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Hutton Honors College

 — Indiana University

Cassandra Stekly
Spring 2002

It is a truly daunting task to sum up the most monumental learning experience of one's life in just a page or two, but nonetheless I will attempt to do justice to my five month overseas study experience in Paris, France.

When I first arrived in France, I have to admit that I was terrified. I felt insecure about my knowledge of the French language, nervous about my classes, worried about my housing, and lonely without my family and friends. I was also completely out of my element. Nothing was familiar to me, and I was too nervous to speak French the first few days and I ate very little. I found a McDonald's where the employees spoke English and it was my security blanket for that first weekend. On the third day, I decided I had had it with "Le Big Mac" so armed with my phrasebook and motivated by starvation, I decided to venture into society and order a sandwich. I had figured out the metro very quickly and I had decided to explore the Latin Quarter and find the buildings where my classes were to be held. I walked into a tiny cafe on the Boulevard St. Michel, affectionately called the Boul-Mich by students, and ordered a sandwich and orange juice in French. The woman behind the counter was extremely friendly and warm to me and at that moment, I realized that the things I had heard about French snobbery and unfriendliness were complete myths.

Having reflected on my experience, I have realized that this is a major theme that emerged from my studies abroad learning that most of my preconceived notions about other cultures were myths. The French are warm, wonderful, and I made many friends in Paris. I found that if one makes just the slightest effort to speak then- language and respect their customs, then it is easy to be accepted into French society. I also had a chance to visit England, Italy,

Spain, Greece, Belgium and Switzerland while I was abroad, and I came to similar conclusions: that learning just the basics of each language and being respectful of every culture is the key to learning as much as possible about another country's way of life.

After enjoying my first sandwich in that cafe, my fears seemed to evaporate. I stepped onto the street with a new outlook about living abroad, and I really began to enjoy myself. This enjoyment and appreciation of French culture only increased as I spent more time in France. My classes at the Sorbonne University were equally satisfying and I found that total immersion in the French language soon improved my communication skills to the point that I felt comfortable in almost every situation that I encountered. I was even able to help teach a group of Chinese immigrants to develop their French language skills at the Baha'i Center in Paris.

I happily threw myself into my life abroad. I joined a dance troupe that performed on several occasions while I was overseas. There were about twenty French youth in the group and one girl from South Africa. These interesting individuals became my closest French friends. It was not long before I figured out the secrets to living in Paris. I explored all the English-language bookstores in town and I joined the American Library in Paris because it was a good place to go when I wanted to see if I could still remember how to speak English. I found the bookstores that sold used French books for low prices. I discovered cafes that offered three sumptuous courses for less than ten US dollars, where to go for a good cup of coffee, the cheapest Internet cafe in the Latin Quarter, and where to get inexpensive tickets to French plays and operas. I scoped out the best quiche in town for 1.84 Euros (about $1.60) at Inno, and the movie theaters that gave student discounts. It amazed me how much I learned just by talking to others. After my hairdresser told me that she got a massage and a facial at the Mosque in Paris for an insanely low price, my friends and I went there for an afternoon of pampering. After complaining that I was being followed home from the Metro to my apartment (which unfortunately was not in the nicest neighborhood) at night, my Parisian friend Sophie advised me to cover my hair with a scarf late at night. I was not followed home after that. After speaking to my professors after class, I picked up the names of some great non-touristy Parisian restaurants and good day trips.

Every day I spent in Paris I learned something new; every day was like living in a dream. It was fascinating to be in an unfamiliar environment where everything was new and unusual to me. The cars were smaller, the buildings were older and much more beautiful, and the food was decadent. I never had a bad meal in France and found it amusing that the words low-calorie and low fat just didn't translate. Furthermore, it was amazing to be surrounded by such a sense of history. The past is everywhere in Paris; from the gothic Notre Dame to the Belle Epoque Galeries Lafayette to the Art Nouveau Pompidou Center, it is evident that every era leaves its mark on the City of Light. In turn, Paris left its mark on me.

I learned so much about myself while I was overseas. Not only have I learned a new language and earned a certificate of proficiency m French from the Sorbonne University, but also I have formed lasting friendships and gained confidence in my ability to integrate into a culture completely different from my own. I will never forget my brief stay in Paris, and I hope to go back someday for a longer period of time. I would like to sincerely thank the Honors College for so generously helping me to finance this monumental learning experience.