Amanda Seiken is a third-year UVA student double-majoring in Mathematics and Computer Science. She is spending the Spring 2016 studying abroad through the UVA Exchange: Lyon program. Read below for her account of her first experiences in France and what she hopes to achieve through education abroad.
Pre-Departure Reflections: December 26, 2015
A week from today, I will board a plane and eventually arrive in Lyon, France,where I will be for the next five months as part of UVA’s exchange program with Université Lyon 2. Contemplating my departure, I have a lot of mixed feelings.Excitement, because I have wanted to live abroad since high school and I havealways wanted to travel and experience different parts of the world. Doubt, that this is the right time to study abroad because I am a third year and will be taking a whole semester off from courses for my majors. Anxiety, since I’ll be living with a French couple and their two adult children. And excitement again, because regardless of these other emotions, I can’t get over the fact that I get to go to France, learn in French, and eat some of the best cheeses in the world.
Some information about me: my name is Amanda Seiken, and I am from Newport News, VA. I am majoring in Math and Computer Science, but as I mentioned before, I will not be taking any math or CS courses while abroad. This makes me nervous. I’m intimidated by the thought of returning for fourth year and havingforgot every bit of math and CS I learned. At the same time, it’s almost exhilarating to take a break from these subjects, and indulge myself by taking classes in areas I would never have looked at otherwise. Two of my classes need to be carefully chosen because I am trying to earn credit for my French minor, but other than that I have complete freedom in what I want to learn.
My biggest trepidation (Other than the flight over that is, because all I can think about when I fly is, how is the airplane staying in the air??) is my host family. My host parents (is that even the correct term, “host parents”?) actually have five kids, ranging from 17 to 24+, but the children currently at home are their 22-year-old son and 24-year-old daughter. It’s not the thought of living with four strangers that gives me so much apprehension as much as it nervousness about adequately expressing myself to them in French. I don’t know if anyone in the house speaks English, but we will be communicating in French, regardless. However, that is something I can worry about later. For now, I am just looking forward to my arrival.
A Question of Fluency: January 14, 2016
I have been in Lyon for about 10 days, am officially moved in with my host family, and start classes on Monday, the 18th. It is interesting to think that when I was in the US, I described myself as basically fluent in French. One of the first questions people asked me when I they found out I would be studying abroad in France was, “Do you know French?” To which I would invariably reply, “yeah, I know French.”
Yeah, I know French? What I should have said was, “well, I can understand French when I am alert and actively listening and know the context of the conversation and if it is spoken with perfect grammar and pronunciation and slowly and maybe sprinkled with some English to help ya girl out. And I can speak French with a limited vocabulary and poor pronunciation and grammar and only if I’ve practiced what I’m going to say in my head before letting it leave my mouth.”
Honestly, I do know French fairly well, but there is a huge gap between using French for two hours a week in a class, and being half asleep in the morning trying to speak French. Or being tired at night and trying to follow and join in dinner conversations that are spoken at top speed with unfamiliar words. Or, and this one I cannot stress enough, trying to make small talk with peers. Yes, I have the vocab to discuss political events. But do I have the vocab to gossip about whether or not that girl over there is flirting with the guy next to her, or make a sarcastic joke? It may sound like I’m complaining, but I’m more bemused by this realization than upset. Truthfully, these things are stressful but they emphasize how helpful full immersion is when studying a language. They are also a way to measure my progress. Hopefully, I will only improve.
Cross-Cultural Surpises: January 31, 2016
I have officially been living in Lyon for a month. I am surprised by how comfortable I feel with the students I came over with (from UVA) although I have only known them for 4 weeks. I was also surprised by how easy it was to meet and make friends with the huge community of international students studying abroad in Lyon. It makes me wonder about the international students who are studying at UVA, if they feel it is significantly easier to make other international friends rather than bond with the American students. Because out of all the nationalities I am meeting and spending time with, French is rarely among them. I have not found it particularly easy to befriend the French students, although this speaks more to my own lack of trying versus any problem on their end.
Perhaps for this reason I find myself more and more fascinated by my French host family, as they are the French people I am around the most. Today during dessert, I saw my host father eat jelly with a spoon. No idea if this is normal or not but I was intrigued. Truthfully, I think my fascination is pretty one-sided; I believe I am their eighth exchange student so they are used to having an American creeping around their house.I have gotten comfortable in their home, with one exception: I am as ashamed of my snacking habit as if it were a drug habit. Snacking is 100% not a thing in my French family. I have never seen them eat outside of mealtimes.Meanwhile, I’m sneaking into the kitchen at night, or keeping food in my room. I don’t know if this is something I should be embarrassed by or not, as I said I am not their first exchange student, but I feel like someone eating all the time would be rather disgusting to a person who only eats three times a day.
If I seem a little obsessed with food it’s because I am. My favorite thing about Lyon by far is the great food that is shockingly cheap to me. There are several outdoor markets that take place almost every morning where one can buy an enormous quantity of healthy food (fresh fruit, vegetables, eggs, etc.) for almost a quarter of what it would cost in the US. As a big European city, I was fully expecting food to be more expensive, not less. I shudder at the memory of Kroger in Barracks where it’s cheaper to buy a box of Hot Pockets than to buy anything of nutritional value.
I apologize for the rambling tone here, but you know what else really surprised me? I already knew Canadians are thought of fairly well in other countries, but you know whom Canadians love? Americans! Out of all the people I have met here in Lyon, the Canadians have been exceptionally excited to meet Americans. But more on that later, my goal for this week are to make friends with an actual French person.
A Funny Thing Happened On The Way back From Beaune: February 18, 2016
Last weekend, I visited Beaune, a small town in Burgundy, which is basically the wine capital of France. It was amazing. But it was also a very interesting experience because I didn’t take a train to get there, I used BlaBla Car. BlaBla Car is a ride sharing service just like the UVA ride board, except it’s open to everyone, and stretches across several countries. My ride there was uneventful, the driver was an older French woman traveling with her husband, and the other passenger was a young French woman. I didn’t speak much other than to introduce myself. However, on the way back, I was the only passenger and my driver was a French man in his late 20’s. Since it was just us in the car, and it was about an hour 45 min ride back,we ended up chatting the whole time. It turned out to be a great opportunity to practice my French, as well as get the perspective of a native French person on some questions I had. We talked about everything from the best way to casually greet one’s host parents, to American politics i.e. how has Donald Trump made it this far (I’ll let you guess who asked which question).
One of the things I really took away from the experience was the cultural difference behind what made BlaBla Car a successful business in the first place. In fact, this was one of the things my driver and I talked about during the trip. I asked him if it ever made him nervous to drive strangers around, or if he’d ever felt uncomfortable during a trip. Although I didn’t share this with him, I myself had felt fairly cautious about taking a ride alone with a man I didn’t know, despite his high ratings on the ride share website. He told me no, at worst his passengers were just very shy. I expressed my amazement at the whole set up, and how there was really nothing comparable in the U.S. in terms of popularity and wide spread use. He was not surprised, and told me, in fact, the CEO of BlaBla Car had tried to bring his business to the US, but it fell flat. We then started discussing why it was successful inEurope, but not America. I told him it probably had something to do with the lack of guns in Europe, and the fact that Americans simply have a vastly different relationship to their cars (we love them, we want to be the driver).
I could recount the whole conversation, since it was pretty interesting, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make here. My point is, experiences such as my car ride back from Beaune are just as important to my study abroad experience as my actual to visit to Beaune. I came here for an opportunity to study different cultures,but also to study and become more aware of my own.
I will definitely be taking more BlaBla Cars.