Dame. It’s free to enter, which is nice, but it’s a bit overwhelming to take it all in amidst numerous tourists and a lot of advisory signage. It is extraordinary to see.

Suffering at Pierre Hermé

From there I headed across Pont St Michel to head back to St. Germain in search of more macarons, this time at Pierre Hermé.  I think I may have to add, “maracon picking” to my list of hobbies, as it really is fun. I very unFrenchly tried a few of the macarons in a nearby park before heading west along Rue Grenelle, past the Musée des Armées, to le Parc du Champ des Mars and of course, the Eiffel Tower.

Le Tour Eiffel

I’d never seen the Eiffel Tower up close, as every time I’ve been to Paris, it has always  been with people who have already done it. So, I walked right underneath it. I’m not sure if I would have bothered going to the top if I had sufficient time to do so. I think I like walking around too much.

So, from there, I began my journey back to my home for the week, as there was a possibility that my host would be out of work in time for an early supper. Unfortunately, such wasn’t meant to be, so I dropped in for another quick bite at Millesimes before heading to catch my Eurostar home.

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St. Genies de Comolas, France – French Immersion Course, Part II


MilleFeuille from the outside, including the wine cave.

By the start of the third day of courses, I definitely detect a bit of improvement in my skill. I wouldn’t have said as much the night before, though. I think a lot of it gelled into place while I was sleeping. As previously mentioned, I had a lot of difficulty sleeping Monday night, and while the same was true on Tuesday night, it was wasn’t as severe. I found myself trying to think of nothing, yet inevitably, I’d think of something in French and from there, see if I could express the same sentiment differently.

Sleep Fail.

Could it be that I became addicted to la grammaire Française?  In an effort to insure I actually slept through the night on Wednesday, I made my way to the village pharmacy and acquired a sleep aid.

The rest of Wednesday, aka: day three, was focused on more verb conjugations and pronouns, equipping me to speak about the past and the future a bit more effectively. Before dinner, one of the instructors gave a presentation about a Francophone organization. I took the sleep remedy, but sadly, I don’t think it helped at all. I wasn’t any more sleepy an hour after taking it than I was before.

La vie de Dawson est trés dramatique.

Day four, Thursday, was full of more grammar; verb conjugations, prepositions, and passive structures. For the second day in a row, the first period was spent presenting the prior afternoon’s writing exercise.  I spent most of the day feeling much as I had on day two… as though I hadn’t learned anything. I

NomNom or GlugGlug? Both!

think this is likely normal, as it takes more than a week to develop a command of a language; although, I’ve learned a lot.  After classes, I opted for some quiet time and a bit of what I hoped would be good comprehension practice in the form of French television. What I got were two episodes of Dawson’s Creek (Les Francaises l’appellent Dawson). I’m not sure it helped.

In the evening, we were joined by a local singer for a dinner of beef stew and cous cous, followed by cheeses (mais oui!) and a brilliant chocolate mousse, for which Marie kindly shared the recipe. Our visitor, Lulu, taught us about the barbary organ, which runs off of cartons. After dinner, I headed out to the yard with another student and practiced speaking.

At Graduation...

As this is the first time I’ve ever really not been able to express myself to anyone, it is an interesting experience. On vacation, I’m not as bothered, as I’m not getting to know the people I meet in passing. It’s such a small group, and as I like everyone here, it’s frustrating to be so short on words… especially when I’m generally a shy person who hides it by trying to make people laugh.

Some of my fellow students and I outside the chateau

The final day of study, Friday, was much the same. Presentations, Grammar work, etc. The daily evalulation discussion was a bit different, as this one was targeted more towards one’s next steps and where one needs to improve next.

We had a small graduation of sorts, and those of us leaving were given a bottle of wine in recognition of our achievement.

In the evening, we went to a local vineyard (of Alain and Nicole Prunet) for a bit of dégustation du vin, after which we all went for dinner together in Chateauneuf de Pape. During dinner, we all caved in a bit, and used our other languages… English, German, Lithuanian while still using our French, the only language we all shared. While it was cheating, I am thankful for the opportunity to better understand my fellow students. These are people whom I’ve come to get to know a bit over the course ofthe last week, as inevitably, in a language class, we use our words to express optinions and to communicate with one another. I’ve increasingly felt a bit sad that I haven’t been able to express myself to them as well as I would like, but I’ve so enjoyed the opportunity to try. I wish we could all have another week together.

At the vineyard

So, what’s the verdict?

This has been one of the best things I have ever done. I overcame my fear of grammar, I met some lovely people, and in every respect, I’m a better person for it. I realize that may sound a bit excessive, but it is easy to be  insensitive when people don’t share your language. This was a good reminder of how limiting it can be to have enough words, but not necessarily the perfect words, when you’ve become so accustomed to always having them.

I definitely want to come back for another week!

St. Genies de Comolas, France – French Immersion Course, Part I


The very first thing I decided to do with my gardening leave was to take an immersion language class.

I wisely chose a program surrounded by vineyards,

It is something I’ve always wanted to do, and as it can be called a CV builder, I’m hoping to include it into a tax write-off.

After much web research, I selected a program at Millefeuille in St Genies de Comolas. A number of things about their programs appealed to me, including the very small class size (2-4 people) and the option to live at the school, a former wine estate, rather than doing a home stay. It isn’t that I dislike the idea of a home stay, but I read a few too many discouraging stories to want to do it without a bit more planning time.

Getting to Avignon from London was pretty straight forward; Eurostar to Paris, TGV to Avignon, and then a taxi ride to the school.  Getting there was likely the easiest part.

Up until being collected by the taxi, I had been feeling pretty good about all this. I don’t  think I’ve spoken a word of French in ten years, but I managed to buy a book and a sandwich, find my train, etc.

Then I arrived at school and felt a bit daunted!

Upon arrival, I checked in, and had a bit of time before dinner at eight, when I met the other six students for the week.  We were all bit a quiet that first evening, which was a bit of a relief for me. Left to my own insecurities, this had every opportunity to be my most silent week, ever; however, for every ounce of insecurity, I’ve one of stubbornness.  I did come here to learn, after all!

After an excellent night’s sleep, the program began…

The schedule is demanding, as promised:

The view from my bedroom window.

  • Breakfast: 0830-0900 (cereal, fruit, yogurt, bread, cheese, happiness)
  • Lesson I: 0900-1030
  • Coffee/Tea: 1030-1100 (always with cookies and fruit)
  • Lesson II: 1100-1230
  • Lunch and Coffee/Tea: 1245-1400 (salad, quiche, and of course, cheese for afterwards!)
  • Lesson III: 1400-1500
  • Lesson IV: 1500-1600
  • Coffee/ Tea: 1600-1630
  • Lesson V: 1630-1730 (writing- based exercises, thus far)
  • Break: 1730-1930
  • Dinner and Post-Dinner Socializing: 1930->

The other students are of varied backgrounds, which makes for interesting dinner conversations. Among them are people who work for government ministries (Lithuania and Guinea Bissau), an Engineering PhD Candidate, a couple (he has a corporate job, she teaches piano) from Germany, and a Canadian woman who works in Afghanistan with Francophone Canadian military personnel.  The students range from beginner to advanced, and there are two others at my competency level.

My room was very comfortable, and yes, I did my homework at the desk.

The first day of study, Monday,  the first lesson period consisted of a placement exam, after which the rest of the day’s sessions focused on grammar, specifically verb tenses, one my two big weaknesses. By the end of the day, my brain felt full, as did my stomach, following several simple but excellent meals prepared by Marie, one of the two chefs. I used my breaks for homework and practice exercises, and I ended the day around ten o’clock.

The second day, Tuesday,  was a bit harder, as I had a lot of difficulty sleeping, possibly because my brain was full and I was excited. Despite my room and bed being very comfortable, I woke up many times and struggled to fall asleep; thus, i felt a bit like the living dead all day. The morning was packed with revision and practice around verb tenses and usage, reinforcing Monday’s material, and towards the end, pronoun usage (my other big weakness) was introduced. After a  lunch of tomato salad and a savory tart with tuna and my failed attempt at a nap, there were further lessons on pronouns, and a session to practice writing.

A view of the chateau from the side yard.

During the evening break, I joined two other students on a walk around the village of Saint Genies des Comolas. The village is tiny and quiet. It is, from what I can gather, home to one small market, a pharmacy, a pizzeria (closed on Friday nights, supposedly), a hair salon, and a chocolate shop. It seems like a very nice place to live, albeit very, very calm.

After the break, we enjoyed an excellent dinner of cous- cous with a beef stew of sorts containing beef vegetables, and chickpeas, cheese (of course), sorbet,  and the company of a local woman who I believe is an economics professor. I’m not completely certain because I was late to dinner due to my relying on the clock on this laptop, which is set to UK time. The school periodically has local people join the students for dinner for conversational practice and for educational presentations. I’ve been advised that there will be on one wines next week, and I am  quite disappointed that I will miss it.

Thus far, I’m very much enjoying the experience.  I think I’d like to come back for another week, later in the fall. We’ll see how I feel later in the week, after even more grammar lessons!