When and where did you study abroad?
I participated in the Ontario-Rhone Alps Exchange program for the 2011-2012 academic year in Lyon, France. I spent a year abroad studying at Jean Moulin, Lyon 3 University.
What made you want to study abroad?
My desire to study abroad was fueled by my love for all things French: the language, the culture, the lifestyle, and the food. I am a self-proclaimed Francophile, and for someone who is pursuing a double major in French and history, it made perfect sense to go to France and be immersed in all that I was learning about. Similarly, one of my goals is to be bilingual. An exchange presented me with the opportunity to pursue my passion for the French language and culture, but also to become more independent, to broaden my perspective, and to challenge myself. It was an exotic and unconventional way of enriching my undergraduate years at university.
What cultural differences did you notice?
One of the biggest cultural differences that I noticed about France was the lifestyle. The French live at a slower pace and really take the time to enjoy life's simple pleasures. There isn't as much of an urgency to hurry through the day. Also, the “on-the-go” lifestyle does not exist. For example, takeaway foods – especially coffee – are harder to come by. Coffees are tiny compared to the generous sizes we North Americans are accustomed to. The French don’t eat or drink on the go (the one exception being nibbling the tip off a toasty baguette), preferring to sit down and linger over a meal with a glass of wine. Mealtime is a sacred and appreciated time, and most meals include three courses. Also, a good amount of grocery shopping is done at the local outdoor market as opposed to the grocery store and everyone owns a small rolling cart to haul shopping. The majority of shops are closed Sundays, and most close between 6 and 8pm on weeknights. Banks and administrative offices close daily between the hours of 12 and 2pm for lunch. Public transit, biking, and walking are the main ways to get around. Be prepared for stairs too – lots of them! It also seems like everyone smokes. A lot. And finally, French people make more of an effort in dressing; they always appear effortlessly chic and styled.
How did you deal with the cultural divide?
I found that a good way of coping during my first month in Lyon was to run on autopilot and be task-oriented. There was a ton of paperwork to complete and many errands to run. I kept myself busy and was constantly checking things off my "to do" list, which took my mind off other things. Otherwise, I’d recommend remaining open-minded and trying to enjoy the new changes, experiences and the lifestyle that comes with living in France. Try something new! Or take up a hobby/sport that you enjoy. It‘s a great way to get involved, meet people, and establish a routine and sense of normalcy. If you enjoy coffee, make it a mission to discover your favourite café. Establishing these simple routines will help you settle into a new city and make you feel more at home. I took a zumba class at the university and was hooked – I went to the class religiously every week; it was loads of fun! I also found a babysitting job that provided many laughs and an opportunity to see into the life of a French family. Lastly, be patient – settling in takes time. For me, Lyon did not feel like "home" until the end of November – a good three and a half months into my year abroad!
What was the most important thing you learned about cross-cultural communication while you were studying abroad?
I learned that there are many forms of communication other than just verbal. Actions, gestures, intonation, voice inflection, facial expressions and body language play just as much of a role as the oral component. As a result of my language and cultural barriers, I took advantage of these other forms of communication when I was unable to fully express what I wanted to communicate with words.
What was your favourite moment?
It’s hard to pinpoint a particular favorite moment or trip in a year’s worth of wonderfully unique and memorable experiences. One thing, though, that stands out in my mind’s eye was what I call my "Sunday morning ritual." It was my absolute favorite part of the week, a cherished habit in a life that was otherwise full of the unknown, the unexpected, and new experiences. My ritual was this: mass at 8:30am in St. Jean cathedral, followed by a café au lait – and the best pain au chocolat I've ever tasted – in "my" café in Vieux Lyon. I'd sit in my usual seat by the window and watch the passersby or observe the bustle of the café surrounding me. Sometimes I'd write in my journal, other times I'd read the newspaper or a book. Following the café I'd wander to the nearby market along the Saône and take in the sights, smells, sounds and atmosphere. It was a lively, warm kaleidoscope of sensory experience. Even if I didn't need to buy any groceries, I would still walk the length of the market and peruse the stalls, stopping every now and again to nibble a sample of cheese or saucisson.
Do you have any final observations on your experience?
Take your time abroad as "me" time; it’s an opportunity for growth, learning, and discovery of yourself, of a new culture, and of new people and places. At times it will feel lonely and challenging, but it will also feel equally liberating and thrilling. Try new things and continually challenge yourself to step just a bit outside of your comfort zone. Learn to laugh at yourself when the little things go awry - laughter is often the best remedy for an embarrassing situation. Veronica Shoffstall said: "Plant your own garden and decorate your own soul, instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers." So, go out with a smile on your face and do some gardening!
Laura has offered some great advice on how to make the most of your first study abroad adventure. She clearly made an effort to become involved locally and soak up as much of the French culture as possible. We would recommend that for her next trip abroad, Laura travel outside of Western Europe, perhaps to teach English in Asia or South America. Teaching English is an excellent way to experience a new culture while earning an income, and depending on Laura’s professional goals, she might be able to network with locals in her host country and pick up side contracts in her field of interest to add a career-boosting component to her teaching time. If building French language skills is of particular interest to her, Laura might consider volunteering for an NGO in French-speaking Africa.