“I am writing this on a Sunday night and Paris is sleeping. On Sundays, at around one in the afternoon, all shops begin tucking themselves in. Restaurants, boutiques, bars, cafés, patisseries: all close their eyes until Monday. You can even hear the streets sigh.”
~Claire Foster, ’17
You won’t be surprised to learn that Claire Foster is an English and French double major. Her blog, Lettres de Claire Louise, is addicting — her writing is studded with sparkling French phrases and insightful observations on cultural differences. She catalogues her immersion with a compelling immediacy, exploring the language and the lay of the land in every post. In an attempt to live vicariously through her while awaiting her next post, I interviewed her via email:
Hi, Claire! So you’re currently studying abroad on the Skidmore in Paris program. Why Paris? What inspired you to go for the year instead of a semester? Can you tell us a bit about your relationship with the city and the language prior to studying there?
This is my first time in Paris, and the adjustment has been surprisingly easy! I knew very little of the city before coming. In fact, I had a very hard time conceptualizing what life would look like here. Over the summer, I was unable to fantasize about my forthcoming year–I simply could not (or would not) imagine. I was convinced that research would lead to disenchantment. Paris was, to me, nothing but a nebulous and vaguely-shaped half-idea.
Now that I am finally here, the fog has cleared. I feel as though I am falling into a familiar rhythm here–I breathe easier in cities–and feel very alive. As much as I love Skidmore, the small campus often suffocates my urban sensibilities. Paris, on the other hand, is one of the grandest grande-villes in the world. There are world-class symphonies and breathtaking ballet companies. Beautiful art is as ubiquitous as a métro stop.
Even though I just began learning French last year, I have always admired the language. I am staying for the full year because I really want to feel French–and Paris–in my bones. (When else in my life will I have the opportunity to live in the fifth arrondissement of Paris for a year?)
The dream of reading Barthes or Duras in their native tongue is actually what impelled me to begin formally learning the language. That, and the Charlemagne quote: “To have another language is to possess a second soul.”
How has the level of French you arrived with affected your semester so far? Any lost-in-translation moments you’d like to share? (I know I had plenty). Living with a homestay family shaped my language progression above all else–has that been true for you as well?
I arrived in France merely with FF203 under my belt, as I only began French last year. I am fortunate, though, because nearly everyone else in the Skidmore program has been taking French classes through high school and college, and is therefore much more proficient in the language. It has humbled me to be surrounded nearly-exclusively by others whose French is more advanced than my own. Nothing is more motivating than being perpetually behind the beat.
I am also fortunate because my host mother is Italian, and therefore very good at slowing down her French for a non-native speaker. Conversations with her are always gratifying, as so much linguistic growth can happen in one day: suddenly, in her sentences, I will hear words or grammatical structures I have recently learned about in class–and finally understand their place and significance. Language is a thrilling game to master.
To narrow down all my linguistic faux-pas to one example was a harrowing and humbling task, but I’ve done it:
Towards the beginning of my stay here, I was going to a lot of museums on weekends (that is, before I realized that during the weekdays is a much smarter idea…). I would return to grammar class on Monday and our professor would ask us all what we did over the weekend. When it came to be my turn, I said how my weekend was full of exhibitions–je suis allée à beaucoup d’exhibitions! I knew that I hadn’t said what I wanted to say when I saw a good-natured smile creep onto the professor’s face. She then told me that the word for exhibition in French is exposition. In French, exhibition connotes sexual exposure. This is a pair of faux amis–false friends-–that always gets me into trouble.
How is blogging for the Skidmore OCSE office going so far? Does it play a role in how you interact with the city at all?
I was so enthusiastic about the blogger position because I think it has forced me to grow as a writer and observer. There is something special about achieving a degree of separation with certain experiences as they happen to you, the separation that comes from knowing you will have to cull from your memories–memories that are being created in this moment–that which is most artistically useful, interesting…dare I say true? In this sense, crafting new experiences into written accounts helps to solidify my sense of being. With the responsibility of keeping a blog, I feel as though my experiences are rendered even richer, as I am obliged live actively and consciously. Maintaining a blog has raised my standard of writing—a benefit for both my personal standards as a writer and as a student abroad in Paris.
How is studying in Paris supplementing your education here at Skidmore? In what ways do you think your experiences abroad will enhance and fuel what you learn on campus?
I know that when I return to Skidmore, the time gained will feel like a dream. As easy as the métro system in Paris is, nothing can compare to rolling out of bed, grabbing a coffee, and making it to class in fewer than ten minutes. “Skidmore time” is a luxury that I will never again take for granted. Moreover, my glimpse into the French education system has obviously shifted my outlook on the American system. It is such a privilege to be able to profit from both institutions/philosophies and be able to compare and contrast. Finally, and most importantly, I’ve adopted a kind of intellectual autonomy–imposed by the French system–since I began studying in Paris, and know that I will be taking this with me to Skidmore upon my return next fall.
In Paris, I am able to do everything I could on the Skidmore campus, but on a grander scale. I am now taking violin lessons at a conservatory, seeing classic films at the cinéma, and buying books at Shakespeare & Co. rather than Northshire. Life feels surprisingly normal here. Hugo wrote in Les Miserables that “to study in Paris is to be born in Paris,” and I can attest to that.
Be sure to read more on her blog!