The Mattei family strolling near their home for a year in Paris, France.
Ever dreamed of packing up everything and moving abroad for a year? Well, Charlotteans Scott Mattei and Ashley Anderson Mattei have actually done it. They are wrapping up a yearlong adventure in Paris, along with their two kids Kate and Charlie. We asked them how they prepared and what they’ve discovered in their year à l’étranger.
1.) What was your experience with French or any other foreign languages before studying at The Language Academy of the Carolinas?
Scott: Latin in high school and one semester of French in college.
Ashley: Spanish in high school, Minored in Italian in college and one credit shy of minor in French in college (I’ve always loved languages, and as a young student, learning them came easily to me. Not so much at age 40— still love it, but much more difficult to learn!)
2.) How long did you study French with The Language Academy? Where else have you studied?
Ashley: In Charlotte, we took three 8-week sessions in a classroom environment with The Language Academy and then continued on with our excellent teacher, Liz [Bertrand], in a private home environment. When we moved to Paris, we both took classes 9-12 hours a week at Alliance Française (a combination of traditional classes mixed with only oral classes). AF has students from all over the world, so the 3 hour classes are total immersion. The only common language is French.
3.) What are some things that have surprised you most about living in France?
Scott: How easy it is to actually live in Paris. At first it appears very daunting (especially only having limited French), but the transition for everyone was very smooth overall.
Ashley: I am surprised at how much I love it here. The culture, the lifestyle, the people, the art, the architecture… I could go on and on. People say, are you surprised the French are so nice?! No, I’m not— that’s one of the reasons we moved here— the lovely people and the warm receptions we’ve received on previous trips. And I’m surprised that I have missed very, very little about living in the U.S. for this short time.
4.) What are some of your favorite places that you’ve discovered in Paris?
Scott: I love to walk everywhere. This city is made for walking and is very pedestrian friendly. So most of the places I have found have been by chance encounter as opposed to directly seeking them out. Like Les Arènes de Lutèce, the old Roman gladiator theatre/arena. It was built in the first century AD and you get a sense of how old Paris actually is. Take a book, find a great little park and soak it all in.
Ashley: Rodin gardens, Musée Marmottan Monet, picnics on the Champ de Mars under the Eiffel Tower, cozy cafés, my apartment 🙂
5.) Any new favorite phrases you’ve picked up?
Ashley: “Oh là là.” “Voilà.” These come in handy many times a day. They just roll off the tongue! Also, “oui, c’est ça.” “Bon week-end!” Oh! My favorite : “profiter du soleil” (or “profiter de Paris“…etc). Which roughly translates: Enjoy the sunshine…take advantage of this beautiful day!
Scott: Yes, I have completely quit using the “nous” form of anything except in writing. Everything is “on” and Parisians love to drop the “ne” in “ne…pas” too and now so do I. Little things like this have helped me to learn more vocabulary than I normally would since one tense is left out in day to day life.
6.) What do the kids like best about living in Paris?
Ashley: Nutella crêpes, riding the mètro, playing in Luxembourg Gardens or the park at the Eiffel Tower, their school and their new friends, “our cozy apartment, watching the Eiffel Tower sparkle at night, and the good food here.”
7.) What is some advice you have for other American families who want to live or travel abroad?
Scott: Try and make it happen. We as Americans are so insular in our worldly perception. Travelling abroad no matter for how many times and how long does not come close to the understanding and appreciation that comes from living there.
Ashley: Be brave and be curious! Appreciate that America is a small piece of the giant puzzle that makes up our world. And don’t be put off by all the paperwork and red tape—it’s worth it!
8.) Any specific advice for people coming to France?
Ashley: Oh gosh, tons! First, respect the culture of the place you’re visiting and try to learn a little of the “politesse” before arriving. Americans as a culture are naturally loud. Here in France, Americans stand out as loud, garish, boorish. We Americans are also always in a rush. The French are way more subdued and seem taken-aback or almost frightened by this American exuberance. The French are a very verbally-formal culture. If you learn a simple “formula” for speaking, you will be received warmly: Open conversations with “Bonjour, Monsieur” or “Bonjour, Madame” (the Bonjour alone is too casual). Do this before asking any questions, etc. and also when boarding a bus or taxi. Also, say “merci, au revoir” when leaving.
Scott: Translate normal Southern hospitality into French, a bonjour always with a Monsieur or Madame to start any and all greetings will get you a long way. Additionally we as American are usually the loudest people in Europe. Use, as we say to our kids, your “inside voice”. We have a tendency in the US to talk to the people right next to us as if they are five feet away, probably because everyone else is louder too. Also, many French will respond to me in English, I continue to talk in French and they answer in English. They are not being rude; they just like to practice their English as much as I do my French. Tell them their English is good and they light up with appreciation.
Ashley: I totally agree. I always tell them they speak English very well and then ask “where did you learn?” They love it.
9.) What is some advice you can offer to people who are studying a foreign language?
Ashley: Practice, practice, practice. I stopped formal lessons in March when we had so many visitors arriving to stay with us. It was amazing how much vocabulary I lost in a month’s time not being in daily lessons. Also, find someone who is very patient and willing to let you muddle through a conversation, and also (most importantly) who will correct your grammar when you make a mistake.
Scott: I hate to say it but I look for patterns and shortcuts in language. My goal is to be understood and understand and the spoken French is not always the book French. Except when writing you need to maintain a very high standard. I find myself proofing Google translate sometimes.
10.) Anything else that you would like to share about your experience?
Ashley: It has been hands-down, the best, most eye-opening experience of my life. There is only so much you can learn about a country or culture from traveling there… putting down roots here we have gotten to know French people and really experienced their way of life. Also watching our kids flourish here and make friends from all over the world is incomparable. Kate’s class has 19 kids from 17 different countries. She recognizes languages from Hebrew to Portuguese to Russian just by passing people on the street. It’s incredible. Charlie, who just turned 6, knows where Holland is on a map, and knows they speak Dutch there, for example (probably because a little girl he fancies is Dutch!) He has a real understanding of geography and cultural differences. Also it has been fun to see them grow in confidence as they turned into “city kids.” They can navigate the mètro and bus system with ease and know their way around the city.
Scott: If you have the ability or a job that would allow you to go overseas, do it! In my mind there has been no “downside” and I hate to say we really do not want to come home. I can understand why so many Americans from James Fenimore Cooper to Hemingway came to Paris and stayed.
Looking for some additional tips? Be sure to check out Ashley’s blog [ashleyinparis.com] to read more about her family’s adventures abroad!