We are one of the „lucky“ universities, as I am told, with a full week off for this French holiday, which is All Saints‘ Day (Nov. 1st). I am one of the lucky exchange students, as one of my new French friends invited me to spend the week with her family.
We started off the first weekend with the rather short drive to the Alps, where her family has a small vacation apartment that they use all-year round. In the winter, the French tend to ski, and in the summer, even though a lot of the country heads to the beaches in the South, the mountains are a great place to do some hiking and catch some sun as well.
The view in the morning:
On Saturday, we headed to well-known Chamonix, a small village at the foot of the Mont Blanc – close to Italy, and not far from Switzerland, and popular with tourists as well as locals. We were able to do some hiking around the „Mer de Glace“, a glacier field complete with an ice cave that contains an ice sculpture exhibit in non-corona times.
On Sunday, we took advantage of the heights near Les Gets, which once again allowed a great view of the Mont Blanc. Since the highest mountain of the Alps is round, it does not stand out well against the other mountains that seem larger from Chamonix (in the large picture of me you can find it right under the left-most cloud that is partially cut off), but on this hike, it was clear which is the largest.
After this wonderful weekend, we headed back to the family home – an old rectory right next to the church of a small village in the French countryside an hour away from Lyon. For privacy reasons, there are not pictures of this beautiful house, but I am completely in love with the historic rooms and decorations which tell my friend’s family history.
In staying here I have also learned so many things about the French culture and way of thinking (especially about Americans):
The food and meals.
I know everyone talks about this, and initially when I arrived on campus, I thought that I had a good grasp of the traditional entrée (=appetizer!), main course, cheese, and dessert order. What I did not expect, was that this would carry over into every single lunch and dinner. Admittedly, we’ve skipped some of the appetizer courses, but while the main course might not be as large as I am used to from the U.S. or Germany, it is followed by a cheese platter, bread, and dessert – without fail. With each meal, I am encouraged to try each of the multiple cheeses available, which are eaten with or without the baguette. The baguette, in turn, serves multiple purposes: it accompanies the cheeses, fills the stomach, and is also used to clean the plate. Finally, for dessert, I am allowed to choose between yogurt, fruit, or a sweet, like pieces of chocolate.
Several long conversations with my friend have allowed me to conclude that for the French, wearing too much makeup (i.e. foundation, extravagant eye shadow, especially in unnatural colors, excessive lipstick, etc.) or too little clothing (i.e. crop tops, shorts if you don’t have nice legs or are older, low-cut necklines), is considered „vulgaire“. This could be considered a shocking criticism of the current American woman, or at least the current American female college student, but I think it makes clear that restraint and a strict and detailed attention to what is flattering and what is not constitutes the je-ne-sais-quoi-elegance that we might see in French women. But while the latter, knowing the tendencies and culture of their counterpart stateside, might not immediately judge their character for it, dressing in the manner detailed above will make you known as an American right away.
The higher education system here is definitely different from that in the U.S. (and in other countries), but what has shocked me the most, is just how hard students are expected to work in order to excel in the future. A large amount of pressure is placed on the school you are accepted to following high school, allowing you to or preventing you from having jobs in certain companies, or determining your pay for an internship, where you are paid differently than students from another university doing the same job as you. Additionally, students enter medical or law school immediately, forcing them to put in that hard work without having an undergraduate career to afford a bit more time for relaxation.
At my engineering school, a normal course load requires about 8 hours of class every single day, not excepting time spent on assignments or studying – additionally I find that students work the entire weekend without allowing time for things I spent the last three years doing, like hiking or movie marathons. My school is one of the few schools in France with many active student organizations, but I am told, that almost all students join just a single organization. This organization will almost certainly be listed on a resume or CV, because employers know that membership in even just a single student organization can be responsible for a significant drop in your GPA. While class rankings here are used as strict selection criteria for internships and study abroad, as well as your grade (only the top 10% will receive an A), I am assured that the French students are still quick to help one another succeed and that study groups are common. Additionally, older students will give advice to the younger ones, and when peer ratings are a part of the grade, students will unite ‚against the professors‘ to raise each others‘ grades together.