Cultural Differences: It doesn’t just mean more baguettes.

The first thing that my roommates learn about me is that I like to go to bed early. I’m happy to wake up at 6AM, and I’m perfectly content to stay out the entire day. But when I come back to home base, I like to stay there and recover from my day filled with stimulation. And living in a foreign country comes with a lot of new stimulation. However, I’ve discovered it’s a very weird thing to be my age and NOT go out at night. At first, this change of pace was quite frustrating. Coming home every evening only to be asked if I was finally going to go out–and responding “No,” each time with an increasing feeling of shame–got a little tiring.

But! I did start going out. I started looking for events. I started accepting more invitations to spend a night out. On the whole, it’s been a fun change. Also a learning experience. I’m not the sort of person who jumps headfirst into new situations, but I’m sort of being forced to. And frequently, I’m enjoying it!

The Opera, one of my favorite places to go at night.
The Opera House, one of my favorite places to go at night.

The second BIG cultural difference I’ve encountered is the attitude towards snacking. In the US, we’ll gladly eat an apple, a brownie or some crackers at 3:30 to tide us over until dinner.  In France, however, snacking is viewed as a big misstep, health-wise. It’s quite common to see signs saying “Pour votre santé, ne pas grignoter entre les repas,” which means “For your health, don’t eat between meals.” I’ve seen this sentence on the signs of doors to crêperies, bakeries, and on advertisements for any food that could be eaten as a snack. It goes in the same place as public service announcements like, “Pour votre santé, avoid the overconsumption of alchohol,” “Pour votre santé, exercise twice daily,” or “Pour votre santéeat five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.”

However, just as in the US, posting PSAs does not guarantee that they will be followed. Not everybody exercises twice daily (though jogging is quite a popular sport in Rennes). I’ve encountered quite a few drunk French people. And at least in Brittany, vegetables are not the first thing to go on a plate. In my experience, that honor goes to bread, potatoes, and pasta. (MVP awarded to butter.)

Still, while you do see people going out for a coffee and pastry around 4PM, snacking is not a habit. To see it so discouraged continues to startle me! At first, this difference was actually one of the most difficult things to get used to, especially since the average dinner time is 8PM. I’ve eaten as late as 9. The good news is, lunches are extremely large! The idea is just to eat three larger meals a day and walk a lot in between.

Basically, once I completely stop snacking and start going out every night, that’s when I’ll know I’ve become a true French person!

Day Trip to Dinan!

One of the nicest things about France is the dirt cheap transportation around the region. Last weekend, my friends and I decided to visit one of the most beautiful towns in Bretagne. Dinan has a rich medieval history, so the historic district is full of buildings, walls, and towers from the middle ages. We spent the day exploring! As nice as it is to have the official CIEE excursions to look forward to (Mont St. Michel, St. Malo, and lots of castles), it felt great to figure out how to travel someplace else independently. We ended up taking a bus and it only cost about 8 euros round trip. The bus line also goes to Dinard, a city on the coast, and through Bécherel, an adorable old town known for its bookstores.

We were so lucky that the sun was shining all day! Our pictures turned out beautifully. Since we basically went to Dinan solely to admire its gorgeous architecture, I think it’s best to let the photos speak for themselves:

The old medieval wall
The old medieval wall.
At the top of the tower
At the top of the tower!
A view of lower Dinan from Upper Dinan
A view of lower Dinan from Upper Dinan.
This church was one of my favorites, but it might have had to do with the unusual day of sunshine. The light filtering in through the stained-glass windows filled the entire cathedral with rainbows!
This church was one of my favorites, but it might have had to do with the unusual day of sunshine. The light filtering in through the stained-glass windows filled the entire cathedral with rainbows!
One of the aforementioned rainbows
One of the aforementioned rainbows.

We walked off the side of the road and found old stone walls and steps. We stopped to rest on the side of the road and found old stone walls and steps built into the hillside. The deteriorated state of the structure helped make the age of the town much more real to me. Sadly, it’s easy to get used to pretty walls all over the place. But when you see ruins, your brain instantly registers the amount of time it must have taken for that building to crumble, and you end up standing in the grass with the sun and wind on your face, honored to be where you are.

Tour de Catherine

In Which We Start Actually Studying

It’s the first week of classes at CIREFE!

Left: A sunny day at Rennes II. Right: The language building of Rennes II and home to CIREFE and CIEE. It's called simply "Building E."
Left: A sunny day at Rennes II. Right: The language building of Rennes II and home to CIREFE and CIEE. Like all the campus’s alphabetically-inclined names, it’s called simply “Building E.”

Finally, every last bit of orientation is over and we get to start attending real classes! The last three weeks were absolutely exhausting because every day was different. Sometimes we attended classes at a place called Langue et Communications, which specialized in teaching French to foreigners.  Other times we would go to the CIEE classroom at Rennes II to talk about cultural differences. One afternoon we had a tour of Rennes’ historic district, and one evening we had a wine tasting seminar. Some days we had nothing at all! Even though it was really nice to have this period of time to get used to life in France, I’m glad to be settling down with a real schedule and some idea of what lies ahead!

CIEE is a subset of CIREFE (Centre International Rennais d’Études de Français pour Étrangers) which deals specifically with students from the United States. Most of the things we’ve done in January have been a part of the CIEE program, but now we’re starting to integrate with everyone else! I was a little confused for a while about how everything fit together, so I made a little diagram:

CIEE diagramCIEE also arranges homestays for its students.

Anyone level B2 and above can take a class at Rennes II, but CIEE specially sets up the translation course for anyone interested. I decided to enroll, and so far, it’s been really interesting! We have one class for English to French and another for French to English (waaaaay easier). Both professors are British, so we’re learning some Anglicisms along with vastly expanding our French vocabulary.

I’m also taking the Teaching Practicum (teaching English as a Foreign Language), and I’m auditing the Seminar on Living and Learning. But neither of those has really gotten underway yet. Hopefully more posts on that to come!

 

Rennes

Le Place de La Mairie et l'hôtel de ville (City Hall)
Le Place de La Mairie et l’hôtel de ville (City Hall)

All I can say is: I’m so glad I picked Rennes.

I come from a small town and the idea of living in a city made me feel extremely wary. Most of the grand metropolises I’ve visited have seemed less grand and more smoggy, noisy, and claustrophobic. How can I enjoy all a city has to offer if I can’t breathe in it?

In Rennes, none of these things is true. The noise level may have increased a little, but it’s mostly the distant murmuring of café customers, occasional traffic noises, and the rare police siren. And a lot of high-heel-on-sidewalk clicking.

Nor is Rennes claustrophobic. When I visited New York City, I felt like I was suffocating because of how many people were crammed into one space. The buildings stretched so high, I felt like they made a ceiling that trapped us inside. Here, while I may live in a high rise nestled among a few others, the city is mostly composed of smaller buildings–four stories at the most. In fact, on Saturday I managed to get away from buildings altogether. I went for a run, deciding to just follow a canal that runs by my apartment, and within a half hour I found myself running by grassy fields and tractors!

soldesHowever,even though Rennes is pretty small as cities go, the energy doesn’t go anywhere! Right now, the Soldes are going on, so the streets are full of people shopping, selling roasted chestnuts, and playing all sorts of instruments.The Soldes are basically Black Friday for about a month. But there aren’t any other sales throughout the year, so most people take advantage of the opportunity. Even if you don’t buy anything, it’s fun just to walk through the streets of the centre-ville admiring the variety of all the little shops!

Le Marché des Lices on Saturdays
Le Marché des Lices on Saturdays.

As for city smog, unless you walk directly behind one of the ten billion French people who smoke, it’s non-existent. It rains so much here, any toxins in the air simply disappear. I couldn’t believe how fresh the air smells!

The rain, of course, means that I can’t go anywhere without an umbrella. Don’t let a bright morning sun fool you! Last Saturday, I woke up and decided to visit the outdoor market in the gorgeous warm sunshine. Not a cloud in sight. Since the conditions were perfect and I didn’t want to be hindered by having to carry stuff, I decided to ditch the umbrella. Boy, was I sorry. At 2PM, without warning, it poured. I was soaked in seconds and had to endure the stares of hundreds of French people and their sturdy black umbrellas as I scurried back to my apartment. Never again will I reject the sage warnings of my host mother!

The Places des Lices
Le Places des Lices–not on a Saturday.

Luckily, all the rain makes the sunny days all the more wonderful. Every time the sun cracks through the clouds, everyone tells us to profitez bien while the sun shines. So we do!

 

14.00

Bienvenue En France!

Today marks the start of my second week in France. This sounds absolutely ridiculous to say out loud and in print, because with everything I’ve done, I feel like I ought to have been here for at least double that time.

We all arrived in Paris on January 6 to report for Orientation. I’d flown overnight, as had most everyone else, and we were all extremely jetlagged. We met the Resident Director of CIEE-Rennes at the airport and a bus took us to the hostel. And then…we saw as much of Paris as is humanly possible in three days.

I do not exaggerate when I say there wasn’t a single moment when I wasn’t having fun. We were a big group, so it was pretty obvious we were tourists, but the program gave us different options of things to do each day. Every morning we could pick between to places—hmm, the Eiffel Tower, or the Louvre?—and then after lunch we all had a mandatory excursion with a tour guide. One day we went to Montmarte (a small mountain in the northern part of Paris also home to the Sacré-Cœur Basilica), and the other, Isle de la Cité (one of Paris’ two islands and the place with—maybe you’ve heard of it?—Notre Dame Cathedral).

View from the top of Montmartre--a photo doesn't do it justice, so go see it in person!
View from the top of Montmartre–a photo doesn’t do it justice, so go see it in person!

I also had the privilege of being able to visit the Paris Catacombs, a relatively unknown location full of history. We paid a group fee to have a tour in English, which turned out to be invaluable. The Catacombs are both an old quarry and an ossuary. They weren’t even in Paris at one point—which is why they have all the bones. The condition of the Parisian cemeteries was at one point so bad that Louis XIV ordered them all to be emptied and put into the quarry he had just ordered to be mapped. They think there’s around 6 million people buried in there.

Skulls arranged to resemble a doorway to heaven.
Skulls arranged to resemble a doorway to heaven.

If you want to be simultaneously awed and creeped out, visit Les Catacombes. Even though I was super interested in the story of the quarry and catacombs, I felt a little freaked out by the series of tunnels with bones stacked about five or six feet high. I was expecting some sort of barrier between us and the remains of human beings, but nope! I could have reached out, grabbed a skull, and said “Alas, poor Yorick!” if I’d wanted. But I was told I’d be fined if I did that, so I refrained.

A carving done by one of the quarry workers. According to our guide, he had planned to show it to his friends the very day he was crushed to death while working.
A carving done by one of the quarry workers. According to our guide, he had planned to show it to his friends the very day he was crushed to death while working.

Not what you picture when you think of Paris, eh?

After a couple days, of course, we all climbed on a bus and headed to Rennes, where we’re eagerly and nervously waiting for our classes to begin! À bientôt! See you soon!