From Boot Camp to Bike Rides

James Daigler
September 16, 2018

(Technically, I wrote this last weekend but I was slow to get it posted. I'll post again within the next week, so we're all caught up!)

It’s my second Saturday in France and so far it has been quite relaxing; especially in comparison with last Saturday, when we were biking around the Île-Aux-Moines.  (More on that later!)  Today is one of my first real breaks since arriving in France.  The first few days were just a blur of airport, IES Abroad Nantes Center, host family, new city, oh my!  From there, this past week has been our intensive orientation to life in France.  Each day included at least three hours of French language classes, ranging in topic from casual conversation to grammar exercises to debating the pros and cons of eating at McDo—the French abbreviation for McDonald’s.  Most days, there was also some kind of informational meeting.  Topics included the French university system and social diversity in France.  To top it all off, many days included field experiences, such as a tour of Nantes University or a treasure hunt for some famous Nantes landmarks.  Of course, all of this is in French, officially 100% of the time!  (I say “officially” because in our spare time, outside of IES Abroad events, my friends and I speak a mix of English and French as a break from school.  But as time passes, our chitchat is becoming more and more French!)  I am convinced this past week and a half would be exhausting for a native speaker, let alone a bunch of American students!

On the plus side, I now feel really confident about getting around Nantes, despite my droopy eyelids!  I also think I am pretty well adjusted to French life, but there have been some interesting moments of culture shock.  For example, French table etiquette is different from American table manners: hands are always above the table; for the most part you don’t put down your silverware, but if you do, the fork is placed tines touching the table; and the bread goes right on the table cloth not on a plate.  The other major cultural difference I’ve noticed is that French people do not smile or say hello as you pass them on the sidewalk.  I know it’s not true for the entire U.S., but certainly in the Midwest, where I am from, people are more visibly cheerful.  This certainly isn’t a problem—people are plenty smily in private—it’s just a difference in culture.  I’ll keep smiling when nobody is looking!  

Onto the big event of the last fourteen days: our trip to Vannes, the Île-Aux-Moines, and Rochefort-en-Terre!  Last Saturday, after a two hour bus ride, we arrived at a port in the historic city of Vannes.  From the port, we would take a boat tour around the Gulf of Morbihan.  The boat would then drop us off for an afternoon on the île-Aux-Moines, the second largest island in the gulf.  But first, we had to wait for the boat to arrive, which, I must admit, was pretty awkward!  It was only our fourth day in France and most of our time thus far was spent being shepherded between informational meetings.  Thus, we didn’t know each other very well and our French wasn’t quite up to speed yet!  I chatted with a few people, but most of my thirty minute wait was spent watching boats go by in the harbor.  (The rest of the day, I’d be much more sociable, but this was a bit of a rough start!)  Finally, the tour boat boarded and we enjoyed the sights the of idyllic Morbihan.  The French coastline and the various islands were peppered with cute, colorful houses with a few more imposing Château-esque buildings scattered amongst them.  More than one person likened the views to the Greek island in the Mama Mia movies—I can definitely see the similarities!  Meanwhile, the tour guide was explaining how the Île-Aux-Moines (the “Isle of Monks”) got its name; however, he seemed a little more focused on his cigarette than the actual tour!  All I could glean was that monks had somehow been involved in its history, but they weren’t there any longer.  What did remain on the island (and also predated any monk-related activity) were megalithic monuments built thousands of years ago.  Vannes and the Morbihan are in the Bretagne (“Brittany”) region of France.  Nantes is also currently part of Bretagne, but the degree to which the city is Breton is a hotly debated subject!  The region was originally colonized by Celtic Britons (hence “Bretons”) migrating from the British isles.  With them, the Bretons brought their language—Morbihan, for example, is the Breton word for “small sea”—and their propensity for building structures out of massive stones, à la Stonehenge.  A few friends and I ate our lunch next to one of the island’s two major stone monuments, the cromlech of Kergonan.  I don’t know what the site might have looked like in the past; however, at the moment, the cromlech is a semicircle of jagged standing stones scattered among a few people’s backyards.  It must be so cool to live next to such an ancient site—but, like the rest of Europe, awe-inspiring things are just par for the course!

Speaking of beautiful things, we passed a church while biking around the island.  Inside, they were holding a wedding.  Obviously, we didn’t go in!  But that didn’t stop us from listening to the music from the outside as we wandered around the church.  During our little meander, we found ourselves in the soldiers’ graveyard bordering the church and right as we stepped foot inside the cemetery gate a single voice from within the church began singing “Ave Maria”!  It was so beautiful and fit the aesthetic of the island perfectly!  That’s just another example of magical moments that have seemed so commonplace in France.  I’m probably still in a bit of a “honeymoon” phase, but hey, might as well enjoy it while it lasts!

James Daigler

<p>At my school, Lawrence University, we use the word "multi-interested"&nbsp;to describe students who enjoy too many subjects to decide on a single major. Although I finally landed upon an English major coupled with secondary education teacher certification, I cannot think of a better word to describe myself! I have always been curious, and I love to explore topics, whether it is creative writing or mathematics or music or foreign languages. I cannot wait to experience everything Nantes, France, and Europe offer and to share it with you!</p>

Home University:
Lawrence University
Kildeer, IL
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