La fin

This post was supposed to be a celebration of being forever free from the French education system, but my brain is currently broken from finals, so you’ll have to make do without the exuberant tone.

(No, but seriously. We had 15 hours of exams smushed into 3 days, and two of those days were 7 hours long. On the first day, I handwrote at least 1500 words. During the second day, for one of my oral exams, the professor pretty much told me, “Normally you have time to prepare, but now you don’t, so tell me about tourism in France,” and my basic emotion was “Um.” [Seriously, I doubt I’d be able to just start extemporaneously talking in English even if you told me to tell you about my favorite book. Okay, part of it is because I’d have to choose a favorite book first, but that’s beside the point.] And today, I kid you not, I almost fell asleep during my last exam. I found myself staring at a spot of white-out for at least five minutes because I was just so zoned-out, and I’m pretty sure I made up a few words.)

This semester was a little weird because only about eight of us were actually college-aged; sometimes, I was the youngest person in the room by almost a decade. The majority of the class was composed of actual adults, some of whom have children my age. I did learn, however, that a surprising amount of people speak English, and it’s fascinating how people’s voices chance depending on what language they speak. My Brazilian classmate has a pretty deep voice when he speaks Portugese or French, but it rises an octave when he speaks English. Something else I’ve realized is that no matter how old you are or what country you’re from, nothing brings students together like the stress of exams. In a foreign language.

I’ll write an actual post on my year in France when my brain’s sufficiently recovered. For now, I can definitely say that my experience isn’t something that can’t be summed up with a single word. And at least I have a possible job avenue: the English professor who helps me out here told me that, should I ever want to teach English at the university, to just shoot her an email.

(I spelled so many things wrong. There were so many red lines. Sorry if this post is an incoherent mess.)

Unexpected Acts of Kindness

I haven’t been out much because I’ve sort of locked myself inside my room, surrounded by piles of papers and notes that I need to study for finals. But I’ve pieced together this little post to keep my blog alive (for now):


1. At Casino, I return the cashier’s “Bonjour,” trying not to dwell on whether or not she’s completely confused by my paradoxical purchase of chocolate, toothpaste, and a toothbrush.

“Three euros fifty,” she informs me after she’s rung up the items.

I fumble around in the zipper compartment of my wallet, unearthing what I assume is 3.50 euros.

She looks over the coins in her palm, and then tells me that I’m three cents short.

Heat rushes to my face, and I’m glad that, when I blush, it’s never visible. I must’ve handed her a two cent coin, thinking that it was a five cent coin.

I dig out another two cent coin, hand it over, and then fish around for a tiny one cent coin—I know there’s one hiding in my wallet somewhere.

“It’s okay,” she tells me, probably sensing my frustration.

I look up, only to find that she’s already turned around to place my coins in the register, and I wonder what sort of place the world would be if people waived money on a regular basis, even in insignificant amounts.


2. Three of my friends and I wait patiently but hungrily for our sandwiches outside the little sandwich shop—we’ve just finished an hour of class, and lunch is a pretty exciting part of the day considering that we have another two-hour class in sixty minutes.

After the owner gives us all our foil-wrapped, plastic bagged sandwiches, we pay him and begin to walk away.

But then he shouts, “Wait!”

Since I was the last one to get my food, I’m the closest to him. I turn to see him holding out a 1.25 liter bottle of Coke.

“…drink” is all I hear, so I nod and grab it, thinking that one of my friends must have ordered it and then forgotten about it.

“He just gave it to us,” I say in bewildered English when a friend doubles back to me to see what’s happening.

“Merci!” she shouts back at him as we make our way to the crosswalk.

I should have grasped the truth then, but it’s not until the four of us are hiking up the hill to the university that I realize the owner just spontaneously gave us the Coke out of the kindness of his heart.


3. As the cashier rings up my pan bagnat—a Niçois specialty of tuna, eggs, lettuce, and tomatoes sandwiched between round bread—she leans over and says, “Excuse me?”

I immediately begin to panic. Is there not enough money on my card? Have I somehow managed to commit some grievous breach of French etiquette while waiting for my lunch? Is she going to kick me out of the university cafeteria?

“Oui?” I say hesitantly.

But she just asks, “What city are you from?”

Uh, I think. And then I begin to panic again. Is she going to be another person who, for whatever unfathomable reason, wants to know what kind of Asian I am?

“The United States,” I say, because most international people have no idea what a Richmond is. I try not to make my answer sound like a question.

“The United States?” she repeats.

I nod.

She considers this for a moment before telling me, “You have a really pretty accent.”

Totally flustered—I’ve always been terrible at receiving compliments—I undoubtedly mangle the pronunciation of my “merci” when I thank her and then bid her au revoir.

But my smile follows me for the rest of the day, even if you can’t see it on my face.

It’s a Small World

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my Life of Pi class, my sole English course here. It turns out that there’s really no point in getting a grade for it, since 1 credit doesn’t help the six-hour literature requirement for my minor. So I emailed the professor, and now I don’t have to worry about a presentation, participation grade, or essay.

But I figured I might as well keep attending the class anyways, since it’s the closest thing I have to an R-MC course. As I waited for the class before us to wrap up, the professor appeared. I debated whether I should tell him I was the one who emailed him, because that’s the polite thing to do, but I couldn’t figure out how to start a conversation like that, because I’m shy and socially inept.

Luckily, he solved my dilemma by walking up to me and asking, “What’s your name?” (That’s not as weird as it sounds. This class only happens an hour a week, which is not a lot of time to learn a bunch of names.)

I replied, “Sarena. I’m the one who emailed you.”

“Oh, okay,” he said. “I thought it was you, but I just wanted to make sure.”

After some small talk, he eventually wanted to know what school I was from. That question always makes me pause, because, well, what are the chances of someone in France knowing what a Randolph-Macon College is? (I mean, there are people in Richmond who have no idea what or where it is. To be honest, I hadn’t heard of it before I applied, and I only did so because a) R-MC emailed me a free streamlined application and b) I was rebelling against my parents, who were all “You have to apply and go to UVA because that’s where all the Asians are!”)

I ended up saying, “I’m actually from Virginia, and I go to Randolph-Macon College.”

I was not prepared for his response of “Randolph-Macon? I’ve been there before!”

Turns out he visited it in 1992—he was in Ontario, and then took the train from Michigan to Ashland. (I guess the scholarship exchange between R-MC and the University of Nice goes way back.) He went “around this time of the year,” and said that it was snowing, which doesn’t surprise me because Virginia weather is weird. After enthusing about how gorgeous the campus was, he remarked that we’re lucky to have generous alumni, seeing as the University of Nice is a public school and is lucky to even have electricity. (He’s right, R-MC folks. The entire campus is so much nicer than the school building here.)

Then he informed me that the only thing I’ve missed in Nice is a student strike—according to him, we’re long overdue for one. That’s a bummer. It’d be nice to participate in a movement against school.