This year was the first year that the Hamilton program was attempting to use the school program France-Langue as the site for orientation classes. It was about a 30-minute walk from our small apartment, which was always enjoyable even in the heat. It was nice to feel like I was still getting some sun while the rest of Maine would slowly be turning to autumn.
The first class was extremely daunting for me, considering that I could hardly follow along with the conversation. Our program was split into three groups, and were assigned two professors each for courses. It was a lot easier for me to understand the professors than it was for me to understand Corrine my host mom. Corrine slurs all her words together and speaks in a manner pretty similar to mumbling oftentimes it’s hard to actually hear what she is saying even if in reality I can understand. The French in general speak more quietly than Americans which makes it really hard to understand at times. It also made me realize how loud we speak. Meeting up with some friends later on in the program and hearing them speak in English I was almost overwhelmed. I felt like EVERYONE around us was noticing how loud we were speaking which was a little stressful. The professors were better at articulating their words and as the week went on I got better at understanding. Speaking was still extremely difficult but comprehension was improving.
Our classes didn’t really include any sort of grammar recap which I found frustrating, and that I and also many others needed. I am one semester behind in French compared to the other students which was something I could tell right away. It just took me longer to start to understand what was going on. But by the end of our orientation I was catching up in that sense. Everyone was nervous to speak, not just me, but after talking amongst each other and helping each other remember words and tenses everyone, including me, were a lot more comfortable. With time I knew the French would only get better for everyone. We read the play L’Art by Yasmina Reza which was a great way to learn knew vocab and to begin reading French again.
My comprehension really improved after a weekend excursion our program had to the Musée du Gateau Basque where we learned to bake the classic dessert of the Basque region the “Gateau Basque” with the help of a little cooking demonstration from a chef there. It’s made with a simple small sugar dough and stuffed with a simple rum flavored cream in the center. DELICIOUS. After that we visited a dairy farm called Fermes Agerra Fromages where we spoke about the lives of the cows and also had a dairy taste-testing. We were able to taste the unpasteurized milk (which I’m not quite sure I prefer) and then different yogurts flavored with local flowers. We then went to Atelier du Pimente Espellette where we learned about the Pimente Espellete, the idolized local pepper. The tour guide explained to us that the hottest part of the pepper is not the seeds like everyone may think but the small white flesh of the pepper that holds the seeds on the inside. We got to taste different pepper spreads and “confiture”s and even the actual pepper itself which was definitely insanely hot and should be handled with CAUTION!!
At the beginning of the tours it was pretty difficult and tiring. We have to focus two times as hard to each word they are saying to try to make sense of anything. In the end though we realized we had just spent multiple hours listening to all French and that for the most part we had a pretty good understanding. This really boosted my confidence and made me feel like progress was inevitable for the rest of the program. Because REALLY that was so impressive to me; spending hours in French at a time! We also kept a daily French journal in Biarritz that we submitted to our program director at the end of orientation. While at first, I felt like I was writing at the level of a third grader, I came to really enjoy it, It was a great way to force myself to continue thinking in French even when I felt like my head was about to explode.
Dinners with our host family were always extremely long, close to two hours or so each time. This was drastically different from what I am used to in the U.S. First off dinner for Americans usually fluctuates around 6 or 7, in Biarritz however, we ate each meal with our host family around 8 or 9pm which was at first extremely difficult to adjust to. Most meals in the U.S. are also generally pretty short I would say, especially at school where in high school kids grow up getting 20-30 minutes for lunch. But in Biarritz the meals, whether it was lunch out at a restaurant or dinner with the host family were always super long with lots of conversation. Even dinner with my own family in the U.S. usually doesn’t exceed an hour or so. Although sitting down to dinner to speak French for two hours was daunting, I found myself really enjoying the pace at which we all ate. Each meal usually consisted of some type of vegetable, whether it be a small salad or other cooked vegetable and then a simple cooked meat, and then either pasta or potatoes. ALSO bread. We ALWAYS had bread and butter available.
The portions were miniscule compared to what Margaret and I were both used to, but after a while we got used to it. We ate the food in waves, usually some bread with some cheese or olives as a starter. Then we would eat the meat, then the vegetable/carb. It was interesting not to just throw everything on the plate all at once, but I found it really helped us to enjoy whatever it was we were eating exactly at that moment. Small portions with lots of walking is exactly why the French are so trim. In fact, our host family told us that they had visited New York in the past and that they had been blown away by the portion sized there. Our host mom also cooked us a classic dish known in Biarritz and in France in general: “moules et frites” which is mussels and fries. The mussels are cooked in a cream sauce with garlic and other spices and you just eat those alongside some fries. The mussels definitely reminded me of Maine!
We usually finished dinner with some sort of fruit or yogurt. In France, it’s really common in with daily dinners to finish with some sort of fresher food to cleanse the pallet. Our host mother did all of the cooking and so each dinner was with her. The husband and son Alan would sometimes attend but more often than not it would just be Margaret and I and Corrine. Most other host families usually always ate together, but Pascal works a lot of night at a restaurant down by the beach and Alan was just antisocial. In our first few dinners with just Corrine, she did most of the talking while Margaret and I made small interjections or agreements with her discussion. I was petrified to speak at the beginning. Either I couldn’t understand what she was saying or when I spoke she had a harder time understanding me. As the days went on in Biarritz I was able to understand better, and by midweek there I finally got the courage to actually start speaking. It honestly was a relief to be able speak and mess up insteasd of feeling lost the entire conversation. Margaret and I were able to learn new words and phrases from our host family and any confusion or misunderstandings, known as “malentendus” in French, were met with laughter between all of us which helped ease the awkwardness. I’m grateful that I was with Margaret, however, who could better understand and help me out in the conversation. I would have been terrified to be there alone that first week with a host family.
All in all, however, Margaret and I had a really tough time with our host family. Our host mom was a lawyer and worked a lot and so she was always out of the house except for dinner, and Pascal and Alan never helped around the house. The humidity in the air being on the third floor got to be pretty bad and the house actually smelled like mold. I’m shocked neither Margaret or I got sick to be frank. There was mold in the bathroom and in the kitchen. Food (cooked fish to be exact) was left on top of the stove for two days unrefrigerated and then ended up on our plates on the third day. At first we thought the cramped small apartment was the French way of life, but then we realized that other students were living in large mansion scale homes where everything was CLEAN.
That’s not to say that my host mom was not extremely kind. She always wanted to eat with us and ended up taking us to the lighthouse: Phare de Biarritz which was located along the Pointe Saint Martin. We saw a beautiful sunset together and had nice conversation about how Corrine and originally grown up in the mountainside and moved here when she met Pascal, and has been in love with the sea ever since. She drove us over to the neighboring town Anglet where she showed us the cement footprints of several famous male and female surfers. She also showed us the beach Plage de la Petite Chambre d’Amour where two teenagers had supposedly fell in love. They were forbidden by their parents to see each other and so would meet ritually at the small beach. As I mentioned early the waves along this coast are monstrous and one day, as the tide rose they became trapped along the cliff of the sea and ended up dying being swept up against the side of the cliff by the huge waves.
Corrine has been doing the program for several years and she definitely cared for us, but our language barrier was really difficult and the unsanitary living condition didn’t make either Margaret or I want to spend a lot of time at home. We had a misunderstanding one of the last days in Biarritz when our program held an aperitif of sorts with drinks and food. Our program director gave a speech to all of the students and families, thanking them. Our host mother told us she would pick us up in her car right after work and we would go together. Ten minutes before the event Pascal and Alan were still there but not ready to go, so Margaret and I texted Corrine if she was on our way to grab us. She then texted that she meant we needed to meet her there right after work, which still to this day we are very sure she had told us we were being picked up. Unfortunately, Margaret and I ended up walking 40 min by foot in the heat to the event location and ended up missing the speech. Our host mom wasn’t mad, she just sort of laughed it off, but it was pretty aggravating for both Margaret and me on our last days there.
My French and confidence had really improved but I didn’t feel at home there and was definitely ready to permanently settle in Paris. My brain was constantly tired switching back and forth between French and English and I knew that the full immersion would really take place in Paris. I was nervous to be put alone in a host family but I was ready to leave Biarritz for sure. Excited to update you on my life in Paris!!!