I can’t believe it has already been a week in Pau! On one hand, it seems like a short time to have met so many people (from not only the US, but also Nigeria, China, India, Sweden, Thailand, and Angola!), relaxed into the rhythm of my host family life, and spoken more French than I ever have. My French classes, explorations of the area, and connections with my host family and fellow students has turned Pau from a dot on a map to a city that feels like home.
The Pyrenees Mountains
I already had quite a head start coming into French classes—a day and a half with my host family. My host mom and dad, Claire and Dominique, live in a beautiful, airy apartment right on the edge of the old city center. The medieval chateau that housed Henry IV looms a crosswalk away from my street, and the Boulevard des Pyrenees, which offers a panorama of its namesake, lies just beyond the castle grounds. When I arrived, I began to feel a twinge of homesickness for the casualness and warmth of family, but I got just that. My host parents are welcoming and cooler than me – they surf, ski, vacation all around the world, and talk literature and music. With lots of mistakes, I jumped right into the conversations, be it on a 13k jog with my dad or over extended dinners at a neighbor’s house. I also learned a lot about France, French literature, and the Tour de France—which will pass by on a neighboring street. By the time I got to class, I’d already been speaking for hours at a time, and I’d already been laughed at (kindly) for my strange accent. Plus, I was an expert on the Tour de France compared to my USA compatriots! Choosing a host family was the best decision I made on this trip, and I am excited every day to practice my French and hear about their lives—and France!
Fellow students and I after preparing an ‘American’ 4th of July meal for our host families
We started our first school day briskly, with an odd written and oral examination at the University. I got placed in the middle level. The course is probably the best language class – perhaps any class – I have taken. There is not a word of English spoken. Now, I’ve taken 6 ½ years of some language course—mostly Spanish – and all my teachers have said that they will mostly speak the target language. Here, it is no joke, and I love the full-scale immersion. There is no syllabus or textbook, as the lessons are created and modified by the teachers based on the groups’ skill sets and interests, and grammar lessons are always intricately tied to a wider context. We created stories about France, learned about personality types, guessed the life history of our teacher, and even performed a ‘journalistic’ accompaniment to a video of the Tour de France. Though we have two different teachers for each half of the week, the material focuses seamlessly on French culture, daily conversation, and precision in spelling, pronunciation, and sentence structure. The atmosphere is completely different from the usually procession of grammar charts and exercises, though a generous smattering of handouts provide the necessary information.
Fellow students and I on a walk in St Jean Pied de Port
Though about half of the students study with USAC, my study abroad program, about half are independent students coming to study French at Pau. Therefore, I have met two students from Syria who hope to continue their studies in France, a wife whose husband’s job requires constant travel, a woman from Nigeria who is learning the art of French pastry, and many more! That being said, the organizers from USAC have also pulled a diverse group of US students from across the country, from Washington to Iowa to Florida. They have an office right next door to my classroom, and have a plethora of knowledge and books to check out—I’ve already brought home travel guides, grammar books, and fiction! Within just this week, we’ve had a university tour, a city tour, a chocolate tasting, an outing to a hip cinema, and a full day excursion to the Basque country. We visited St Jean Pied de Port and St Jean de Luz, climbing the citadel, visiting the beach, and just soaking in the old streets and Basque air. I even sneaked into a wedding in the church where Louis the XIV was married!
The chateau in Pau — Henry IV would have been my neighbor!
As I write, I just arrived in Pau. I extended our day trip to overnight in the beautiful old town of Bayonne, which has a mass of winding streets, riverside cafes, and an amazing museum of Basque culture. However, as I sit in my cozy room and listen to the hum of my host family, I am happy to be home—and excited for another week of French, excursions, and Pau!