Name: Benton Lowerison
Location of Study: France
Program of Study:
Sponsor(s): Cathleen Stock
Name: Benton Lowerison
Name: Benton Lowerison
Location of Study: France
Program of Study:
Sponsor(s): Cathleen Stock
I kept a written journal during my immersion experience which I am just now putting into blog format.
My first experience on my journey with French came in Los Angeles. As I waited to board my flight across the pond, I had a short conversation with a Belgian student a few years older than myself. Despite his country of origin and heavy accent, I was a little scared to converse in French and after a few broken phrases on my part, he generously switched to English.
As I had hoped however, my initial hesitations to conversing in French went away once I got off the plane. I spent the first few days of my stay in France with family in Cagnes-sur-mer , learning more about the talent and time my uncle pours into his canvases and ceramics. A painter by trade, he recently began throwing his own pots and painting on those! Dinner the first night was the traditional Provençal dish popularized in recent years by the Disney movie, ‘ratatouille.’ The following day I went to the Picasso Museum in Antibes, housed in one of the former strongholds of the Monegasque principality, Château Grimaldi. All of the Picasso work displayed in the museum was created onsite in the building over 40 years ago; when he died he left it to the city to be displayed in a museum when they found a location. I had the best omelet of my life in a nearby café for lunch.
The next morning found me in Cannes, at a ceramics exposition. The mayor started with a lengthy speech, of which I understood only that he was quite pleased with the turnout—which he not so humbly claimed was the result of the brochures and advertising (which his company had produced). The exposition was held in the lobby of a nice apartment building a few blocks down the beach from the world famous Carlton Hotel, in order to display art in a living environment. My uncle had gone to ceramics school with a few of the artists showing their work in the exposition, and I was introduced to them. I did my best to engage myself by speaking French and after expressing interest in one artists’ work, I was offered a ceramic lapin which had chipped slightly during the exposition. Champagne was served at 11 (am), and I turned down the generous offer after thinking of the potential effects a smashed ceramic bunny could have on the contents of my suitcase. After a brief stop in Villenueve-Loubet to pick up my French cousin, Timotheé, we drove up into the hills to Gourdon for lunch. The ride was picturesque and I found my French coming out a bit easier after a more choppy start that morning. A salade de chevre chaud with an incredible view greeted us at the restaurant in the hilltop town. After an afternoon with the family, I packed and got ready to go to school the next day!
School started after breakfast, which was relatively early for a college student. The first day was in English so that those with no previous language experience would understand the program. L’Institut de Français in Villefranche-sur-mer takes 80 people a month for an intensive 8.5 hour/day immersion program. On top of the diversity of previous French language experience, there was a great geographic diversity, with 19 nationalities represented. The professions and life experiences that this group of people brought to the table was absolutely incredible. Professors, doctors, journalists, elected officials, diplomats, businessmen, and the nonprofit sector were all well represented. As it turned out, I was the youngest of the 80, and one of only two undergraduate students. I believe I am also the very first Notre Dame student to attend this unique academic environment. After living in the college bubble for a year, it was very interesting to be among a group of people with such an abundance of life experiences.
L’Institut’s focus is on spoken language and though we were given composition notebooks, we were encouraged to write sparingly, trying instead to internalize as much knowledge as possible on the spot. It was quite a different classroom setting than any I had ever been in. There were 11 people seated in a circle in a room with no decoration save a nature morte by the French artist Cezanne and two floor-to-ceiling windows with amazing views of the Mediterranean sea. Cold-calling on myself and the other nine students was constant during our lessons so there was no opportunity to not be engaged. Classroom lessons with our kind professor Stephan lasted from 9 until 12, with an hour of ‘labo’ afterwards. Laboriatore involved Stephan asking questions related to the material we had just covered and the group then responding (into our headsets). After about 40 minutes of questions and answers, Stephan would playback the tape of his questions and listen to each of our responses, occasionally stopping our playbacks individually to speak with us about our progress. It was always a little odd to have a disembodied voice come through your headset and ask you in French how you were doing! All three elongated breaks (breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea) along with the other breaks were opportunities to get to know your classmates en français. Once you stepped through the gate at 8:30am until you left at 5pm, there was only French spoken—the 2 euro per English word fine was a good incentive to abide by that rule. At lunch there was a professor at every table to help guide conversations if it got quiet. Immediately following lunch was a séance pratique, a session aimed at addressing a wide variety of situations. Topics and activities ranged from social etiquette (i.e. when invited to a French household for dinner, it is polite to arrive 15 to 20 minutes late, thus giving them the extra time necessary in case they were running behind on preparations) to a comprehensive lesson on cheese (including how to avoid having your entire apartment smell like camembert, which I had happen twice—put the cheese in a plastic bag before you stick it in the fridge!).
After class, I enjoyed walking around the village near the seaport and occasionally trekking out on the Chemin de Ferrat towards the lighthouse at the end of the cape. Dinner never started before 8:30 pm and most evenings I ate with friends from school, allowing me the opportunity to work on my French in a restaurant setting and get to know my classmates better (the textbooks tell you to use ‘je voudrais’ but ‘ehh je vais prendre’ seemed to be the more used and less formal request when ordering). Villefranche-sur-mer and the surrounding area, including Nice, was a part of Italy until the mid-nineteenth century and the architecture and cuisine give testimony to an Italian past. The village of Villefranche looks strikingly similar to the Cinque Terre towns located across the border on the Italian Riviera. The similarities were strong in the culinary sense as well, with few places in town not offering oven-baked pizzas or spaghetti. Accompanying any meal was the “holy trinity” of the table: bread, cheese and wine. On some occasions, I had the local specialty, vin bellet, with dinner. The wine is produced solely in Nice, due to the special microclimate there. As a port town, seafood is a specialty and I more than once found octopi in my spaghetti dishes!
As I was walking along the beach my second night in Villefranche, I stopped and decided to strike up a conversation with a local fisherman. We talked about the jellyfish in the water and he asked me if I was British (at other points on the trip, I was also asked if I was Norwegian or Russian). I thought back to my first experience with international travel—Rome in 2007. I had just arrived and was going to the Coliseum when I came across a 10,000 person strong protest against President Bush’s meeting with the Pope and America’s involvement in the Middle East. It is a vivid memory that I carry with me and as I told the pêcheur that I’m American, I joked about our occasionally poor international reputation. ‘Nous avons tous le meme sang.’ (We all have the same blood) he replied. “We can’t choose where we are born.” “Besides,” he continued, “the French and the Americans are like this,” crossing his fingers. “Grands amis” he added with a flourish as something nibbled on his line and the conversation halted. He reeled in a good-looking dorade and I helped him dislodge the hook from its mouth. Though I was at times slow in finding the right words to reply with, I understood the man well and we were able to have a good 15 minute conversation on soccer, fishing and life.
Other French people I talked to about their impressions of America shared a similar general fondness for America, though they were confused by certain parts of our society. One of my professors, a 35 year old woman who spent 2001 in Iowa perfecting her English found the conflicting messages apparent in America disconcerting. “They do ad campaigns against smoking and then advertise ‘Buy two packs of cigarettes, get the third free’ at Wal-Mart. She smoked throughout the interview, as did many of the French I came across. Interestingly, the tax on cigarettes increased while I was in France, though nobody thought of quitting because of it. America’s individualism also stood out to the same French professor, something which allows us to climb the social ladder without excessive constraints. However, she remarked, it doesn’t provide a safety net in case you fall off of that ladder. She was much more in favor of a system which favored less individualism and more security. When talking with my French cousin and his friend Kevin later in the month (who are both my age), they expressed a fondness of American pop culture. Kevin really liked ‘Friends’, an American TV series I haven’t seen much of. Sam, my Canadian roommate also had an interesting theory about Americans and their reputation abroad. Americans abroad are sometimes characterized as rude and loud, often labeled tourists or “ugly Americans” with a hint of disdain. As a 23 year old, he’s already been to over 60 countries and expressed the sentiment that there are few people more friendly and generous than Americans in America. Sam also remarked “that the American tourists’ reputation comes as a result of them feeling uncomfortable in an unfamiliar place. Another contributing factor is that Americans often travel internationally without the language knowledge they need to have a smoother, more pleasant experience.” Quite the theory!
My first weekend involved another trip to Cannes for lunch and an afternoon of strolling about. The vielle ville was beautiful and I had dinner at a table they had set up in the cobblestoned street (it was a solely pedestrian street). The next day I went to Villenueve-Loubet to have lunch with my French aunt’s family. After just one week in school, I felt much more confident of my ability to communicate but realized that I had a hard time understanding my aunt’s father. He is very old and spoke slowly but very softly so at times it was difficult to understand what he was saying.
The second week of school arrived and so I had to do my exposé, a 10 minute presentation on the topic of your choice. Since I was the youngest, I was able to give an overview of my background, my college, and my aspirations in the time given. Five minutes of questions from my classmates followed and then the professor went over ways I could improve. One of my linguistic weaknesses is knowing when to use which past tense: the imparfait or the passé compose. When you write, you have time to think about the context and rationalize a choice but I haven’t yet reached the point at which I can correctly decide which to use on the spot (such as during a conversation).
During my morning beaks at school, I liked to read Nice-Matin, the local newspaper. Among the topics frequently brought up (Woody Allen’s casting call for his new movie, the football (soccer) club AS Monaco’s new ownership, etc.) was the French actor Gérard Depardieu. He was at a Russian Film Festival in Nice that week and because of his recent acquisition of Russian citizenship, he attracted a lot of press. I talked to a handful of French people on this matter and no one even raised an eyebrow. All seemed to agree that given the enormous tax burden the French government had imposed on the actor they would’ve done exactly the same thing. Putin may have made him Russian, but the French do not begrudge Depardieu’s tax-induced move and will always claim him as their own. Les Français, as my professor put it, “sont des gens qui partagent une memoire.” Depardieu is a part of that shared memory and thus will always be French in the eyes of everyone but the bureaucracy.
On Wednesday night, we played pétanque at the local club. A Provençal game much like the Italian bocce that some play here in the states, the game’s name refers to the participant’s static position—your feet must not move when throwing the boule. The goal is to get the balls as close to le petit cochon as possible. If your ball is closest and your opponent’s is the second closest, then your team receives one point. If you have two balls closer than your opponent’s closest ball though, you receive two points (and so on). Along with a couple from North Carolina I represented Canada. We won our first match but lost our last two. It’s a very inclusive game, pétanque. Not only can you have as many as six people playing, it also makes for a great spectator sport. On a trip to the hilltop towns, I had the opportunity to watch the locals in action—they’re incredible!
My second weekend included a walk out to the lighthouse on Cap Ferrat. I picked up some camembert, a baguette and some petits saucissons and had a picnic on the rocks. Though the mansions that dot the cape previously owned the land right down to the water, there is now a public walkway (Chemin de Ferrat) that winds itself near the water around the cape. Before the walkway was created, many wealthy residents poured stairs down to the rocky edge of the water and in some instances poured flat landings (perhaps for barbecues?). About halfway through my walk, I found one of these landings and took a fantastic nap.
The third week of school started with an excursion. I spent the day with the only other undergraduate student at the Institute, and we had a great time trying to interpret modern art at the Maeght Foundation. After picking up a poster designed by the sculptor Alexander Calder, I headed over to the Disneyland of French hilltop towns, Saint-Paul-de Vence. Few people actually live there anymore; between the cobblestoned streets and ivied walls, it’s mostly filled with boutique shops, art galleries, and gelateries. I saw the grave of the famous Russian artist Marc Chagall there, plain but with a lovely view. The biggest surprise came at lunch. I ate with my Russian friend, a fellow student at the Institut, his mom and another Russian lady at La Colombe d’Or. I didn’t know the history of the place when I arrived but it turned out that the restaurant had been a regular haunt of Picasso, Matisse and others who had actually paid off their meals with artwork! The walls inside are covered with original artwork from Calder, Picasso, and Matisse. We sat on the patio, across from a large tile mural by the Spanish artist Miró. Among the works of the masters, I spent lunch learning about Russia. The final stop of the day was Matisse’s Chapel in Vence. The tour guide gave a 30 minute presentation on the work en français before we headed out. Matisse, like Picasso had spent his later years in the area and this chapel was one of his ways of giving back to the community. What a day!
In school, after all ten students had presented their exposes, we started the debates. Roughly 40 minutes in length, it offered all the opportunity to speak freely in French on a given topic and have feedback from the professor afterwards. We discussed everything from potential taxes on fast food to interventionism to “qu’est-ce que c’est l’art?” (what constitutes art?) and the group really got into it. I lead the discussion on one of the debates and found myself able to express my opinions adequately. The 120 hours of French instruction in the last three weeks had really helped me improve. After class, I occasionally tried my hand at making pasta for dinner. The results of the first attempt were humorously poor, but I improved after that.
My third weekend (in France one can say “weekend” but in Quebec, where they try hard to keep English from invading their language, they say “fin de semaine” )in the area fell on the summer solstice. In France, this is not just an astronomical event but a musical one as well. In the early years of Francois Mitterand’s presidency, the Minister of Culture declared the solstice a day to celebrate music. And it was a grand idea. Of the many things I experienced in France, this is one of those moments in which I emphatically questioned why the states didn’t take a leaf out of the French playbook. The night of June 21st was on a Friday this year and I went to Nice in the evening to see how the festival went in a city. It was fantastic! Musicians were in the streets everywhere, and the Niçoise were out in full force enjoying their lovely city. Another French summer staple is Le Tour. Perhaps France’s most well-known sporting event, the Tour de France started in Corsica this year but had a time trial stage in Nice and started from Cagnes-sur-mer (where I was staying with my aunt and uncle at the time) the following day. Before the cyclists start, there is a parade of promotional vehicles all throwing free newspapers and food and knick-knacks to spectators. And then they’re off! It goes by quickly but it was great to see it. In addition to the well know yellow jersey (quickest time), there’s also the red polka-dotted jersey (worn by the rider who does the best on the hills/mountains), the green jersey (the best sprinter), the white jersey (the best young rider), and the red jersey (the most combative rider). Most people I talked to disagreed with the decision to strip Lance Armstrong of his record breaking seven Tour de France titles, claiming that most riders used performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) at some point in their careers. The skepticism was high about the current riders as well, with one lady claiming that since using PEDs is widespread, it’s only those with the best masking agents who actually win. It was the first time I had ever watched the Tour, and I can’t say it was as riveting as a Notre Dame football game, but I definitely enjoyed the event. Your best bet is to watch the stages in the mountains. Enjoying the fête de la musique and seeing the start of a stage of the Tour were some of the highlights of my trip!
My last week in school flew by! The conversations I had at lunch went much more smoothly and in our séance practiques, we took a pause from textbook French to learn about l’argot (slang). During earlier talks with my cousin Timotheé, he had given me a list of argot to run by my professors. The typical word for car (voiture) is widely replaced with bagnole in familiar conversation. Job (emploi, travail) is often replaced with boulot. Hanging out is usually expressed with the verb glander instead of saying “J’ai fait rien” (I didn’t do anything). All of the professors I spoke with acknowledged that they frequently use all of these words themselves. Likewise, the argot that we discussed at school (such as saying mec for guy instead of homme or meuf instead of femme for woman or vachement instead of tellement for really) was confirmed to be frequently used among French youth my age. Most agreed that this form of language is more often spoken than written, and used most often between friends.
Outside of class, I solved a mystery. The mystery of the tabac with no (more) stamps. Over the course of the first three weeks of my stay, I had written about a dozen postcards I wanted to send home. Since the Post Office was closed by the time I got out of school, I headed for the tabac. I had already come in on two separate occasions seeking stamps and both times I had been told “je n’en ai plus” (literally, “I don’t have anymore”). On my third trip, he gave me the same response and this time I followed up, asking him if he even sold stamps. He did not. I found my way to another tabac store and got the stamps I needed, thinking all the way how easily a miscommunication can arise. C’est la vie. As my French sudies came to a close, I felt very confident in my practical conversational skills.
I took the school exit exam on the last Friday. On the first and last day, they administer the same test to see how much you have improved. The test involves listening comprehension as well as written and oral expression. I improved in all areas but most noticeably in the oral expression area. They judged this by asking you to create a story to go along with pictures of a man throughout his daily activities. I went from having 35% of my sentences being correct to 62%, and as my professor pointed out, your mistakes are now much more complex. I was excited about the results and very happy with my experience at the school. I plan on remaining in contact with the many interesting people I met this summer and hope that our paths cross again someday. After my formal French studies at the Institute finished, I stayed several days with my family in Cagnes-sur-mer and I was able to continue practicing the French I had learned.
After finishing school, I enjoyed taking several excursions around the Côte d’ Azur. My first day off I visited the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild on Cap Ferrat (an estate with beautiful gardens; constructed in the early 20th century, it epitomized the “celebration of excess” that characterized and is still prominent in the area) and Villa Kérylos in Beaulieu (a formerly private residence designed after a Greek villa from the 2nd century BC; built in 1902, the proprietor’s wife was cousins with Ephrussi who later built her estate on Cap Ferrat). Both properties were magnificent architecturally. I also spent a lot of time my last week swimming in the Mediterranean. The water’s so warm! It made my native Pacific Ocean seem downright frigid.
On many evenings, I watched French films to gain knowledge about French pop culture and test my listening comprehension. After The Fifth Element (the director, Luc Besson is French), Les Visiteurs (wildly funny), and all five chapters of the epic drama Angelique (my aunt watched these films as a girl so I was also exposed to them), I watched a policier called Le Cercle Rouge (with Alain Delon and Yves Montand). Movie dialogue can be hard to pick up sometimes but as I waded my way deeper into French cinema, I picked up more and more.
As mentioned in an earlier blog post, I got to see the start of one of the stages of the Tour de France. Later that day, I went to Vallauris with my uncle. I got to see where he learned to throw pots and the Picasso museum there. Not to be outdone by Matisse (who had also done a chapel in nearby Vence), Picasso created “War and Peace,” a massive painting that lies on top of the curved walls. On one side of the wall there are silhouettes of men with weapons and the background is splashed with red, while the other side depicts a warm sun and happy people. With a surface area larger than some flats à louer in the vicinity, it creates quite an environment for reflection. They also had a long French description of Picasso’s history in the region, which I was able to get through! While in Vallauris, I had lunch with my uncle and a few of his ceramist friends, with the table conversation exclusively in French. Where I would’ve been much more in the dark about what was being said a month before, I now found myself able to follow the flow of the conversation pretty well.
The next day we went to Monaco for lunch. I had been there once before but I got some interesting insights from a family friend who had grown up with nephews of the Prince. For one, the police in Monaco are French but they are called the carbonari (the Italian word for police). The country has its own dialect as well, somewhere between French and Italian. The funniest tidbit he shared was that many of the international people that live there don’t like living there six months out of the year but pretend to do so to receive tax benefits. To keep up the impression of residency, many people will leave their heat on in the winter or air conditioning on in the summer while they aren’t there! It’s really an odd little alcove on the Cote d’Azur—driving there you go through village after village and then all of the sudden you have high rise buildings in Monte Carlo (note: Monte Carlo and Monaco are actually not synonymous since Monte Carlo is only one of the four traditional quarters of Monaco).
The day after the trip to Monaco, my uncle, a Swiss friend of his and I went to Vence. We made a beeline for an art gallery, as was the case in every town I went to. Galerie Chave, with its small unassuming entrance on rue Isnard became the adventure of the day. After my uncle and his friend bought a small art piece, we returned from lunch to pick them up. The proprietor, Pierre Chave was in his private collection across the street which he offered to walk us through. Chave’s father was a surrealist himself and was friends with many of the artists whose work he exhibited. Stepping into the private reserve across the street was a truly incredible experience. Paintings were stored on shelves like books, row after row after row. His gallery is also famous for exhibiting Art Brut, a term used to describe art created by people who are not artists by trade. They will often take a break from their profession for a year or two on a whim and then return to their trade. Children’s art is also often put under this category since they have no previous experience. Later on we stopped at the Fondation Maeght to see an exhibition curated by writer-philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy entitled “Les aventures de la verite: peinture et philosophie” which showed the development of philosophy and art over time. The premise of the exhibit was that in the beginning, art was used to depict reality but it was later heavily influenced by philosophy. At that point, art didn’t really depict anything and it was the philosophy behind it that really mattered. Now, Levy posits that the artists are seeking to reclaim an equal hold with philosophers. It was quite an exhibit!
I spent my final full day in France in Antibes with my French cousin Timotheé and his friend Kevin. We meandered through the city to Kevin’s favorite sandwich spot where the lady asked me if I wanted mustard on my sandwich. “It’s not like the mustard elsewhere” she said but I was determined to have the same moutard as my companions. As we sat down in a square to people-watch and eat lunch I dug into my sandwich. Oh la la! I had never had such strong mustard, it was stinging the inside of my nostrils as I ate! After lunch we wandered around the city, grabbing a late afternoon coffee before heading to the beach. The day was a fantastic opportunity for me to work on my colloquial, everyday French and a great way for me to connect with my cousin. To top off the day I bought a pair of shoes and the transaction (which involved switching sizes) went perfectly smooth!
Back in the states, I’ve had some time to reflect on my amazing foreign language studies that I embarked on earlier this summer. My horizons expanded as I made friends from Helsinki to Tel Aviv to Auckland. And, as I had hoped, the international setting of the school helped me to foster a broader global outlook. I hope to one day visit my new friends in their native lands. The plethora of professional backgrounds that were present at the Institute also gave me a unique insight into the career paths that I might follow as a Finance and Political Science major. One evening, I was the recipient of a wonderful “pay-it-forward” experience. Thirty years ago, a young Australian in Manila walked into his embassy inquiring about an internship. He wanted to know if it would be the right career path for him. The Ambassador walked out of his office and took the young Australian to lunch, answering all of his questions and curiosities. Fast-forward thirty years to this summer: a young Notre Dame student (me) approaches the man who was once ‘the young Australian’ but is now the Deputy Ambassador for Australia to France and is cordially invited for drinks and dinner. I spent five hours with the experienced diplomat, discussing how I could prepare for the state department (or “foreign service” as he called it) and learning from his stories. I couldn’t express enough the gratitude I felt so I promised to one day pay it forward as well. When a questioning young person knocks on my door someday in the future, I will be happy to share my experiences with him or her. I also was fortunate enough to meet people involved in business and benefitted from conversations with them as well. Overall though, if it was not for a shared pursuit of knowledge and love of French I would never have met the amazing group I did.
I feel that my French language skills improved dramatically during my stay abroad. It was the first time I had been to France since I started studying French in the 9th grade and it was very gratifying to see that the hard work I put in at Notre Dame and in high school allowed me to immerse myself completely into achieving my goal of communicating with people from another nation. With the intensive program I went through I found that my French flowed much more smoothly, and that I was more inclined to start a conversation in French. With a little bit of vocabulary study, I was able to discuss current events. And with some occasional translating, I was able to communicate with my French relatives en français. This trip not only helped me improve my understanding of French language and culture; it also gave me the confidence to live on my own and assimilate into a foreign country. It also inspired me to dedicate more of my time and effort toward learning this language that I have grown to love. Thank you Notre Dame-SLA and Mrs. Cathleen Stock for all of your generous support!