This past weekend, my fellow students and I took a break from the metros and pedestrians of Paris and headed west to Normandy and Brittany. Both regions are extremely interesting and play significant roles in different points of French history.
One of my favorite differences between France and America so far has been the contrasting (recorded) ages of the two countries. I love Philadelphia because of its historical significance on the American timeline, but compare it to any European city, and it looks like a child. Even though American and European cultures are alike in many ways, America’s documented history is so much more brief.
I learned a lot about different periods of French history through the places that we visited this past weekend. On Saturday, we travelled to Mont-Saint Michel, an island commune located in Normandy. It is basically a small island at the mouth of the Couesnon River with a large 11th century abbey built on top of it. Through a little bit of research, I learned that the structure was the inspiration for Minas Tirith from one of my favorite movie series, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Très chouette. Mont-Saint Michel has been used for many different purposes throughout history, but today it is mainly an attraction for tourists such as myself to visit.
We spent the morning climbing up and down the many steps, taking lots of pictures and roaming around the little shops at the base of the structure before hopping back on our bus to head further west to Saint-Malo.
Saint-Malo is a port city in Brittany. When we arrived Saturday afternoon, we were greeted by French speaking woman with an Italian accent… At this point in my French comprehension abilities, I am still barely able to understand people who speak very slowly and clearly. Add in an Italian accent and an enthusiastic pace, and I was left to cling perilously on to about three words total in the one hour tour. I was able to find out a bit of what was going on, however, through Brent, the CIEE program director, who translated some of the tour into English. In 1944, Saint-Malo was almost completely destroyed by attacking U.S. forces in World War II. Less than a fourth of the buildings were left standing. The town has since then been restored, but we got to walk through an alley of some of the only buildings that survived the fire. It took from 1948-1960 to rebuild what was lost, and now the town is another huge tourist attraction.
After dinner that night, a group of us decided to go for a dip in the English Channel. It wasn’t too cold, and there was no one around, so we had fun running and laughing on the dark beach. The next morning, we walked to Grande Bé, a small island right off the coast with the remains of a fort where German soldiers occupied during World War II. It is also the site of the tomb of François-René de Chateaubriand, a Saint-Malo born writer and politician.
Needless to say, seeing rural France was wonderful and completely different than what I have experienced in Paris. I chose Paris as my study abroad destination because going to Temple had already taught me that living in a city is just as intellectually stimulating for me as my actual education is. However, stepping outside of the fast-paced city, if only for a weekend, proved to me that I don’t need three museums within walking distance of each other to learn something new.