Sara Daves, public relations coordinator for Virginia Commonwealth University`s University Advancement department, recently interviewed me about my French study abroad experience--the experience that has prompted me to not merely open a new chapter in my life, but slam the book down, and open a new one.
I`ve only begun to fill the new pages with the paint, ink, and glitter that makes for a full-fledged and passionate existence. Of course, it has only been two weeks since I returned from the country that inspired me to do a metaphorical hand-stand. Naturally, I am still ranting and raving about it. I traveled to Paris, La Rochelle, and a list of other lovely French places with my former VCU French film professor, Dr. Kathryn Murphy-Judy, and seven other students, from June 30 to July 31, 2009.
The group`s majors ranged from International Studies to French to English to Cinema to Criminal Justice to Gender/Women`s Studies to Religious Studies. One graduate student, who was joining us from Virginia Tech, even studied the pedagogy of teaching a foreign language. I can`t speak for the other eight, but I would be aghast if they did not agree that those four weeks changed them. If I don`t stop rambling now, though, I`ll never stop. Let`s lend some focus to this spiel, shall we? Here are the questions that Sara asked me about the trip via email, along with my less-than-terse answers:
SARA: Can you clarify the intinerary? Did it begin with two days in Paris and then an excursion through Normandy and Monet`s gardens? Then what? How did Leonardo Da Vinci factor in?
CHRISTINE: We met at a youth hostel in Paris early in the evening. After overnighting there, we spent the whole next day in the city and left the following morning. By then it was Thursday and we were on the move with students from the University of Richmond and the University of Minnesota-Mankato. We visited a smattering of rural medieval towns, including Mantes, Vernon, Lisieux, and Mont St. Michel. We also made three stops in Normandy and a visit to Monet`s house and gardens. By Saturday evening, we arrived in La Rochelle, where we met our host families. Over the next three and a half weeks, the language institute where we studied organized four excursions, including one to the Cognac region, one to three chateaux (including the estate where Leonardo Da Vinci spent the last few years of his life), Ile de RÃ©, and a World War II bunker.
SARA: Did you go to the international film festival? What about the French annual music festival that took over the entire city for about 10 days? What was that like?
CHRISTINE: I did not go to the International Film Festival, as interested as I initially was in it. The only films I would have been able to catch would have been during the evening of our first Sunday in La Rochelle. Thinking I should spend that time getting to know my host family, I opted to stay home and chat with them instead. The festival continued during our class hours on Monday and was over by Tuesday. The Francofolies, however, was very much a part of my time in La Rochelle. The festival is the biggest celebration of French music in the world. It lasted from July 10 to July 14 and featured several famous artists, including Jane Birkin, Charlie Winston, and Renan Luce. All of the paid acts were expensive, but if you knew where to stand in the city, you could listen to the music for free (obviously, of course, you couldn`t SEE the act from the obscure spots I found.) I enjoyed a couple of free acts, too. The city as a whole was much livelier than usual. The marketplace along the Vieux Port expanded; street performers become an even more common appearance; stores and restaurants stayed open longer and featured specials to attract tourists. Streets were much more crowded, especially at night, but it was more exciting than inconveniencing, at least for someone witnessing it all for the first time. My favorite period in La Rochelle was that of the Francofolies, where I recorded a fair amount of video.
SARA: I know that you visited the Cognac region, the Henessey factory and then a small private farm to see how cognac is made.
CHRISTINE: Indeed we did. I`ve never been a fan of alcohol, so the highlight for the trip was hardly the tasting. (Even some of the drinkers told me they thought cognac tasted like rubbing alcohol!) I was much more intrigued by the history and the production process, especially as explained and demonstrated at the small private farm. The tour guide was a sweet and humorous grandmother type who had worked on the 400-year old farm since the World War II era. I loved visiting the estate, seeing the old stone structures and the rippled, orange roofs, and admiring the acres (hectares!) of vineyards spread out as far as I could see in one direction. Some of their bottles were beautiful, too. We saw delightful ones that had glass grape bunches and ships inside.
SARA: How did the family you stayed with impact you?
CHRISTINE: My family was very helpful and patient, especially the mother, who`s a social worker. They enjoyed asking me questions about the United States and how I liked France, but they also delved into my mind on a more personal level. They asked me about my political beliefs and whether I considered myself a feminist, for instance. While it was difficult to express my ideas as precisely as I would have liked from time to time, I welcomed the challenge. I`m at the level now where I`m confident enough to outline my ideas, even if explaining the subtler points is still often beyond my linguistic ability. Not only did I have many opportunities to converse with my family, but I also had numerous chances to sit back and observe. Everyday was a new sociological study of the "typical Rochellaise family." I was especially excited about exploring the life of my younger host sister, who is eleven-years old. So often in French classes, we study what life is like for full-grown adults, but we hardly ever explore the lives of children.
SARA: You ran two blogs during your stay " can you tell me a little about those? One was about fashion, right?
CHRISTINE: I actually ran three blogging projects during my time in France. I ran one blog called Adventures in Cheese Snob Land (http://cheesesnobland.blogspot.com), which technically isn`t finished. I am still adding edited photos and video, and will complete a reflection essay about the trip soon. I also published the entries on Associated Content, where I am a high-ranking contributor and category editor, as well as The Student Operated Press. Thanks to publishing them on the latter, the entries got picked up by Google News. Those same entries went on the VCU blog system and appear on the VCU Education Abroad page. Secondly, I have a fashion blog that I run year-round on alternative styles and thrifty shopping tips, called Give Me Paisley and Parasols (www.paisleyandparasols.com). I routinely run projects where I focus on different aspects of fashion, so I decided to create one about fashion in La Rochelle. The entries are also on Associated Content and will be published on Examiner.com soon. The third blog is called I Spy Lenore (http://ispylenore.blogspot.com), where I post fantastical photographs of places I`ve taken my favorite 6`` plastic dragon, Lenore. As a dual Cinema and English major, art and media always intrigue me and I`m constantly interested in how I convey my life experiences and observations in a meaningful way for other people. I`m regularly writing, taking photos, recording videos, drawing, and sometimes combining these methods to communicate real and fictional accounts of how I view the world. These three blogs, though, are totally non-fiction, even if they have humorous and often satirical slants to them.
SARA: Kathryn tells me that you discovered an interactive tour where each group competes to find clues to answer historical questions to complete the tour. Can you tell me about that?
CHRISTINE: I went to the tourism office and found a brochure about a game called Les EvadÃ©s de Fort Boyard that takes place in the city`s medieval towers. The game features actors who portray historical figures and tell various stories and riddles or lead activities where each group of players competes to solve an overall code. The game is at times suspenseful while at other times downright hilarious. The actors are top-notch and many of the riddles and games are challenging--especially since the game is conducted entirely in French! At the end, groups must test whether or not their codes are correct by dialing them on the lock of a treasure chest. Our group ending up winning a butter cake ("gallette""), a book about La Rochelle`s port history, biscuits, and candies. It was a random prize but we did it for the fun of the game itself, rather than the end goal. I really appreciated all of the effort that the tower employees and actors put into organizing the game.
SARA: What other activities did you do by yourself or as a part of the group?
CHRISTINE: Many, many, many things! The beaches and bars were popular with virtually everyone. Even if you don`t drink, the bars are wonderful places to start up conversations and practice your French. I would be careful to always go with a group, though, especially if you`re female and your French is lacking. Shopping is another obvious distraction; there are plenty of family-owned businesses in addition to chains. If you want a real, American-style mall, you have to take a bus out to the edge of town. (Visit Carrefour while you`re at it.) The MusÃ©e des Automates is great, too; it`s full of automatons, which are quirky, old-fashioned mechanical dolls. The aquarium is beautiful and full of sea creatures from various parts of the world. You have to see the Napoleon fish, a giant, bulbous critter with bulging blue eyes. He looks very cartoonish. I also suggest the Mediatheque, which is a library full of books, music, and movies in various forms of media. They also have an art gallery. I went to the MusÃ©e des Modeles Reduits and the Maritime Museum, as well, but I don`t especially recommend either one. Of course, just because they didn`t thrill me doesn`t mean they wouldn`t thrill others. The MusÃ©e des Modeles Reduits exhibits a bunch of model cars and ships while the Maritime Museum allows you to walk inside of empty and restored cruise ships and fishing boats. I advise you see the Towers of La Rochelle, instead; these impressive stone structures date back to the Middle Ages. The VCU group planned a Saturday boat ride to Ile d`Aix, a picturesque island with holiday cottages, rocky beaches and tidal pools, as well.
SARA: Do you know Ben Hawkins? Apparently, he decided that he would return to study a full year in France. Do you plan on returning to France soon?
CHRISTINE: Yes, I know Ben and I`m inspired that he wants to study for a full year in France. I think it will be a wonderful experience for him to improve upon his French and immerse himself in a culture that we only briefly examined during the one month trip. I plan to return to France before I graduate because the Cinema department has an internship program with the Cannes Festival. I will have to postpone full-year study until after I graduate, though. I might choose to work in the French film industry for a short while and supplement the work with freelance magazine writing, anyway.
SARA: Can you tell me how you and fellow students were impacted by the cultural differences, (family structure, etc.)
CHRISTINE: None of the cultural differences were too stark. After all, they`re a Western civilization like us. The French shower. Most French women shave their legs and underarms. Encountering topless women at French beaches is not nearly as common as some Americans make it out to be. Of course, differences still exist and there is a sliver of truth to many of the predominant myths. Most French families shop for their groceries everyday instead of once every week or two in order to buy the freshest fruits, vegetables, cheeses, meats, juices, and breads. Fast-food is almost entirely absent there, though you will spot the occasional McDonald`s. Families tend to eat together at home every night instead of eating separately or going out to dinner (unless it`s a special occasion.) Dinners there tend to be very large, by the way, and always involve fruit and cheese. Dinner also lasts a looong time, sometimes three or four hours if you have company over. In La Rochelle, seafood is popular because the city`s located right along the sea. I noticed this surprised many of the Midwestern students we were traveling with because they are not accustomed to eating fresh seafood on a regular basis. The toilets there are slightly different, as well, and they have many more styles than we do in America. I definitely got confused about how to flush certain toilets and had to experiment before I understood what to do. Public restrooms are nearly impossible to find and the few you run into almost always charge. In fact, things there are generally more expensive and "free" seems like a foreign concept. You may be shocked by what you spend on gifts for your friends and family or even just on lunch. You may also be shocked by how much more flirtatious strangers are with you there than they typically are in America. I could continue, but, in all honestly, I never once gaped in utter astonishment.
SARA: Can you provide a link to the pics on Flikr and the Facebook page?
CHRISTINE: Our main page was a Ning (http://vcuenfrance.ning.com/). We didn`t have anything on Facebook, to my knowledge. The Flickr page was Kathryn`s personal Flickr page, but she put all the same photos on the Ning. A few of my photos are up on my Flickr page at http://www.flickr.com/photos/christinestoddard. I also completed a photo project while there, called "Lenore in France," which you can view at http://ispylenore.blogspot.com