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Don't be afraid to try something new: Rebecca Hovingh, Food Science

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Posted: November 16, 2014

This visit to France really impressed upon me the usefulness of knowing a second language, as well as the importance of making an effort to communicate with people in their native language.
Rebecca in the National Assembly Library

Rebecca in the National Assembly Library

Before I went to France, I asked around for advice. My French teachers said, "Parisians are snobs, do you really have to stay in Paris for two weeks?" One of my friends, who adores French culture and has visited France a couple of times, told me that I just HAD to visit the Berthillon ice cream shop, which has "the best ice cream in the world!" A Food Science classmate who went on the trip last year told me to eat as much bread as I possibly could. And my parents told me to have fun, and not worry.

And did I follow all the advice I was given? Sort of.

I did eat bread every day. (Thanks, Marsha!)

I didn't go to Berthillon for their famous ice cream (I’m saving that for next time), but I did eat a lot of crepes, both salées (salty) and sucrées (sweet), and macarons, which are my new favorite cookie, and cheese, because you can't say you've experienced French culture without eating cheese, and wine, because you definitely can't say you've experienced French culture without sampling French wines. I ate croissants, quiches, café au lait, foie gras, and French onion soup, and enjoyed them all. Needless to say, the cuisine was a big reason I went to France – I am a food science major, after all - and it certainly did not disappoint.

However, I didn't just consume food in France; I also learned about its production. One of my favorite experiences was visiting Rungis market, which is the largest wholesale food market in the world. We had to get up at 4 AM in order to get to the market, because most of the trading is done in the early morning. When we got to the fish market, well before 6 AM, our guide explained that most of the catch had already been sold for the day! From there, we toured buildings housing vegetables, fruits, meats, cheeses and flowers. I really enjoyed seeing all different types of cheeses, including one in the shape of a pyramid with a flat top. Our guide told us the story of how this cheese was traditionally formed in the shape of a pyramid with a pointy top, like the Egyptian pyramids, until Napoleon returned from his failed Egyptian campaign. Before he was served this cheese, the legend goes, his servants cut the top off, so that the cheese no longer looked like the pyramids Napoleon had failed to conquer.

As for leaving Paris in order to meet non-Parisians…I did leave Paris briefly, on an amazing day trip to Champagne. But even better, I had great experiences interacting with Parisians, most of whom seemed to appreciate my efforts to speak French. Before coming to France, I was unsure of how well I would be able to understand the language when I was surrounded by it. I was pleasantly surprised by how many signs, pamphlets and labels I was able to understand, but I realized that my listening and speaking skills really need some work. This relatively short visit to France really impressed upon me the usefulness of knowing a second language, as well as the importance of making an effort to communicate with people in their native language, and I am more determined to improve my French speaking and listening skills.

And in regard to my parents' wise advice to not worry and have fun…it took me a few days to find a rhythm, but after I figured out how to use the metro on my own, and realized that I did indeed know enough French to ask someone for help, I enjoyed doing some things on my own. I went to see a set of tapestries, the Lady and the Unicorn, which I had learned about in my French literature class last year. I spend a Saturday at the Musée d'Orsay, enjoying the Impressionist paintings, and then found one of my favorite musicians playing an impromptu concert at a mall. While I certainly enjoyed hanging out with my Penn State classmates, I also enjoyed exploring Parisian history, culture and food on my own.

Finally, although I'm afraid that it might sound trite, I will tell you anyway: this trip convinced me that I can travel on my own. I can adapt to a new place; I can communicate, learning new vocabulary along the way; I can try new foods, and learn how different public transportation works. And I also discovered that if I get lost, or confused, I can ask for help. Even though I knew it all along, I realized that I can't do everything on my own, but I can do more on my own than I thought.

If I were giving advice to someone traveling internationally for the first time, I would tell them what I learned on my trip to Paris: don't be afraid to try something new (and on your own), and don't be afraid to ask for help or advice.  Respect the people and culture, wherever you find yourself. I’m sure the insights I gained during this trip will help me in my academic, professional, and personal life - and, of course, on my next adventure abroad!