Saturday, July 20, 2013

L'Île de Ré

Yesterday we went on our final excursion before Versailles and Paris and headed to the Ile de Ré, an island on the Atlantic. The idea was to take a break together before the final week, as well as to see another part of the country. It started to rain a bit in the bus, but when we got to the island, the rain had stopped and there was a nice light breeze.

On the island, we first went to a town called Saint-Martin-de-Ré where the students ate their lunches their host families had prepared for them along the ramparts. They then had a couple hours to explore the city, which is known for its production of sea salt.  At first, I was confused when all the tourist shops in the city had donkey stuffed animals in stripped pants and suspenders. I then learned that donkeys were also a large part of the sea salt business, as they pulled salt wagons.  Because of the many insects, donkeys were dressed in that attire to protect against bug bites.  Here's an image I found online:

The students seemed to enjoy the visit; for example, I ran into Kim, Will, Luis, and Reid who had just split 25 ice-cream filled macaroons! What a way to enjoy the afternoon!

We then headed to another spot on the island, called Rivedoux.  By this time the sun had come out and a lot of us went in the water.  Luckily, both the weather and the water were much much warmer than when in Normandy!  From playing "chicken" and frisbee in the water, to investigating the large jellyfish that had washed ashore, to playing volleyball and soccer in the sand, to building sandcastles and just laying out, they really seemed to enjoy the last trip together.  On the way home, we watched the Lion King in French...I can't even count how many times I've seen it, but it never gets old!

Believe it or not, this is the last weekend that the students have with their host families! After, we have two more days of classes, then on Wednesday we'll have them take the same exam they originally did (to mark their progress), and on Thursday we'll be practicing for the Farewell Show on Thursday evening. Friday we'll be giving the students a day to pack their bags and spend one last day with their families, and on Saturday we'll head for Versailles and Paris! We've certainly had lots of adventures so far, but this week is promising to be no less exciting (not to mention emotional)! 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Fireworks & yoga

As I mentioned in my last post, Sunday was Bastille Day, France’s national holiday. A 20-minute fireworks show over the Loire River began at 11pm (yes, quite the late night for our students!). Many students went with their host families, some watching from across the river, others along the bridge, and others from high up near the château. Before and after, there was a live concert with a group playing all the "classic" French songs. We (the instructors) ran into a couple families and students, and they seemed to be having a really good time! 

For sports yesterday, we were once again lucky to have a student lead a group activity! This time, Rachel led a yoga workshop for all the students, circulating during exercises to demonstrate and teach proper form.  At the end, she had all the students hold a plank position to see who cold hold the longest.  Meaghan lasted the longest amongst the girls, even having some peers gather around her to encourage her!  As for the guys, we had to cut it off after 3 minutes – they looked like they could have gone on for much much longer – and declared a three-way tie between Will, Calvin, and Luis. 

It must have been Calvin and Luis’s day because after yoga, they swept away the win during our badminton tournament, beating Kelly in the final round.

Right now the theatre and choir groups are practicing for the farewell show, which is one week from today! Tomorrow we’ll be heading to L’Île de Ré to enjoy the sun (fingers crossed!) for our last excursion. Kelly and I chose out volleyballs to take to the beach, in addition to the frisbee that a student has. If the weather stays like it has been every day the past couple weeks, it’s promising to be a great beach day!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Tumbling and dancing through week 4

It's hard to believe that we have only 2 weeks left! We've been keeping very busy this past week, and luckily, the weather has held up and is looking to stay absolutely beautiful.  The choir group even took advantage of the nice weather to practice outside this week: 

Students are working very diligently in classes, often doing homework with their host families to help them along and attain deeper understanding of course material. After classes, as in the photo above, they've been working hard to prepare for the Farewell Show on the 25th.  In theatre, for example, not only are they refining pronunciation of their lines, but starting to practice from memory as well! The more they practice, they more dynamic and involved they're becoming. 

In other news, on Monday, we had our third (and final) group of students bring in desserts they'd made with their families. This time, though, we were smart enough to have knives! 

On Wednesday - our usual sports day - we had a special treat when Grace, a gymnastics teacher at home, led a basic skills workshop for all the other students.  It was not only very impressive, but also really fun. Grace did a great job preparing technical vocabulary and leading her peers through somersaults, cartwheels, handstands, and a tumbling relay race at the end!  I must say, when she began and led stretches, I heard a lot of the boys groaning that it was difficult, but as it turns out once we got going they all brought so much energy and were tumbling all over with surprising ease. 

On Friday, we visited the Fontevraud Abbey, near the town of Turquant (where the Mayor had invited us for a picnic last Friday). He arranged this visit for us, as well as for us to visit and have lunch at the nursing home in town to exchange songs with the residents.  While we were waiting to enter, the boys got together to take a picture of "les garçons" (the guys).  All the cameras went to the girls, and then they switched cameras to the guys, who did their share of picture taking. It was actually really adorable to watch, especially seeing their enthusiasm and camaraderie!  

Back to Fontevraud - construction of the abbey began in the early 12th century and housed both men and women, but for much of its history, the monastic order was headed by women.  The order was dissolved during the French Revolution, and the abbey was then converted into a prison.  During the Occupation in World War II, it was a prison especially for members of the Resistance.  While it's an unfortunate history, the abbey may not have survived the Revolution if it had not been repurposed.  Fontevraud is considered one of the largest monastic cities in Europe.  We gave the students about an hour to explore the cathedral, the cloister, the refectory, and other buildings with an audio guide.  

We then headed to the nursing home where we were kindly greeted and served a multi-course lunch outdoors. The mayor of Turquant came to join us for lunch and stopped at various tables to chat with the students. After eating, we went to the common area where several residents were gathered to hear the students sing.  The choir had prepared two song to share - Au Clair de la Lune and Compère Guilleri - after which all students joined in to sing the American national anthem followed by the French national anthem.  

As we were leaving and taking a group photo outside, a man came out to thank us for our visit and to wish us farewell.  He explained to us that he was a pilot in the First Indochina War (1946 to 1954) with many Americans. He then sang us a song to the tune of Auld Lang Syne called "This is a simple goodbye." The students thanked him, and it was clear they were deeply touched by the exchange.  

When we returned to school, we began a badminton tournament (with a few matches still left to go that we'll finish on Wednesday).  Students went home for the afternoon, but in the evening they came back dressed in "n'importe quoi" (nonsense), as it was the chosen "theme" for our very own Discothèque in the auditorium at school.  Students and families alike seemed to have a lot of fun dancing - ranging from the electric slide to a dance to a well-known French song, Alexandrin Alexandra.  Students brought juices, sodas, cookies, and cakes to have on the side, and overall it was just a really nice and lighthearted atmosphere that let students let loose and relax a bit together. 

Today is the 14th of July, the day France celebrates its independence from the monarchy.  Here, it is called "La Fête Nationale" (the national celebration). In the anglophone world, however, it's known as Bastille Day because it's the anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille, a symbolic moment in the beginning of the French Revolution.  The entire day has been full of festivities, starting with a large military parade in the morning that pays tribute to the town's significant military history, followed by a reception with the mayor of Saumur along the Loire River.  Many other activities - such as a boat parade and theatre representations - went on throughout the afternoon.  I went with Kelly this morning and we ran into almost half of the group with their families, as well as our on-site coordinator Marie-Chrisitne, and once again the Mayor of Turquant!  They served the adults sparkling wine (red, white, and blue to mimic the colors of the French flag) and orange juice for the students.  It's been gorgeous out tonight and should be great weather for the large fireworks display tonight! Above is a picture of students (plus Kelly, Krista, Marie-Christine, and me) with the Mayor of Saumur. 

This week we'll be continuing to practice for the Farewell Show, and will take Friday to have our last group excursion together to a nearby island/beach. It'll be a nice way to relax together and celebrate new friendships and much progress made! 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Students in the news!

I am SO proud of our students!! We had a group photo yesterday and 5 of them volunteered to stay after and "answer a question" (What has surprised you the most in Saumur/France?) for an online newspaper. The video and article were put together by an old host parent - the one who took the group photo for us - who writes for the paper and asked if I could find some students who'd be willing to share. For the most part the article is pretty accurate (a few old details mixed up), but this is just so great. I showed it to a French friend of mine last night out of excitement and he said he was impressed, as well! Click here to see the result!

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Reaching the midway point in style!

Last week certainly was charged! After our return from Normandy, we had a late start Friday morning and watched a film in the auditorium together. Since Friday marked our halfway point as well, we had some things to take care of as well as to celebrate in the afternoon! First, we voted on a program t-shirt, Kate’s design with our “group slogan” on it taking the win. Next, we had students choose a topic they’d like to write about for the end of program magazine.  Although we’re only halfway through, it’s already time for students to start gathering ideas and reflecting on memorable moments they’ve had in France. At the end of the program, we’ll assemble a magazine that will make for a wonderful memory – a gift in a way – for the host families, as well as for all students.  Topics range from favorite recipes, to the first day, to the excursion in Normandy, to music in France. Students will be submitting their first drafts at the end of the week, and I’m really excited to see what their impressions have been and how far they’ve come.

In addition to these preparations, we conducted mid-program evaluations in the afternoon. Students took turns meeting with their support group leader one-on-one.  At this time, we shared with students how they were progressing in each class, how they could improve, and what they should keep up! We also shared commentary from their host families (who had just filled out and sent back their own evaluations in a sealed envelope) and any additional observations we had.  This was a time for us to encourage students to stretch their limits and fully engage in the second half.  Needless to say, we’re very proud of all of them and how far they’ve already come. (Let me digress here to give a small example of how even their behavior in public has matured drastically: when we were in the museum at Caen, there happened to be many other groups – particularly Americans – visiting as well. While other youth spoke very loudly over one another – almost shouting – and were rather pushy, our students were much more “wise.” [We always tell them “soyez sage” or “be wise.] Not only did they use softer voices, but they also stayed together and were very conscious and respectful of others around them.)

After evaluations, it was time to celebrate! Since we have four birthdays during the program – Kate, Meaghan, Luis, and William – we took the opportunity to celebrate them together with various tarts and cakes. Miam miam!

I could say that this was a great way to end our busy week, but then I’d be leaving out the perhaps most jovial occasion yet – a large picnic and celebration with all students and host families! On Friday evening, we were invited by the Mayor of Turquant, a neighboring town (about 10 minutes away), to a picnic shelter near the Loire River to celebrate the fourth of July together (although it technically was on the 5th because of our excursion).  We absolutely could not have asked for a more beautiful evening! Around 7, host families started to gather, bringing foldable tables, blankets, chairs, and lots and lots of food to share! We even had a group composed of nearly two-dozen singers and musicians called “Les Chats Noirs” who played throughout the evening and really added a touch of charm to the already jovial atmosphere.  A few host parents were in fact part of the group.

After some welcoming tunes from Les Chats Noirs, the students gathered and sang the American National Anthem for their families, followed by the first part of the French National Anthem.  Following the students’ lead, many families joined in.  The Mayor of Turquant came to welcome everyone as well, sharing kind words with the families and students.  Then we all broke out the food! And then dessert, and then more dessert. (Personally, I think I tasted 5 different desserts made by families? Maybe it was 6….) Some, such as Kamal, got pretty creative and made a “raspberry baguette,” taking out the center of part of a baguette and filling it with freshly picked raspberries from the backyard.  Afterward students had time to just let go, many playing soccer in the field with host siblings (even one as young as 4!) and with other students. When the music began again, the dancing followed! Students with host families, students with other students, relatives and family; it was quite the uplifting vibe!  We ate and played until the sun went down, and that, I must say, was a beautiful ending to the first half of our journey this summer.

As we are at our halfway point, I want to take a moment and thank you all at home for sending your sons and daughters with us this summer, for having trust in the program and more importantly for trusting in your children as they mature and grow away from home, many for the first time. They miss you a lot, and I know the feeling is the same at home.

Nonetheless, for several of them, the relationships that they’re forming this summer will last a lifetime. As testimony to this, I’m actually typing this entry right now on the train on my way home from visiting my own host mom from 9 years ago.  I had a flood of memories in the 24 hours I was there as I picked a few pounds of raspberries in the backyard for an hour, shared photos from the past few years over tea, and learned some basic patchwork skills while relaxing in the sun.  While everyone has his or her own respective and unique experience, it goes without saying that many students this summer are creating bonds like this that make people they never knew until three weeks ago part of their “family.”  “Hosts” for the summer, but family for much longer….

2-day excursion to Brittany and Normandy

This past Wednesday and Thursday we took a two-day excursion to discover the regions of Brittany and Normandy and learn about D-Day and the American involvement in WWII. Before the excursion, Kelly covered historical information in culture class about the sites we visited to give students contextual knowledge and familiarity with what they were going to discover. Here’s a map highlighting our route:

Letter H (which is covering A) is at Saumur from where we departed bright and early at 7:30 in the morning.  Our first stop – point B – was the fortified coastal city of Saint-Malo.  You can see on the map above that the northwestern part of France branches into two arms.  The larger lower arm is the region called Brittany, and the northern arm is Normandy.  Saint-Malo is thus a Breton city, and that is where we stopped for lunch.  The students ate the picnics prepared for them by their host families and then had time to explore the city.  The port city engages in sea trade and has an economy that largely depends on fishing and tourism.  We experienced a little bit of the "typical" Breton weather – rain – but it didn’t last too long. Overall it was a really pleasant stop, which offered a magnificent view of the sea from the top of the ramparts that circle the central part of the city.  Here are some students exploring the ramparts (with some people passing by who decided to be part of the photo!): 

We then headed for the main attraction of the day – the Mont Saint Michel – which, as you can see from the label C above, is nestled exactly between Brittany and Normandy (both of which, of course, would like to lay claim to it). What started as a small abbey in the early 8th century atop a small but sharply rising island has become an immense monastery that attracts over 3 million visitors every year.  While the monastery at one time was full of life - a residence for monks and a popular destination for religious pilgrimages - it attracted less and less attention until the time of the Revolution when it was converted into a prison.  It has since been reopened as a touristic destination and has been named one of UNESCO's World Heritage sites.  Interestingly enough, we happened to be there when workers were “en grève,” or on strike. This did not change our visit, but it was a good opportunity in fact for the students to learn about how and why workers strike in France. The students visited the abbey in small groups and although they didn’t seem to enjoy all the stairs, they certainly seemed to enjoy the view!

Afterwards, we left for our pit stop for the night, a youth hostel in Grand Camp-Maisy (point D above).  We ate a delicious dinner of course complete with cheese and bread, and then let the students relax for the night.  A large number of them took this opportunity to be “brave” and play frisbee together in the cold sea.  Most didn’t go in much above their knees, but needless to say, there was a long line for the showers after!  As cold as it was, it certainly made for a good memory. (Personally, I was content enough putting a single toe in the water. After that I was out!!)

The following morning we had breakfast in the youth hostel – cereal, yogurt, bread and (salted) butter – and headed first to the Pointe du Hoc (point E), a piece of land that juts into the sea, situated atop steep cliffs between Omaha beach and Utah beach. Thought to be unassailable by sea, it was the site where the 2nd Ranger Battalion climbed with specially made ropes and ladders to destroy enemy guns on D-Day morning and prevent counterattacks on the landing beaches. 

Right after the Pointe du Hoc, we continued to the American Cemetery and Omaha beach (point F).  
Because of the many lives lost at Omaha beach, the small town just behind the beach (located just atop the hill from the beach) was chosen as the site of the American cemetery dedicated to the soldiers in World War II, which holds over 9,000 graves. There is a small chapel in the middle, and at the front end, a memorial consisting of a statue, a reflecting pool, and the names of 1,500 missing soldiers. 

We knew that going on the 4th of July would be especially moving for us all (instructors and students alike), but we were met with an opportunity that made our visit all the more personal and unique, something none of us could have predicted.  Since it was the 4th, a French Organization called “Les Fleurs de la Mémoire” (Flowers of Remembrance) greeted all visitors that day.  Existing since 2000, their mission is to honor each burial place with a flower.  In order to do this, they gave each of us card with a soldier to “adopt” and a rose to place on his tomb. The card included the full name of the soldier, his burial site, his unit, his state of origin, his rank, and his date of decease.  As you can imagine, this was a very emotional visit, and students supported each other very well.  It gave students a lot to think about and for many, it gave them a new perspective on their experience here in France. 

After placing our roses, we all walked down to the water on Omaha beach, the site of the first attack on D-Day.  As previously mentioned, Kelly had discussed the assault in culture class - out of the first 3,000 soldiers to land on the beach, around 900 lost their lives, the number rising to around 3,000 by the end of the day.  When we gathered together on the sand, we gave students the opportunity to sing the National Anthem together.  A few others walking by were quite moved and stopped to take videos and photos. Afterward, many students silently reflected and tried imagined what had happened.  It was almost eerie, given how calm the beach was.  The students then had a little more time to visit in small groups. 

The Caen Memorial (point G) was our final stop of the day.  A museum that provides information, documents, videos, and various objects related to WWII, it pulled together all that we had visited that day.  Before entering, we ate sack lunches in a picnic area.  Once in the memorial, students went through multiple rooms tracing “a journey through history," covering all the major events and aspects of the war.  One major part of the exhibit, for example, covered the Resistance.  Although France capitulated early in the war, and although the new Vichy government in the "Free Zone" of France collaborated closely with Germany, there was a large number of people that defied the fascist regime and became instrumental in Operation Overlord and in the liberation of France.  Those who could joined the general Charles de Gaulle in London to join the allied forces, and those who were stuck in France did what they could to impede German communication as well as transportation of arms.

At the end of the visit, we watched a powerful film on a split screen that consisted of footage from D-Day.  On the left side, we saw the Allied perspective, and on the right side, the German perspective. I personally found that the end left perhaps the heaviest impression: as the camera soared over the beach showing soldiers in combat in black and white, it cut to footage of the beach today - calm and in full color - and back again to the old footage.  In total it lasted about 15 minutes, but left impressions that will certainly stay with us all much longer.

After the film, we boarded the bus once more to return home.  To offset the somber and emotionally draining nature of the day, we watched a lighthearted comedy called "Bienvenue chez les ch'tis," a film about regional language varieties and stereotypes.  Many people slept the first part of the ride home, but everyone was fully awake when we popped in Mulan at the end.  In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if over half the group has already memorized all the words to some of the songs!  I can't quite figure out why (maybe I missed the boat?), but it's fun to watch them get really into it!  All the same, after quite the journey, students were welcomed home by their host families who were awaiting their arrival - just in time for dinner! (I also want to recognize Kelly for kindly offering some historical insights for this post!)

Monday, July 1, 2013

Becoming “more independent” day by day

Desserts! Desserts! Today another group of students brought in a new batch of desserts that they’d made over the weekend with their host families. Today we had an apple tart, caramel macaroons, chocolate cake, cookies, among other things! Here’s a photo from today’s batch (it looks like Luis is front and center ready to take advantage of first helpings, no?): 

Not only are the students benefiting from making desserts with their host families on the weekend, but they are also spending time with their host families. For example, one thing that’s rather common among families is to spend days on the weekend visiting with other friends and families. Sunday afternoon lunches can last especially long. For example, Eva mentioned how she went to an “eight hour picnic” last weekend! Wow! 

Some of the benefits of living with host families include having the opportunity to develop French language skills, learn other ways of living and thinking, and integrate into the culture first-hand.  While the host parents themselves know that they should speak slowly and articulate well when speaking with students, others – such as friends and family – aren’t used to adapting for the students.  This seemed particularly frustrating and difficult the first week.  I spoke with a few students today, however, who mentioned how after these past two weeks they feel they have become “more independent.”  Chelsea and Monica, for example, were excited to share that they were beginning to better understand when listening to conversations that were not especially tailored to their language level.  They shared that they no longer felt the “need” to ask their parents what was going on or to explain a conversation.  Others expressed that they had successful communication with people in town, such as at shops and the post office.  Overall, this is a shared sentiment among the students. It’s truly exciting that they’re sensing their French improve so much! 

Speaking of shops, last week marked the beginning of “Les Soldes,” or “The Sales.” I’m leaving that in capital letters because it’s a pretty big deal here. Twice a year, all stores in France have huge sales that last for a few weeks. I think of it like a prolonged “Black Friday” with discounts all around and intense anticipation. Many students took advantage of the first day and got shoes, clothing, scarves, you name it! So far most shops have marked things down anywhere from 10 - 60%, but it's sure to go lower as the days go on. Here’s an example of a store window that has a huge poster advertising the sales:

In other news, today we went on a guided historic tour of the city of Saumur after school that lasted about an hour and a half.  Among several historical facts, the students had the opportunity to learn about the construction of the original bridge that crossed the Loire river to Saumur, the history of the city center, how medieval shops were constructed (and how to recognize them in the present day), why many people were imprisoned for trafficking salt, and the origins of the name “Saumur.” It was a beautiful day for our visit and the students seemed to enjoy it. Here’s a picture with our guide:

Tuesday will be a “normal” day – meaning classes and afternoon activities.  Then on Wednesday we’ll be leaving at 7:30am to go to St. Malo, le Mont St. Michel, and Normandy. We’re anticipating the trip to be especially moving because we’ll be in Normandy on the 4th. We’re also planning on giving the students the opportunity to sing the National Anthem together as a group on the beaches.  But shhh...that’s a secret as of now!  

I’ll update again after the excursion!  In the meantime, I just want to say once again how delightful every student is. We’re really luck to have a group where every student is willing to learn new things, adapt to and openly learn about a different lifestyle, and explore language and culture!