Since a very young age, studying abroad in France has always been a dream of mine. I began taking French language courses over seven years ago, and was I fortunate enough to travel to this beautiful country twice previously. Upon beginning my studies at Ohio State two years ago, I knew I wanted to combine my interests and I therefore chose to double major in Finance and French. Fortunately, I had the opportunity through the Fisher College of Business to spend this semester studying at EM Strasbourg Business School on the Student Exchange Program. After only a few weeks here, I’m already getting assimilated to the French culture and loving every minute of my journey.
I started my European adventure on August 24th when I departed from Chicago O’Hare Airport for Reykjavik, Iceland. I did not need to be in Strasbourg until the 30th of the month, so I decided to use the time beforehand to explore two very different travel destinations, Reykjavik and Paris. Iceland was a country that had always fascinated me due to its Viking roots and rugged, beautiful landscapes, and since it was a natural stopover point to Europe, I spent three full days there. My time there was absolutely incredible, and I got to explore the country’s famous waterfalls, mountains, and geysers, while staying in its quaint capital city. Iceland was the most unique place that I have ever visited before. The country is home to only 330,000 inhabitants, whose Viking ancestors settled here over a thousand years ago on an uninhabited and inhospitable volcanic island. These resourceful locals made the most of what little this barren land had to offer, and Icelanders are thus a result of their environment. The temperature never left the 50’s, but the weather actually felt great here because the Icelandic air is so clean and the sun was generally shining during their long summer days. I got to learn a ton of interesting things about Icelandic history and culture, because I bought the Reykjavik City Card (which you should buy if you ever visit) and it gave me free access to all the museums, pools, and public transportation. Iceland is a very old country, but for most of its history the country had been one of Europe’s poorest, but during the 20th century Iceland emerged to become one of the world’s most progressive and prosperous. After winning independence from Denmark during the Second World War, the country became strategic for the Allied powers due to its location and the United States built a massive base there. Money from the Marshall Plan and major technological advancement allowed the economy to emerge from that of subsistence, and they became a world leader in fishing, services, banking and tourism. In 1980, Vigdis Finnbogadottir became the world’s first female president after winning the Icelandic elections, and then even more recently Johanna Sigurdardottir became the first openly lesbian head of state in the world. So basically for such a tiny country, Iceland has a very interesting history and I would recommend it to all of you to put on your bucket lists.
Then before reaching Strasbourg, I had a whirlwind 24-hour layover in Paris, where I took in as much Parisian culture, history, and food as possible. This was my third time in Paris, but it was the first time that I was there all by myself. I had an ideal day in the city, and I got to experience a city that is very different from my other destinations. Paris is one the world’s greatest cities, and is completely packed with famous monuments, which means this city is insanely beautiful but also very hectic. Therefore I avoided the usual must-sees like the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, and the Sacre-Coeur, and instead focused on historic neighborhoods and great restaurants. After several crazy days of traveling, I finally reached Strasbourg in the evening of August 29th, and that’s when my immersive experience truly began.
Strasbourg is a city with a very unique history, which is due to its strategic location on the border with Germany. Over the last several centuries, countless wars have been fought between these two European powers, and the winner always won the region of Alsace and its capital of Strasbourg. As a result the city is a Franco-German cultural and architectural mix. In Alsace, many locals have German last names; beer and sauerkraut appear on most menus; and street signs also are written in the local Alsatian language, a variant of German. Actually, Strasbourg’s library from which I’m writing this blog post, was built by the Germans in the 1880’s in an area of Strasbourg that looks more like Berlin than Paris. Strasbourg’s central location between the European Union’s most powerful nations, helped secure it as the home of the EU Parliament, and some of Europe’s most important decisions are made in this city. This status as a regional powerhouse attracts a lot of visitors to the city, including the Dalai Lama, who is in town for the week.
Despite having a unique history all its own, Strasbourg today is firmly French, and the city feels a long way culturally from Columbus, Ohio. Strasbourg is filled with smoke filled cafés and restaurant, where locals enjoy their long lunches and vacations. Working hours here are quite different, and during the month of August many businesses shut down. Strikes are common here as well, and today for example the city’s tram workers went on strike, so a lot of the lines got closed down. Also some places close down on Sundays, Mondays, evenings, and during lunch breaks, so I had to adjust to this new pace. Another major difference was that it is pretty uncommon to find public restrooms and especially drinking fountains anywhere, so foreigners expecting this might be very surprised. A final obvious difference that I noticed was that most of the buildings here are not air-conditioned, so going to class in 86-degree weather was a rude awakening.
While these were all things that were very foreign to me, adaptability is a very important part of living abroad. To anyone else going to France, you just have to understand that things are different in another part of the world, and the French do numerous things that are different from the United States. You must remember though that you’re not the only one who is adjusting, and many other exchange students are dealing with the same things. Even if it seems foreign to you, try to adapt to the local way, rather than focusing on the difference. And contrary to popular belief, I’ve found the French to be really open and friendly, so the locals are usually willing to help if you’re having trouble understanding something. Another thing to be aware of though, is that a lot of French people do not speak as much English as they do in most other parts of Western Europe, and the locals have a lot of pride in the French language. Luckily, I’ve been studying French since junior high school, so I prefer just speaking to local people in the French language. Even if you don’t speak any French, I strongly recommend learning at least a few basic expressions before coming to the country. It’s considered pretty rude here to just come into a shop or restaurant and immediately start in English without at least a “Bonjour Monsieur/Madame” (Hello Sir/Ma’am) or “parlez-vous anglais?” (Do you speak English). If they don’t speak any English, which is common especially outside Paris, try your best to speak slowly and use the expressions “je voudrais” (I would like…), “s’il vous plaît” (please), “merci” (thanks), and “bonne journée/au revoir” (Have a great day/Goodbye) when applicable. Being polite and respectful is very important in France, and understanding social norms here can really help you adapt to the local culture.
While I do miss my friends, family and home university, I am so happy to be able to study abroad in Strasbourg, France. This city is absolutely incredible, and sometimes it is hard to believe that I am actually living in another country. As I look out my dorm bedroom window every morning I have an incredible view of Strasbourg’s Notre-Dame Cathedral, which serves as a good reminder if I ever forget where I am. This cathedral was the tallest building in the world between 1647 and 1874, and it truly is the most awe-inspiring building that I have ever seen. The Cathedral has a unique color, a pain-staking amount of detail, and an iconic tower that can be seen from all across the region. The most historic part of the city, including the cathedral, is situated on a large island formed by the Ill River, and this is the area where I try to spend the most of my time. This is definitely the most beautiful part of the city, and although I live about a 12-15 minute walk from the center, the public transportation here is quite good and I can get anywhere by tram or bus. In about the same amount of time as it takes to get downtown, I could also cross the Rhine River and go to Germany, which is pretty crazy to comprehend. The advantages of this central location are enormous, and as a result many other international students are also drawn to study in this city. Luckily, since arriving in Strasbourg, I have made so many amazing friends and had the opportunity to travel all around the surrounding regions. I could talk endlessly about all these incredible experiences, so I will save them for my next blog. I am hoping to write another post very soon, and until then I’ll keep traveling and learning in this beautiful corner of the world. Thanks for reading.
About the Author: Troy Weider, Junior, Finance and French