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Immersion into French and French Culture

Institut de Français
View from the Institut de Français

Ask the Righ Questions - Edward Hodnett

In France, if you don’t ask the right question, you won’t get the right answer. Get this through your head. Imprint it on your brain. Believe it to be true…because the next time you’re in France and have an encounter with a customer service person who is less than helpful, ask yourself if you asked the right question. Maybe you didn’t and that’s why you didn’t get the right answer.

Here’s a perfect example of how this might play out, and this happened to me this week, who has these words burned into my brain, but clearly…not deeply enough.

Pharmacie de France

I went with a prescription for a drug I take regularly and have for many years (don’t worry, it’s not so serious). The pharmacist didn’t have it in stock, but could order it to arrive the next day, which happens all the time, except this time she couldn’t because, as she explained, there was a “rupture de stock” (out of stock). That means the supplier was flush out of it and she didn’t have a clue when it would be available.

As you can imagine, drug usage is generally timely, so I had only one week before I needed it. With a pharmacy on just about every corner in Nice (like all over France), I walked to another one and got the same answer. I continued on the search. As I was entering pharmacy number six on my quest to find the drug, I realized that not one pharmacist had offered an alternative solution. Not one. That’s when the light bulb went off in my head reminding me that I hadn’t asked the right question.

At pharmacy number six, when she said the same words, “rupture de stock,” I replied with the right question: “Is there an alternative?”

“Ah! Peut-être” (Perhaps)! With that, she verified online that no, there was no real equivalent, but with a wave of her magic mouse, she found two pharmacies in the vicinity that each had at least one on hand! Brilliant! And she was nice enough to write down the names, addresses and phone numbers of the two pharmacies. So, once I had asked the right question, I had gotten the right answer…plus a whole lot more.

Needless to say, I called the closest pharmacy of the two, confirmed they had the drug, asked them to hold it and I picked it up the next day. Mission accomplished. Then I wanted to kick myself for not remembering the French golden rule: if you don’t ask the right question, you won’t get the right answer.

Why is this? Why is it that we Americans assume the information will be made readily available to us without having to even know the right question, while the French will prove this phenomena over and over again, that they simply don’t think that way or offer up unsolicited ideas?

I equate it to my theory about English Law vs Napoleonic Code. The fundamental cultural difference between France and our native culture is this:

Napoleon Bonaparte Presents le Code Civil to Josephine

Napoleon Bonaparte Presents le Code Civil to Josephine

NAPOLEONIC CODE: “Everything which is not allowed is forbidden.”

ENGLISH LAW: “Everything which is not forbidden is allowed.”

The legal system in Anglo Saxon countries is based on what is forbidden while the legal system in France is based on what’s allowed. In America, you can’t do this, and you can’t do that, and everything else is allowed. In France, you are supposed to do this and you are supposed to do that and everything else is not allowed. This means that English law engenders open-minded, out-of-the-box

thinking, while Napoleonic code is about following the rules and thinking within the box. This manifests itself in how our accused are presumed innocent until evidence is brought before the jury to prove guilt, whereas under Napoleonic Code, the accused is presumed guilty and must prove himself to be innocent. Scary to us under English law, but true.

If you can think the way the French think, or understand how differently you think than they do, you can avoid making some of the biggest mistakes. And if you apply this principle to every cultural clash you have in France, it will explain everything!!



You may already be familiar with the Institut de Français? It’s the country’s premier full language immersion program that has been turning out bonafide French speakers since 1969, all from a magnificent villa in Villefranche-sur-Mer overlooking the million dollar view of the Mediterranean—the port at Villefranche and Cap Ferrat. It’s the most heavenly spot on the planet from which to drill the French language into your brain. And many of the world’s most illustrious people have chosen this particular school…not just for the fabulous location, but because their method really works. “The method used by this French language school can be aptly called Diversified French Immersion.”

Institut de Français Gardens

Institut de Français Grounds

Frédéric Latty Institut de France

(Photo of Frédéric Latty, when I first met mim)

Frédéric Latty, When Adrian Leeds First Met HimI’m ashamed to say I never attended the school myself (a big reason why my French still lacks luster after 26 years!), but many of my friends and clients have. For many years I’ve had a friendly relationship with the Executive Assistant and Teaching Supervisor, Frédéric Latty. He participated in one of our House Hunters International episodes a few years ago. We taped parts of the show in the school and gardens of the villa.

Frédéric’s desk sits adjacent to the co-founder’s desk, Jean Colbert, who came to work daily well into his 90s and up until his death this past January. He and his wife, Madeleine, conceived of the immersion program of teaching and has proven its success every since by educating many thousands of people in the French language.

M. Colbert's Desk Institut de France

M. Colbert’s Desk, Left Exactly as It Was Since His Passing in January

When he died, the school’s world was turned upside down. Big questions arose: Can the establishment continue to operate? Who will run it? How can we let 50 years of educating people in French be lost and forgotten? Then, Covid-19 happened on top of it all and that meant their usual influx of foreigners were no longer “influxing.”

Madeleine and Jean Colbert Financial Times

Madeleine and Jean Colbert, Photo from Financial Times Article

Frédéric phoned me while I was on vacation in Corsica to tell me he had good news and invited me for lunch at the Institut upon my return to Nice. I couldn’t wait to hear what he had to say and visit the school again after a long absence. Getting to the school from Nice was “du gâteau” (piece of cake) on the 33 bus from the Port area. The bus runs along the Moyenne Corniche and drops you of at the top of the road. It’s a downhill walk along this road of beautiful villas…and by happenstance, it’s the same street on which I partied a few weeks earlier—you may remember the “pajama party” I attended with the million-dollar view?

Gardens at the Institut de Français

The Gardens at the Institut de Français

Serge Colbert Director of the Institut de Français

Serge Colbert, Son and New Director of the Institut de Français

The villa overlooks that same million dollar view. Not a bad way of learning French! Classes are held in the Grand Salon and in classrooms and labs scattered in the sprawling facility. Lunch was served for just us in that beautiful room with the view while the students dined on the same cuisine in their bright, sunny dining room. It was over lunch that I met Serge Colbert—in photo—Madeleine and Jean’s son. He was Frédéric’s big news! Serge had returned from his life in Los Angeles in the music business to carry on the heritage of the school, just as his parents would have wanted. Frédéric was quite relieved as well as pleased to have Serge back at home and injecting new blood into the school with new ideas.

Grand Salon Institut de Français

The Grand Salon at the Institut de Français

Dessert at the Institut de Français

Dessert at the Institut de Français

Over a magnificent meal prepared by the new kitchen staff—a professional caterer in Villefranche-sur-Mer—which serves up a gourmet lunch daily for all the students, I learned all about the plans for updating the school’s curriculum to be more flexible for a wider variety of students. Normally the classes last four weeks, but now a two- or three-week enrollment is possible. After two weeks, a student may stay for another two, three or four weeks, provided there is space for that particular duration. That may seem like a long time to be fully immersed in French five days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., but if you want to learn French well and quickly, this is what really works…so when you consider how many hours you might spend in a traditional language school plus the travel there and back, you will find this method more efficient. (Photo features one of the kitchen’s amazing desserts)

After lunch, Frédéric gave us a tour of the new outfitted classrooms to accommodate social distancing, with lucite dividers and spacing for the students and teachers. They had taken care of every aspect of their interaction by enforcing social distancing in every situation. I was impressed.

Updated Classroom- Institut de Français

Updated Classroom at the Institut de Français

And I’ll tell you right now…the school is priced to reflect the quality. You will get what you pay for…learning French well and fast…all while enjoying the overwhelmingly beautiful atmosphere with that million dollar view. For those thinking of attending the school…they have apartments in which you can stay in Villefranche-sur-Mer, but if you’re coming from Nice, it’s really easy, too. You can take the Number 33 bus to the Moyenne Corniche and walk down the road five minutes. Then, when you leave, you walk down other five minutes to the Number 100 or 15 bus back to the center of Nice. Easy peasy.

The Kitchen Staff - Institut de Français

The Kitchen Staff at the Institut de Français

Student Dining Room - Institut de Français

Student Dining Room at the Institut de Français

If you’re interested, contact Frédéric Latty [email protected] or by phone to +33 493 01 88 44. Be sure to let him know I sent you!

A la prochaine…

Adrian Leeds - Nice, FranceAdrian Leeds
Adrian Leeds Group

(high above Nice)

Nice Apartment - Le MatisseP.S. I’m heading back to Paris for “La Rentrée” next Monday and that means back to writing Parler Paris Nouvellettres®. It also means my colorful, delightful and well located Niçois apartment, “Le Matisse,” will be available for stays by my friends of Parler Paris, Parler Nice and French Property Insider. Email me for more information about the possibilities at [email protected].


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