Thirteen weeks, three apartments, and ninety-one shots of espresso brought me to my last weekend in France. I left Paris city limits and spent the weekend in the countryside, where I slept in-cabin, biked through cornfields, and breathed forest air. Inhale.
My French acquisition through SLA was a blessing and a challenge. Though my coursework was interesting, I found that it was too “read and discuss” based. I realized that I learn languages best through grammar rules and militant drills. My reading and writing improved a little, but it was my speaking that made the most progress.
While I learned some French within classroom walls, it was the community engagement that was truly effective, inspiring, and satisfying. Each Thursday I went to a “Franglish” MeetUp group in the heart of Paris. I met wonderful people who were curious about American culture and eager to help me with French. It was there that I made my closest friends–friends who showed me the parks, theatre, swimming pools, rock climbing gyms, and outdoor markets. I have fallen in love with the language, the city, and the people, and have every intention on returning.
I am applying for a Fulbright Study/Research grant at Center for Research in Economics and Statistics in Palaiseau, France where I will model ethnic clustering in French communities. Following the Fulbright, I aspire to be a data analyst in a non-profit organization that evaluates socioeconomic policy. I hope to solve socioeconomic problems with data driven solutions, and promote understanding across languages and cultures. Exhale.
Most people like politics more than I do, but I was still pleasantly surprised when Barney, we’ll call him Barney, asked me
Veux-tu venir au défilé comme un guest de Macron?
Yes! Of course, yes. I accepted without hesitation. You didn’t have to like politics to attend the 14th July military parade. Barney boasted the paramount and exclusivity of the event. I liked Barney and I liked French. I was sold.
That sunny and crisp Friday morning, I woke up at 6 am and dressed in my “casual but not too casual” best. I was forewarned to arrive early, and to expect a classy event populated by The Important, The Posh, and The Official French Government Ambassadors. Barney hadn’t a single stain on his white collar, and Goodness forbid if I allowed one on mine.
The parade was indeed crowded, but filled with as many non-government workers as government. We watched soldiers, tanks, and airplanes crusade by. Barney embodied the French political spirit, and gushed over the “beautiful” soldiers. At the end of the afternoon, we waited hours so that Barney could shake the hand of Macron.
Though I enjoyed the parade and the sunny weather, I realized
that I did not share the love of politics nor self-importance. I was no guest of Macron, but just another civilian; I should have figured. Additionally, it was difficult to practice French with French Ambassadors–English game too strong! Optimistically, I am wearing an entirely French-made outfit.
One month has passed since returning to the United States from Tours, France, enough time to consider my study abroad experience and pass along advice to future applicants who might stumble upon this page.
My first suggestion is this. It’s important to have your language skills as sharp as possible before you study a language abroad, both in terms of general advancement and in terms of freshness of mind. The Center for the Study of Languages and Cultures is right to demand that students possess language skills of a certain level in order to be eligible for the reward, because you need a certain language capacity before beginning to reap the particular benefits of studying abroad.
At the Institute of Touraine, where I studied, there were many complete or almost complete beginners who were having a miserable time of it. That shouldn’t happen with a study abroad experience. You should be uncomfortabe, even exhausted after each day of communicating in your foreign language, but you should also enjoy the difficulty because it is the good kind of difficulty, the type where you know you’re working on something challenging but which will bring its own satisfaction in the end. You can’t work through the tough times when it’s all frustration and no glimmer of future satisfaction.
In certain cases, as with languages not offered at Notre Dame, this requirement can’t be met. But even then, I believe it important for students to have some familiarity with the language before studying abroad. You’ll get the most out of every experience in your chosen country.
In terms of practical considerations, it really is necessary to research your language school beforehand and to understand their specific manner of teaching the languge. The Institute of Touraine has a longstanding reputation, and many Notre Dame students have studied there in the past. Still, I should have researched a handful of things more deeply before committing to Tours, including the number of national holidays that would coincide with my time in France (not the institute’s fault, of course). I lost about three or four class days due to the French refusal to work more than is absolutely required. I wish that I would have familiarized myself with the specifics of the afternoon activities offered by the institute, however, because they cost a pretty penny and were not very helpful.
In the end, much of your experience will be a result of the luck of the draw. I was moderately happy with the languge instructors my first month in Tours. I learned at a steady pace that month, but at the time I was disappointed that I was not progressing faster. That changed quickly once I moved to the next month’s session and gained new professors. These two professors were among the best language instructors I’ve ever had. The students in this course were also exceptional. There were fewer Americans, and they were more serious about learning the language instead of sightseeing (there may be a connection between the two clauses of my sentence).
I believe I learned more in the two weeks I spent in that second class than in the entire month I spent with the first class. Some of this can be attributed to having been “warmed-up” to speak and think in French that first month, but more, I believe, had to do with the specific elements of that second classroom. I wish I could have stayed another month with those professors and students.
In closing, I’d like to explain that the images between the paragraphs in this post were taken on a trip I made to an island near the Côte d’Azur in Southern France, where a very good friend lives (il est français), after my studies in Tours were completed. I would also like to thank the donors for making this experience possible. My French is better than it’s ever been, and, most importantly, I now know exactly how far I have to go. I think that I can get there, too.
As I write my last blog post, I have a befitting topic to explore, thanks to my host mom’s fiery debates at the dinner table. I have learned significantly a lot about the French perspective for the rest of the world (honestly, it is mostly America). The president of the United States, Donal Trump did not help by suddenly withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement. I had to wake up one day and be greeted with this story in the headlines. I am not American, but being a student in America, I empathized with the citizens of America on how they felt about the president’s decision. My host mother, in her usual critiquing voice, said: “Americans do not like progress.” I know this was not true, but I wondered why the comment would not have shocked her at all. I could not come up with an answer. However, I paid a closer attention to the French’s portray of the world, and in my opinion, this is how it works…
The french society celebrates their heroes, meaning that they celebrate their french identity more systematically and consistently than other countries. A case in point is the french astronaut who returned back to earth after a 196-day long mission in outer space. His name is Thomas Pesquet and he was on every news channel, radio station, a game show for about a week. The french’s local election session also showed me that the country believes in the strength of a face-to-face interaction, seen by how politicians were zooming the streets and talking to everyone they could. The election process was fairly covered in the media, with no name shaming and the likes you would see on the American political scene. I will leave this there.
France has been a beautiful home for me, and now as I am about to leave, I am not leaving the French exposure, lessons, relations I have been able to forge. I am certain that I will be back to this country sometime soon.
I am now one-leg in two the final chapter of my French visit. A physical and mental exhaustion is kicking in now. There are times I feel that I need a break from the confinements of being French tongue-tied. The weather has been dominantly warm over the last couple of weeks since my arrival. Yet, there was this one night when I slept on top of my white sheets, window fully flung open and the fan buzzing the propellors at the max, a cold front seized upon us and I caught a cold by the next morning. My host mom did not have any cold medicine, she advised me to look for a pharmacy in town on my way to school. Unlike back home where pharmacies sell groceries and Grocers sell basic medication, in my city, there was no such fluidity. The pharmacies were not only hard to locate, they were also closed when I got there. This is when the lesson I had had on “French business affairs” kicked in; the business hours in France, particularly in my city, differ from those in the US. I was growing to be impatient because my cold seemed to be having the better part of me with time. I need some medicine, I needed some familiarity. I think I paved way for all the nostalgia I had been keeping away to come into my heart. I desperately missed my family and friends. I knew this moment would come, sooner or later. When it did, that prior expectation of its coming did not make the feelings less direct.
I was becoming overwhelmed with the cultural shock of Tours.
Luckily, I think my host mom sensed that I needed to be saved from sinking in the boat of nostalgia and she kicked n with her sweet gestures to remind me of why I need to keep my head up and enjoy France. She told about the other students she had hosted for the longest time had gone through similar phases. She continues to wave for me when I left the morning for school, she would routinely ask me about my day at school. She told me about her vacations to Japan and how she yearns to travel more but her age makes it hard for her to go through a lengthy plane right. I feel much better now because I found a pharmacy that had the right medicine, eventually. I explained to the pharmacist in French about my condition and was impressed my with my fluency, although it was clear I was not a French native.
At this stage of my trip, I have mixed feeling about departing France in just over a week’s time. I will miss my host mom, her dog Chippie, the dinners watching popular local game shows on TF1 and my calming jogs at nights around the community park. But I will not enjoy missing the train from school and having to walk home for 2 hours!
I am almost hitting the halfway mark of my study abroad season. At home, I look forward to coming back to my host mom, hearty and mouth-watering three-course meal. At school, I have exhausted the “new guy” jacket, now I am growing a comfort of certainty of how my days are going. Little did I know that things were about to change, to get a fresh injection of foreignness when I visited two of the Chateaux closest to my city, “Château de Villandry et Château de Langeais”. The picturesque scenery stimulated my sense of appreciation in a way I’m sure will only come one or two more times in my lifetime. I was impressed by the well cultivated green fields in rectangular and square-like maze structures. When I shared with a few of my family back home, their responses totally agree with mine; the pictures look like pictures from the movies we watch on tv back home, knowing very well that they are from a far away land that we are more likely never to see with our own two eyes. I had a to squeeze in a “selfie” with a castle in the background because I anticipated without hard evidence that I took the photo, so many people were not going to buy the idea that I indeed visit these places, that I did not download them off the internet.
I loved to learn that these used to be residences of rich families in the past, and that tradition is in a way being preserved with these castles being bought by high-profile people. Previously, I was under the impression that something from the medieval era would lose value as time went on. It turns out, at least for architecture, the opposite is quite true. The worth of these chateaux will exponentially increase as we move into the future. I was impressed by the unique vineyards, green tennis courts and yards, the gray and red brick of the walls, the colorful flowers in the gardens. The sunny weather of the day appeared to want us to have the best view possible of these great castles.
I would like to take a moment to write about the marrow of my trip – studying in France.
My school has antique buildings that were built in the 1840s. Some are even older, and what truly fascinates me the most are the window styles; I do not have a special interest in architecture at all, but there is something gorgeous about these windows that inspires me. They are beautiful and well curved out. When I am having my brief breaks between my classes, I make sure I glance at the windows to remind me of the beauty of my school. But what happens when I am not looking at the windows when I am actually in class?
There is newness that greets me each time I sit in my french classes. There are a few features that are obviously contributing to this feeling. For instance, I have never had back-to-back French classes running from 9 am till about 4.30 pm daily and I did not know the other 15 students who were assigned to this particular class. These are new experiences, but they are not necessarily “French” in any way. What hit me as authentically an ingrained feature of the French education system is the general difficulty of the content, so much so that it is considered an impressive score to miss anything above half of the total points. I could tell from the reactions of the other American students in the class that I was not the only one who felt the foreignness of this new adjustment to the grading standards. From this experience, lelearnedthat there is a lot of diversity in the world, even when it comes to certain shared experiences like education.
I have two instructors, both of them are female and they compliment each other on a lot of traits. One of them is the older, I guess in her late forties; she is always smiling and very patient. She tells us a lot about France and the French culture through the lenses of her experiences and those of her family. When the class was taken aback by the low scores after our first oral exam, about 4 out of 8 on average she talked about how her son would be very happy with that performance if it was in his French Baccalaureate syllabus.The other teacher – the younger one in her early thirties, has a youthful vibe she demonstrates when giving edgy examples and illustrations in class. She loves to travel, she has told us, and one ting that has struck me the most about her is that she will ask about our own stories, listen with a golden ear. My french improves when I get the chance to talk about myself; however, there is also a something transformational about this personal exercise. It makes me own my identity and reflect on them a little more.
School in France is different from school in the United States. Here students study on the train ride to school, there is a lot of celebrated renowned figures included in the chapters of our coursework. For the first time, I learnt about Yannick Noah and how he was maximized his “most favorite person” status in France to achieve success that transcends the tennis court. He began singing reggae and set up a flourishing foundation. I have asked myself why I handout heard of Yannick or his work before. Part of the answer, I think, is that the Anglophone and Francophone worlds are divided, and without curiosity to look into the other, tremendous learning opportunities are lost.
Oh, I must mention, I was chosen to be my class captain, responsible for representing the students’s needs/complaints to the school’ administration.
At my school, Institut de Touraine, I am one of the few students who reside far away from campus, so much so that I have to get a month’s Student Pass with FilBleu for commuting every day on the city’s tram network. The curvy-edged, metallic-silver machine that slid smoothly across the city’s green lawns is one of the reasons I am having no problems with staying far from school! I am impressed with the technology that has been invested in this vehicle; the automated door system, the precise time of arrival of each scheduled train and the barricaded yet transparent driver area with cockpit-like equipment. If anything, this is a sign of how advanced the French public system is. As an ambitious young pan-African scholar, experiencing such exemplary standards for the greater good of the public is truly an eye-opener and an inspiring testimony I hope to contribute in bringing to my own continent. I could not resist the edge to pull out my phone and record a ride’s length of video footage for my own archives. For those who will wonder why I was impressed with the train system in my host city beyond expected levels, my response is that the train is a microcosm reflection of the sustained, broad-based development that European powerhouses like France have enjoyed for long, the Middle-east and Asian Tigers have started to start and the African and South Americans can only dream for at present. I am reminded of my duty to learn of this trip as much as my brain can take to begin gathering the pieces for the surmountable task I have ahead to contribute to the betterment of Africa. However, my image of France has not been all glittering gold….
In my first blog, I mentioned my experience with the London security officer in light of the wave of terrorist threats that is spreading in Europe. While I am equally condemning the behavior of the culprits and praising of the nations’ security protocol, it is quite saddening to know that the terror situation in Europe stirs a lot of media and global attention when worse cases of a similar nature plaguing Africa and other parts of the developing world do not generate anything close. A good befitting example is the recent suicide bombings in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a l that killed 49 people and injured 78 more; I do not see a lot of people around me talking about that. The detrimental effect, I fear, is that it will let some evil go unnoticed, resulting in a global imbalance of accountability and the fading of windows to address the root causes of these shared challenges. What makes this realization forceful on this trip is that it is helping me to see the rich diversity of the French community. I have seen how the diversity of this country is one of its most beautiful traits about it, and my confidence is boosted seeing the love that the people from all walks of life have for the human quest for happiness. I am impressed by the young Tunisian and Lebanese gentlemen at the WazWox restaurant and local kabab respectively who have exchanged with me their life stories. I am surprised with how they are well educated in technical fields yet work in the fast-food industry; a faint indication of the few job opportunities in the country and a vivid shared human experience that, like many other people, their life is not `always predictable. Personally, the striking conversations I have had so far with strangers like these men is how I can judge how my French is improving. There has been an incident when a local commented how good my french is, even my accent! The feeling of bliss on my face was clearly obvious at this unsolicited compliment.
So here I sign off this blog from the land of millions of cigarets stubs on the pavements, of late evening nights that are more pulsating than their preceding ones, of reggae-inspired happiness and the stylish norm of men who carry stringed purses across their shoulders.
When I pushed my green-cover passport across the glass counter of the immigration officer at London St. Pancras International Station, I was panting heavily with sweat soaking the back of my shirt and trickling down my legs. I had two balloon suitcases flanking me and a gigantic black acoustic guitar dragging along behind me. A week prior when I left Notre Dame, no one would have guessed that the security protocols at London St. Pancras International Station would double, if not tripled, due to the raised level of terrorist threats from “severe” to “critical” by the British Prime Minister. Now here I was departing for Paris’ Montparnasse station from London; it was only four days since the security protocol had been instigated. When the immigration officer took an unusual interest in the details of my trip, asking me to provide some proof of my accommodation and return ticket, in addition to the study visa, it hit me hard that I was not the usual visitor France receives on an average basis. I hold a passport from a small southern African country with a struggling economy and no historical or linguistic ties to France. I could see in the eyes of the immigration officer as he serves me that, he desperately wanted to ask me this question if he could: “What on earth was my business in France?”
This was a familiar question I had asked myself at the initial stages of applying for the SLA grant. However, there is something about the awe of that moment I was about to enter France via train that made me tremble at this question. My train ride was too short to allow me to reach a satisfying conclusion to the question. It is a question that still bothers me today, and I am not any closer to an adequate answer. It is looking like so far on my trip I am coming up with more questions than answers… Who is a French citizen, in reality? How has the society been shaped? How different is it from the ones I have been exposed to? When I go back to the initial goals I set before my departure, I realize that I was gettingabundant opportunities to learn the lessons I sought out to get.
As a first-time visitor in a beautiful country rich with life that is more foreign than similar to my own, I was more observant than usually as soon as my feet touched the French soil. One of the first impressions I registered was the racial (and when possible, national) representation in the spaces I was entering. It was interesting to pick that I had seen most people of African origin at the train stations in Paris and Tours, my ultimate destination. There were more descendants of Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Niger in Paris at Gare de Montparnasse, and the numbers began to dwindle as I moved away into my host community. Additionally, I noticed that there were a significant number of people of Arabic origin, and when I had the chance to spark a conversation with some of them, I learned that they came from countries like Lebanon, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria. As minor of a detail this may be to someone else, it was essential to me because I was witnessing firsthand the continuing effects of the colonial residue of the French’s occupation of most of West and North Africa. There is something irreplaceable about the mesh of race and class I am experiencing on this trip, and as one of my goals is to understand better the French culture and the world it extends to beyond the country’ s borders, I feel I am on the right track!
For now, I will safely say my business in France is proving more fruitful than I had anticipated.
I set my goals high, and I’m not sure I met them. I have yet to take the language placement test to see if I can take Advanced French this semester. I can certainly read, write, and speak better. I solidified the French I’ve learned thus far to the point that vocabulary tends to be the only reading obstacle, and I can discuss films and literature at a higher level than before. The disparity between my initial goals and where I’m at lies in a lack of fluidity. I don’t speak, read, or write as fast as I’d like to. Luckily, that’s the sort of thing that just takes practice.
I learned more than language, and more than culture. French culture differs from American, but not enough to make the country feel alien. I adjusted fairly quickly to the pace of life and to the cultural expectation that everyone should be able to contribute to conversation. More consequentially, I internalized my national identity and felt more globally aware to a surprising degree. To international students, I represented both myself and the US. Rather than the futility I sometimes feel at being only one person in a world with endless complications, my actions seemed important. My sense of responsibility to the world was revitalized. Earning the grant in the first place was an accomplishment in my eyes, but the sense of confidence that traveling abroad affords was a still larger reward.
This experience acts as an excellent springboard. I will continue to study French this semester and of course during my Spring semester in Paris, so the immediate future of my French studies is secured and promising. The possibility of living in a francophone country grows more likely. Ideally, I’ll work as a traveling writer of some kind. With the continued study of French and the passion it inspires to learn about other cultures and languages, I set myself up to be more valuable in that field. My family just moved to Germany, meaning I’ll see a lot of Europe over the next few years. Learning French, picking up some basic German, I’ll nourish what this experience kindled in me.