Community Connector Liz Frankland shares her experiences of travelling to France on a year long adventure with her fellow students.
When I was 21, it was a very good year for me, but not for the same reasons that Frank Sinatra sang about. In the autumn of 1989, I embarked on a yearlong sojourn in the South of France, along with a couple of fellow students from England. This was to fulfil a requirement for our degree course in French studies. It was a pivotal time for me, as it awakened my fascination for foreign places and the desire to see the world.
At that time, the sum total of my world travel had been two school study trips to Northern France. Although I had enjoyed these jaunts, they had not inspired me because, after all, Northern France isn't so different from the South of England.
The South of France by contrast, was a sparkling new horizon which felt, sounded, tasted and smelt so very different from anything I had ever known before.
The weather was continuously warm and, extraordinarily, it only ever rained at night. T-shirt clad, even in January, we joyously went about, knowing that waterproofs would never be necessary, (much to the horror of the local residents). In summer, the cicadas scratched drily after dark, accompanying the fuzzy World Service broadcasts we listened to for news back home. The daily cuisine in the university refectory contrasted sharply with the university fare in England. Gone were the burgers, chips and chocolate bars, to be replaced by roasted meats in piquant sauces; a creamy vegetable called salsify (which I have never seen since), and fruit puree for dessert. We also consumed a lot of airy French bread with pungent cheese or paté, along with oodles of fresh fruit. The climate was very conducive to growing peaches, strawberries and apples, which all bore a sun-kissed warmth of flavour and grew alongside the spicy fragrance of the famous lavender fields.
One of the two students from England had a car, which enabled us to visit other places at weekends. These excursions enabled us to experience life as it was being lived, creating crisply focused memories which remain with me to this day. We passed through a small place called Mouriès on 8th May, just in time to see what appeared to be a Remembrance Day service. A group of people were solemnly laying wreaths at a cenotaph and, only then did I learn that it was VE Day.
We went to a charity event to see another group of people trying to completely cover a massive metal structure with choux pastry balls (or profiteroles). I hadn't realised the French could be so crazy, but we foreigners were crazy enough to walk across the top of the monstrously high Pont du Gard aqueduct as such a dangerous venture was considered a right of passage. We also visited the amphitheatre at Orange, out of season, and we were astounded by how far a whispered word could carry across such a wide and empty space. I was even lucky enough to be permitted to have my photograph taken, hugging one of those cute, rough coated, white Camargue horses.
Studying, did I hear you say? I wasn't able to do any formal education during my stay in France, as the French University system was not equipped with visually impaired people in mind.
There were no facilities to support the use of alternative formats and there were no teaching assistants for those with additional needs. The best I could do was to learn the language through my social interactions. Sometimes, the other two students laboriously dictated passages from the newspapers, while I brailed them with my Perkins. I was reliant then on the same two students to look up all the words in the text that I didn't know. How different it might have been had my year abroad taken place during the technological age of the internet. But as it was, such a resource was beyond our comprehension back then.
So what did I gain from my year in the Mediterranean sun? I learned to speak French and I probably enlightened a few locals by doing so. The "does she take sugar" syndrome exists everywhere unfortunately. I gained many mosquito bites but I also gained a suntan. I acquired an appreciation for the combination of differences and similarities that occur in every culture and land across the planet. I have travelled widely since my year in France, to places as far flung as China, South America and New Zealand but, perhaps the most important thing to take away from all these experiences is self-knowledge.
Travelling to somewhere new and different deepens our understanding of ourselves and enriches our life's journey. I firmly believe that any travel on the physical level opens us up to the true nature of the soul.