Clifford Kocian ’11 – There is a certain serenity or peacefulness that comes from living in small-town America. It is comforting to know your neighbors, the composition of the town; to have the stability that arises from the static nature of the place. No movement in or out, but rather just simply being. It is this type of atmosphere that is viewed as truly American, and has been idealized on television and in movies for decades. However, one might be surprised at how well the small town of Arles, in Southern France, meshes with the notion of small-town America. True, there are no SUVs, no similar houses with similarly manicured yards, and no perfect family structure (mom, dad, two children- one girl and one boy, two dogs, one cat, and a goldfish), but then again a small-town feel is just that: a feel. While Arles may not have the physical manifestations of small-town America, it still has that small-town feel to it. It is a place where everyone knows everyone, where buildings and streets haven’t been changed for hundreds of years, and where security is nestled in the static way of life.
On the first day of being here we were told that life in Southern France was slow, and to get used to it. Throughout two days of orientation (all in French, of course), this may have been the best piece of advice that we were given. All similarities to America aside, this slow pace of life is perhaps the most striking difference to living in the States. People really do take their time and enjoy it. It, quite frankly, is a comforting way to live. There is no such thing as getting something to go here. In fact, it’s completely normal to get a coffee and sit at the café for an hour or two after finishing. In a way it’s odd for people to dine and dash. If you get a meal, expect to follow it up with a round of dessert, followed by a round of coffee- each one happening in its own time. This is the type of place where going to work at 9 might be considered early, and working late considered overkill. Here, time is treasured because people are treasured. It’s simply not as important to consume the day running around on a tight schedule if it can be put off until tomorrow and good company can be had instead.
The other day I was running, and as I was ruminating on my time here, the way of life, the people, I looked around to see that on one side of me was the Rhone river, and on the other side a sunflower field (in full bloom), and saw across the river the city, with its small streets and ancient ways, I couldn’t help but think to myself that Arles is an atypically typical French city. It is French in the purest sense of the word. People really do eat baguettes and cheese (all the time), and drink wine (all the time). Life is slow and simple.
But this typical French city is atypical in how it meets American stereotypes. The city is vibrant. The culture is vibrant. The people are wonderfully nice and accommodating, even to us students who apparently have ‘American accents’. However, instead of being looked down upon, the people of the city want to talk to us more. Why? They really enjoy the sound of our American accents. Us, who are strangers to this world, to this way of life, are being embraced even though we upset the static balance- the security blanket. These people are open, honest, and engaging. And they are interested. They are interested in us and in America. A lot of people my age will speak English to me so that they can practice (I speak French back to them). They want to know if university really is like American Pie.
Southern France is serene, almost out of a fairy tale. I’ve been here just over a week and it feels like a month. I have a month left and I am already sad to leave. But rather than think, I will do like the French have taught me and live. Time to go have some bread, cheese, and wine by the river.
In photo: Kocian, at far left, with a group of fellow students.