First Impressions of France and Montpellier > South Africa
 
Daniel Poultney , South Africa

Taking the train from Paris to Montpellier felt like taking the train from station  to Hogwarts, just far more modern.  I was on the upper level of the TGV looking out onto the French countryside – manicured pastures interspersed with forests and horses, sheep and cattle.  The students felt very foreign and even though I had been learning French, their communication was alien to me.  I still couldn’t quite comprehend that this parallel reality I had just entered would be my new home (away from home) for the next two years.

 

It is now a little over two months in Montpellier - a really beautiful little city, ‘eternally young at heart’ as I recall reading before moving here.  I feel very privileged to be here and to have the opportunity to pursue postgraduate studies here.  I have been immersed in a different culture and language.  At times it has felt very difficult, and at other times, very liberating being away from home.  I mean difficult in the sense of sometimes  missing the little things, like lunches with family and friends. Also given the important events of the last few weeks, such as the #Fees Must Fall campaign, and student movements for change, I have at times wanted to be involved.  At the same time, however, I am pleased to be able to be informed and ‘involved’, although from a different continent, given easy access to media and information.

 

It has been liberating in that this experience has really opened my mind to learning and exploring new experiences.  Also, in a sense, of reshaping and redefining (or perhaps more aptly, modifying and building) my identity and character.  It has also made me really appreciate many things from home, which I have only become aware of by being at a distance.

 

The most challenging aspect has been doing my Ecology Masters purely in French.  I loved French at school and was consistently the top student but matriculated in 2008 and did not practice the language at all until I had a Skype interview with an Erasmus Mundus coordinator at Montpellier earlier this year.  I remember I was conducting fieldwork in rural northern KZN that week and literally used the time between driving from Maputaland to Durban on the day of the interview to brush up on my French in the car, while my boss was driving.  At the start of the interview I asked in rusty French if I could ‘speak English from time to time as I had not used French for a few years’.  The response (at least so I think, given the slight communication barrier) was that the intention of the interview was to test my proficiency in French so a reluctant ‘no’ was the reply.  Well, I am very pleased I succeeded in getting the go-ahead and was awarded the scholarship after this interview.  I think my CV and references must have helped! And I did use the time before moving here to fit in three months of French lessons at Alliance Francaise.

 

I have heard people outside of France sometimes referring to the French as cold and arrogant.  I have the impression that people with such views have not really lived and experienced France and French culture.  Perhaps it is the fierce pride of the French which is confused for arrogance.  Perhaps it is because I am so enamoured with the culture and language that I have not experienced this.  My experience has been an excellent one and I have really been welcomed and embraced by many French people (who are also delighted to hear I am from South Africa and speak French). I have quickly made friends here, with French and other international students sharing my passion for France.

 

I was in the process of writing and reflecting upon these experiences, when the tragic attacks occurred in Paris on Friday, 13 November.  Gaging from various news and social media feeds, these events have clearly had a profound effect throughout the world.  There is a particularly sombre atmosphere amongst French, as well as internationals in Montpellier.  I have just attended a minute of silence at the faculty of Science at Université de Montpellier.  The essence of the speech was to reflect upon the weekend’s attacks and the importance of taking cognisance of France’s national motto, which is particularly relevant at this difficult time: liberté, égalité, fraternité.  

 Daniel Poultney - Studying at the University of Montpellier 

(Biodiversité, Ecologie, Evolution - Parcours Ecosystemes)