American Girl in Paris
Francais or Espagnol?
I chose to take French for my elective language in high school. Honestly, my decision was made based on the fact that I thought it sounded cooler than Spanish. Little did I know...my decision would have a tremendous impact on my life.
French came very easy for me - it was a breeze. I didn't really have to study as it came so naturally. I had a psychic guy tell me years later that I had lived in 17th century France in a past life and that's why it was so easy (that's another story entirely). I enjoyed the class tremendously.
My French teacher approached me during my second year and asked if I would be interested in participating in a foreign exchange program. I enthusiastically dove in and, with my parents' cooperation, signed up. We had a young girl named Florence Chabert come visit us that summer. She stayed with my family and we had a wonderful time showing her the ways of the U.S.
The following summer, I went to France and stayed with her family. They live in Moutiers - a small town nestled in the heart of the French Alps. It is not far from Albertville, where the winter Olympics took place not too long ago. I cannot begin to describe the beauty of this place. We skied, we hiked, we went on vacation to the French Riviera...it was an absolutely fabulous experience.
Thus, my love of France and the French people was born. I found the French to be warm and welcoming, fun-loving people. They are nothing like the snobs you hear about from non-French speaking Americans who visit Paris.
I decided, after returning to the states, that I wanted to major in French so that I could teach. I attended college at Central College in Pella, Iowa, where they had an excellent, nationally known language program and foreign study program.
Université de Paris, Sorbonne
My Junior year of college was spent studying in Paris. I attended the Université de Paris, Sorbonne and took a wide variety of subjects including economics, geography, arts, writing, and lots of literature (sorted by century). The classes ranged from sizes comparable to what you would find here in the states, to absolutely huge. Some of my classes were so large that they were held in a giant amphitheater - 300 to 500 students in one class with the professor on stage with a microphone. Of course, all of the courses were taught in French, and there was very little tolerance for asking questions - none whatsoever in the larger classes. Miraculously, I passed both semesters. This is no small feat since an average of only 20% of the participants in the program pass.
17th Century Lit.
I'll never forget my 17th Century Literature professor. He was ancient - I would guess him to be in his late 70s going on 100. At the beginning of class, he would hobble onto the stage, sit down at the desk and proceed to yank at the microphone to adjust it to the proper position, wringing it's metallic neck causing horrendous screeching noises and feedback. When the microphone was in position, he would let out a long, heavy sigh. He would the proceed to ramble on about various writers and their works for the next 3 hours. It was mind-numbing, at best. No wonder I ended up failing that course. You'll understand more about that in a bit.
Anyone who has ever seriously studied a language knows that the best way to master it is to live it. Live it, I did. Some of the other Americans that were there through Central chose to spend their time with other Americans, speaking English and seeking out the McDonalds and Chicago pizza joints. I, on the other hand, dove head first into the culture. I did everything I could to just melt right into Paris, and it consumed me with voracious passion. By the end of the year, I could convince a native that I was French with surprising ease (any hint of an American accent I had could be masked by adopting the accent of my French family in Savoie).
L'Ile St. Louis
While in Paris, I lived on the Ile St. Louis in the 4th arrondissement. L'Ile St. Louis is 4 blocks long and 2 blocks wide. I lived in a housing complex there that was run by nuns (not as bad as it sounds) on Rue Poulettier (chicken farmer street). The complex was comprised of three buildings that were built before the USA was a country. The Seine, which runs through the middle of Paris, has two islands - the other being the Ile de la Cité which is the home of the famous Notre Dame cathedral. I would walk through the back gardens of Notre Dame every day on my way to and from school.
I used to sit on the walkway you see in this picture to read and watch the boats go by. It was a wonderful place to live.
Maison de L'Enfer
Each semester at the Sorbonne, Final exams had to be taken. Unlike our grading structure here in the states, your grade is based on your final. That is it. No tests, assignments, papers - nothing else is taken into consideration. They didn't even take attendance. The final exams are held at a place called the "Maison des Examens" (House of Tests). My room mate swore she hadn't seen my face for 3 weeks (only the back of my head buried in a book) when I departed for this hell-hole in the suburbs to take my tests. There are two days of testing...all of your exams are on those two days, so you have to study for all of them at once - talk about brain overload. I arrive on the metro (subway) at the appropriate stop, and ascend the stairs. As I come out of the stairway, I look up to see this huge, ominous building - the Maison des Examens. I swear, there was a huge dark cloud hanging over the building.
Some of the tests were four questions. They were essay questions and we were expected to write a lengthy answer to each one (using proper grammar and spelling, no less!). For one of the tests (fortunately, you get to choose which one) you write a baccalauréat - that's one question. Only one question out of an entire semester's worth of materials! Yipes!
I chose to take my baccalauréat on 17th Century Literature. I felt that I had a good understanding of the writers involved. I expected the one question to be about some of the romantic writers of the period - Corneille, Moliere, Malherbe; but NO! The question was about some bloke that wrote funeral marches for the king. I failed miserably. Fortunately, my grades in my other subjects were good enough to offset the damage and I still passed.
Next Installment: Fun in the Metro