Monday, July 25, 2011


Week 6 in Saumur is officially behind us, and we went out with a bang. Saturday night, we celebrated our time together with the farewell show for the host families. The students have been preparing skits and songs all summer long, with intense rehearsals the last few days of the week, and on Saturday we finally put on the big show. The skits included first a Christmas Carol inspired tale about an unhappy stagiaire who is visited by ghosts of other stagiaires who convince her to stay in France. Then, a group presented a skit about the first day with the host family, and the kind of funny misunderstandings that can take place. The third was a presentation of ten ways to become more French, which included eating as though you have three stomachs and spending three hours at the dinner table. The fourth was a parody of the professors and our habits, which we enjoyed thoroughly. The final skit was about a stagiaire who is kidnapped by aliens and is rescued by his friends who wander throughout
Saumur looking for him. The families were all very impressed by the quality of the skits, both in their comedy and their level of language. The stagiaires themselves were also incredibly animated and gave top-notch performances. The songs were also very well done, and included a traditional, 4-part chorus, as well as a very famous song by the beloved Edith Piaf, Non, je ne regrette rien (No, I regret nothing). The farewell show is already a very emotional event for the host families, but considering the emotion of this song and the fact that it was the end of the show, we thought we would really amp it up by having the stagiaires join their host families halfway through the song so that they could tell their host families that they don't regret anything during their stay. Sure enough, sobs could be heard from the audience as the students sung to their families, and it turned out to be a very touching moment.

After all, the families have invited the students into their homes and their lives, sharing a part of the culture that is so important, and they've become quite attached. When we left Saumur on Monday morning, it became evident just how much the students have touched their lives. The new host families had the hardest time since they hadn't yet had to experience the final farewell at the bus, and though they know they will continue to hear from the students and most likely see them again, there's still a feeling of something that has ended, which must be incredibly difficult. The same feeling loomed in the bus as the stagiaires climbed in after saying their last goodbyes. As excited as they had been to go to Paris, and as anxious as they are to see their real families back home (don't worry, they haven't forgotten about you), they too felt the sting of having to leave the people they've gotten to know so well, their new second families that they've become a part of. The bus ride was a bit quiet at first, but the students did finally start to look forward again to the Paris trip, and they picked up energy once again.

Our excursion began with a visit to Chartres, a city situated an hour and a half outside of Paris, where the students ate their picnics and visited the cathedral, a very famous one in the region. It is an enormous structure with incredible stonework detail on both the exterior and interior. The cathedral is also well known for its many intricate stained-glass windows, which surround the entire building. Then we headed into Paris for our first day of activities. After checking into the hotel, we took the stagiaires to the cemetery Père Lachaise,
where several famous people are buried, such as Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, Proust, etc. After dinner at the hotel, we all went to the Arc de Triomphe, situated on the Champs Elysées, where students were able to take pictures and stroll down the famous street. Of course, to get everywhere, we're using the Paris metro, which for some students is a whole new experience altogether. While intimidating at first, students have found that it is really fairly simple to use, and have quickly gotten the hang of it.

Yesterday, students had time to explore the city in groups of four so that they could see the things most exciting to them. The groups had all been given time long beforehand to decide on an itinerary and map out each destination. We gave the groups a rendez-vous location to check in with us during the day, and then we all met up in the evening for a group visit to the Eiffel Tower. The structure that was detested by many Parisians immediately after its construction is now the undeniable symbol of the city, and students were able to take an elevator about halfway up for a beautiful panorama of Paris. As it became dark, the tower was lit up, and every hour it even sparkled. Students took pictures both on top and below, and as we headed back to the metro, we took the opportunity for one last group photo.
In our last full day here today, we started with a visit to the Louvre early in the morning to beat the crowds. While we only had two hours, which isn't nearly enough to see everything, students were able to see some of the most famous pieces of art, such as the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, Liberty Guiding the People, and so on. Then, after a quick visit to Montmartre and the Sacre Coeur, students took off again in their small groups to finish seeing the sights. Tonight, we'll be taking a boat down the Seine before heading back to the hotel to try to get a little sleep before our early flight tomorrow. I can hardly believe it, but tomorrow we'll be back in the States. Your students will have such great stories to share with you. They've learned so much during their time here, and I'm sure they're anxious to tell you all about it. They've been a great group, and it has been an honor to be a part of their experience here.

We will see you very soon!
Team Saumur

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

14 juillet

We're in the final stretch here in Saumur, and the stagiaires aren't quite yet ready to leave. While they've expressed their excitement to see their family and friends, they're also sad to have to leave their host families. And yet in just a few days, we'll be hosting our farewell show with songs and skits as a gift to the families. The students are hard at work memorizing their lines and lyrics, so I think we will have a very nice show this Saturday. After that, it's off to Paris! Before I get too far into the excitement ahead, however, there is plenty to be said about the last few days in Saumur.
On Thursday, July 14, we witnessed a celebration of the French Revolution simply known as the fête nationale (which we refer to as Bastille Day in the States). We started out the day with a military ceremony, where several officers were awarded medals and a new rank. Thanks to the Mairie, the students and their host families had a front row view. We then joined the crowds to watch a parade that went through the centre-ville.
Military service members, police members, and firefighters were applauded as they passed through the streets. One of the locals explained to me that Saumur has a strong military presence, and so it is reflected in its July 14th celebration. We were then invited to return to the Mairie for the mayor’s annual reception and speech. The mayor arrived with several other city officials and began his speech with a fairly somber tone. He explained that rather than give his usual speech, he would like to honor five French soldiers who the night before, like many more before and probably more to come, lost their lives in Afghanistan. One of these soldiers, we learned, was from Saumur. The mayor asked the crowd for a moment of silence, which everyone respectfully observed. Afterwards, we were invited to drinks and snacks, then students left to spend the rest of the day with their host families.

Many had a big dinner with their family and friends before ending back up in town later in the
evening. Huge crowds showed up along the Loire for the night-time festivities, which included an outdoor concert and ball, and later into the night an incredible fireworks display. The bridge was lined with people watching the fireworks that were shot just in front of the river and reflected in the water. The students certainly enjoyed having the day off to watch the French celebrate the beginning of their republic and to note the differences in our celebrations. With just a week left of classes, however, we were back to work this past Monday for our last lessons.

With such little time left, we had a very busy week planned this week. On Monday afternoon, we went on our canoe trip that was offered to us by the Mairie. We took a bus up to a nearby town and, with the help of a guide of course, we canoed in groups of two down the Loire back to Saumur. While it wasn't raining, thankfully, there wasn't much sun either, and the wind picked up rather strongly about halfway through the trip, making it a somewhat difficult journey, but we did have the opportunity to experience the Loire in a different and beautiful way. Despite showing up to school the next day incredibly exhausted, the students were hard at work in classes and in preparation for the upcoming fête des familles. We are holding thorough rehearsals, tightening up every detail of the sketches they've created, and we're quite impressed with the progress they've made. I think their families will be pleased with their farewell gift.
In just about a week (it hardly seems possible!), the students will be on the plane heading home, but between now and then there is more work to do and more memories to be made, so the adventure is hardly over yet. You'll be hearing from me at least one more time here, and then it's up to the stagiaires to tell you the rest. Bonne nuit from us all in Saumur!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Ile de Ré

Here it is the end of our 5th week in France and I have some catching up to do! We have had an exciting week, including a celebration of Bastille Day, but those details will have to wait. Going back a bit now to the end of our fourth week here in France, we took off early Friday morning for our third excursion, which took us to the Ile de Ré. Just off the Atlantic coast, next to La Rochelle, this flat island that stretches only about 19 miles long and 3 miles wide is part of the department of Charente-Maritime in the region of Poitou-Charentes, and is labeled as B below:
The Ile de Ré is well known for the production of sea salt, which became evident as soon as we drove onto the island since there were large piles of salt scattered across the fields. After about three hours in the bus from the time we left Saumur, we first arrived to a lighthouse called le
Phare des Baleines, which gets its name from the large number of whales (baleines) that can be sighted there. Students had the opportunity to climb the (very long) spiral staircase to the top of the lighthouse to take pictures. We had an excellent view of the Atlantic, with the waves crashing into the shore below. After our quick visit there, we continued along the island to a town called St Martin en Ré, where the students ate their lunches (once again, picnics provided by their host families) on a little hill with a nice view of the ocean. One of the most striking things about being in a seaside town is the smell of the salty air that wafts in with a cool breeze. With a bit of sunshine, we had a very agreeable early afternoon, and the students took advantage of it to explore the town and its small streets and shops. Caramels made with the local sea salt (fleur de sel) are apparently well known across France and seemed to be sold just about everywhere here. After a good amount of time in St Martin, we headed to the highlight of our excursion--the beach!

When leaving our beautiful and sunny Saumur, however, there is always a risk of running into some bad weather. While it didn't rain more than a few scattered sprinkles, we unfortunately didn't have as much sun as we would have liked. This of course did not stop us from enjoying our
outing to the beach--the stagiaires made the most of it and ended up having a rather good time. A few of the brave students did a little swimming, though the water was quite a bit colder than that of the Channel a week ago. Students had a great time swimming with the small waves that washed ashore, though after not too long, the combination of cold water and a cool wind coaxed everyone back onto the beach. Meanwhile, some students had been walking along the shore or lying down on the sand. Others began digging in the sand, and then they kept digging, and digging, and then others joined in in the digging,
until a rather impressive pit had been created. Students also helped collect the smooth white stone seen in the photo above to label our latest group photo. Our outing was a great ending to a fairly rigorous week of regular classes, and the students seemed enjoy having the time to relax and have fun together. It was especially good considering that this was their last excursion before Paris, and the time in between is quite hectic (in a good way, of course!).

Coming up soon is a summary of week 5, so stay posted. Unfortunately, the video I mentioned in the last post is in a format I'm not able to post to the blog or the photo website, and I haven't found a good way (or a free way, anyway) to convert it, so unless I find the time to fiddle around with it a bit more, I'm afraid it's a lost cause. Désolé!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Independence Day

After a restful weekend, our stagiaires arrived to school on Monday prepared for a very busy day. The city of Saumur sent us an invitation once again to an official reception at the Mairie (the town hall).
A spokesperson for the mayor greeted us at this formal event where we exchanged some kind words, presented a gift for the mayor, and participated in a few activities. Our host, who is in charge of international relations, is passionate about language education and study-abroad programs, and so she had prepared several intriguing questions for our students to answer in French, ranging from "what has been your best experience here?" to "what are people like in your ideal world?" Everyone was quite impressed with the students' ability to think of responses on the fly and to express themselves in quite abstract ways. Their language improvement was evident at that moment, and we were all quite proud.

Later in the evening, we held our big 4th of July celebration at the school cafeteria, where students, host families, and representatives of the city and the school were invited to join us to celebrate our national holiday.
The mayor of Saumur made an appearance to welcome us to the city and to comment on the importance of our day of independence and our shared histories. He said that the French-American relationship is a strong one that will continue to grow, and he congratulated the students on the challenge they've taken on and the strong linguistic skills they've already built. One of our students made a speech on behalf of the group, thanking the city for the opportunity that they have, and expressing their fondness of the city and their host families. We then sang the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, and in a very rare but special moment when we permit an exception to the language commitment, we sang our own national anthem, much to the delight of all our guests. We then invited everyone to an apéritif graciously provided by local wineries, which not only included a sparkling wine for the adults, but also in order for the students to not feel left out, a non-alcoholic sparkling peach juice. We had arranged a sort of a pot-luck dinner, where host families brought main dishes and desserts to share.
While eating, we were serenaded by a music group called Les chats noirs (the black cats), in which one of the host families sings. They sang a variety of traditional folk songs and created an incredibly jovial atmosphere. The students very much enjoyed themselves, and even some of the younger children in the host families joined in the middle of the room to dance to the music. I can imagine that it could have been difficult to be away from family during the 4th of July, to miss the barbecues and fireworks and time with family, but when looking around at the the students enjoying their time spent with each other and their host families, I felt a comforting sense of home-away-from-home, which reminded me how much these families invest in our stagiaires, not just in time and resources but in emotion. Some of them have already told me they're going to have a hard time letting go.

So here we are in our fourth week, getting ready to tackle another excursion tomorrow. Preparations for the final program for the host families are in full swing, and our journey is moving along much too quickly! More to come soon from sunny Saumur!

P.S. As soon as I can get it into the correct format, I have some video of the party that I would like to post on here and on the photo website, so be on the lookout for that!

Saturday, July 2, 2011


It has certainly been an exciting week! The students spent the week gearing up for our two-day excursion in Brittany and Normandy, which took place over Thursday and Friday. In order to help visualize our latest voyage in France, I've traced our path using Google Maps, as seen in the image below:

Brittany is the larger peninsula to the west, and Normandy is the smaller peninsula to the north.

We took off from Saumur at 7:30 a.m. on Thursday morning in order to get to our first destination, Saint-Malo, for lunch. Saint-Malo, labeled as point B on the map, is a fortified port city on the coast of Brittany where students were able to eat a picnic prepared by their host families and explore the walled city. We had a great view of the sea, and took the opportunity for another beautiful group photo!
From there, we headed to Mont Saint-Michel, a small but rocky tidal island that houses the large Norman Benedictine Abbey of St Michel. Construction of the monastery began in the 8th
century, with additions continuing into the 20th century. Its rich history has placed it in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites and has made it a very popular tourist destination. After climbing quite a few steps to the top of the hill, we took a tour of the abbey, which lead through the large church and the monastic chambers, as well as a couple of crypts. The students appeared to have a great time studying the architecture and taking photos, and some of them could have spent several more hours there, but we had to take off on our last drive for the day to our hostel in Lion-sur-Mer (D on the map above). This small town in the department of Calvados is on the coast of Normandy, just north of Caen, a key target in the Battle of Normandy during World War II. The beach of Lion-sur-Mer makes up part of Sword Beach, one of the landing sites of the British troops in Operation Overlord on D-Day.
Upon arrival, we were presented with a very nice dinner consisting of chicken with a mushroom sauce (or ravioli for our vegetarians), a potato-cauliflower gratin, melon, bread, cheese, and dessert. After dinner, though it was already around 8 p.m., there was still plenty of daylight (the sun sets quite late here in the summer, around 10:30 p.m.), so we took the opportunity to have some fun on the beach. Despite being rather north (about the same latitude as the U.S./Canada border), we had a fairly warm day, and the water was actually quite warm and very calm. Several students swam in the sea, some for the first time, while others relaxed or played games on the beach. It was a great bonding time for the group, and gave everyone the positive energy we needed to tackle our second day of the excursion.

We woke up bright and early on day two and headed to our next destination, Caen (E above), which has a fantastic museum and war memorial called the Memorial for Peace. It includes expositions that cover events leading up to the war, during, and after, up through the Cold War. We saw a majority of the exhibits, covering themes such as the failure of peace, occupation,
resistance, the Holocaust, and D-Day. We then saw a film made of archived footage of the events of D-Day, with the perspective of the Allies on the left playing simultaneously with the perspective of the German forces on the right. The overall experience of the museum was incredibly informative and emotionally charged. The students had already discussed some of the events of the war in class the days prior to the excursion, but the museum gave us all a profound and meaningful visual representation to reinforce the ideas.
Our final destination was a visit to Omaha Beach and the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial (F above). The cemetery, first established in 1944, is located in Colleville-sur-Mer and overlooks Omaha Beach, a famous landing site for American troops on D-Day.
The cemetery contains the graves of over 9,000 American soldiers, a memorial including the names of lost or unidentified soldiers and a statue called "Spirit of American Youth", and a small chapel. Students were given the time to visit the cemetery and then to walk down to Omaha Beach. I really can't speak for the students here they have their own stories and impressions to share with you now but the combined visit of the beach and the cemetery seemed to be the moment where the lesson of our intersecting histories and their consequences sank in the most. The students seemed quiet and pensive, but stayed in good spirits as always. By the end of the afternoon, they were ready to head back to the bus for our return to Saumur.

Monday, June 27, 2011

La Randonée

It hardly seems possible, but we have already finished our second week and are starting the third. With time flying by so quickly, we'll be hosting our "Fête des familles" (host family party) before we know it. In order to be well prepared for the event, we've begun the planning early during our afternoon activities. Every afternoon, we choose to do sports, choir, or theater, and it is the work from these last two activities that will form the show that the students will put on for the families. During choir, we listen to and practice a variety of French songs, both early and modern, and even some songs broken into four parts. Though it took a little encouragement, our brave stagiaires, some of whom who have never had any training, have jumped right into the choir exercises.

On theater days, the students are first engaged in some sort of activity that requires them to open themselves up to their classmates and to themselves, sometimes nudging them outside of their comfort zones in order to be a little silly, even. For example, the students were asked to cross the stage of our amphitheater one at a time, each time in a different way.
It was quite rewarding to see that even our more timid students were able to come out of their shells a bit, and that all the students were very encouraging of each other.

For the remainder of the time, the students have been working in groups to create short skits that they will perform for their families. They have already worked out some great ideas--how to become French in seven weeks, a Christmas-Carol-type tale of an unhappy stagiaire who is visited by the ghosts of other students, and aliens who kidnap a stagiaire and learn about the French culture. They will continue to write and direct their skits during the upcoming weeks as we prepare for the Fête des familles.

Even with all the work we put the students through during the week, there was a large group that was willing to spend their Saturday afternoon with us during our first optional weekend activity, which was a randonné (hike) around the nearby town of Montsoreau. The trail began in the heart of the small town, worked its way along the Loire river, and climbed up over the hill that looks over the valley. The view was quite remarkable, with a patchwork of vineyards and wheat fields covering the area. Students ate a picnic that their host parents prepared for them on top of the hill, then as we continued on, we came across an old windmill, so we of course had to take the opportunity to get a nice group photo:
Since it was a fairly warm day, we took a couple more good breaks in order to rehydrate and relax in the shade. Students even had the opportunity to see the town's château, which offered a museum describing the region's history as well as an excellent view of the valley.

After a restful weekend, the students began their third week with us today, and they are now setting their sights on the upcoming excursion to Normandy. They are very excited, and I think it will be a very enriching experience as they see the intersection of American and French history. I can't wait to let you all know how it goes! Stay posted, and enjoy the new photos that I have posted on the photo website.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Fête de la Musique

A week full of a normal schedule seems to be doing great things for our "stagiaires." They are much less tired (though maybe a little during the 9 am support group), they are eating well, and most exciting of all, they are already making some big improvements in their speaking and comprehension abilities. Some students came into the program already having some advanced skills, and are now filling in the gaps, and some students were very quiet the first few days, but are now starting to open up to us, their peers, and their host families. I have no doubt that we will be seeing some impressive transformations by the end of the program.

Yesterday, we met with the host families to discuss any of their concerns, and we were pleased to hear that they love their students. They are becoming well integrated into the families, participating in activities, conversing with the adults and in many families the children as well, and even keeping up with their household chores (keeping their rooms clean, setting the table for dinner, etc.). The host families enjoy helping the students with their homework, whether it's reading the textbooks, doing a grammar assignment, or discussing cultural differences. Overall, they are very impressed by the students, by their thirst for knowledge and their willingness to try new things. We are pleased to have such an outstanding group of host families, who have already shown a great depth of kindness as well as patience as they help our stagiaires navigate through this journey.

While this week has been somewhat "normal" in terms of the schedule, it is by no means a quiet one. Tuesday night we saw Saumur and indeed all of France celebrate the national holiday called the "Fête de la Musique". This national music festival, celebrated every summer solstice for the last 29 years, invites musicians to cover nearly every street corner and fill the city with music. It seemed as though every Saumurois was downtown for the event, and as the other profs and I took a moment to enjoy the festivities, we spotted some stagiaires and their families along the way.
The types of music varied, from rock, to classical, even some American country! It was quite an amazing sight to see, and the students who were able to go very much enjoyed it as well.

More photos from the music festival will be posted to the photo website soon, and there are still many exciting events to come, so stay posted!