August 8th, 2009 12:05 EST
Adventures in Cheese Snob Land: Getting into a Rochellaise Routine
After graduating from high school, transferring colleges, and having no intention to attend grad school, I never expected to be new to a school again. The days of being the shy, clueless kid who didn`t have the inside scoop on anything relevant were over. Or so I thought. I am now a summer student at--get this--"Sup de Co."
The full name translates to, more or less, The La Rochelle Business School. During the regular school year, French students go there to earn Bachelor`s and Master`s degrees in programs like Economy and Tourism. During the summer, entitled upper-middle class college students like me come from all over the world to "apprendre FranÃ§ais."
My host father was kind enough to drive me to school on the first day so I wouldn`t have to endure the forty-minute bus ride for another twenty-four hours. I came just on time, perhaps two or three minutes late, but it didn`t matter because the other American students were still jamming up the atrium. Besides, everything was running on French time.
I went up to the other VCU students and told them about the party I attended Saturday, including my new knowledge of French drinking games. We finally started ten or fifteen minutes late. I wasn`t complaining, though. That meant ten more minutes for me to try and digest the fact that I was attending an all-French school for the next three weeks of my life. Like equestrian lessons on Grandfather Sebastian`s estate followed by dinner at the country club, it sounded too much like a chapter out of someone else`s uppity existence.
Before I signed up for the trip, I was fairly certain I wouldn`t have a chance to see France until my Honeymoon, let alone study with a whole cast of very animated native speakers. And yet there I stood in my $10 jeans, carrying my French-English dictionary from a free book pile at a library back home, about to embark upon one of the most bourgeois things a 20-year old white American can do. Granted, I`m not staying in a flat overlooking the Eiffel Tower and studying the history of wine tasting for a semester.
Thankfully, I like staying in a popular port city better. There`s more grit. We began with, no surprise, a Powerpoint. A British lady who had us all deceived until she revealed her Anglican name talked us through all of the school rules and procedures. It was a snooze fest but it had to be done. I worked on a drawing as she talked about how we should conduct ourselves in the city. Apparently, "French men are like [rabbits in heat]," so we are not to interpret "Bonjour" as anything less than a come-on. Well, well, well, time to pull out the burka. Oh, wait, Sarkozy is about to forbid those.
After the Powerpoint, the school staff and administrators introduced themselves, but it was rather uneventful. French people got up, welcomed us to their city, told us about their jobs, and then sat down in their French ways (by that I mean they didn`t look like they were about to break the chair because they had eaten too many Twinkies.) The aforementioned British lady gave us a tour of the school, still speaking her remarkably flawless French. The building is very white and sterile looking, which makes it somewhat hard to navigate. Everything looks the same, even the occasional young French person who loiters in the hallway.
I swear French boys don`t know how to comb their hair, but I`m still deciding whether that is a good or bad thing. The school is clean and well-equipped, but it has its inconveniences. First off, it`s far from my host family`s home. I have to walk to the bus stop, board the bus as its only passenger for about fifteen minutes (someone always hops on for the last five minutes), transfer buses, make half-way coherent conversation with my classmates on the second bus, and, eventually, arrive half an hour early.
There is no other way to do it...and still be on time. For my third day of school, my second day of real class, I figured I could leave about fifteen minutes later and still make class in time. That would have been a swell idea save for one major error on my part:
Two of my classmates and I were heading over to the school cafeteria the second day of school, which to add to the school`s however mild inconvienences, is about a fifteen minute walk from the building where we take classes, when we realized that we had no idea where we were. I swear the only distinguishable building in the area was McDonald`s. We were nervous because class lets out at 12:30 p.m., only half an hour before the cafeteria supposedly closes, so we were afraid we wouldn`t have the chance to eat.
I mustered up the courage to ask a couple people where the cafeteria was but none of them had a clear idea. We knew we were in the general area but that doesn`t help much in a sea of gray and beige buildings and poorly marked streets. One of my classmates asked a college-age guy where the caf was and he said it was just straight down the street. Okay, that was easy, even easier since he said he was going there himself. We followed him, discovered that the cafeteria was still open, and found out that the guy was rather funny. He even got us to chat with one of his friends.
Forty-five minutes and several attempts on their part to speak English later, three of my classmates and I had set a rendez-vous with the Frenchies: 10:00 p.m. at General Humbert`s, a former sailors` pub. Let`s just say that it`s not everyday a French guy invites me to a bar. God, that sounds sketchy. Even worse because I have a boyfriend. But I swear that my intentions, as well as those of my classmates, were completely innocent. I really did want to spend time with young French people who didn`t talk like they had just leapt out of my high school textbook/video/CD series.
I spent the afternoon in suspense. I completed a homework assignment, which involved visiting a French magazine stand, buying one of the assigned newspapers, and interviewing the owner about French reading habits. Afterwards, I shopped in adorable boutiques. Then I went home and played with my host family`s foster child, the most precious eleven-year old I know. With our mutual love of fairy princesses and hatred of alcoholism (her mother, who recently died, was an abusive alcoholic), she and I have enough in common to entertain each other during card games and puzzles.
I like greeting her with "Coo-coo," the way small French children say `Hi,` and sitting down and discussing the facts of life while eating Nutella sandwiches.
I also took a nap and when I woke up, my host mother`s mother, brother, sister-in-law, and friend congregated around the living room coffee table. Everyone was celebrating my host brother`s high score on the Bac, sort of the equivalent of the French SAT sans multiple choice. I tried a third of a glass of champagne for the first time in adult life and detested it, but the dinner as a whole was worth my time. I ate a tomato stuffed with pork on a bed of white rice.
The grandmother thought I was pretty wonderful and asked me all sorts of questions about the United States; she even invited me to the Mediatheque [a public French library with all kinds of media beyond books] the next day, where I had the chance to watch <> The rest of the family grilled me about Bush and Obama. They approved of my stance on each man (Bush-boo, Obama-yay). Anyway, that was I how diverted myself before I biked over to the city`s big clock to meet another classmate at around 9:30 p.m. Shockingly, the sun is still bright at that hour.
My classmate and I decided to meet a few minutes before our rendez-vous with the Frenchies because A) we had no idea where the bar was, even though the kid we had met gave us directions, and B) if you`re not familiar with a bar, your first time there can be very scary, especially if you`re alone in a foreign country that speaks a different language than your own. Some nice French teenagers pointed us the right way and off we went. Of course, we were unfashionably early, so we didn`t dare go inside. We meandered around first. Let it be known that French allies, even ones containing marketplaces, smell like the beautiful union of cat and human piss.
Ten minutes or so later, my classmate and I wandered in front of the bar and, almost immediately, our new friend popped out and beckoned us inside. The fellow American and I became popular rather quickly. We practiced our French, answered basic questions about our country (yes, I did draw a map of the United States and label the major cities. No, I did not include Cincinnati), and occasionally corrected the Frenchies` English grammar and slang when they asked. Even though I had clearly stated that I didn`t drink--a lifestyle that basically doesn`t exist in France--the Frenchies bought me beer, anyway. I gave it to my classmate; he drank it so fast that he surprised our new acquaintances.
I told them it was the American way and they laughed. Europeans love it when Americans make fun of their own country. Thankfully degrading humor is my specialty. So, time passed, vulgarities were exchanged, pronunciations were mocked, and fun was had by all. I only experienced mild discomfort when the same guy asked me twice to kiss his friend who was leaving for Australia the next morning (No, I did not kiss him and no, I do not regret turning down a kiss from a French man.) If nothing else, I gained a new interpretation that evening: perhaps one of the reasons Anglos call Frenchies frogs is because in their early learning of English, they sound like they are croaking.
I am not sure what animal sound to compare early English speakers` pronunciation of French; all I know is that we never seem as enthusiastic or congested as native Francophones. About an hour and a half later, my classmate and I announced that we had to leave. We had class the next morning, after all, and couldn`t party all night long. This didn`t please the Frenchies very much, but they bid us farewell. I figured that I would be home at 11 :45, which meant I could be asleep by midnight. But such planning came from the heart of a young idealist. Nothing ever works out so simply. Nope, as soon as my classmate and I exited the bar, we ran into two guys from our class. We probably could have said hi and bye fairly quickly if it had not been for a malcontent and a hot pink bunny rabbit.
I promise that I was not high. Somewhat sleep deprived perhaps but not dillusional. There really was an old man in a faded plaid shirt who stumbled toward us and started rambling in French. He hated what La Rochelle had become, how the tourists had destroyed it, how it was not his city anymore. Consider his somber lament a huge juxtaposition to the middle-age woman dressed up in furry ears and a snug costume just across the narrow street. The drunk`s random complaints began to irk me so I went over to talk to the bunny. My main question was why she was dressed that way.
I almost hoped that she would admit to being a prostitute since I have never met one before, but she had a much more chaste response. She and her girlfriends were celebrating the equivalent of a French bachlorette party. Fast forward fifteen or twenty minutes. The classmate I originally came with and I are riding around on our bikes, a tad confused because the stone buildings look even more similar at night than they do during the day. When we get to the cathedral, though, I found my way. My classmate and I parted. Then I arrived home, felt a sudden urge to check my email, and a while later readjusted my alarm clock.
That last item on that list is where my mistake occurred. In my exhaustion, I accidentally set my clock and alarm too late ...by an entire hour. The next morning, I woke up and yawned very peacefully. Since I had been thirty minutes early the previous day, I figured that I could leave fifteen minutes later and still have enough time to chat with classmates. I sludged over to the shower and shortly afterwards, was bent before the refrigerator, playing Eeny-meeny-miny-moe with confitures when I heard the foster daughter shuffle into the kitchen. She was still mostly asleep, fluttering her blue-green eyes. When I asked why she was up so early (I knew she was not supposed to even wake up until my class already began), she said, Â« Oh, just because. Â» I thought nothing more of it and concentrated on the tartine and abricots before me.
A bit after, the father came in and told me I was going to be late for school. I explained that I had arrived too early the previous day so that I could afford to come in later today. Â« Thirty minutes too early yesterday, thirty minutes too late today, Â» he mumbled. I laughed. Ten minutes later, I was eating at a relaxed pace when he said, Â« No, really. You are going to be late. Â» I looked up at the kitchen clock for the first time all morning and shouted, Â« Shit ! I set my clock wrong. Â» It was 8 :10, which meant that class began in twenty minutes. I dashed into the courtyard, hopped onto my host brother`s bike, and pedled with a foggy vision of the route in my mind. Now I was awake. Before that day, I had never chased a bus.
When I first left the house, it was too late for me to catch my first bus. I crossed my fingers that I could catch the second one, but it was not at the bus station when I arrived. Lacking the generosity of time, I kept going. But La Rochelle is a bigger city than you may imagine. I was lost until I turned a corner and saw my second bus a couple hundred yards in front of me. I raced to catch up, knowing that there was no other way to get to class at a decent hour. My hair blew in all directions, my muscles burned, I could feel the sweat forming on my skin. When the bus reached my school, I stopped so quickly that I jolted forward and nearly fell off.
My host father had given me long enough of a lecture about bike thefts in La Rochelle that I did not even consider leaving the bicycle unlocked. But I swear that it had never taken me longer to lock up a bike. I kept fiddling with the curled antivol until it latched and then sprinted to my classroom. I tried to enter the classroom quietly, but, even still, it was hard for the others not to notice my bright red face and, I am certain, my stench.
A classmate offered me a waterbottle on sight. The teacher, startled by my appearance, asked if I had gotten lost and I politely asked if I could explain later. She said yes, I sat down, and was soon asked to express my opinion on Michael Jackson. When I gazed up at the clock, I realized I was no more than fifteen minutes late, which is not an utter disaster for a four-hour class. I was still disappointed with myself, though.
I had been carrying on fairly well in France. Only a few days after my arrival, I was already beginning to establish myself in La Rochelle and, apart from nearly losing my lungs as I followed my bus with the fury of a dog taunting a mail carrier, I am off to a productive start. Maybe I will finally learn real French. At least now I can execute a truly offensive insult.