Avignon Reflections

I have arrived back in the magical land of AC without quite understanding how (though not quite so magical now, I’m wearing a hoodie and leggings inside and am still cold. I feel so betrayed). Two months have already passed and I’ve left Avignon, the walled city where I studied, avoided actors handing out flyers to the theater festival, and melted in the hottest heat wave on record in Europe that broke me and made me use English for the first time during the program. When they said the program was intensive, oh boy, they were not kidding. 12 hours of class a week, 5 class periods a week, 4 days a week? The good news is that a semester will be a breeze after this six-week summer school. I’ll have so much time to do homework, though I’ll suffer through final papers all the same. I‘m so grateful for the opportunity to have taken a Francophone literature class, as I learned so much and hope I’ll be able to apply that knowledge to my research and eventual thesis (fingers crossed).

My experience in Avignon ended on a positive note: after reluctantly saying goodbye to most of my newfound friends, I finally bought a watercolor from the stall I’d been eyeing for weeks, and the artist got so excited when I told her I study French. The resulting conversation was among the treasured ones that make up for all the racist incidents I’ve suffered through in France. Although there were obnoxious people who switched to English as son as they saw me (I’m going to need to have a talk with all white people who don’t believe that POC can speak the country’s language), my French certainly improved and lost its rustiness during two months. Let’s hope I don’t lose it all before I return to Ithaca and start teaching in about a month.

After I had to sit on top of my suitcase in order to zip it up, I said a bittersweet farewell to Avignon. (Too many books? What? No, I don’t have a problem, even though I saw a free copy of Lëila Slimani’s Chanson Douce and then promptly slipped it into my purse as I was leaving the university residence.) Several hours later, I said an excited hello to Saint-Denis, Paris, where I got to witness my friend L remodeling her flat—which, by the way, has an amazing view; I could (and did) spend hours gazing out the window. I needed that brief séjour in Paris to see a beloved friend and to not stress out over final papers. Saint-Denis has also ruined Paris for me, it’s so peaceful and beautiful and not teeming with too many people for my introvert self to tolerate. I also got to tag along with L on an adventure to Castorama, the French version of IKEA, because the bookstore betrayed me and was closed. (Did I need more books? No. Did I want more books? Always.) I was a little worried we would get lost in the labyrinthian Le Casto, but fear not, we made it out in one piece and I got to carry a Swiffer-style mop that would have served well as a weapon against creepy men.

Back to L’Institut d’Avignon. Would I do an intensive literature program again? Depends. What classes will I get to take, will I get to discuss feminism, how many pages of final papers will I have to write, and will I be forever sweaty? All joking aside, I’m grateful that I got to study in Avignon. Grad-level Francophone courses taught exclusively in French are like warm winter days at Cornell. You’ll almost never find one.

Of Boats and Beaches

You know it’s been way too hot in Avignon when part of your reasoning for doing an optional excursion is, “It’s going to be 12 degrees cooler over there? Sign me up.” So that’s how I ended up on a boat in the Mediterranean Sea, nothing but the sea and the sky and the wind before me.

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That is, until we reached the wetland area and its saltwater plants. The boat meandered through the marshlands, and we also got to see bulls and horses. At some point we sailed past peaceful little houses along the shoreline, which reminded me of les hortillonnages in Amiens (sorry, La Camargue, but those were far prettier).

After the boat tour, we were released into the town Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer to begin our four hours of free time. T and I found lunch, purchased gifts for ourselves and for our professors, and then found delicious ice cream. Having decided that we no longer wanted to keep losing ourselves within the town’s little shops and narrow alleyways, we ventured off to the beach instead. The beach is a novelty in France, with sand instead of pebbles. Although I didn’t bring a bathing suit with me because I pack like a minimalist and I didn’t think I’d need one, I wandered along the shoreline and into the shallower waters, setting foot into the Mediterranean for the first time (I didn’t bring a bathing suit with me to Nice either, oops). The water was incredibly clean and clear, making shell-hunting extremely easy for me.

After filling my pockets with shells, I’m now covered in sand. It’s like glitter, I’ll never be free. 

Marseilles during the Heat Wave

Thanks to the heat wave currently sweeping through France, we all suffered last night and got minimal sleep. I blame either my sleep deprivation or short attention span for getting bored 20 minutes into our first activity in Marseille, the MUCEM (Musée des civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée). It took all of my self-control not to wander off from the group and the tour guide. But I am weak, so I failed. For me, the only interesting part of the museum’s interior was a way-too brief section on Algers amidst a sea of white, masculine history. At least the rooftop views were nice?

 

After the beautiful air-conditioned museum, several of us followed the program’s director to Les Terrasses, a beautiful air-conditioned shopping mall. We made a brief pit stop at L’Espérantine de Marseille, an artisanal chocolate store where I ingested the most delicious chocolate I’ve ever eaten, made especially rich and smooth thanks to olive oil (which you thankfully could not taste in the chocolate). Tragically, I did not buy any because I didn’t want to end up with a puddle of melted chocolate in my tote bag. I did, however, buy a tin of loose-leaf strawberry tea after lunch because I couldn’t resist the smell.

Thirteen of us then participated in a guided visit of Nice, which I actually paid attention to but now can’t remember anything other than tidbits about Marseillais soap. This time, I blame the heat. I do, however, vaguely remember the port and the colorful streets that reminded me of my year abroad in Nice. Oh, I also remember the Cathédrale La Major, a stunning cathedral, because we spent a good amount of time seated in its wonderfully cool interior before the director treated us to free ice cream or cold drinks at L’Espérantine de Marseille for being the brave few who tackled the heat.

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I think a good portion of us passed out on the air-conditioned bus on the ride back, given that it was still 90 degrees in Avignon last night and no one has AC here. This year has had too many weather extremes for me (-10°F in Ithaca in January and now 113°F/44°C in Avignon). If I ever get rich, I’m moving to some magical land where the weather never dips below 40°F and never rises above 80°F. It’s way past my old lady bedtime, but the idea of moving both myself and my fan is just too much effort.

Roving through Roussillon

We left bright and early as usual to explore more sights outside of Avignon. Our first stop today was the colorful, charming Provençal village of Roussillon, which is perched upon a mountaintop and gazes out over the countryside. A sign hanging over the streets proclaimed that it’s the French people’s third most liked village, with no information as to how they reached that conclusion.

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Before meandering through the village, however, we explored le Sentier des Ocres (Ochre Path), which reminded me a lot of the Grand Canyon—at least, from what I can remember when I was about 11—but with more color variations in the clay, ranging from yellow to orange to reddish-brown. Most of the gorgeous views I’ve seen in France involve rolling green hills or expansive blue sea, so the change of scenery was, as the French would say, impressionnant.

After admiring the sights of Roussillon and the panoramic views it offered, along with indulging in some well-deserved ice cream, we set off again in the bus. Frankly, I found the second part of the trip the least interesting and the most boring: wine tasting. Alcohol and I do not go well together. I’m tiny. The last time I had a “full” glass of wine was when a French professor took our class out and treated us to a bottle, and I may or may not have shown up to my next class slightly drunk and very hyperactive. (That’s in the past now, I was of legal age and I’ve secured my degree from that school, so there will be no blackmailing here.) At least I got a macaron, a frozen radish, and a frozen tomato out of the wine tasting in which I did not participate.

We descended briefly from the bus to admire Gordes from afar, another striking mountaintop village that I would refuse to ever explore by car. (A car driven by me, at least.)

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Our final destination, the L’Abbaye de Sénanque, was a point of great contention for me. We’d essentially been ordered to wear “respectful clothing,” or clothes that didn’t reveal cleavage or too much leg, in order not to offend the monks who still live in the abbey. Yay, I love victim-blaming behavior that never holds men accountable! Woe be us if women want to dress however they want. And lo and behold, we didn’t see a single monk. I should have dressed more scandalously. (Not that I have anything scandalous to begin with besides legs that look really long because I’m so thin.) At least I got to see some lavender fields, which were, hilariously enough, also a lie—technically they were lavandin, or hybrid lavender, because they produce more flowers than pure lavender.

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City and Canoe Adventures

We began our second excursion in Uzès, a town famous for its open-air Saturday market. Someone looking to spend large amounts of money could have easily stocked up on clothes, vegetables, fruit, charcuterie, cheese, olives, books, soap, jewelry, lavender, and anything else inanimate you could imagine buying. T and I eschewed the map and chose to explore the village, admiring its medieval buildings and doing our best to avoid the market and its masses of people. Eventually, we took shelter in a café before returning to the bus for the most exciting part of the trip.

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My spirits were slightly dampened because I managed to find a duck sandwich (duck is probably the reason I’ll never be able to go vegetarian), but it turned out to be the biggest disappointment of the day. It had nothing on Peking duck and is the first time French food has ever betrayed me. Then, as we munched on our lunches on the bank of the Gardon River, it began to rain and nobody had any desire to go canoeing.

But the sun emerged from the clouds and soon we were on our way, outfitted with oars and life jackets, and all of our doubts and skepticism were swept away by the river. An 8 kilometer (4.97 mile), 2+ hour journey just to pass by the Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct bridge constructed in the 1st century CE, sounded daunting and impossible but the journey along the Gardon River was mostly uneventful. I embarked in a canoe with two fellow grad student friends, T and C (amusingly, the two who know fellow students at Cornell), and we made a pretty good team. The only major scares we had were nearly crashing into a riverbank and my mom’s hat flying off my head, but luckily C saved it. I would not have wanted to tell my mom, “Sorry, your hat is now floating in a river in France, never to be seen again.”

Surrounded by open sky and lush vegetation and soaring cliffs, with the occasional castle and turtle and beaver dam, the aquatic journey was peaceful despite all the rowing we had to do and our increasingly wet shoes, socks, and shorts. The water was tranquil and clear-—to the point that you could see rocks in the riverbed, fallen trees and branches, plants, and fish—and we admired the sights and scenery around us, the stunned silence broken only by the sound of our oars scraping against the sides of the canoe and our “un, deux” and other verbal directions to make sure we rowed in unison and avoided colliding with rocks, other canoes, or the riverbank. I even managed to forget about my 12 mosquito bites.

At some point we stopped just in front of the Pont du Gard to enjoy the view, the sun, and the river. We rested our tired arms and also took photos of ourselves and the aqueduct. I caught some tadpoles and released them, and soon we were on our way again. Right before we reached the end point, T, C, and I saw a seagull perched on a fallen tree in the river. T remarked that it was majestic, and it chose that exact moment to poop into the river. Not so majestic after all. That’s okay, none of us were either, we were all tired and slightly damp, with soaked socks and squelching shoes. The Pont du Gard won the majesty card.

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Les Baux-de-Provence

A mere 40 minutes by bus from Avignon, the site of our first excursion was a charming little hilltop village, Les Baux-de-Provence. According to Google, it’s now more of a tourist site; only 22 people live in the village itself with another 450 in the commune, or the village proper. Outside the village, a sign proclaimed that it’s among France’s most beautiful villages.

We began our field trip with a Van Gogh exhibition in Les Carrières de Lumières, or an ancient quarry that is dedicated today to art. Floor-to-ceiling projections of Van Gogh’s art covered the quarry walls, which was equal parts gorgeous and mystifying. Being immersed in giant replicas of Van Gogh’s artwork meant that we could see all the intricate details of his paintings up close and magnified, but navigating the quarry was like wandering through a maze with no beginning or end—especially since the paintings were projected onto the floor, making it look deceptively smooth when in fact it was full of random bumps and dips.

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After the Van Gogh immersion, we walked about ten minutes and climbed a few sets of steps up to Baux-de-Provence, where we were released into the wild to explore. The village truly has become a tourist stop, full of shops and restaurants and cafés, lavender and sandwiches and crêpes, but the panoramic views are breathtaking.

When a friend and I drank our fill of the landscape, we then decided to fill our stomachs. The guy manning the stall asked where we were from, so I replied (in French), “The United States,” and he immediately responded, “I know, but what city?” Whoops. Somehow our American was showing.

This would have been the perfect excursion, but now I’m locked out of my room when I was locked inside of it this morning. Avignon apparently has a bone to pick with me, even though I’ve never been here and done nothing but curse its cobblestoned streets as I dragged my wheeled suitcase behind me on Friday. Maybe that brought the curse upon me? Let’s hope that I can make it to my 8:30am class tomorrow, it would be highly embarrassing if I had to tell the professor, “Sorry, I’m locked inside my room like Rapunzel.”

At Long Last

My journey to Avignon decided that it wanted to reenact A Series of Unfortunate Events. First, my plane from Richmond to Detroit was delayed for an hour, and even though I sprinted to the gate in Detroit, I missed the 9:51PM plane to Paris because the lady at the desk refused to let 5 of us board even though the plane was still at the gate and one woman was crying. I then bonded with 3 French people as we bemoaned our shared suffering—the next earliest flight to Paris was at 4:04PM.

At least Delta gave me a hotel voucher, but it was the sketchiest place I’d ever stayed in (and I’ve traveled a lot), reminiscent of motels in TV shows where people get murdered or where they find corpses. That, along with the loud, drunk men outside my room and the paper-thin walls that graciously allowed me to hear every single plane take off, meant that I got no sleep. When I returned to the airport, my credit cared was declined because apparently buying a second French train ticket signaled fraud. Never mind that I’d already bought an Avignon to Paris ticket on Sunday. The misfortune continued in the form of turbulence so severe, several flight attendants exclaimed in surprise and my stomach protested violently. I just wanted to finish watching On the Basis of Sex. 

Things turned around after I escaped my personal hell of Detroit. I arrived half-an-hour early in Paris, and was able to catch a 6:57AM train and gaze out peacefully at the passing French countryside, all white clouds and blue skies layered over verdant hills and valleys and hilltop villages that reminded me of my time in Nice. After arriving in Avignon, I was whisked off to a picnic, which was an introvert’s nightmare because everyone else had arrived yesterday and sleep-deprived me had no desire to mingle with strangers. (It didn’t help that some unnamed adult decided to make racist and sexist comments. Ahem.) Then we had a tour of Avignon, but I don’t remember a single thing the tour guide told us. Oops. Afterwards, the ten grad students in the program had drinks with the director and his assistant, but I was so tired that I dozed off several times at the table after drinking my orange juice and the assistant finally took pity on me.

Today, as a functioning, only somewhat sleep-deprived zombie, I got to know some of the grad students. I thought the world was small before, but the French academic world is tiny. Upon learning that I go to Cornell, several people have already asked if I know other grad students there. Avignon is lovely and walkable (unlike Ithaca), and full of sun (also unlike Ithaca)—my watch tan has returned to its former glory. Unlike my vitamin-D happy skin, my wallet is weeping tears: I spent 76 euros on books for my two classes. Despite my deep love for books, I’ve never spent that much money at once on books in my life. I always buy secondhand or use the library. Okay, I’m too jet-lagged to keep writing coherently. We have a field trip/excursion Monday before classes start on Tuesday, so stay tuned! In the meantime, enjoy these photos.

 

France, Take 3: Avignon

This is a post I never thought I’d write. When I left France two years ago, circumstances were…complicated, to say the least. (If you don’t know what happened in my life back then, I will not be explaining it here. Long story short, let’s just say I lost little pieces of my heart all over France.) I didn’t know if I’d come back some day.

But after two years of not using French on a regular basis—especially having little opportunity to listen to and speak it—my French has rusted and I have vocabulary gaps everywhere. Not particularly ideal for someone in grad school for French literature, or for someone who’s going to start teaching college kids in the fall. Luckily, my advisor suggested I apply to the Institut d’Avignon, an intensive six-week summer program run by Bryn Mawr College, and here we are. Avignon! Another 47 days in France!

I flung my entire summer stipend across the Atlantic and into France, but hopefully the experience will be worth it. I’ll be in Avignon from June 6 to July 21, then in Paris visiting L from July 21-23. In Avignon, I’m taking two classes, Mémoire(s) francophone(s) and Deus ex Machina : Métamorphoses des mythes antiques sur la scène française. The former course will complement my interest in Francophone literature and questions of women’s resistance, while the latter course includes performances at the famed Avignon Theater Festival and archival work, which I’ll need to learn eventually as a PhD student. (Also, call me a nerd, okay, but Percy Jackson was my middle school childhood and I have a soft spot for classical mythology.) The program also includes excursions to nearby villages, and I’ve dearly missed traveling. It’s just not the same in America. Everything tends to be…so shiny and new.

I never got the experience of studying abroad through a program—when I studied abroad in Nice, I was dropped off and left to my own devices. It’ll be interesting to see how this compares to my first study abroad experience; I’ll be here a shorter time but with more fluent French. Junior year of college, I barely had literature classes, and the only one I took required regurgitation and trying to guess the professor’s interpretation of the texts, which is not the proper way to teach literature. This time, I get American academia. I’ve also never been in France during the summer before—both of the previous times, I arrived in September and left in May. But this time, I’m lucky to have met someone who did TAPIF in Avignon, and she gave me plenty of recommendations. Whether this will be my last time in France remains a question that currently has no answer, seeing as I’m more interested in Francophone than in French literature and would like to travel to the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and/or Africa one day. We’ll see.

Meandering in Montréal

Day 1:

On a surprisingly warm Thursday in Ithaca, K, L, and I set off for Montréal, land of bitingly cold wind, beautiful architecture, and delicious food. The drive was smooth and virtually traffic-free, involving a transnational feminist podcast and a road trip game played in both English and French.

Upon arriving in Montréal, we checked into our fancy yet affordable three-bed, equipped-with-a-kitchen private room at our hostel, where I finally got to use and listen to French again in daily life. We then embarked on the long and difficult journey of finding parking before giving up and parking kind of illegally on the street (hey, we paid and later moved to a parking garage), following our noses to a poutine restaurant.

Unfortunately, there was a line that stretched outside, and we were hungry and unwilling to wait in the cold, so we wandered inside an Afghani restaurant instead. There, after I accidentally said “bonjour” instead of “bonsoir” and wanted to crawl into a corner, we consumed the most incredible salad, lamb, chicken, pistachio-cardamom ice cream, and chai latte. (That Iraqi chai latte. It has officially ruined me. I will forever dream of it.)

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Day 2:

We took advantage of the free pancakes and syrup at our hostel, and then wandered through Chinatown and Vieux-Montréal, falling prey to the tourist trap of a maple syrup store. We then decided to hop onto La Grande Roue de Montréal, where we got to spend a lovely 20 minutes on the Ferris wheel, gazing out at the Saint-Laurent River and the rooftops of Montréal.

A sunny but cold walk along Vieux-Port de Montréal convinced us to try to find the Underground City, but after unsuccessfully finding any shops in this mysterious subterranean network, we sauntered through Rue Saint-Catherine and back to Chinatown for lunch. In a restaurant that overlooked a scenic street and gave me intense nostalgia for Hong Kong and dim sum, I ingested the most delicious hot and sour soup of my life.

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Our hunger satiated, we attempted to visit the Musée d’art contemporain, but it was tragically closed. Instead, we popped into a Tim Horton’s (I don’t drink coffee so sorry, I can’t tell you what it tasted like), and then found a used bookstore. But the true paradise was a feminist bookstore, L’Eugélionne. I’ve never seen anything more beautiful than a store full of feminist books, French and English, and I had to resist the urge to buy everything I set my grabby little hands on. In the end, I managed to leave with just one book: La pensée straight by Monique Wittig. (The speaker I invited to come in the fall, Annabel Kim, wrote about Wittig in one of her books!)

Finally, we returned to Canada’s main gastronomic attraction: poutine. The line at La Banquise wasn’t very long this time, and the food was worth it. I also discovered this delicious nonalcoholic, noncarbonated Italian drink, Lemoncocco. Our eyes were a bit bigger than our stomachs, so we struggled to devour our plates of poutine, but we did our best.

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Our next stop: a theater so that we could see Britannicus, a 16th century play by Racine. I only understood about half of it because the dialogue was almost entirely in alexandrins (rhyming couplets that consist of lines of 12 syllables each), but the actors’ and actresses’ body language was entrancing and simply listening to the musicality of the alexandrins was beautiful. (Also, I got distracted for a good ten minutes of the play because one of the actors dramatically rose from the depths of hell, his naked body glistening, and his penis was just…there. I’m not straight enough for that.) We then stayed up past my bedtime having a feminist conversation. Worth it.

Day 3:

After L professionally braided all of our hair, we set off for a vintage bazar in L’église Saint-Enfant-Jésus, where we sadly (or perhaps happily for our wallets) realized we couldn’t buy anything because we had no Canadian cash. We then contemplated climbing Mont Royal for the view, but the entire hill was still covered in snow and none of us were wearing snow boots. Instead, we backtracked to an American-style diner that we’d seen earlier with a line outside, and there we had scrumptious bagels and pancakes.

Per a friend’s recommendation, we headed over to L’Oratoire Saint-Joseph, using the métro for the first time. Montréal’s métro is…so clean. So shiny. So functional. So reliable. And so affordable. (Yes, DC Metro, I’m glaring at you. I will never forgive you.) L’Oratoire was an aesthetic and bizarre experience. Despite the gorgeous architecture that very much resembled Montmartre’s Sacré-Coeur, it also had escalators. As L termed it, it was a “capitalist church.”

K then insisted we go to a boulangerie, and well, who were we to turn her down? It was nice to experience the French life again, relaxing and enjoying pastries, even if the croissant aux amandes was a lie that resembled a cake more than a croissant. Since we had a long night ahead of us, we returned to our hostel to rest, and then went back into the city to eat dinner.

Then, the highlight of the night: a drag queen show at Cabaret Mado until 1:15am. I don’t think I’ve stayed up that late since I was 23. Aside from a drunk, straight white man who we probably should have punched in the face, it was a mesmerizing experience. I admire anyone who can dance or flip cartwheels while wearing high heels.

Day 4:

We dejectedly checked out of our hostel and left Montréal behind, failing in our quest for decent postcards. After a lunch stop at Cornwall, Canada, we crossed the border back into boring America and eventually into tiny Ithaca. I’m tempted to move to Montréal, except for the fact it’s only April and I screamed every time I saw a pile of snow taller than I am. I would freeze and become a cryogenic experiment. Maybe I’ll live out my bourgeois dream during the spring and summer, and abandon ship come winter.

Goodbye, teaching anxiety

Hello, folx! Sorry that my blog has been slowly dying, grad school has been keeping me busy (in a good way, I am thriving intellectually and balancing the academic stress with a social life––shocking, I know, for introverted me).

My research is not all that interesting right now, so I’ll focus on another important grad school aspect: teaching. My teaching experience exists, but it’s limited. I tutored for one year in high school and then three years in undergrad. Then I ran off to France for a year to do TAPIF, but the closest I came to teaching there was leading these tiny conversational/cultural classes about American culture, e.g. TV, food, games, music, movies, the terrible election of 2016, etc. I did make my own lesson plans in France, but I was never alone in a room with a whole class. Then I spent one year in DC working with second graders, which meant a lot of hugs and behavior management and small group lessons with no more than five students at a time. Plus, those lesson plans were already scripted out, and again, I was never alone in a room with an entire class.

The pedagogy class I’m taking right now requires me to observe a section of a class and then to practice teaching one class, so two weeks ago, off I went to observe. Let’s just say that I was awestruck. The students did everything the lecturer asked. Not a single pencil or desk or punch was thrown.

Today, I headed down into the basement of White Hall, into a room so old that my new-fangled 2018 MacBook Pro couldn’t even connect to the projector. Fear not, I borrowed an older MacBook from the department. I don’t know how my first-ever class went because I was so nervous, but the anxiety faded as the 50 minutes progressed and I even made the students laugh a few times. These Cornell students are so easy to teach. Their level of French is incredibly high, and for the most part, they do everything enthusiastically and they do it well. They also ask questions that can trip you up. You don’t have to police their learning or constantly redirect their behavior or remind them to speak in the target language. Disclaimer: these observations are based entirely on the 50 minutes I spent teaching a class I’ll never see again.

While I definitely stumbled a bit over my rusty French, I survived. And my anxiety is gone. Once you get through an entire year of working with elementary schoolers (this is not a criticism, I love my munchkins but children require so much more work than college students), you really can do anything.