When getting ready to leave for France one month ago, I was pretty nervous. Part of me knew it was silly. If I survived a year in Germany without any knowledge of the language and culture, surely I could get by in France since I already spoke some French. I had been to Paris before, I had seen what the French were like, but I was still nervous.
Until one week before I left, I did not know where I would be living for the semester. Then when I did find out, I was only given a last name, a telephone number, and an address, which was impossible to locate on Google Maps. That information did little to ease my nerves.
The six hours sitting on the train from Frankfurt to Aix-en-Provence were probably some of the most anxious hours of my life. I was incredibly excited to get to France and start meeting people, eating delicious food, and speaking my favorite language, but I was also so nervous because I had no idea what to expect when I stepped off the train.
After lugging my suitcase down the steps of the train and slowly making my way towards the exit, I finally saw a smiling woman holding a sign with my name on it. When I approached her, she gave me a big hug and exclaimed, “‘Ello! I am your French mother!” She was very friendly and immediately welcoming. It was partly through the ride home when I realized that I still did not even know her first name and had to awkwardly ask!
Overall, I am very pleased with my living arrangements here. The family is very, very nice, but I was surprised by how American they are in many ways. In talking to other students at school about their host families, Patricia is much more open and laid back than others. She is always buzzing from activity to activity and savors her treasured “5 minutes de repose” every night before running off to the next activity. She cooks very well, and I am never disappointed when dinner is served. She always puts the pots of food on the table and tells us all to serve ourselves as much as we want. Typical French are much more reserved- some other students’ hosts dish out the food at the counter and then carry it to the table before everyone is seated. The students can’t serve themselves or really ask for seconds. We’re also allowed to keep food for lunch in the fridge, but other students aren’t supposed to touch their family’s fridge at all.
My only complaint about the food in France is that dinner is served at 9pm! It has been quite an adjustment for me and Jenna who are used to eating closer to 6. We’re trying to train ourselves to wait, but sometimes, like this evening for example, I’m starving when I get home from school and end up snacking a ton so that I can last until dinnertime. I’m back to eating meat again here, but I honestly don’t mind too much. All the meat here is really tasty and is prepared well, and France is more careful about how they raise their livestock, so I feel like it’s much healthier than the meat we eat in the States.
I also jetted off to France with relatively little knowledge about the school I would be attending. I knew that it was an American university, that I would have a mix of courses in English and French, and the names of the course I was enrolled in. Again, that was about the extent of it. I am the first person ever from the University of Florida to go to this program, so I couldn’t ask any professors or former students questions about life here.
Overall I am quite pleased with my choice of program. My courses are challenging without monopolizing all of my time in the evening and on weekends. Teachers so far aren’t assigning too much work since they realize everyone wants to travel as much as possible. I like my two classes in English- comparative education and politics of the EU. I start teaching in a French elementary school this week! I am excited and nervous since I’ve never taught kids before, but I am very curious to see what French schools are really like since I’ve been hearing such mixed reviews about them. My phonetics course is difficult, and transcribing French into International Phonetic Alphabet is rather tiresome, but I can tell my French is improving. I’m starting to hear the difference between various nasal sounds better, but it’s still a challenge. For one French course, we’re going on small excursions throughout the semester to the market, city hall, and a calisson factory. (Calisson are a traditional Aixoise candy made from almond paste, candied melon, and royal icing.)
I guess my only complaint is that I envisioned being more immersed in French. Whenever I am talking with the family or out in town, of course I have to speak French and I can slowly feel myself improving. I am, however, slightly disappointed by the amount of French spoken at school. There are many students here in introductory French classes, so in the hallways and after class, everyone immediately reverts back to speaking in English. Maybe it was slightly naive of me to think that everyone here would be completely dedicated to speaking French 24/7, I do understand how easy it just to speak in English instead. Jenna and I are starting a new rule- only in our bedroom are we allowed to speak English, but it is very easy to slip up and start speaking English. I feel sometimes I’m stuck in a little English bubble here, but I know that I need to make some changes to improve that. I’m going to force myself to abide by our new rule, try to initiate more conversations with the family, and try to meet more French people so I can immerse myself better in the language. Tomorrow night there is a get-together to help American and French students meet each other and find conversation partners, so hopefully something good will come out of that!
(According to mom, my English needs some work! The other night she told me that my posts crack her up because of all the misspellings, grammar mistakes, and awkward wording that keep popping up. For example, the other day I typed dam as damn, oops. I apologize. Having too many languages swirling in my head makes even speaking English difficult sometimes.)
Overall, my expectations of the town have been met. I already love Aix. It’s very quaint and quiet. The weather has been perfect almost everyday that I’ve been here. Warm and sunny but not overwhelming hot. It’s small enough that I can walk everywhere, and I already feel very familiar with the roads enough to leave my map at home. Even though it’s small, there is still plenty of stuff to do- from museums to visit, restaurants and bars to try, to classes and clubs to join. Next week a bunch of us students are going to a wine and cheese class to learn about types of wine and learn how to pair them with foods. I am so excited! I will have my notebook and camera ready! The week after that for Jenna’s birthday, we’re going to the opera house to listen to a symphony, and Alex has promised to take us to the famous club one night. This weekend, the school has arranged another outing for all the students to the Luberon.
It’s hard to believe one month has gone by already! I feel like I just got here, but time is quickly marching on! Only 2 and 1/2 months before my semester is over. Yikes! Then it’s one last semester of school then time to join the real world. Double Yikes! I plan on making the most of my time here in France!