It's hard to believe our first week in Vichy is done and dusted! This time last week we were still reeling from our 3 hour train rides from Paris and starting to settle in with our host families. The initial hellos went smoother for some than others: those of us who were more proficient French speakers attempted a 'bonjour' while some of our beginner friends had to resort to mimes and google translate when they realised their host families didn't speak any English. CAVILAM, the French language school we're attending, also has a strict policy of not housing students who speak the same language together, so there was no help on that front.
Most of us had just one night to recover from the shock of suddenly being in the South of France before we had to sit a French placement test at 8am on Monday morning. Sitting a test isn't such a bad experience at CAVILAM where the school's director keeps assuring everyone that it isn't a real test and there's no problem if you don't know the answers. That being said, I think we were all glad that we did more than just sit a test on our first day.
By 11am we were in classes that corresponded to our levels of French and consisted of students from a range of backgrounds: Spain, Switzerland, Korea, Oman, and students who had been at CAVILAM for weeks, months or, like us, just a day! In the afternoon we had our pick of workshop classes: oral communication, written expression, French culture and civilisation, or a DELF language certification class. Needless to say most of us picked oral communication or cultural studies. We ended our first day with a historical tour of the town organised by CAVILAM. It was interesting to hear the history of the town, which was unoccupied France's capital during the Second World War, and taste the famed healing water as well as the Vichy-made mints. A word of warning from our tour guide (or just a general word of warning when drinking water sourced from volcanic springs): you can't drink more than 2 Litres a day because of its high sulphur content. There were mixed reactions to the water: some loved the fizziness while others detested the saltiness.
The rest of the week passed in a crÃªpe and coffee-infused blur. By Tuesday night we were testing our French proficiency again by watching a movie Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis together with other CAVILAM students. Most of us were exhausted from hanging out in the gym after school and playing basketball and badminton, but we were all able to follow the movie and the "beginner" students were clearly not just "beginners" anymore!
On Wednesday we were lucky enough to visit Clermont-Ferrand, the capital of the Auvergne region. It was a sprawling city with black volcanic rock featuring prominently on buildings, especially the cathedral, as a reminder of the town's origins and the many now dormant volcanoes that ring it. While the city's landmarks, which include the place where Blaise Pascal's house once stood (and then mysteriously disappeared when the cathedral was built at a time when religion and science were at odds), were a huge attraction so were the department store sales which happily coincided with our visit.
Although we were exhausted by Thursday, we made it out to Karaoke night hosted by actual French students from Vichy. It was nice to get a true sense of the nightlife at one of the city's pubs Le Gaulois (Asterix anyone?). Friday was definitely the designated chill-out day.....because by 7:30am on Saturday morning we were on the road again, this time to see Lyon. Visiting France's gastronomy capital (known affectionately by the French as Petit Paris) would be amazing any time of year, but it was even better to visit on a warm sunny day in the middle of winter and France's crazy sales season. We were given a tour of the cathedral, the old amphitheatre which dates back to the Roman Empire, and Old Lyon before we split apart to explore the town and perhaps go on the giant Ferris-wheel.
The next day we learnt that even in France Sundays are reserved for relaxation. Everyone met up at midday for an informal picnic on the riverbank and, of course, there was plenty of French cheese and champagne to be had. Even better than the food was the friendly company on a slightly windy day 16929.9 kilometres from home.