Melaney Mills poses in front of the Eiffel Tower
Melaney Mills poses in front of the Eiffel Tower

Strolling along the Champs Elysees is what dreams are made of for little girls from rural South Carolina. We saw it in a book, once, and dreamed that this is what it could be like.

My dream finally came true in the winter and spring of 2015-16 when I traveled to France as a foreign exchange student from Francis Marion University. I spent a semester at Universite de Caen-Basse Normandie.

This was a trip through more than just space, most than just a ride across the Atlantic Ocean. It was also a trip through time. I’m a “non-traditional” student at FMU, meaning that I’m well past the age when most people are in college. I grew up in Coward, S.C., and graduated from the old J.C. Lynch High School. The twists and turns of life didn’t allow me to finish college way back then, but a few years ago some doors opened and I became a student once again. A wonderful experience in Professor Elizabeth Zahnd’s French class re-ignited a long-standing travel itch – I remembered those old dreams – and led me to take advantage of one branch of FMU’s extensive foreign exchange program.

Faculty and others often tell students that travel experiences can be life altering. As it turns out, that applies to any life at any age. Finding oneself in a completely different culture, speaking a completely different language takes one way beyond their usual comfort level. The only way to regain some personal comfort is to wade out into the culture and the language. It’s a great plan, and it does work. But, it’s easier said than done.

The Universite de Caen (“Unicaen”) provided us with numerous opportunities to explore the area around Caen, a city of more than 100,000 that is about 100 miles northwest of Paris. International groups on campus posted weekly events on their Facebook page, and the university arranged inexpensive excursions to various extraordinary sights around Normandy and Paris that I might not have managed on my own. Among those excursions were trips to Mont St. Michel, Falaise d’Etretat and the Palace of Versailles.

The travel was great but nothing compares with meeting new people from different places. I made some of the fastest friends in my life during my time abroad, and in some of the neatest ways.

One day while my classmates and I were chatting, sitting in the hall, waiting for a professor, one classmate spoke to me, in English and I answered. Down the hall, another classmate spoke up. “Wait!” she said, “who is that speaking southern here?” She was a new student, just like myself. She and her husband had just moved to France with their three little girls from Dallas, Tex. as part of a mission to plant a new church. She and her family welcomed me into their home and I visited them several times.

There were four of us Americans in my class, which was great. It gave me some basic relationships, a place and a way to connect. That went a long ways towards alleviating my discomfort – for a little while. Not long after classes began, the “no English to be spoken in class” rule was put into effect. No matter. The events that the International groups planned for us gave us plenty of time to practice conversational French with our fellow students.

I rode the city tram to class some days. On other days, I walked. It was about a 20-minute walk through “centre-ville” – center city – in Caen to the university, although it often took longer as I browsed the endless shops that all seemed to cater to my weakness for shoes. Practically every other shop sold either just shoes, shoes and bags, or shoes and clothing. One store had just shoes and jewelry. Many days my feet ached from walking for so long, and I was almost always carrying a shopping bag, filled with either books, groceries, shoes or all of the above, back to the dorm. The residence hall was at the top of a hill, so a lot of the return trips were by tram.

Walking in Caen was an experience unto itself. Strolling among the ancient buildings — the big castle in the middle of town dates to 1060 — is nothing short of spectacular. One way to get to “centre-ville” is to walk through the castle, which is still being completed and renovated, nearly 1,000 years after the work begun. The castle grounds includes the Musee of Beaux Arts, which is filled with contemporary art as well as Renaissance art.

My professors were very patient. I was in the A10 class which is the basic, beginning class. Though the language barrier was a hurdle, the French do appreciate it if you try to communicate in their language. I was told this many times and found it to be true. For instance, they were delighted to explain the dining offerings in the cafeteria for that meal. Each day brought a fresh fish entree and fresh vegetables – and gourmet desserts. My favorite was crème brulee. I could not believe it! I didn’t allow myself dessert every day – and crème brulee wasn’t on every menu — but I didn’t pass it up when it was there.

Thankfully, there is a liaison for students to help with the day-to-day problems that always crop up. Stella was my liaison and we became friends. She told me few of the students called on her. I would hope that students considering studying abroad take advantage of all there is to offer by the host university and to seek out those there just to help you.