Last winter, I traded Paresky honeybuns for French croissants and began a semester in Aix-en-Provence. Honestly, my biggest reason for studying abroad was to knock out four classes of the French major. I was tired of using this living language only for discussing authors who are long dead. Besides, my French homework was giving me nightmares – the classic complaint that literature is full of death, infidelity, gruesome illness and wholly superfluous misery. After a certain point, what you’re learning is not so much French language or culture as a litany of unhappiness. It was time to go. I told myself that real, modern France couldn’t possibly be that bad and slam-dunked my suitcase into the overhead compartment.
Approximately 2100 years ago, the Romans rolled into the south of France and uncreatively named Aix-en-Provence for the waters that flowed from its natural springs. Some of these springs still feed the historic fountains that squat mossily in courtyards around the city. Last semester, I knew all of those fountains’ names. The American University Center in Provence (AUCP) was poorly run and often treated its students with atrocious disrespect, but one thing it did well was give us the tools to make the most of the city. We were placed with French host families, assigned French language partners, required to choose a form of community service and instructed to somehow locate another extracurricular activity. Furthermore, we had to memorize the names and locations of many of the significant local features. The Fountain of Four Dolphins, the Passage Agard, Les Deux Garçons, the cathedral, Cézanne’s house.
I had never lived in a walkable area. My walk to school took 45 minutes. When I found the shortcuts, it took 40. When I figured out the bus system, it took 35. I had never lived in an area with public transportation. There was so much to learn before I even got to the classroom. I took buses, taxis, subways and trains alone for the first time and in my second language. I found the library (after taking the wrong street), found a book (after checking all of the wrong rooms) and checked it out (after asking all of the wrong staff members). I went to the immigration office half an hour away in Marseille and triumphantly handed over all of the right documents (on my second try). I went shopping by myself (for nearly the first time) when I needed a sweater – Aix’s winter was more wintry than I had expected. I memorized shortcuts for converting euros to dollars and Celsius to Fahrenheit. I ate in a real, sit-down restaurant alone for the first time.
That’s not to say that I was alone the whole time. I certainly wasn’t. I was with my host mother and her mother when I learned how to make oreillettes, a local pastry. My language partner told me about his favorite kebab place and hurried us there before the student rush at noon. I explored hills and farms and neighborhoods while running with a friend. Another AUCP student introduced me to the English-language bookstore and to the tearoom that held English-French conversation soirées on Tuesday nights. A group of girls from my program went to free weekly salsa lessons at the local university. My host mother took me and a friend to hike to the top of Mount Sainte-Victoire – that day, we learned that we should have dressed more warmly! Near the end of the program, I went on a date. And another. And another.
I learned almost nothing in class, but as soon as I could escape into town, I soaked up as much as I could from the French people I met. I often felt uncomfortable, worried that my clothes would mark me as a stupid American before I had the chance to set a better first impression, and so I felt that I had to speak up as soon as someone noticed me. The French also talk to strangers and near-strangers more than Americans seem to: They say hello to the bus driver and to shop attendants and form conversational relationships with the owners of their regular haunts. So I spoke to the Tunisian woman who ran my favorite secondhand store, and we became friends. I shared my umbrella on a rainy night with a young girl who was also waiting for a taxi. I shared pots of tea with the elderly woman I visited weekly for my community service. I asked café owners to recommend a good sandwich. I asked shop attendants for help finding things. I asked for directions. Thrilled that I could communicate in French and was curious about their city, the people I met in Aix were glad to help me learn. I encountered none of the material that had given me nightmares when I studied French through dry pages.
I don’t remember the last time in my life when I absorbed so many pieces of information and so much procedural knowledge in such a short time. It was immensely satisfying. Frustrating, too – especially that time when it took the entire day to check a book out from the library! Sometimes I did every possible wrong thing before figuring out the right thing. The classes I took gave me the four credits I needed for the major, but I certainly learned more than four credits’ worth of stuff. Spending a semester in Aix-en-Provence gave me back my faith in French and reminded me that there is always more to learn.
Meredith Sopher ’14 is a psychology and French double major from Rye, N.H. She lives in Morgan.