Thoughts on being an American abroad

Caroline Alberti is currently studying abroad in Toulouse, France,  on CIEE’s Language and Culture program. Check out her blog post below!

I love speaking French, going out, and meeting people. In fact, I have been trying to go out more here in an effort to meet more people and speak more French (it’s educational Mom and Dad, I promise!). Before coming here, I was nervous about how I would received in French social situations as a foreigner. I’d heard stereotypes that French people were more closed off, or easily offended by imperfect control of their language. However, I have found this not at all to be the case. While I definitely think that French people are less open than Americans, the people I have met have been very kind and I have met a lot of great people.

The funny thing is though, meeting new people here in France is almost formulaic. If you are American and deciding to travel abroad anytime soon (like in the next 4 years to be exact) you may want to expect the interactions of the following sort:

Step 1: The “Bonjour”

The greeting, usually a bonjour and a bise is the first engagement. As I said before I am still  getting used the kiss-greeting thing. This is the step where very quickly my accent is detected. I have a love-hate relationship with my accent. On one hand I think it gives more liberty to make mistakes and makes me interesting. On the other hand, I don’t find American accents particularly pleasing but that could just be me.

Step 2: The “Where are you from?”

The accent thing inevitable triggers there “Where are you from?”. When this happens I have decide how annoying I want to be, and I either give a direct answer or I say “guess!!”. It’s really interesting to me to see where people think I am from. Almost never has someone guessed American. Most often I get English, or German and occasionally Irish, which is so surprising to me because I think that my accent just screams “AMERICAN”.

I think people don’t usually guess American because in fact in Toulouse there are not really that many Americans since it’s not a super popular spot for American study abroad programs. I actually really like this about Toulouse, since it means that being an American here is kinda special, and meeting other Americans here is rare which makes encountering one of my compatriots here is out of the ordinary and so when it does happen it’s a treat.

There “Where are you from questions” extends to where exactly in the United States I am from, where I have a little existential crisis not knowing whether or not to say PA or VA.

Step 3: The “TRUMP” Part

It may not happen right away (all though often it does). We may get talking about the weather, or studies, or music or whatever, and I’ll think I’m safe… but no no no. The question always comes sooner or later: “So…. what do you think of Donald Trump?”

*Sigh* Then there it is. The unavoidable topic as an American abroad in this day and age.

When I first starting receiving this question, I was a little surprised, but not at all bothered. In fact, I was glad to have an open ear to my rantings about the madness of this past election. It’s something, that like most Americans, I have a lot of thoughts and opinions on (which I won’t really put in this blog because it is not a blog about politics– though I feel like anyone who knows me probably knows where I stand politically). However, with each politically charged discussion I began to get more and more tired of talking about how crazy and doomed my country is (even though a big part of me agrees).

I think the political situation in our country makes it a really weird time to be an American abroad. I am surprised with the bluntness that French people approach this topic with me, since in French culture, personal things like that aren’t discussed as upfrontly. I am also surprised how blunt people are because in theory (though NOT in reality) I could be a Trump supporter. So far, I haven’t met any French person who aligns themselves with Trump’s ideals (if you can call them “ideals”), although with the way the French election cycle is going, I am sure they are out there. When I am asked about politics in America, I think they make the assumption that I am (rightly) unhappy about the current situation. I never feel like I am being blamed or aggressed for Trump’s election, which is something I was worried about before coming. More accurately I feel like the topic is breached with a sense of curiosity and often with pity as well.

It’s frustrating to repeat the same conversation, but it’s one I feel like I have to engage in or else people with think that I don’t have opinions on it or that I support Trump, both of which are definitely not true.

But over all, it’s hard to complain about people being interested in my country and wanting to hear my opinion. I am glad to be able to represent my country abroad at a time like this when a lot of bad images are presented of the United States abroad. In fact, this type of cultural diplomacy that happens within each exchange, the sharing of ideas and opinions, is one of the reasons I love traveling and studying abroad. These interactions, the ones I have had both here and in Morocco and elsewhere have definitely challenged me and helped me widen my horizons and perspectives, and for that I am very grateful.

So Frenchies, keep the questions coming. I promise you I will have an answer.

Anyway, hopefully this post wasn’t too political, rant-y, or pessimistic. I’ll try to whip up a little something more lighthearted next post!

ALSO, since this post was very light on pictures, enjoy this photo of my best friend in Toulouse and love of my life, Cissi, my host dog.

Isn’t she beautiful?? My heart melts every day when I see her.

Pce, luv, & politics,

Curbie 😉



Traveling to other countries while abroad

Genevieve is currently studying in France this semester. Check out her recent trip to Belgium in her spare time!

This past weekend, a few friends and I travelled to Belgium. It was my first time leaving France since my arrival in early January. It was rather perfect because in Belgium, they speak French, English, and Flemish, so we all got a chance to further our French skills. In Belgium, they enunciate more when they speak French, so it was honestly easier for me to understand them than many of the French people I have encountered. Everyone we talked to was very impressed that as Americans we could actually speak and understand French, which was very flattering. Still, it also struck me that most Americans make little effort to learn the languages of the countries they visit. I have certainly been guilty of this when I travelled in the past. I think there is much more of a push to learn other languages in Europe, where you are surrounded by multitude of languages, than there is in the United States. I think that Americans also have less incentive to learn other languages because many people in other countries speak English.

One night while we were there, we decided to see the film Neruda about the Chilean poet and political figure Pablo Neruda. We bought our tickets in advance and stopped at a nearby grocery store for movie snacks to sneak into the theater. About twenty minutes before the start of the movie, we realized that this movie was in Spanish movie with French subtitles, not in English with French subtitles as we had hoped. We all looked at each other and laughed at our poor planning but decided to see the movie anyway. Why waste our money? We hunkered down in our seats with our assorted snacks and braced ourselves for an utterly foreign film, doubting that we would understand much of anything. But as it turned out, to our delight and disbelief, we understood almost the entire movie. And what’s more, we all genuinely enjoyed it. Sure, there were some vocabulary words and idiomatic expressions that we did not understand. But we still understood the majority of the subtitles. We were able to appreciate the beauty and style of the film. We even picked up on some of the jokes. After the movie, we all exclaimed over our mutual understanding. To me, this experience proved that my time in France and Europe in general is invaluable to my language skills.

Why I studied abroad

Alexis Ferebee is a third-year currently studying abroad in Lyon for the semester. Check out her decision to study abroad below!

I almost didn’t study abroad. During my first 2 years at UVA I had decided that leaving the country would be more of a hassle than anything. After all, I was probably just going to major in Media Studies anyways. Then, at the end of fourth semester, I realized how much I greatly enjoyed French, and decided to double major. Even then, I wasn’t thinking about studying abroad. Suddenly, at the beginning of this school year, I realized that I would be wasting the chance of a lifetime and that I needed to apply. Luckily, I had this enlightening realization just in time to submit an application for the spring semester, which would have been my last opportunity. And now here I am.

Tomorrow I leave to study abroad in Lyon, France for 5 months. I have done so much preparation for this moment and yet I feel like I still have so much to do. I have realized though, that stressing about it doesn’t help much. I truly do not know what to expect from this experience, and do not have many preconceived notions, but I do have many aspirations. First of all, I want to be able to enhance my French. This seems pretty obvious but the betterment of my French could help sway me in a certain direction career-wise. I also want to make international friends. I say this because I have two very good American friends going with me on this trip and I don’t want to just hang out with them while speaking English. I can do that any time. My biggest goal is to gain more confidence. Even now, I am sitting at my computer worrying about many insignificant details about my trip but I want to be more sure of myself, and I feel like this trip will give me the independence I need to make this happen.

There is such a mix of anxiety and excitement that I can’t explain. I’ve never quite experienced anything like this in my life, so I guess that feeling is pretty normal. I am anxious about my flight, my train, but most of all, my communication. I am confident in my French abilities, but what if I forget and freeze up? I guess I will have to wait and see what the next few days bring. All I know is that I am excited to be in a beautiful country studying a language I love!



Paris in the Fall part 2

Catherine Fama is currently studying abroad in Paris, France. This is her second post on the blog; check it out!


The Tuileries garden is a beautiful park that makes up part of the famous boulevard that runs from the Arc de Triumph, down the Champs Élysée, through Place de la Concorde and theTuileries, and ends at the Louvre. This garden is one of the most visited places in Paris, but it’s very common to see real Parisians lounging around one of the garden’s many fountains on nice days. I included this picture because it is one of the most beautiful place in the city.


Shakespeare and Company is a world renowned English book store in the Latin quarter of Paris that is beloved by tourists and intellectuals. I included this picture because it’s an adorable little shop, and anyone who visits Paris needs to visit.


The Sainte Chapelle is a small gothic cathedral built by king Saint Louis during the Middle Ages.It is much less well known compared to Notre Dame, but in my opinion is much more beautiful.These pictures honestly don’t do it justice, but they include some of the many gothic elements of the church and some of the beauty. The church is famous for its stained glass windows that go from the floor to the ceiling, and for supposedly containing the throned crown of Christ. This church is a symbol of Christianity in Paris. I included these pictures because the church is honestly too beautiful not to include.


The Madeline Church is a massive structure built to resemble the Parthenon in Athens, but it’s a functioning catholic church.. I included this picture because it’s extremely unique compared to the other buildings seen around Paris, and because it’s a part of my everyday life since it’s located just by my home stay.


The Moulin Rouge is a world famous cabaret in the Montmartre area of Paris. I took this picture because it’s a world famous location, and because it represents the seedier side of the city.


Place Vendôme is located just off the Tuileries and was originally constructed during the time of the 1st empire as a way to celebrate Napoleon and his victories. Now it is home to upscale shopping and jewelry stores. I included this picture because it represents a mixture of the history of Paris with its culture of shopping and luxury.

France photo blog 2

Kelly McCain is currently studying abroad in France. Take a look at her experiences abroad through her second photo blog.


These are the famous suspended houses of Pont-en-Royan in the Vercors mountain range just outside of Grenoble. We spent a lovely lunch on the banks of this little river gazing up at the houses that looked like they were about to fall into the river.


Grenoble is famous for its nuts. The “noix de Grenoble” are another AOC, like the Chateauneuf du Pape wine.  One day, my program took us to the local nut museum, which was interesting. This was my favorite part of it: walnut shells that have little scenes inside.  I love the tiny hammock and the tiny palm tree inside this walnut shell.  These are from someone famous (I forgot who it was) who sent walnuts with little scenes in them through the mail.


I was walking around Grenoble after my classes one day, and it was an absolutely beautiful day. The bubbles that go up the Bastille were in a perfect place for a photo, and this was the result. I love the beautiful colorful buildings along the river.


We went to a Grenoble hockey game.  The Grenoble team is called les Brûleurs de Loups, or the wolf burners.  There was an incredible energy in the stadium, with new chants starting every minute.  It was packed full, so it must be a local favorite pastime. We won!


This was the most incredible mural I have ever seen.  I had seen it on the Internet before coming to Lyon, but then when I was there, I saw a photo of it in one of the guidebooks, inspiring me to search the city to find it.  In person, it looks so incredibly real, that the small children playing in front of the wall looked like they belonged there.  Thanks to this mural, Lyon became one of the centers of street murals in France.


We went to a market in Lyon, the Marché Saint-Antoine, on a Sunday morning. It was full of locals and tourists alike, and was in a park along the Saone River for probably a mile. It was absolutely beautiful. From this side of the river, we could see the Cathédral de Fourvière that is so famous in Lyon. I took this photo of an old French lady inspecting the flowers for sale with her reusable shopping bag that every French person carries around when shopping.  I like to think that she was going to bring home the flowers to put on her windowsill.


This is a photo of my traditional Lyonnais dinner. It is called quenelle and was made out of chicken, eggs, milk, flour, and butter, then prepared with a delicious sauce.  It is similar to a dumpling. It was delicious!! I ordered it without really knowing what it was.


I took this photo of an amazing sunset the other day next to Place Grenette in Grenoble.  It had just stopped raining, and the sunset was incredible. This photo showcases the incredible beauty of Grenoble, along with the day-to-day life of the people heading for the tram to go home from work.


The popes moved to Avignon from Rome for about 70 years. This is a photo of the Palais des Papes, where we were fortunate enough to get a tour. It is beautiful and it was interesting to see the history of it. We also were able to go to the Pont d’Avignon, the place that inspired the kids song, “Sur le pont d’Avignon, on y danse, on y danse…”.  My mom used to sing that to me when I was young, so I was really excited to see it in person.


This is a photo of the Pont du Gard, one of the only Roman aqueducts still standing.  It is right outside of Avignon, France, and is stunningly large. It was crazy to think that the Romans built it without any electrical machines, only with their manpower. The place was steeped in history, and it was magical to be able to be so close to history, even to touch it.


Here is a photo from a small Swiss town of Saint Saphorin. It hangs off of the hill on the edge of the huge Lake Léman, the other end of the same lake that Geneva is on. This region is known for its wine from grapes grown on terraced slopes, especially its white wine. It is in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. We spent the day exploring the terraces, seen in the foreground of this photo, and ended it with a wonderful lunch with the white wine of the region.


This verdant valley is a short bus ride away from the church and the monastery. A family friend and I spent the afternoon exploring the valley, with a view of the glacier high up on the mountain, a waterfall, and of course, the beloved cows. The day after we visisted Engelberg was the descent of Alpages, when the cows descend in the fall from the cooler mountains after grazing there during the summer.  Each year, it is a huge festival celebrating the cows and the farmers.


This photo is of the monastery attached to the beautiful church in the previous photo. There are many nuns and priests who live at this monastery and who raise money for their parish through a fromagerie, where they have been making and selling cheese for years. I was standing right in front of the fromagerie when I took this photo.  We had just bought a classic “jambon et fromage” sandwich on country wheat bread. It was a very simple sandwich, but one of my favorite meals so far this semester. The small white dots in the sky are more paragliders!


This is the inside of a beautiful church located in Engelberg, Switzerland. It is the prominent building in the tiny town, in a country that is still mostly Catholic. I was blown away by the bright colors of the church. Most other churches I have been in tend to be darker, but this one was full of light inside, and almost made it feel like we were outside in the mountains.


A Throwback in Time

Xieyan Qiao is currently studying abroad in Lyon participating in the UVa in Lyon program. This is her second post on the blog!

Today is October 1st. It has been exactly a month since I first landed at the Lyon–Saint-Exupéry Airport. I can still vividly recall my feeling of nostalgia, the palpitation of my heart, and the cold sweat in my palms after getting off the plane. The ‘Bienvenue’ at the airport seemed so exotic, out-of-reach, and strange. I sat at the corner of a bench, waiting for my luggage, not knowing how to hail a cab, or where to find the tramway.


(First view at the Lyon–Saint-Exupéry Airport)

Yet a month after, here I am, living cordially with a french host family, exploring Lyon with newly made friends, preparing the ‘exposé’ with french students, and reading Flaubert’s L’Éducation Sentimentale during a pause-café. As inspiring as it is, I cannot be more grateful thinking about how marvelously fast I become acculturated to the french etiquettes, and how much this study abroad experience has changed me.

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(The University at 9pm)

Language barrier is a difficult obstacle that I have to confront. I am taking eight classes now but I can hardly understand the professors. Occasionally, the negative feeling of being unable to follow the lecture and the dismay in regards to my own language incompetence can become overwhelming. Yet oftentimes, my attitude towards those difficulties is positive. As I am constantly listening to French actively, I do feel that my french is improving, although with a very slow pace and in an invisible way. How exciting it will be! Next June, I will be writing my final journal while reading the one I am writing now to see how much I have changed, consciously and subconsciously.


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In terms of cultures, I do feel that compared to Americans, French people are even more liberal, carefree, and poised. When class starts, the professors just walks into the classroom, sits down (with a box of cigarettes in bag), and begins lecturing with no lecture plans or syllabus or slideshows. With no homework in hands and no exams in sight until the end of the semester, I was unaccustomed to this free lecturing style and spent a long time adjusting.

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(#1 Dinner at cozy apartment and #2,3 food at the first welcoming cocktail party. Macaroons!)


If looking outside the academic atmosphere and thinking about the French culture, one sometimes wonders if that kind of unrestrained, unworried, and easygoing style is also a kind of life attitude for French people. When I see a French lady ( usually dressed in her classic trench coat, blue and white striped shirt, blue jeans, and a Paris of white sneakers) passes by with a baguette, a bottle of red wine, a cigarette, a bundle of flowers, and an air of detached nonchalance, I get an inexplicable impression that they are truly living every single moment of their lives to the full and cherishing their personal enjoyment at each moment more than, say, their professional duties or any other responsibilities. Every weekend, my host parents are out to other regions to relax and visit  friends, while there are friends coming in during the weekdays to visit and have dinner with them (by the way, French people eat really late. To have lunch at 2pm and dinner at 8pm is not at all a surprise). This free and easy attitude towards life may explain why no shops (except some boulangeries) are open on Sunday, all the banks are closed on Monday, and the professors never have office hours. After all, work and life are two vastly different and, perhaps, incompatible concepts.

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(We went to Basilique de Fourvière the other day.  Built between 1872 and 1884 in a dominant position overlooking the city, this minor basilica is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It was rainy and freezing cold on that day, so we had a coffee break afterwards and this chocolate Nutella cheesecake is heaven.)

A look at Paris in the fall

Catherine Fama is currently studying abroad in Paris, France. Take a look at her experience so far!


Place de la Concorde is a spot that is extremely important for the history, and therefore culture, of Paris. The obelisk that stands there now marks the spot whereLouis XVI and Marie Antoinette were guillotined during the French Revolution. It also marks the end the Champs Elysé, one of the most well know roads in Paris. I took and included this picture because of the historical importance of the area.  


The Grand Opera house of Paris is an iconic and famous building in the city, and is very important in the history of Parisian culture. Attending an opera at the GrandOpera house has been seen as the height of refined culture in Paris since it was built,and still is to this day. I took this picture because the Grand Opera house is extremely beautiful, and for its contribution to Parisian culture. This opera house has inspired many great stories like “The Phantom of the Opera.”


Les bateaux mouches are the Seine riverboats in Paris. They are an extremely popular way to see the city. I took this picture because the popularity of these boats is a testament to the importance of the Seine to Paris and Parisian culture. This picture was taken from the right bank of the Seine looking on to the Musé d’Orsay.


The St Sulpice church of Paris is a beautiful Renaissance era church in the heart of the city. It is renowned for its grand organ, and has a history of getting famous organists to come play there. This church is extremely old and was built at the site of an old Romanesque church. I chose to take this picture of the church not just because it is beautiful, but also because it represents some of the history of Paris, which is vital to Parisian culture.


This is one of many bridges across the Seine in Paris where couples will go and clip a lock with their names on it and throw the key into the river as a way of leaving a permanent reminder of their love. This tradition is important to Parisian culture because Paris is seen as one of the most romantic cities in the world, and people come from all over the world with their loved ones to celebrate their love. This is why I took this picture.


The Musé d’Orsay is a very famous museum that houses many of the most well known impressionist works of art. Impressionism was extremely important toFrance, because the movement began here in Paris and all of the great impressionists moved here to work. I took this picture from the other side of theSeine in order to capture the entirety of the building, which is an old train station.