The best summer ever

Ten years ago, I spent a summer studying in a picturesque French city, exploring châteaux, and eating pains au chocolat. But what really made it the best summer ever was establishing enduring friendships.

An opportunity & an arrival

Institut de Tourraine, Tours, France
The façade of the Hôtel Torterue at 1 rue de la Grandière in Tours. This bourgeois mansion, built in 1862, houses the Institut de Touraine, where Dustin studied French with a group of students from the University of Utah in June 2004.

After studying French in seventh and eighth grades and all through high school, I continued my studies in French at the University of Utah, where I even declared it a second major alongside urban planning. But in all those years of learning French I had never spent any time in a French-speaking place, aside from a four-day, three-night trip to Québec with my French class in eighth grade. When I found out that the U took a group of students to France each summer, I was quick to sign up.

When my first year at the University of Utah ended, I flew home to North Carolina to visit my family. From there I was off to London Gatwick. My friends Emily, Rhiannon, and Trina had had a new roommate that spring semester, Jennifer, who was an exchange student from the United Kingdom. Even though she attended the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, she was from Berkshire, just outside London, and she had an uncle and two cousins who lived in Crawley, near Gatwick. Her uncle, in fact, worked for British Airways at Gatwick Airport. I stayed at their place for a night before continuing on to France.

One of the University of Utah staff members who helped organize that summer’s program had warned us before departure that the French tend to dress better than Americans do and that we would be wise to step up our game. (In hindsight, I can’t say I agree with this; perhaps the French have been too influenced by American styles and informality. But what did I know at the time?) So I got up that morning and put on a nice black suit with a blue shirt, which I wore unbuttoned at the top without a tie. I figured that would make me presentable enough when I arrived in Paris. I wasn’t thinking, however, that it would make me really hot and sweaty, even in the relative cool of an early summer British morning. I also wasn’t thinking when I packed a very large suitcase, along with a carryon and an over-the-shoulder case with a laptop. I realized my mistake on my way to Waterloo International from Crawley, when I had to change trains at Clapham Junction. It involved switching platforms — and there was no elevator. That was a struggle up and down the stairs. I was sweatier than ever and I had barely begun my journey. (Looking back, I could have packed everything I needed for the summer in a duffle bag — I was gone for only six or seven weeks. But live and learn, right?)

I finally made it to Waterloo and made my way over to the international terminal, where the Eurostar high-speed trains left for Paris and Brussels via the Channel Tunnel. Eurostar trains are unusual because passengers must pass through a security checkpoint before boarding the train. Soon after clearing security it was time to board, and I took my seat in the first-class car. Why first class? Mostly because I procrastinated buying my ticket for that train until only a few days before and by then all the lower-cost tickets were sold out. But, hey, if I’m finally going to cross traveling by train through the Channel Tunnel off my bucket list, I might as well do it in style, right? Unfortunately, the free newspapers and rather bizarre (though complimentary) British breakfast didn’t really justify the price. And, honestly, the Channel Tunnel, it turns out, looks just like every other tunnel I’ve ever been in on the inside. But it nonetheless made an exhilarating start for my summer in France.

Château de Chenonceau
The Château de Chenonceau spans the river Cher near Tours. This is a must-see sight for anyone visiting the region.

The train pulled into Gare du Nord in Paris and I lugged my too-heavy bags down into the Métro. I quickly assessed that it would be impossible for me to get them through the faregates and onto a subway train in time for me to catch my next train from Gare d’Austerlitz, so I went back to the street and got a taxi. As much as I was disappointed to miss out on riding the Paris Métro for the first time, I was happy to see some of the city, including my first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. Admittedly, it wasn’t as glamorous as I had pictured — the glaring midday sun undoubtedly shining away all the romance. But €20 later and I was to another train station on time to catch my train to Tours, where the program would take place.

Though by that time Tours was connected to Paris by TGV, I had spent all my money on a first-class Eurostar ticket, so I took the slower and much more crowded intercité train, where I rode in second class. No air conditioning, traveling through the much warmer French countryside where any bit of breeze coming through the open windows was blocked by my stylish but terribly stuffy suit jacket. On top of that, the only seat I could find was facing backward.

About halfway through the journey we pulled into a station and the passenger in the seat across from me — a foward-facing one — got off. I immediately moved into that spot, grateful that I would then be able to face forward. Unfortunately, that station1 was one where trains pull in one way and out the other, so I was once again facing backward and would until my arrival in Tours.

All of the students participating in the U’s program stayed with host families. My host mother, Patricia Sugatagy, met me at the gare and drove me to my home for the next four weeks, 14 rue de la Grosse Tour. It was on a narrow, pedestrian-only street right on the edge of Tours’s historic heart, and it could hardly have been more charming or more French. It was, Mme Sugatagy informed me, built in the early 17th century. We entered through a heavy wooden door into a dark hall that led to a still darker stairway. However, once inside the large, two-level apartment upstairs, windows filled every room with light. It was cluttered, but in a homey sort of way, the high ceilings held up by wooden beams. Up another level was my bedroom, with two windows looking out over quaint streets and rooftops and chimneys that were more picturesque than I could have imagined — straight out of a fairy tale.

I was not the only student staying with Mme Sugatagy. I met Yuki, from Japan, and Oliver, from the German-speaking part of Switzerland. A week or so later Oliver — or Olivier, the French equivalent of his name with which Mme Sugatagy addressed him — returned home, and I moved into the bedroom he had occupied, which was large enough to include a small sitting area. More importantly, it meant that I had direct access to the bathroom from my bedroom, and I had it all to myself, since two female students from the United States moved into my former bedroom shortly thereafter.

Cathédrale Saint-Gatien de Tours, France
Cathédrale Saint-Gatien de Tours
Constructed 1170–1547

I could hardly wait to start exploring — I had an entire French city to myself and I was determined to see every part of it. Early the next day I set off on foot across Tours, reveling in the narrow, twisting streets of the medieval city, the classic French architecture topped by ardoise (slate) roofs so common in this part of the country, and the grand boulevards that encircle the city center and meet in front of the hôtel de ville (city hall) and palais de justice (courthouse) at Place Jean-Jaurès. The city center is bisected by the Rue Nationale, the city’s main business and shopping street. My first destination was the Institut de Touraine, where we would be studying and earning nine French credits in the short period of four weeks. From there I went to catch my first glimpse of the Loire River. I walked west along the riverbank to my main destination for the day, the cathedral. Ever since second grade, when I checked out the book Cathedral by David Macaulay from my school library and learned all about the construction and architecture of gothic cathedrals — from the crypt to the flying buttresses — I had wanted to see one for myself. And I was in a place where I could visit one every day. I would spend a lot of time exploring and admiring the Cathédrale Saint-Gatien de Tours, constructed between 1170 and 1547, during my time in the city.

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