Yesterday morning, at an hour when in the States I would probably never even have considered being awake on a Sunday, I found myself in charge of an organic-food stall in the tiniest farmer’s market I’ve ever seen, in a French mountain village with perhaps a hundred inhabitants. The actual owners of the stall had decided to go have a coffee in the café across the street, leaving me to wrap up small round goat cheeses for people and answer questions like, “So this cheese is pretty much the same as that one, only bigger?” (My answer: “Euh..... oui.”) The cheeses had been produced by the stall owners on the grounds of a commune-esque establishment where city children come to get a bit of fresh air and learn Esperanto.
In other words, if I’ve been delinquent in posting this term, it’s because I’ve been doing things that are so bizarre that I have no idea where to start in relating them back to Carleton. I’ve been on a study abroad program with SIT called “Language, Community and Social Change” in Toulouse, where I’ve been taking French immersion courses with other foreigners (and going to their apartments on weekends for authentic Asian “cuisine de la maison”), working at an after-school tutoring/daycare program in an elementary school in a predominantly immigrant neighborhood (one of the infamous “banlieues” of the 2005 explosion of car-burning/rioting throughout France), and living with a host family, who are the most secular Jews I’ve ever met, even in the US where several of my Jewish friends are Unitarian Universalists.
The farmer’s-market incident happened during the village study, which is where we leave Toulouse for two weeks, do an ethnographic study on some aspect of life in the country, and then present it at the office of tourism for our host families and anyone else from the village who wants to come. I’m studying Occitan, the regional language of the south of France, which here they call “le patois” because there isn’t really a conception of “Occitan” as a single unified language. It’s on its way to extinction because the old people who spoke it daily stopped passing it on to their children (the reason why is something I’m still trying to figure out) and because everyone is leaving the area for places with more opportunity. The really difficult part of the village study is that we’re expected to come up with complete projects without doing any outside research, which is convenient because I don’t have internet access at my homestay anyway, but also not so great because I have no way of verifying any of the information anyone gives me.
The woman hosting me is being a great help though, because she knows a huge amount of old people who speak the patois, most of whom live in extremely isolated (here they say “arrièré”, which I’m pretty sure means “backward”) areas that I would never have been able to get to or even find out about on my own. Today we ate the most unimaginably enormous and excellent lunch with an elderly farm couple who seemed to want nothing more than to fatten me up and get me drunk. (At one point, they went around the table coming up with French idioms to describe how skinny I am: “so skinny she could walk between raindrops” and “so skinny she could pass behind a poster without unsticking it from the wall” were a couple of my favorites). Before the husband came home from whatever he’d been doing before lunch, both the wife and my host had warned me that I wouldn’t be able to understand a word he said, which I brushed off because usually I can understand people with strong accents. Then he came in and I had ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA WHAT HE WAS SAYING. It sounded like a hybrid of Italian and Spanish. I’d never heard anything like it before; I couldn’t even understand when he asked me simple questions like how old I was and how long I’d been in France. They’re not kidding when they say that people from different regions in France used to not be able to understand each other.
So essentially, this is the kind of thing I’ve been doing here – most of the experience involves feeling consistently kind of lonely and awkward and then out of nowhere being wonderfully surprised by something so bizarre it’s awesome. My study abroad experience is certainly not that of every Carleton student, because a) my program has 4 people on it and we don’t live together in dorms, hence the loneliness aspect, and b) it’s heavy on the immersion and authenticity, hence the bizarre surprise aspect. It’s also in Europe, so the culture shock is less intense than it might be elsewhere, but that also means that when there is something totally different, it’s even more unexpected. About 1/3 of the class of 2012 is abroad this term; right now I have friends in China, Japan, Peru, Namibia, Hungary, Madrid, and so on and so forth. (The only contact from Liz, in China, has been extremely cryptic emails containing, for example, a photo of all the guys on the program dressed up as a Scottish marching band and surrounded by middle-aged women in animal costumes.) All told, I would definitely recommend studying abroad; I miss Carleton a lot right now (especially the ability to walk 20 steps down the hall and knock on a friend’s door; where I am right now the nearest neighbors are a 10-minute drive away!) but I’m sure I’ll be super nostalgic for France when I get back. This program is also supplying something I’ve always felt was lacking in a traditional academic setting; that is, REAL PEOPLE who actually live with the things I’m interested in studying and can tell me about them firsthand (both Occitan and immigration in France are things I’ve always wanted to study but never felt that I could do so adequately in a library in the States). So in conclusion – I will attempt to do a few more detailed posts about the rest of my time here, and stay tuned for our regularly scheduled programming in winter!