What stereotypes did you have about your study abroad destination? Were those confirmed or negated?
My study abroad destination was Aix-en-Provence, France. It is located at the mouth of the Rhone Valley in Southern France and about 35 minutes north of Marseille. My only thoughts and impressions of prior to studying in Aix were based solely on a brief stop-over we had there in the spring of 2011 with my high school.
We stopped at the end of the Cours Mirabeau or Rotonde, (as is commonly referred to), and then proceeded to walk up and down that famous thoroughfare. I was struck by the gracefulness of the street and the style and beauty of the inhabitants walking along it. When I returned four years later, nothing much had changed.
I had heard before getting to Aix that it was expensive, it was. I had also heard that the people there were uptight and “bourgeois”, and this was not true. I met some incredibly friendly and incredibly humble people in Aix, and I was taken aback by their generosity and “joie de vivre”. (The reason I was taken aback was that I had been expecting to encounter more of a negative and unreactive people.)
Some folk in Aix fit the stereotypes perpetuated about them in the United States: cold and distant, but I found the number of warm and friendly people outnumbered their frigid counterparts. And nowhere did I see a man or woman wearing a beret or holding garlic bulbs.
Did traveling/studying abroad make you think any differently about your identity or your place in the world? What did you learn about yourself?
The answer is yes. I finally managed to cut loose a bit and to have a good time. Until I went abroad I think most people would have said that I was an uptight fellow and a rule-follower. I rarely went out, and hardly ever did a drink pass my lips.
Travelling abroad pushed me to reinvent myself and to discover new ways of interacting with people, and in doing so I finally managed to get really comfortable with myself. I learned that there is more to life than studying and following the rules. I learned that already too many wonderful experiences had passed me by because I was too afraid or wracked by Christian guilt to take ahold of them.
I learned what it means to be in a relationship with another person and how much it can hurt when that relationship ends. There were quite a few firsts during my stay in France, and not a single one had to do with school. I fully appreciate how we humans are social creatures and how important the social aspect is to our lives.
When it comes to my place in the world… I cannot answer and I will not presume to even think that I will ever be able to answer that question. I am going to keep on living and trying not to worry about my place in the world. I want to be present and live in the moment and not worry about how I will be viewed, but rather how I am viewed.
What do you miss/think you’ll miss most from abroad?
What I miss most already from being abroad are the friends I made, both American and French. When I left France, I was at that point where friends had just become good friends and I was completely comfortable around them and them around me. I had to leave them all and that is what has upset me and will continue to upset me probable for the rest of the summer and into the next school year.
The reason being is that I will be on campus this summer and will not have many people my age to pal around with and go out with, and because all of my really good friends graduated this year, so I will not have them when the school year resumes in the fall.
There is also the matter of the lack of a night life in Farmville. In France I lived about fifteen minutes from Bar Street and I would frequently go out with my friends to get drinks and go dancing.
Oh well, c’est la vie, but I have decided not to dwell. France was France, and Farmville is Farmville and if I try to compare the two, all that will result are sad feelings on my part. Frankly, just sitting here and writing about all the things I will miss is putting me down a bit.
I think most of the world would agree that France is a gastronome’s heaven and from personal experience now I will concur with this widely-held opinion. I will miss the markets of Aix, filled with fresh, local produce replete with vitamins and taste! Yesterday, in a quick sojourn to Walmart for badly needed necessities… I happened to stop in the produce section… I was saddened by the sight of the limp spinach and sorry carrots which filled the shelves of probably one of the smallest departments in the store, and shocked at the prices. For the same amount of money I could have purchased at the market in Aix beautiful, fresher and far more delicious produce.
There are most likely things that will only occur to me after I finish this entry, but lastly I will miss the French person’s mentality on life. They actually take the time to enjoy their lives. They are not nearly as rushed or stressed out, or anxious as their American counterparts seem to be. It is a lifestyle that I have gotten used to living, and I only hope that I can keep up the lifestyle now that I am back in the United States.
What’s your general advice for students preparing to go abroad? How about for students going on your study abroad program?
My general advice to students getting ready to go abroad is to save as much money as possible before you leave. You will save a considerable amount and you will think that “this is surely enough”, but it will not be. It is terribly expensive to study abroad and having financial worries will negatively affect your experience. [Editor’s note: How much you will want to spend varies greatly upon the program’s location and your own interests — something to discuss with the Director of Global Education and Study Abroad as you select your program.]
My next piece of advice is be careful of the people you will meet who will be studying with the same program as you. Frequently we become used to certain types of individuals because that is what we are used to at our home institutions, but study abroad programs are a melting pot of people. I had students from at least twenty-five different states and who knows how many different universities and it is impossible to know every single place. My advice is be careful whom you trust and get to know.
For the students going on my program, IAU, my advice is to make friends with French people. The program is filled with Americans and as anybody is wont to do, we tend to speak English together. So if you want to really practice and develop your French speaking skills you really have to get out and push yourselves into French circles. Join a rugby or soccer team, go dancing and meet folk that way, join the social clubs that pair up students… there are a lot of ways to get out there and I highly encourage each one. Otherwise you will have spent one third of a year and will have nothing to show for it except colorful memories narrated by American voices.
What’s the best thing about being home? What’s the hardest?
The best thing about being home is that I am once again with the people whom I love and that I will be spending the entire summer with them. Furthermore, I will be spending the summer in such a relaxed and unchanging place as Farmville. I find that I am under little stress here because there is not all that much actually going on to make me uncomfortable. All of my days are ordered and planned out and that can be comforting.
This regularity, if not monotony, is what makes being back home the hardest. The life I lived in France was so spontaneous, so colorful and crazy in some ways that it seems as if it could have been a dream. I have been back for a week and so little has changed and I am living my life exactly how I did before I left that if I wanted do pretend… I could pretend that I never left the United States. But I did leave, and I have changed.
What makes it so hard is that I am no longer the same person who boarded a plane at the beginning of January. Things have changed dramatically for me, views have shifted, opinions altered and I am finding it hard to step neatly back into the frame I was used to living in before I left. If I were the same person, it would be easy to quietly pick up the life I had led just prior to studying abroad.
I am sure it is just a matter of adjustment, but all the same, I will miss the night life and the constant chatter of my friends and the hustle and bustle of a culture interested in good food and good conversation.