Tuesday, August 14, 2012

French for A Beginner

As a self-proclaimed Francophile, I wanted to visit France since I could remember. From the moment I was introduced to the French language in middle school, I was enamored by the lovely sound of every syllable, and I couldn’t wait for the day when I could visit the country where everyone spoke French.
Then, after my whirlwind trip to Europe, I couldn’t stop thinking about Paris. Although I was there for only few days, I knew with an absolutely certainty that I wanted to live there. I saw myself waking up in the city of light everyday, walking along the Seine, sipping coffee in Jardin du Luxembourg while soaking up the sun or being drenched in the rain, and of course, speaking French.

I was living in New York City at the time, which in its own right is a phenomenal city ... a Parisian friend of mine once told me, “NY is the city that Parisians dream of living.” … but after a torrid relationship with a beau and a career that was eating me alive, so much so that my doctor actually warned me that if I wanted to live to see my 30th birthday, I needed to slow down, I decided it was a time for a MAJOR change.

So, I enrolled myself in first available class at Alliance Française in Paris and signed up for 3 months of classes. I thought I would try it out for the summer, and if Paris lived up to my expectation, I would find a way to stay there permanently.

I subleased my apartment on the Upper East Side, put my stuff in storage, and headed out to JFK with 2 suitcases, like the way I’d arrived in NYC only few years before. The school had provided me with housing at a dormitory in one of the universities, and I had a close friend in the city as well as my boyfriend (who is now my husband) across the border in Germany. I thought I was set … boy, was I wrong!

Life in Paris was quite the contrast from what I’d experienced as a tourist, and I never fathomed the difficulties I had encountered. Although I was able to converse at a basic level, it wasn’t just the language barrier that posed a challenge. And it wasn’t as if I had come from Greebow, Alabama. I was used to living in a cosmopolitan city ... a tough city where the mantra is, “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.” Well, I guess good ole Frankie never lived in Paris because nothing prepared me for the challenge.

However, after talking to other expats and reading quite a few literature about their lives in Paris, I realized that what I was experiencing was quite common among the expat community. Even for many tourists, the reality of Paris doesn’t always live up to its romantic image and expectations, and some even require psychological treatment following a visit to Paris. It’s called “the Paris Syndrome”, and it is a known psychiatric disorder that tourists suffer after visiting Paris as a result of dashed hopes and shattered dreams when faced with the reality of France’s capital city.

Granted I didn’t suffer a mental breakdown, but when I read the book, “A Year in the Merde” (which literally translates to A Year in Shit) by Stephen Clarke, it clarified everything that I was feeling, the frustration of dealing with endless bureaucracy, the overwhelming negativity of the people around me , the hopelessness of a society that still (covertly) upholds its class system, and oh-la-la, the MERDE ... literally everywhere.

Of course, there were plenty of times when I was in awe of the city … my god, to be in Paris! I had what I called “movie moments” every time I walked outside my dorm, and for the most part, I enjoyed my life in Paris. However, I knew after the summer was over, it was time for me to move on.

The question was whether I would stay in France and pursue my studies or to return to New York. Although I was disappointed by the experience in Paris, I still really enjoyed being and traveling in France. I’d only been to few cities outside of Paris, but I knew I wanted to discover and see more.  Also, I definitely wanted to go to a city where I could fully immerse myself in learning and speaking French, and wouldn’t have the safety net of reverting to English.

I’d found out about a new language school, CIEL that offered full immersion classes in Strasbourg, a city that was close to Germany (actually on the French-German border) in Alsace. I’d also contemplated on several cities in Provence and in Côte d'Azur, but given that Strasbourg was only 2 hours away from Frankfurt where my boyfriend lived, the choice was a no-brainer.

Moving to Strasbourg turned out to be one of the best decisions I’d made in life, as well as one of the most wonderful experiences I ever had. Aside from being one of the most breathtakingly beautiful cities in France, and in Europe, Strasbourg was also diverse, dynamic and vibrant.

Words can’t express how I’d felt on the first day after my introductory class, when I took a walk into the historic center, the Grande Île (Grand Island), which is classified a World Heritage site by UNESCO. It was like walking into a fairytale book, with black and white timber-framed buildings accented by colorful flower boxes, and charming little cafes, restaurants and shops everywhere. I was mesmerized and enchanted!

Also, on the contrast to Parisians, people I’d encountered in Strasbourg were friendly, courteous, and generous, which I’d found most French to be. The interactions with the locals were so completely different from the encounters I had with (most) Parisians, and it was also wonderful to meet a diverse group of students from all over the world.

It was truly an amazing experience to live in such an idyllic city, immersing myself in learning a foreign language that I’d always loved, and experiencing a totally different culture. It was everything I’d dreamt of, and one of the best and the most memorable experiences I’ve had in my life.
My favorites in Strasbourg:
  • Hotel Gutenberg – a lovely and charming hotel in the heart of the city
  • the wonderful outdoor markets, especially the antique book market on Saturdays
  • the Christmas market – will take your breath away
  • l’Orangerie – a lovely park near the European Parliament building
  • Flames – a wonderfully inexpensive restaurant that serves up all sorts of tasty tarte flambé


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