Seeking new landscapes AND having new eyes.

(With apologies to Marcel Proust for both stealing and butchering his quote.)

One of the remarkable things about the south of France is how effortlessly beautiful everything seems to be. When I left my apartment in the morning and walked to the Institut, I was greeted with a clear sky over Villefranche, the sparkling blue of the Mediterranean, the smell of jasmine.

Another beautiful day in Villefranche...

Another beautiful day in Villefranche…

You didn’t have to look hard to find something spectacular.  And, to our credit, I don’t think any of us took that for granted.  Not a day went by without someone commenting on the view, the weather, or the easy beauty of our temporary home.

Needless to say, it’s a bit more challenging to find that kind of beauty once you’re back in your everyday surroundings. Familiarity may not necessarily breed contempt in this case, but neither does it lend itself to breathtaking moments.

I have to look a little harder, and be more creative, and make an effort to uncover and encounter what is beautiful here at home.  I know, it’s not like I live in the middle of nowhere.  I’m fortunate to be in a major city (at least by some standards) that is lovely and historic and hosts over 12 million visitors a year.  Those people are coming here for a reason, right?

So for the past week, I’ve been doing my best to put myself in proximity to the beautiful things around me. I’ve done this in two ways. First, I’m opting to do everyday activities in nicer settings. Instead of my usual run on the paved streets of my suburban neighborhood, I’ve hit the trails in the Middlesex Fells.  I’ve taken long walks in Breakheart Reservation and around Lake Quannapowit. I’ve strolled around Boston and explored the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Later this week I’ll go biking in Concord and get to Walden Pond for a much-needed swim. Some of these places are a bit out of the way, but I’m well-rewarded for the effort.

The other, harder, part of the equation is to try to find the beauty right in front of me, in the seemingly ordinary things that I see everyday.  Harder because it requires me to take off my rose (rosé?) colored glasses and stop comparing everything to France. Harder because it calls for a mindfulness and attentiveness that is difficult to muster, and more difficult to maintain.

So that’s the challenge before me, as I try to transplant the wonder I felt in France to the lovely things in my own backyard.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.