Interview with Mary Dover, June 2015
by Maureen Crawford
Program type: Semester Abroad
Institution: L’Université de Lille III, Charles de Gaulle
Location: Lille, France
What got you interested in traveling and study abroad?
Mary: My mom had studied abroad in college and loved it. I took 2 years of French at SDSU so I wanted to try it out in France, and do some exploring in Europe.
Mary: It’s very central in Europe – close to other countries, and I wanted to do some traveling. And they offered courses in English as well as psychology courses in French.
Did you need to speak French in Lille?
Mary: Yes. If you don’t speak French or don’t have someone in your group who speaks French, it’s hard to get around France in general, except for Paris. The University has a great program called Tandem where they pair up International students with native French speaking students. You spend half the time speaking in French, and half in English. There was also a great international hangout club where you could eat sandwiches and do homework. One girl in my group in Lille had zero French and she had a miserable time. Paris is a different story. If you start a sentence in French, they hear your accent and immediately respond to you in English.
What courses did you take?
Mary: I had 2 courses in English and 2 in French. The English courses were “Cultural transfers between England, China and India” (about colonization) and English Linguistics. The courses in French were French Language, and Psychopathology.
Mary: I lived in university residence, it was pretty basic. It was a 15 minute walk from the university.
How did you get around?
Mary: Metro mostly, and there was also a night bus.
How did you make friends?
Mary: I started meeting people at the university residence right away, mostly. I hung out in friends’ rooms and in study areas. My main group of friends consisted of 6 people – 5 Americans and a guy from the Netherlands.
What did you do on weekends?
Mary: We took a lot of short trips… to Berlin, Amsterdam, Brussels, Bruges, Luxembourg, Mont St. Michel, and to see the Castles in the Loire Valley.
How did you organize your trips?
Mary: Many of the trips were organized by a club called the Ulysse International Club at the university – the guy who organized the trips did a fantastic job. Other times we organized our own trips.
What did you do on longer breaks?
Mary: During a break in March my mom visited and we went to Paris for a week; then I went with friends down to Marseilles. On another long break we went to Barcelona, Budapest, and the Island of Zakynthos, Greece.
What is the most interesting thing that you did during your time in Europe?
Mary: Definitely going to Zakynthos, Greece; what an amazing place. My friends and I knew we wanted to go to Greece, but we wanted some place secluded instead of the touristy places like Santorini and Crete. So we found Zakynthos, and stayed with a woman in her home doing Air B&B. We flew on Ryan Air into Athens, then took a five hour bus ride and a one hour ferry ride to
Tell me more about Air B&B.
Mary: It’s great. People rent out rooms in their homes to travelers– we saved a lot of money doing this all over Europe. With a group of us traveling together and dividing the cost between us for a room, we each only paid about $15 – $25 a night per person for Air B&B. And it was great – we met all kinds of people. On Zakynthos, we hadn’t realized there that there was no public transport – the island was really small but it was still too far to walk to the beach. But it all worked out – a couple from the Netherlands in the room next door gave us a ride to the beach. And another day a Chinese guy across the hall, who had rented a car, gave us a ride to Shipwreck Beach. So gorgeous.
Editor’s note: Check here for more information about budget accommodations
What was Barcelona like?
Mary: We stayed in the Gracia City Hostel. Really nice, 12 people in a room. It did get pretty loud, though,with people still coming in at 2 or 3 a.m. It was very central in Barcelona. We used the metro to get around. For shopping: Passeig de Gràcia and the Rambla. It’s interesting – everyone naturally speaks Spanish, but 80% speak both Catalan and Spanish. Barcelona is famous for Pálenka, a kind of brandy. WHY it is famous is a mystery. It’s pretty bad.
What are your impressions about French culture?
Mary: They are much more relaxed about work schedules and timetables. Shops often close for a couple of hours during lunch, then open, then close again by 6 p.m. The French seem to value personal time and holidays/vacation more than we do in the USA. At businesses, making sales is secondary to living life. In the USA it seems like work is #1. The bank seemed to hardly ever be open. But we just learned to roll with it. Pharmacies were the only thing that stayed open all the time.
Mary: There wasn’t anything like our San Diego fast food. There’s a cafeteria chain called Flunch, and a chain called Wazawok with stir fried food. Kabob shops were everywhere. Not like shish kabobs, it’s this delicious hot meat wrapped in flat bread.
Best food finds?
Mary: There are these chocolate covered waffles in a package, called Liège waffles, by Lotus. They have little sugar cubes in each square. The waffles have sugar cubes in them. I know, it sounds crazy, but they’re addicting. French coffee is way better than ours. And the pain au chocolat…. so incredible.
Best Travel tips?
Mary: Ryan Air for cheap flights. Air B&B for accommodations. In Barcelona it was $60 for the room divided by 4 people, only $15/night.
How was the process of getting credit for your classes?
Mary: The Study Abroad office made it clear I had to get all my courses pre-approved; but I didn’t; I left it too late and the courses descriptions were hard to find on websites. I should have figured it out before I left, because now I’m paying the price, running around and getting approvals. I brought back all my syllabi, papers and exams and I’m hoping for the best.
Did the experience change you?
Mary: Yes. I realize you don’t understand a culture till you’ve gone there. Even geographically close countries such as Belgium and France are very different from each other. I am more tolerant of other ways of life. I learned a decent amount of French, and I’m a lot more independent. I had to rely on myself with little outside help. I learned how to travel with one or two other people, figure out metros and accommodations, and how to not blow all my money. Another thing – I kind of looked down on USA a bit before I left; now I appreciate USA. Mostly – our customer service, our work ethic. Americans tend to go the extra mile when they’re doing business.
What did you miss?
Mary: It was hard being away from my boyfriend. It was easier at beginning and end, but hardest in the middle. Also the climate change was hard to get used to. I’m from Southern California – in Lille it didn’t get above 65 degrees the whole time, and it was cloudy and rainy a lot. No beaches, no palm trees. I missed being warm. I missed customer service. And I missed Mexican food.
What was your worst experience?
Mary: The first day, when I arrived in Lille. I knew what metro stop to get off at, but I didn’t know what exit to take out of the metro, and ended up walking literally hours that first day, exhausted, with luggage. It was horrible. I would definitely advise getting exact directions, step by step, of how to get to your destination. Better yet, arrange to have someone meet you at the train or metro station in a specific spot.
What’s the first thing you did when you got home?
Mary: The minute I got home I ran out to In-N-Out Burger. The next day: Mexican food.
Mary: 100% do it. DO IT! Make sure you have a lot of money saved up. Get your visa as soon as possible, and start the process of getting your courses approved as early as possible – it might take longer than you think. If you speak some French, I would recommend studying in a place other than Paris.
Although for someone who doesn’t speak French, Paris would be great. Paris is not so much a true French experience… there’s a lot of American influence, and English is understood everywhere. And as mentioned before, arrange to have someone meet you the day you arrive, and know how to get in touch with your contact. And if you liked the Da Vinci Code, visit the church Saint-Sulpice in Paris – the rose line runs right through it!