Hello everyone! I’ve now been living in Aix-en-Provence, France for a week, and I thought it was about time to bring you up to date on what I’ve been up to and what I’ve learned so far.
So just to get it out of the way, since I know everyone has the same burning question: yes, the French really do eat as much bread as you’ve probably heard. Baguettes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Sometimes dessert.
But in all seriousness, this funny stereotype is actually quite indicative of my mindset in this first week: I’ve found myself spending a lot of time either confirming or debunking expectations that I had coming into this experience. I’ve known for a long time (nearly a decade) that I wanted to live or study in France some day, and in all that time, I’ve picked up a lot of ideas about what it would be like here—I had preconceived notions about the people, the food, the atmosphere, the climate, and even what kind of person I would become in France. But in my first few days here, I’m starting to realize that it’s impossible to fully understand a culture from the outside. So I’m diving in!
Besides the bread (which is both excellent and ubiquitous here), some of my other ideas about France have actually proved to be true. French fashion is impeccable (and les soldes, the giant sales at clothing stores in January, have proved to be incredible), the charming and winding streets of Aix-en-Provence are straight out of a quirky French film, and the sun shines nearly all the time in southern France. Trendy clothing shops and adorable restaurants and cafes dot every street, the wine (especially the rosé) is phenomenal and cheap, and the local residents I’ve met are very kind and fiercely proud of their culture. And the crepes are wonderful.
There have been surprises, too. Even in the south of France, a strong wind called le mistral keeps residents in wool coats and scarves throughout January despite the sunshine. Another startling surprise was the realization that the French don’t drink coffee the same way as Americans; instead of a coffee pot in the kitchen, you’ll find an espresso machine that pops out espresso shots (with a little foam, if you’re lucky), and there’s certainly not a Starbucks on the way to class—although our university building does have an espresso vending machine that shoots out little tiny plastic cups of espresso in varying flavors and varieties.
Some other surprises have been more personal. For example, one adjustment for me has been the shift from living in an apartment with six of my best friends to living in a household with people I don’t know well (yet). In my apartment in Madison, I come and go as I please, leave my room and dishes a mess (sometimes…sorry roommates), and feel totally at ease. In my new home, I have to respect household rules, uphold certain responsibilities, and socialize with my new family, all while trying to speak a different language. Although it’s definitely different from what I’m used to, I can already tell there’s something special and sweet about the unique experience of being fully embedded in the culture of my new country in this way.
Another surprise so far has been language related. Before leaving for my semester in France, the potential language barrier had barely been on my radar. I’ve studied French in school since sixth grade, and I’m halfway done with a French major at UW-Madison, so it hadn’t really crossed my mind that I would have trouble communicating or succeeding in my classes while in France. However, probably the most challenging aspect of my experience so far has been communicating at a comfortable level with local residents and my host family. Although I’m well-equipped with a vocabulary for analyzing medieval French literature, I have almost no vocabulary for talking casually or maintaining conversation with fluent, native speakers. And perhaps the most difficult part has been comprehension; I’ve actually never had a native speaker as a French teacher, so even when I do know the words being spoken, the speed and pronunciation of the French here has really thrown me off.
But there’s a bright side to all of this, of course: I’m here to learn French! That’s actually the whole point of this semester! And I can’t think of a better way to do than that being immersed in it from sun up to sun down. In just a week’s time, I’ve already noticed my comprehension improving with my host family, and I’ve gained a lot of vocabulary. I’ve probably gained a couple of kilos as well, what with my incessant craving for Crepes-a-Go-Go, but ah, c’est la vie.
Here are some photos from my first week in Aix!