A visit to the Hôtel de Ville: learning French and much more

A visit to the Hôtel de Ville: learning French and much moreIf the Hôtel de Ville is symbolic of the city itself, Paris is certainly an ever-changing one, the building in question having functioned as everything from an execution central to a tourist attraction.

Thankfully, on the day I visited with the students from the Alliance Française Paris Île-de-France, its purpose fell into the latter category.

The students and I were given an informative guided tour of the magnificently beautiful (and, thankfully, refreshingly cool, given the overheated streets of Paris waiting for us outside) interior. Chatting with the students, I was determined to understand why they had chosen to passer l’été a Paris, and to partake in the many cultural activities in the Alliance Française calendar. And, I wanted to hear more than “mais c’est Paris! C’est incroyable!”. Why had they come to France, apart from the obvious draw of learning French

What, for these students, makes it so very magnifique? 

Meet Enrico; think ambition

learning French -www.MyFrenchLife.org.jpg7

Our appointed tour guide shared multiple interesting titbits, one of which was that the square in front of the Hôtel de Ville was previously known as the place de grève. Workers who could only find irregular work (such as stone masons) would stand there in the mornings, searching for employment. 

Enrico, an Italian student, has rather higher ambitions than the workers who frequented the place de grève. He’s one of those impressive reflections of the E.U: has a deft command of Italian (obviously), German, English and, as he went on to demonstrate in our conversation, now French. With the aim of working for the European parliament, he wanted to add something else to his résumé to up his advantages: learning French. 

Meet Juan; think architecture

Designed by Edouard Deperthes and Theodore Ballu, and bearing a resemblance to Versailles, the Hôtel de Ville’s interior is (as you would expect) elaborate, breathtaking and intricate.

A visit to the Hôtel de Ville: learning French and much more

It sums up one of the principal reasons Juan, a 25-year-old Costa Rican, loves Paris: for the architecture. He caught my attention because unlike the others, he was utterly absorbed in capturing everything he saw on camera: the paintings, details and how the light fell in the rooms. Having previously studied architecture, he found himself falling under the charm of the Parisian Haussmannian buildings. 

Juan described some of the many differences he found between the Parisian buildings and the ones in his hometown in Costa Rica. He perfectly summarised my own feelings about the streets of Paris when he said that, “N’importe où, même dans les petites rues, pas spéciales, il y a une histoire. Il y a de la beauté.

Meet Maria; think freedom

learning French -www.MyFrenchLife.org.jpg10A tour of such an emblematic French building would not be complete without a mention of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ – no explanation should be needed here!

The last person I spoke with was Maria from Colombia, who at 17 was the youngest of our group. She told me how she had spent some time in Laurent before coming to the capital, and had lived with une famille d’accueil. On arriving in France, she could speak only one phrase: “Je m’appelle Maria.” Which, really, only gets you so far in life. 

When I asked her how it had been au début, she replied “Horrible. Carrément. Je n’ai que pu parler avec mes mains.” But the silver lining on this cloud – for it had been a turbulent time – was that she had been given the chance to grow up.

“J’ai agrandi. Maintenant, je suis beaucoup plus indépendante”.

Learning about more than just the French language 

Organised visits such as the one I attended at the Hotel de Ville pushed me to reflect upon what exactly the students (and myself) can hope to gain from time spent immersing ourselves within a culture. Really experiencing what’s on offer – and that’s more than the chicest restaurants, and hippest new bars – can be so enriching. 

For these students, a reflection on the history and heritage of Paris nudged them into considering their own personal experiences: what they had learned about themselves, and whether this time abroad had changed them. 

Had it changed Maria? She certainly thought so. And for myself? Perhaps… Un tout petit peu!

Have you spent time in France? Did it change you? Share your comments with us below!

Proud partner of the Alliance Française Paris Île-de-France.
Image Credits:
1. Hotel de Ville in Paris, via Wikipedia.
2. Nicolas-Jean-Baptiste Raguenet, Place de Greve, via Wikipedia.
3. Hôtel de Ville interior, by Patrick Janicek via Wikipedia.
4. Students in front of the Hotel de Ville, © Jill Craig.

About the Contributor

Jill Craig

I'm currently a university student in Glasgow, studying a Masters degree in English Literature and French. Soon I’ll be moving to la ville lumière where I’ll become a Paris-based intern! You can find me on Google+ and Twitter.

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  1. Christina Guzman Aug 13, 2014 at 11:39 AM - Reply

    Having only spent three weeks in Paris, it didn’t change me in a ‘profound’ way, but it most definitely made me more confident when it came to speaking french. Like any language, speaking is one of the most difficult parts so going anywhere that speaks the language you are learning would have a great impact on your confidence. Like Maria (I imagine), by the end of the my 3 weeks, I wasn’t even thinking about what i was saying – it would just come out 🙂

    • Sahara Wilson Aug 29, 2014 at 12:15 PM - Reply

      Did you have that moment Christina when you realised ‘Hey, I just spoke about [something very complicated] entirely in French. How did I even do that?’ hehe

  2. Sahara Wilson Aug 29, 2014 at 12:14 PM - Reply

    I think living in Paris did change my perspective Jill, though it didn’t change who I am. Living in any foreign country would change you, but something about Paris in particular was unique. I was always surrounded by so many internationals and French people, that I began to realise how many opportunities are out there to be reached. So in a way, Paris for me was the same as it is for each Enrico, Juan and Maria – I had to adapt to living in another culture, speaking French every day and therefore improved my career prospects; I fell in love over and over with the rich history of the Arts (I have always been such a sucker for architecture); and I learnt to be independent, not just from my family base and community but from my own country.
    Thanks for the read, Jill, great article.

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