Aix-en-Vacance, or: The “Study” in Study Abroad

My first final has come and gone here in Aix, and with it, a large portion of my stress. Because this week has been about the much-longed-for end of my grammar course, I haven’t had the time to do the same brand of over-the-top soul searching you’ve been subjected to in my last posts. I have, however, gotten to enjoy some significant developments and work through some rough spots, and hopefully, my sharing a few specific experiences from this week may enlighten any fellow students contemplating summer language programs and entertain those of you who are just here for the stories.

The first thing that has really become clear in this last week (and possibly the best thing, as well) is the certainty of good friends. Three weeks together has bonded us first out of necessity and then out of care for one another. I haven’t asked permission to speak on the personal lives of my friends so I won’t be able to explain the things we now know about and share with each other — the things we’re willing to confide — but I will say that I have been immensely lucky to find three excellent companions who all share a devotion to bettering their French and enjoying their experience here both as an excursion and as a serious study in language and culture. Because this desire to grow and improve is shared, we have been able to help each other strive for that growth and improvement. I’m glad that the class which has until this time devoured each afternoon during my week is finished, so I can now fully embrace the “sit in a café with your friends for hours every day” lifestyle. I hear it’s great. From my friends. When they get lunch without me.

What are friends best for? Taking nice pictures of you when you’re not paying attention. Everyone knows that.

Finals, though — how did those treat me? Well, finals are never anyone’s particular joy. No one has ever woken up in the morning with a fistbump to check off the day marked “Finals!” on a calendar with hearts all around it. As finals go, though, this test was decidedly tame, and until I get the grade back to prove my assurance wrong, I’ll cautiously believe as much. I feel safe because I worked hard in this class, and with good reason. Grammar classes are not to be brushed off in language programs, despite what you might believe if you met some of my classmates who were not part of the small and fierce group of French Honors Students to which I belong.

In fact, many of them felt so casually about the final that they dug down deep and found the tremendous lack of foresight to go out partying the night before the exam. While some of them may have pulled through on a Hail Mary shot at conjugations, I really have to give the goody-two-shoes advice that no Thursday night buzz is worth a Friday morning hangover clouding up your memorization of the subjunctive mood conjugations.

The Temple of Diana, or what’s left of it. Or: the crumbling mess your academic life will be if you blow off classes.

My host mother told my housemate and I about a week ago — in a glorious bout of foreshadowing — that many of her past guests have preferred to call Aix-en-Provence “Aix-en-Vacance,” or: “Aix-in-Vacation.” A dangerous thought, I assure you. I’m witnessing it now with fellow students, so believe me when I tell you that you can fail study abroad courses, and that the killer beach trip you have this weekend is not as important as learning your direct and indirect pronouns, or whatever else you may be there to actually study. And it’s a downer to remember, I know, that study abroad trips are just that: study abroad trips, but learning how to moderate your extravagant vacationing habits in favor of some simple down time and a little studying might be the difference between a fun summer course and an F with a side of thousands of wasted tuition dollars.

My host mother, my housemate, and I welcome a past student and his girlfriend for dinner.

What I’ve found in specific relation to language programs is that the appeal of weekending in Italy or hopping over to Spain for a night on the town in Barcelona might be great, but you hurt your language learning progress a lot. You’ve come to your country to learn its language, and you won’t do that if you spend the entire time on mini-vacations to other countries where you can’t practice that language. This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy trips, or nights out, but learning to keep them local (or at least in-country) is your best bet. Besides likely being cheaper, it keeps you immersed in the culture you’re there to study, and allows you to keep utilizing your target language. It can also remind you that that target language has a life outside of class too, and keep you from associating language learning with the humdrum of the classroom and see it in a vibrant and exciting light!

Finding beautiful excursions in-country instead of traveling beyond the border every weekend is not only possible but a great choice for your language learning! This photo was taken on the cliffs overlooking Cassis.

Study abroad courses have so much to offer, but they ask one crucial thing of you: remember to study. I think constantly of how lucky I am to have this opportunity, of the work I have to do, and the goals I have set for myself. And that said, I still have the time to meet up with friends, visit ruins and monuments, and get awkwardly catcalled on the streets of more than just one city. So, you know, you really can have it all.

Micaela Healy

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