Remembering France: Reflecting on My Study Abroad Experience

-Vous parlez le Français?

-Oui, un peu. Mais doucement, s’il vous plaît!

As I sit here at 1:03 am, I think back to a much simpler time. A time before I was awake past midnight trying to prepare for a presentation and exam the next day. A time before I tested my limits to see how far my body could take me without proper care.

France, how I miss thee.

This past summer, June 2018, I was afforded the great opportunity to spend a semester abroad (summer session) in Caen, France through Agnes Scott. I was to spend almost one month at the Université de Caen in Normandy taking two classes: Battle of Normandy and a French language course, which appeal to both my major and minor. Being able to study French history in France was a luxury that most people are not able to have, so I had to take full advantage of the opportunity.

We took a placement test for the French language course, and I placed into B1+ using the CEFRL system (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages). This class was made for individuals who were on the borderline of B1 (intermediate) and B2 (upper intermediate). I feel that I progressed very well in this class, considering I had a healthy mix of subjects that I knew and some that I did not understand (my arch nemesis, subjunctive, being one of them). It was interesting learning French from native French speakers. In high school, I took International Baccalaureate French courses with a teacher who was from France, but having a class taught entirely in French is on a completely different playing field. At first, I was afraid of raising my hand and asking questions because I did not want to be seen as incompetent. The high school Leandra was coming out, and I felt like I was a beginner who stumbled into an advanced level French class. It was French 202 all over again… which is a good thing.

I was afraid to ask questions because no one else was asking; I assumed they weren’t asking because they understood the content. In actuality, however, they had the same fears that I did. The other students had questions, but they didn’t know how to ask them. After the first three days, when the teacher realized that we weren’t speaking, she encouraged us to raise our hands and try to synthesize what we could comprehend, and she would fill in the gaps- all in French. Things progressed smoothly after that. When I first entered the course, I feared that I would do terribly and fall behind, but I realized it was another challenge that I had to overcome. And I did. I passed the class with an A!

The second class was the Battle of Normandy. It was a hybrid class taught in English and French, marked by frequent museum visits; tours of battle sites on the beaches of Normandy; an interview and testimonial from a former soldier from World War 2; and trips to the American, German, and Canadian cemeteries of the Battle of Normandy. This class was impactful, and it brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion.

With those classes, excursions, and a constant stream of new information in my head, I did not have to pull consecutive all-nighters. I did not doubt myself after that initial phase of trepidation. I slept, ate, and enjoyed a simple life for a few weeks. I think France allowed me to embrace who I am at my core— an adaptable and enthusiastic person who gets thrilled at the opportunity for learning and research without constraint. I got things done and I found myself.

But we always have to get things done. We Go! Go! Go! But to where? The grave? We compete with others and ourselves. When we run out of external opponents, we sit at 2 in the morning, fighting with our bodies and minds to see how far we can push ourselves to finish assignments and meet deadlines until we pass out or walk away bruised. I have a three-week winter break that should give me time to unwind from the stress of the school year, but what will I do instead? I will try my hand at knitting, write and revise work that will never see the light of day, and devour every book in sight until it is time to return to campus.

As a contrast, in Caen, there was a large hill outside of remnants of a castle a little walk from the school where many members of the community gathered until sunset. There were youth playing music and practicing skateboard tricks, working men and women passing around bottles of wine and smoking cigarettes, and then there were us tourists basking in the calm and pleasant atmosphere. While I had a few unpleasant experiences marked by this hill, but as I am supposed to be creating a presentation and preparing for an exam tomorrow, all I can think about is how happy I was with two of my friends, having ice cream for breakfast and clear skin.

So yes, I sit here thinking about the much simpler time. But then I think about how I didn’t get the opportunity to challenge myself or push myself past what I think are my limits. As much as I miss France, I realize that there is a balance somewhere between here and there— perhaps it’s somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean or in between the healthy sleeping hours of 10 p.m. and midnight. Life is full of give and take, and France helped me realize that I’m not willing to give up my exhilarating late night research quests for an idyllic seat on a hill (barring vacation, of course).

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