Unexpected skills gained on the year abroad

posted by Emma Beddall

Emma Beddall studies French and German at Somerville College. She is just returning for her final year from an exchange at a German university.

As my time spent abroad nears its end, I find myself thinking often of what I’ll bring back with me from my year abroad (and how I can possibly manage to get my possessions back to England, although that is another story…).  I am pretty sure that most students returning home will almost certainly bring back a range of physical things, from a collection of postcards with slogans in foreign languages – even the most banal of phrases sounds so much more sophisticated in another language – to photos of places they’ve visited and things they’ve done to all sorts of mementos and probably a fair few foreign-language books.

I know that next year, I’ll probably love having all these things in my university room as a reminder of my experiences that will allow me to reminisce nostalgically about my time abroad.  However, I think that perhaps most of the things I will bring back with me won’t be so easy to put on display. I’ll always treasure the memories, but the skills I picked up along the way might just be the most important and unanticipated benefit from my year abroad.  Some of the skills I’ve developed are big ones, some of them relatively irrelevant, but overall I suspect I’ll carry them with me throughout my life.

 

Language skills

It is undeniable that spending an extended period in Germany has definitely improved my German, and alongside it my confidence in using the language.  When you’re living in a foreign country, there really is no way to avoid being submersed in the language, and sooner or later you’ll probably find that you even talk to yourself in the foreign language.  After a while abroad, you will most likely possess a comprehensive vocabulary of words that really should exist in your native tongue and a tendency to confusion as to the grammar and spelling rules in your own languages.

While in a classroom setting, you always have the fall-back option of being able to swap to your native tongue when you just don’t know that word you need (or being able to look it up in a dictionary); in a real-life conversation, you generally can’t.  As a result, I have had to substantially increase my skills at playing the equivalent of Taboo mixed with Charades, in order to get across what I want to say without that vital word!

 

Packing skills

Given the tendency to accumulate all those physical souvenirs of your adventures abroad I mentioned earlier, you will also be highly likely to end up with more stuff than you started with.  As a result of this, you have two options a) decide upon a very minimalist approach and discard as many material possessions as possible at the end of the year, or b) get very good at packing.  I have gone for option B.

I am still not keen at packing, but I have become decidedly more skilled and logical at doing so.  I can now cram a ridiculous amount of things into hand luggage (most notably this once included a 24-volume lexicon that aroused the suspicion of Security) and have learnt all sorts of tricks, such as channelling my inner Hermione by carrying my heaviest hardback books as a little ‘light reading’ for the plane!

 

Life skills

Using a different currency also provides its own challenges, and constantly converting euro prices into pounds sterling is definitely a way to practise those rusty mental maths skills.  This is made more complicated by fluctuations in the exchange rate.  An alternative is to find something in your new country and base all prices on that, for example a scoop of ice cream costing a euro, but this doesn’t work so well when they then increase the price of ice cream (which now sadly costs me 1 and a half ‘ice creams’).

A year abroad is definitely a step up from university, where your family are potentially nearby and you are surrounded by staff and other students, and in addition to this, you have to communicate in a foreign language.  If you have issues while abroad (and it is pretty much inevitable that at some point you will end up in the wrong place), you are generally the one who will have to sort them out.  As a result, I’ve definitely become far more independent and more confident in my own ability to deal with situations, and this is something that has also happened to a lot of my friends who have spent time abroad.

As well as developing problem-solving skills, year abroad students seem to gain a talent for spontaneous trip organisation.  This ideally involves a really long coach journey, potentially to an unusual destination.  If you’re living in continental Europe, everywhere is basically now on your doorstep and it is a great opportunity to travel and try new things!

 

 

 

 

C’est la rentrée !

posted by Catriona Seth

            If you happen to be in France, there is one term you will see all over the place at this time of year: la rentrée. Obviously, it means the fact of re-entering… but what do you re-enter? ‘Papeteries’ or stationers and ‘Librairies’ or bookshops will give you a clue to one aspect of the ‘rentrée’ every schoolchild knows about: ‘la rentrée des classes’ or ‘la rentrée scolaire’, when everyone goes back to school. Nobel prize winner Anatole France relates a young boy’s thoughts and demeanour in his autobiographical Le Livre de mon ami, which was first published in 1885 : ‘Vivent les vacances, à bas la rentrée. Il avait le cœur un peu serré, c’était la rentrée. Pourtant, il trottait, ses livres sur son dos et sa toupie dans sa poche’. The spinning top in his pocket tells us a little about what games might have been usual at playtime in a nineteenth-century ‘cour d’école’. If he had come from Germany or parts of Eastern Europe, the young pupil might have been packed off for his first day at school with a ‘Schultüte’, a cone filled with sweets and small presents.

‘La rentrée’ is the time when everything picks up again after the summer. You will hear people of all ages and in all walks of life wishing each other ‘une bonne rentrée’. One of the specific aspects of French ‘rentrées’ is that they see the publication of a large number of books, particularly novels—there are 581 ‘romans de la rentrée’ out this year. This is what is known as ‘la rentrée littéraire’. Newspapers and magazines are full of suggestions about what to read: ‘les meilleurs romans de la rentrée’, ‘les romans les plus attendus de la rentrée’…

One of the books to watch is always Belgian author Amélie Nothomb’s new offering. She produces one book a year, regular as clockwork, and it comes out in time for ‘la rentrée littéraire’. Last year’s bore the same title as a fairy-tale by Charles Perrault, Riquet à la houppe (Ricky with the tuft) and is a fun variation on the ‘beauty and the beast’ theme. Like many of her novels, it is short and easy to read. This year’s offering, her 26th, is called Frappe-toi le cœur, a reference to a twelve-syllable line of verse (‘un alexandrin’) by romantic poet Alfred de Musset ‘Ah! Frappe-toi le cœur, c’est là qu’est le génie’: ‘Ah! Beat your heart, that is where genius lies’. He was suggesting that true genius involves feeling and not just thought. I have included his poem at the bottom of the page for those who want to read it.

And here is a little exercise on ‘rentrer’, the verb, and ‘rentrée’ the noun. See if you can fill in the blanks using the noun where appropriate and any of the following tenses for the verb: the ‘passé composé’, the ‘présent de l’indicatif’, the ‘futur simple’ and the ‘participe présent’.

Comme c’est la __________ Jeanne a un nouveau cartable. Cette année elle __________ à l’école primaire. Son frère Pierre est plus âgé qu’elle : il __________ au lycée l’année prochaine. Leur mère est une grande lectrice et s’intéresse aux romans de la __________. Après avoir déposé Jeanne à l’école, elle __________ chez elle avant de partir travailler. En __________ dans l’immeuble, elle a croisé son voisin de palier qui lui a souhaité une bonne __________. Il était très souriant : il venait d’apprendre qu’il allait avoir des __________ d’argent inattendues grâce à un petit héritage.

 

 

Answer: rentrée – est rentrée/rentre – rentrera/rentre – rentrée – est rentrée/rentre – rentrant – rentrée – rentrées

You will have noticed the meaning of ‘rentrée(s)’ in the final sentence is a different one: ‘Avoir une rentrée d’argent’ means to come into some money, not necessarily, as here, through an inheritance.

 

A mon ami Edouard B.

Tu te frappais le front en lisant Lamartine,
Edouard, tu pâlissais comme un joueur maudit ;
Le frisson te prenait, et la foudre divine,
   Tombant dans ta poitrine,
T’épouvantait toi-même en traversant ta nuit.

Ah ! frappe-toi le cœur, c’est là qu’est le génie.
C’est là qu’est la pitié, la souffrance et l’amour ;
C’est là qu’est le rocher du désert de la vie,
   D’où les flots d’harmonie,
Quand Moïse viendra, jailliront quelque jour.

Peut-être à ton insu déjà bouillonnent-elles,
Ces laves du volcan, dans les pleurs de tes yeux.
Tu partiras bientôt avec les hirondelles,
   Toi qui te sens des ailes
Lorsque tu vois passer un oiseau dans les cieux.

Ah ! tu sauras alors ce que vaut la paresse ;
Sur les rameaux voisins tu voudras revenir.
Edouard, Edouard, ton front est encor sans tristesse,
   Ton cœur plein de jeunesse…
Ah ! ne les frappe pas, ils n’auraient qu’à s’ouvrir !

Alfred de Musset (1810-1857)

No et moi: Just how clever is Lou?

posted by Simon Kemp

D’où vient qu’avec un Q.I. de 160 je ne suis pas foutue de faire un lacet ? (p. 13) says Lou in Delphine de Vigan’s No et moi, looking down at her untied shoelace. An IQ of 160 is very high – it puts her on a par with Stephen Hawking. Her genius, and the effect it has on her life, comes up for discussion a few pages later in Lou’s first conversation with No, the homeless girl she meets at the station. No asks:

 

— T’as quel âge ?

— Treize ans. […]

— T’es en quelle classse ?

— En seconde.

— C’est pas l’âge normal, ça ?

— Ben… non. J’ai deux ans d’avance.

— Comment ça se fait ?

— J’ai sauté des classes. […] J’ai appris à lire quand j’étais à la maternelle, alors je ne suis pas allée au CP, et puis après j’ai sauté le CM1. (pp. 17-18)

This is one of the main ways Lou’s high intelligence has shaped the situation in the novel : she has skipped two years of school, and is a thirteen-year-old in a class of fifteen-year-olds. The references to the French school system might benefit from a little explanation. ‘Maternelle’, where Lou learned to read, is pre-school, which is not compulsory in France but available for three- to five-year-olds. Then come five years of École primaire (Primary School). They begin with a year of Cours préparatoire or CP, the first year that Lou skips), then two years of Cours élémentaire (CE1 and CE2), followed by two years of Cours moyen (CM1 and CM2), the first of which Lou also skips. After that comes collège, which is Middle School, equivalent to Years Seven to Ten in the British system. The class names count down from sixième (Year Seven) to troisième (Year 10). Finally come the three years of lycée (High School), beginning with seconde, where Lou is currently studying, then première, and finally terminale (Year Thirteen). The names are all feminine, by the way, because ‘la classe’ is a feminine noun.

Lou is not the only person in the novel to be in the ‘wrong’ year of school. Lucas is also in seconde, but at seventeen years old he’s two years out of step from the other direction. The opposite of ‘sauter une classe’ is ‘redoubler’, and redoublement, repeating a year, is obligatory in France for students who fail to make the required grade to progress to the next level at the end of the year. Having students of different ages in the same class is very common in France. Vigan only tweaks the typical situation a little to create the intriguing premise of the brilliant thirteen-year-old as classmate to the slacker seventeen-year-old, to allow their unlikely friendship to form.

There are other effects too of Lou’s cleverness on the story beyond setting up her relationship with Lucas. For a start, it allows Vigan to narrate the story with the sophistication of an adult. Lou does not write like a normal thirteen-year-old: her grammar and vocabulary are of adult standard, and her use of narrative structure, metaphor, and everything else you expect of a novel are operating at the height of Vigan’s storytelling powers, without it seeming implausible that a thirteen-year-old should be doing this.

But what’s crucial to the story is not just that Lou has the intelligence of an adult. It’s that she combines the intelligence of an adult with the personality of a thirteen-year-old. She has a passion for justice, and when she sees homeless people in the streets she has a burning desire to put things right. Older people may be content to walk on by, blame the government, or shake their heads about insoluble problems, but not Lou. Combined with this is a thirteen-year-old’s naivety. She has confidence that No can be fixed. All it will take is a roof over her head, some kind words and a few square meals. Much of the novel’s narrative development comes from Lou’s slow realization that the happy ending which seemed so easy may not ever be in reach. Over the course of the story, we see her become a wiser person, but also a more disillusioned one, as No’s problems prove increasingly beyond her ability to solve, no matter how clever she may be.