Name: Sheridan Rosner
Location of Study: France
Program of Study:
Sponsor(s): Bob Kill
Name: Sheridan Rosner
Name: Sheridan Rosner
Location of Study: France
Program of Study:
Sponsor(s): Bob Kill
In nine hours I will be en route to Marseille, that marvelous town in the south of France. Although often overlooked, Marseille has captivated me ever since I began studying French. It’s rich culturally without being snooty like another city a few hours north (ahem), and it makes no claims to being a beacon of French purism. But that’s what drew me to apply for this grant in the first place; I want to learn French not only how it is spoken among Parisians, but also how it weaves its way into the mouths and lives of other less standardized speakers.
This coming fall semester will mark my sixth year studying the French language, representing another reason I originally applied for this grant: unabashed frustration. You know you have hit a wall in your studies when the opportunity presents itself to converse spontaneously with a native speaker and you still break out in a sweat, even during a Notre Dame winter. Attempting mastery at a foreign language is near impossible without full immersion – I’ve tried, desperately. I know plenty of vocabulary, I have essentially mastered the grammar in writing, and I have developed a good accent. This leaves speaking and comprehension as the missing pieces.
This trip will make more uncomfortable in all the right ways. Over the few times I have traveled abroad before, I have always had American companions to lean on and banter with in English, but this time, I am utterly alone. The closest Notre Dame students on the SLA grant will be in Tours and Paris. I am more nervous than I had expected, even though I am not usually one to shrink away from adventure!
Mixed in with this anxiety is the certainty that my language skills will profit immensely. To think that in six weeks I will be able to speak in French without all the hemming and hawing makes me want so scream in excitement. To do this, I will be volunteering with events related to Marseille’s stature as Europe’s capital of culture for 2013. Along with daily language school and a homestay with a lovely artist whose Google search yields scores of funky sculptures, I think I am well on my way to speaking with ease. I’ll mess up a million times, but it will be worth it. France, allons-y. Let’s go.
I made it! Already I feel pretty accustomed to the way of life in Marseille. The very agreeable woman I am staying with has lived in Marseille practically her entire life and is a ‘femme marseillaise’ through and through. Her apartment is in a central part of the city, only a fifteen-minute walk from the Vieux Port, one of the most picturesque places here. Her living room boasts a wall full of books, and every other inch of space is dominated by her art. It’s strange, but it fits her.
Today marked my first day of classes at the French Alliance. I am level B1 (intermediate), and there are eleven other students in my class, all of whom are older than me, none of whom are American. My greatest weakness was exposed early on when we were discussing the environment: speaking and oral comprehension. I have a very good accent, but it takes me a long time to formulate sentences aloud. In fact, my accent is better than those of several other students, but they are all so accustomed to speaking that the words just fly out of their mouths, understandable or not.
This experience of immersion is incredibly humbling; to think that I considered myself ‘almost’ fluent! If I had to go home tomorrow, I would still feel this trip was worth it – that’s how much I’ve improved already. I can only imagine where I’ll be six weeks from now.
Tonight at dinner was a big stepping stone. Over mussels in an olive oil-cream sauce and fried eggplant, Nicole and I discussed our favorite films and books. We actually had quite a few common favorites! Despite the succulent mussels dominating my thoughts, I was able to lose myself in the conversation and manage to speak a few sentences without planning them beforehand in my head. That’s never happened before. Ever.
It’s hard to believe I’ve already been in Marseille for over a week. Every day I have classes from nine to one, but the afternoons are so varied that it’s hard to keep track. Several days ago I strolled down to the Vieux Port for lunch and some fresh air after classes and ended up wondering into a church called St. Ferreol. It was big and grandiose, not nearly as gorgeous as Notre-Dame de la Garde up on the hill, but humbling nevertheless. Inside the church I sat next to an older-looking man who struck up a conversation with me – we ended up talking in hushed voices for nearly an hour about everything from the Church’s modern presence in France to American presidents and their achievements to the best neighborhoods for people-watching in Marseille. Although I had to ask him frequently to repeat what he was saying, the named (Joseph) was very agreeable and clearly liked to talk. I’ve found many Marseillais to be just as loquacious, which can be tiring at times, but it has only affirmed my decision to study here – the more people talk the better!
The following evening I met an Algerian man named Saber on my long walk back from a museum visit (which ended up unfulfilled when I arrived just as the museum was closing). Although I am not confident that his intentions were entirely benign, we spoke for a long time about his origins and his reasons for coming to France, which was fascinating. He comes from the Kabylie region of Algeria, which identifies as coming from Berber decent rather than Arabic – he wasn’t Muslim, and he only knew rudimentary Arabic. Saber cited the expanded job opportunities available to him in France as his reason for coming here, which I have found to be a common motivation. Although conversations like these are indispensable for the growth of my French, I am always conscious of how careful I must be when interacting with strangers. This is Marseille, after all.
Today at school we took a test to determine our ‘niveau,’ or level, for the remaining weeks of the summer. I passed the test and am now officially at level B2! There is no way I would have been ready for B2 a week ago. It’s incredible what immersion truly does for one’s mind in this language-learning process – a cheery revolution for the French-speaking part of my brain.
July 5, 2013
The days are beginning to move more quickly, which means I’m busy, but it also means the time is flying by faster than I can digest. Today I left classes a bit early to help set up for a concert called Vives Voix (vibrant voices) featuring musicians exclusively from Marseille. The concert took place in the Quartier Nord, a neighborhood on the northern end of Marseille from which many news reports about Marseille’s concentrated, sometimes unsavory immigrant population stream.
I took the metro to the end of the line and walked in the blazing midday sun (what the Marseillais call en plein cagnard) for a few kilometers, only to find myself utterly lost on a sleepy street where old men in long white robes eyed me over their post-lunch, pre-siesta coffee. We both knew that I didn’t belong, but the more pressing matter came when I looked at my watch and realized I was already ten minutes late. As I continued speed-walking in what I was praying was the right direction, two benign-looking boys fell into step with me and offered to help find the park. Thankfully, they knew exactly where it was, and we shared a very pleasant conversation en route. When I asked them if they were French, one said yes, specifically Franco-Algerian. The other chimed in, “well, less French and more Marseillais, actually.” I laughed at the familiarity of this response. After all, the French nickname Marseille “Planet Mars” – if you ask any French person if they think Marseille truly represents France as a city, they would look at you, laugh, and firmly reply, “non.”
After thanking my walking companions upon finally arriving at the park, I found a promising set of stone steps and rushed up them. At the top was the semi-constructed stage of what I assumed was the concert I should have been helping with thirty minutes before—completely empty. I wandered around past the stage and happened upon a shady spot under the trees where all the volunteers were sitting, talking, and drinking coffee! Here I was feeling awful for running late and the real work had not even begun. The first thing they asked me when I arrived was not “where were you?!” but “have you had lunch yet dear?”
When we did get to work, we spent maybe twenty minutes unrolling carpets for people to picnic on during the concert. Afterwards, everyone found themselves sitting in the shade again, talking animatedly in Southern accents I could barely understand, yet with hearty recognition of my measly contributions to the conversation. I like Marseille.
July 3, 2013
This morning marked the first cultural excursion coordinated through the language school. On Wednesdays for the entire month, we visit a culturally significant place in the city as a class to fuel our discussions and writings in class for the rest of the week. The spot of interest today was le Panier, the oldest neighborhood in Marseille whose name means “the basket.” Since my class only has eight students, the professor broke us into groups of two in which we embarked on a “rallye découvert” to discover the neighborhood, armed with a detailed questionnaire and 50¢ espresso shots from the vending machine in the break room.
My partner for the excursion was a young man named Ahmad, a recently-graduated medical student from Kuwait who was learning French for his residency internship in Marseille. As we emerged from the metro station at the Vieux Port, the suddenly gloomy sky began emptying its bloated clouds. Ahmad and I glanced at each other and laughed with mutual sympathy—of course Marseille, the beacon of Provence, chooses to rain on the one day when we were sure to be out and about, sans umbrella! We set out for the Panier at a lively speed nonetheless, fueled by cheap coffee and a hunger for interaction with any passersby willing to share their impressions of the neighborhood. Among the points of interest we covered during the following few hours were the ancient town hall lining the Port, and the Hotel Dieu, a luxury hotel recently converted from a historical monument dating back to its time as a uniquely secular hospital under Napoleon III.
Even when we were pretty sure of our way from one monument to the next, we made a habit of asking for directions; every time, our interlocutor spoke profusely about the history of wherever we were going, and seemed genuinely pleased that we were interested in these places in the first place. We must have been quite a sight, two ragged-looking young people in soggy sandals, with damp, crumpled pages in our hands, stopping at every street corner to scribble down a new little fact. At one point toward the end of the scavenger hunt, we stopped on the curb, frustrated at our inability to find the last monument required of us. Aloud I wondered, “Où est la Place de Lenche?!” The man in the car beside us had his window down and must have heard, because he looked toward us and, without making eye contact, muttered the correct directions before speeding away. Even when the Marseillais decide to revert to their more aloof, more French side, they still find a way to be friendly.
After finally filling out the entire questionnaire, probably more so than was needed, Ahmad and I sat down at an empty café to a feast on sprawling smoked salmon salads and kir, a light aperitif of white wine mixed with currant juice. Because we took our time, we had to speed walk/jog to meet the rest of the class to review our findings. The rain had stopped, the sun returning to its rightful position, and our answers were correct. Job well done.
July 29, 2013
Marseille has not unveiled itself as a city as it has these past two weeks. Among the mornings of class and the afternoons of exploring the city and coast, I visited the MuCEM, the Musée des Civilisations Européennes et Meditérranéenes. Flanking the seaward entrance to the Vieux Port, it looks like a big, black, intricately fashioned wrought iron box resting majestically on the water. When I walked in, the breezy light streamed in through the holes in the metal design, illuminating the title work: a Miró entitled Bleu et Noir. The exhibition sought to show exactly that: the good and the bad, the blue and the black, the triumphs and shames of France’s foray into Mediterranean relations throughout the ages. When teaching history in its schools, France notoriously glorifies the former and tucks away the latter, but this museum bared all. Yes, Napoleon successfully carried on a tradition of contact between France and North Africa, but he massacred an Egyptian population along the way. This museum told the whole story. Although we students arrived as a group, we quickly scattered according to each’s pace through the exhibition. I emerged three hours later, enlightened but with aching eyes from reading all the fine print below every painting, photograph, and video. At the exit I ran into one of the students, a proud young Colombian named David. We walked back into the city together, discussing our favorite pieces and stopping at a bakery to buy navettes, a firm cookie shaped like a boat and flavored with orange flower water. We giggled as we walked out of the shop—both of us had begun eating before we could even wish the other “bon appétit,” spilling crumbs along the filthy streets back to school.
I write this as I sit back in Tempe, Arizona, wondering how I even let myself board the plane back home. In the end, I ended up spending most of my time with other foreigners—Spaniards, Latin Americans, Russians, and a lovely German au pair nanny; but I was speaking French more continuously and fluently than I ever have in my life. As amiable as the Anglophones were at my school, I avoided them with all the evil I could muster.
Five years ago as I was starting high school, I grew enraptured with the French language. I learned it, read it, and wrote it. I sort of spoke it. This summer, I really spoke French, and I fell in love with all over again. Learning a language is an exhausting process, but Marseille took me in, shocked me, fascinated me, and forged its way into my future, hopefully my career. I will return.