Sans la Tour Eiffel

by Stacy Benson

Thanks to the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, I had a plane ticket to Paris.  After the long transatlantic flight, I arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport.  Only twenty miles away stood the iconic landmark that I had wanted to see since I was at least eleven-years-old.  Instead of heading to the City of Lights to behold the Eiffel Tower, I hopped on a shuttle van that took me 159 miles away, north-east of Paris, to the city of Caen.  “At least I can see the French countryside while riding in the van,” I thought.  But I was so sleepy after the flight that I couldn’t keep my eyes open. My first three hours in France were a little disheartening.  Fortunately, the next twenty days delivered wonderful experiences that I will forever treasure.

The Basilica of St. Thérèse in Lisieux
The Basilica of St. Thérèse in Lisieux. Photo by Stacy Benson.

My study abroad mission was to complete courses at the University of Caen to learn more of the French language and culture, as my minor at Virginia State University is French.  Staying with a host family instead of in a dorm on campus was the best decision I made when applying to ISEP (International Student Exchange Program).  It was comforting to have a home and a family to return to every evening after school and excursions.  Not only did they provide for my basic needs like food and shelter, they were also warm and friendly and gave me good advice to help me while in a foreign country.  They were patient with me when I spoke French, giving me time to translate in my head, which there is not usually time for in the classroom setting.  By the end of my stay, I no longer needed to translate in my head, I could just speak French without having to think about it.

The program at the University of Caen was very professional and productive.  There were students from all over the world in my classes.  I cherish the many friendships I made and the camaraderie we formed from sharing similar experiences while abroad.  The professors were quite pleasant and seemed to enjoy teaching their language and sharing their culture.  We took many field trips into the city center of Caen and one professor in particular kept us out a couple of hours later than scheduled because she was so happy to take us to her favorite spots.  She took us to her regular tea house, an art museum, pointed out the various types of architecture, and noted her favorite shops.  She repeatedly said, “I love my city!”

In addition to attending classes, we had many excursions to sites in Normandy and Brittany.  Visiting these places was especially exciting because of their beauty and historical elements. Having been a World War II buff for years, it was almost overwhelming to go to the D-Day sites and stand in the same places where the invasion took place.  Walking through the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial and seeing the seemingly endless rows of crosses was a somber and introspective experience.

American Cemetery & Memorial in Normandy
American Cemetery & Memorial in Normandy. Photo by Stacy Benson.

We also visited Le Mont-Saint-Michel, a monastery town that can trace its existence to the 8th century AD, the Basilica of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the medieval town of Pays d’Auge, the historic port of Saint-Malo, the cliffs of Étretat, and the town of Bayeux, home of the Bayeux Tapestry.

Le Mont St. Michel
Le Mont St. Michel. Photo by Stacy Benson.

What is fascinating about these places and France in general, is that almost everywhere you look there is beauty.  The detail in their architecture, the intricacies of the designs in the religious buildings, and even the landscape of the region is simply put, art.

At the end of my study abroad session, I took that same shuttle van back to Charles de Gaulle airport.  This time, I felt no disappointment.  I felt completely satiated because of the friendships I made, the experiences I had, and the amazing places I visited.  My study abroad participation in France was a complete success, even without seeing the Eiffel Tower.

The Cliffs at Étretat
The Cliffs at Étretat. Photo by Stacy Benson.
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