by Mariia Minaeva
There were two things I had heard about the Erasmus programme – international students do not have a responsible attitude to studying and have crazy parties that prevent locals from sleeping. There were two things I had heard about France – French people like complaining a lot and do not speak English (or, if you are lucky enough, they do, but only with their famous French accent). Are these just long-standing stereotypes claimed by the people who have only seen it from the outside, or simple facts noted by someone who has experienced it firsthand? Before the beginning of my Erasmus stay in France, I was prepared for both options. And – maybe at least a little bit – I was eager to prove them wrong.
“You must travel it for yourself” (W. Whitman, Song of Myself, 46)
My spring semester at the University of Caen Normandy started very early, in the second week of January. So, instead of calmly preparing for the exams at Masaryk University I was desperately trying to put a couple more French words in my head. The thought of going to Normandy had a romantic aura which, as I later concluded, was connected to the image of the sea.
Just the very idea of living twenty minutes from the seashore made my landlocked heart
flutter with sudden memories of childhood.
I remember how my mom waved at me asking to get out of the water, so I ran, sand sticking to my wet feet, and she covered me with a blanket. Except now I am a student and there are deadlines to meet and essays to write and a future to be thought about. Yet the sea was still in front of me and the sand was still finding its way into my boots. To add to the magical feeling, when I was in my small dormitory room, I could hear the seagulls cry, drawlingly and freely.
The day-to-day life of the university is concentrated around the campus. The students circulate between the dormitories and university buildings, sit on the floor of the glass hallway of the Department of the Foreign Languages building which is bathed in the setting sun, laugh on their way to one of the cafes (the first rule of being French, as I was told, is to never miss a meal!), or lie on the grassy hillsides between lectures. Almost all lectures are followed by seminars, so every week there is a double load of each subject. Some subjects only consist of seminars, so in general, it seems like the program is concentrated mostly on practising the language. I felt like the courses focusing on the development of comprehension
skills helped me to work on my analytical abilities, whereas the lessons of Oral Practice were a good platform for easy communication with timid fellow students. “The weather here in Normandy is cold so we are a bit cold too”, one of the professors said to me.
Speaking about practice, before coming to France I had heard that one should not hope to learn the language of the country they go to since during Erasmus everyone speaks English, both the university staff and international students from different places. Well, in France it works the other way around. One cannot function without the French language. If something needs to be done, it will be done in French, which is paradise for a French learner! I believe a lot of people can agree that one of the worst feelings in the world is when they say something in their target language to a native speaker but get the answer in English (even when their English is by no means better than the foreigner’s knowledge of their language). It did not happen in Caen. Say “bonjour” and get treated as a profound C2 level speaker. Or C1 at least, since, to their credit, people, in a very nice way, checked from time to time if I still followed what they were saying. Even international students used French and not English during conversations, for instance I saw two girls from the USA speaking to each other in French. Was it a fervent dedication to the language study or was it something in the French air?
“Do you hear the people sing?” (Les Misérables, musical, 1985)
One of the points that spiced up my stay were the ongoing protests. I was curious to see whether it is really as severe as it is shown in the media, or if all the photos of the new-age Robespierres standing on top of the cars against the background of the vandalized Arch of Triumph and the burning tyres are just the usual exaggerations of journalists. Well, in Caen, there were no barricades and no piles of objects set on fire. However, every Saturday when I went to the shop to buy some cheese, I could see the protesters
gathering right in the middle of the city, in the Château de Caen, a castle built by William the Conqueror around the year 1060. For me it turned into a Saturday French language class which included reading the revolutionary placards on the streets which appeared, with enviable regularity, every Friday night and were torn down every Sunday morning. So, in general, I would definitely say that it resonated with people.
It was discussed a lot at the university.
Any theme could eventually lead to the protests and a lecture about the politics of Henry VIII would turn into a lively debate about Emmanuel Macron.
Even though at the university it only stayed on the level of speaking, it did not prevent the international students from nervously asking in the chat whether there were any classes on the day of the national strike. It seems like the media had done its work on scaring people, after all.
However, even I was affected by the current events, although only marginally. One Saturday I found myself in another city without the possibility of returning since all the transport was unexpectedly cancelled because of the strike. But before I even got to a state of despair, a lovely old French couple who were passing by said they could give me a ride. That day I learnt that revolution brings people closer. And that I should not take buses on a Saturday.
“To the beach!” (Mr. Bean’s Holiday, film, 2007)
Five months passed quickly and when I was already planning to come back, it turned out that France had one last surprise for me. It was a parting gift in the form of an opportunity to visit the Cannes Film Festival! I have always been a huge cinema admirer and have followed the festival news for several years. But it was a closed event accessible only to the filmmakers or other people involved. Reading the headlines with the names of the famous film directors and looking at the sunny pictures of actors enjoying their moments of glory have been the only option to get closer to this enchanting world of cinema. However, things have changed and now, thanks to a special new programme for young movie fans, it is possible for anyone to get accreditation. The only thing one has to do is to write a motivation
letter. I did it just for fun and without any thoughts of actually getting a positive answer. To my overwhelming surprise, after a couple of days I received an invitation letter. The festival is saturated in the feeling of cultural connectedness and exchange. The chosen films from entirely different countries lavishly alternate with the American works – whether it is something new like The Dead Don’t Die by Jim Jarmusch or a piece of the classics like Easy Rider which received the First Film Award in Cannes 1969 – and are seen through the lens of Europeanization, all together soaked in the French atmosphere.
Add to this the glowing sun, the sea, everyone’s excitement – and get the pure essence of joy.
What can be said after it came to an end? I believe I took from my Erasmus stay all that I could. The ticks in my “To Do” list are there: language was improved, foreign people were met, new places were seen. But there is always something more than that – a feeling of extending the frames of one’s world and together with them broadening the limits of one’s thoughts. And it is surely worth dealing with the documents and stressing over something from time to time. The world has a fascinating ability to endow – so giving the world a chance is always worth it.