Take the chance. Do this program. If you are a student looking at this page debating whether to take the leap of faith and plunge into a culture unlike yours, to speak in a foreign language daily, to make new friendships – do it! It was the best choice I ever made.
With sixteen other stagiaires (students) by my side, we completely immersed ourselves into the culture. After promising myself to face each new and exotic French dish with the fervor of Andrew Zimmern on the TV show Bizarre Foods ("If it looks good, eat it!"), I tried everything and more that my host mom put in front of me, and I found that I liked 99% of the food that I tried. Goat's cheese was really the only food that didn’t agree with my palate, and I tried everything (including escargot).
A regular school day in Saumur consisted of grammar, phonetics, culture, and conversation. These classes helped me improve my French, and while I did have homework, my host mother helped me with the questions I had difficulty answering. After these classes the group would walk to a cafeteria nestled in the heart of Centre-ville, the downtown area. If it was nice out, we would eat outdoors, and there was always enough time during lunch to play a friendly game of N’Importe quoi (BS).
After lunch we would return for either sports (a Wednesday specialty) or theatre/choir. Throughout the program, we prepared a spectacular event for our host parents, involving singing and various skits, written by ourselves. It was fun to learn new French songs, and whenever we went on bus rides for an excursion, we would sing along to songs, as we had to memorize the lyrics. Everyone was enamored with the song Allô le Monde!
My favorite part about Saumur was Centre-ville. The streets were strewn with stores, and it was not uncommon for me to spend time at the local bookstore. I was enamored by the patisseries, and after school the stagiaires would spend perhaps 1,70 € on a framboisier or an éclair. During the weekend, one could browse the vide-greniers (directly translates to "empty attics", although it was just people selling goods in the streets). People would come out to certain streets and sell their merchandise cheaply, garage-sale style. I loved the vide-greniers – the people were always nice and it was interesting to see the array of items for sale, even if one didn't want to buy them. They were like little puzzle pieces of everyone’s lives, on display for decoding.
One special aspect of Saumur, other than it having its own château, is that it’s famous for horses. Not far from Centre-ville is L'Ecole Nationale D'Equitation. This is a national school for horses, and there are multitudes of stables just filled with them. The Saumurois are very proud of their château and horses, and they have good reason to be.
Another place that I enjoyed going to as well was the cinema in Centre-ville. After the first week in Saumur, all the stagiaires planned to go to the movie theater, where we all saw Prince of Persia. It was very comforting to partake of something relatively American, but the entire movie was in French, which made it even better.
Fridays, the excursion days, were perhaps the most exciting of all. The first excursion, exclusive to the Saumur program, was visiting the Châteaux of the Loire Valley: Chenonceau, Blois, and Amboise. I especially liked this excursion because there was so much history wrapped up in such beautiful buildings. Another excursion was a visit to Normandy, specifically Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery. It was inspiring to have visited that place and I left with a feeling of reverent gratitude.
To top off the entire trip, we visited the Royal Palace of Versailles and finally Paris. The last few days were a whirlwind of sights and wonders; I felt like a child in a candy store. Perhaps the most exciting thing for me was that I saw the pages of my French textbook back at school in Indiana come to life. I actually visited the Opera Garnier instead of imagining it while singing along to Phantom of the Opera. I traveled through the catacombs instead of reading about it in a book. I saw the world from the Eiffel Tower instead of seeing it on a poster in my French classroom.
Everything about this trip was beneficial. I improved my French, I learned about new cultures, I made many new friendships, and I learned so much. It can be a difficult choice to make when going overseas for six and a half weeks, to speak a language other than your native tongue. I must admit, I myself was a little afraid to go. But you can do it. I did. And it has made a world of difference to me.