Ch. 4 – Preparing to Leave
Toward the end of August, there began a renewed interest in my departure date. In mid-August, shortly after my 22nd birthday, we attended an orientation meeting at the Prince Murat Hotel in Baton Rouge. My mother came with me, and we eagerly asked questions and took notes. My mother was mostly concerned, it seemed, with what kind of wardrobe I should pack. Angers is on the same latitude as New York City, but we were assured that the weather would not be as severely cold.
The trip was being coordinated by Howard, a representative of CODOFIL (the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana). We were told that we would all meet at the New Orleans International Airport to board a noontime flight to Atlanta. From Atlanta, we would board a SABENA flight to Belgium. Students who had received scholarships to study in Mons, Belgium were accompanying the Angers crew, so we would drop them off in Belgium on our way to Angers. A bus had been chartered to pick us up at the airport and to transport us to our schools.
This agenda left little time for rest before plunging into the “Pre-Stage” – a month-long immersion course to proceed our actual academic year. We were told that we would arrive in Angers sometime in the afternoon and go to the residence universitaire (our dormitory residence for the year) for room assignments and to drop our luggage off. From the residence, we would take a walking tour of the old centre ville, on our way to the Universite Catholique de L’Ouest. The university, called Le Catho for short, was a thirty minute walk from our dormitories. In it was housed the Centre International des Etudes Francophones, called the CIDEF for short.
The CIDEF was housed on the top floor of a building on campus, and, upon our arrival we would be greeted my Mademoiselle Cochin, the headmistress. After being greeted by Mlle. Cochin, we would go out to a café for dinner, passing by the restaurant universitaire, or RU for short. The French are very fond of acronyms! During the pre-stage, we would eat family style at a dining room on campus, but, when regular classes began, we would be expected to pay for our own meals. The RU was our best (cheapest) option for lunch and dinner.
The next day, we were told, would be dedicated to testing our oral, written, and reading comprehension, to determine on which of the 17 levels of classes we would be assigned to begin our immersion. After lunch, we would begin classes. The pre-stage would run the month of September, and every weekend, excursions were planned for us, including a tour of the chateaux of the Loire, a sound and light show at another chateau, at trip to Brittany, and to the a city on the Atlantic coast.
After this, three students who had studied at the CIDEF the year before treated us to anecdotes and words to the wise. That was the best part of the meeting, and if we weren’t already excited about the prospect of a year abroad, this presentation did the trick! One girl in particular was very enthusiastic – apparently, this had been the year of her life. She had found a boyfriend in Angers and had worked at a local radio station while going to school there. She added that her boyfriend, Didier, was going to be continuing his studies at the Catho, and that we had to get in touch with him when we arrived – he just loved Americans. To those of us contemplating this trip, Angers seemed a place filled with possibilities.
After the orientation, a few of us retired to the bar of the Prince Murat. There, we toasted our bon voyage with a snifter of Cointreau, the orange liqueur that is manufactured in Angers. We listened to more stories about the CIDEF, and dorm life, and the restaurant universitaire. My mother, who planned a trip to meet me and travel in France that Christmas, was just as excited as I was about my adventure.
When I got home, we made extensive lists of clothing, toiletries, and other items that I would need for my year abroad. My mother was very concerned that I not “let myself go” with regard to my personal hygiene. She urged me to continue to shave my legs, and to wear make up and deodorant! This became a running joke during our preparation. We also gave some thought to appropriate hostess gifts to bring along. Apparently both the chapters of France-Louisiane and of France-Etats-Unis, reciprocal exchange programs with chapters in France, were planning on receiving us on numerous occasions.
During this preparation time, I studiously avoided some of the more dreary duties that I needed to take care of. For one thing, I had a dog named Chelsea. Chelsea was one of a litter from an unplanned pregnancy by our dog, Muffin. I couldn’t bear the thought of giving her away, and I think that I secretly hoped that my father would just keep her.
I also was frozen like a deer in the headlights in the face of my two driving infractions. The young gentleman whose bicycle I had run into (at a slow speed) walked away from the accident, assuring me that things would be okay. Days later, his father called to say that the bicycle was damaged, and I believe that his son had developed some injuries, too. It had been decided by my father (I had to tell him, since he received a phone call, too!) and myself that I was not at fault, since the young man was riding on the wrong side of the road – against traffic. Still, they persisted in calling for some sort of financial reparation.
I was also supposed to arrange to mail packages to myself. I would carry some of my clothing with me, but other items – in particular, my winter clothes – would be sent through the mail. I left this, along with other things, for my poor father to take care of. I probably never thanked him enough for: seeing to the scholarship money (which entailed many trips to campus!), mailing my things to me (which was a LOT more expensive than I had envisioned!), giving my dog away (at least I hope that she did not end up at the pound…), and taking care of my car accident problems (at least the second accident – a fender-bender – was covered by insurance). He did all of this while trying to keep his career afloat and while trying to sell the house and divide items up between him and my mother.
I don’t want to discount the efforts of my mother – she was very supportive, and helped me with planning and many of the details of my trip. She also planned a going away brunch for me, inviting many of my friends, and was already planning a trip out to France to meet me there. I was really excited about that. We were going to meet in London, and then cross the channel and travel to Paris before going back to Angers. Her parents, too, supported my trip financially. I was a very lucky girl to have so much support for my adventure, despite the hard times others were experiencing.