Is this real?

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High School Gap Year

Our Gap students arrived in Toulouse on September 28, almost four weeks ago already! And yet, they continue asking themselves: is this real?

It always takes time to fully grasp the reality of a new unfamiliar environment. Students wonder “Am I really here? Eating this food, walking the narrow meandering streets of “La Ville Rose”? Speaking French? Asking my way and yet still getting somewhat lost until…Oh yes, that nice smelling bakery, I walked by it on my way to school yesterday; Oh yes, the Garonne river banks where we had our first picnic during Orientation; oh yes, the city hall on main city center square “Place du Capitole”!” Nothing more gratifying that finding one’s way in a new city and building a sense of familiarity and belonging.

Photo for blog post Is this real?
Toulouse is nickmaned "the pink city" for its many brick buildings.

After months of confinement and concerns about the likelihood of students being able to travel again, after weeks of setting up a GAP program that would fully expose students to French language immersion and culture while maintaining maximum precautionary measures against Covid-19, CIEE Toulouse staff can smile again and wonder as well: is this real?

A week before students arrived, CIEE staff had a chance to meet with students and their parents for an overview of the program, housing and assessment of local Covid-19 measures as well as CIEE policies.  Useless to say, CIEE staff reiterated the importance of abiding by all local obligations, including wearing a face mask in public, maintaining six feet distance and wash hands regularly. This was a great opportunity to get to know each other and allowed students to meet with a familiar CIEE face when arriving at Toulouse-Blagnac airport. This is also where they encountered their host families with whom they had already extensively exchanged prior to coming.

Students then smoothly transitioned to their host families’ places and after getting a tour of their house, nice French dinner and a good night’s sleep, we all met on the following day to start a four-day online program orientation. CIEE also conducted three outdoor tours of Toulouse, during which students learned how to orient themselves in the city, to identify historical sites, ranging from antiquity to Renaissance as well as city center shopping areas.

Students got a chance to experience “Toulouse à pied” (Toulouse by foot) and to realize that historical center is walkable distance from and to all cardinal points as long as you have good walking shoes! Last tour of the week had them end in a Toulouse patisserie that is well renowned for its macarons. Yummy!

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Sweets will never be the same after you bite into this!

The following week was the start of language classes at Alliance Française, which has allowed students to meet with other international students in Toulouse. 3,5 hours of French every morning 9 to 12:30! Students are amazed at how fast time flies in spite of the long hours. There is so much to learn and they are learning so much! The most challenging, students say is to walk into a café, a restaurant or a bakery and order food. After walking by a very attractive patisserie every day, a student finally pushed himself to go in and order “une tarte au citron meringuée” – a lemon meringue pie. Definitely worth the effort!

One stereotype the students are definitely seeing confirmed is the French obsession with food! Students cannot get over the quantity of cheese the French eat: “they put cheese on top of everything!”. Meals in France are taken very seriously, every family member needs to attend and the subject of conversation is quite often …. food.

This ties very well into the first part of our program that focuses on “Foodies”. There is no avoiding the subject anyway. CIEE has taken students to restaurant “Le May” a Toulouse institution that caters to traditional local food where CIEE Toulouse center director used to go … when she was a student! (long time ago even though she won’t share how old she is!)

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Sampling the local restaurants

They also did an exercise that involved exploring a French supermarket and look for a list of ingredients they would need to cook a meal to their host families. Students were impressed by the variety of yoghurts a French supermarket displays … and the small quantity of cereals you could find there!


At the supermarket

Finally, CIEE staff took them to “La maison de la Violette”, located on a barge on the Canal du Midi. Violets are the symbol flower of Toulouse and you can find all you can think of violet perfumes/flavored products: candies, soap, herbal tea, drinks, chocolate, cookies…You name it!

And this is only a start! More to come with a trip to “Chapristea”, where you can eat pastry while fondling a cat, an introduction to cheese-making processes, a cuisine workshop with CIEE staff playing chefs….among other activities.

And yes, this IS all real, behind their masks students continue exploring the world and marveling at all it has to offer.