Skip to main content

Hutton Honors College

 — Indiana University

Christian Larson, an Oxford, Ohio native, majored in history and French. Christian spent his junior year abroad in Aix-en-Provence, France.
Christian Nils Larson
Academic Year 2001-02

The bus swerves around corners at uncomfortable speeds, but no one seems to notice. My bags fall all over the place, while everyone else's are clutched calmly at their sides. I'm wearing a collared shirt with khakis, and everyone else is wearing black. I'm feeling a little out of place.

As the shuttle zooms between the various terminals at Paris's Charles de Gaulle Airport, I glance nervously at my watch. I have a reservation on the train to Marseille that leaves in 20 minutes. In French, I call up to the driver from the middle of the bus, 'is this stop the train station ?' No one responds. I call again, 'is this stop the train station?' A girl my age timidly shakes her head 'no.' I approach the bus driver three stops later and ask him which stop is the train station, and he responds, 'it was the last stop, Monsieur.' I asked him why he didn't indicate that fact to me, as he had heard me call out earlier, and he curtly replied, 'you didn't ask me, Monsieur.'

I missed that train, and had to go into Paris to take the next train, which got me into Marseille several hours later than planned, and into Aix-en-Provence with just enough time for the receptionist at my hotel to inform me that my room had been sold because they thought I wasn't coming.

My year in France was off to a frustrating start.

Flash to mid-November, ten weeks later. After rolling out of bed in my loft, which is decorated with seventeenth century frescos, I climb downstairs to fix my French toast in my well-equipped kitchen, complete with a view of a courtyard. I'm worried about finding time to go shopping for tonight's dinner party: What kind of wine I should pick up? Should I go to Florence or Lyon this weekend? Out of necessity, I push those thoughts aside and grab my school bag-I have to get to the market before it closes, and then off to class-today is the Bolshevik Revolution in my Russian Geopolitics class. I lock the door of my gorgeous, just-renovated apartment, and walk down the Provençal tiled staircase, through the huge foyer, before throwing open the heavy oak door that opens onto the street. Centreville Aix-en-Provence. I live right in the center of the historic district in an old Hôtel Particuliér building that was built for the noble families in the seventeenth century. Fifty feet to my left is the thermal fountain on Aix's Main Street, the Cours Mirabeau.

I'm all prepared to march off of my doorstep, and head north to the Place Richelme for the open-air market, when I notice a girl my age, with a traveler's backpack and pleading eyes, standing directly in front of me. Our glances meet and she begins to speak to me in a mix of broken French and English. Apparently, she is American, lost in the city, doesn't have a place to sleep that night, and has a terrible sore throat. I let her tell me all that, responding with 'oui' and 'oh la la,' before I spit out in rapid fire English, 'don't worry, I'll take care of you.' I gave her directions to the Office of Tourism, the French vocabulary necessary to order cough drops and DayQuil, and told her that if she didn't find a place to sleep, to come by later and I'd help her find a cheap hotel. She was dumbfounded. First off, she thought I was French and couldn't believe that I spoke English, and second, once she realized that I was American, she couldn't believe that I lived in Aix, in the center of the old town, and that I knew the city like the back of my hand. She asked, 'you live here?' Yes, I replied. 'You live here?' Yes I replied. 'Wow,' was her response.

When I think about it, I really made some huge changes in that 10 weeks. I learned quickly that the bus driver at the airport was just following the French norm of not calling things out. Conversations take place face to face, and quietly. When I first arrived in Aix, I felt like I had to whisper to speak at the same level as the French. Speaking softly quickly became the norm, and I picked out American tourists simply by the volume of their voices. Clothing made a big difference as well. I didn't by any means look French, but I sure didn't look American anymore. Gone were the bluejeans and concert T-shirts. Gone were the IU sweatshirts. In were turtleneck pulls, dark slacks, and smart shoes.

I had grown accustomed to the breakneck speed French drivers maintain, and had learned to travel light. I knew to ask the bus driver first thing to signal my stop, and they were always happy to do so.

It's amazing how quickly something so different can become so familiar. For me, that is what I love about traveling-learning to understand the differences in order to discover all the similarities. Looking into that girl's eyes and seeing her complete and utter despair, I realized that my mere ten weeks had already given me the knowledge and attitude necessary to feel comfortable in a foreign place. The learning curve in the months that followed was exponential.