Studying the French Riviera… and Learning some French too

This is post #5 of an 11-part series, the ongoing saga I call The French Tales

September, 2011: I’ve got approximately nine months of Rosetta Stone under my belt, and am headed to France for my first intensive French course. “Intensive” is the key word here: the course runs eight and a half hours a day for five days a week, plus optional evening and weekend activities, and I signed up for four weeks. I’m hoping, maybe even expecting, to leave fluent at the end. Ha! Sounds so naïve in retrospect.

“Why are you trying so hard to learn French?” one of the expat wives asked me before I left, shaking her head and scrunching her nose on the word French as if she were imagining some powerfully stinky cheese. I stared at her for a second. So many reasons came to mind, where to start? I defaulted to my French-speaking husband. “But he speaks English!” she insisted, which is sort of true. So I mentioned his parents, and how I’d like to be able to have meaningful conversations with them when we visit. “Well why don’t they learn English?” was her follow-up question, as if it would be way easier for them than for me, not to mention better for the Anglo hegemony. Geez. She has since moved away, but I still think of her whenever I need a bit of extra motivation to keep going in my studies.

Besides, the school I had chosen was on the Côte d’Azur. The French Riviera. I’ll be hanging out on the Mediterranean drinking wine and eating cheese while you’re picking worms out of the cabbage in Congo, girlfriend. Which one of us is more sane, I ask you?

Sadly it’s been difficult to make a lot of progress in our own French-speaking country. We live in Petit America over there, what’s known as an “expat bubble.” I study Rosetta Stone on my own and have hired a local tutor, but otherwise our social circle is all English-speaking. With a visit to the in-laws looming at the end of the year, I’ve got to crank it up.

My four-week course started with a two-week warm-up, a couple of happy coincidences. Another expat couple had invited us to barge the Canal du Midi in southern France with them, so I scheduled my course to begin right after the barging trip ended. Then, a friend from grad school expressed interest in a European mini-vacation. Within days we had finalized plans to meet up in Paris a week before the barging trip and travel around northeast France, Belgium and Luxembourg by train. Seb was going to be in the U.S. for meetings that week, anyway, leaving me home alone in the Congo. Might as well head north a week early!

Those two weeks, especially the first because I had no Seb to fall back on, were good training for me. I got to habituate my ears to different accents, and practice certain key phrases. I was even able to get my friend and myself out of a couple pickles with French-only folks. But I also learned how quickly my language ran aground when up against a bilingual person. (Tip: People who work at tourist offices speak at least five languages. Don’t bother practicing baby French with them.)

After the whirlwind week with my friend from school, and another week on the boat with my husband and our friends, soon the time came for Seb to drop me off on the Côte d’Azur and head back to Africa. Poor guy! We said goodbye at my little apartment, a place I had rented through the language school. Not an especially nice place, but it was clean and had a little kitchenette and would be good enough for the next four weeks. It was just a block away from a hair salon, ATM and a couple of grocery stores. Across from the shops was a park, further on a boulangerie, and just a bit beyond… this:



The waterfront called out to me, as did classmates, nearly every night: “Come visit! Just one apéro!” which often turned into dinner, and then dessert. What a way to pass four weeks. If it weren’t for the bit of self-torture I had resigned myself to and paid dearly for, it would have been perfect.

Oh, yes. CLASS. The whole reason I came here.

The location: Villefranche-sur-Mer, a small port town just outside Nice, towards Monaco. The school: Institut de Français, recommended to me by another American expat wife. (They’re not all so ethnocentric.) I had been looking at a cheaper option in Antibes, and worried about many reviews that were less than glowing. One glance at this school and I didn’t need to look any further. Apparently it’s pretty renowned: Kathy Bates, Kate Capshaw, Vidal Sassoon, James Clavell, Princess Charlene of Monaco, and Queen Sonja of Norway are all former students. This gave me pause while packing the usual t-shirts and jeans in my luggage.

I was beyond nervous on my first day. I knew there was going to be a test, both written and oral, to figure out my placement. But beyond that, I had no idea what to expect.

Before Seb left me the day before, we had located the school together. Just up the hill from my apartment, easy. An arduous climb, though, which would do wonders for my legs after conquering it twice a day every day over the next four weeks. But on day one, I arrived and discovered the gate closed. Pushing the button got no response. The grounds were huge, and I didn’t know which way to go in search of another gate – right or left? I headed left and found a turnoff, which turned out to be someone’s private driveway, but could have been associated with the school for all I knew. There was a family in the driveway and the father told me in very long, detailed and rapid paragraphs how to find the school. (Did he not understand I was a student??) I got very little out of his speech but just headed off in the direction he gestured. Eventually I found a stairway going straight up the hill that never ended. At the top of the stairs, with burning thighs and throat I turned right, and jogged towards the school just in time for the morning bell. They had warned us tardiness wouldn’t be tolerated, which didn’t help my nerves any.

First things first, breakfast and registration. It appeared there were about 60 of us starting class that day. Some would stay for two weeks, most of us for four, and a handful for longer. I learned much later that the record was held by a Japanese fellow whose company sent him for six months in an attempt to become truly fluent. Six months! I hope he made it.

The director of the school, a convivial, energetic man, addressed us in English. “Today is the one and only day you won’t be expected to speak French. By this time tomorrow morning, you will use your French, ONLY. So it ought to be pretty quiet.” Cue laughter. “Today it’s important that everyone understand the rules and how things work here. We must use the most common language at our disposal, which is, unfortunately, English. But we’re doing our best to change that.” Another big laugh. Then he greeted all the repeat students, including one cute couple in their 80s who come from Louisiana every year. My neighbor and I, both of us new and nervous, raised our eyebrows at each other. “Does that mean the program doesn’t work?” we half-joked.

After breakfast we all took an audio-visual and written exam, your basic quiz on usage and vocabulary. Not terribly hard, but easy to see the line where my studies had stopped and nothing was recognizable anymore. After that we retired to various parlors where we were forced to chit-chat while waiting for our names to be called for the individual oral exam. I couldn’t wait to be out of there. I did my best to mingle, but soon found myself steering clear of the more advanced students, the ones who tried to stay in French the whole time. One gal told me she was from a place called Vahn-coo-vehr. I looked at her blankly until she said it in English: Vancouver. Oh, so we’re supposed to put a French accent on our English place names now? I was dead set against this idea and considered her pretentious. Weeks later, however, I would be explaining that I was born in a place called “Kahn-zahss.”

Finally my name was called. The professor rattled off instructions for the exam in rapid French, not even making eye contact with me. I had no idea what he said, but knew what to do thanks to someone who had given me a heads-up. Basically you just look at little cartoon photos and try to describe what’s going on. Bonus points if you don’t simply say “in this photo there is a person, and a chair” but actually use your verbs and try to imagine what just happened or is about to happen. It was nerve-wracking but I tried to make light of it and get through it without throwing up. If I paused too long the professor would study my face while I stared at the photo, searching for words. Once I think I saw him crack a sympathetic smile.

At least it was over quickly. Back to the parlor until everyone was done, which was none too soon for my tastes. We were starting to sound a group of pigs, saying “oui” to each other all the time, the only word everyone knew for sure. There may not be many more annoying sounds in the world than a bunch of English speakers gathered together saying ‘Oh, wee wee wee!’

We didn’t find out the results of our exams until the next morning, after a fairly quiet breakfast as forewarned. I think most of us were more nervous about the results than the test itself. We all wanted to know how we stacked up, and couldn’t help analyzing the level of each person we met. At my breakfast table, randomly put together, were several students much more advanced than me; I couldn’t carry on much conversation with them. There were also several who made it clear they didn’t speak any French yet, besides bonjour and oui, of course. Next to me sat a young man who seemed to be at my level. We could exchange pleasantries, describe where we lived and what we did for a living (easy for me: rien), and we both tended to get stuck at the same places, asking how to conjugate this or that particular verb. In the present or simple past tense, mind you. Nothing too complex.

Finally, the director gets up and clears his throat. He explains we will be divided into beginners, intermediates, and advanced, with multiple levels within each section, and that it’s difficult to get everyone assigned to exactly the right class; but not to worry, adjustments will be made as the days progress. Professors will be watching and discussing who should be moved at staff meetings every day. Allrighty, please stand as you hear your name. In the débutante class we have…. drumroll please…

My confidence was low; I just knew he was going to say my name. My neighbor and I glanced at each other for moral support. No!! I was screaming inside my head. Please don’t tell me I belong with the ones who can barely state their name, I beg you!

He didn’t call my name, nor my neighbor’s. We both breathed an audible sigh of relief and smiled at each other.

Then he announced that usually they have two levels of beginners, but this time there’s quite a gap, so they’re going straight to intermediate. Intermediates already have a handle on basic conversation, but are just getting started with grammar. They may understand the different conjugations in a couple of different tenses but don’t always use them correctly. At this point my neighbor and I look at each other and whisper simultaneously, “C’est moi!”

Sure enough, he calls eight names. Among them are ours. Intermediate I it is! Not too shabby. In fact I’m rather pleased that two and a half levels of Rosetta Stone got me this far; I was starting to think it was beginner #2 territory for me.

My classmates are from Australia, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, and Ireland. No celebrities or royalty among us, we’re all pretty regular folk. I found it funny how French equalized all of our accents. I would not have been able to tell where each person was from while we were in class together.

The school is fabulously put together; they do an excellent job keeping things moving so we don’t get bored or burned out. There’s a listening lab (affectionately dubbed “la chambre de torture”), activities, little demonstrations, and lots of coffee breaks. The time when the eight of us are alone in the room with our instructor is the most intense. She briefly introduces vocabulary and grammar, and then spits out questions, lightening fast, and doesn’t wait for volunteers. We have to stay on our toes. The next question may be to repeat what the previous person said, which forces us to change the pronouns and the conjugation. Clever! Something I started doing in my English classes after that.

After the morning session and a coffee break, we would join the Intermediate II class for a “séance pratique.” I usually really looked forward to these. The instructor was fun and made us laugh, something we really needed by that time of day. We learned that phones don’t ring, they “dring,” ducks don’t quack, they “coin,” and that French people really do say “voilà” and “ooh là là.” Each day’s activity was different – often there were role-plays, like pretending to be shopping or in a restaurant or taking a phone call. There were games, contests, once a crêpe-making class, another time a lesson in French cheeses followed by a tasting. There’s no time to take any notes; something they encourage you not to do anyway. The emphasis is on speaking and listening, not writing. They believe taking notes is a crutch and does nothing to help you comprehend.

Breakfasts and lunches were at the school, and they were delicious. But still part of our studies; we had assigned seating and a professor with us at all times who insisted on asking us questions while we were shoving baguettes into our mouths. If we were caught speaking anything other than French during school hours, we had to pay 1 Euro per occurrence (which went into a champagne fund for graduation day, so that was fine by me).

The school even offered optional activities during evenings and weekends. Tuesday night films, morning news discussion groups before breakfast, a weekend boat trip to Monaco, a guided visit to the Matisse chapel in St-Paul-de-Vence, a wine tasting in Nice.

And so the days passed comme ça. Pleasant, but intense. Lots of laughter, and maybe a few tears from time to time. At least most of our evenings were free to roam the cobblestone streets in search of a new place for dinner or an apéro (my favorite: kir royale, champagne with blackcurrant liqueur). On the waterfront, or in a scenic candlelit alley? was the only decision to be made. Instead of studying, or reviewing my notes, or heck, even doing my homework, I tended to go out. Occasionally I cooked my own dinner in my small apartment, but most evenings I went out with various friends from class (a few are still in touch today!), with whom I was oh so happy to take a break and speak English.

Quel horreur! Yes, we spoke English, and I’ll tell you why. It was slow and arduous in class to get out the proper words in the proper order to say something as simple as, “Last night I went out to dinner, then went home where I didn’t do my homework, and then went to bed early.” Today I can say this easily, but back then… no. The past tense was still pretty new. Everything was getting mixed up, other people’s mistakes would influence us and confuse us more… our brains hurt after nearly nine hours of this kind of struggle. Even the school director told us on day one that we could expect this. He advised the mid-intermediates to advanced students to continue in French during the evenings, to make their immersion complete — a point I would be ready to attempt in about a year’s time. For the rest of us, he advised that we take a break from French each evening; don’t try too hard. It would do us some good.

Also, as beginners we make a lot of mistakes, and it can be counterproductive to “practice” with another beginner. There were two guys in our class who made a valiant effort. They went out for dinner most evenings together and continued in French. It was their rule. One of them really progressed throughout the weeks, but the other regressed. Seriously, his French just got worse and worse over time, frustrating and surprising our professor. I met up with them one evening and we had a lot of fun — taking a bus ride around town after shopping, having an apéro on the beach followed by a fantastic late dinner with live music — it was great. However, as far as understanding each other, talk about pathetic. Half the time I just pretended to know what they were saying. The next day in class I was ruined, both from a mild hangover and also from deflated confidence. I liked these guys a lot but am sad to say I made a point to not go out with them again, at least not without backup.

So I took a break from French almost every evening, which recharged my batteries. I continued in class without too many problems, even enjoying it most of the time. I really enjoyed my weekends, too: hiking in Eze or Cap Ferrat, shopping in Nice, blowing the budget at dinner in Monte Carlo… once I couldn’t sleep so I jumped on a 5am train and went all the way to St-Tropez. Why not?

With shopkeepers or strangers, I really enjoyed practicing my French. It was obvious I was a beginner so they were very patient with me, and I have no memories of anyone getting frustrated and switching to English with me because it was more efficient. Either the people down Nice way were extraordinarily patient, or they didn’t speak English, I’m not sure which. My trip ended with a couple days in Paris and I had good luck there, too. The secret may have been my low expectations and humble attitude. Three years later with better French, I would have less luck. Strange. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

Four weeks passed quickly, and along came the nerve-wracking final exam. Same process as day one but even more stressful. People who normally didn’t smoke were bumming cigarettes from those that did. When it was over and we were enjoying our penalty-funded champagne, the director passed out our certificates. First, all the beginners, followed by all the Intermediate I’s, then the Intermediate II’s. Wait, where was mine? I figured they just made a little error. Or maybe I had a library fine to pay? I didn’t know. Once they were finished with the advanced students, the director announced they had purposely held back a few. The remaining certificates were “special.” Ironically I didn’t understand him perfectly but heard something about doing well on the final exam. Another gal from my class was in this group with me, sadly the two guys who worked so hard to stay in French each evening were not, and the rest were people far ahead of us we didn’t even know, except for one guy who was invited to “graduate” from our class to the next class a couple of weeks ago.

My reaction was strange: “Je peux dire à mon mari que je ne suis pas stupide!” I tearfully told a stranger who came over to congratulate me. (I can tell my husband that I’m not stupid!) Seb and I both had sort of unrealistic expectations about coming home “fluent” after this first course. He was probably just teasing me, but I was really hoping it would be that easy. But early on, when I saw how much effort it took to be able to say “I went to St-Tropez last weekend” properly, my hopes of reaching fluency in four weeks were dashed. I began fretting that I’m just not cut out for this language learning stuff. I’m too old, too set in my ways. The expat wife who thought I was silly to do this was right, what was I thinking??

The “special” certificate is not an indication of fluency; far from it. Our class just spent the past four weeks “perfecting” (and that’s a stretch) the present, simple past, and simple future tenses… we didn’t touch the imparfait, nor the real future, nor the subjunctive tenses. There’s a lot more to go. I suspect the certificate just means that I tested well, perhaps Rosetta Stone’s written quizzes gave me an edge. I’ve always had good luck with tests but a terrible time recalling the important stuff once the test is over. But I hope this one is different.

At the very least, it signifies that I’m on the right track. My clarinet is making more than just terrible squeaks now; it’s actually starting to hit some notes. The trick now is to keep it going.

The view from our classroom vied for our attention

The view from our classroom: tough competition for our attention

The view from my friend Yvette's apartment. I was closer to the school, but she was closer to the action!

The view from my friend Yvette’s apartment. I was closer to the school, but she was closer to the action!

Swimming hole in Villefranche... a bit too cold for me in mid October

Swimming hole in Villefranche… a bit too cold for me in mid October

Colorful buildings, flowers...

Colorful residential back streets

Sunset while walking from Villefranche to Nice one evening

Sunset while walking from Villefranche to Nice one evening

A quiet cobblestone alleyway in Villefranche-sur-Mer

A quiet cobblestone alleyway

The waterfront was lovely, but in the end it was the back streets that stole my heart...

The waterfront was lovely, but in the end it was the back streets that stole my heart…


    1. Hey Laura, do you recognize the photo at the very top? Those four weeks were awesome, but I was jealous of you staying for eight!


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