Sometime during my first year after college, while living and working in Washington D.C., I began feeling the crushing regularity of my life bearing down on me, and began to anxiously search for alternatives and escapes. The excitement of the initial few months of life after college had worn off, and I felt myself staring down the barrel of the rest of the future: waking up early, taking the Metro to work, cursing to myself when the Metro was crowded, sitting in front of a computer for eight hours, and having at most a happy hour to look forward to at day’s end.
It hadn’t always been this way. When I had decided to move to D.C. after college to work as a paralegal in the federal government, it had seemed like a good opportunity. I had chosen this over another path I was seriously considering: teaching English in Montpelier, France, for one year through a program run by the French embassy. I had decided against it because I worried that I would fall behind my peers, that my life would be lonely overseas, that it wouldn’t set me up for a viable career path or one I was particularly interested in, and that French wasn’t practical the way that Spanish, Mandarin or Farsi was. Plus I had studied abroad for a semester in France already. I reassured myself that I could still take French classes in D.C. during my free time.
During that post-college malaise I began feeling, I thought back to how much I had enjoyed French while studying abroad. I had enrolled in Alliance Française classes in D.C., though I was quickly losing motivation. I began to think that in order to stay motivated, I needed to feel like I would have the opportunity to put my French to actual use.
So one day, I did a Google search for “language immersion program France” and found several programs. One place in particular stuck with me. All I can remember is a photo of a window looking out onto a blue sea, advertising a program in the Côte d’Azur. But, as I thought about it a bit more, the immersion program seemed unfeasible. It lasted at least two weeks, which seemed like a long time to take off of work. And did I really want to use a vacation for something kind of like school? Plus, it wasn’t particularly cheap.
I’ve had a bad habit in my life of letting go too quickly of ideas that seemed to carry with them too much uncertainty or risk. In this case, I began to accept that French was going to become one of those skills, like doing handstands, that would fade because there was no good reason to keep it up.
But sometime last year, I began revisiting the idea of a language immersion program. I wanted to take a trip where I felt a connection to the place I was visiting, where, ideally I could speak the language. French was my best bet, and of course, I had many great memories of my time there in college.
I did another Google sweep of all of the available programs. I came across programs in Tours, Paris, and the Côte d’Azur—probably the same program I had seen years ago. But another program stood out to me. It was located in Provence in a converted monastery. I pictured a Spartan atmosphere of pure learning.
When I browsed around the website, I saw photos of rolling lavender fields; an elegant estate with an orange tiled roof, a cloister courtyard and fountain; and smiling people sitting around a long dinner table. The program looked to be as much about partaking in the joys of French country life as it was about improving in the language. I read more. Three French meals per day were served, and each afternoon, you could partake in a different activity, such as hiking, sailing, wine tasting, or visiting the L’Occitaine factory. And you could stay as little as one week, which was a nice option given the price and the fact that I wanted to spend some time traveling around the country by myself as well. In early January, I sent an email to Crea Langues, realizing as I tried feebly to write it in French before giving up, that I had forgotten a lot.
Seven months later, I was sitting in a Starbucks at the Marseille-Provence Airport, drinking a cold brew – really espresso over ice – reading over the Crea Langues program, minutes away from meet up with others in the program. I had traveled around in Paris, Aix-en-Provence, Cassis, and Marseille over the past week, which had helped me get up to a level of basic comprehension and an ability to respond in short sentences, but I still felt very slow when I spoke.
I finished my iced coffee, rose, began walking over to the ‘Point Rencontre’ or meeting point a few minutes before our meeting time. I saw a man in a denim shirt holding a sign that said Crea Langues and two blonde women. One came up to me and introduced herself in highly proficient French. They asked where I was from and said they had guessed I might be German based on my name. The woman who had introduced herself in French was from the Netherlands, the other woman, who was about as confident in her French as me, was from Sweden.
A Canadian couple arrived minutes later who seemed around my level. We followed the driver to the parking lot, got in a large van and drove to the Aix-en-Provence TGV station to pick up an older woman from the U.S. who had come from Paris and a guy around my age who lived in Belgium and came originally from Ireland. I began to feel like I was at the outset of an Agatha Christie novel, with people from all nationalities being brought together and ferried away to a large estate.
We drove east, toward the region of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, which is the less written about part of Provence. I could feel the altitude increase and roads became increasingly winding. The driver had the windows up and no air-conditioning on, and I started to feel like I was on an insulated roller coaster that had no end.
By the time we got to the monastery, I was carsick and thus relieved to be on firm land. We were greeted by Dhruv, who owned the monastery and ran Crea Langues with his wife Anne-Marie. He led us through the entrance and to the cloister that I’d seen on the internet and began assigning people to bedrooms off of it. We continued to follow him down a hall as he gestured in the direction of rooms and called out names. My room was at the end of a dark hall, but when I walked in, it was filled with light. Its two windows looked out toward a garden on one side and a farm on the other, and I felt, as I breathed in the fresh, quickly cooling air, that I had made the right choice by coming here.
More to come…