The school where I am taking an intensive French course, L’Atelier 9, is located in the 9eme arrondissement. Sometimes I take the metro to get there (25 minutes, 1 change); more often I walk (about 50 minutes). The school is located in an apartment building, one code for the outside door, another for the door to the staircase, then up one flight: the school occupies that floor. There is an office, 4 classrooms, a little kitchen and foyer. It’s very cosy.
I am in the lower level of an intermediate level class (this was my best guess when I enrolled online, and it seems about right.) There are 6 other students in the class (or there were last week, 2 of them have finished, but perhaps others will come for my second week.) Maximum class size is 9, so again, quite cosy.
My classmates are of varied backgrounds and ages. Monica is Argentinian, in her mid-fifties. She took the course for 3 weeks and has finished. Viviana is Italian, Lucia Slovakian and Andrea from Mexico All are in their twenties I think and have been in Paris for some time. I believe they will have been taking classes for a month by the end of next week.
There were 3 newcomers this week: Neil, a paediatrician of middle years from Bath, England (he was only here for a week), Yasemin, a 19-year-old German, on a program working in Paris for a year, and me. Yasemin and I are both here for 2 weeks.
Our teacher Vanessa is a delightful young French woman: animated, expressive, clear – and quite fierce if we get things wrong (which we do all the time.)
Class runs from 9:00-1:00, five days a week. Utterly exhausting to try to bend one’s mind to French for that much time each day. They say learning a language keeps the mind alive. I say, if it doesn’t kill it completely! The classes are entertaining and mostly conversational, but Vanessa gives us interesting topics to discuss (this week, for example, the cinema. I learned a whole new vocabulary.) I was a bit stunned when she announced on the first day that we would now learn the subjunctive tense. I thought it wouldn’t do any harm to start with the present…but I guess I’d need to be in the Beginner’s class for that.
It is an interesting mix of accents and knowledge levels in the class. Most of the students have a better understanding of grammar and vocabulary than I do. I have a good French accent because I learned French in Paris as a child, but my grasp of grammar is very weak. I think some may have found this peculiar if not a bit offensive: if I can pronounce the words properly, surely I should understand the fundamentals better! But alas, I do not, so it is good to be receiving instruction. We spend time reading aloud, practising the use of certain words, prepositions, verb forms and tenses. We even did a dictée ((dictation). Quelle horreur! That definitely brought back memories of my French schooldays, when the teacher would read a passage and we had to write it down perfectly. I had more Xs on my page than I could count.
We also play games and have little competitions – so it is very lively, and the other students are friendly and fun. So all in all – an excellent experience. Although I am happy to have a week-end off (with only a bit of homework.)
The school also organizes optional activities a couple of afternoons a week (included in the price of the course). On Tuesday we had a session on French music, specifically the music and life of Serge Gainsbourg: absolutely fascinating, like a history of 20th century pop music. Vanessa taught this session, which included lots of recorded music and videos.
On Wednesday, about 18 of us went on a guided tour of the Latin Quarter. Our guide, Antoine, was fantastic and explained everything in both French and English. I’ve been to the Latin Quarter many times before – but learned a lot of this tour.
For instance. it is one of the oldest parts of Paris and the site of one of the earliest universities in Europe. For centuries people came from all over Europe to study there – and the common language was Latin, hence the name of the quarter. The Sorbonne is there, as well as several other colleges and schools.
The remains of Saint Genevieve lie in one the quarter’s churches. She became the patron saint of Paris when she faced down Attila the Hun, begged him to leave Paris alone and destroy some other city instead. Apparently he agreed.
The Latin quarter was largely razed when Haussmann “renovated” Paris for Napoleon III, but parts of the medieval city exists, side by side with Haussmann’s grand avenues. Only 25% of the churches in Paris survived the renovation. One of those is the only church in the city to still have its cemetery. For a thousand years bodies were buried inside church walls in Paris, until there was no room left and bodies were just piled up to rot. The odour became so offensive that in the late 18th Century the king ordered all cemeteries emptied – into the catacombs. According to our guide, it took 40 years to empty them all.
So – life is full and interesting – and I’m feeling deep sympathy for the Spaniards in the Pueblo Ingles program. It is hard work!