Mon Dieu! My French tutor has left me.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking: you live in the Netherlands and you have a French tutor? I do. Well…I did. And finding him was one of the first things I did when I arrived here. I invested so much into learning French two years ago that I want to be sure to keep it up. Plus, everyone in Amsterdam speaks at least three languages fluently, which usually leaves me feeling like the dumb, mono-lingual American. Hence, the French tutor.

Alors, my tutor is moving back to France next month to start a PhD program. And I am left, once again, on my own. Back to misusing the subjunctive and failing to remember the proper concordance des temps. This surprise departure of my tutor has literally come on the eve of a trip to Paris…we leave tomorrow for a weekend visit, our first since we moved to Europe. I was hoping one more lesson would get my confidence up, and help me remember all those marvelous little phrases that make social interactions in France – asking for directions, ordering in a restaurant – more pleasant. (Readers from the Institut de Francais…where is Julian when I need him most??)

So I send my apologies in advance to the good, language-proud people of Paris. I’m coming, and I’m speaking French. I’m not going to let myself be embarrassed by my mistakes. I’m not going to be intimidated if you roll your eyes or start to switch to English. I will persist. Because I love your language, and the ferocity-bordering-on-arrogance with which you defend and promote it. You think it’s worth protecting. I think it’s worth learning. Let’s help each other out. À bientôt!




I guess it all adds up to joy in the end…


Joy to Marseille

I stole the title of this post from the talented Josh Ritter. It’s from a song called “Joy To You Baby”.  It’s a breakup song; more accurately, it’s a post-breakup song. But it popped into my head while I was in France, since joy was what I was feeling most of the time.  I remember walking around Marseille with the line, “Joy to the city, the heat wave and all…” on repeat in my brain.

Out of fairness, I should probably share the lines that precede the one above, since they are also relevant:

“There’s pain in whatever we stumble upon. If I never had met you, you couldn’t have gone. But then I wouldn’t have met you, we couldn’t have been. I guess it all adds up to joy in the end.”

And that sums up how I’m feeling, sitting here, the day before I return to work, reflecting on the past three months of my sabbatical and trying to distill some wisdom from the experience. This time has been about the dichotomy of things gained and things lost. Beginnings and endings, meetings and partings, anticipation and memory, exploration and introspection.  Balancing the risks – lost professional opportunities, missed events, things undone – with the benefits – restoration, adventure, friendship, growth. And not just balancing, but understanding. Understanding what I’ve chosen and what, then, cannot be chosen. Understanding – knowing  the “pain in whatever we stumble upon”, but accepting it because we also know, or trust, the joy in the end.  

Really, that’s what it’s all about, right?  Life, that is. We move between, and try to balance, the joy and the pain, the bitter and the sweet, the struggle and the triumph. And what you hope for yourself and those you love is that in the end, when you weigh the sum total of your days and years, your experiences and adventures, the scales tip towards joy.

Recently one of my youth group alums, a well-traveled young woman wise beyond her years, shared this quote from writer and professor Miriam Adeney:

You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart will always be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.

I love this, and I know it to be true. I felt it first for Haiti, a place I have known for 15 years, where I have friends and colleagues and a deep sense of connection. As life has taken me and friends onward, parts of my heart have gone to California, Connecticut, Amsterdam, Rwanda, Paris, Seattle, Prague, Memphis, Chicago, and now Germany, Australia, Nice, Canada, and of course, Marseille. In my own travels, I’ve left parts of myself in places, like breadcrumbs dropped in the hope that they will one day guide me back.  Or better yet, like seeds, which have the potential to take root and, if I do return, to surprise me with what they have become in my absence.

One of life’s challenges, of course, is getting comfortable with the feeling of never being completely at home. It is unsettling, and can lead to restlessness or shallow and hollow attempts to fill that part of your heart.  But what I’ve learned throughout this time is that the restlessness can be a gift, if we’re willing to listen to it and learn from it, instead of trying to drown it out.

On occasion, I’ve been accused of being a bit flighty, fickle, jumping from one activity to the next, as if I am trying to fill a void or find the thing that will finally be “it”.  At times I’ve felt the truth in that charge. Why aren’t I satisfied with the comforts of my life as it is? Why do I always want to have something on the horizon, something to look forward to, something new to try, or some new place to go?

My friend Wolfgang shared a beautiful poem recently with this line that, for me, starts to answer my questions:

“Only he who is ready to journey forth can throw old habits off…”

Yes! It’s only in response to the feeling of being not-quite-satisfied that we can free ourselves from the things that fetter us, and seek out something new.  With the help of words from other, smarter folks I can begin to build a defense for myself. My seeking and all that comes with it – the restlessness, the sense of not being completely at home, the hunger to see new places and try new things – these don’t arise from a desire to replace something lost but rather to give more away. The other places and other people I love don’t diminish me, they expand my life. They make me more curious, more generous, more fully myself. Who wouldn’t want more of that?  And if the unease, the not-at-home-ness, are the price, I’ll accept that because the reward, the payoff, is joy. Always more joy.


This will be the last time I post here, at least for now. My intention was that this blog would last as long as my sabbatical.  Since the sabbatical is at its end, I think now is a good time to, as we’d say at the Institut, “prend une pause”. I may offer a post-script about my return to work, but otherwise I’m going to take a break, and wait and see what happens next.

When I started this adventure, I emailed a group of exactly 43 people and shared my blog address with them. According to my stats , I’ve had 1609 views (not visitors), from 24 countries, from the US and Germany and France to Belarus and India and Israel. Which means that I likely don’t know most of the people who visited my blog.

It’s part of the weirdness and wonder of the internet that strangers would take an interest in what I had to say, but I’m grateful for it, and for all of you. Thank you to everyone who visited and read, who shared my blog, who commented (either publicly or privately).  I am so thankful that you joined me in this life-changing adventure.

Wishing you joy on the journey, and in the end.


It’s been a busy week, especially for extra-curricular activities.  Tuesday night was the first meeting of the Film Club.  We watched the French romantic comedy Hors de Prix and I can confirm that rom-coms are as predictable in French as they are in English.  Tonight a small group of us gathered to talk about health, policy, and development issues in Africa.  (You can take the girl out of PIH…).

But last night was the highlight of the week – pétanque!  I have to admit we didn’t learn much about the history of the game, but we had a lot of fun.  One of our instructors, Julian, organized the event at a local pétanque club and gave us a quick lesson on the rules.

Can you guess which fellow is our instructor? If you picked the impossibly cool long-haired guy with the aviators, you're right.

Can you guess which one is Julian? If you picked the impossibly cool long-haired guy with the aviators, you’re right.

Julian is also the instructor who leads most of the “seance pratique” sessions at the Institut.  These are practical lessons in cultural norms, phone etiquette, and such.  Basically Julian is trying to prevent us from embarrassing ourselves in social situations.  He does this primarily by embarrassing us in the seance pratique.  I’m sure the instructors could write a book about all of the unintentionally hysterical and suggestive things that their students say. (Edited to add a recent example: When invited to someone else’s home, it’s customary to ask if you can bring something [apporter quelque chose]. Except we came up with: “Est-ce que je peux porter quelque chose?”, which is basically asking if you need to wear any clothes.)

Anyway, back to pétanque!  After a bit of practice, we formed teams of three and were assigned a country name, and then the tournament began.  Given the size of the group we played only to 5 points, instead of the usual 13 points.  I am proud to say that my team, Angleterre, was victorious!  We won the whole tournament, beating Vietnam in the finals, by a score of 7-0.  I’m considering hitting the pro circuit.  (At the very least, I may need to check out the Boston Pétanque Club…)

L'equipe Angleterre!  Me, Sandy (from Australia) and Karen (Canada)

L’equipe Angleterre! Me, Sandy (from Australia) and Karen (from Canada).

The best thing about the event was the opportunity to socialize with everyone in the program.  There are 8 classes in total, but most activities, like lunch, are done in groups of 4 classes.  Our meals, breaks, and practice sessions are with 3 other classes (in my case, Intermediate 3 and Advanced 1 and 2).  As a result, there’s a large number of students that I rarely see.  The pétanque tournament and the great meal that followed gave us all a chance to chat (en français, of course!) and share our experiences.  We were all a little slower-moving today, since the pétanque party went well into the evening.  And as we learned from our hosts, pétanque pairs beautifully with a nice rosé.

Say something.

Today began our second week of classes.  The schedule remains the same, but I can already see changes in all of us.  The beginners, who were somewhat shell-shocked this time last week, are joining in conversations and showing off their new-found vocabulary.  The advanced students are still a bit intimidating, and some are friendlier and more helpful than others.  For the intermediate folks like me, we’re gaining confidence, and jumping into discussions where we may have stayed silent before.  We’re also organizing evening conversation groups around shared interests. (I’m trying not to think about work, but there are a lot of international and public health folks here…)

If there’s one thing I know I have improved it’s my verb conjugations.  I’m embarrassed to think back on my last trip to Haiti and the crazy mix of Creole and un-conjugated French I was throwing around.  It’s pretty hard to say anything intelligible in any language if you can’t use the past tense properly!

I’ve been thinking a lot about one of my colleagues, a doctor, who is probably the bravest – and, by extension, the most effective – language learner I know.  I know she studies and works hard, but she also just goes for it, mistakes be damned.  She learns the basics and then she starts talking.  Crazy, I know.

The program at the Institut is focused on speaking with ease and correctness.  We do drills and role-plays all day and I think I’m never going to remember all of the information being thrown at me.  Then I stop at the grocery store and joke with the saleswoman about returning to the store because I bought cheese but forgot to buy bread (because this is France, and one does not eat cheese without a fresh baguette).

For anyone who is considering studying French in an immersion environment, I can’t stress enough the benefit of doing so in a small village or community.  I know that in Paris or in a larger city, very few people would be willing to deal with our fumbling attempts at French, and would instead switch immediately into English.  But the Institut is part of the life (and economy!) of this town, and the merchants and restaurant owners and residents welcome us and let us practice with them.  In return, they make it their responsibility to correct us.  It’s as if the whole town is colluding to ensure that we improve our French.   And it’s working.

The nitty-gritty

We’re a week in to the French portion of my sabbatical adventure, so I thought I’d share some details about day-to-day life here in Villefranche, and at the Institut.   And I’ll throw in a few photos to keep things interesting…

My apartment is in the old city, in a pedestrian-only area with lots of restaurants and shops.


On the little balcony next to the kitchen, we can do tiny loads of laundry and watch the tourists come and go.

It’s a few blocks from the port.  It’s generally charming, though a bit loud at night.  Oh, and they ring church bells on the half-hour beginning at 7am.  Even on the weekends.

At around 8am, I start the climb up to the Institut.  Breakfast is served from 8:15 to 9am.  Three days a week we gather at 8:40 to watch the French news and talk about the stories reported.  Classes start at 9am.  I was placed into Intermediate 4, the highest Intermediate group and the 6th out of 8 levels.  There are 10 people in my group ranging in age from 19 to 60-something, from Canada,  the US, Egypt, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.


The view from the terrace at the Institut. Not bad, although we can only enjoy it during a 20-minute break. And en francais, of course.

From 9 until 10:40 or so, we have conversation, grammar and usage lessons, and other activities. After a short break, we have an hour of language lab.  This is a bit draconian, and involves headphones and workstations and endless repetition of exercises.  The upside is that it’s the only time of day that we’re not being constantly corrected – it’s just me and my headphones.

Then it’s back to the classroom until lunch at 1:10pm.  Lunch is decidedly NOT a break.  Attendance is required; we eat with Intermediate 3 and Advanced 1 and 2.  There are instructors at each table who keep the conversation going, and, yes, continue to correct our errors.  The instructors are, uniformly, excellent.  Within 2 days they knew the name of every student – no small thing given that there are almost 90 people in the program. They are creative, enthusiastic, and endlessly patient.

After lunch we have a session called “séance practique”, which covers topics like introductions, phone etiquette, and social situations.  It’s probably the most enjoyable part of the day, as it’s interactive and usually pretty funny.  We get a 30-minute break in the afternoon, then class resumes until 4:45 or 5pm.  Afternoon tea is served, and then we’re free to go.  I have about 20-30 minutes of homework each day.

Late this week, a new activity was introduced: the exposé.  Each person in the group is asked to talk for 10 minutes on a topic of their choosing.  Each member of the class is required to ask at least one question of the speaker.  It’s sort of the verbal equivalent of a firing squad.

In case you’ve forgotten, we’re speaking French this ENTIRE TIME.  During breaks, during lunch, during tea.  The focus of the program is on spoken language, so they’re making sure we have plenty of opportunity to speak and to practice, and to make lots of mistakes.


Eze-le-Village, earlier today, with the clouds rolling in.

It can be exhausting, but the payoff comes in moments like today, touring around Eze with a fellow student.  We stopped into the shop of a glass artist.  Her work was quite complex and beautiful, and without having to think too much about it, I asked her if she could explain her technique.  It was so satisfying to be able to engage directly with her.  And she was more than happy to continue chatting with us in French.

With a week behind me, I have to say that I couldn’t be happier with this experience.  While the class is challenging, every element of my stay has been wonderful.  I stroll through town each evening and pinch myself that I get to be here for another few weeks.

Les escaliers

So if there’s one thing Villefranche-sur-Mer has in abundance, it’s staircases.  Yes, there are stunning views of the sea, and wonderful shops, and great wine, and charming old Frenchmen playing petanque in the park.  But this is a town full of staircases, and I think it may take a lifetime of living here to really know your way around.

This morning I discovered that a staircase I thought hit a dead end at a storm drain actually takes a hard left and climbs to exactly the place I’ve been trying to go.  I have yet to return home from the Institut de Francais by the same route I took to get there.  Every day brings something new: finally finding the grocery store or learning how to use the washing machine on our balcony.

I know these things may sound mundane, particularly to people who are well traveled, but for me all of these discoveries are important elements of this experience.  These are things you don’t have time to learn when you’re on vacation, or passing through a place for a few days.  To try to live in a new place requires some initiative, some exploration, and the willingness to make some pretty significant blunders.

You’ll see, of course, the parallels to language learning.  We’ve finished day three at the Institut and day two of total French immersion.  My head hurts, and there’s a constant low level of anxiety in class as we struggle to get words out of our mouths.  We’re all making so many mistakes, and we are corrected constantly, on pronunciation, grammar, word choice.  There are lovely people in my group with whom I’ve not exchanged a word of English yet.  We feel hamstrung by our limited ability to communicate.  None of us are able to express ourselves as we like.

But I think we all believe that these mental and verbal wanderings, incorrect as they are, will eventually bring us to where we want to go, or at least closer.  So we hang in there, and try to laugh at our mistakes, and let a little wine loosen our tongues (after class, of course).  Up and down the staircases we go, putting in the work, searching for new routes, and discovering things we never expected to find in ourselves.