And The Prom Queen Is…

I’ve been 23 for three whole weeks and have yet to talk about what a great birthday it was!

My first birthday present was an official contract for my summer job as an assistante d’education at the same high school where I’ve been working all year. Basically it’s a glorified resident advisor/gopher/receptionist job for the school during the end-of-the-year rush and the summer planning for the following year. Not too exciting, but I get to work with a great team and stay in France for the summer, and that’s what counts for me.

Back to the birthday.

Kids came in to sing poorly-rehearsed, adorable versions of Happy Birthday in English all day, and some of my favorite students presented me with TAGADA fraises (my favorite French candy), a stuffed frog (significant because of my well-known inability to pronounce the word “frog” in French: grenouille), and, most touching of all, a birthday card signed by the whole senior class. I had to suck in a few deep breaths when I first saw all the signatures. I was just totally blown away to see the clear visual representation of all the people who took a moment out of their day to write me a kind word. I love those students.

That evening, the entire school threw a huge dance party for me! Actually, it just happened to be Prom Night. I fell right back to my Student Government roots of blowing up balloons and taking tickets, and I was tickled to see all the seniors in their fancy outfits. The students strutted into the gym, mostly in groups of three or four rather than couples. They took unsmiling (too cool for school) photos with each other, head bobbed to the DJ, and sauntered around outside smoking. I’m sure they all had a fabulous time.

Our super romantic prom photo

Our super romantic prom photo

As the kids loitered the night away, the rest of the assistants presented me with my own bouquet of beautiful flowers and a packet of delicious black tea big enough for me to possibly never finish. We even popped a bottle of champagne to celebrate.  If there’s one thing that I love the most about working here, it’s that my colleagues never let a possible holiday, birthday, or anniversary go by without toasting it.

Gotta love bright flowers

Gotta love bright flowers

After I announced the prom king and queen (whoever decided it was a good idea to give me a microphone and a captive audience of high schoolers clearly doesn’t know me very well) I decided it was time to take my leave. Claiming “Birthday Girl” status, I left the after-prom cleanup to the others and drifted across campus to my apartment. Snuggly in bed with my new stuffed grenouille, I decided that my 23rd was one of the best birthdays yet.

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The Best (and Worst!) Days of Foreign Language Learning

Every study abroader and expat knows the struggle: You work for years in school studying the language. You get to your “host” country and no one understands a word you’re saying. You study harder. You watch films and practice your new gestures in front of the mirror. You fail at a lot of conversations. You occasionally resort to miming. If you live in a larger city, people try to speak English to help you out. (pro tip: just keep responding in your language of choice until they get the hint.)

Then, the big day comes.

The day when you step on the bus, walk up to that shop counter, or encounter someone on the street, and they understand you. They’ll start out by asking where you’re from, or commenting on your “cute” accent, but then, one day, they’ll stop that, too. You can finally have a conversation with a stranger without mentioning your visa status.

Sweet, sweet victory.

For me, that day was when I asked for my usual Wednesday afternoon crêpe from the Touraine street vendor back in March of 2012, and he didn’t have to ask me to repeat my order. I still remember so many little moments in Tours like that one; fantastic encounters that lifted my spirits and made all of the exhausting work while studying abroad worth it.

That’s why we-the study abroad kids and the expats and the rest of this crazy group of world citizens-do it. We work and study and translate for hours on end and spend months not understanding the dinner table conversation for that one day when we can finally have a basic conversation with a stranger in a foreign language.

 

 

And then there’s that day when the jerk at the post office tells you your French sucks.

 

You Can’t Win ‘Em All

I missed my train.

I fell off my bike.

Twice.

In front of my students.

 

Nothing that couldn’t be cured with homemade cookies and a French movie musical marathon with friends, but still, not the best of mornings. Sometimes I have to remind myself (and my family and friends back home) that this is real life and it’s possible to have bad days even while “living the dream” in France. This isn’t a vacation, this is my real world, and even though most days are beautiful and I’m still enamored with the Normande way of life, it’s not always quite so Disney as it seems. There are days when I don’t feel like getting out from my cozy bed, days when there’s no food in the fridge, and days when I miss my train and fall off my bike. Twice.

Essentially, living here is just like living in the States. Except it’s France.

Wow, Kaycee, you’re such a good writer. You should do a blog or something.

In the meantime, I can now highly recommend that you make your own potato-chip cookies by adding classic Ruffles to your favorite sugar cookie recipe, crack open a bottle of wine, and watch The Umbrellas of Cherbourg the next time you feel down. I’m no doctor, but I’m pretty sure it’s a scientifically viable cure for a rough day.

Here’s hoping yours goes better than mine.

Hump Day Is My Favorite Day

Wednesdays are quickly becoming one of my favorite days here in France. Traditionally, high schoolers have class during the morning hours, and school closes for the afternoon (elementary schools are closed all day on Wednesdays). After a short workday, I’m usually able to leisurely eat my lunch in the half-empty cafeteria and spend the afternoon doing what I like until choir practice.

I had the luck of stumbling upon a choir several weeks ago, and I’ve been attending rehearsals ever since. It’s an independent community group, not associated with a school or church, composed mostly of adorable retirees who can’t help but make me feel at home. Every Wednesday night at eight o’clock, I am greeted by the powdery cheeks of each and every member just begging to be kissed, which takes at least fifteen minutes. The grannies warm up by marching in place and smiling at each other, then usually move on to some very silly sounding vocalizations, even for this veteran chorister. Next comes three hours (yep, you read that right) of practice. These retirees sure know how to party! I’m generally yawning through the last hour of rehearsal, but the rest of the group seems to have no problem singing until eleven at night. It’s not the most difficult of repertoire, but the group could hold its own in a Solfege competition and performs a nice mix of classical and traditional works. Mostly, I’m happy to have found an ensemble at all in this small town!

Lately, a whole contingent of assistants has joined in on the party, so the mamies and pépés have four of us young’uns to coddle and stuff with homemade cookies. They’re all so kind to us; it’s nice to have a little bit of the comforts of family here. I’m used to speaking with teenagers and middle-aged colleagues at work; being in the choir allows me to learn a whole new vocabulary and se profiter bien from the universal wisdom of the greatest generation.

And hey, the homemade desserts aren’t so bad, either.

 

 

At The End Of The Day

Didn’t you hate it back in high school when you started to become friends with someone right before summer break? That’s study abroad in a nutshell. The moment that you feel you’ve really become close to people, you have to leave.

I had a wonderful lunch with my Frenchie friend Mathilde at one of the coolest restaurants in town today, and I was painfully aware that it would possibly be our last meeting before my return to the States. As I ate my beyond-delicious galette, I kept wishing we could have become friends earlier. We’ve gotten really good at speaking half French/half English for hours on end without getting confused! I hate that I’ll be leaving just as I’m beginning to really connect with her and other Frenchies my age.

The same bittersweet thinking filled my evening as I played cards with Simon. That silly little boy has managed to beat me every darn time at cards; mainly because they’re all French games and he informs me of the rules as we go along…I think he’s changed more than a few to suit his own hand. But it’s still so much fun to play with him and watch him try to cheat. Later, the whole family went to Simon’s West Side Story performance, and I spent the whole time trying to stop laughing as Mathieu and Martine made fun of every poor little kid on that stage. You know you’re considered part of a family when they feel comfortable mocking ten-year-olds around you.

To be with my friends and family here brings so much joy, but I’m suddenly very aware that my days are numbered. I know this won’t be the last time I ever see them, but it’s still so disappointing to feel like I’ll be stopping this learning experience just as I was starting to really “get it”.

If I could do this whole thing all over again, I’d make only one change. I’d choose the year-long program.

Kids with Guns

I love this family.

Today, the five of us drove to chez Nathalie (Laurent’s older sister) for a big family meal.

When I say big, I mean big. Let’s start counting.
My host family is a party of five: Martine, Laurent, Mathieu, Simon, et moi.
I’ve already met Nathalie, her husband Phillippe, and their son Maxime several times, but Nathalie’s adult son Julian came to visit, as well.
Laurent’s younger sister Muriel came with her son Thomas and daughter, who I’m pretty sure is also called Muriel.
Finally, we had a few family friends (whose names I never caught) come over with their son Gregoire.

That makes a total of fourteen Frenchies yelling at each other from across the room as I tried to make sense of the four or five conversations happening all at once for the entire meal. Luckily, I survived the afternoon and managed to respond coherently to most of the questions directed my way. For me, that’s enough to consider it a success. Conversation is so difficult when there’s a ton of background noise; it makes it nearly impossible to concentrate on what you need to say when your brain is trying to translate the discussion going on behind you.
We had a typical French lunch, starting at noon with drinks and little munchies and having our final cup of espresso around 4:30. We played a few rounds of Taboo en français, which was incredibly difficult but also great for learning some new vocab, and then ended the day with an outing to play Zee Layzair Gahms, which, in case you’re not fluent in English spoken with a French accent, means Laser Games.

Do you remember Laser Tag? There used to be tons of places with batting cages, put-put, and laser tag rooms where kids always had their birthdays. The basic principle is thus: everyone sports a vest with various infrared sensors and a laser gun that you use to “shoot” people on the opposite team. The fun comes from running around the dark maze and tagging people from strategic hiding spots.
It turns out that laser tag is way more fun as an adult than as a kid. When I was little, I spent most of my time at laser tag parties hyperventilating in a corner, trying to avoid any and all possibility of being hit or lost in the dark. Today, I had a blast. It might just have been because Mat, Julian, and I were a total dreamteam against the younger kids, but I’ll definitely try it again stateside to see if it’s as much fun back home.

What a day. I had a wonderful time, and it made me, once again, so appreciative of the living situation I stumbled upon here in France. My study abroad experience wouldn’t be half as exciting or culturally stimulating if I weren’t with this amazing family, and I’m so happy that I was lucky enough to meet them all.

Didn’t I See This Movie?

Ask just about any immigrant, expatriate, or learner of a second language how they improved their conversational skills and they’ll frequently give you the same answer: television and movies. Mila Kunis has cited The Price Is Right as her first English teacher, and everyone knows that the Muppets of Sesame Street have helped thousands of immigrants to the US learn their ABC’s. I’ve tried to do the same for my French language skills by watching as many French movies (and Hollywood movies dubbed into French) as possible with my host family, and I’ve certainly noticed a difference in my comprehension level.

So without further ado, here’s a list of some wonderful French movies I’ve enjoyed watching so far, and my incredibly non-expert advice for viewing them in your own home.

Amélie: Easily Translates to English Subtitles

The classic film starring Audrey Tautou as a quirky, well-meaning young French woman is a favorite of amateur French speakers everywhere. This movie was hugely popular in France and the US, and continues to be the benchmark for the modern French film industry. Warning: Amélie isn’t full of action or even a very direct plot. If you want to be on the edge of your seat with suspense, don’t watch this movie. It’s best appreciated on a lazy weekend morning with a large mug of tea in hand.

Cyrano de Bergerac: Easily Translates to English Subtitles

Before French institution Gérard Depardieu began relieving himself in public places, he was nominated for an Oscar for this 1990 reproduction of a play written by Edmond Rostand. Cyrano de Bergerac, an unfortunate looking but brilliant poet and swordsman, endures the woes of unrequited love in 19th century Paris. Great jokes, some pretty fun swordfights, and, of course, a classic love story. It doesn’t matter what language you speak-everybody loves a good romantic comedy.

Intouchables: Easily Translates to English Subtitles or Dubbing

I was required to write a paper on this blockbuster hit a few weeks ago, and I finally got around to watching it this weekend [cue drums]. A rich quadriplegic and his ex-con caretaker form an unlikely friendship in this feel-good comedy based on a true story. While some would say that the movie is neither realistic nor culturally sensitive, it’s still an enjoyable story. There’s lots of slang, so it’s great for students who want to improve their conversational French, but it moves fast enough to need French subtitles if you really want to follow closely.

Un Couple Épatant: Best with English or French Subtitles for French Students

Put your thinking caps on, everyone! Un Couple Épatant is the second of a trilogy of movies that build on each other in a strange six-degrees-of-separation sort of organization. Loose ends from the first installment are tied up in the second and third and vice versa, so it’s necessary to watch all three to gain any appreciation at all, but it’s well worth the extra effort. The cool thing, though, is that the order in which you watch the trilogy doesn’t matter much, because all three cover the same plot, just from the viewpoints of different characters. Trippy, but interesting and original. Watch this one with French subtitles if you can; it’s not too difficult to follow along if you pay attention. If you’re not a Francophone, I imagine it’d still be doable in English!

Paris, Je T’aime: Best with English or French subtitles for French students

I first saw this movie in high school, and it’s just as good several years later. Like Un Couple, this film is made of various puzzle pieces that are jumbled together to form an anthology of sorts. Each short story is directed and produced by a different cast and crew, then pieced together in the end to give an an original look into French culture and how one lovely city can unify countless people of differing backgrounds. Very American-friendly, the movie features several Hollywood actors and some English speaking sections. Watch it with English subtitles and you’ll be fine.

Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis: Best with French Subtitles for French Students

A postal worker is forced to leave his wife and son in the South of France when he gets relocated to Bergues, a tiny town in the Northeast. Having heard the stereotypes of Northerners, Philippe dreads moving to “The Sticks”, but soon grows to love the different culture. Hilarious, heartwarming, and oddly poignant for this Southerner who’s frequently been subjected to regional stereotypes. Most of the jokes in this movie are based on slang, accents, and puns, so it was very difficult for me to watch without French subtitles. I haven’t seen the English-subtitled version, but I can only hope it manages to capture the humor of the original. One of my new favorites!

8 Femmes: Best with French Subtitles or for Native Speakers

This kitschy mystery features an ensemble cast of eight well-known actresses in the middle of  a Clue-esque whodunit. This movie is unrealistic, over-the-top, and fabulous. Each of the women performs various covers of classic French pop music throughout the plot, which only adds to its endearing quirkiness. (Those who know me personally know that I could never make a movie list without including at least one musical.) I’d recommend this one most for people who can read French subtitles; there are several musical numbers that simply can’t be dubbed.

 

I hope this post encourages you to broaden your movie collection and venture into the world of foreign films! It’s been a wonderful help to my language abilities, but watching these movies has also helped me gain a greater appreciation for the subtleties of the French culture. So what are you waiting for? Pick a movie and press play-Bon Spectacle!

*All images for this post were found on Google.*