Monday, July 30, 2012


Hello to all!  This will be a quick post just to let you know that everything went very well in Paris and that we are nearly ready for our return.  I'm leaving the details of the Paris trip up to the stagiaires, but I'll at least give you an idea of what we've seen.

Before arriving on Saturday, we made a quick stop in Chartres to have lunch and visit the cathedral, and then headed to Versailles, an enormous and extravagant castle built by Louis XIV.  The stagiaires were given plenty of time to tour the castle in their small groups before we made our way into Paris.  After dropping off our things and eating dinner at the youth hostel, we took the metro together to the center of Paris.  The city is split in half by the Seine river, and we arranged for a boat tour.  The weather was perfect, and the city is absolutely beautiful at night, so it worked out well as a first glimpse of the big monuments of Paris.

Yesterday was our first big day in Paris.  We started with the Orsay Museum, which houses some of the most famous paintings of the Impressionist period as well as those leading up to it.  Afterwards, the students were given free time in their small groups to see the monuments of their choice.  Several went to the Sacré Coeur, the Centre Pompidou, the Bastille, the Tuileries Garden, the Arc de Triomphe, as well as some famous shopping districts.  In the evening, we went to the Montparnasse Tower for a panoramic view of the city.  What a view!

Today, we started off with the Louvre museum.  It is of course impossible to see it all in just a couple hours, so we advised students to figure out which parts they wanted to see the most before they needed to leave for their second block of free time.  Many groups opted to take the day a little easier, spending more time in the parks and gardens than hurrying from one monument to another.  In the evening, we met at the Trocadero Plaza in order to get one last group photo, this time in front of the Eiffel Tower.
We then announced our surprise visit for the evening, which was dinner at a karaoke restaurant.  The students sang some of the songs they learned during the program, and managed to get the locals singing and dancing along with them.

Tomorrow (or rather later this morning), we leave the hostel at 5:45 in order to get to the airport plenty early.    And then it's done!  This has been an incredibly enjoyable experience, especially since we had such a great group of students to work with.  The progress they've made in this short time is incredible.  I can't wait to hear all about what they do with the experience afterwards.  I hope you found this blog helpful for keeping up with your student.  Now it's their turn to tell you their stories and share their pictures.  Thanks for reading along.  We'll see you shortly!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Fête des familles

It's hard to believe, but our program is nearly over. Today is our last day in Saumur, and students have the day off to pack their bags and spend a few final moments with their host families. They are hopefully resting up from our busy week in order to be prepared for Paris as well. Much of the week was spent preparing for last night's farewell show, but we had other activities to keep us busy as well. On Monday afternoon, we went on a guided tour of Saumur, giving the students the opportunity to learn a little bit about the town's history. The guide took us to some historic buildings, including the city hall which was part of the outer wall used to protect the city, and a defensive tower that is normally closed to the public but was opened for us in order to get a very nice view of Saumur and an idea of what it looked like when it was fortified. 

Tuesday was a rather special day for us as well. At our fourth of July celebration in the nearby town of Turquant, the mayor offered us a visit to the Fontevraud Abbey and proposed that we stop by the nursing home to have lunch and to share some of our songs with the residents. We were finally able to arrange transportation for the students on Tuesday, so we left the school in the morning to visit the abbey. Construction of the abbey began in the early twelfth century and housed both men and women, but for much of its history, the monastic order was headed by women. The order was dissolved during the French Revolution, and the abbey was converted into a prison. During the Occupation in World War II, it was especially a prison for captured members of the Resistance. While it's an unfortunate history, they abbey may not have survived the Revolution if it had not been repurposed. Fontevraud is considered one of the largest monastic cities in Europe. We gave the students a little over an hour to tour the cathedral, the cloister, the refectory, and other buildings with an audio guide before meeting the mayor of Turquant outside of the abbey. The students thanked him for the visit, and he accompanied us to the nursing home where we were introduced to the staff and offered a
wonderful lunch. After eating, we went to the common area where several residents had gathered to hear the students sing. We sang a couple songs that the students had prepared for the farewell show as well as the French and American national anthems. The experience was moving for everyone--for many of the residents, the memory of the American involvement in the liberation of Paris is very strong. The Americans were seen as heroes, and despite more recent tensions between our two countries, there still exists a strong sentiment of gratitude and amity. I think it was good for our stagiaires to see this first-hand. Some of the residents sang along, another waved her arms with the music, and there were even a few tears. I wish we could have stayed longer, but we had to catch the bus back to Saumur, so we said our goodbyes and thanked them for having us. They thanked us in return, and it was clear they greatly appreciated the visit. 

For the next two days, the stagiaires were occupied with preparations for the farewell party as well as planning their Paris excursion. As in years past, we've divided the students into four small groups, each of which will be given some free time to explore the city, so they needed some time to collectively decide what they'd like to see and to plan out exactly how they need to get there. The professors will then decide at which stops we will check in on them. The rest of the time has been spent in rehearsal. For six weeks now, the students have been preparing a play, songs, dances, a poem, and a film for the farewell show, our way of saying thank you to the host families for welcoming the stagiaires into their homes. As usual, the show was wonderful and the families loved every bit of it. The families commented on how impressed they were that the students tackled a play of such a high literary
quality and that they put a great deal of effort into their pronunciation. Throughout the show, in fact, the families noticed a very mature and confident composure in the students. The choir performed beautifully, the dances were lively and well executed, the poem was recited with enthusiasm, and the film was very elegantly constructed. Overall, I'm incredibly impressed with the work they put into the show, not only into the actual performance but also into the creation of their own content and the input they provided each other during rehearsals. They took their work seriously, and it paid off--this was the perfect end to the program for the families.

On that note, tomorrow morning is going to be a very difficult time in the program. At 7:30, students will start arriving at the school to load their suitcases onto the bus and say goodbye to their families. If it's anything like last year, we're in for a very somber bus trip to our first stop in Chartres. We'll just need to remind the students of the plans we know many of them already have in place to keep in contact with their families and to visit them again someday. And of course, they have you folks to look forward to! In just a few more days now, we'll be back stateside for what I imagine will be an emotional reunion. In the meantime, I'm going to try to make one more post while we're in Paris to give you an idea of the events planned there as well as to upload some more photos. See you soon!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

L'Ile de Ré

Another week down, and only one to go.  This past Friday we took the stagiaires on our third excursion, this time a much slower-paced, relaxing one.  We went to the Ile de Ré, an island off the western coast of France, shown on the map below.

While the previous excursions focused on French history and visiting lots of important monuments, this one was primarily an opportunity to see another part of the country and to take a much needed break together. The island is a very popular tourist destination and is known for its production of sea salt.  Our first stop was a small town called Saint-Martin-de-Ré, where students ate their picnics and did a little shopping.  It was rather chilly and rainy in the morning, so the other professors and I were afraid we'd have to continue our excursion with our Plan B, which would be a visit to La Rochelle, a very nice town nearby where students could do some more sightseeing and shopping.  But we had already gotten the students hopes up that we would be going to the beach, so we weren't too thrilled with the uncooperative weather.  By the time we finished lunch, however, the clouds gave way to a bright and warm sun, so the beach was back on.  

Even though the sun was out, the water was still cold.  Still, many of the stagiaires were brave enough to jump in the sea and swim around for a bit.  Most everyone took advantage of the sun at one point or another and lied down on the beach.  Others searched the sand for seashells, and a few of us got a good game of beach volleyball going.  Marie-Line and I did  have them work for just a little bit on their theater and choir pieces for the upcoming farewell party, but for the most part, we simply had a fun, relaxing day at the beach.

We hope our stagiaires are rested up, because we have a pretty intense final week prepared for them.  We have one more day of classes, a guided tour of Saumur (scheduled for the end so that the students can understand and appreciate it better), a visit at the Fontevraud Abbey, a final exam, and the farewell party as well as a great deal of rehearsal for it all during the week.  After that, we just have our Paris visit left, and then they'll be going home!  It's going to be a wild ride from here to the end, but I think it's going to be a lot of fun.  More to come very soon!

Quick note: I've been trying to upload some of my videos on the picture website, but the website is currently not letting me do it.  I'll keep trying, though!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Stagiaires in the news again!

Another quick message to let you know that our students and their families are featured in an article that appeared in today's local paper.  It's been a busy summer for Saumur, so it took awhile for this article to come out, but better late than never.  I'm very pleased with the outcome--it will make for a nice souvenir for the stagiaires.

 Tomorrow we head for our third excursion, which leaves us with only one more week in Saumur!  More news and photos to come soon.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Bastille Day

With only two weeks left in the program, time is really flying by now.  Even though this was just a regular week, there were quite a few events for the stagiaires.  The biggest event of the week was of course the 14th of July, the day France celebrates its independence from the monarchy.  Here, it is called "La Fête Nationale" (the national celebration), while in the anglophone world, it's known as Bastille Day because it's the anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille, a symbolic moment in the beginning of the French Revolution.  The entire day is full of festivity.  In Saumur, there is a large military parade that pays tribute to the town's significant military history (which was actually held on the 13th this year so as not to interfere with the outdoor market that is set up every Saturday).  At night, there is a large fireworks display, and we were very lucky to get a break in our unusually rainy weather in order to see it.

After the fireworks, there was a large concert in the plaza in front of the Mairie, and it seemed like all of Saumur was there. Despite the large crowd, we still managed to bump into a few stagiaires.  They're everywhere!

We also had a couple of optional activities this week.  On Monday, we went to the municipal pool for a swim, but do to a little... uh... accident... it was closed early for a cleaning, so we will be going again tomorrow.  Hopefully there will be fewer small children this time!  On Friday night, we organized a "soirée discothèque" at the school amphitheater in order to give the students a chance to blow off some steam in an alcohol-free environment (since real discothèques are not allowed for them).  Students brought treats and music, and even some of the host families stuck around in order to dance a little bit.  

Since we had a five-day week this week, we used Friday as a sort of exceptional day.  In the morning, we got to visit the castle in Saumur.  Last year, it was closed for an ongoing restoration process, but now parts of it are back open to the public.  The Mairie kindly offered us the visit during our official reception a couple weeks ago.  The castle visit was followed by some sort of play involving pirates, a sorcerer, and other things that had nothing to do with the castle, but it was fun to watch anyway.  

After lunch we went back to the school, and the profs played a bit of a prank on the students.  It actually started the day before, when we told them they would be taking a mid-session test on Friday afternoon.  For the last week, several students had been worried that they might not be making any progress, and they weren't sure how to tell if they had, so we told them we'd give them a test.  Of course, the students have all progressed enormously, and we eventually got them to realize it by thinking about how much easier it is for them to communicate, to understand conversations, and even to understand jokes (a rather difficult task in a new language). Instead of an exam, though, we brought out candy as well as a movie (The City of Lost Children, a very artsy French film that we will be discussing in the culture class tomorrow).  We even got one of the stagiaires in on the joke--before we returned to the school, we pulled her aside and told her about the prank, then asked her to pretend to get very upset about it when we were about to begin the "exam."  So, when we got back to the school, we announced that we would be beginning the exam and asked our insider to distribute the copies.  She took the pile of fake exams (just scratch paper), went on for a minute or so about how unfair it was, and threw them in the air.  The others were quite surprised, then happy to find out they won't have to take an extra exam.  At the very end of the program, of course, they will retake the exam we gave them on our first day so that they can see how much progress they've made, but on Friday they got to relax a little bit.

This coming week is just as full of activity, culminating in our third excursion.  This time, we'll be going to l'Ile de Ré on the coast of western France.  We'll also start practicing intensely for our farewell show, which will include acting, singing, dancing, and more, but I'll describe all that in more detail later.  

Wishing you all a pleasant week on behalf of Team Saumur! 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Stagiaires in the news!

This is just a quick message to share a link to an article that appeared on a local online newspaper.  Yesterday we took our group photo, and the photographer took the opportunity to interview a few of the students for the journal that he happens to work for.  The question he asked each student was, "what have you found surprising in France?"  Their responses mostly concerned differences in eating habits--from the types of food eaten to the amount of time spent at the table.  Enjoy!

Monday, July 9, 2012


Hello again!  Time is just flying by here, so before it gets any further away I need to update you all on our excursion to Normandy.  As usual, it was a great success, and I think one of the big highlights of the program for many stagiaires.  We spent much of the week discussing World War II in my culture class, but there is really nothing that compares to actually visiting some of the crucial sites, which is why this excursion tends to have the biggest impact on students over the course of the program.

This was a two-day excursion.  The first day focused on discovering the regions of Brittany and Normandy, and the second focused on D-Day and the American involvement in WWII.  Below is a map tracing our journey.

Letter H (which is covering A) is at Saumur from where we departed at 7:30 in the morning.  Most students slept during the bus ride to our first destination at point B, Saint-Malo.  You can see on the map above that the northwestern part of France branches into two arms.  The larger lower arm is the region called Brittany, and the northern arm is Normandy.  Saint-Malo is thus a Breton city, and that is where we stopped for lunch.  The stagiaires ate the picnics prepared for them by their host families, and then they had time to explore the city.  Saint-Malo is quite pretty--it's a fortified coastal city with an economy that largely depends on fishing and tourism.  It is also a port city and thus engages in sea trade.  With the exception of a short (but heavy) bout of rain, it was a pleasant and sunny day which offered a magnificent view of the sea from the top of the ramparts that circle the central part of the city.  We then headed for the main attraction of the day--the Mont Saint Michel--which, as you can see from the label C above, is nestled exactly between Brittany and Normandy (both of which, of course, would like to lay claim to it).

What started as a small abbey in the early 8th century atop a small but sharply rising island has become an immense monastery that attracts over 3 million visitors every year.  While the monastery at one time was full of life--a residence for monks and a popular destination for religious pilgrimages--it attracted less and less attention until the time of the Revolution when it was converted into a prison.  It has since been reopened as a touristic destination and has been named one of UNESCO's World Heritage sites.  The stagiaires visited the abbey in their small groups before we left for our pit stop for the night, Grand Camp-Maisy (point D above).  Here there was a youth hostel where we ate dinner and stayed for the night.  It was right next to the beach, so we even got to do a little swimming (for those brave enough to get into the cold sea) or play volleyball.

Our visits on Friday were all fairly close to each other, and although the weather in the north is notoriously rainy, we managed to get most of the rain only when we were in the bus.  Our visits were all rather sunny and pleasant.  It's really as if our stagiaires bring the sunshine with them wherever they go!  Our first stop, the Pointe du Hoc, was more or less right next to us.  This is a piece of land that juts into the sea and separates two of the five beaches targeted on D-Day (specifically the beaches Utah and Omaha, the landing sites for the American troops).  This was obviously a key strategical stronghold for the Germans occupying France and was thus an important target during the invasion.  The problem, however, was that it was very difficult to reach being that it is a very tall piece of land that drops straight down to the shore.  The 2nd Ranger Battalion was given the task of taking the Pointe, and although they met much resistance, they eventually succeeded.

We then visited two sites that are situated just next to each other at point F on the map above.  First was Omaha Beach, the site of the first attack on D-Day.  There were very few people around that day, and the weather was very calm and sunny, giving the beach an eerie serenity that shocked me, even though this is now my second time seeing and standing on the beach.  The assault here was a very violent one--of the first 3000 soldiers to land on the beach, around 900 lost their lives.  By the end of the day, the number rose to around 3.000.  We had discussed all of this in my culture class, but it was evident on the students' faces that seeing the site in person was a completely different experience.  They were all very quiet and pensive, and several remarked that it was incredibly difficult to imagine what had happened there.
Because of the many lives lost here, the small town just behind the beach was chosen as the site of the American cemetery dedicated to the soldiers in World War II.  Students could thus walk just up the hill to access the cemetery, which holds over 9,000 graves.  There is a small chapel in the middle, and at the front end, a memorial consisting of a statue, a reflecting pool, and the names of 1,500 unlocated soldiers.  It is truly an emotional experience which gave the stagiaires a lot to think about, and for many, it gave them a new perspective on their experience here in France.

The final stop was the Caen Memorial (point G), a museum which provides information, documents, videos, and various objects related to the war.  We had a large chunk of time for students to look at everything and see some of the videos, which worked well since there is a so much information to go through.  The museum covers all the major events and aspects of the war, including one of my favorite parts of French history--the Resistance.  Although France capitulated early in the war, and although the new Vichy government in the "Free Zone" of France collaborated closely with Germany, there was a large number of people that defied the fascist regime and became instrumental in Operation Overlord and in the liberation of France.
Those who could joined the general Charles de Gaulle in London to join the allied forces, and those who were stuck in France did what they could to impede German communication as well as transportation of arms.  At the end of the visit, we saw a film that consisted of footage from D-Day, showing on the left the Allied perspective, and on the right the German one.  At the end of the film, as the camera soars over the beach, showing the soldiers engaged in combat, it cuts to footage of the beach today, then back to the old footage.  The film lasted about 15 minutes, but it leaves a very heavy impression on you.  All in all, the stagiaires agreed with me that the museum is very well put together and very informative.

Afterwards, we hopped aboard the bus once again to return to Saumur.  Because it was such a somber and emotionally draining day, we watched a film called "Bienvenue chez les ch'tis," an excellent comedy about regional language varieties and stereotypes.  Most of the group slept much of the way, however, which was expected considering the journey we just had.  And that brings us more or less to today.  We are now halfway done with the program, but I feel as though these next three weeks are going to fly by since there are several activities planned.  I look forward to sharing those with you soon, along with many, many photos!  I have a large chunk of photos that will be added to the photo website soon, so stay tuned!