Monday, July 18, 2011

Mark Barnard: Tours, France

Mark Barnard is a sophomore in Sociology and Gender Studies at the U of U. This past summer he participated in the Intensive French Language in Tours, France, study abroad program.

It seems that most people in the United States have a romanticized idea of France. When we think of France we imagine a country of wine, cheese, and romance. We imagine France like we see it in the movies; beautiful and enchanting. While France is still an extraordinary nation, the thing that I learned most while studying in Tours is that France, as we imagine it, does not exist. The wonder of France is found in many other ways that our silly dreams simply do not explore.

Most importantly Paris, France, is often presented as a gleaming city of romance and awe. The name Paris seems to bring about ideas and dreams in the minds of people that no other city in the world does. Paris is often the sole vision people have of France. But does anyone truly know why? Prior to my arrival in Tours I spent two nights in Paris and following my stay in Tours I spent another five nights in Paris. I made a point of comparing the ideas of Paris that we as Americans seem to dote upon and what I really witnessed in Paris. What did I find? The city has amazing history, there is no denying that. The evidence of Napoleon’s self idolization is still evident in almost every corner of the city, protests are still traditionally being held at the famous Place de la Bastille and the graves of many outstanding writers who lived and died in Paris can be found there. But I have to ask, do most who dream of Paris even know these things? Or do they dream of the Eiffel Tower and the Mona Lisa? Things the movies tend to popularize. What I really found in Paris modern life is that it is no different than any other large city in the world. It is crowded, it is dirty and it is certainly screaming with the sounds of busy streets and honking horns. To see the Paris we tend to dream of one would have to ignore the begging women, the drunks on the metro and the crowds that fill the streets. This is Paris.

Paris, in my opinion, is not France. I truly discovered France during my time in Tours. Tours is a “small” French town, although if it were in Utah it would be considered quite large. Tours has an amazing history; the kings of France surrounded this small town with elaborately decorated chateaus in the middle ages, the city saw great expansion in the 1800s and the evidence of World War Two is visible in the difference between the ages of buildings in different neighborhoods of the city. One neighborhood has ancient 500 year old buildings that are so old they appear to be leaning into the street, another neighborhood has architecture from the 1860s and the center of town, after being completely rebuilt because of its total destruction during WWII, has buildings that are only 70 years old. Tours contains essence of the history of France within its architecture alone.

What’s more is that Tours modern life is also representative of a modern France. The people come in every size, shape and color. There are Arabs, Africans, and traditional French people all in great number. There are the elderly, the working adults and the large student youth population. Paris, even if it is not like Tours, has these same populations, and I have discovered that all of France is this diverse. There is no one idea of a “French person”. France is a nation of many cultures. The unifying factor is that each and every one of them; old, young, black, white, brown, poor or rich, belongs to the French Republic. They are French.

Exploring the streets of Tours, I never met two people who were alike. The only thing I could see that they all had in common was the reason I came to Tours; the French language. In Paris, in my experience, the Parisians will rarely speak French with a student. They do not have time to work with imperfect French and their English often is better than a student’s French. In Tours they are delighted to speak French with a student. On any occasion I found people smiling and trying to have full conversations with me in French. I could even tell that they were attempting to speak more clearly with me so I would understand. They knew I was a student, and they knew it was important for me to learn their language. The people of Tours welcome students in a way that I feel represents the real France, they invite them to share and explore the many things France has to offer. I discovered many foods, traditions, home lives and most importantly I learned a great deal of French. I don’t think any of this would be possible in Paris. 

When I returned home I was bombarded with questions; “How was France?” “Did you go to Paris?” “Did you see a castle?” These questions were always followed or preceded by the phrase “I’m so jealous!” My response to this is generally something like this; “France was amazing, but not for the reasons you may think. Paris and castles are cool, and I saw my share of them, but you can see those things in pictures. The real awe of France is in its history, its diversity, its people, and its language. Without learning and exploring these things, castles and Paris are meaningless.” I finish with something that I hope lets them get the point, “France was great because I was a student there.” This is the honest truth. I had the opportunity to see and learn things I never would have if I came to France expecting to be awed by the Eiffel Tower. In Tours I was given the chance to see the real France, a real nation, not the dreamy idea of France. France was great because I was a student there.  

1 comment:

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