Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Ah Rennes.... at last!

Well, here I am settling into my new school, my new room, my new home. So many things here remind me that I truly am in a foreign world. Unlike in Paris and the other little cities I visited on my way out here, I am not vacationing, and this is to be my new life. There have been many ups and downs in my first week here at school. I arrived feeling like I was beginning to grasp this whole "French thing" (which for an American traveler, I was), but after a week among French students I feel more lost than ever. Although my French is proably much better than when I first arrived, my comparisons are much greater now and it is easy to be discouraged with my lack of proficiency. I keep having to remind myself that this is the curve that goes along with studying abroad - wonderful days and difficult days, and more feelings than it seems possible to stuff into one human body.
Rennes is a cute little town, not as cute as Paris, but what can you expect. It has a different style from much of the rest of France, being in Brittany (Bretagne), there is a different historical influence more like Celtic Britain. The Centre Ville is adorable but my overwhelming impression is first and formost that of confusion. None of the streets seem to keep their name for more than a block and nothing runs anything like the grids I am used to back home. Wandering down the meandering streets who can't make up their mind as to what they're called, it is easy to lose yourself among the brightly colored restaurants, shops, and bars of provincial Rennes. I have enjoyed visiting town, which is only a quick metro ride away, but still have a lot of exploring to do before I feel competent in my new little town. I have managed to find a great local pub that's a favorite of the international students studying here, the best Italian food place in the world, and a small shop full of all things Breton (what the Celtic people of this region are called), which for me was thrilling. I hope to do more exploring over the next few weeks and learn more of what Rennes has to offer.


My dorm room is, first and formost, a dorm, although I hear that I am in the nicest building of the lot (we actually have mailboxes rather than getting our mail shoved under the door!). Though small, of course, I have a single room which is nice enough for my tastes. There are, however, several adjustments to dorm life, which for me is a completely new experience. There is only one bathroom for the entire floor which is rough enough, but incredibly it is CO-ED!! and has no seats on any of the toilets. What an adjustment that is! How differently the French must think to create a situation that a week and a half later I still can hardly believe. I am very happy to be integrated into the regular French dorms, as are all the international students here. I was expecting to be segragated with all the others who are studying abroad, but am glad to have this opportunity for true immersion and regular interaction with French kids. Overall, the dorms have been a bit of a change, but relatively comfortable, and I know in just a few weeks I will feel as at home here in my little room in Rennes as I did in my studio in San Diego.


I have met many Americans who are also studying here, and we have enjoyed laughing at ourselves as we attempt to learn to live in Rennes. Grocery shopping is still great fun, but it took us over three hours just to do laundry the other day. These are the simple joys and frustrations of life abroad. The simplest errand may take all day and somewhere in the middle you're ready to jump out the window, but by the end of the day (on a good day), you feel accomplished and ready to take on the world. Most days that's what leaving my room feels like - taking on the world. To quote my favorite movie: "It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your front door... you step onto the road, and if you don't mind your feet, you never know where you might be swept off to." That's what each day in France has felt like so far. I get dressed and ready for a new adventure with no idea where I will end up or whether I will be prepared. Usually I am far less prepared than I would like to have been, but somehow I figure it out along the way. There are some adventures in life for which there is no preparation and I am certainly on one of them.
I have been lucky, being the social bug that I am, it has been easy for me to meet people. I got some wonderful advice from a good friend before leaving, "Talk to everyone, Allysha. It will save your life." It certainly has! Thanks Jenn. Sometimes when I don't think I can make a fool of myself one more time, I drawn this line around me like a mantle and step up. For once I am truly in a situation where talking as often as I do pays off...yes! This mantra, talking to as many people as possible, has certainly paid off - as just this instant (vraiment!) there was a knock at my door, my neighbor coming to let me borrow some of his French CD's to put on my computer. I have been lucky to meet many of the young French kids on my floor, an experience none of the other Americans have had so far (in part due to my knocking on the door and saying "Hi, I'm the new American girl who lives next door. I don't know anyone, will you be my friend" ...all in French or something like it, of course). A few nights ago, I had the delightful experience of being invited to a small gathering of French students in one of the dorm rooms on my floor. What a truly cultural experience! Imagine twelve students crammed into a tiny dorm room, jabbering on in French (I hardly understood a word), jumping around animatedly as they told stories, passing around a plate full of crepes (honestly!), and kissing each other on the cheeks. I felt as though I was in a French film or story... so many stereotypes jumping right off the page of my highschool French textbook and into my social life. It is not always easy to create ongoing relationships when I understand so little, but I am trying, and I think there are things that just require time and being willing to be foolish over and over and over again...

Not everything has been as rewarding as meeting wonderful foreigners, however. Anyone who has ever registered for school knows that it can be an arduous and frustrating process. Add to that a language barrier and the fact that nothing here is computerized and it is nothing short of a nightmare. I spent most of the day today running back and forth between offices trying to understand what they were asking of me to no avail. I have another such day ahead of me tomorrow, but my classes begin Monday and I look forward to gaining competence interacting with the French world. I had my first experience of a language faux pas this week. Actually, it is something I have been saying since I arrived and I only just this week found out that it was terribly wrong. In order to say that I was excited to... fill in the blank here (be in France, see the Eiffel Tower, arrive in Rennes, and most often - begin my classes), I have been saying "Je suis tres excitee pour commencer mes cours." I'm sure many of you can imagine this might be now that you know it's a huge faux pas. Apparently "Je suis tres excitee" is a term only used to express sexual excitement. So technically I have been running around France saying "I'm very horny to start my classes." No wonder I have had so much trouble avoiding the attention of strange French men! Ah, alas there are always those things you can only learn the embarassing way, sigh. Today I accidently told my neighbor I loved him instead of that I liked his music, but what are you going to do? And now I know... I'll just have to keep saying that. Well, now I know...


There was a great opportunity offered by the school this week for the study abroad students to visit one of France's great sites - Mont Saint Michel. This was a truly incredible experience! This grand fortress of an abbey is located on the top of a granite outcropping in a unique place along the north coast of Normandy. The tides here are some of the strangest in the world, with areas that are dry during the day having up to 40 feet of water by night. The tides roll in suddenly and with such great force that they come in like a tidal wave. The small outcropping on which Mont Saint Michel is made of such a durable stone that is has withstood this powerful force while all around it has been eroded away. The result is a great rock topped with a magnificent abbey surrounded by barren white sand plains riddled with rivers and quicksand. It is like nothing I have ever seen. Standing on the great stone walls of this monastery, there was such a feeling of solitude and a peace so full and heavy it was almost unbearable. I felt as if you could lay all the troubles of your heart upon the empty sand and they would be washed away by the dangerous tides each night and swept out to sea. For me, it was a relief to feel the land as such a presence and find a small piece of spirituality among all the hectic here and there required just to keep up at school. Picking up seashells from the parking lot, which in only a few hours would be completely under water, it was difficult not to be utterly amazed by this magnificent monument.
I am surviving so far, if sometimes only by the skin of my teeth, and I am told it only gets easier (which is not so difficult to believe). Every day I gain competence in something new, which is much more than I can say for most of my days at home. Though being a beginner at anything is always rough, there are plenty of other students from abroad to bumble along with, and even more people to ask for help if you're only willing to look foolish (which by now I must be). I can't wait to start my French courses (which should properly be said, "J'attends avec impatience...") and hopefully be able to actually converse semi-normally with my new French friends (and maybe even understand what they say!). I am beginning to plan some of the trips that I will be taking this semester all around Europe, so I am greatly looking forward to that, and to a time, hopefully soon, when I am settled here and it begins to feel like home.

4 comments:

Nicky Clark said...

I am glad you are getting out there and hanging out with people even though you dont understand what they are saying! im so excited to be out there in like 2 months! yay!

kmlavino said...

Your blogs are awesome. Keep up the good work. I am soooo proud of you.

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