I’ve always wanted to learn French, speak French. Not fake speak – but really communicate and engage like an adult in another language. I’ve been to France a few times and always loved the way the French celebrate their culture with food, fashion, the superb wine regions and especially the art. Wouldn’t it be fabulous if I could actually talk about these things in French?
As a child growing up in Toronto I studied French in school. Canada is a bilingual country with two official languages: English and French. But, unless you’re in Quebec, Ottawa or a smattering of small towns, all you hear is English. Now seemed like the right time for me to explore my interest in all things French.
I should also mention that for the first time in my life, I have the time to do this having worked for more than 30 years as a journalist and television producer in Canada. After hitting “50-something” I decided it was time to slow down. As a freelancer, I now have a more flexible schedule. What that really means is I have the time to do the things I’ve always wanted to do. It also means I can no longer make excuses for not being more proactive. The first thing I did was lose 30 pounds. Next on my agenda: learn French.
Where should I go?
I started googling French language courses in France. They are everywhere. I found one that really stood out for me. The Institut de Français is located on the French Riviera in a former fishing village called Villefranche-sur-Mer. It’s a picturesque town about fifteen minutes by car from Nice. The school is in a Provençal villa with beautiful rose gardens, lavender bushes and lemon trees. I decided to go in May because there’s so much happening that month in France. The Monaco Grand Prix, Roland Garros, and the glamorous Cannes Film Festival.
What was I expecting?
Flash forward to May 2018. After a very long day of canceled flights (Air France was on strike) and the usual travel confusion, I arrived in Nice. I spent two beautiful days there before moving into my modern Villefranche apartment with a spectacular view of the bay. School begins on the first Monday of the month. The Institut is even more beautiful in real life than the photos online. Classes run eight hours a day for four weeks. And, you are not allowed to speak English at school – ever. If you do and get caught, you can get fined 2 euros for your indiscretion. I got fined once. There were eight students in my class with approximately sixty students in total at the Institute. The first day of class you take an exam to assess your current French level. I was put in an Intermediate class and soon discovered this was going to be a lot more intense than I thought.
So who else wants to learn French?
The Institut de Français is like summer camp for adults. The teachers (les Professeurs) are excellent and very funny. That’s part of their shtick, as long as they’re the ones making the jokes. And they don’t want you to ask questions because it “wastes class time”. Chef Nathalie and her team prepare breakfast and lunch daily. Naturally, the food is very French. We even had a class on the history of fromage and another one on how to make crêpes led by Professeur Julien.
There are weekly excursions to local restaurants, boat trips to Monaco, movie nights and visits to towns like Saint Paul de Vence. Weekends we are free to travel. I enjoyed a great day in Grasse at the annual Rose Festival. I got caught in a torrential downpour that lasted hours in Cannes during the Film Festival. I was emotionally moved at the Chagall Museum in Nice. I climbed up in Eze to appreciate the views and experienced the beautiful gardens at the Rothschild Villa in Cap Ferrat. A favorite day was spending the morning in Nice at the Matisse Museum and the afternoon watching Prince Harry and Meghan Markle say their “I do’s” on a live screen from the edge of the water in Villefranche. We ate a gorgeous lunch and drank two bottles of Rosé while watching the Royal Wedding. It doesn’t get better than that.
I have to admit I loved my experience at the Institut de Français. I loved learning to speak French correctly.
My Professeur once told me I spoke his “grandmother’s French”. He also asked me where my confidence comes from when I speak in class since “you don’t know how to speak properly.”
That broke my spirit for a couple of days but I got over it. But the best part of the experience was meeting a fantastic group of people. All high achievers ranging from United Nations Human Rights advocates, several lawyers and bankers, a few academics, an architect who moonlights in Napa, an ER Physician, a cookbook writer, a pilot and a hidden child who survived the Holocaust, among others. Each with their own reasons for studying French.
I was really impressed by the women in their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. The invisible women who travel to France and are seen again by French men who love all women.
This brings me to one of my most memorable moments. I was going to dinner with friends but first, we were going to stop for a drink at another friend’s apartment. We walked up and down the steep steps of the town, past the quaint multi-colored architecture and wrought iron windows. As often happens, we were semi-lost. We found number 26 and number 30 but, we couldn’t find the apartment we were looking for.
As we stood below a window, the shutters opened and the most gorgeous man leaned out. He looked to be in his late 30’s with messy dark hair. He was topless and it was hard to tell if he was wearing anything at all. In French, we asked him if he knew where number 28 was. He disappeared and emerged outside pulling on his shirt. It was at that moment that I knew I was in the opening scene of another Diane Lane movie: “Under the Villefranche Sky”. It’s also when I accepted that I will probably never be bilingual but that I will definitely keep trying.