Sitting outside watching groups of people walk past me is a particularly calming activity. Some stop to take pictures of the massive archway that marks the next part of Old Town, some slow down, and point. Others stop and look at the café menu across the street from me. The plat au jour is galettes with a choice of a hot or cold drink and a pastry. My cold hands are currently wrapped around a warm mug of coffee because I was certain of the vocabulary needed to order it. I have been sitting at this table for about two hours just watching people, eavesdropping on conversations, slowly eating my way through the pastry case inside the café.
It’s not until I hear people complaining about the Pass Sanitaire, or the French Health Pass necessary to gain access to locales, that I feel myself coming back to the present situation and my place in the world. I am three weeks into my French language co-op in France during a pandemic. Language Capstone Co-ops are meant to allow students the opportunity to work and live in a place where they speak their target language for the majority of their day and interactions. After spending three years, or six classes, studying the language, culture, and history of a certain language, students are then supposed to go on the adventure of living in a different country. Some students do have the option to stay in the United States for such co-ops, but it was important to me to go to France.
For my first two weeks, I went to museums and cafés in new cities every day, taking a massive amount of pictures. I scheduled my days around when the pharmacies were open to ensure I got tested for Covid at least every three days for my safety and for others. The next six weeks I stayed with a family of five—two parents, their six-month-old twins, and their two-year-old child. There I read books, drew, and played with the children, as well as cooked for them. With the exception of meal times where their parents and I would speak in French about the day and certain housekeeping responsibilities, I spoke entirely in English around them in order to expand their language abilities.
I was usually in charge of buying vegetables from a local farm and getting bread from town when the parents were not working. Standing shivering in a long line to enter a boulangerie, I enjoyed watching people walk through the outdoor market to buy their fruits and veggies. There is an old lady with a rolling cart for all of her groceries in front of me. Just behind me is a priest in full robes on his phone and behind him is a mom with her child in a stroller. We are all wearing masks as we wait for our turn to enter the bakery. In the distance, I hear the sound of drums and the tin of a man saying something into a microphone. My French is best in small groups and so I don’t try to decipher what this far-off voice is saying. A few moments later a group of about forty people turns the corner with signs and drums. Their chants are not muffled as almost none of them wear masks.
This is an anti-Pass Sanitaire protest, much like the ones I have been reading about in the news. They are opposing the controversial health pass used for long-distance trains and buses, museums, restaurants, cafés, and other public spaces that are inside and have more than ten people. One gets a pass by either having a negative Covid test from the past three days or showing proof of vaccination. This is the reality for all people traveling in E.U. countries right now. Personally, I find comfort and security in the heightened precautions.
During my time in France, I stayed with two different host families. After my first, I had about two weeks of traveling before I went to my next family. The first family was energetic and demanding so I was ready for new experiences. Coming to France for my Language Capstone made me feel a whirlwind of emotions. I was always just outside of the comfort zone of my language speaking abilities, feeling like I understood what was going on but having some difficulties joining in on conversations. However, this changed by the time I went on my two weeks of traveling. I went to Annecy and Geneva and was surprised by how much more I was able to understand in passing interactions at cafés and grocery stores. It had been hard for me to gauge my language progression previously, especially in an immersive environment where the goal is not to be perfect but to be understood, but I had a moment on a boat tour in Annecy where I realized that I had understood most of what the guide had said in French before the English translation was given. Small moments like this grew my confidence in situations where I would normally have felt out of my depth.
Of course, we all need a reality check. After spending six hours getting on and off trains, the travel gunk and wish to stop moving would be normal for most people, me included. Two heavy bags weighed down my back as I shuffled off the stopped train into the cold wind. The train station was typical for small towns such as this one, only having two benches and a post in the middle with information about the coming and going trains. The squeak of the train leaving was the only sound that broke the silence as nobody else got off at this stop. I walked to the parking lot across the tracks as a car pulled up. A little girl in a purple and pink tutu dress hopped out and begins to speak quickly in French as though she could never run out of breath. Right behind her is her older brother who starts asking me questions and pointing in the direction of the train stop as she continues to talk. My weary brain is slowly piecing together the string of questions when another girl around the age of 12 exits the car and begins poking my bags. One can truly say they are fluent in a language when they are able to talk to children.
This was my second host family, with the parents and their three kids (ages 5, 9, and 12). They loved going for hikes, spending afternoons at the library, and generally existing together. I helped cook, clean, and assisted the eldest daughter with her communication challenges. I was welcomed into their family with open arms and I learned the most French with them by far, simply because three kids who always have a million things to say and a hundred ways of saying the same thing will do that to you.
This co-op was special, not only because I had the time to work on my language skills, but because it was my last one. While I am excited to graduate from Antioch, I will miss the mini lives I got to try out every year. All of my co-ops, especially this one, let me observe the world from different hilltops, so that after I graduate I will have a better idea of which hill I want to move on to.