Seven miles above the Atlantic Ocean in the dark, my plane trip to Paris felt relentlessly familiar. It was, after all, my umpteenth voyage to France since my Davidson junior year abroad in 1983.
One thing was notably different on this trip: I had not flown through Atlanta or Newark or Philadelphia this time; I had sprung for the non-stop from Charlotte, a high-season treat worth every nickel. I reflected, too, that this time I was not staying up all night drinking wine and smoking cigarettes and playing cards too loudly over the seatback, as I did at 19.
You’ve come a long way, baby, I thought to myself as I dozed off.
Davidson’s study abroad options have come a long way, too, from my own languid year in Languedoc to the more purpose-driven and often much shorter sojourns of today’s Davidson students.
Both approaches have their merits. But in this best of all possible worlds, the bedrock principles underneath a solid study abroad experience are the same: linguistic immersion, cultural authenticity and personal relationships.
Always with the personal relationships. This is, after all, Davidson.
A La Recherche du Temps Perdu
JYA France in 1983 was a yearlong program in the central Mediterranean city of Montpellier in the Languedoc region that neighbors Provence.
I still can recall how the untried sensuality of Languedoc struck me at first, its land and people new and fresh and occasionally strange to me. Just different.
The countryside, from vineyard to thyme-scented garrigue, seemed exotically rocky, drier, maybe two shades lighter in color tones than my accustomed Carolina Piedmont palette.
The regional accent du Midi sounded nothing like the language-lab cassettes I’d been listening to in Chambers.
In the petites rues and cafés, acrid Gauloise smoke vexed my own Tobacco Road nose, but I strode nonetheless right into a tabac and bought myself a pack of the nasty black-tobacco things anyway, on the principle of “being there and doing that.”
Much of that glorious year followed the same lines: Been there, done that, got the Gaston Lagaffe cartoon T-shirt.
This was a time, like college in general, only more so and in French, to try on something new, some thought or action or attitude, far from friends and family. Sometimes in the bargain I wound up far away, too, from my own preconceived notions about myself. How refreshing.
Language was a bellwether for it all.
I remember one morning, on Christmas break in Nice with my host family, waking up and asking Hélène, my French mom, “Quelle heure est-il?” Sounds simple, but the first time something comes out of your mouth in a foreign language without your brain being actively involved, you remember it.
Now I was home, in my own skin, in France. This was the alchemical result of study abroad, of academic work, of cultural osmosis and, finally, of the need for self-defense at mealtimes in this ribald extended family of some 25 high-spirited Mediterranean souls who no speak ze Engleesh.
Nuances of idiom and etymology informed every utterance, mine and others’, opening new perspectives of thought and relationship to people and to life along the way. It was a word guy’s dream come true.
Aïe! That Was Close
I might have missed it all.
Near the end of my sophomore year I perceived myself a confused young man, because, okay, I was. I was slow to reach out, though kudos to those faculty and staff members whom I did connect with outside the classroom. I credit them, and the supportive Davidson community more broadly, so deliberate and serendipitous at the same time, with a moment of clarity I recall vividly.
I was making up my bed one morning and realized: I have to go France after all, now is the time, I’d be a fool not to, et cetera. The internal dialogue was secondary. I just knew, the way you know something in a flash that you’ve been worrying for what feels like forever. I called up program director Alan Singerman, now professor emeritus of French, who informed me that the list of students had already been sent to the embassies for approval and, besides, the only way I could go to France and graduate on time was to be a French major.
Fine, sign me up, I said, just please, oh, please let me back in. I was that sure, and never looked back, just got on that plane in August. Whew.
Chapter two, a decade later in the mid-1990s, my JYA family connections ushered in my next full-time French sojourn. Hélène had sent me a nutrition book in French, and long story short, I wrote the author a letter about the possibility of an English translation. Soon, I had a gig lined up as English-language research editor and hospitality-monger in a château full of French and German and Swiss volk an hour outside Paris. I quit my ad agency job, packed up the cat and dog and moved. Good times. To paraphrase Tom Cruise’s resourceful entrepreneur Joel Goodsen in Risky Business, whom we all fancied ourselves, sometimes you’ve just got to say what the heck.
At the Château de Montramé, I met Nicolas and I met Carole, lifelong friends from the start, my go-to people when I go to France now, along with Hélène and clan from JYA France Davidson days.
And so it goes.
Que Sera, Sera
Barry Elledge ’85 married his JYA France sweetheart Anne-Sophie. They and their three sons have a home in Les Carroz d’Arraches, where Anne-Sophie took this pic, July 2015.[/caption]And so it will go with a majority of Davidson students. The most recent numbers in ye olde Fact File show a full three-quarters travel abroad during college, with 65 percent studying abroad for credit.
Today the Dean Rusk International Studies Program oversees overseas Davidson programs in 10 locations, with fully-staffed support available for participation in many more options around the globe.
The Dean Rusk web page makes me want to check my frequent flier balances:
“The Dean Rusk International Studies Program embodies Davidson’s belief that knowledge of other cultures and of the social, economic, political, and scientific forces that shape our world are integral to a liberal arts education. Incorporating the offices of study abroad, international student services, and travel grants and programming, we work to give a global dimension to every aspect of a student’s education.
“Serving as the organizing mechanism for expanding internationalism across the Davidson experience, we encourage students to pursue an international curriculum through the college’s interdisciplinary minor in international studies, interdisciplinary studies majors, study abroad programs and courses in various academic departments.”
So: Go there, do that, Davidson students.
Go west, go east, north or south, young men and women. Just go!
One word of advice: Don’t smoke on the plane. Or you know, at all.
But go, do and be!