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Published:August 10th, 2009 18:43 EST
Adventures in Cheese Snob Land: The Final Week Means I Go Home

Adventures in Cheese Snob Land: The Final Week Means I Go Home

By Christine Stoddard

Sometimes days pass by in minutes. I woke up one morning to the sounds of American music on a French radio station when I realized that, in a week, I would sitting at home, too wilted to unpack my bags, but full of rib-breaking stories for my family. Over a week since that point, I am home, satisfied with all the warmth of familiarity but hankering for the many elements of French culture I admired and even envied while studying abroad. And I`m not just talking about Nutella and cheap movie theaters, either. I`m talking about France`s heightened sense of ecology and environmentalism, their emphasis on interpersonal relationships, their great taste in food, their rich tradition in art and architecture, their percipacity for fashion, and--God, if I continue, I`ll end up penning a whole other essay instead of focusing upon my final week in the country. Let me wrap up in saying that sometimes you have to experience something firsthand to become fully infatuated with it. Otherwise, I have no other way of understanding stamp collecting. 

The last week of class was both a relief and a heartbreak. My Sup de Co teacher obviously did not want to see us leave, which surprised none of us. She lived for us. Everyday she would come in early (I generally arrived about fifteen minutes before class, but it was clear that she had started working far before then) and never failed to have a full day planned for us. I`ve had my share of teachers who simply taught during a transition period in their lives until they began graduate school or a more prestigious job. I`ve had teachers who popped in videos at every opportunity, could hardly ever answer student questions with a satisfying response, and did everything in their power to look disengaged. On the opposite side of the spectrum have been teachers like the one I had at Sup de Co: totally dedicated, passionate about their subject, eager to awaken their students` curiosity about said subject, etc. They don`t just, as my Sup de Co teacher jested, "Show a film and give the class bon-bons." I was and remain grateful that my Sup de Co teacher was enthusiastic and knowledgeable. The pedagogy graduate student in our class had minimal critiques, and, while I understand what she meant about improving upon certain teaching practices, I still feel like I learned as much as I possibly could have in a month without locking myself up in a room full of books. She printed out all kinds of papers, copied magazines and newspapers, filled the whiteboard with vocabulary, and constantly prodded for our opinions to force us to open our mouthes. Occasionally the class conversations got uncomfortable, such as when she asked about our views on love and marriage, and taunted one girl for not ever wanting to marry and have children. Apparently this automatically meant she was promiscuous. But, maybe that IS what not wanting a husband and children means in France.

Even if it was the last week of classes, it hardly felt like it. Our teacher continued her "sweat and tears" approach and spiced up every lesson with her unique blend of French liberal sarcasm. The moment I walked into the classroom, fifteen minutes early, the teacher looked up and commented upon my hair. (There is no higher fashion flattery than to have a stylish French woman compliment you.) She called the color "eggplant" and, while I agreed with her, I said that the dye box described it as "red chocolate." Then she joked about how hair dye boxes are always labeled one way but always turn out otherworldly. We chatted a bit, but I mostly left her to her work and drew as other students trickled into the classroom. Once everyone had arrived, the teacher perked up from her desk and launched into "tour de table," where everyone shares one notable experience/observation they`ve had/made within the last twenty-four hours. We always feared what one girl in particular had to say for this part of class; the first time, she had learned that her husband`s grandfather cut his hand off in a farm accident the night before; the second time, she had cut her own finger; and the third time she told a horror story of going on a rowing trip with her host mother and the host mother`s boyfriend, only to hear them argue the entire trip. She also ended up doing all of the rowing. 

That same girl and I were partners for the class marketplace field trip. She and I were stuck with the stench of fish--which our teacher swore didn`t smell. Either French people are oblivious to the stink of most fish or lack olfactory senses altogether. My classmate and I had the embarrassing task of interviewing fish/seafood vendors and clients and recording the exchanges. We also had to observe what specifically the vendors sold and what the clients bought. In an ideal world, such an activity would be fun and educational, but the world is not a bowl of "cherises" even in France. We had a particularly hard time with one customer who refused to give us straight answers. All we wanted to know was what she planned to buy ("pas de thon") and how she planned to prepare it, but she made it seem like we`d have to torture her first before she revealed that information. She could have declined to participate in the first place and gone on her merry fish-buying way, but she didn`t. Even our Sup de Co teacher admitted that the French are very individually minded; I hope this woman was an exception rather than a rule. I know for sure that at least a handful of nice French people exist.

The most notable academic happening of the week came when I had to knock my knees together for twenty to twenty-five minutes talking to the class about French cinema. I babbled on and on and on because I knew the whole point of the project was to practice oral communication. I could`ve talked about anything (the list of options ranged from rather conversational to more academic). I mentioned notable French actors (Josiane Balasko, Daniel Auteuil, Gerard Depardieu, etc.) and films ("Les Enfants de Paradis," "A Bout de Souffle," "Jean de Florette," etc.) in addition to spewing out relevant vocabulary and facts about French film history, directors, and French movie-going habits. Though my presentation was not as entertaining as it could have been, I definitely maximized my time and crammed in as much information as possible. I chugged along, even as my classmates drooled and nearly fell asleep.

We also took a rapid-fire final exam based upon the special topic presentations we the students had given over the past three weeks. Questions ranged from the French education system to the French word for "credits" and "casting" to French writers. Put otherwise, information we could have easily looked up (evidently I`m not a big advocate of tests and quizzes that only require you to memorize data rather than analyze them). I couldn`t remember the name of the region where Paris is located. So, thinking that the Paris Region was too obvious, I wrote Lutecia to be a smart-ass. That was the city`s name back during the era of the Roman Empire, when France was still Gaul. I drew a smiley-face to prove that I was kidding. Certainly such a move would have annoyed the uptight French teacher I had my last two years of high school, but I think it made my Sup de Co teacher smirk as she sat at home grading papers. If it didn`t, at least I smirked. 

We ended our official curriculum at Sup de Co by watching "Astérix et Obélix: Mission Cleopatra," a comedy based upon a popular comic book series. If you need a film that pokes fun at Gaul, ancient Rome, and ancient Egypt all at once, this is possibly your only viewing option. A couple of the French jokes don`t translate into English, but I was surprised by how many of the French jokes required an understanding of English language and American pop culture. Apparently the average French person gets a kick out of hippies and the concept of "love and peace." It could be that they get a kick out of anything American/British/Anglophone, though.

Before we left Sup de Co for good, the teacher handed out our certificates of achievement. The certificates confirmed that we had passed a course at the school and that we had reached a certain level of control with the French language according to European standards. Our class had achieved B1, which means high intermediate or advanced low. At least that`s proof that I can say more than, "Where`s the Holiday Inn, garçon?" After presenting our certificates, the teacher insisted on taking several class photos with all of our cameras. Thanks to one of my classmate`s suggestions, my dear Lenore made it into the shot. I nestled her in the teacher`s cupped hands, to which she said, "Is this some kind of symbolism?" I looked at her, befuddled. "Calling the teacher a dragon!" I smiled and said no. If anyone`s a dragon, it`s Sarkozy. 

My last week was not without its shopping escapades, though I was mostly finished throwing my cash to the French wind. My escapades included seizing a pair of nude Texto sandals with a flesh-colored ring around the big toe and punky studs. The splurge I had intended for a coat or dress went toward a big book purchase instead. The name of the bookstore was, literally translated, Arts and Distractions. That in and of itself was enough to lure me in, despite the fact that one classmate told me it was nothing special. On the contrary, it was very special and very French. I`m not sure where else I could purchase an encyclopedia full of detailed pen illustrations of pocket watches` workings. Later on in the week, I also checked out a mystical bookstore. I was tempted to buy one of the many fairy paintings on display, but, alas, they were too expensive and would have been difficult to transport home, besides. So I settled for a used book on mysterious civilizations. 

Determined to see the majority of the Rochellais museums, I wandered through the Maritime Museum with a classmate the same afternoon of my book shopping spree. Really, the museum was just one fishing boat and a cruise ship docked and open to the public for eight Euros a head. It was disappointing because there were no labels or placards anywhere. All we had was a measly brochure with three paragraphs about each boat. At least I took good pictures of Lenore. I shoved her into sailors` barracks, wedged her into the nooks and crannies separating machinery, and balanced her from heights perilous to a 6`` plastic dragon. 

I also treated myself to the last films of the trip: "Le Herisson" and "Bancs publiques," the latter I saw straight after walking out of the Maritime Museum and persuading my classmate to buy a pocket watch. I much preferred "Le Herisson," though I`m certain that`s because I did not get all of the jokes in "Bancs publiques." If I`m watching a French film without subtitles, I generally gravitate toward dramas because comedies involve too many subtle references for me to go all "Hon-hon" at the humor. Though, even if I did get all the humor, I doubt I`d laugh the deep belly laugh of a French uncle.

On Monday, still antsy about how I would spend the last week, I parked my bike outside of the tourism office and rummaged through all the racks and shelves for suggestions. Most of the flyers blabbered on about activities we had already done or ones that were simply too costly. A few of the activities were located farther out in the Poitou-Charentes region, an hour or two away by car and thus unreachable by city bus and painfully far by bike. I started to get discouraged, that is until I read about a mystery ghost game at the three medieval towers that have made La Rochelle such a popular tourist destination. Three of my classmates and I had already visited the towers during the day, but this game promised theatrical performances, danger, suspense, and--giggle--treasure! I showed the flyer to my VCU professor the next day and rallied other members of our university group to play. My professor then placed an order for the tickets and I picked them up at the tourism office after our group ate at a café (only in France can you eat fresh lamb over rice and lettuce in the middle of the day as if it`s nothing special.)

Les Evadés Tower game was worth every one of those eighteen Euros. The actors were some of the most animated I had ever seen and loved interacting with the audience, even if it meant physically touching them and yelling in their faces. All of the actors portrayed some historical character related to La Rochelle. The man who played a prisoner stank...literally. They told us tales and occasionally played games with us so we could solve for secret codes. In the end, we won a history book about La Rochelle, a coupon for a butter cake, biscuits, and candy--not exactly the treasure I imagined, but maybe that`s because the little girl in me was crossing my fingers for a gilded pony. The only unpleasant part of the game came when we exited one of the towers and stopped because we saw a woman dressed up in a Scottish highlands costume. Because she had on such a full skirt, we kind of assumed that she was part of the show. After about ten minutes, I felt like we were in the wrong place, since most of the other acts had been brief and were of a much higher caliber. Maybe twenty minutes passed as we listened to her mediocre flute-playing in the freezing winds before someone from the game came out and rushed us along to claim the treasure. Needless to say, we were all annoyed at ourselves.

The next day, we redeemed the coupon we had won during Les Evadés Tower game so we could feast upon our butter cake. Two of the classmates in our group suddenly became tired and headed back home instead of joining in. So the remaining classmate and I meandered to the marina and plunked ourselves down on a filthy curb. I was disappointed with the cake but shoveled a good third of it into my mouth, anyway. We had worked hard to earn it, so I might as well have eaten some. We did not eat the butter cake until two or three hours before stopping by a French hair salon first.

Two of my classmates were positively set on getting their hair done in France. I was more hesitant for several reasons: I had just dyed my hair and didn`t want it to endure so much processing so soon; I wasn`t too intent on getting it cut because I prize my long hair and trust few people with it; it was expensive; I feared having a French woman relax my hair since not many folks understand curly hair, anyway; I have never gotten anything done at a salon before because I`m staunchly D.I.Y. about almost everything, especially my appearance, and wasn`t convinced I wanted to change that philosophy. Why, then, did I even consider getting my hair done in the first place? Because I was in France and part of me wanted the princess treatment. Even more, the whole study abroad experience had such a big impact on my being that I felt like I was beginning a new chapter in my life. In this chapter, I would be more adventurous, more open-minded, and therefore willing to try completely new things, including getting my hair done at a salon instead of taking a pair of craft scissors to my mane. The more practical side of me won, however. I figured dying my hair multiple shades darker and trimming my split ends was big enough of a make-over during my one-month stay in the land of cheese snobs. I was shocked by that kind of audacity alone and was confident my boyfriend, friends, and family would be, as well. (Requisite anecdote: when I saw my boyfriend when I returned, I waited about an hour until I drew attention to my hair. He had recognized that it was darker but thought it was "the French sun." Utterly nonplussed, I asked what that meant and said that, if anything, "The French sun would`ve bleached it." He shrugged his shoulders in his very innocent way and said, "I don`t know about these things." Then I said, "I dyed it." "Artificially?" Obviously my boyfriend knows nothing about hair and make-up. Though, to be fair, he`s not accustomed to me making artificial enhancements.)

Even if I left France without getting my French haircut, I knew I couldn`t leave France without trying their version of McDonald`s. Wait, let me correct that statement. I had scarfed down one simple cheeseburger there as a late afternoon snack once (really, only the cheese differed in that it tasted sharper), but I had yet to buy a full-fledged French McDonald`s meal. I scanned the menu, saw that it was mostly the same, but noted a few new names. I went for a "So Grilled." A So Grilled is a grilled chicken sandwich laid out on dusty bread. It contains lettuce, tomato, and one of France`s numerous white mystery sauces. I began my order when the cashier cut me off and asked me if I spoke English. Not many Francophones had asked me that question yet, though virtually all of them spat out some English once they discovered I was American. Because of my light olive complexion, I think I confused most of them. This cashier, however, was overly-eager to practice his English, even it meant being slightly rude in interrupting me. Once I answered yes, he said, "Okay, so let`s do this in English." He puffed up a bit, visibly prepared for it. I caught on pretty quickly that I had to talk slowly but overall we understood each other. Until he asked, "Big menu or little menu?" A couple seconds later, I said, "Do you mean size? Big size or little size?" He looked at me with a sliver of doubt for a moment, but speedily regained his confidence: "Yes."

On the topic of food, my "last supper" with my host family consisted of chicken, pork, and stewed tomatoes with rice. There were also the requisite cantaloupes (one of the region`s specialities, I learned), and way too many cheeses to name. As usual, my host father offered me more and more food and looked mildly offended when I eventually declined. I was afraid my stomach would explode and then fly around the room like a loose balloon. My host mother defended me and gave her husband a stern look like, "Seriously, she`s American. You know they can`t handle this much food unless it comes from a drive-thru." Dinner wound down and I cajoled my host family into the courtyard for photographs. The sisters, to my regret, were not there, but I needed pictures regardless. I took a couple of photos of the mother, father, and brother standing together and then the father took photos of me standing with the mother and brother. 

The eating was not over, though. My family then took me out for ice cream, where I ordered a sundae called "Thriller." I knew that if I pronounced Thriller in my American English accent, the server probably wouldn`t understand me because I had had that experience before pronouncing the names of American actors and cities. So I asked my host mother how to say Thriller with a French accent. Then my host father asked how to say it in American English. He looked utterly lost. My host mother asked me to say it in British English, so I gave a shot at the BBC pronunciation. Their eyes immediately lit up in recognition. For the record, the sundae was fabulous. After eating the sundae, my host family and I parted ways. I met a few classmates beneath the city`s big clock and we went bar-hopping. We spent two hours at one bar chatting with insanely drunk French people who complimented our "cute" accents. 

During the ride to the car ride the next morning, my host mother and I discussed a few mundane things, as if we weren`t really parting for what would probably be the first and last times in our lives. Somehow the conversation drifted to the subject of homelessness in La Rochelle, which was totally removed from what we would experience in a matter of minutes. When the time came for us to really leave each other, we threw each other a long and tight hug. Then my host mother excused herself, saying she was afraid of crying. She ran off in her billowing sweat pants and baggy sweater, the same garments she had made fun of earlier in the morning. I turned around and chatted with the two classmates sitting on the curb. They commented on how close I seemed to have grown with my host mother, which prompted my monologue. I went on about how wonderful my host family was. It was a bittersweet morning because I was starting to feel the itching of homesickness but still in enamoured of France and the French.

I was lucky enough to hear Mrs. Andrew`s voice once more before bidding farewell to La Rochelle. The Sup de Co field trip coordinator, who we called Princess Di, stepped onto the bus and called, "Where`s Christine?" I waved. "I just wanted to give you one more taste of my English accent before you left." It was a very British, tongue-in-cheek way of saying good-bye. 

The long bus ride to Chartres consisted of me napping, waking up to find dribble on my cheek, reading, napping some more, waking up and feeling like a million elves pounded on my neck, drawing, napping again, waking up and giggling at how all the other students looked as they slept, napping yet again, and then waking up and feeling cranky for the rest of the ride. 

Sadly, I, like every other student as far as I was aware, was too exhausted and excited about going home to fully appreciate Chartres. In other words, it was poor planning on the responsible professor`s part.  I was annoyed that we were visited it in our grumpy state, especially since I had wanted to see Chartres ever since I took Advanced Placement Art History. Of course, it`s very spoiled to say that. I still got to see Chartres, after all. Not everybody can honestly claim to have done that. Inside Chartres, my classmates and I immediately noticed a labyrinth carved on the floor. When I asked my professor what it symbolized, she explained that it represented the spiritual path that we all embark upon during our lives. That sounded a tad too New Age, hippy-dippy for the Middle Ages, however. For lunch, three of my classmates and I checked out a place with a rooster for its logo and bright red wallpaper. I ordered a delicious galette "verte" with spinach, ham, egg, olives, and swiss cheese all melted to amazing yumminess. It`s never easy to find a real lunch for under nine Euros that isn`t a ham sandwich in France, but my group managed to find just that. It was hot, made to order, high-quality, and far more appetizing than the two dozen ham sandwiches we were all tired of.

I didn`t get to spend time doing anything tourist-y in Paris; I had to finish packing, decide how to transport the red wine my host family gave me, and chat with the rest of the group before four of us boarded the shuttle with a funny Indian man who spoke French. It took us close to an hour to arrive to the airport, where I stayed with K.C., my flight buddy from before.

K.C. and I sat outside of the airport and watched the sky waver in and out of romantic colors as the sun set. Then I got impatient and whined about when we`d eat next, so she gave in. We pushed our carts toppled with luggage over to one of the few restaurants that wasn`t situated in the terminals. For my very last meal in France, at least until my next trip, I tried to eat a "Saveurs de Sud" (Flavors of the South) as daintily as possible. I held the chicken on my tongue for as long as I could get away with. It orange spicy sauce was tantalizing.  Shortly after, K.C. I went to a bar, where I ordered expresso. I am not a coffee drinker and probably don`t gulp it down more than four or five times a year, but I wanted to stay awake. I was afraid of sleeping in the airport. Afraid that someone would bother K.C. and me, afraid that someone would steal our luggage. Mostly, I was afraid they would steal my camera and computer; the books I could eventually find at a library and I own far more clothes than anyone should, but my art and writing are irreplaceable. 

I read and napped on the flight from Paris to Geneva. The flight only lasted an hour, so I couldn`t possibly stay bored for long. Sipping hot chocolate and tearing into a buttery croissant was enough to keep me content until the next flight. Or so I thought. [Insert melodramatic music here.]

When my father and I searched for my plane tickets a couple of months before my trip, we figured a one hour stop-over would be too short. I`ve had one hour stop-overs before, but because my planes never run on time, I always end up sprinting to catch my second flight. I often drop a bag in the process, something embarrassing flings into the air, and I blush as I gather my panties/my dirty socks/my package of sanitary napkins. So when my father and I saw a three hour stop-over opportunity, we clicked `reserve` faster than--well, I`m sure nothing else goes that fast. I would have enough time to comfortably get off of the plane, use the restroom, buy a snack if I so desired, verify that my checked bags had made it onto the next plane, pick up my boarding pass, and then sit down at my terminal without waiting very long. That, dear reader, was only hypothetical. The reality featured much less agreeable pacing and a heck of a lot more stress.

The Geneva airport was a nightmarish maze where nothing was labeled. The only signs read A, B, C, D, and E, but never explained what each letter meant--in English, German, French, Italian, Chinese, Finnish, Tagalog, or any language for that matter. I had to ask four people where to go, but they couldn`t tell me. We dragged around our luggage; I literally could not pay for the two Euro cart unless I went to an ATM, which would have only spat out twenties. The optimist in me will pipe up, "At least you girls got your exercise!" Yeah, a fortnight`s worth. When K.C. and I actually determined where we had to go, a long line greeted us. I doubt I thought of anything but strangling the airline employee if they told us we were in the wrong line (I was prepared for anything at that point) for the next twenty minutes. At last, it was our turn. The airline employee confirmed that our bags had been transferred and proceeded to interrogating us: Who packed your bags? Did anyone give you anything to hold after you checked in your bags? Are there Afghani terrorists hiding in your bags? To top it all off, the airline didn`t even have a seat for me until the very last minute. 

Boarding the plane at last meant I could relax. I immediately unwrapped a blanket and pillow to snuggle up. Then I watched "Duplicity" and "The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past." I read, attempted to speak to the man next to me who apparently only spoke German, and stared out the window. Nine hours later, I was home.