A Visit to the Université François Rabelais

In 1979, while I worked as an au pair for Dubois’ family at the Château de Montclair, I attended classes at the Université François Rabelais in the nearby town of Tours.

Desperate to learn French, I hoped that I could “reverse learn” the language if I attended English classes. As a young woman of twenty-one, living in a small town, I also hoped to meet new friends. As you will see in this excerpt from my memoir, French Illusions: My Story as an American Au Pair in the Loire Valley, my employer, Madame Dubois, “helped me” register for classes. 

“After breakfast, we all piled into the Peugeot and drove the short distance into Songais to drop the children off at school. Antoine and Colette tumbled out of the car and ran over to join their classmates, already waiting in lines to enter the two-story, gray stone building. When a loud bell chimed, the schoolchildren filed inside through the main entrance in a quiet and ordered manner.

“What now?” I said, refocusing on Madame.

Grimacing, she shifted her belly. “Today would be a good day to drive into Tours and register you for some classes at the university. I have a couple of errands to accomplish as well.”

“That sounds great. How long is the drive?”

“About forty-five minutes.” With a click, she released the parking brake and pulled out of the lot.

Speeding along highway 450, I gazed out the window, enjoying the view while classical music streamed from the radio. The landscape was punctuated with châteaux similar to my new home, with many of them flanked by rows and rows of fertile vineyards. Laborers, busy in these fields, picked grapes, filling their back baskets and then dumping them in carts. Their suntanned skin glistened with perspiration as they toiled.

Intermittently our road paralleled the tranquil, slow-moving Loire River, sprinkled with forested islands and barren sandbanks. Waterfowl combed the fertile banks for food or shelter. Raptors circled high above. An occasional angler in thigh-high wading boots caught my attention as he leaned forward to cast his fishing line into the water.

Rural landscapes disappeared, and we entered the city across a large bridge spanning the Loire.

“This is the Woodrow Wilson Bridge,” Madame said, glancing my way. “During World War I, the United States Air Force had a strong military presence in Tours, and many people esteemed their efforts. When the town built the bridge in 1918, they named it in honor of the American president. The locals now prefer to call it the Pont de Pierre. That means stone bridge.”

I twisted around to look at it. “Really? That’s interesting.”

Madame shrugged. “I think you will find almost everything about Tours fascinating. The city dates back to ancient times, 388 A.D. I believe.”

Maneuvering through traffic, she made several turns, then stopped and parked in front of an expansive building, its modern architecture peculiar in this ancient city.

“Is this the university?” 

“Yes, this is the Université François Rabelais, one of five campuses in town. It was built in 1969 and is named after a famous French writer.”

Stretching over one entire block, portions of the buildings appeared to float above gigantic pillars, allowing for parking underneath the structure. The main campus resembled a pyramid, and within this shape, vertical windows, columns, and railings added texture and dimension.

Two sets of wide concrete stairs wove their way up the front of the beige-colored edifice, adding elegance as well as utility.

Madame Dubois motioned us forward with her arm and we climbed the steps, stopping to rest on the first landing. When we reached the second, my stomach lurched as she grabbed the railing with one hand and her belly with the other.

“Are you okay?”

“Yes, of course,” she gasped, continuing to the top.

We entered the building through a set of double doors, wandering around the hallways until we met a student who directed us to the registrar’s office.

Lips compressed, Madame Dubois stepped up to the counter, requested a course catalog, and then took a seat nearby. “Your choices are extremely limited, because I need you to help with the children in the morning and you cannot attend daily classes,” she murmured, perusing the document in her hand without consulting me. “I will sign you up for all of the courses that fit our timeframe and you can try them out. Unfortunately, none of them teach French, but at least you will get some exposure to the language.”

She is so domineering. I wasn’t used to an employer taking over like this, but her plan sounded okay to me. After all, I would be the one picking my classes in the end.

Pushing herself back up to her feet, Madame Dubois completed my registration and passed the schedule to me.

“Thank you for helping me with this,” I said tentatively as we walked back to the car.

“Let’s hope it does you some good.””

If you would like to learn more about my experiences in France, you can purchase a copy of my book at Amazon.com. For a nominal fee, you can add audible narration with Whispersync. The audiobook is also available at Audible.com.




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