Fall into German, Spring into France

Vanessa Weller

Study Abroad offices on college campuses across the country publicize — one might even say push — the merits of a semester abroad. Lawrence is a particularly avid promoter of the term abroad: the London Centre, the Semester at Sea and other affiliated programs spring to mind. I personally have had the chance (thanks to no little prodding on my part) to experience a full school year abroad.Last semester I studied in Berlin. The historic, lively, and (to paraphrase myself) crazy-ass city was an experience in itself. A majority of the population is young, with over 300,000 students at six universities. Clubs are still hopping at three in the morning. And as with many big cities, it is full of history, vibrancy, artists and tourists.

My main objective in Berlin was naturally to improve my German. Enthusiastically promoted by certain members of the German department, Berlin is a popular study abroad destination for German majors at Lawrence, and I also recommend it. The difference between my ability and confidence to speak German now from when I arrived in Europe in August is as clear as night and day. I can express myself to native speakers without receiving confused looks or a jumbled response in English. I can quote Nietzsche and sometimes I even dream in German. For me, this is incredibly thrilling.

Unfortunately, the size of Berlin prohibits full German immersion. What with all the tourists, shopkeepers and waiters have grown accustomed to being bilingual, and as English is for better or worse the Lingua Franca, I have consigned myself to hearing English around every other street corner in Berlin.
As the new semester begins, I have relocated further west to France. Currently I have been a week in Nantes, France, and the differences between the two cities are remarkable. Nantes, for one, is much smaller than Berlin: 200,000 inhabitants versus four million.

The city feels more quaint, charming and almost like the French equivalent of a college town. Located roughly 200 miles from Paris, it doesn’t get nearly the hype the City of Lights does. In fact, if Lawrence did not have a study abroad affiliate here, I don’t know that I would ever have heard of the place. Never the less, I am here for several months, to improve my French and experience the nuances of a new culture.

I can tell already even the students who chose to study in Nantes are of a different breed than those I met in Berlin. I speak, of course, of the other Americans. Many of them are business majors or plan to become teachers. The Americans I met in Berlin had more varied interests, none wanting to teach, few actually knowing what they wanted to do after graduation.

Sometimes I wonder if the language itself attracts different personalities? I wonder this often, being a French and German double major because I’ve noticed the difference but could never quite put my finger on what it was.

French has a reputation for being romantic, with a beautiful consonance that rolls off the tongue; German, more of an ancient, guttural language. The cultures to an extent reflect these differences, and time will tell whether I can tune in to what exactly makes these Europeans tick.