The first things I saw when I got to the Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris were a McDonalds and a Starbucks. After the sleepless eight hour plane ride, I didn’t know whether I felt comforted by the familiarity or disappointed by it. A classmate and I had arrived together. We were both doing CIEE’s semester in Rennes, and we were both avoiding meeting up with our program director until the last possible minute, because we knew when we did, we’d have to launch right into speaking French. We weren’t wrong. When we approached our meeting place, we saw not only our program director, but about 30 jet-lagged Americans struggling through introductions en français. As we boarded the bus to the youth hostel, our bus driver apathetically loaded our luggage with one hand while holding a cigarette in the other, in what seemed like the most French thing I had seen since arriving.
Our hostel was located in the fourth arrondissement of Paris, not far from the Place de la Bastille. Our rooms were closed for cleaning each day from noon to three, so when we arrived, we piled into the courtyard, hot, sweaty, and tired, and listened to our program director speak. But even just listening and trying to comprehend each word was a struggle, and I realized just how detrimental a summer away from French classes had been. I found myself wishing I had studied more, rather than resorting to the last ditch effort of using duolingo the month before I left. We had only been there a few hours when we were asked to sign a contract promising we’d only speak French for our time in the program.
I learned many things in that first week in Paris. I learned how hard it is to demonstrate my personality and sense of humor when conversationally speaking a foreign language. And I also learned just how inefficient it is to do anything, anything, with a group of 30+ people. Meeting up takes forever. Traveling takes forever. And going out to restaurants takes forever.
While our first week in Paris was overwhelming, it was unforgettable. We were given several tours, we saw many of the big sights, and I even ate escargot. And while the French immersion was a lot to take in, for most of us, it was our whole reason for choosing the Rennes program. Afterall, while Paris is full of beauty and culture, it’s so tourist-friendly that you could get by without speaking a word of French, and upon hearing our accents, our servers were all too eager to respond to us in English or give us menus in English. And so, after our first few days of being (willingly) herded around Paris, we boarded a bus to Rennes, where we would meet our host families and begin our fully immersive experience.