Of Parisian Schools, New and Old

Yesterday was my last French class. As it was also the last Friday of the month, and a number of students were finishing their time at the school, we had a potluck pique-nique after class in the grand salle. Everyone brought food: cheeses, baguettes, fruit, salads, charcuterie, dips, cake – and the school supplied other treats and very nice wine. It was a lovely way to end the course.

I think my French has improved. Certainly my vocabulary has, but the intricacies of French grammar often still elude me. We had a strangely discombobulating final week. On Tuesday our teacher Vanessa was ill, so did not show up to class. The director/administrator of the school, Annabelle, was also ill. Désastre! Another teacher, Anne-Sophie, came to tell us we had a choice, to join her higher level intermediate class or to get reimbursed for the day. She warned us she would not be able to adapt the material, so it might be difficult. Most us went to her class and it was very challenging, despite Anne Sophie’s welcoming manner. I had a headache by 1:00pm. Then Anne-Sophie reported that Vanessa would not be back for the rest of the week, but she had no idea what the plan for us might be. We left feeling inordinately downcast. I couldn’t believe how attached to Vanessa I had become in a single week, and how difficult it was to imagine continuing classes with anyone else.

On Wednesday, no one came to talk to us. Three of us had decided if the only option was to continue in the higher level class, we’d ask for our money back. We waited for about an hour. Then Annabelle showed up and told us we should join Anne Sophie’s class again, but that she would adapt the material this time. Feeling apprehensive, we obeyed the directive – and it was, in fact, much easier. We left under the impression we would get a new instructor for our final 2 days. As it turned out, the director, Annabelle, became our new prof. We certainly bonded as a group (at least the four of us who continued to attend classes, including a 16-year-old Brit, here for a week to improve his French for A-levels) – and the quality of instruction was high…but the lack on continuity was a challenge. Nonetheless I felt sad saying good-bye to everyone today. Much kissing on both cheeks!


en route to my school 


IMG_1436I feel like quite a local and hardly needed to think about my route as I walked back and forth to school. Honestly walking anywhere in Paris is a treat, the architecture is so grand, the avenues so wide and light. The weather this week has been fantastic, warm and sunny – so Paris at its best. I have my favourite boulangerie and supermarché (where I could fill a bottle with orange juice, pressed from oranges while I watched – and excellent wine could be purchased for $10 or less. And the cheese! Say no more.).


6 rue Nicolet, where I lived in 1963-4


view down rue Nicolet, my house on left

On Monday afternoon I walked from the school up to the area of Montmartre where my family lived for a year when I was eight. I first learned French there, via brutal immersion, at a school where even the teacher declared me an imbecile because I could not speak a word when I arrived. The neighbourhood has changed quite a lot, but the house where we lived is still there, as is my old school. I went in and talked to the school secretary, hoping to speak with the directrice to see if she could find class records from my time there. I have written a memoir of that weird year – but cannot recall the surnames of my friends. The directrice was far too pressée to see me (some things never change) but I did get a peek into the old courtyard where we spent recesses. It has not changed at all!


my elementary school in Montmartre


the school courtyard 

The two schools could not be more different: the most recent one cosy and inviting, hidden on the first floor of an anonymous building; that elementary school cold and forbidding … although memory does tend to cast a golden glow over childhood years.

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Mon école, L’Atelier 9

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.


view out the classroom window

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.


All my classmates (except me!)  Vanessa in the centre

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.


All of us except Lucia and Andrea

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!

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Paris, je t’aime

I always forget that initially Paris is rather formidable. I forget because that memory is later overshadowed by the light and beauty and joie de vivre of the city, but at first….ooh la la.

Everyone is Paris seems to be in a hurry, moving quickly and purposefully. No lollygagging here. People seem to have a sixth sense about when the streetlights will change or even when waiting is simply not required. I patiently watch for the little green man, as most people do, most of the time – but at other times it’s like the crowd has been given a silent sign and they surge forward regardless of the colour of the little man. I run the risk of obstructing the flow if I don’t go with them, so I do, feeling just a little anxious that a gendarme or angry motorist will upbraid me.

Pausing to check my map makes me feel quite out of step, so generally I too try to stride along purposefully. The street names are clearly posted high on the sides of the buildings (although some signs are old, worn and a bit tricky to decipher), but of course Paris was not built on a grid, or indeed according to any plan. The first day I set off to find my school on foot, I made a wrong turn because I misread a street sign. Feeling panicky that I’d be late for class and have an irate professeur, I thought about asking the people rushing past me for guidance, but really they seemed so pressés, I didn’t dare. I found a Tabac and asked if I could buy a map. 5€ later, I had a fantastic little book with maps by arrondissement. As it turns out, I was about 2 blocks from the school, and made it exactly on time.

Some things have changed in Paris over the past 50 years (I lived in Montmartre for a year in 1963-40, when I was…quite young.) It does not smell the same at all. I have the most distinct memory of the smell of Paris from my youth – a strong and somewhat repulsive mixture of French cigarette smoke, garlic and urine. I don’t miss this odour. Well, maybe I do, just a little. The air seems very clean now. Fortunately so do the sidewalks, although even today the French do not clean up after their dogs as well as, say, Canadians do – so it is worth watching one’s step.

What I miss most are the little specialty shops, which used to populate every street. Some few remain: the ubiquitous boulangeries and pâtisseries (usually in the same shop) and the boucheries. But I have not seen a single charcuterie or epicerie, shops that sold charcuterie and lovely little French shredded salads, nor any papeteries or fromageries. In their place are many supermarkets, where the food is very good, but…it is not the same. It is, in fact, easier to shop in such all-in-one places as a foreigner, but it lacks the intimacy of the Parisian shopping of old. Still, the food is fresh and good. I bought a very basic package of chicken thighs – not organic or expensive or anything, cooked them quite simply and could not believe how good they tasted. Like chicken, not…whatever it is that most chicken tastes like at home.

The metros are cleaner and more automated, of course, but there are still long walks within metro stations to get from one ligne to another. The streets remain either very narrow – and the sidewalks even narrower – or wide – beautiful boulevards; there is little in-between. People are still both friendly and formal: “Bonjour, Madame (or Monsieur)” is de rigueur upon entering a shop – and they are rather more forgiving of bad French than in days of yore.

My first week here has been grey and rainy, but tomorrow, it will be springtime in Paris and I have the whole weekend to explore old haunts. Fantastique, alors!

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Paris: Ma Petite Maison

I have so much to say about Paris, I hardly know where to begin, so I think I will start small and expand outwards.

I am enchanted by the way Parisian accommodation works. I have rented a tiny airbnb apartment in the Ménilmontant area (sort of on the border between the 11th and 20th arrondissements). This is not a part of Paris I know at all. In the past I have stayed in Monmartre, the Latin Quarter and the Marais (and probably elsewhere….I have spent quite a lot of time in Paris. It is my favourite city in the world).

I received check-in instructions from my host, which did not make perfect sense to me, but I thought I would figure it out….and when I got to the address, I realized that when Jay, Jamie and I stayed in the Marais in 2006 (I think), it was a very similar system for entry. First I entered a code on a keypad to gain entrance through a barred gate onto the street into a very small area, visible from the street, where I faced a locked metal door, with another keypad beside it.

I entered another code which admitted me to a small outdoor corridor leading to the actual door to the building, which, as it turns out, was not locked (and remains unlocked.) So far so good, except I had now used all the codes I’d been given but was still some way from the flat. 5 sets of spiral stairs away, in fact. Ahem. Quite the climb with two bags – fortunately they are small.

IMG_1246When I reached the fifth and top floor, I knocked on the door to my left (which the host had identified as “mine”) – and Olivia was there to greet me. There was barely room for both of us in the flat – and after giving me a brief tour (more like a turnabout), she left me. It is perfect for one person: a small living/dining room/study with view of the neighbours (at night, no need for TV, I can watch all their activities!); a small bedroom with miniscule balcony looking out on church steeple and more lovely rooftops; a closet of a kitchen, but well-equipped, as long as I don’t dislodge anything, including a washer; and the piece de resistance: a bathroom which is a shower stall containing a sink and toilet. As my host said, you wash down the whole room every time you shower.

It takes some getting used to, but it is a delightful challenge. Another student in my course (much more to come about that!) took the option the school of living with a family, an option I considered briefly (more French practice, cheaper). She lives in a lovely location and a large flat but the woman of the house sounds like a royal bitch who mocks her French and refuses to wash her towels (she has been there almost 3 weeks.) In comparison my arrangement seems like heaven. And I do love the views!

And it is only a 50 minute walk (flat out) to school.

So if I walk both ways, does that offset the whole baguette I eat each day, not to mention the wine…?

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Amazing Amsterdam

Scarlett and I arrived in Amsterdam the day after the national election, which saw an 80% voter turnout and the re-election (in minority) of Mark Rutte with 21% of the vote. His closest rival, the anti-immigration candidate Geert Wilders, did not make the gains people feared he might (although he did gain), but the Green Party got far more votes than anticipated. It’s a bit mindboggling as there are something like 14 political parties in The Netherlands, most of whom have seats. Rutte will apparently need to join with 3 other parties to form a coalition government.

IMG_1214The election results seem comfortingly characteristic of The Netherlands, which has been progressive for a long time; assisted dying, marijuana and prostitution were all legalised years ago. The atmosphere is relaxed and respectful in Amsterdam. There is no evidence of the horrors anticipated by those staunchly opposed to legalizing such things. It feels no different from any other European city, except there are mad cyclists everywhere (watch your step!), and consequently fewer cars. The city feels safe and friendly. I could imagine living here (although my non-existent Dutch would be problematic).



Outside a well-known “Coffee House”

It was, consequently, something of a shock to visit the house of Anne Frank, which stands in stark contrast to the atmosphere in Amsterdam today. The “house” is actually the warehouse annex where Anne and her family hid for two years (1942-44), before being discovered, arrested and shipped off to Auschwitz. Anne wrote most of her famous diary while in hiding.

Now transformed into a museum, the hour-long journey, up incredibly steep narrow staircases and into the long ago lives of the eight people who huddled in such close quarters there, is heart-wrenching. The rooms are no longer furnished, but each contains a photograph of what it looked like during that period. All the rooms are dark, as they were (the windows were covered, no one ever looked out). The entrance to the annex is concealed behind a bookcase, built for that purpose. Quotes from Anne’s diaries adorn the walls, as do the photos of movie stars and artists that she glued up to decorate her room, as any teenager would. The ongoing hope in her words is dashed by our knowledge of what happened. At the end of the tour, there are exhibits related to the Nazi arrests and concentration camps, and videos of Otto Frank, Anne’s father and sole survivor in the family, and a friend of Anne’s who tried to get food to her in the camp, just before she died.

Otto Frank made it his life’s work to get Anne’s diary published. She had hoped and planned to turn it into a book, to be called The Annex (and that is the title on the first publication). By now it has been translated into over 60 languages. I can’t imagine a more chilling testimony to the brutality of those times – precisely because it was not her intention to be chilling; she wrote from a position of youthful innocence, certain she would see freedom again. This site is well worth visiting (but book online or be prepared to wait in line for at least an hour.)

IMG_1222On our second full day in the city, we went to the Van Gogh Museum, also a very moving experience – and although it is tricky see parallels between Van Gogh and Anne Frank, I did. Two individuals, terrifically talented, cut off much too young. Hard to believe that Van Gogh really did all his painting (including teaching himself to paint) during a ten-year period – and how fantastic his work is. I had not previously realized how much his early work was influenced by the Dutch masters – all dark, gloomy, earthy – so different from the wild profusion of colour and swirls in his later work, drenched in the light of Provence.

Amsterdam itself is utterly charming – the canals captivating, architecture unique, people hardy, enthusiastic, and kind to fumbling foreigners. I took a canal boat tour and learned much about this thriving commercial centre. Built on land that is below sea level, Amsterdam takes its name from the famous dam built on the Amstel River that made the land habitable. The canals were created partly to provide drainage, partly for defence. Most of the houses (which I took for apartment buildings) lean in slightly towards the canals, and have pulleys attached to the gables, to draw goods up for attic storage or to clear them of the floods that occurred for centuries. In the 20th century, the construction of more dams and dikes cut the city off from the tides that caused so much flooding (well, something like that – its pretty complicated!)


Rainy view from boat 



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Spanish Stories #3: A Woman of Many Talents

On the first or second day of the program, Belen made a debut appearance in a slightly racy, very funny skit: this small bright Spanish woman was a good choice for the part – and we all laughed heartily. Then I began to hear about her as I spoke with other Spaniards about my life (this was always a two-way street). By the time I had my first session with her, probably 3 days into the program, I knew she was a chef and that she taught in a culinary school. I was keen to meet her.

IMG_1073We talked at length about the restaurant industry and culinary schools, comparing notes. Belen speaks very good English. Not surprisingly, there are many similarities between the culinary worlds of Spain and Canada. It is a male-dominated profession, with long hours and poor pay. Belen and her husband (also a chef) ran a restaurant in Madrid for two years, then gave it up because it was too stressful and left them no time for other things. Now they both teach at a cooking school in Leon (in the northwest of Spain) – and are very happy there. It is a small school that takes in about 30 students each year and loses about half of them by second year. The students cook for the public in both years. They study classical cuisine in year one and more contemporary cooking in year two. They design their own menus for the school restaurant. A Number decide not to pursue a career in the business after experiencing its rigours


Belen with her husband

Everyone in the program knew Belen was a chef and we would all seek her professional opinion of the food we were served in various places. She was diplomatic and positive, but we knew when, in her opinion, the food was not up to snuff. “A little heavy on sauces”, she commented once. We all nodded. She spoke to me about the challenges of being a woman in the restaurant industry. A couple of years ago, 5 female chefs (of Michelin-starred restaurants in Spain) and their assistants (she was one of those) went to design and prepare menus at Iberostar resorts in the Caribbean/Mexico; the local male cooks had trouble dealing with directives from women. Fascinating to hear how similar circumstances are in different cultures. So hard for women to gain respect in that industry, even though at home, women rule in the kitchen (well, except for at Carolina’s house!)

Why did she want to improve her already excellent English? Because Belen has another passion: horses. She judges/stewards competitions in Spain but wants to get her qualifications to become an international judge/steward. English is required – and I believe she is taking her qualification exam this coming week-end. (Good Luck, Belen!) Once she passes, I hope she will come to North America for a competition so we can meet again. And I am sure she will pass. Nothing gets in the way of this woman’s drive to succeed!

Belen & horseWe talked often during the week. Like me, she has two sons, young teenagers – and she clearly missed her family. Walking one day she told me she’d spoken to her son, a serious musician, on the phone that morning. He was upset because his music teacher had made harsh comments; he needed to talk to his mother.


with her family

At age 49, Belen is a ball of energy, and a force to be reckoned with on the mini-stage and the dance floor, not to mention in the kitchen/classroom or at equestrian events. She kept us all smiling with her radiant presence. Next time I am in Spain, I will go to Leon, just to see her and meet her family. It will be a delight – as it was getting to know her. Another Spanish jewel.

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Spanish Stories #2: St. George’s Day in Catalunya

This is a shorter post (I wish I had more time, to share ALL the stories I heard!) with, alas, no photos.

Teresa is a retired schoolteacher from Barcelona; she’s determined to improve her English because her daughter and grandchildren live in Dubai. She wants to visit them often to help out and take care of the children, but needs to speak English there to be useful.

All the Spaniards had to give presentations at the end of the program, and Teresa talked to me about her topic: the St. George’s Day rituals in Barcelona. If I understood correctly, St. George is the patron saint of Catalunya. His “day” is April 23 – the anniversary of the deaths of Shakespeare and Cervantes (both in 1616) – also Shakespeare’s birthdate.

The day is celebrated by an exchange of gifts – originally between men and women, but now also between parents & children. The men give the women roses, the women give the men books. On April 23, rose sellers abound on the streets and sell thousands of roses. Booksellers also set up stalls and sell thousands of books. One suspects the giving of books relates to the fact that it is the anniversary of the deaths of two of the world’s greatest writers.

In the schools, each child is invited to bring a book, no longer needed at home, and put it on a special table set up for the day. The older students then arrange the donated books by age category and each student gets to choose a book to take home.

According to Teresa, it is a truly wonderful day in Barcelona, where everyone is in the giving mode, the men gallantly presenting roses, the women responding with books. It is full springtime, the days are getting longer, and everyone is happy and excited. So if you are planning a trip to Barcelona, think about getting there by April 23!

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