La Rentrée Scolaire

The writing on my placement test is all smudged. What a disaster. In my haste to get out a pen before the test started, I grabbed one of the few pens I’d brought that isn’t left-handed friendly. On the first morning at a new school, the last thing I need is for my name and information to be illegible. Fortunately, I eventually located a superior pen and completed the test. After a brief interview and a discussion of my language skills, I was placed in two types of class – a morning class adapted to my level, and an afternoon atelier, a workshop which is a bit more mixed. In these classes, English is forbidden – and most of the people there don’t speak it anyway.  Back to school already.

I’m taking an Intensive French course at the Centre d’Approches Vivantes des Langues et des Médias, or Cavilam for short. The acronym is so commonly used that it’s become nominalised – everyone just refers to the place as ‘Le Cavilam’. The classes so far have involved mainly debates, driven by newspaper extracts or short television programs and designed to force us to take a position (even a silly one) and defend it in French. It’s usually fairly engaging and provides a good opportunity to discover the many words we don’t know. The classes are very small – six people in my morning class and about nine in my afternoon workshops.

The library building at CAVILAM.

On the first morning, I made two Australian friends immediately. It’s amusing that on the other side of the world, the first two friends I make are from Melbourne – a fair effort, I could have met them having taken a two hour plane trip. But, being far away and surrounded by strangers, the common ground is an instant bonding point. However, there is a striking amount of cultural variation at the Cavilam – my classes contain students from Libya, China, Pakistan, Korea and a host of other countries – the only language we all have in common is French, so we have to speak it to be understood. This, I presume, is the aim.

The evening of my second day, one of my new Australian friends and I tried some chocolates from a chocolatier in one of the main shopping areas in Vichy. While the chocolates were delicious (!), the best part was honestly working up the courage to ask for them. It’s not always easy to ask for things, and it’s even more difficult when they’re behind glass and need counting. The chocolate was the reward for our courage. That evening, back at my host family’s place, we had boudin blanc, a type of sausage, with slices of cooked apple in juice and lentils. It was amazingly good, as is most of the food I’ve eaten here. France’s reputation for food is well-earnt.

Wednesday afternoons, there are no workshops. Instead, my two new Australian friends and I spent the afternoon in Clermont-Ferrand – although I had already been, it was a very brief tour last time and this time I was determined to see a little more of the city. That much we achieved.

A view of Clermont-Ferrand.

Clermont-Ferrand is a great city for just wandering around and getting a little lost – I was much more happy to do that with some company, and we spent the first two hours or so just wandering, taking in some side-streets and admiring the gorgeous old buildings that are scattered everywhere in the streets of French cities. Afterwards, we found our way to Place de Jaude and rode the Ferris Wheel that I had avoided the other day – not such a loner this time. The view from the top of the Ferris Wheel was amazing.

Today, unlike last time I was in Clermont, the cathedral was open to visitors. Good photos are impossible to take inside, but the beautiful stained glass windows and the architectural design of the place gave me faint stirrings of envy for people who are religious. I’m not (at all) a religious person, but it’s hard not to be a little moved by the immense beauty of a place like that. Upon leaving, we hitched a ride on a road-bound ‘petit train’ that does the rounds in the city for tourists. We hopped off near the trainstation to make our way home.

A view from the Ferris Wheel.

After a stop in the railway station bar (hot chocolate for them, a sandwich for me), we headed back to Vichy and parted company. I still haven’t managed to see everything in Clermont-Ferrand – most notably the museum there – but it was more fun this time around with some company. Upon returning home that evening, it was announced to me that we would – after a course of soup – be having escargot. You have to, when you come to France, right? The snails themselves didn’t really taste like anything, they just have a slightly odd texture – the sauce is very tasty however, full of garlic and butter. I’m not sure I’d choose snails as a sauce delivery method personally, but they weren’t bad.

To see a full gallery of pictures relevant to this post, click here. To view an arguably unrelated but nonetheless interesting list of Ancient Egyptian mythological figures, click here.


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