A Home Away From Home

Oseas Benjamin Hudy-Velasco
Senior (5th yr) / Aerospace Engineering
Spring Semester 2017 (4 months)
Aix-en-Provence, France – IAU College
Area of Study: French Language

On January 19th, one day before Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president of
the United States, I boarded a plane in Lansing, MI, the first of three which would dart me across the globe to a place of which I had heard but where I had never been. My destination was Aix-en-Provence, France, a city in the south of France, “just 30 minutes north of Marseille,” as I like to mention. It was the beginning of four months of exploration, of learning, of discovering more about myself and my relationship to the world.

I arrived in France with an intermediate mastery of the French language; certainly my
vocabulary and grammar were sufficient to allow me to communicate, but my fluency and comfort with the language could both improve. This was precisely why I had decided to study abroad: to improve my fluency and ease of expression in this other language I had decided to make my own. And I believe I succeeded in this endeavour. Over the next four months, I would learn a score of new words a day (literally at least 20), order lunch, take 19 credits of classes, and return home to discuss the day’s events and politics of the week- all in a foreign language. As the semester went by, these tasks grew easier. Where at the beginning of the semester I might have waited 5 minutes before ordering food, going over my sentence structure over and over to ensure it was correct, by the end of the semester I was comfortable enough in French that I could talk pleasantries with shopkeepers. During late night encounters with French 20-somethings, discussing Trump and healthcare, surprise was often shown when I said I was an American, because of the fluency of my French. Even my host mother commented on the improvement of my language skills, saying I had become more conversational during dinner as the months progressed.

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But the classroom was not the only reason I went abroad. In the 21 years of life before traveling abroad last spring, I had traveled to 8 countries other than the United States. Sometime during those trips, I learned the wonder of leaving home to go to an unknown place: both the awe of seeing new lands and the surprising realizations made when one has returned. In my previous travels abroad, I had the opportunity to analyze the cultures of the United States and of the countries I visited from the perspective of a foreigner and this was also true of this study abroad experience. During my time in France and in the travels I undertook while in Europe, I had the chance to talk to many
people from several different countries- Uruguay, Israel, Argentina, Brazil, Finland, Germany, to name a few. The concerns of all these people for the wellbeing of the world and for what the future holds resonated with me, especially in light of the then-recent inauguration of President Trump and his worrying stance on issues such as racial tensions, immigration, women’s rights, and climate change. Through many a
late-night discussion, I discovered that though we might disagree as to the method to
resolve these problems, we all wished for a betterment of humanity and of the world. This sense of shared purpose among a global community was a reassurance and a reminder that we are all humans living together on planet Earth.

In addition to this sense of a global community, studying abroad forced me to reevaluate my lifestyle here in the United States by showing me a different way to live. This was due to one of the classes I took in particular, Cross-Cultural Studies on Food and Culture. In this class, we examined the methods of food production around the world, especially the industrialization and mass production that has occurred since World War II. This is the source of much of the food around the world and in the United States especially, food that is processed mechanically and treated chemically until it is very different from crops and livestock tended with care and devotion. In contrast, the culture in France is one that values local food production according to the seasons and eschews the highly-processed snacks and foods that are so popular in the United States. When you can walk to the market in the center of town every day for fresh food, why would you ever choose to eat cheese puffs? Of course, this decision was easier to make in France, where there are markets year-round and snow doesn’t make you dream of pineapple and strawberries in January. Nevertheless, one of the enduring resolutions that has come out of my studying abroad is a greater awareness of where our food comes from and what is in it in an effort to eat better quality and healthier food.

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As well as reexamining my own culture, I was fortunate to be able to briefly savor various unique cultures. One of the most evident of these cultures is the Maghrebian culture, an export of North Africa that has followed immigration into France. Three of the most striking examples of this culture I experienced are the elaborate ceremony of drinking mint tea, the communal cooking of couscous, and riding a camel. As part of the aforementioned Food and Culture class, we would cook meals to put in practice the wholesome food ideas we learned.

One of the things I have always heard people say about their time studying abroad is
experiencing new things. Being outside of a familiar environment forces you to “remake”
your life, finding new friends and new pastimes to inhabit the hours empty of their routine. One of the new pastimes I developed while living abroad, interestingly, was swing dancing. Though this is typically thought of as an American tradition, it turns out that there is a fairly strong swing community in the south of France, with a swing association in both Aix and Marseille. At the end of the semester, I took part in a two-day swing dancing workshop that took place during a “vintage fair,” celebrating the Americana of the 50s and 60s. I came to be involved in swing dancing as a result of my friendship with Danielle Ely and Zachary Schutze, students also in my program whose home universities were Wheaton College and Baylor University, respectively. When they discovered there were several students in the program who would be interested in learning how to swing dance, they decided to host weekly dance classes and so I found myself swing dancing with French people at a local vineyard in May. It was a blast!

While I had gotten better at communicating in French over the course of the four months I lived in Aix, spending two days surrounded by French people was still a novel experience. As my host university was a school for American students to come and learn French, I always had people of my same background, who spoke English fluently and were learning French. In a way, French was a the “outsider” culture during my classes, but here… here English was the outsider culture and I was the novelty. Though it was a little nerve-racking, I appreciated the chance to see a local celebration and a different part of France, as well as the perspective the vintage festival offered on the cultural memory of the United States. I found it fascinating that even though France is treated as being a cultural motor for the world, in this case the United States was being copied in this celebration of antiques and decades gone by and the hipster culture that has grown in the past several years. It was not something I was expecting to see in France.

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As I’ve mentioned, during my time abroad I travelled to 16 different countries in 9 trips. Among those, the trip to San Marino and northern Italy is one of my favorites. On this trip, two of my friends and I rented a (manual transmission car) and drove from Aix to
an Airbnb near the small country of San Marino. As my daily routine used buses and walking as means of transportation, I enjoyed getting behind the wheel of a car again and enjoying the autonomy of movement an automobile affords. While the drive was long (about 7 hours), the views along the the Mediterranean were spectacular and waking up in the middle of the Italian countryside was one of the best vistas of my life. This trip was also made special because one of my goals during my stay in
Europe was to visit as many of the micro-countries as I could, and visiting San Marino
crossed off one of those countries on my list. The foot during this trip was also great, from the pasta to the pizza to the gelato and of course, the wine. What I enjoyed the most about this trip was the chance to travel around the countryside with more autonomy than is usually possible when taking public transportation. The rules of the road were fairly similar and I had little trouble adjusting- and Lord knows that after driving through (and getting lost in) downtown Florence on a Sunday with the streets full of tourists, I will never again feel nervous driving through a city!

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I spent just over four months living in Aix-en-Provence, going to school and living my life. I traveled almost every weekend and visited over a dozen countries. I greatly improved my mastery of the French language and grew more comfortable interacting with people in a language with which I was not so comfortable. I made friends from around the United States and around the world, friends I stay in contact with even today. Even though it delayed my graduation by a year, going to France was an experience thoroughly worthwhile and I would do it again in a heartbeat. Whenever I next visit to Europe, I will definitely visit Aix again, a home away from home.

 

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