Settling into a routine
Classes started early the next day. As I noted in an email to family and friends on 10 June 2004, “Each day my classes start at 9:00 and end around 4:30 or 5:00 in the afternoon. I have classes in French language, literature, civilization, and art history. There are breaks in between classes, for lunch, and during the afternoon, but my days at the Institut are still very long and tiring.” We had taken a placement test upon our arrival and I was assigned to level 7, the second highest of the Institut’s eight niveaux. Several of my classmates in level 7 were returned missionaries who had served in France or other French-speaking countries; I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel good that my French was as good as theirs, even though I had never spent a significant amount of time in a francophone country.
The Institut occupied the mansion, grounds, and outbuildings of a former bourgeois urban estate. The classrooms and meeting rooms in the mansion still had vestiges of their former grandeur, with ornate molding covered in gold leaf and now-faded paint. The main staircase in the mansion was impressive, even if it was a bit rickety and slightly frightening to ascend. Mme Catherine Caillou’s level 7 class, however, met in a classroom in one of the outbuildings, a slightly newer space that, unlike the mansion, had little charm or decor but also, like the mansion, had no air conditioning. As an American who was used to nearly ubiquitous air conditioning, it was a bit of an adjustment to spend a summer virtually devoid of it both where I slept and where I spent my days, though even I could appreciate the fact that all windows everywhere were open to the outside, letting in fresh air and the occasional light breeze. It was amusing, however, to walk down streets in Tours and see that one of the offerings shops displayed on their storefronts to entice shoppers to enter was climatisation — air conditioning.
I soon discovered a boulangerie (bakery) in the Rue Nationale that offered five pains au chocolat for a mere €2. I made it a daily excursion during our morning break, often eating all five on the walk back to the Institut — a habit my metabolism could take back then.
We typically ate dinner with our host families. Mme Sugatagy was a good cook, though some meals took me by surprise. On one of my very first evenings in her home she served a dish with spaghetti and pancetta — and a raw egg yolk sitting in half an egg shell right on top. I’m not one for raw eggs, so I politely set it aside and quite satisfiedly at the rest of the meal. Only later when I recounted the experience to one of my U of U classmates did I learn that the dish was a very normal carbonara, and the egg was to be stirred into the spaghetti right at the beginning; the heat from the pasta would cook it.
Later on, Mme Sugatagy served a delicious dish made with mashed potatoes and some sort of brown stuff stirred in. It really had a very unique flavor that I quite enjoyed. Only after I had finished a second serving did I learn from my host mother the ingredient that gave it that unique flavor: sang, or blood. Gross.
She told this to me in her very rapid manner of speaking. Seriously. Now, the French typically speak faster than English speakers do (frankly, it has to do with the fact that it typically takes them more syllables to say the same thing — their Roman forebears really liked long words). But this woman was quite possibly the fastest talker I’ve ever heard in my entire life. Not only was it difficult enough learning to communicate in another language, but she spoke really, really, REALLY fast. (She did, however, compliment my accent, which I appreciated.) In hindsight, she was probably just doing it to help/test/annoy the exchange students she hosted.
Very little homework was assigned, and afternoons and evenings, as well as weekends, were filled with exploring this lovely little city we got to call home for four weeks. Those were some wonderful evenings wandering the narrow, twisting streets of medieval Tours, finding a charming little café or crêperie, and checking out the bustling nightlife in and around Place Plumereau. Beyond that, a number of paid excursions were organized by the Institut to historic sites in the Loire Valley, including a number of the châteaux for which the region is renowned. These included visits to Amboise, Azay-le-Rideau, and my favorite, Villandry and its incredible gardens. Two of those excursions took us even further afield, to Normandy.