Sylvia Manuela Smitas
Bonjour! In 2016 I spent a month in France to work on my French. As a Canadian Servas host since 1996, I knew one of the best ways to brush up one’s language skills and immerse oneself in France’s rich cultural offerings, through staying with the locals. Before leaving Canada, I reached out to seven families, all of whom proved friendly and kind.
In Bordeaux, I was hosted by Virginie who took me around to see all the sites: the gates that previously entered the city, churches; a wine museum complete with a wine-tasting. Half of the city is a Unesco site, so there is lots to see! I then went east to Carcassonne, a hilltop town, famous for its medieval citadel that has been used as a defensive stronghold for almost 2,000 years. With my hosts, I went to a guitar concert in a small, nearby village and watched a game of petanque. I also experienced some wonderful culinary delights, such as “soupe de champagne”, where a bottle of champagne is poured over lemon sherbert and mixed together!
My next visit with Servas hosts was in the university city of Aix-en-Provence, the birthplace of Paul Cézanne. With my hosts we visited the Bimont Dam at the St. Victoire mountains, as well as some locations where Cézanne painted. I then traveled along the Rhône River to Avignon, the seat of the Catholic popes from 1309-1377. While staying with France and Bruno, I visited the massive Popes’ Palace and the nearby medieval bridge, Pont d’Avignon, that was built between 1177-1185. Most people know the song “Sur le Pont d’Avignon, L’on y danse, l’on y danse, sur le Pont d’Avignon, L’on y danse tout en rond”.
Next stop was Arles, a city on the Rhône in Provence, where I was hosted by Fatya. Once a provincial capital of ancient Rome, Arles has many remains from that era. These include the Théâtre Antique and the Amphithéâtre, where slaves, criminals, and wild animals met their dramatic demise before a jubilant 20,000-strong crowd during Roman gladiatorial displays. My hosts had guests over one night, and so I had five intensive hours to work on my French. The next day saw a potluck with 32 people – lots more practice time. Lunch was followed by a visit to an organic farm, and a tour through the beautiful small villages of Provence.
My next Servas visit was with Dominique and Simon, who took her to Nyons where we toured a lavender distillery. Then it was off to the Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman acqueduct that inexpensively supplied water to the homes, private baths, artisan and industrial workshops, public baths, pools, and fountains of Nîmes. Along with these facilities, the Roman’ built an amphitheatre, which is now the best-preserved one in France.
My last visit was in Toulouse, where I was hosted by Dominique and Jean-Louis. Toulouse is called the pink city because the buildings are made of pink terra-cotta bricks. I visited the market and walked through the old part of town. At the end of her visit, Dominique made sure I got on the right subway to the airport to head back home. Mission accomplished – lots of time to learn and practice my French. Merci Servas!