Travel Diaries: Lessons in French – Sancerre (part two)
13 Thursday Aug 2015
By Susan Henry
I wake up this morning to a grey and rainy landscape, the view of my vineyards hazy and muted. Since it is Monday, I decide to translate the washer and dryer dials and knobs and see if I can do a load of laundry. Voilà – not so difficult! Clean clothes for the rest of the week.
Jane comes over at 10; we’re due at the school at 10:45 to join the early class for coffee and a meet-and-greet. Coeur de France has done a good job it seems of scheduling the classes – we alternate early (9 a.m.)/late (1 p.m.) start times each day to give each group an equal opportunity for extracurricular activities that are scheduled in the afternoons (après-midi).
The coffee session mixes all class levels – upper classmen (the Intermediate and above students) and the rest of our level – débutants. The upper classmen are just a little smug, rolling their R’s like natives. There is a sign that says only French is to be spoken within the school walls; those who need to speak English need to take it outside; for the débutants, that means vows of silence or spending a lot of time outside.
Here, we meet Marianne and Gérard Chartrant, co-founders, owners and operators of Coeur de France. Marianne is the face of the school in the classroom, Gérard manages the behind-the-scenes operation. Over the course of our two weeks here, we will hear them say again and again, “en français, en français !” as we continue to slip back into English (American, Australian and Canadian versions at that).
Class officially begins with six of us seated around two round tables. We are lucky to have Marianne as our instructor. She re-introduces herself in French and then asks each of us to do the same, also in French: name, hometown, occupation, interests, married/single, other. Most of us cannot get beyond je m’appelle without resorting to sign language. Linda, Phillip, Ellen, Pat, Jane, me. Everyone seems really nice and equally apprehensive about what we’re gotten ourselves into. Fortunately, we seem to be pretty well matched as a class – true débutants – the only difference being familiarity with French pronunciation; other than that, we all look at Marianne as though she is speaking Swahili.
Once we’ve gone through this painful introductory exercise, we’re given our study materials (le stylo, le crayon, le cahier, le dictionnaire) and the class begins in earnest – conducted entirely in French. To follow, we need to stare intensely at the teacher, listen hard and if lucky, pick out a word or two that is familiar. In that manner, we proceed through pronunciation of the alphabet (ah bay say day euh…), rules for when to (or not) pronounce a consonant at the end of a word, what all of those little symbols over the letter e and the squiggle under the letter c mean; and then there are the two letter words that are spelled differently but pronounced the same (en, em, an, am – m and n sound the same), (on, om), (in, im, ein, ain, aim, un, um, yn, ym); for each of these pronunciation rules there are twenty more. I’m thinking that two weeks will never be enough time for me to learn enough to do Paris in French two weeks from now. There is un grand mal à la tête building up in the room.
We take turns going around the table practicing pronunciation of individual words then advance to actual phrases: how to ask a question (vous voulez or voulez-vous), how to answer in the negative and the affirmative – quite a lot of territory covered in day one.
After class, and as there is nothing in my kitchen for dinner tonight, we walk around the town square looking for a new restaurant to try. All except the restaurant L’Esplanade, where we ate on Saturday, are closed until 7 p.m., so we go back there and greet our waiter in the familiar “mon amie”!; he seems happy to see us again and beckons us to an outside table – one under which the resident cat John Wayne is lounging; he doesn’t budge – even after I start tickling him with my toes.
Both Jane and I have a rare craving for meat so I order steak and she a hamburger. I ask if pomme frites come with it; when our food arrives, it appears that I asked for an extra order of fries. We get not only the portion that came with our orders but also an extra potion each. This attracts the attention of several passersby including two bikers – one Belgian, one French; they help themselves to the fries while we interview them about their outfits (really tight pants!), itinerary and places of origin. They are good friends who now live in the south of France and whose wives let them out on a two-week bike ride every year. We all flirt shamelessly – and harmlessly. In the process, the fries disappear.
Mardi en Sancerre – Day 2, Lessons in French (Tuesday in Sancerre – Day 2, Lessons in French)
Our day starts with a voluntary pronunciation class at 8:30, then a meet-up with Marianne for our regular class. Today’s lesson puts a practical spin on the vocabulary and rules we learned yesterday as we role play shopping at a Fromagerie and Boulangerie:
Je voudrais deux crottins de Chavignol, s’il vous plait.
Un bleuté et un jeune.
Combien ça fait ?
Crottins we learn, are the famous goat cheeses made in the Loire Valley.
After Marianne assesses that we won’t embarrass the school, we head out on a mini field trip into the village to practice the conversations in a real-life situation and with real money. The shopkeepers are great – in La Fromagerie, the proprietor has to do this play-acting with us six times so that we can each practice the dialogue and count out euros in the correct amount. I end the experience with the feeling that even though my French is very limited, I could survive with my few words and body language – and eat bread, cheese and eggs exclusively.
A quick lunch of scrambled eggs and Chèvre at my apartment and we head back to the school to meet Gérard for a field trip to wine country and a tasting at a Sancerre vineyard. There are six of us on the outing.
First stop is a panoramic view of the Sancerre valley and the village of Sancerre perched up on a hill in the distance. Gérard regales us with the history of winemaking in the region – 400 vineyards (all family owned) spread over a small area of 800 hectars – about 2000 acres. The only grapes grown in the area are Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Oenology or the science of wine is in full practice here – since Pinot Noir grapes ripen faster than Sauvignon Blanc they are planted on northern facing slopes, Sauvignon Blanc on southern facing slopes where they both ripen for picking around the same time – Voilà !
Given Gérard’s ‘in’ with winemaker Henri Bourgeois, we’re given entrée to several parts of the operation for an insider’s view: the bottling facility (screw-top bottles are for export only – the French would NEVER drink wine that way); the musty caves where the wine is aged; the oak barrels that introduce oxygen to the wine and impart flavors of the terroir in which the trees were grown; finally, the tasting room that we have all been patiently waiting for. Gérard guides us through the samples – 3 Sancerre Rouge varietals, 2 Sancerre Rose, 3 Sancerre Blanc. The favorites we pick are as varied as our personalities, countries of origin and body chemistry. Luckily, Jane and I have the same favorites so we buy the white Sancerre d’Antan.
Back at my apartment we pop the cork on our Sancerre and toast to a good day over a simple dinner of salad and spaghetti with marinara sauce.
Bonsoir Jane; à demain.
By 10, I can hardly keep my eyes open – but it is still daylight outside and the birds are in full song. Sunsets here are late and slow in happening; most nights it is still twilight until almost midnight with birds chirping well beyond sunset. There is a particular pair of doves that are cooing their hearts out in the tree outside my kitchen window; I hope it is a love song.
Mercredi en Sancerre – Day 3, Lessons in French (Wednesday in Sancerre – Day 3, Lessons in French)
Again this morning, we start our day with an optional pronunciation class; today’s version focuses on the “r” sound and how to roll it at the back of your throat as though you’re gargling; our efforts must be comical to our French instructor; I’m glad there aren’t mirrors in the room for us to see how ridiculous we look contorting our mouths and necks to get the desired sound.
After pronunciation class and cafés au lait et brioches at Boulangerie L‘Henory with classmates Phillip and Ellen, we join another professor – Clemance – at a small wine and tea shop for attempts at a conversation in French. Like on the first day, she asks us to talk about ourselves; some progress is shown as we now know how to say where we’re from – j’habite à Minneapolis dans le Minnesota – a little about our families – j’ai une soeur qui s’appelle Nancy, – and something about what we do – je suis à la retraite. After hearing that I enjoy traveling, Clemance suggests a new nom de plume for me: je suis une globe-trotteuse.
The tea that I ordered is served in a charming little china pot that is decorated with images of pastel colored macaroons. I ask to buy it in memory of my macaroon binge in Paris. Je voudrais acheter la théiere.
Our afternoon session focuses on learning the days of the week (les jours de la semaine) and months of the year, telling time (military and familiar), introduction to present tense verbs avoir and être, colors, and more practice counting money. Marianne sets up a play-store with plastic vegetables and fruit and has us make selections for our shopping baskets and then pay for them from a can of Euros she passes around the table. The key to figuring out the money is hearing that Euros come first, then centimes (7€25 – sept euros vingt-cinq); those of us who figure that out ace the exercise. Poor Marianne – to have to do this twice in the same day… listening to novices make the same mistakes over and over – she has the visage of an angel and the patience of a saint.
The shopping exercise is to prepare us for real shopping tomorrow when we go to Le Marché at Saint-Satur, an outdoor market where we will be exposed to the real thing – tomate, poireau, oignon, carotte, pomme de terre, champignon, courgette, aubergine…
After class, Jane and I head back to my apartment to relax in the garden with our Sancerre white wine from yesterday’s outing and the remains of the cheese from Sunday’s purchases. Our conversation centers around what for us is turning out to be a very unique travel experience – one where leaning is the goal, sightseeing and entertainment secondary. We expect that the after-effects of this adventure will stay with us longer than the pleasure of our photos – assuming we come away from it actually speaking French!
Jeudi en Sancerre – Day 4, Lessons in French (Thursday in Sancerre – Day 4, Lessons in French)
Today’s class starts with a review of our shopping lists for the outdoor market. I’m buying ingredients for lentil soup; an easy concoction to make that will last for a few meals. I go over the list and Marianne corrects my French; we go around the table until everyone has had a chance; my list is the most thought-out since I’m on a specific mission. We also get in one last practice with currency before heading out.
The grey skies clear for our visit and the market is basking in sun when we arrive. It is packed with locals who have brought their own bags and baskets to fill with produce, cheese, yogurt, eggs, meats, poultry, fish, pastries and other delectable. Jane has passed on this outing to study, so my sidekick is another classmate, Pat; we agree to stick together and help each other if one of us stumbles.
First stop is the cheese shop immediately inside the entrance; the two women vendors are dressed in white lab coats and look like surgeons as they slice orders from the slabs of what look like at least 70 different cheese types. I begin my mission: Bonjour Madame. Je voudrais du fromage Gruyère s’il vous plait. So far so good; she understands what I have asked her. More importantly, I am able to respond to her when she asks what size portion I want moins ou plus ? Moins, merci. The money exchange is a little more successful since I don’t have my reading glasses and can’t see the denominations of the boatload of coins I have in my purse. I give up and just hand her a 5€ note. It works.
Next up, the produce vendor. Gorgeous vegetables and fruits are artfully arrayed. I don’t see any baskets to put my selections in though so I just go over to the tomato section and pick up my choice. Immediately, the proprietor comes over waving his arms and shouting non-non-non ! It is then that I realize that I have to get in the line of shoppers queuing to the right and wait my turn. As I observe, the procedure is to tell the vendor what is on your list and he picks it out for you, weighs it and adds it to your purchases. Even better, he picks through several options to get the best fruit or vegetable.
The line is long but Pat and I make friends with the other women waiting to make their purchases, trying out our French on them and explaining that we are here studying French. Everyone is very friendly and two of the women wait around to watch how we do when our turn comes. Bonjour Monsieur. Je vourdrais une tomate (he picks out two and offers them for my approval), deux grandes carottes (same approval process) – and on through the other items on my list. My favorite interaction is over avocados. He asks when I will be eating them. Hmm – un vendredi et un dimanche? This apparently works as he picks out two candidates for me and notes, which should be eaten first. What fun! I’m even more certain I could survive here – now that I’ve added fruit and vegetables to my diet.
Around the corner we run into Marianne and she accompanies us to the dairy booth to see how we handle the word for yogurt – yaourt (pronounced yah–oort). Success – we are understood and even complimented by the proprietor who looks like a beautiful milkmaid.
Back in the classroom, we are all exhilarated by our outing. The remainder of class is much less exciting; we are starting to decline verbs.
After class, Jane and I meet up for lunch at Café Des Arts in the town square. With the grey afternoon ahead of us, we agree that naps are in order. Bed and a mystery novel await me at Les Remparts Augustins. We reconvene later in the evening for lentil soup, baguette and red wine – and homework.
Vendredi en Sancerre – Day 5, Lessons in French (Friday in Sancerre – Day 5, Lessons in French)
Class doesn’t begin until 1 p.m. this afternoon, so I lounge in bed until 9; what is it about studying that is so exhausting? At 9:30 the cleaning lady comes to change my linens (I think); she is using a set of words new to me that don’t involve shopping or eating or directions. I am stumped and have to resort to sign language to communicate; ultimately I figure out that she will change the bed sheets and I am responsible for my towels (a la the washer/dryer in the kitchen). After yesterday’s euphoria of shopping, dining and reconnoitering in French, I am appropriately humbled.
Jane too has slept in and texts me at 11 to suggest that we walk up to the nearby Tourist Bureau to check out possible activities for Saturday. It’s just a short walk from where we are, along a beautiful vista that looks out on the entire panorama of the Sancerre Valley. We know that the beauty is not just in the eyes of these beholders; tour buses are starting to line up, disgorging their contents of tourists to take photos. A billboard map of the area suggests that there are numerous hiking trails in the area, even some that pass through vineyards.
In the tourist office, I use my usual opening statement and question: “Madame, je parle un peu Francais; vous parlez anglais ?” Luck is with us; she speaks English. We ask about hiking trails through vineyards and she hands us a three-ring notebook with maps of several options. We pick one that goes through the Chavignol area that we toured by car on Monday. It is basically a day hike and we will need to bring lunch and beverages along. Plan in hand, we head back to the main square for cafés au lait and brioches at our favorite Boulangerie – L’Honery – and a review of our homework. The proprietress comes over periodically to test our progress and see if we need help.
In class today, we go over the three different types of regular verbs – those ending in ‘ir’, ‘er’, and ‘re’. To us, this is the most sensible of the verbs as the base stays the same regardless of person – je, tu, il/elle, nous, vous, ils/elles. But four hours of this on a Friday afternoon ? We are dying. Marianne lightens things up with a fun exercise in which she plays the taxi company and we each have a go at calling it to make a reservation for a ride to the train station. Listening to most of us, I am certain that if we really have to rely on ourselves to make our trains on time, we will never leave Sancerre.
Final exercise – a group sing-along to a CD of Edith Piaf singing La Vie en Rose. I think about her monument at Père Lachaise Cemetary in Paris – as elegant as her voice.
We celebrate the end of our first week with drinks and a meal with three of our classmates, then off to an early bedtime. No nightlife in Sancerre – but who has the energy for it?
Before my head hits the pillow, I take one last look outside and am so glad I did: a magnificent sight is painted on the darkening sky: a yellow crescent moon (a slice of Gruyère?) lighted by the biggest Venus I’ve ever seen, Jupiter beyond. I watch for some time, unable to tear myself away. As the moon starts moving lower on the horizon, its color intensifies to deep orange, then red – and then it disappears. What a day – Edith Piaf and the man in the crescent moon.
Samedi en Sancerre – Busted and Je Suis Perdu (Saturday in Sancerre – Busted and I am lost)
Today is moving day for Jane; another apartment has opened up in town near the school and she has decided to take it. I help her pack up and we drag garbage bags and roller bag along the cobblestone streets to the new place. It is gorgeous – and huge: through four locked doors, each with its own key, and up one flight of tricky stairs, inside is a large bedroom, full size bathroom with soaker tub, large kitchen, separate dining room and large living room with overstuffed sofa and side chairs, and two fireplaces; she can’t possibly be unhappy with this arrangement, I tell her! I make a note to myself – next time I’m signing up for this one.
As we continue our tour of the apartment, we find one more keyed entry – the toilet paper holder!
The chosen activity for today is the vineyard hike we had identified yesterday. To plot our way, we lay out the trail map on the dining room table and with dictionary close by; I translate the various coordinates to get there. The route isn’t exactly clear but among the 12 steps laid out, we think we’ve got it figured out:
Départ des Caves de la Mignonne; descendre le petit sentier sur 150 km et prendre le premier chemin sur la droite…
Vous arrivez à un croisement de quatre chemins. Tourner à gauche…
Prendre le sentier à gauche et continuer toujours tout droit (ignorer les chemins à droite)…
Après avoir traversé les Monts Damnés, vous arrivez sur la route D183…
To sustain ourselves on the 11km/6 mile walk, we stop at our Boulangerie L’Honery to pick up sandwiches and beverages. The proprietor Nathaly is especially happy to see us – it seems that we neglected to pay for our cafes and brioches at yesterday’s visit! She has it written down in a little notebook and shows us the tabulation to prove it; oh non Madame – nous sommes très désolées! After paying up for aujourd’hui et hier, we leave to good wishes from Nathaly and gathered customers for a successful outing.
Map in hand (Jane’s hand that is), we find the signs for Cave de la Mignonne and the dirt road where we are supposed to turn off into the vineyards; so far so good. The trail is definitely pebbled (caillouteux) and serves the double purpose of roadway for trucks working the vineyards. We are as the description for the trail said, walking in the vineyards. It is beautiful and we stop periodically to take pictures of grape vines and the surrounding landscape. Some vines we notice are growing out of paper bags – they are the baby vines newly planted. A few vines are beginning to form grape clusters; now they look like delicate lace flowers; in three months they will be on their way to the wine vats.
After being on the trail for a little over an hour, we decide to take a water break and check the trail map. I eat half of my sandwich while Jane checks our coordinates. Minor problem though, she can’t find the map; must have given it to me she asserts with great confidence. I obligingly empty my bag but no map – and we don’t remember it blowing away either – at which point she stands up and voilà, there is the map on which she has been sitting. I take a picture to document the evidence for future blackmail.
With no trail markers to orient us like on trails in the U.S., we really cannot tell where we are or how far we’ve come but agree that the best option seems to be to continue on the trail we’re on and see where it leads. After about a half a mile, we find ourselves on a paved road; to the left and in the distance is a town up on a hill – Sancerre. So, we have come full circle but somehow missed most of the vineyard trail. We follow the road and end up in the same place we started. C’est la vie en France.
By the time we get back, the village is swarming with bikers and runners for a marathon of sorts. There are bands and refreshment stations all over the place and we hang around at the finish line for a while and cheer in the runners (while noting that some of them look really out of shape).
In town, we stop at Restaurant L’Esplanade (our “Cheers”) for a glass of wine and people watching. Two couples in particular capture our attention: one, an elderly couple that has stopped for a beer – he in a wheel chair, she hunched over with a dowager’s hump, wobbly herself but clearly his caretaker; they are precious and we speculate on their lives and provenance – German? Another couple we zero in on is making goo-goo eyes at each other across a plastic table; she is attired in a bizarre lace strapless dress; he in a white shirt and black pants, prominent belly. They hold hands as they leave (their free hands holding cigarettes); we don’t have to speculate too much on where they are headed. French?
The crescent moon is painted in the sky again tonight but ghostly white this time; Venus and Jupiter still hover nearby.
Dimanche en Sancerre – Le Grand Problème de Communication (Sunday in Sancerre – Huge communication problem)
I’m up around 8:30 this morning to study and complete the homework assignment for tomorrow – lots of dialogue practice plus verbs: manger, regarder, chercher, aimer, inviter, habiter… I get the words and how they’re used but continue to stumble on how to put them together into a coherent sentence. I text Jane to see if she wants to meet for coffee and practice; she does so off I go to meet her at L’Honery.
At 2 p.m., we meet up with classmates Ellen, Peter, Linda, Leslie and Jess in front of the school to wait for our guide for what is described as an opportunity to “discover the Pouilly fumé area, visit the town of La Charité-sur-Loire and enjoy the splendid views along the River Loire”. Our guide for the outing is a doctorate-holding artist and professor of art history; our expectations are high.
The drive to La Charité-sur-Loire is through beautiful countryside – vineyards, canals and villages. We stop at a spot along the Loire that has a view of the perimeter of the town, its towers, bridges and skyline (it is clearly ancient) and to get an introduction to the town’s history involving The Hundred Years’ War between Britain and France for control of France, various Kings Charles and Henry, famous women in history (Eleanor of Aquitaine, Joan of Arc…). The history lesson is brilliant but too much for our interest levels. At the twenty-minute mark, I tune out and instead watch a kayaking event on the opposite shore. Aren’t we here for the scenery?
Our next stop is an 11th century priory and church in the heart of the village that is the site of a major UNESCO restoration project. It is here that we spend the rest of the afternoon, roaming through damp buildings in various states of repair and disrepair and hearing about examples of Medieval, Gothic, Renaissance and Classical art and architecture. If the lecture on the banks of the Loire was too much, this is so over-the-top that we can barely fake interest; an unspoken pact emerges in which we take turns at paying attention and asking question – then wandering away listlessly, hoping our guide will notice our collective body language and move on to something that actually interests us.
Finally, after two-and-a-half hours of mind-numbing information, we emerge from the church grounds into the main square of the town, where there seems to be a book fair and festival going on – the main street lined with tables piled high with books, music, performers in period costume doing local dances, and lots of people milling around and enjoying the scenery from numerous outdoor cafes. The books are definitely the focal point of the event but most of us just scan the tables out of brain drain – not aware that this town is famous as one of several “Villes des Livres” (Cities of Books) in France.
Back in Sancerre, our group heads straight to Café Des Arts in the square for ice cream sundaes and a discussion of today’s major miscommunication. We all agree that our guide was a brilliant historian, passionate about her interest, but this isn’t what we all signed up for at the very steep price of 50€ each. We will share our disappointment with Marianne in the morning. While we are in serious discussion on this topic, the crowd in the square is starting to party. It is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year; beer is flowing, sausages are grilling and the live music is getting louder. We can no longer be heard above the noise and decide to wrap up and go our own ways. À demain ! I linger for a while and listen to the interesting mix of music – French rock, accordion oompah-pah, American rock (Hello Mary Lou), The Beatles.
Sunset tonight is the prettiest yet, the sky ablaze in pinks and purples.
Le Deuxieme Lundi en Sancerre – Day 6, Lessons in French (Second Monday in Sancerre – Day 6, Lessons in French)
Today is the beginning of the end – the first day of the last week of our lessons en Français. Class begins with classmates Peter and Ellen reading a narrative of how they spent their weekend. It is in French and was not an assignment but Marianne is so impressed that she challenges the rest of us to relate our own experiences en Français; not fair we say – they had all weekend to prepare their remarks! Preparation is obviously the key here as the rest of us struggle to be understood. For the remainder of the class, we practice asking questions in French then work on those scary French verbs starting with aller (to go) and faire (to do).
When Marianne judges that we have gone as far as we can with these tasks, she lets us loose in the village to shop at a Boulangerie. We all do very well, buying sandwiches, baguettes, pains au chocolat, cookies and bread, correctly counting out our Euros to pay for them.
On the walk back to the school, I sense a growing confidence amongst us; while we may not speak the language melodically or fluently – or even comprehensibly most of the time – it is clear that we could all survive an indefinite stay in France (well, maybe not indefinite – how many croissants and baguettes can you consume before you explode?).
After lunch, Jane and I walk to the village of Saint-Satur, down below Sancerre, in search of the Super Marché where everyone has been shopping for staples, but mostly for the sake of exercise. We take the path at the back of town, walking down a steep road that takes us into vineyards and past private yards. At one point, we see a man tending his garden and I call out to him – Bonjour Monsieur – est-ce le village là-bas? Oui he responds pointing out the direction to us – tout droit le village de Saint-Satur.
About a mile further on, we find a lovely town – larger than Sancerre – and with homes of much younger vintage, most with beautifully maintained gardens of flowers and vegetables. Our path takes us by several shops – all closed, the requisite medieval church, and under a huge viaduct, neither the purpose nor vintage of which can we tell.
At the edge of town – the edge closest to Sancerre (we took the long way here) – we finally locate the Super Marché – a sprawling big-box type store filled with everything from food and wine and alcohol to household supplies. It is fun to walk through the aisles noting differences and similarities to American stores. Our purchases are eclectic – wine, butter, crackers, tuna fish; a not-so-delectable smorgasbord that may force us to eat out more often than we planned.
Back in Sancerre after a 5-mile round trip trek, we stop at the Hotel du Remparts for a glass of white wine on their terrace. The wine is really nice and we complement our waiter on it; he tells us it comes from the restaurant owner’s own vineyard (a familiar refrain). We try to work on our homework assignment but a wind has started to pick up and we can’t hang onto the papers; when an umbrella blows over, we give up and head home – Jane up the hill to her abode, I down the hill to mine.
At home, my intent is to take my work and dinner down to the garden but the wind has brought down the temperature and it is actually cold out. With the wind howling and the tree branches just outside my window moving like a mop head in a bucket of water, I opt instead for “dining in” on a can of tuna, half a baguette and an orange at my table with a view. Sometimes, I think, the simple things in life are the best. Maintenant – devoirs !
Le Deuxieme Mardi En Sancerre – Day 7, Lessons in French (Second Tuesday in Sancerre – Day 7, Lessons in French)
First thing this morning, Marianne passes out four pages of French verbs – 27 verbs in six tenses. I suddenly have a change of heart about French – I am so confused, my brain just stops absorbing and I sit back in resignation – I will never speak French.
Well maybe “never” is too strong a word, but really, I can’t leave here just being able to say Bonjour, Merci, Au revoir and Je voudrais un crottin. (What will the crew on our return flight to Minneapolis think – and what about getting around Paris without speaking a word of English)? The fact is, I have a lot of words at my disposal but putting them together into phrases and sentences is just not clicking with me. I think about non-English speakers coming to the U.S. and trying to get by with – “Hello, the bus is where?”; “I can take bathroom?” Right now, that is me en Français.
I think Jane figured this out earlier this morning and decided to skip class today and “study on her own”. Sure – I bet she’s drinking coffee at L’Honery and eating caramel muffins, absorbing French the gastronomic way.
Things get a little better when the class does a mini-field trip back to La Fromagerie and Boulangerie – but I don’t need any more of this; I am already confident with buying baguettes, crottins sec and counting out the right number of €uros in French; instead, I could use a whole day just practicing the verb faire.
I get my chance with the verb just after lunch when I have a private one-hour class with Professor Laurie. We go through the usual introductory dance – je m’appelle… je viens du… je travaille en… She asks what I would like to do for our one-hour session and I tell her that I would like to call the taxi company and make a reservation for a ride to the train station on Saturday, and then to practice my nemesis verb – faire. We role play the conversation with the taxi company a couple times and when she says I’m ready, we place the call but none of the three companies we call are answering their phones; I have to try again tomorrow. I hope my courage holds. If only the French didn’t speak so fast.
Then we move on to faire – I absolutely cannot make a sentence with this verb; Laurie looks at me as though I am truly dense, but gamely keeps trying, speaking more and more slowly with each instruction or suggestion. Finally, I sort of get that maybe it is as simple as “je fais une réservation”, “je fais un gâteau”, “je fais un journal”. Our hour session ends on time at trois heures et quart and I slink out, back to Remparts des Augustins to figure it all out.
This evening, I am meeting Jane at the bar L’Honery in the basement of our favorite hangout. Inside, we run into Nathaly and Olivier, her husband, and co-proprietor and our favorite waiter from L’Esplanade. Bonjour and comment ça va all around, we belly up to the bar and order the usual deux verres de vin blanc. We try to carry on a conversation with Olivier but truly do not understand a word of his French, so we just sit there grinning inanely and nodding in agreement (and hoping that we’re not agreeing to something bizarre like “you are drug dealers from America, non ?”). Within just a few minutes of our arrival, Peter and Ellen stick their heads in the door – they saw Jane’s red pants from the open doorway; good we say, others to share the discomfort of poor French.
Ensemble, we figure out the provenance of the wine we’re drinking (from the Vineyard Fouassier down the road), how to open a bottle of wine with a waiter’s corkscrew, the history of L’Honery, Le Bar de la rue des Juifs a Sancerre a Ré-ouvert – reopened on January 3, 2015, the name a clever combination of the owners’ names, the utilization of the three-story building – bread baked on the top floor, Boulangerie on the main floor, the bar in the basement! – All that with no English and the close companionship of our French/English dictionary.
After dinner at Le Bouchon, across the way, we part our separate ways to work on tomorrow’s homework, the biggest challenge of which is to write an imaginary dialogue – in French – between two people, using the verbs and vocabulary that we have learned so far – numbers, dates, directions, food, etc. Jane has chosen a dialogue between us from back when I first told her that I was going to a language class in France; I will work on a dialogue between us involving last weekend’s adventure in the vineyards.
Le Deuxième Mercredi en Sancerre – Day 8, Lessons in French (Second Wednesday in Sancerre – Day 8, Lessons in French)
It is a new day; I think I’m getting the verbs. Last night I dreamt in French and this morning, it has started to sink in. Faire is conquered; now my problem verb is mettre (to put things in my valise?).
Jane and I meet up at L’Honery to go over our dialogues; I’m really happy with the way mine has turned out:
Dans le vignoble avec Susan et Jane
Samedi 20 Juin
Susan: Bonjour Jane.
Jane: Bonjour Susan. Qu’est-ce que nous allons faire aujourd’hui ?
Susan: Cafés au lait et croissants ?
Jane: Bien sûr!
Susan: Ensuite – est ce que nous faisons une promenade dans le vignoble ?
Jane: D’accord !
Dans le vignoble, nous marchons
Susan: Le paysage est magnifique, n’est-ce pas ?
Jane: Oui. Mais – où sommes-nous ?
Susan: Je ne sais pas. Où est la carte ?
Jane: Elle est perdue !
Nous marchons, marchons, marchons…
Susan: Voilà ! Sancerre est tout droit et à gauche !
Jane: Bon ! Je suis très fatiguée.
Retourner dans le village
Susan: Est-ce que vous avez faim ?
Jane: Oui ! J’ai faim. Je voudrais dîner.
Susan: Moi aussi.
Susan: Bonjour madame. Je voudrais un crottin sec et une salade verte s’il vous plait.
Jane: Pour moi – Je voudrais une baguette avec du jambon, du beurre et du fromage s’il vous plait.
Après le dîner
Jane: Bonsoir Susan. À demain.
Susan: Bonne nuit Jane.
Fin des aventures avec Susan et Jane
Satisfied that I’ve met the objective, I go back to my apartment to spend the time before class begins lunching in the garden on scrambled eggs and Gruyere and listening to the birds; this is the most beautiful day yet – powder blue sky and not a single cloud. I am suddenly so happy, I have to offer up a little prayer of thanks for this incredible blessing.
Our class this afternoon is a small one – just Peter, Ellen, Jane and me. I run into Leslie and Jess on my way to class, going in the opposite direction; “playing hooky” they say. Je comprends !
Once class starts, I wish I had played hooky. Marianne is taking us through the complicated rules surrounding French prepositions (à, au, aux, de, du, des); it is so complicated in fact, that she asks us to put down our pens and just listen. Factors to consider: are you going to or from a place; it is a city, village, country, a plural country (U.S., Phillipines); is it feminine or masculine? How do you know the gender of a country or state we ask? If it ends in an ‘e’ it is feminine (but that assumes the French spelling where Virginia = Virginie). For the second time in two days, I tune out; this is too much for my level of comprehension. I will figure this out when I’ve figured out mettre – and become expert with faire!
For the last part of class, we adjourn to Café Des Arts in the village square and attempt conversations in French. Marianne prompts us with questions about our favorite holidays (Valentine’s Day gets the universal thumbs down and the American celebration of Halloween is spreading to Australia – de plus en plus) and what aspects of French culture we find most different from our own countries. We come up with an eclectic mix:
- Smoking on the patios of restaurants – it is impossible to escape
- French women – they are always elegantly dressed, even for the most mundane of tasks, and, they wear those spikey heels everywhere
- Store hours – some stores are closed on Mondays but all seem to be closed from noon to 2:30 every day for lunch and relaxation
- Restaurants in the small towns outside of Paris don’t start serving dinner until 7 p.m. – and end at 9 p.m.
- The steep narrow staircases in French houses; we wonder how people age in such places if they live on the second or third floors – not to mention the basic act of just living, carrying groceries and babies up and down… egads
- Lace curtains on windows with patterns ranging from geometric to scenic
- Cars – Citroens, Citroens, Citroens
- French gardens
- There is graffiti in France too!
Under the still spectacular sky, we return to our classroom for wrap up and tomorrow’s assignments. Two more days until nous partons. I am feeling sad already.
Le Deuxieme Jeudi en Sancerre – Dans L’Ecole Buissonnière (Second Thursday in Sancerre – Playing hooky)
Bonjour Sancerre: It is a gorgeous day – this 25ème jour de juin: birds singing, sun shining, grape vines a little bigger than when we arrived – c’est la belle vie.
I walk to class along Rue des Juifs, my usual route, and take a few more pictures to make sure I’ve captured every bit of it for reference when my memory bank fades with time. In particular, I hope to see the cat that is frequently perched on the window sill outside his house, sitting on a pillow, his freedom to roam restricted by a retractable leash tethered to something inside the window. I’m sure that everyone that walks by visits with him and gives him a tickle; he is most gregarious.
In class, we practice reading dialogues involving getting library cards and complaining about bad train service (I’m not sure how useful those will be) and then prepare for another outing to the farmer’s market in Saint-Satur. Jane and I however have a different idea – Marianne calls it going to école buissonnière – or in American vernacular, playing hooky. We’re going to hitch a ride with the class to the market and then take off on foot in search of a place called Le Raboliot au Ligerien, where we’ve heard that they offer boat rides on the Loire. I’ve had an image of this in my head since I first saw the river in Cosne sur Loire and will be very disappointed if I leave the region without the experience.
The location of the boat dock and adjacent restaurant is easy to find – not so easy is communicating with the staff about what we want. They do not speak a word of English and my boat ride-French is pretty awful – even to my ear – and, there are no boat schedules posted, so we’re not even sure this is an option. Finally, we get our point across and after a phone conversation between our helper and the “captain”; It seems that there will be a boat available at 3 p.m. – it is now 11:30. After some deliberation, though, we sadly decline. We don’t want to hang around here for three and a half hours when we’re not even sure that we’ve understood the arrangement correctly.
A beautiful walking path parallels the river and we amble along it taking pictures; this section of the river is very shallow and studded with sandbars; across the way a couple of people are lounging on chairs that they’ve setup on a particularly wide bar.
Suddenly, we come upon a curious sight – a series of what look like golf greens; a path of worn down grass leads to them so we follow it – and Voilà, across the way we find the Sancerre Golf Course. The club house is just a few yards away, so we decide to check it out. Long story short, we rent clubs, buy tees and balls and book a tee time for 1:30. After a lovely lunch of salmon tartare at their patio restaurant (Le Restaurant du Golf) we’re teeing off at Hole #1 – called Trou #1 in French; if we hit into someone, the call is “BALLE!” It’s just the two of us behind a foursome that leads the way, and no one behind us; it could not be better.
Jane hasn’t held a club in 13 years and is pretty rusty on the first few holes, but then her golf memory kicks in and she pars most of the 11 holes we’re playing (they only do 11 or 18 here; not the 9 we’re used to). Me – I’m my usual inconsistent self and Jane bests me by 10 strokes. After our round, we have cold drinks on the patio and admire the scenery – a tree with the biggest leaves we’ve ever seen provides a canopy over us.
On our return walk to the main part of Saint-Satur, we pass by a camp with cabins and tents and people lounging outside them. One man in particular deserves a photo but we don’t dare – he’s sprawled out on his lounge chair, legs and arms akimbo, head thrown back, bare chest and feet, ample paunch on full display, cigarette dangling from his fingers; it is the ultimate pose of relaxation.
Just before hitting the main drag back toward Saint-Satur, we come to a restaurant called Restaurant Le Bord De Loire and stop in for a glass of wine. We’re the only customers so far, so we get the pick of the tables – water’s edge. The wine is good but even better are the snacks; we praise them as vraiment, vraiment delicieux and get treated with a second serving.
The path back to Sancerre is the reverse of the one we took to Saint-Satur on Monday – entirely uphill. The heat is really getting to me now – I’m starting to feel lightheaded and my face is on fire. I don’t think I can make it another step when finally we emerge at the top of the hill, by the panoramic view overlook and just down the way from my apartment. I bid Jane a hasty good-bye and rush back to strip off my sweat-soaked clothes, down several glasses of water and a couple of Ibuprofen; then to the shower – but no time to lounge – our last homework assignment is to write another imaginary dialogue between two people. After today’s adventure, I am not without subject matter.
Le dernier Vendredi en Sancerre – Le Dernier Jour de Cours en Français (Last Friday in Sancerre – Last class in French)
I slept so well last night – if not for the birds and the morning sun at 5:30, I would have slept until noon. Doesn’t it always happen that way – by the time your body is fully adjusted to a different time zone it is time to go back to the old one.
I stop at L’Honery on my way to class to pick up a pain au chocolat – I have resisted them up until now but as this is my last day, there is no chance for addiction. There, I find Peter and Ellen and Leslie and Jess and mention to them Jane’s and my thought for our last evening together – take that boat ride on the Loire (with a reservation this time) and have dinner and drinks afterward… but only if Marianne will call and make the reservations for us.
Class is a little unfocused this last day – everyone antsy and with brains too full to absorb anything more. Marianne, however, persists, taking us through practice exercises using the comparative words from yesterday’s lesson that Jane and I missed – more than (plus que), less than (moins que), equal to (aussi que – used with an adjective, autant que – used with a verb). I use my most fluent French to express my feelings: je suis perdue ! Je ne comprends pas ! J’ai très mal à la tête !
Alas, the bewitching hour of 13 heures is upon us and class is over; we all look at each other quizzically – so this is it? C’est vrai ! We survived ten days of instruction entirely in French, humbling pronunciation practice and brain stimulating learning. We will definitely do it again!
Tonight is the farewell outing with our classmates, sur la Loire. Our noisy and excited party is out in front of the school at the designated meeting time of 6 p.m. – Peter, Ellen, Linda, Carin and her husband John, and Jane and me – for a walk down into Saint-Satur to Le Raboliot. Carin and John have a big shopping bag with them containing two baguettes, two bottles of wine and plastic glasses.
We take the scenic-but-steep route down the steps from the panoramic lookout behind city hall and through the countryside past vineyards and gardens and houses (intimately aware of the fact that this steep descent will involve an equally steep ascent on the return trip later). The sun is still strong but getting lower so the quality of light on the vines, grasses and woodlands around us makes everything look particularly lush. Along the way we see people tending their gardens or just taking in the view and we wave and call out Bonjour. The dynamic of the group is such that I ask whether two bottles of wine will be enough – NON everyone chimes in, so we stop in a café bar in the village and negotiate with the proprietor to buy one of his chilled bottles of wine; he is clearly amused and offers to open it for us, even throwing in a container of ice to keep it cool.
The captain is waiting for us as we troop down to the dock – nous parlons en français ? he asks; OUI we respond. He is a Paul Bunyon-size Frenchman, very rugged, shorts, tee shirt and bare feet, unruly hair, and with an accent that makes it very hard for us to follow his French. Only a few words make it through – like when he asks us to move out of his line of sight because the area in front of us is très dangereux (shallow with exposed rocks).
The boat is an old wooden flat-bottom type; there is a stand-up bar in the middle and a canopy overhead, benches along the sides and a huge prow up front. Le Capitaine steers from the back of the passenger cabin, standing up.
John does the bartending duties, serving all of us then pouring a glass for the captain as he pushes off from shore. The evening is gorgeous, the sun still strong enough for us to appreciate the canopy overhead, people walking and sitting along the shore wave to us like we were off on an important voyage. With seven assertive people, it is hard to have a conversation as a group, so we break off into smaller groups, conversations fluctuating between pointing out one beautiful scene after another to topics involving the program we just finished, our lives back home, and how we will keep in touch afterward. We all know that these types of relationships never continue, but still the idea of Skyping in French to continue our practice sounds good if one among us has the organizing skills to make it happen. Probably not – organizing skills yes, time no.
Too soon, our Huckleberry Finn float down the Loire is over and we’re making the trudge back up the hill to Sancerre.
The plan is to have dinner at Le Bouchon on rue des Juifs but it is already 10 p.m. when we get there, and they are closed. We try Café des Arts next and although it looks like they are still serving, the waitress (serveur) gives us a brushoff with a very curt non, ce n’est pas possible ! At this point, we start inventorying our refrigerators so see if – between all of our apartments – we could put together a dinner for seven, but the answer to that is also ‘non’. But then, we come upon La Collina, the pizza restaurant under Jane’s apartment. The proprietor initially tells us he is closing, but at the pleading of former customers John, Carin and Jane, he relents and invites us in. It is the best pizza ever – and he is so charming; when we leave, he asks each of us to send him a card from our hometowns. Avec plaisir, Monsieur!
11 p.m., dinner done, bars closing, early departures scheduled in the morning – it really is time to say goodbye. Hugs all around – same time, same place next year? Bien sûr !!!
Tomorrow, we take the 11:07 train back to Paris and then back to Minneapolis early Sunday morning. I cannot write another word about this extraordinary experience. It ended at Sancerre.
Je suis très triste de quitter Sancerre demain. Je reviendrai, c’est certain !
Travel Diaries: Prelude to Lessons in French – Paris (part one) published on A Woman’s Paris®.
Acknowledgements: Lee Murphy, student of new media communications at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and copy editor for A Woman’s Paris.
Remerciements : Julie Valdre, étudiante en Master Traduction anglais-chinois à l’Université Paul Valéry Montpellier et traductrice pour A Woman’s Paris.
Susan Henry started writing journals several years ago as a way to memorialize fun travel adventures with friends. At first, the journals were of a ‘for your eyes only’ variety, never meant to appeal to an audience other than those directly involved in a particular trip. Inevitably, the journals were passed around and seemed to strike a note with others who were looking for fun and different ways to spend time with close friends. The sharing of these journals with a broader audience has become as enjoyable to Susan as the experience of the actual adventures.
Susan recently retired from a long career in the airline industry where she held leadership positions in marketing and service operations organizations and where she learned about the joys of travel. Currently, she manages her own small business providing fiduciary services to vulnerable adults and advocates for seniors through her position on the Minnesota State Board on Aging. She lives in Minneapolis where she finds great stimulation from friends, outdoor activities and the city’s rich cultural offerings.
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French Dip – Learning French in a French wine town by journalist and travel writer Merle Minda, whose “can do” thinking brings her to a two-week French immersion language course in Sancerre, a delightful wine town two hours from Paris.
Travel Diaries: France trip with my spouse doing all the juggling, driving and talking! First published in Travel Over Easy; travel blog written by travel expert Merle Minda; Guest blogger: Roland Minda about their visit to the wine town of Sancerre in the Loire district of France.
Travel Diaries: “To Catch a Thief” on the Côte d’Azur by Barbara Redmond who brings us a story of travellers who had come to the French Riviera, like her, to indulge in the sea and glitter by night. Reading until the professeur de natation was folding the last beach umbrella, then to dress for the evening.
Oh, so French! Crossing to the other side. Paris-based writer Shari Leslie Segall shares her observations of becoming a little bit French and writes: “To a greater or lesser degree, whether you expected to or not, one day you realize that you’re crossing to the other side.” She offers a very incomplete list of how you know when you’ve arrived. (First published in FUSAC.FR July 5, 2013.)
Travel Diaries: The Stones of Carnac by award-winning travel writer and photographer, Catherine Watson. Catherine’s career has taken her around the world three times, to all seven continents, and into 115 countries. Writing about this prehistoric site in northwestern France, she describes the giant stones that linger there and stand in rows across the French landscape, shouldering their way over rises, past houses, through farm fields – a granite army, 3,000 strong.
Text copyright ©2015 Susan Henry. All rights reserved.
Illustration copyright ©2014 Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.