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Savannah Seymour ’20, an English major and Linguistics and French minor, shares her highs and lows of spending a summer across the ocean.
Where did you go and for how long?
France, from the end of May to mid=August. I was in Grenoble for school for a month, then went for fun to Chamonix, Paris, Ile d’aix, Lyon, Périgueux, Rouffach, Bordeaux, the Canal Nivernais—and I think two other spots I’m forgetting. Womp.
Did you have any fears beforehand?
So many, from things as small as forgetting to pack a sweatshirt to things like getting lost, losing my passport, or getting pickpocketed. I also was afraid that I wouldn't be able to make friends because I couldn’t speak the language well enough, or that my host family wouldn’t like me, or that I’d offend someone by accident.
What was your biggest milestone?
Getting comfortable. When I got to the point where I could go to the store without having to rehearse was exciting. It wasn’t just that I was getting better at speaking and understanding; I learned to ask questions without feeling shy or embarrassed.
What were the highs of your experience?
Hiking in the Alps from Chamonix—I hiked 17 miles to see the glacier that supposedly inspired the setting of Frankenstein (some real English major shenanigans).
Staying on an island with no cars was cool. I read a book in a day and a half for fun; went fishing everyday with Jacques, one of the retired residents; and got a lot of good ideas for stories.
I also did a biking and camping trip with my host family at the end of the summer. I was physically doing things I’d never done before, and I genuinely felt like part of their family, which meant I’d learned enough of their language to really communicate with them beyond the essentials. We could joke and tell stories, not just talk about food or directions.
There were moments when I realized I was really doing it. I had planned and been anxious for so long, so in those moments on the train or staring out at a glacier or mountain, I just felt so relieved. I was really figuring it out.
What was something that you didn’t expect?
I was not prepared for how hard it would be at first. Traveling alone is more work than you think. Sometimes having company makes a big difference when things go wrong—trains are late, you’re hungry, lost, can’t understand what someone is saying. Sometimes the time difference means everyone you know is just waking up when your day is half-over, and that can be isolating.
This is kind of a no-brainer, but obviously the food, culture, and social environment also feel really different. Being noticeably different when you would typically blend in is a strange thing. You can’t even buy groceries or get a coffee without being asked which part of the U.S. you’re from. I don’t think any level of instruction can prepare you for what that will be like—it’s really fun, but can also be exhausting.
What is something you learned about yourself?
It doesn’t matter how well you plan; something else will come up or fall through. The difference between good and bad experiences for me was the mentality I approached them with. Sometimes fear is valuable because it does make you think about all the options, but sometimes it's unfounded or unuseful and in those moments; you have to shrug it off and figure out your new plan instead of agonizing over the old one.
Also, kindness goes a long way. People care when you’re genuinely trying and being respectful. If you are grateful for their time, they are often willing to help you.
What about language-learning?
So much of how you perceive yourself is language-based. Sometimes I felt like nobody knew me because I couldn’t easily express my personality, sense of humor, and tone. I had to get creative; music and drawing helped me a lot, and made good gifts that bridged gaps I couldn’t by speaking.
It’s hard, mentally and emotionally. Sometimes you feel genuinely unintelligent, but that’s not true—it's just not the language you learned to express your intelligence in. At home, I work as a barista and see a lot of people who don’t speak English as their first language. I’m extra gentle with them, because I remember how intimidating it is. You never know how many people have made them feel judged or inconvenient for trying their best.
Any advice for someone attempting a similar voyage?
Let what you want to say and your desire to connect with people be more important than how you are saying it. You’ll get farther fumbling over poor vocabulary than rehearsing everything. You won’t always sound fluent, and you’ll make mistakes even five-year-olds know not to make in that language, but it's not a reflection of your value or intelligence. It’s just new. People appreciate the vulnerability you show in trying to communicate with them.