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Cultural Immersion From the Comfort of My Own Home

By Camille

The summer before I entered high school, my grandmother took me on a two-week trip to Paris. I had never been out of the United States before, and had only been out of California to visit my great grandmother in St. Louis. I eagerly packed my bags and couldn’t wait for the airplane to set off.

The minute we landed, I fell in love with Paris. I adored the Haussmann-style architecture, the small cafes that line the streets, the French pastries, the museums, the high fashion. We even found a taxidermy store that was featured in the movie “Midnight in Paris” tucked in the upper floor of a garden store. It is these unexpected treasures that make Paris so intriguing to me.

Me in a Parisian perfume shop during my 2016 trip.

After spending two weeks immersed in French culture, I decided I wanted to return to Paris one day, maybe even to live there. Prior to the vacation, I was all set to study Spanish as my foreign language in high school. This seemed to make the most sense since I live in California, but I discovered that my true passion was French.

As my quest to learn French evolved, this dream began to form in my head of studying abroad, either as a gap year or once in college (or both!). While travel is off the table for me this year, I knew that I wanted to use part of my new found time to further my language skills. I’ve done my best to create cultural immersion from home, with the help of an online French conversation class offered by my local community college.

The theme of the class is French cinema of the 20th century, and I have loved every minute of it (well, maybe not every minute, but more on that later). The teacher is French, and has a degree in film, meaning that she is very knowledgeable in terms of both film history and general French history. Everything we do is in French there is no English discussion- we meet weekly to discuss the previous week’s film in French, and then listen to the teacher lecture in French about the upcoming film for the following week. We go deep into the context, making, and content of each film. As part of her lecture, the teacher distributes a document that usually consists of around thirty pages of notes, links to extra interviews, and documentary clips. I never thought it possible for me to comprehend that much French, but I find myself having to look up less and less words. The class is scheduled for two hours every Thursday evening, but our discussions are often so lively that the class lasts close to three.

The most important part about this class for me has been the conversational aspect. This was always something I felt my French at school was lacking, and I developed a comfort zone rooted in reading and writing. This class for me has really been about stretching outside of these confines and just speaking, even if that means throwing in an English word here and there. It’s a very mixed-level class, which can definitely be uncomfortable at times. When you are placed in a breakout room to discuss certain aspects of the film for ten minutes with someone who is semi-fluent, it’s intimidating. The challenging part is being able to convey complex ideas in another language, often around topics that require more obscure vocabulary. I often have all these ideas swimming around in my head, but they’re English. It’s a constant game of translation, racking my brain for the right words. I would love to reach the point where this intermediate step doesn’t exist, where the thought just occurs in French. But while I’m on my way to that point, I’ve learned to just take a breath and jump in, remembering that every language learner shares in my struggles.

 

Far From Home

By Maia

Ever since Friday March 13th, the last day I stepped into a classroom, traveling to Israel to begin my gap year has seemed like my ticket out of the pandemic. I planned my gap year before the pandemic and luckily I have not had to change my plans. Knowing my next steps during a confusing time in the lives of many people has made me feel incredibly grateful for my circumstance and the chance to be a part of a cohort of Duke students on similar but diverse journeys. I see my year in Israel as a unique opportunity to learn in a different way and begin Duke with a better understanding of how I want to dedicate my time. I’ll be taking classes at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a center for pluralistic Jewish thought in Jerusalem, and for the first time, I will focus on my studies without the added pressure of receiving a grade. Even though I know very little about archaeology, I would like to intern at an archaeological dig once a week, something I would never otherwise have the opportunity to do.

To prepare for my gap year, I am attempting to master a few recipes as I will have to cook for myself and others. For the first time, I am spending many hours learning Hebrew on Duolingo. I’m still figuring out how I will fit a year’s worth of clothes into one suitcase and I am nervously awaiting my two weeks in quarantine once I arrive in Israel. I choose to select that I am “averagely clean” rather than “organized and proper” on my rooming survey. I’ll be living in a three-bedroom apartment, with six people and I was hoping that if I presented myself as “organized and proper” my roommates may be neat and clean people. Unfortunately, my family has strongly disagreed with this description of my cleanliness guiding me to honestly describe myself as “averagely clean.” Hopefully, my roommate will have a more generous opinion, and maybe at Duke, I can finally define myself as “organized and proper.”

In less than a month I will be living with a group of people, Israelis and North Americans with different backgrounds and experiences including religious observance. I’m looking forward to adapting to living with people who have grown up very differently from myself. I know I will likely be eating kosher food and maybe I will choose to accompany some friends to religious services. At the same time, I have no way of anticipating the everyday challenges and meaningful moments that will define my year abroad. That’s the daunting and great thing about taking a gap year.

Makee in Marais

I’m halfway through my semester in Paris (a sentence I can’t believe I’m typing–I feel like I just got here), and feeling more comfortable with my daily routine. I thought it would be interesting to walk you through an average week in my life.

Monday through Friday, I go to French class from 10-12 AM at the Sorbonne, one of the oldest universities in France. I wake up around 8:30AM, eat a quick breakfast if I’m not still half asleep, and walk to the nearest metro stop. I live in the Marais, an amazing historic and cultural hub of Paris, and I’m lucky to have 3 major metro lines right outside my door. I hop on to line 4, ride that for three stops, switch to line 1, ride that for eight stops, and walk to my classroom. The commute takes me around twenty minutes every morning, but with the infamous, relentless French strikes, sometimes it can be tricky to get from point A to point B.

In my 10AM class, I study French literature and grammar alongside 15 other students. I am one of the youngest in my class, and the only American. It’s been really interesting to learn a foreign language without having the ability to fall back on a shared dominant one. Since most people do not speak English in my class, when there is confusion about a French word or phrase, my teacher does not resort to simply translating said word/phrase into a different language. Instead, we get to work our way to understanding the problem at hand using our French, which has deepened my understanding of the language in an interesting new way. I am in a C1 level class (we took a placement test to determine our level), so most of the students are hoping to pass this class to obtain a certificate which will allow them to study in a French university for graduate school.

After class, I grab lunch with friends and then head to an afternoon activity organized by my gap program. Tuesdays and Thursdays we explore Paris in a group. The activities range from baking traditional French pastries, visiting the first street art museum housed on a boat, touring the Catacombs, and facilitating discussions on important cultural differences between France and the United States. One of my favorite activities so far has been going to a Drouot art auction, a multi-story building open to the public to attend the auction and bid on pieces of art.

After the hour long excursion, I typically grab another snack with friends and venture off with them to do our own exploring. I’ve gone to countless museums, thrift stores, canals, monuments, plays, etc. in my afternoons in Paris. One of my favorite parts of French culture is how culturally engaged French people are. It’s not abnormal to find a group of teenagers excitedly gathering in line to be the first at the opening night of an art exhibition, or to see bookstores brimming with people buying new books and chatting. It seems to me that learning is an integral part of the French way of life–particularly learning outside of the classroom–and that’s something I’ve strived to incorporate in my own life here.

I return home to my host mom’s apartment around 8PM. We’ll have dinner together, or I’ll cook for myself, or, more often than not, my host mom will spontaneously have an idea to go to a photography exhibition or comedy show and bring me along for the night. My host mom, Dominique, is amazing. She’s a TV producer and is very involved in the arts in Paris, which has been fascinating for me to learn more about.

On weekends, I’ll have long, delicious dinners with friends. We explore the city some more (Paris will never, ever get boring to walk around), and go to more museums/thrift store, etc. At nights, I’ve had so much fun connecting with other students through Erasmus, which is a European student exchange program that hosts events to help international students connect with locals ones. I’ve met people from all over the world, all walks of life, and find myself speaking French in the most unexpected places.

My weeks here have been busy and full of adventure, each one different from the next. It’s been exciting to develop a sort of routine–my metro commute, my go-to pastry shop, memorizing my French phone number–but equally exciting to be unrestrained by a tight schedule. I’m excited to see what the next few weeks hold!