Every morning I walk five minutes to my tram stop, take a fifteen minute ride to Place de la Comédie, and slalom my way to school past the newspaper vendors. The tram journeys themselves are pretty eventful. In the UK, people are prepared to do anything physically possible to avoid embarrassing themselves in a public place, which makes journeys by public transport boring. But here I have seen mother-daughter shouting matches, sober singing, full- on romancing, the lot.
After three and a half hours of French lessons, (with a truly brilliant teacher), it is time for lunch. Montpellier is the Elysium of restaurants, I could probably eat at a different one every day for my two months here. Each usually offers a plat de jour (daily special); a main course and a beer or glass of wine, costing between 10-12 euros. Never before have I so eagerly anticipated finishing class each day (even if it means leaving the aforementioned lovely teacher). Today I had roast chicken with chips, vegetables and salad. Tomorrow…
After eating it is time to walk off the wine. My favourite spot in Montpellier is by Cathédrale Saint-Pierre. This chalk-coloured cathedral has the most impressive porch I have ever seen. The surrounding parks are nice places to while away the time and some of the university buildings located nearby are impressive too. All in all it is a fairly pleasant place to dawdle around.
Be sure to venture inside. Going to religious services in the Cathedral is a fool-proof method of practising your French; religious services are a free invitation to listen, read, and sing in French alongside native speakers. Better still, a well-educated person (the priest) always talks out of the same book (the bible), so you can usually figure out what is going on.
But going to a Catholic service here was a little different to what I am used to. To my horror there were no prayer books. The parishioners chanted away verbatim when invited to do so by the priest. I became a mute bystander. When communion time came, we had to get down onto our knees and wait for the Priest to put Jesus’s body in our mouths – something I have never had to do before, despite attending a Catholic school for seven years. Apparently this anachronistic custom is the traditional way of taking communion.
Then I return home to tell my host family about my day. Usually I watch enviously as they cook themselves delight after delight. I have mastered a couple of French dishes but cannot hope to match their vast repertoire.
Another fixture of my daily routine has been watching a French TV series on Netflix – Marseilles — a French version of House of Cards. I won’t pretend that I really understand what is going on but it is another handy insight into French culture and a way to practise my listening skills. All the characters seem to do is have sex with one another all the time, which my host family tell me is what the people in Marseilles are like. I might visit Marseilles this weekend.
If you are lucky, an advantage of living with a host family is that they may take you along with them on their social outings. I come from a rugby-mad city (Gloucester), and so I was keen to watch a rugby game here. Montpellier boasts a dynamic team, who have just won the European cup. I mentioned this intention to my host family and they eagerly sorted out some tickets for us to go. I didn’t learn much French but it was another experience to take away and treasure.
Being immersed in a French host family certainly speeds up the process of adapting to the language and the culture. Exchanging pleasantries in a language you are learning, in a culture you are unfamiliar with, is challenging. But instantly rewarding.
Over the past year I have lived, studied, and worked in Germany, the Netherlands and Great Britain (my home country). Understanding a different culture requires more than just learning its language; the greatest obstacle in intercultural exchange is not linguistic; the biggest challenge is working out what people care about.
Every culture has its own value-system; what may be held as identity-defining information in one country, such as what school you went to, is worthless piffle in another. Work out what people’s values are and you can work out how they think.
For instance, last weekend my host mother’s family came to visit and I was invited to join them for dinner. (I actually ended up doing the cooking, which was terrifying).
The first question of the night was: “ What does your father do?”
I raised a wry smile. They’d started the interrogation with a question I was familiar with.
In the Netherlands, when I was introduced to my ex-girlfriend’s parents, they would ask questions about my hobbies; what I studied, what I liked to do, etc.
But in the UK, people invariably ask about my parents’ careers, my educational background, and my future plans.
Having heard similar questions in France, I now know a little about what information people here value. Living with my host family, sitting in on their daily lives, has shown me the similarities and differences between British and French culture — which can otherwise take years to discover.
My French immersion experience in Montpellier has been perfect for simultaneously learning to speak French, and how to talk with the French! I’m learning what topics of conversation go down well; what to say, what not to say…
Take a conversation I had with one of my host family’s neighbours: “Do you know France well?”
“I like reading about French history”.
“Really? Do you know much about French history? “Yes. Charles De Gaulle is one of my heroes”.
“The stubbornness and arrogance he showed in his refusal to acknowledge defeat, along with his unyielding patriotism, helped to give the French people their pride back after their (understandable) capitulation in WW2.”
“….Do you like music?”
So I learned that speaking about war was not much appreciated, which saddened me greatly. I now have little else to talk about. Apart from all that food…
David, England (ILA student)