Academics in France

Before coming to France and during the orientation that took place during my first week here, my program directors emphasized the possible differences between French and American academic culture. Though they explained that this was not always the case, French professors often maintain a high level of distance with students, are strict, discourage participation and read grades out loud. I was nervous to start my classes because of having heard all this. However, once classes got going, I realized that, at least for me, this was largely untrue. Yes, there are differences. However, some of them are less pronounced than I originally expected. 

My classes are at the French as a foreign language center (CIREFE), so I can’t speak on what university classes with other French students are like. This semester, all of my classes except for one are online. My classes tend to have more people in them than my classes at Wofford. But, they are similar in many ways. Most of my professors encourage participation and ask lots of questions in class. They types of subjects that we discuss are similar to the topics addressed in my French classes at Wofford. There are, however, some significant differences. Professors at CIREFE typically do not get to know students. At Wofford, forming relationships with professors in your department is common. At my university in France, that doesn’t really happen. Professors are generally nice, but they stick to discussing class material. Another major difference is the workload. My workload here is much, much lower. Professors typically give a weekly homework assignment, if that, and exams take place twice a semester, as opposed to the continuous assessment method that is typical of classes at Wofford. It may be surprising, but this has actually been the hardest part of the experience for me academically. I’m accustomed to completing a large amount of assignments, papers, and homework outside of class and getting feedback on my work. At first, the prospect of having less work seemed great, but then I realized that having feedback and being graded largely on only two big exams was extremely stressful. It’s manageable, but it’s definitely not something that I will miss about the academic culture here!

Another thing that struck me about my classes here was that some of my classmates didn’t seem to care at all. At Wofford, most people tended to be interested and engaged in class. At first, I did not understand why this was. Of course, some students were engaged just like I expected, but others were markedly not so. It wasn’t until a discussion with one of my friends from class that I realized why this was. Save for a difference in motivation that is present in any academic environment, much of this is due to the fact that some of the students at CIREFE come from vastly different life circumstances than I do. Some of them are refugees, parents, or in other positions where they have concerns that come before classwork. Thinking about this helped put things in perspective for me. 

This is my last semester of undergrad, but during my time at Wofford I double majored in Sociology/Anthropology and French. I finished up my Sociology/Anthropology major last Fall, and now I’m focusing on finishing my French major. My study abroad hasn’t been without challenges, especially during these Covid times, but it has been an excellent capstone to my time as a French major. I’ve been able to hone my French skills in a way that I was not able to do without an experience of immersion. Even though I’m not taking sociology or anthropology courses here, my time in the department at Wofford has actually allowed me to be more observant and open to the culture and customs that I experience here in France, and that outlook has been invaluable to me.

Overall, I prefer the academic culture in America. Part of the reason I chose Wofford was for the advantages that a small, community-oriented college provides, and I can’t say that I do not miss that culture here in France. However, being exposed to this new way of doing things has been a learning experience and for that I am thankful. 

A musical protest in downtown Rennes.
Spring is finally here! These are the new spring flowers in the Parc du Thabor.
Views of Mont Saint Michel from the excursion I took with my program there several days ago. This was definitely one of the best trips I have taken!

My Favorite Places in Rennes

I have been in France for over two months now, so I’ve really gotten to know the city of Rennes. Rennes is a smaller city, so while it was never difficult to navigate, I’ve gotten to the point where it’s almost easy to forget that I’m in a foreign country just because it has become so familiar. Now that I’m well-acquainted with the city of Rennes, I want to list a few of my favorite places. 

Cafés 

I have two favorite cafés in Rennes. Unfortunately, restaurants are closed for dine-in service at the moment. Still, I am able to get takeout and, of course, coffee. Before I came to France, I was excited to try out different cafés, and they did not disappoint. 

My favorite local café is Mokka Coffee House. As the sname suggests, Mokka primarily serves coffee, although they sell viennoiseries, or sweet baked goods, also. I like the mochas and the pain au chocolat at Mokka, and I also like the people who work there. One of the first times I went there, the barista recognized my accent and asked where I was from. Now, whenever I go there, they recognize me and we talk for a few minutes. Mokka is open on Sunday, which is a rarity, so it’s a great place to go on a sunny Sunday afternoon when there’s not much to do. 

My other favorite café is Columbus. Columbus is actually a chain. They have lots of locations in France, in other European countries, and even a few in Africa and the Middle East. Coming to France, Columbus was new to me. Columbus has a wide variety of coffees, teas, and other drinks, but also has fresh sandwiches and muffins. It’s definitely one of my favorite places to go to grab a quick meal, and I especially like their menu étudiant. They also always play loud American music which creates a fun atmosphere. 

Espresso from Columbus Café

Bakery 

Le Fournil Vasselot is my favorite bakery in Rennes. It’s very popular, but quite small, so it’s typically necessary to wait in a line outside for a few minutes before entering. However, it is worth the wait! This bakery offers so many French pastries. The first time I went there, I was amazed by everything I saw. There’s so much variety that I feel like every time I go, I see something that I never knew even existed. 

Pastries at Le Fournil Vasselot

Park

One of the things that I appreciate about France is its parks. Public parks are common, and they’re filled with beautiful streams, hedges, sculptures, and fountains. The Parc du Thabor is a large and well-known park in the city center. My favorite experience in this garden was going right after it snowed. However, any day in the Parc du Thabor is sure to be a good experience. There are so many things to see— there are shrubs trimmed into the shapes of birds, statues, a botanical garden, and more. Anyone who visits Rennes has to see the Parc du Thabor. 

Snow day at the Parc du Thabor

General Sight 

Though the interior is currently closed, the Parlement of Brittany is a well-known building in downtown. People often sit on its steps to eat lunch or just catch up with friends, and in front of the building there is a large public area with benches. I enjoy going here to eat lunch or just sit for a while. It’s a great place to people-watch, and the old architecture of the parliament building makes me feel like I’m really in Europe. 

A view of the Parliament of Brittany from the seating area that faces it

A Monday in Rennes

It’s 8:00 am and I wake up and get ready for the day. I make myself coffee and sit down for my first class at 8:30. My first class is Contemporary Art History, and it’s on Zoom. In class, we learn about an artistic movement called Nouveau Réalisme, which is basically the French version of Pop Art. I enjoy this class because we get to see lots of examples of different art. Something that I liked about the program I chose is that I would get to take classes in a variety of different subjects, and I took advantage of that by taking Contemporary Art History, which is a subject I knew nothing about prior to taking this class. 

At 10:30, my class ends. I have about half an hour of free time before I head to the bus stop. Every Monday, my French language class is in-person. It’s my only in-person class of the semester. The walk from my apartment to the bus stop is short, only four minutes, and I wait for the bus. Commuting to class is actually not new for me; I was a commuter at Wofford, so I was accustomed to that. However, taking public transportation is very new. I’m a little ashamed to say that before coming to Rennes, I could count on one hand the number of times I had used public transportation. However, the public transportation here is very easy to use and to understand. The bus arrives. I swipe my metro card and sit down. I live in an apartment in a neighborhood just outside of the main part of the city, so the bus ride to the university is only about ten minutes. On the way there, I look out the window. 

Once at the university, I walk to CIREFE, the center where I take my classes. CIREFE is the center at the University of Rennes 2 that is designated especially for people who are learning French as a second language. It has its own building on the university campus. All my classes are in French, but the professors know that French is not out first language, so the classes are designed with that in mind. In my French language class, we study verb tense agreement. At 12:45, class ends. I chat with some of my classmates in the hallway. Something interesting about CIREFE is that I have classes with all different kinds of people, not just traditional 18-22 year old college students like I did at Wofford. Some of my classmates are my age, but others are older. Some are professionals, parents, or even asylum seekers. They’re also all from different countries. In my cohort at the university, me and the other student in my program are the only two Americans. It’s interesting to get to interact with people from such different backgrounds and from so many different countries. At Wofford, I did not have this experience to the same extent. 

Then, it’s time for lunch. For lunch, I either go to a café downtown or grab lunch to-go at the university cafeteria. The cafeteria food is much better in France than at home (sorry, Burwell), but today I go downtown with a friend from my program. (One thing I really appreciate about the French university system is that things tend to be much less expensive. Due to covid, the French government actually reduced the student lunch price to 1 euro). We take the metro to the café downtown, and the ride only takes about five minutes. I get a sandwich and a muffin for lunch. 

After lunch, we head back to the library and do some homework. After that, I take the bus back and decide to go for a walk. My apartment has a park right behind it with lots of walking paths, so I like taking walks when the weather is nice. 

After my walk, I head back to my apartment and make dinner. France has a 6pm national curfew, so I always have to be sure to be back by then. When I’m out in the evening, I have to be sure to get a bus or metro that will give me time to make it back before the curfew. That’s an experience about France that I will not miss! I’m hoping that it gets lifted soon. 

In the evening, I talk to my friends and family at home, do any homework that I have left, and watch Netflix. There are only two students in my program this semester because enrollment was so low due to covid, but my friend from my program lives two apartments down from me, so often, she will either come to my apartment for a bit or I will go to hers. 

Obviously, this is not what everyday is like for me. But, this is a fairly typical day of my life when classes are in session. A day in my life in Rennes is completely different than a day in my life at Wofford or at home in Spartanburg. It has been so interesting and valuable for me to experience a different way of living. I have gained a new found appreciation for public transportation, although I have to admit that I miss driving a little! I also walk a lot more here. The cities in France tend to be far more walkable. One thing that is especially different about this experience is that I actually live alone. That is definitely a new experience for me, and it is one that has been good in certain ways, but also that has aspects that I will not miss. 

Because of covid, my experience has been different than most student’s study abroad experiences. It wasn’t exactly what I imagined when I originally decided to study abroad, but it has been worthwhile nonetheless. 

The muffin from my lunch
Views from a walk I took on a day when it had snowed
Downtown Rennes in an area where I walk almost everyday
A public park. I like to sit here and sometimes eat lunch here.

Bon Appétit and Cultural Differences

Since I’ve been in France, I’ve eaten a lot of meals outside. During one of my first days here, I was sitting on a bench downtown and eating lunch with a friend from my program. A man passed by us and said, “bon appétit!” I was confused. In the first weeks of our program, we had been repeatedly told that French people rarely greet strangers in public, and that it would be strange to do so. And yet, shortly after the first man passed by, another person passed us and said “bon appétit” again. This happened on multiple occasions. After talking to a few different people about it, I realized that this was not uncommon. Saying “bon appétit” to someone eating similar to, in America, saying “bless you,” when someone sneezes. Before COVID, the phenomenon of saying “bon appétit” on the street may not have happened as much (because people typically ate in cafés), but now it has become commonplace. I still feel a little startled whenever a stranger tells me, “bon appétit,” though!

In America, it feels like only thing closed on Sunday is Chick-Fil-A. (In fact, it’s such a rarity that someone actually wrote a song about it.) In France, almost everything is closed on Sunday. I learned that the hard way when, during my second week here, I planned to go to the grocery store on a Sunday afternoon. I took the bus, and when I got there, the store was closed. Using my phone, I Googled the closest open grocery store only to find that they were almost all closed! I couldn’t believe it! Even the busses and metros run less frequently on Sunday. Many stores, and smaller shops especially, also close for an hour or two for a lunch break during weekday afternoons. Now, if I know that I need to go to a specific store, I’m sure to look at the hours before hand. I was also struck by the fact that my program gives us three full weeks of vacation time. During a normal spring semester in the US, I can only remember getting a week of spring break and a couple of long weekends. Here in France, there is a much greater emphasis placed on time off, whether that be for lunch, on Sundays, or for vacation periods. Even though it can be frustrating when places I want to go are closed, I appreciate this aspect of the French culture. It’s a welcome difference from the American “work ethic,” and I think that we, as Americans, could benefit from taking a page out of France’s book when it comes to time off from work and relaxation.

It snowed in Rennes last week, and this snowman from the Parc du Thabor perfectly embodies French stereotypes.

Finally, the French love strikes and protests. I knew about this before coming to France, so I wasn’t too surprised. However, I was a little taken aback by just how common these really are. Every weekend, I get an Alert Traveler notification about a protest or strike happening in France. One day, I actually walked by a protest happening in the street! Given the frequency of protests, it’s very common to see posters related to the subjects of the protests posted in public places. I always like to read these posters because I feel like they give a unique insight into current events. I read one recently regarding a protest trying to prevent the destruction of a natural park, and another one in favor of the French Communist Party.

These posters are advocating for the Community Party of France and criticizing the integration of capitalism with the pandemic. This was located near a busy bus stop.

Before coming to France, I kept hearing about culture shock. I almost expected to be shocked, in one way or another, but the culture. But to me surprise, I wasn’t— at all. Maybe I had just mentally prepared myself for differences, but overall, I felt that cultural differences were typically minor, and while sometimes surprising, they were far from shocking. French culture and American culture are similar in many ways, though there are certainly differences. Overall, it’s not the big things that surprise me, but rather smaller aspects of the culture of daily life. Whether that be the closing of stores for lunch, or people saying “bon appétit,” every day offers me a new chance to uncover little aspects of the culture. To me, experiencing these everyday cultural differences is a true learning experience, and whenever I encounter them, they make me reflect on how my own culture and ways of thinking differ from those of other people.

Eating a sandwich outdoors while overlooking the Seine (a perfect opportunity for a stranger to tell me bon appétit).

Travel in the Time of Covid

A view of the Rennes Opera House and the nearby carousel

Studying abroad has been a goal of mine since before I was even in college. I studied French for 4 years in high school and then chose it as one of my majors in college, and given how much time and effort I had put into learning French, I was eager to actually visit France. Even before COVID, the thought of studying abroad was exciting, but it also made me nervous. However, last Spring, just after I had been accepted to my first study abroad program, COVID-19 hit. In June, my first program was canceled and I deferred my study abroad to Spring 2021. In October, IES called me during a Zoom class and I found out my program had been cancelled again. I reapplied to the IES Nantes program that same day, and before the end of October, that program had been canceled as well. On Halloween, I applied to CIEE Rennes Liberal Arts, the program with which I am studying now. 

There were so many considerations and so much stress that went into simply finding programs that were running, applying to those programs, and waiting to hear whether they would be canceled. Deciding to travel abroad during COVID wasn’t something I took lightly, and it took a lot of careful thought before I felt comfortable with it and the implications it would have for my experience. By the time I realized that my current program was going to run and that I was actually going to get to study abroad, the whole experience felt surreal. Leaving was hard in many ways. I had the typical worries, and I knew that I would miss my friends and family back home so much. On top of that, the situation with COVID was (and is) ever-changing, and that was constantly on my mind. 

After having two COVID tests and filling out paperwork, I was finally cleared for international travel. Though I have had the opportunity to travel internationally before, I have never traveled as far as Europe. As my flight approached the Paris airport, passengers were provided with a breakfast. Eating breakfast at what was essentially, for me, 1:30 am, felt strange. I spent time in the Paris airport before boarding a short flight to Rennes. After arriving in Rennes, we took taxis to our studio apartments and then went on a walk around the neighborhood before beginning six day period of limited contact. Seeing everything at once and having so many questions was overwhelming. Because of Covid, the first week of my program orientation took place online. The first few days of the program were difficult, but things started to get better on the third day when I went to a market with a girl from my program and bought a crepe. Sitting outside and doing something that felt so essentially “French” was enjoyable, and I started to feel better. 

Now, as I begin my fourth week of the program, things are okay. On one hand, I probably chose the worst time to study abroad in recent history. Every day, I hear talk of whether or not there will be a third lockdown (no answer yet!). Many aspects of travel that I enjoy, such as eating at restaurants and visiting museums, are not yet possible. At the same time, I have found ways to enjoy what I can do. This is my first time seeing Europe, and the old architecture is amazing. Despite COVID, I have seen so many things that I never would have back home. 

The flight to Paris
I was excited to try French food and I got lunch at this street-side stand five days in a row. They had so many choices!