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Exploring France in Toulouse and Rennes

By Natalie DeGeorge ('10)
French and International Studies Double Major

Living in France for a year was something that I had never seriously considered. Studying abroad for a semester was an easy enough commitment, but consecrating an entire academic year to another country, culture and language seemed to me an entirely different story.

My nine-month stay in France was split between two very different cities: Toulouse in the southwest, steeped in Occitan influence, and Rennes in the northwest, swelling with Breton pride.

During the fall, I studied with the School for International Training (SIT) in Toulouse, where I spent my mornings in a Français Langue Étrangère (FLE- the French equivalent of ESL classes) program with other aspiring Francophones, and my afternoons in highly specialized seminars whose topics ranged from French economics to the roots of French identity.

My spring semester was spent in Rennes, the capital of Brittany, with the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) where I was enrolled in yet more FLE-type classes as well as other courses of my choice.

The latter of the two programs was more similar to a typical college schedule, punctuated by a period of midterm and final exams. The former program, however, was comprised of one-timeonly lecture-based seminars; it also included a 10-day village study coupled with various excursions, and culminated in the preparing and subsequent presentation of an extensive research paper conducted and written entirely in French.

Even more striking than the different formats that structured each program were the differences between the cities of Toulouse and Rennes. Toulouse, la ville rose as it is called, is home to the current rugby champions of France, demonstrates a regional cuisine and architecture colored with Mediterranean influences and, along with the rest of the south of France, is characterized by a laidback approach to life. Walking the ever-busy streets of Toulouse, I explored countless shops and boutiques and bought savory ham and cheese crêpes from street vendors. I learned that the back wall of my current school was built over the ancient, fortified ramparts that used to encircle Toulouse when it was just a fledging Roman city. During one of our many excursions, I saw the residence of José Bové, the farmer who led to the highly publicized dismantling of a McDonald’s restaurant in Aveyron. I spoke with shepherds in the Pyrénées Mountains about the dangers and consequences of the French government’s initiative to reintroduce Slovenian bears to the area in an effort to bolster the dwindling native population.

After three months in the Rose City, I developed a surprisingly strong affinity for Toulouse and the south of France as a whole, a sentiment that I was quick to express when I arrived in Rennes for spring semester.

The first time I shared my love of savory crêpes with a Rennais, I was met with a look of skepticism. Home to galettes, the buckwheat flour equivalent of savory crêpes, Rennes is the last place I should have expected such an opinion to be unquestionably accepted. I even encountered doubts concerning the very existence of my beloved “crêpes salées.” Hard cider always accompanied a meal of galettes, and the combination of the two was always heralded as a “true” Breton meal by my host family. I was immediately made aware of the strong sense of community that existed in the much smaller and more compact city of Rennes.

The deeply ingrained regional patriotism challenged my newly found southern pride, and while I have not lost my inexplicable feeling of hailing from the south of France, I ended my experience being considerably more comfortable in Rennes. Much to my delight, my host parents informed me that I did not have an American accent, but had the singsong rhythm of southern French and sported some unidentifiable “European” accent. I also witnessed the college students at the University of Rennes 2 (the campus where my program was hosted) stage a “blocage”, which consists of emptying all the chairs and tables of the ground floor classrooms and piling them in the doorways of every academic building to prevent classes from taking place. While it was amusing for the first week, we quickly tired of the constant protesting and blocked entrances, wishing fervently the student union and administration would resolve their issues.