Things have been fairly busy here in Tours since my last post, which means that I have a lot to write about to catch everyone up. I hope to be posting more regularly in the upcoming weeks despite the increasing workload of courses that we will have in July; in addition to classes, we will have additional excursions as a group, including another château visit and an opportunity to see the Tour de France pedal through Tours during its 100th anniversary.
As I type this, a small group of our MSU contingent is on the train, headed to Lyon for the first leg of our one-week vacation following three weeks of class. The four of us will spend three nights in Lyon, then three in Nice and two in Grenoble before returning to Tours late in the evening on June 30. After that, we’ll all have another orientation meeting on Monday morning before beginning the second session of classes on Tuesday. While five weeks still seems like a long time left to be here in France, the first three have flown by so quickly and have included so many fun activities that I know it won’t be long before we’re on the plane back to Detroit.
During the week, much of our time was spent at or near the Institut. MSU’s thirty-two students on the trip were split into two groups for classes; mine met from 9:00 – 11:00am on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and 9:00 – 12:15 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Once class was over, we would usually get a light lunch at Carrefour (the nearby grocery store) or a sandwicherie on Rue Nationale and, because it rained almost daily for a solid week and a half, would then take shelter back at the Institut to hang out or get work done.
My second week here included two excursions: one on Wednesday afternoon to the châteaux at Azay-le-Rideau and Villandry as well as a day trip on Saturday to Paris. Both of these excursions were hosted by the Institut and included students from many different groups (including one from nearby Hillsdale, Michigan, which we were surprised to find out while in Paris!). Herding fifty students through small castle staircases provided its own challenges, but we still managed to marvel at the architecture and landscapes of the castles on Wednesday.
On Saturday, the excursion included stops at the Musée d’Orsay and Notre-Dame. While at the museum, we learned about the building (which was originally a train station whose architecture was kept intact instead of it being destroyed and rebuilt for the museum) and the many works of art inside, including Rodin sculptures, many impressionist paintings, and Van Gogh’s famed Starry Night. After a guided tour in the Musée, I got a crêpe for lunch before heading to Notre-Dame. While we didn’t spend much time inside the cathedral, five of us paid a modest five-euro fare to climb a long series of spiral stairs to the top of the building, which provided a beautiful view of Paris. After spending a hefty (but worthy!) chunk of change for macarons* at the well-known Ladurée, we had a fitting end to our trip to Paris by seeing the Eiffel Tower at a close distance as our bus made its way home.
In addition, the second week of our study abroad included my 21st birthday (which I humorously celebrated before my twin brother, who is three minutes older than me but six timezones away!) on June 13. While the first of several consecutive days of rain kept us from celebrating in the evening, I had an enjoyable day and a large dinner (plus cake!) with my host family. That day also included the first of two placement exams for our July courses: an hour-long written exam that had sections for listening, reading comprehension, and writing responses to prompts. Except for some trouble with the excerpts in the listening section, I exited the exam feeling like I had done fairly well. A few days ago, we finished the placement exams with a ten-minute oral conversation with one of the professors at the Institut. I thought that went better than the written exam; I was able to speak fluidly without too many grammatical errors (or, when I did miss something, I realized and corrected myself before continuing) and the only words I struggled to say were unfamiliar vocabulary words like bec (mouthpiece) and orchestre à cordes (string orchestra). Now, we play the waiting game: we won’t find out the results of our placement nor our grades from the first session until our orientation on July 1.
Speaking of the first session, I should probably explain how classes worked as well… Our sixteen-person class was taught by Olivier Dufresne, a professor with a jovial attitude and exciting facial hair to match. We spent most of our classes in a lecture-style discussion setting, learning historical and cultural details about France in areas such as religion, politics, and even music. In many classes, we would compare French life with ours in the United States, which Olivier seemed to appreciate as an opportunity for two-way learning. In addition to his lectures, each student gave a 15 – 20-minute presentation known as an exposé, focusing on one of the main topics for the day. My exposé, done this past Wednesday, was centered on la presse in France; I discussed the different types of French newspapers and their circulation figures, along with a comparison to similar American papers and the issues that they faced.
La presse — The media
Our only(!) other homework assignment for the first class was a 7 – 10-page paper, or dossier, on a topic of our choosing. Naturally, I wrote about contemporary French music, taking a look at popular genres in France and how English-language songs often cross over to French radio stations.
Fittingly, yesterday was our final day of class for the month, falling on the same day as the first day of summer and Fête de la Musique, a worldwide holiday that originated in France during which musicians of all types fill the streets with sound. I participated in two concerts during my 2008 tour in France with the Blue Lake International Jazz Ensemble, but since I did not bring my trombone with me during this trip, I spent the evening solely enjoying the music. It was really cool to turn one corner and another and continually find musicians playing completely different genres, from a reggae band and a rock guitarist to the accordion player on the sidewalk and a drumline covering Maroon 5’s “Payphone” on vibraphones. Much like the musicians coming together despite their contrasting performances, the Institut — and even our group from MSU — is a mélange of cultures and backgrounds that allows all of us to learn more and more about the great big world** we live in. This will continue next month as more students arrive at the Institut, including a large group from Canada, and I am excited to interact with more students of different cultures and to gain an even greater appreciation of our differences and commonalities.
* Note that there is a difference between macarons, meringue-based confections, and macaroons, more of a biscuit usually with sugar and coconut known as a congolais in France. (Thanks, Wikipedia.)
** I heard this song on the radio right before arriving at the airport in Detroit; I thought it was a pretty fitting song to hear before a transcontinental flight!