Recap of My First Week in France

Claire OMalley
January 15, 2020

A week ago today, I found myself in France for the first time in my life, and after seven days in this country, I’m certain that it will not be the last time. It was about 9 o’clock in the morning, still dark in Parisian winter, when I stepped off my airplane; I felt like a Kennedy, descending a small flight of stairs directly onto the tarmac of Charles de Gaulle Airport. One of the girls from my program, Caroline, walked beside me, although I couldn’t see her through my short hair whipping in the wind. Thus began my four months in France.

Right now, I’m sitting in the living room, or le salon, of my house in Nantes. My host parents (Domitille and Frank) are out with friends right now, so I’m playing some refreshingly American music as I write with a pot of tea by my side. Honestly, it’s really difficult to figure out how to begin this article, so please be patient with me as I sort through the lifetimes that seem to have passed during this past week.

Nantes itself is absolutely gorgeous! My walk to the IES Abroad Center every morning takes me on local buses — which are incroyablement cleaner, faster, and pleasant-er than any public transportation I’ve ever seen in the States — and through grand plazas, fountains and all. The narrow roads are full of cyclists and tiny old cars. You would recognize the city as very European, but the most specifically French factor: beautiful white buildings line every street. Independently-owned boulangeries and hairdressers at eye-level are blanketed with several floors of apartments, lacy black gates covering their French windows, and les bâtiments are topped off with grey mansard roofs. They’re so picturesque that I find myself snapping photos every time I turn my head.

Only a few days after arriving, us 40-some students hopped on an early morning bus to Amboise, east of Nantes. Speaking of feeling like a Kennedy, we spent the weekend touring castles (yes, castles) decked out with original drapes, paintings, and canopy beds. We saw Clos Lucé, once the home of Leonardo Da Vinci, and les Châteaux de Chenonceaux, de Chambord, and d’Amboise (the resting place of Da Vinci). It was all like a bizarre dream: we dined within the walls of 500 year old castles, but exchanged typical teenager-y jokes and showed each other memes between bites of fancy cheese and pâté. But then again, that strange juxtaposition sums up how my friends and I all feel in this new place. We’re imperfect, goofy Americans trying our hands at notoriously beautiful French in a country that seems too good to be true. As I remarked in my last post, it’s hard to believe that this is real.

Besides my idyllic surroundings, another surreal factor is the language. Before leaving Milwaukee, I was completely freaking out about my French abilities, and I thought I’d be totally lost for words. As it turns out, the French that I’ve been learning since 6th grade, like… works! I can understand 95% of what my host family says, and we have fascinating, abstract conversations over the course of our nightly 2-hour long dinners. I think it’s because I simply don’t have the option to speak English, so in order to talk — which I really, truly, very much love to do — I have to shift my brain into fourth gear and just do it. It almost feels like a matter of survival. You either listen closely or you lose potentially vital information. You either speak freely and allow yourself to make mistakes, or you stay silent your speaking ability remains stagnant. Of course, this is easier said than done.

It’s hard to dedicate ourselves to speaking only in French to the other IES Abroad students, because we can’t be as funny in our second language. (To tell you the truth, we’ve been speaking a lot of English while getting to know each other, which isn’t allowed. I’m sure that soon, we’ll force ourselves to switch entirely to French, like we’re already meant to be. Please don’t tell the IES Abroad professionals!) I’m so happy to have found some friends here who not only are super down-to-earth, funny, and sweet, but are also at a similar level of French as me. We speak a lot of Franglish (80% French with some phrases and words in English, and vice versa), and it’s become difficult to just speak full English when I call my mom. I find myself thinking in French all the time. If we’ve only been here for a week and I’m already feeling really good about this whole immersion thing, I’m pretty sure we’re gong to have a fantastic semester.

My birthday is next week, too! I can’t say for sure how I’m going to celebrate, but since it’s on a Friday, the options are endless. J’aurai vingt ans le 24 janvier, as I’ve been repeating around the IES Abroad Center. I’ll be 20 years old! We’ll have just started previewing courses for the semester, and I can’t wait. This past has been super exhausting, but in a good way. (I swear, we’re all so tired that the phrase Je suis très fatigué is practically on a constant loop.) I definitely need to relax and destress from a full day of intensive grammar exercises. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go watch some Friends on Netflix, because you can take the girl out of America, but you can’t take America out of the girl.

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Claire OMalley

<p>Hi there! I'm Claire, Milwaukee born and raised. At Loyola University Chicago, I study Advertising/PR, French Literature, and Marketing. I love to create, whether it's playing my sax, designing advertisements, writing short stories, cooking tasty vegetarian food, or making really obscure rants about my niche hobbies, like astrology and 70s music. Follow me on Instagram at @claireomal for top-notch content and pictures of me trying to look above 5 feet tall.</p>

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