Tales from abroad: Avignon

Pictured above is the Notre Dame des Domes, a beautiful Roman Catholic cathedral and the Palais des Papes. (credit: Kristen Severson | Photo Editor) Pictured above is the Notre Dame des Domes, a beautiful Roman Catholic cathedral and the Palais des Papes. (credit: Kristen Severson | Photo Editor)

“Kree-sten! Kree-stenn!” I heard the yelling and groggily forced myself out of bed. Opening the door, Florence announced, “*Il est deux heures et demi.*”

Huh? I thought. She repeated, “*deux heures et demi.*” Seeing me still looking confused, she slowly explained, “two thirty.” Finally my mind started to put it together and slight panic hit me. Right, I thought while collecting myself, I’m in France and it is 2:30? Oh great, that means I just slept for 18 hours. Not exactly how I had hoped to start my first day studying abroad.

In my mind, it was never a question about whether I would study abroad in France; it was only a question of when. So when I started to consider how I should spend the summer after my first year at college, studying in France seemed like a natural choice. I did the research and settled on a program in Avignon, a pretty large town on the Rhone River in the south of France. I would spend six weeks there studying theater at the turn of the 20th century and the architecture and archaeology of the south of France. Then I planned to head north to Paris to spend a week on vacation with my mother.

I was incredibly excited to go, but as my departure date approached, I realized how nervous I was, too. I would be going thousands of miles away to live with a family that I had never met and live in a city that didn’t speak English. Being rational, I knew I was a strong enough French speaker to get by and the program wouldn’t place me in a house with crazy people, but the whole thing still seemed intimidating.

After my late start on my first day, I finally collected myself. Florence — my host mother — and I headed into the city. While crossing the bridge over the Rhone, I realized Avignon was beautiful. In the south of France, the sky is always a crisp blue and the rock walls that surround the old city are striking against this background. We drove past Avignon’s famous bridge, parked the car, and walked up the main road toward the medieval papal palace. The square in front of the palace was the most beautiful scene yet. Café umbrellas dotted the cobblestone courtyard with the palace and church in the background. I couldn’t believe I would be spending the next six weeks here.

As amazed as I was with my new surroundings, I was still intimidated. I found trying to communicate in another language all day exhausting. My brain actually felt tired at the end of the day. There were so many new things to learn. I memorized the path to my school and then spent lunches wandering around trying to figure out where everything was. Unlike the gridded cities I was used to, Avignon had streets that crisscrossed throughout the whole city; due to my lack of a good sense of direction, I got lost consistently.

But soon, getting lost became infrequent, and I realized that a lot of things weren’t too different. I easily understood the bus system, which worked the same as in Pittsburgh. I found great sandwich and crepe stands for lunch. My classes fell into step, too. We read plays weekly for my theater class and had history lessons for the other. Then we would go on field trips and see the places we learned about. I really felt as though I was starting to absorb what was going on around me.

Time passed quickly and before I knew it, I was getting ready to head north. I had learned a lot during my stay and had made amazing new friends. I would miss spending time in cafés with them and discovering new parts of the city. I knew the part I would miss the most, however, was dinnertime.

My favorite part of the day was always dinner. Each night Florence and Michel — my host father — and I would set the table outside and eat together. Sometimes, one of their three sons would stop by with his girlfriend as well. Dinner was eaten in courses and always included desert.

The food wasn’t drastically different than what I would eat at home, but it wasn’t the same either. I found that I loved radishes and couldn’t get enough quiche. During dinner, we would sit and talk about anything and everything, from the weather to sports to how French people reacted to the euro to the teacher strikes in Paris. I enjoyed hearing their opinions on everything and realizing how alike and different our lives were.

While I’ve learned a lot about France in the classroom, living there was a whole new story. French people are consistently stereotyped in the U.S. in many ways. We all hear the grumbles of the smelly French people who hate Americans. Or maybe we picture the chic Parisian who spends all her time in a café drinking black coffee and smoking cigarettes.

Whatever image of France I could have possibly had in my head, “Avignonites” did not fit it. People there had an almost hippie vibe that is known locally as “baba-cool.” Lots of young people wore their hair in dreadlocks. The community included many immigrants from North Africa and had a strong Arabic influence.

Some things, of course, did fit my expectations. We watched soccer, played pétanque, and ate ratatouille. But, in the end, I had discovered that to really know a place was to meet the people.