Thursday, June 28, 2012

La Mairie

Our first regular week is coming to a close here in Saumur, and all is running fairly smoothly.  The stagiaires are now accustomed to their class schedule, and are getting used to the demands of balancing their homework (which is never too lengthy (says the prof)) and their time with their friends and their host families.   In any case, doing homework theoretically never really takes away time from the host family if the students do as the French and do their homework in the living room, usually at the dinner table.  Many of our assignments directly involve the host families--for example one of the first assignments I gave was to have students draw a stereotypical Frenchman and a stereotypical American, and after school they were to do the same activity with their families.  In the linguistics class, many assignments involve asking the host families what they think about certain expressions or uses of language.  We've even begun involving the families in support groups.  This week, students were asked to come up with personal goals for the program, and their families are to help them come up with strategies to attain those goals.  The families really enjoy helping their students, too.  One of the primary reasons families want to host students is educational--they love sharing their language and their culture with impressionable young minds!

Earlier this week we were invited to the Mairie (the city hall) for an official reception from the mayor.  The mayors assistant in charge of cultural affairs greeted us, then asked the stagiaires several questions about their experience here as well as their lives back in Indiana.  Two of our students then gave short speeches that they prepared beforehand, thanking their host families and the city.  We presented a small gift we brought for the mayor, said a few words ourselves, and took a group picture.

They all dressed up nicely for the event--what wonderful ambassadors!  This weekend we have an optional excursion to Angers, a city nearby to Saumur, but otherwise it is a free weekend.  Many students have activities planned with their host families.  Sundays are often reserved for family get-togethers, for example, so many will attend a large dinner.  Others are planning to take advantage of the summer "soldes," one of the big shopping seasons when stores put much of their merchandise on discount.  This is especially useful for clothing stores that are trying to make room for new clothing lines for the upcoming season.  We still have one more class day for the week, however, so I need to sign off.  More stories and photos to come!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Photo website

Instead of posting all my photos directly to the blog, I like to keep them on a photo website, found here:

I will be adding to this periodically as well, so be sure to add it to your favorites!

Les châteaux de la Loire

I'm not sure how it happened so quickly, but we have already made it through our first week here in Saumur!  On Friday, we had our first excursion, which was to a couple châteaux (castles) in the Loire Valley.  Before I go into those details, though, I thought it might be helpful if I describe where the Loire Valley is as well as the city of Saumur in order to give you a better idea of where your stagiaires are living.  Saumur is situated on the Loire river, the longest river in France.  Its valley is well known for its vineyards, historic towns (Saumur included), and of course, castles (over 300 of them!).  Saumur is 200 miles southwest of Paris, as shown on the map below:

You can see, then, that we are pretty well inland.  Saumur has a pretty mild climate, with temperatures staying around the 70s for most of the summer and moderate rainfall.  For our trip on Friday, we traveled further inland through Tours and toward Orleans, as shown below:

Our first stop (indicated by B on the map) was at the château de Chambord.  Many castles in the region were built by French royalty for mostly leisurely purposes--oftentimes something like giant vacation homes or hunting lodges.  They were also meant to be symbolic of their wealth and power.  François I had Chambord built in the early 16th century for these very reasons.  He was an avid hunter, so it was very important that his castle be surrounded by a large wooded area.  Hunting is still popular here as our stagiaires found out--there happened to be a large hunting expo just outside the castle grounds on the same day we visited.  

As you can see, Chambord is immense.  It is the largest of the Loire castles, and has around 440 rooms.  It has three main floors that are connected by a double helix staircase designed by da Vinci.  Two people can climb either side of the staircase and they won't run into each other.  At the top of the castle is a large terrace with elaborately decorated chimneys (365 of them).  Students were free to visit the castle at their leisure in their groups of three or four before we headed on.

The next stop was Blois (C in the map above), where the stagiaires ate the picnics provided by their host families.   After eating, students had time to visit the town in their groups or visit the castle if they wished.  Afterwards, we went on to our second main visit for the day--the château de Chenonceau (D on the map).  This is a castle built by French nobility also in the early 16th century, but is best known as "le château des six femmes" (the castle of the six women) because of the six notable women who owned/inhabited it at various points in history.  These included Catherine de Médicis (wife of King Henry II) and Madame Dupin (hostess of an 18th century literary salon).  While a much smaller castle than Chambord, Chenonceau has an impressive grounds that includes two large gardens as well as a labyrinth.  

Again, students had plenty of time to see the castle and take pictures in small groups.  They did a great job of staying together and being on time, so we were yet again impressed by our stagiaires.  We had a wonderful time, and I think they did, too!

This coming week is not quite as busy, but we will be having our official reception at the city hall on Tuesday, which is a fairly significant event.  We have a full week of classes, so the students will be busy enough with reading and small assignments.  We are hoping for a week that goes just as smoothly as the first!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Fête de la musique

Hello again, family and friends!  I hope this post finds you well.  As we're wrapping up our first week here, the students are finding their groove and settling in well.  Although this is my second year doing the program, I've forgotten just how impressive a group of students like this can be.  I have the impression that they are a very solid group--that they feel comfortable around each other and that they get along quite well.  The first real test is of course tomorrow, when we will be visiting a couple châteaux (castles) in the Loire Valley.  They will get to tour the châteaux in small groups, making it a much more enjoyable and personal experience than a large-group tour, and it will test their leadership and communication skills as well!  From what I've seen from them so far, I am certain they will do well.

In these last two days, we've begun our regular class schedule.  This has been a great relief for all of us since we are now getting into our normal routine.  We begin each day at 9:10 with either support groups or phonetics lessons, followed by three class periods.  We then walk to the cafeteria (situated in the same building as the instructors' lodging) for lunch, where we have a good variety of food to choose from.  Everyone gets bread, a first course (usually salad, melon, or some other small cold plate), a choice of two or three main courses as well as two or three vegetables, cheese or yogurt, and fruit or dessert.  The kitchen staff is patient and generous with our students--they'll give us seconds on just about everything but the main course, and they help students with vocabulary and pronunciation as they serve the food!  After lunch, we return to the school for announcements and a small break before finishing the fourth class period.  At the end of the day, we have our afternoon activities--choir, theater, or sports--which I will describe at a later point.  By 3:50 it's time to go home.  And voilà our daily routine!

Tonight there was a rather special occasion in France, called the "Fête de la musique," which many of the students were able to enjoy.  This is a nationwide music festival that takes place every year on June 21, which is of course also the summer solstice.  Each year, music groups of all varieties can be found in the streets of cities and towns all over France, with the goal of bringing people together to celebrate music.

There are no private concerts. All the musical groups--including municipal bands, rock groups, and even country/western clubs--play for free and invite everyone to dance with them.  This is truly a unique event, so we were happy to have come across some of the stagiaires enjoying the festival with their host families.

I have more photos, but they will have to wait just a bit longer.  Tomorrow we have a long day ahead of us, but one that the stagiaires have certainly been looking forward to, so we need to get some sleep to be well prepared for it.  Details (and photos!) to come.


Monday, June 18, 2012

First days

Bonjour et bienvenue!

This first post will be somewhat brief, as it is already late here and this is week is quite busy. I do plan, however, to post a couple more times this week and start adding photos, so there will be quite a bit to share with you!

For the time being, I wanted to give an update on the stagiaires' (quick note here, stagiaire is a French word that really means something like "intern," but has become the traditional way to refer to our students) first day at the school as well as their first experiences with their host families. After an 8 hour flight and a few hours in the bus from Paris, our stagiaires were extremely tired as they got off the bus to meet their host families, who, as usual, awaited them with huge smiles. We have several returning families as well as some new ones, and they have been very anxious to meet the students, so they were quite pleased to see us. This year, we were lucky to come in on a Saturday, giving the students all day Sunday to readjust to the new time, the families, the food, etc., and today we (the profs) got to hear all about it.

The first day with a host family is always a challenging one--your students will surely have some stories to share with you--but it seems as though everyone is settling in well. Many had remarks about the food--first that there is a lot of it, and second that they love it (or at least most of it)! Many families had friends and extended family over for dinner, especially since it was also Father's Day here, so the stagiaires got their first taste of the importance of the French dinner table! Of course, many students remarked about the difficulty to communicate right away as well, which is normal. In a few days, they'll likely have adjusted and begun communicating more with the family, though it is a long and sometimes frustrating learning process. I have the impression, though, that this is a very positive group of students and that they'll persevere, and they'll be all the better for it!

Today was our first day at the school, which began with an entrance exam that will be repeated at the end of the summer for comparison. After this, we made some announcements, went to lunch, then went on a small tour of Saumur. We walked by the post office, a couple ATMs, and the small supermarket to orient the students to the more practical side, and we stopped by a few other points of interest as well, such as the Mairie (the city hall), the bridge that crosses the Loire, and of course--the château!

After returning to their host families, the students came back with their families for a quick meeting introducing the program and discussing possible tricky scenarios with the host families (e.g. how would you explain how to use the washing machine only in French?) before sending them off for the night. Tomorrow, we have the onsite orientation for the students, and Wednesday, our first normal class day! The stagiaires will never have a dull moment--that's for sure!

That's about all I have for you for now, but here's an idea of what will be coming up in the future:
- A description of Saumur and the region
- A description of a typical class day
- Updates whenever there is an excursion, holiday, or other important events
- and many many photos--I will be posting all my photos to a picture website which will be made available to you via this blog. Your students will of course have many of their own photos to share with you as well when they return!

I'm very much looking forward to the adventures to come and sharing them with you. Feedback is always appreciated--it's always possible you will be very curious about a certain aspect of life over here and I won't have thought to post about it, so feel free to contact me either here or at

A bientôt,