CUEF or Parlez-vous français?

CUEF class with Wolfgang

Grenoble had been our home for almost a week, and perhaps because of the abundance of summer daylight hours, we had had little trouble adjusting to the 6 hour time difference. We arose with the sun and retired long after the bright moon showed herself. In between we moved constantly. There was so much to see and do. This vibrant city where cafes and restaurants abound and history is commonplace begged us to explore her.  Open air marketplaces entice shoppers early every morning, selling fresh fruit, vegetables, meats and, of course, cheese. The aromas from the boulangeries lure young and old starting about 6 a.m.  Almost daily, we returned from a morning run along l’Isere, the river that flowed in front of our appartement, and stopped at the boulangerie to pick up the morning bread so fragrant and warm.

Although we were doing our best to integrate into France by sampling every foodstuff new to us, it was apparent that we still had a long way to go with learning the French language. We could get by using sign language and other pantomimes to get our points across and food in our hands, but we really needed to apply ourselves to getting French into our heads. Before leaving the U.S., we had engaged a tutor to help us with the basics, but it was obvious in our daily dealings with the le boulanger and le fromager that we didn’t have what it was going to take to understand and be understood in our adopted ville. With that goal in mind, just 5 days after our arrival in Grenoble, we made our way to CUEF (pronounced Q-F), Centre Universitaire d’Etudes Francaises, which offers classes on all levels of French, to enroll in a language course.

At CUEF a proficiency test was necessary to determine at what level we mangled French.  Directed to a language lab with audio equipment, we seated ourselves and put a set of headphones on. Bracing ourselves, we started hearing French words coming fast and furious.  We looked at the answer sheets in front of us, and we both drew a blank; we had no idea what we were supposed to do and what the correct answers to the questions might be.  The kindly test administrator came over to us when we took the headphones off in despair. Avez-vous fini?, she inquired.  Oui. (and how!)  She took our papers and looked for answers. There were none!  She declared that we would be in la classe des débutants (Sigh of relief!) Better to be challenged but not steam-rolled.  Class was starting the next day, and we hoped we would be on our way to becoming fluent in French.

The next afternoon we took Tram B from Halle Ste. Claire to la bibliotheque at the University.  It was a short, quiet ride of about 20 minutes.  We found the  class and settled into some seats.  Other students filtered into the class, and we started introducing ourselves. Americans, most of whom had never taken French, comprised the bulk of the class along with other students living in Grenoble from all over the world.  Our classmates hailed from Turkey, England, Mexico, Taiwan, Rome, Ethiopia, and Syria. When our professeur, Lucie, arrived, we were off and running.  The usual introductions to the class ensued, and then energetic Lucie dove right into the lesson.  We realized this was not going to be your usual “French 101” class.  Lucie had a lot of tricks up her sleeve, and we needed to be on our toes!

Steve and me

In order for us to get the most out of the class Lucie used a very practical and enjoyable format.  We would play games and focus on everyday language usage.  For one homework we made a collage about ourselves; that way we could learn words that applied to us personally.  Another assignment was to write out a recipe for a favorite food.  We played “Who am I?” where we wore headbands with celebrities’ pictures and vital info and had to play the equivalent of 20 questions in French with our fellow classmates to guess which personality was plastered against our foreheads.  Neither Steve nor I were able to guess our persons after asking our questions. I was Steven Spielberg, and Steve was Paris Hilton!  In another class we used  local  grocery store ads, and working in teams, stocked a refrigerator with food that our assigned fictional person would buy according to their dietary likes and dislikes.  Giant dice with French words taped over the dots were rolled in order to furnish us with random words that we had to use in sentences.  Lucie used French TV commercials and French sitcoms in order to boost our vocabulary and understanding of everyday French life situations.


The class ran for 4 hours broken up between classroom and lab work.  After about 2 hours, we took a break which gave us a chance to socialize and get some café.  The school runs a small sandwich shop where baguette sandwiches, pastries and French style pizzas are available. In a relaxed atmosphere, we would eat and learn about our fellow students who converged along with us on this small language school at the foot of the Alps.

About a week into our classes, we were introduced to 4 teachers who were taking classes at the university to become certified French teachers. Marie-Helene, Marie-Charlotte, Blandine and Zjelka observed the class and then presented lessons/games for us as part of their training. This was the best thing that could have happened to Steve and me. They befriended us and were invaluable in our trying to establish ourselves. Blandine invited us to pass a weekend with her and her family at her house in St. Pierre de Chartreuse, an Alpine village close to Grenoble. Marie-Helene accompanied us to the Orange telephone store in our quest for a mobile phone, even lending us one of her old phones to use. Marie-Charlotte also invited us to her home to meet her parents. And Zjelka from Croatia was a great help to us being patient and fun in the class.


The final class was bittersweet. We had une fête de classe in the quad area feasting on Ruah’s Syrian cakes, Marie-Helene’s noix cake, fromage, fruit, Nutella and crackers. Lucie had more games for us to play, a version of Truth or Dare and Guess the Scents, all in French with French candies as prizes. We sat outside eating and laughing! At the end, we kissed each other good-bye on both cheeks – la bise – and promised to stay in touch.

CUEF group picnic

P.S. After a month of language study… Steve and I stopped at a local boulangerie on our way back from a run one morning. We have become accustomed to starting every conversation at a shop with “Bonjour, Monsieur,( Madame, Mlle.) Je voudrais.…” (I would like…). On that morning Steve steps up to the counter and tells the boulanger, “Je suis une baguette.” (I am a baguette.) I was laughing too hard to correct him. There goes another shop we can patronize!

(Desolé, Lucie, mais c’nest pas ta faute. Tu fais tout que tu savais!) (Sorry, Lucie, but it’s not your fault. You did all you could do!)

boulangeries : bakeries
appartement: apartment
le boulanger: baker
le fromager: cheesemaker
Avez-vous fini?: Are you finished?
la classe des débutants: beginners’ class
la bibliotheque: the library
professeur: teacher
une fête de classe: class party
noix: nuts
la bise– kissing French style


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. allyn
    Aug 13, 2010 @ 20:02:52

    Being completely tone deaf myself… being able to learn a new language for me will never happen! Sounds like you had a wonderful time. Also seems you are making friends everywhere you go!
    love you and miss you Allyn


    • steveandmo
      Aug 13, 2010 @ 20:20:09

      Hi, Yes, we have some of the young ones who are curious about us. They’re about our own kids’ ages. But they are great. We look forward to spending time with them. They are so open, friendly and know so much. We are the lucky ones to have them!


  2. Catherine
    Aug 14, 2010 @ 00:03:13

    So glad that you are making such wonderful friends! They all sound so helpful, lucky you.


    • steveandmo
      Aug 14, 2010 @ 10:50:00

      We’ve connected with more people in the last month than we ever did over the same period in NC. We have to get out there and get things done, so we are usually flying by the seat of our pants!


  3. Jenny
    Aug 14, 2010 @ 01:59:54

    What a wonderful time!! Can you continue with the classes? When does Steve get started? You both look very happy.


    • steveandmo
      Aug 14, 2010 @ 10:48:00

      We’re having a good time. Everyday it’s something else that challenges us. We make the most of the fun things. I’m working on a post about the phone. Wait till you read that one! The classes were fairly expensive, but worth it. We’re looking to hook up with an informal group once les vacances (vacations) are over. Most of France is really on vacation… the whole country is somewhere else. Stores are just shut up.
      Steve will start in about a week or so, but it will be more of an independent type of study. He’ll work from the apt. a lot, I think.


  4. Beryl
    Aug 17, 2010 @ 23:09:58

    Well, if President Kennedy can be a doughnut (Ich bin ein berliner), surely Steve can be a baguette. He’s in good company 🙂
    Glad your experience was better than David Sedaris’s!


    • steveandmo
      Aug 18, 2010 @ 10:11:23

      Yes, Steve is looking more baguettish than donutish. Our usual boulangerie is en vacances so Steve tried a new place this morning. He came home with a baguette so I guess he did okay this time.


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