Student to Student
No Age Limits for Study Abroad in France
At Last, the Complete Parisian Experience
It was my second day of a five-week stay in Paris and I was standing in the dairy aisle of a supermarché, staring blankly at cartons of milk. The problem: I had no idea what the words on the cartons meant. I had long before decided that I wanted the complete Parisian experience, which meant living like a Parisian: no hotels, no speaking English, no eating at the Burger King on the Champs Elysées.
I was subletting an apartment in the seventh arrondissement from a friend of a friend, and my first order of business was food. But I was so self-conscious about my French, or lack thereof, that I refused to ask anyone for help. The six items in my little basket took 45 minutes to select. Maybe I've made a big mistake!
What landed me in Paris was a long-held desire to study abroad. I was 10 years removed from my junior year at college, when I had decided not to go to France but to do the coursework needed to graduate on time. I honestly thought that my window of opportunity for studying abroad had long been closed.
At the age of 29, fed up with taking a weekly French class at the neighborhood adult school, the idea of studying abroad again crossed my mind. It was quickly followed by the thoughts, "I'm grown now. Who's ever heard of an adult studying abroad for non-business purposes?" And, "I'll be the oldest one in a class full of teenagers." I let these doubts deter me until I decided to do a little research. I was astonished by the number of adults who do study abroad each year, if for no other reason than to better themselves linguistically or to learn another culture.
My first step was to contact the French consulate in Los Angeles. I was forwarded a comprehensive list (149 pages) of schools in France that taught French to foreigners. Paris has an abundance of language schools. Knowing I wanted to study in Paris did not narrow my school choices drastically. Knowing I wanted to take at least three hours of classes daily, that I could take a one-month leave from my job, and that spending $2,000 on a class was not an option for me, I was able to narrow the programs to about six. As for living arrangements, I considered a host family, but being an adult and somewhat set in my ways and freedoms, I was leery about living according to someone else's rules. By just asking around, I discovered a friend whose very best friend had recently moved to Paris and was willing to sublet his large apartment for three weeks and to share it for the other two.
I'm a firm believer in inspecting an item before I buy into it, so I waited until I reached Paris before enrolling in a program. I'm happy I did this because I ended up at Alliance Francaise, which is housed in an old scholastic-looking building on boulevard Raspail, between the Latin Quarter and Montparnasse. I somehow managed a decent enough score on the written and oral tests to be placed in an intermediate class.
How It Was
Day one. A young man who, had he been outfitted in cape, hat, boots, and gloves could have passed for one of the three musketeers, walked into the class and said, "Bonjour, je m'appelle Xavier Dumont," then proceeded to rattle off a variety of information at breakneck speed. It all pretty much sounded like this to me: je lalalalalalala. Oui, nous lalalalalalala. Four hours later, he was still going. My head was throbbing. Not only could I not understand a thing, le professeur had a knack for picking people to answer questions who were clearly cowering under their desks. The lower I slumped in my seat, the more likely he was to call on me. This caused me to become even more self-conscious.
But an interesting thing happened along the way. I realized that of the 15 or so people in class, I was not the only one lost, and none of them were giving up. I couldn't be the first to drop out. I had never been a quitter (hence my 14 years of futile French), so I decided to stick it out. The following day, armed with aspirin, I began to notice something. Instead of "je lalalalalalala," I now heard, "je voudrais lalala." Hope.
The hope soon turned into belief, belief into confidence, and confidence into excitement. I looked forward to coming to class every day. This doubtful beginning turned into a fulfilling experience. My classmates hailed from Japan, Brazil, Australia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Italy, Mexico, and the U.S. There was a 17-year-old student, a 23-year-old former piano child prodigy, a 49-year-old housewife, and a 37-year-old doctor. Most spoke English at different levels of competency, and we had to try hard not to revert to it on breaks. But we were determined to make the most out of the situation.
Not only did we stay in the course, we developed friendships that stretched beyond the confines of the classroom. Twice a week, we left class together to visit a nearby boulangerie for baguettes and tarts and a supermarché for legumes, pasta, and wine. Then we made our way to a designated apartment where we fait la cuisine, enjoyed a nice dinner, and discussed our day. On days off we took trips to Versailles or to visit the Museé D'Orsay. Our teacher became a part of our social sphere. We enjoyed evenings of five-franc pints of Guinness and Celtic music at a nearby bar with him, while he wove tales of Paris . . . in French, no less.
What I cherish most about my experience is the day an old woman walked up to me and asked, "Madame, savez-vous où est le supermarché?" I was able to ask her which supermarché she was looking for, to understand her response, then to give her thorough directions to it. I will never forget the smile on her face or the warmth of her hand as she grasped mine and gave it a warm squeeze. By this point, that early episode in the market had become a humorous anecdote.
In those four weeks of intensive French, submerged in French society, I learned more of the language and culture than I had in years of classes back home. In those four weeks, I established strong friendships that will last forever. The experience was unique and fulfilling, one that I cannot explain fully. The only way to truly understand it is to live it.