“Dans tous les pays du monde, quand on n’est pas Français, on est étranger.”
“In every country of the world, when you’re not French, you’re a stranger.”
Joseph Arthur de Gobineau

Brian Kested ’12 – Before I left New York for Montpellier, France, I promised myself that every time I spoke to friends and family, I would tell them how I was honestly feeling, share my struggles as well as my triumphs, and never sugarcoat anything.  I still aim to keep that promise.
A street photo in Saint-Jean de Védas (a "suburb" of Montpellier and where I am living with my host family)

I arrived in Montpellier on a beautiful January afternoon; I bemoaned my decision to wear long pants and a jacket.  Shortly thereafter, I met my host family: two parents and five children ranging in age from 18 to 28.  They have been nothing but patient and encouraging since the day they accepted me into their home.  As I began to speak with them more and more, usually at the dinner table, I became correspondingly aware of how inadequate my French was.  (When I speak French, my mouth often moves faster than my mind and I toss all knowledge of tenses and subject-verb agreement out the window and replace it with an uninhibited and chaotic explanation of myself or my life in the United States.)

My family usually understands what I’m saying, and I have learned that they are really quite good at acting things out when I don’t understand what they’re saying.  I strongly encourage anyone who is interested in studying abroad to at least consider staying with a host family; it has been the highlight of my stay in France and I am always learning new things about French culture and how people live.  Every night I enjoy a delicious French dinner and engage in warm conversation.

Despite the warmth of living with a French family, everything in Montpellier quickly became a challenge.  I have been constantly approached by people asking me questions about this-and-that and of course rarely can I determine what they’re saying much less provide an adequate response.  I am learning that conversational and colloquial French are much different than formal French.  This disconnect is frustrating because, often, if someone tweaked their wordage a bit I would have understood exactly what they were saying.  But, alas, no such luck.

School, of course, deserves a blog entry of its own, but I’ll try to be brief.  In the Montpellier program, there are two academic tracks: Language and Culture, and Integrated.  I opted for the latter which meant that I would take classes with native French students in subjects that interested me.  I am taking Literature of Madness, Beginning Italian, French Grammar, French Phonetics, and Epistemology and Forms of Rationality.  Needless to say, these classes are a constant struggle and are indeed testing both my french and my knowledge of the subject matter in question.  However, it was when I received my first grade, an A on my philosophy dissertation, that the tides began to turn for me.  I became instilled with a previously-nonexistent self confidence; what seemed impossible became a sudden reality and that thrilled me.

At the beach in the outskirts of Montpellier

My encounter with french life and culture in Montpellier has indeed changed my life.  I have no doubt that I will continue to evolve, mentally and emotionally.  When I first arrived in Montpellier, I was mystified; how could I possibly assimilate into a culture so different than my own?  When, though, after two months of mental turmoil, my mind expanded to encompass this challenging experience, I began to view myself, and my actions, differently.  What I know now is that anger and resentment can isolate you.  It can change you and mold you into something you’re not.  The only positive result the anger I’ve been feeling, therefore, is who I have become.  Thankfully, I woke up one day and realized that I wasn’t afraid to take the journey, and I know that the truth is, at best, a partially told story.

Things are beginning to look up in southern France.  It’s been an interesting journey through many not-so-easily navigable crosscurrents and I can’t begin to think of another experience that could have affected me as much as the immersion into another culture.

I sincerely thank those who have made this experience possible, and will be sure to write again soon.