Reflections from a Semester in Strasbourg, France

I had the opportunity of studying abroad in Strasbourg, France in the fall of 2018- a truly magnificent and culturally enriching experience. From baking Madeleines at home to listening to Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaf, I have always loved the culture of France. I wanted the experience of living like a true “femme française:” from learning how to pick out the proper croissant to identifying Monet from Manet (quintessentially speaking).


Learning French

Ever since I had my first French class in the 8th grade, I have had a desire to become fluent. However, it’s pretty difficult to learn a language in a classroom setting with minimal conversation and large breaks in between classes. I didn’t think anything would serve me better than to learn the language by living abroad for a whole semester and being completely immersed in French language and culture. Since I would be living with a host family, I would be speaking French daily and getting accustomed to conversational dialects. Strasbourg is a city unlike Paris, where not as many people speak English. Thus, I was challenged to speak French all the time without depending on natives to speak English. With this, I also hoped to take time and learn more about myself: my interests, who I am as a person, and my overall goals in life and education. An unfamiliar environment often brings about a new perspective, and I think I gained fresh insight on life coming back to the U.S.


The City

Strasbourg is on the northeastern tip of France – right on the border of Germany. It is the capital of the Bas-Rhin department in the Grand Est region of Eastern France. It is home to the European Parliament as well as the Council of Europe. It is also the most bike-friendly city in France! I lived with a host family in the center of Strasbourg. The middle-aged couple had 4 children who moved out, and so they were welcome to accommodate someone in one of their many empty bedrooms. The husband worked at a manufacturing company as an operations manager and his wife stayed at home after retiring early from a pharmaceutical career.


Language Studies

While I was there, I took 11 hours of French per week with about 20 other students in my language group. I also took six other “option courses” which were held once a week. These included: The History of French Documentaries, Phonetics, French News, Literature Adaptations in Cinema, French Society, and the French Workplace. A typical day looked like this: taking my rented bike to classes until the afternoon, getting lunch from a local grocery store, coming back home to do some homework, eating dinner, and going to bed. It was a pretty relaxed schedule compared to what I have here. The French educational system weighs hours in class more so than it does homework.

I went to an international school, and so my classes were very diverse. There was only one other American girl in the class, and the others were from Ghana, Afghanistan, China, Taiwan, and Colombia. I felt really immersed in a multicultural classroom. In that time and place, it didn’t matter where anyone was from. All that mattered was that we were there, together, with one main purpose: to learn French.


The Food

What did I eat? Oh, I could write an essay just on that. The breakfasts were simple. It is not uncommon to just eat one or two pieces of bread with butter or jam and tea. The occasional croissant made its way to my plate on weekends. For lunch I was given a stipend, and so I tried to save money by getting something at the local Carrefour, a small budget-friendly grocery store. I usually got a sandwich or made myself a salad. For dinners, my host mother often made quiches or savory tarts. After the main dish, or ‘plat’, there was of course a cheese course. I tried a lot of new cheeses – from goat cheese (which is completely different from the one found in America – it’s less creamy), to the strong and smelly Munster, and my host family’s favorite: Comté.

Outside of class, I liked to explore the city; I either took a stroll in the park or went to a museum. As part of my program, I was required to do an internship of my choosing. I decided to do mine at a boulangerie, or a French bakery. I worked there about 2-3 hours a week. Although I didn’t get to per say ‘make’ anything as I hoped I would, I observed a lot and practiced my French at the register with customers.


French Stereotypes

Ironically, I found that a lot of French ‘stereotypes’ are accurate. My first day in Strasbourg I saw an elderly man with a curly mustache and a pipe riding a bike while humming a song. That same day I strolled down the street and saw two men playing La Bohème on accordion. Women stroll around wearing marnières and bright red lipstick. I was even guilty of riding my bike around with a huge baguette in my basket. However, France is not all macarons and romance. French actor and comedian, Gad Elmaleh, expressed this naive ideal in his Netflix special, “American Dream”.  He says, women often day dream of Paris and they “want to see an old man sitting on the bench playing accordion”.  “He is Romanian!” Gad says “…but I want to walk down cobblestone streets in the moonlight.” Gad – “That’s dangerous! In reality, the men I saw playing accordion were trying to make money for their dinner that night.


Academics Abroad

The class atmosphere was definitely different. Grades were openly discussed and posted outside doors with names. My professors were not afraid to call out people if they were distracted or if they answered something incorrectly. I appreciate the American system more in this sense, as I feel that there is more emphasis on the individual rather than performance. I know the French often look down upon Americans since our systems are not solely rote memorization. For example, most French people can give the dates of most significant events from the 18th century onwards, while an American is often trumped in this aspect. However, I think the American system with its focus on analyzation is more helpful in the real world.


The Government

In terms of the government, France is a republic run by a president and the parliament. Some differences between our system and France’s is that for one, all health care is provided for except certain specialists. In addition, most public universities are very affordable. For example, students pay only about $600 per year versus our $10,000 per year. However, the income taxes are very high. For every $100 dollars made, only about $60 is taken into pocket.


Exploring the Culture

Living in a city and exploring several parts of France, I could tell that the French culture was very rich with a lot of important history. There’s so much to see in museums and historical places. In Strasbourg, Christkindelsmärik, or the Christmas market, has been around since the 16th century! I will always remember going to the market at least thrice a week-looking at the different stands, drinking warm wine, and eating soft pretzels.


London vs. Strasbourg

I studied abroad in London before, but this experience was different. It was three months vs. three weeks, it was French vs. English, and I was taken a full load of classes rather than just one. Although I was in France for 3 months, my one concern is that it wasn’t quite long enough. I felt like I was finally adapting and getting my language level up to the level I wanted it to be right when I had to leave.


The Importance of Globalization

In relation to the real world, globalization was a term we came upon often in my business classes. Today it is more important than ever to be connected to others to avoid parochialism. In addition, I had to write a 10-page paper in French on something of my choice as part of my program. Working at a bakery, I decided to write mine about the food waste system in France and compare it to that of the U.S. I compiled the paper from my personal research and observation and learned a lot about France’s sustainability efforts and laws.


My Takeaways

As a result of my study abroad experience, I have been inspired to have a work life that focuses on quality rather than quantity. I strive to eat simple, in season foods. I finally know how to differentiate my cheeses and say bonjour without sounding oh so American. I have also realized that I am capable of doing anything if I put my head into it. I learned to stay positive even when I was caught in the pouring rain on my bike. When you hear about someone’s study abroad experience, you only here an edited version of the story. As time passes, our brains have this wonderful way of remembering the good times over the bad, just as we’re less critical of an image we took one year ago vs. one day ago. In the moment, however, when some days aren’t perfect, it can be really frustrating. You think, “Why did I even go here?” “Everyone’s having more fun than me,” “I don’t deserve this opportunity.” The root of all of this is expectation.

I have learned how to live in a foreign country without strong language skills, but I have also experienced the magic of individual growth. From being nervous to order a cup of tea, I went to arguing my way through a faulty phone bill on the phone in French. I also experienced the growth of a relationship. On my first day at my host family’s house, I felt a cold aura that I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to expel. On the last day at my host family’s house, my host mom approached me with tears in her eyes handing me a book as a parting gift.

I am now considering going back to France in the future, either for grad school, work, or as a Au-Pair. I also aspire to work in a French-speaking country as part of the Peace Corps. I’ve found the only certain thing in my life as of right now, and that is that I’ll definitely be returning to this enchanting country sometime soon.

About the Author – Liuba Miranosava ’20, fall 2018 Strasbourg, France alumna

Liuba is a junior accounting major and French minor. She studied abroad at the London School of Economics and Political Science during the summer of 2017. She studied abroad again during the fall of her junior year in Strasbourg, France.

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