BLACK:Culture clash: My French summer



Brigid Black

Ever since my eager sixth-grade self checked off the little box that read “French” instead of “Spanish” on a sheet of paper that would ultimately seal my academic fate, I have had a passion for the French language.

Even then, it seemed so exotic and challenging to me. I dreamed that I would one day find myself in the streets of a major French city, speaking the language with the locals and assimilating into their way of life.

This summer, I saw my dream come to fruition. After 21 years of never having left the United States, I was transported to the heart of Bretagne (“Brittany” to us Anglophones) through Villanova’s summer study abroad program in Rennes. And my French skills were certainly put to the test.

Landing on French soil for the first time was an experience in itself. When our group left the airport and stopped to eat lunch, I saw just how entirely surrounded I was by French on billboards, maps and menus. In fact, I was terrified to order my first meal without using a word of English.

Ten years of French went out the window as I fumbled over whether or not the word “ketchup” was the same thing in both languages. No longer could I rely on good grades in my French classes to get by – I had landed in an alternate universe, and it was me who was the beady-eyed alien visitor. It was one of many humbling moments to come.

Luckily enough, most of the awkwardness that I initially felt was quickly put to rest by my wonderful host family in Rennes. My host parents, Bernard and Chantal Deroiné, were a pair of empty nesters that regularly housed international students. They instantly made us feel comfortable in their home, putting us at ease to make our best effort to speak French with them – no matter how ridiculous we may have sounded.

Each night, Chantal and Bernard cooked delicious multi-course dinners for my roommate Maria and I, which sometimes included a traditional dish of Bretagne called a gallette, a salted crepe frequently garnished with an egg, ham and cheese. For every meal, we would sit down to eat together as a group.

We always found something to talk about, and what came up quite often were American and French politics and pop culture. Our host parents seemed far more familiar with many of our political leaders and favorite musical artists than we were with theirs, for traces of American culture could be found all across Rennes – from Kanye West songs playing in the underground Metro to Barack Obama’s image on the covers of magazines.

At the same time, we shared many common interests – for example, our dislike of the conservative American and French governments or our love of Beatles music. Our dinner table discussions are what connected us and made the homestay as fun and insightful as it was. Without a doubt, having to live and communicate with an actual French family was the most rewarding experience of the program.

During my stay in Rennes, one enormous difference between France and the United States was particularly noticeable: when it comes to being environmentally conscious, the French have us beat. At the supermarkets in Rennes, customers bring their own canvas bags for their groceries – sorry, no plastic. Air conditioning? Doesn’t exist (somehow, I survived). I was also frequently reminded by Bernard to turn off the lights when I left my room. He told me of how a small farm animal turning a wheel could generate enough energy for an entire village.

My response was something along the lines of “That’s insane!” He replied, “No, it’s wonderful!” To protect the planet, the French are more than willing to sacrifice their own personal comforts.

While I was irritated by some of these quirky French customs, I also came to better understand and respect them. I can’t possibly describe my entire trip in a 700-word column, but I can say that ultimately, I came back to the United States with a better appreciation of French daily life – one that isn’t shaped by stereotypes but rather by real life experience. Je n’oublierai pas – I won’t forget it.


Brigid Black is a junior English and French major from Brooklyn, N.Y. She can be reached at [email protected].