Stacey L. from Texas Tech provides insight into her journey abroad studying in Grenoble, France. Stacey was homeschooled through high school and began looking into study abroad programs in her freshman year. In the following reflections on her experience, she shares a bit of her journey from home school student, to Texas college student, to world adventurer.
When I first began to look into studying abroad during my freshman year at Texas Tech, I remember feeling all of the excitement of thinking ahead to the adventure that lay ahead of me. Although I struggled somewhat in flipping through what seemed like endless brochures and catalogues trying to find the right program, I finally decided on the AIFS Intensive French Program in Grenoble, France.
My main expectations for study abroad in France were to become fluent in French, to live in another culture, to see what French culture was really like, and to basically gain confidence in my abilities. Yet, nothing really prepared me for what a learning experience, challenge, and adventure my three months in France turned out to be.
Having been homeschooled through high school, I was always attached to home and all that was familiar and in my comfort zone. One of the main things that worried me about going abroad was that everything would be completely unfamiliar and that I would not know anyone there. I worried about whether I would be able to be successful in speaking French and as crazy as it may sound, I had this picture in my mind of all French professors being mean and having little patience with a struggling American student.
Adjusting to Life in France and Cultural Differences
However, when I actually arrived in Grenoble and started my studies there, I came to realize how different things were from what I expected. Although everything was unfamiliar and new, which was a cause of some anxiety as I tried to get used to everything, it actually became an adventure to me. My Resident Director had worried that I would be one of those students who never left her room except to go to school and to eat. Yet, as I told her later, I was hardly ever to be found in my room during the day, because I was constantly out exploring if I was not too tired or had too much homework.
I must admit to feeling absolutely overwhelmed when I first arrived in Grenoble and was introduced in the on-site orientation to the expectations of living in the French culture. The French have a whole set of different rules of etiquette and politeness, and I felt a bit lost trying to remember all of them. The manner of eating, how one addresses people in public, how one is to look and sound in public, how one learns in class, and even how one makes friends was all different from American culture.
Many people have often thought of the French as being rude, and I feared that this would be the case, but I found that the French really are not what most people label them as. Yes, they react differently and have a different idea of how one is to present oneself, but they are not altogether rude. This was one of the first things that I learned. I found, once I became willing to try to learn their way of life and try to speak as much as possible in French, that the French really can be very gracious and kind. They are just simply more private and more cautious about with whom they become friends.
My initial observations when I arrived were just how beautiful everything was, and I was just nearly bursting with excitement to learn more. That landscape of the sky and Alps and breathing in the mountain air was invigorating to me. Yet, even in these things, one still will find surprises when it comes to culture and the people who live in a different country.
Acceptance of Differences Leads to Personal Growth
Someone gave me a very wise piece of advice one day when I was complaining about something about French culture when she said to me, “It is only weird and strange, because it is not what you were brought up doing. It wouldn’t be strange if you were French. Quit looking at things as weird just because they are different from your own way of life and culture.” I learned then to try to not constantly compare everything to what I was used to and to simply learn to take things as they were and to try to appreciate them. My stress level decreased after that because I became willing to try new foods, talk to new people, and to try to make more progress in learning the language.
The language was by far my most difficult adjustment and challenge. I laugh at myself now, thinking as I did that I would come back fluent in French after only three months, realizing that this was not realistically possible. I remember the days of frustration I had, because I could not understand what people were saying when they spoke to me in French, and I wanted so badly to understand. I felt so sorry for my dear host mom who would repeat things to me five times trying to help me understand.
I was nearly in tears one day sitting in my Resident Director’s office when she leveled with me about my frustrations with learning French. She told me that I was not able to understand, because I was trying too hard and stressing myself out too much. She told me to just relax and realize that I was not going to understand everything that was said to me. This language adjustment took a long time. However, everything just clicked one day, and strangely, it was after one of my worst days in France when everything that could possibly go wrong did go wrong. Yet, from then on, I could understand so much better what was said to me—much to the surprise of both my professors and my host family.
Some of the easier adjustments were figuring out how to get around and dress properly and learning to get used to my class schedule which, although a little rough at first, became very easy. When one is in a different country, it is wise to try to blend in with everyone else. I found this rather easy with the French, since they wore so much black and solid colors. I also liked the idea of wearing the same clothes more than once before washing. I actually would not mind doing that here in the States, but do not think that my friends and family would find that very appealing, since it simply is not our American custom to do so.
Even as I learned to try to pick up new customs, there are at least two that I struggled with. One was the lack of punctuality. I had a hard time adjusting to this idea, because I was always brought up with the thought that if I was on time then I was running late. I also never fully adjusted to the eating style. The French use the fork and knife in a completely different style of etiquette known as the continental style. Try as I would, it never seemed to quite work. I remember eating at a lunch with a French family who had invited English speakers over to eat. I was struggling to keep a piece of lettuce on a fork and after three tries, I looked up to see a little British girl giggling at me. I gave up and just started eating in the American style as discreetly as possible through the rest of the lunch.
There are more things than I can probably even mention here that I loved about French culture. For instance, the baguettes, the cheese, the crêpes, the coffee, and the delicious Raclette were some of my favorite foods. I had my favorite café as well as my favorite place in one of the parks to get a fantastic crêpe.
Besides the food, I loved the beauty all around me and the quiet of my long walk from the bus stop to my host family’s house. I loved learning in the environment. In other words, applying what I was learning in class in everyday conversation. Most of all, I loved the people I met in a small church in the little town of Domène which was on the outskirts of Grenoble. They welcomed me in and wanted me to feel at home there in France, and they were so sad when I had to leave. I promised to return one day, and I want to honor that promise.
My Strongest Takeaways
It is hard to leave a place and not have some of that place become a part of who one is. There are bits of French culture that I picked up that I am not ashamed to say have become a part of my everyday life. For instance, I blame my addiction to strong coffee on my time in France which is actually one of my favorite results of being in France. I break my bread in pieces as the French do when eating bread, much to my younger brother’s amusement. I often can only think of the French word for something when I am supposed to be speaking English. Sometimes, my mind goes absolutely blank, and I cannot think of the word for something in either language, which used to happen to me in France only when I was trying to remember a French word. Most of my friends find this hilarious and tease me about it when it happens. However, besides all of that, my journey abroad in France left me with a confidence to be able to find a solution in a situation I am unfamiliar with, I am definitely more independent than I was before, I am not afraid of a challenge, and I have a greater ability to speak the French language, which I have come to love dearly.
In conclusion, one of my favorite moments, toward the end of my journey when nearly all was complete, was a little French tradition that my friends and I enjoyed doing. In Avignon, France there is a bridge called Le Pont d’Avignon. Half of the bridge fell off in the river several hundred years ago. The tradition is to go to the end of the bridge and dance in a circle while singing an old song called Sur le Pont d’Avignon (On the Avignon Bridge). The day was beautiful and the laughter was special. I knew my journey was coming to an end and was in many ways rather sad to see it end, but here I was experiencing one last French tradition and absolutely loving it.
If you are inspired by Stacey’s story, learn about programs with AIFS to make your dreams of studying abroad in Grenoble come true!