Name: Claire Reising
Location of Study: France
Program of Study: French
Sponsor(s): Robert Berner
Name: Claire Reising
Name: Claire Reising
Location of Study: France
Program of Study: French
Sponsor(s): Robert Berner
Journal Entry 1
It’s my first week in Avignon, and I’ve already experienced some high and low points of living in France: a riverside sunset and a national transportation strike. The strike was planned for the day everyone in our program was supposed to meet in Paris and take the TGV together to Avignon. So, our organized group arrival became a scramble to find one of the few trains running and make it to Avignon before succumbing to jet lag. Since I was already in Europe before the program started, I was able to change my train ticket and arrive in Avignon the day before the strike. But while I avoided the crowd of stranded travelers in DeGaulle Airport, I still had to pay twice the price of my original ticket for a last-minute exchange.
Even though I had already experienced a strike while studying abroad, it was still a culture shock, especially for my first week of the program. It’s hard to believe that the SNCF (France’s national railway company) can disrupt travel for thousands of people across the country, and then charge high prices for last-minute tickets. One of my friends was even charged for a train that never ran! I talked to a few Belgians and French people about the strike, and they were just as annoyed as I was. My friend I was visiting jokingly told her dad, who works for SNCF, that he had cut our visit short! The people in our program who were from France did not seem surprised about the strike, and they tried to make everyone’s travel plans go as smoothly as possible. One program organizer even picked me up from the train station when I arrived!
Although the train strike gave me a bad first impression, that quickly changed when I started exploring the city. So far, I have visited the Papal gardens and walked along the river near the Pont d’Avignon. Avignon was the seat of the papacy during part of the 1300s, so the city has a Papal palace, complete with its own garden and vineyard! The church (named Notre Dame) even has a golden statue of Mary on top of it, which made me feel a little more at home. Avignon is also famous for its unfinished medieval bridge, the Pont d’Avignon. The evening after our orientation, a friend and I walked along the Rhône River after sunset, and the scene reminded me of a Van Gogh painting. I am looking forward to exploring the city more over the next six weeks!
Journal Entry 2
This week, I met most of the people in my program and started classes. Although most of the students are American, we’re required to speak French during classes and organized activities, which is one reason the Bryn Mawr program appealed to me. Too often, it’s easy to speak English when I’m with Americans, but Bryn Mawr provides many structured activities, such as travel excursions or cultural events, where we have to speak French.
So far, I’ve been impressed with several students’ levels of French. A few students were raised bilingual or started speaking French at a very young age, so they’ve reached native or near-native fluency. Participating in class discussions with them pushes me to improve my own French, and I’m also learning new colloquial vocabulary from our conversations. For example, I learned that “Je suis partant” means “I’m up for it.” Even though I’ve started teaching French, as a non-native speaker I still encounter situations where I lack the vocabulary to express exactly what I want to say. It’s helpful to be with people who speak English but have a higher level of French than I do. Initially, I was self-conscious about my accent, especially when speaking in class. However, one of the Ph.D. students said that my self-consciousness is probably one of the main obstacles holding me back. He encouraged me to focus on my enthusiasm for the language, rather than on my mistakes.
Last weekend, we had our first travel excursion, to Arles and Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer. In Arles, I was amazed by the breadth of history you can find in one small city. Van Gogh completed a lot of his work in Arles, so we saw a few scenes he painted. We also toured a Roman amphitheater, which was originally built for gladiator competitions and is now used for bullfights. Later, we visited Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer, a town on the Mediterranean Sea. There, we were able to climb onto the roof of a small church for impressive views of the village, the sea, and the surrounding countryside. I enjoy being part of a program where they take us to local sites that would be difficult to reach by public transportation.
Journal Entry 3
I have settled into a routine now, with my class and reading schedule, and we have a lot of reading, especially for only six weeks! On the first day of class, our professor announced that we were going to read “tout Camus”–all the works of Albert Camus. He was exaggerating, but only slightly… Our first assignment involved over 100 pages of reading! I’m looking forward to the class, though, because it’s fascinating to see how Camus’ career combined literature, journalism, and philosophy. I’m also interested in Camus because he was a politically engaged writer during World War II and post-war France, and his career shows how literature can respond to or influence current events, rather than remaining isolated in an academic environment.
My other class is a seminar on theater during the French Revolution. This doesn’t have as much reading as Camus, but some of the reading is more difficult, since I don’t have much background knowledge of the French Revolution. I’m also enjoying learning how to analyze theater because it will be helpful when Avignon’s theater festival starts next week. Although the assignments are time-consuming, having such a fast-paced reading schedule is starting to help me read more efficiently in French.
In addition to the two graduate courses, I joined a phonetics workshop to practice pronunciation. We have been focusing on differences between vowel sounds that are often difficult for English speakers to hear, and the workshop is teaching me how to pronounce French vowels with more precision. I’m also learning ways I can teach pronunciation to my own students, such as tongue twisters and skits.
Outside of class, we have been busy with program activities and other events around Avignon. In mid-June, France celebrates the Fête de la Musique, and cities have free concerts throughout the day. We saw a large range of performances, from traditional organ and choir concerts, to a Black Eyed Peas cover. The streets were still packed when I went home around midnight, and even after all of the planned concerts had ended, groups of people were still playing music and dancing in the streets throughout the night.
The morning after the Fête de la Musique, we took a program excursion to Marseille, a port city on the Mediterranean. We toured a basilica (another Notre Dame with a golden Mary!) and took a choppy boat ride to an island off the coast. Unfortunately, I wasn’t paying enough attention to my bag, and my camera was stolen while we were on the island. I felt naive for letting my guard down because I knew that pickpocketing was especially common in Marseille, and I looked like a tourist with my large bag and American clothes. When we returned to Avignon, one of the program organizers was very helpful and took me to the police station to file a complaint. Since she has lived in the United States, we had a conversation about crime and law enforcement in France and the U.S. The conversation turned to gun control, and I wasn’t surprised when she said that most French people don’t understand American resistance to stricter gun control, especially after the shootings that have happened in the past year. She also told me that while violent crime is less common in France, especially in a small city like Avignon, I should watch out for pickpockets and stay with a group of people to avoid harassment.
Journal Entry 4
Over the past two weekends, I went to two different festivals, and fortunately, nothing else was stolen in the crowds! Last weekend, I went to Mons, Belgium, where I taught English from 2011-2012. It was strange to go back to a place that used to be my home just for a weekend visit. A lot of my Belgian and expat friends were still living there, and I realized how much I missed the international environment and active lifestyle I had abroad. I was constantly meeting new people, practicing French, and learning about other cultures, and whenever my friends and I ate together, at least five different countries would be represented at the table.
Over the weekend, I had a few conversations with expat friends about their decision to settle in Belgium indefinitely, rather than return to their home countries after a year or two. I have thought about moving abroad again, especially back to Belgium.
Our conversations made me hesitant, though, because if I’m abroad for a predetermined period of time, I can ignore inconveniences or hardships because they’re temporary, and I’m willing to sacrifice some comfort to make the most of my time. For example, I used a cheap, basic phone while abroad because I’d have my American phone back in a couple months, and, on a much more significant level, I could cope with being separated from my family and American friends because I knew we would see each other regularly when I returned. However, my expat friends need to find more permanent solutions to both the minor inconveniences and the emotional challenges of living abroad. It was interesting to see how small steps, such as getting a phone plan or driver’s license, have helped my friends feel more rooted.
That weekend, we also celebrated la Fête de la Saint Jean, a festival dedicated to St. John the Baptist that is traditionally celebrated in France and Belgium. The festival began after sunset, with a concert and light show in the city’s main square. Then everyone who wanted to participate bought torches, and we processed across the city and threw the torches into a bonfire. As an American, I couldn’t help thinking how unsafe it was for hundreds of people to carry torches through crowded streets, and I grew nervous as the flame on my own torch moved closer and closer to my hand. But none of my friends seemed worried, and we made it to the end without getting burned!
The following week in Avignon, the city was preparing for the beginning of its internationally renowned theater festival. More advertisements were popping up every day, and by the end of the week, almost every building was plastered with posters. The opening night, we went to a fireworks and light show and I was amazed at how many people came. So far, Avignon’s festival seems to have a general, popular appeal, rather than being branded as elitist or out of touch.
Journal Entry 5
Between classwork, the theater festival, and program excursions, I didn’t get much sleep this week! Since the festival sells tickets to students at affordable prices, my friends and I went to several performances. Our program also took us to a play in the courtyard of the Papal palace and to an opera in a Roman amphitheater. I didn’t understand much of the play, but it was fascinating to see medieval and Roman buildings still in use for modern day events.
Avignon’s festival has two parts, the “In” and the “Off.” The “In” is a more exclusive, state-sponsored festival. In my friends’ French economics course, they discussed some of the ramifications of having state-sponsored arts. This provides relative security for artists, such as actors and directors, and it lessens financial pressure on theater companies. Then, spectators don’t have to pay as much for tickets, and events such as plays and concerts are more affordable than they would be in the US. I was impressed by the accessibility of many cultural events in Avignon, such as 10-euro play tickets and free concerts during the Fête de la Musique. However, to some extent, this system also stifles diversity and innovation in theater, and I noticed many similar themes and styles were promoted in the “In” festival. I’ve talked to a few of my French acquaintances about the festival, and it’s interesting to see the differences between what I heard about the plays and what the media said about them. For example, almost everyone I talked to (French or American) didn’t like one of the plays we had seen, but it received positive reviews in Le Monde.
I was surprised, though, by the “Off” festival’s popularity and its casual atmosphere. The “Off” program includes about 900 different theater companies and is advertised as “the largest theater in the world.” It’s impossible to walk anywhere in Avignon without bumping into actors in costume, or people handing out flyers to advertise plays. Our program directors told us that we should hear peoples’ reactions to plays before going, though, because the quality varies a lot. The festival also has given me another opportunity to listen to French, and I’ve found that if I don’t understand parts of a play, it’s because of the content rather than the language. There was one play that I had trouble understanding, and most of my friends had the same impression.
This week we also celebrated Bastille Day, France’s national holiday. Unlike in the U.S., I didn’t see any street decorations, and there weren’t many people wearing “bleu, blanc, et rouge.” You actually wouldn’t know it was Bastille Day until the evening festivities started. After sunset, there were fireworks by the Pont d’Avignon, followed by music and dancing in some of the public squares. Unfortunately, I had a presentation at 8:30 the next morning, so I couldn’t stay out too late!
Journal Entry 6
I’m back in Chicago now, and although I’m glad to have air conditioning again, I miss the views along the Rhône River and the baguettes from my neighborhood bakery. It also feels strange to speak English again in some situations, and I miss being able to practice French.
The last week in Avignon was very busy and stressful, since I had to finish a paper, take an exam, and get ready to leave. The temperature also reached 95 degrees every day, and most of the buildings in Avignon aren’t air-conditioned. Since I’ve spent most of my life in Chicago and South Bend, I’m not used to heat like this, and it was difficult to concentrate and stay awake while working! I had to think of creative methods to stay cool, such as putting my shirts in the freezer before wearing them and putting a frozen water bottle in front of my fan to circulate cool air. I understand the need to conserve energy and save money, but during the hottest month of the summer, not having air conditioning in this climate just seems impractical and counter-productive to me. I understand why the French take long vacations in August…
I also found time for a few cultural activities during my last week. I saw a play by Victor Hugo at the “Off” festival, and my friends and I had dinner at a restaurant on the Rhône River. I had “gardianne de taureau,” a beef stew that’s a traditional dish in the region. It’s actually made from bulls that are raised in the Camargue, the area around Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer, and it’s served in a red wine sauce.
Although working in the 90-degree heat was frustrating, when it was time to leave, I was already starting to feel nostalgic. During our program’s farewell party, some students performed in a variety show, and I was especially impressed by skits from the undergraduates’ theater workshop. A few students in the workshop were often shy about speaking French, but for their skits, they gave energetic performances and mastered the pronunciation of their dialogue.
I didn’t sleep at all during my last 24 hours in Avignon, since I had to take an exam and hand in a paper, and I hadn’t started packing. My friends also suggested taking a tour boat ride down the river, and since it was our last day in Avignon, I couldn’t say no! By the time I finished packing and cleaning, I only had one hour before my taxi came at 5:30 a.m. Thankfully, the trip home went smoothly, with no strikes or delays. It was sad to leave Avignon, and I’m looking forward to sharing my experience with my professors and students back at Notre Dame.