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Sian Hanson on Studying in Rennes, France

Posted: 12th November 2018 10:14

Growing up in a Francophile household, I was always surrounded by an eclectic mixture of Claude Monet’s early Impressionist chef-d’œuvres, Julia Child’s favourite pastries, and regular screenings of Audrey Tartou in Le Fabuleux Destin de Amélie Poulain. While I had been fortunate enough to travel to France and glimpse some of the natural and cultural wonders a few times before, a month living along Baron Haussmann’s iconic boulevards in the heart of Paris’ Latin Quarter during a university course abroad convinced me that, as a French student, I must return to live in France. Yet, although Paris boasts many of France’s most prominent museums and sights, I longed to see more of the diverse regions and therefore discovered the distinct history and culture of Brittany in France’s most northwest corner.

Why Rennes?

Ask anyone what they think of when they hear of France, and you are sure to hear a stream of words including “the Eiffel Tower,” “men wearing striped shirts and carrying baguettes,” or “elegant Parisian architecture.” Of course, France boasts a great diversity of regions, cultures, and sights that cannot and should not be confined to stereotypes that, all too often, reduce the scope of France to the single, albeit remarkable, city of Paris. From the northern Normandy coasts to the fields of Provence, France’s rich culture extends into every region. It was with this in mind that I chose to spend six months living in Rennes, located in France’s northwest peninsula. While I could spend years living and wandering the streets of Paris, Marseille, or Bordeaux, I was looking for one of the lesser-known cities of France.

Coming from a Welsh family, I had always been interested in Celtic history and culture, and therefore turned to a Celtic region I did not know: Brittany. Despite the linguistic and cultural similarities between Brittany and the other Celtic nations with which I was familiar, I was drawn to Brittany’s rather distinct history. A sovereign nation until Anne de Bretagne’s marriage to the French king, Louis XII, in 1532, the Bretons have maintained and take immense pride in their cultural roots. The subtle fusion of Breton and French cultures that influence the cuisine and linguistic landscape of Brittany, in addition to the striking medieval architecture and breath-taking countryside, immediately caught my attention and drew me to Rennes, Brittany’s capital.

What to Do

Although Rennes only boasts a population of a quarter million, the large and vibrant student community, in addition to cultural attractions that accompany the region’s capital, mean that there is always something to do. Simply meandering the maze of streets will take you from what was the heart of Redones, the original Celtic settlement, through the crumbling walls of the medieval metropolis that grew within the old castle fortifications. Narrow cobble-stoned streets twist and turn with the dilapidated wooden homes, the medieval alleyways eventually opening into the wider boulevards and Parisian-inspired architecture of the 18th and 19th centuries. Stop at the Musée de Bretagne (Museum of Breton History) or the Musée de Beaux-Arts (Fine Arts Museum) to enjoy the cultural history and celebrated patrimoine of Rennes and Brittany. Alternatively, purchase tickets to the Théâtre National de Bretagne (National Theatre of Brittany) or the Opéra de Rennes, both of which regularly host classic plays by Moliere as well as avant-garde dance and musical productions from French and international groups and companies.

Enjoy a break from the bustling city with a visit to one of the two magnificent parks: Parc du Thabor or Parc du Gayuelles. Parc du Thabor, located in the heart of Rennes, boasts expansive verdant greens, a small botanical garden, and a densely-forested area complete with a small waterfall and bridges. Whether strolling through on a lazy Sunday afternoon or enjoying a picnic with friends, Parc du Thabor is the perfect repose from the surrounding city. Alternatively, travel to the outskirts of Rennes to spend an afternoon at Parc du Gayeulles, whose woodlands and native animal populations transport you to the Breton countryside.

Finally, no stay in Rennes, no matter how long, is complete without stopping at the Marchédes Lices, the weekly market at Place des Lices on Saturday morning to enjoy one of France’s largest outdoor markets that has existed for centuries. From flower booths to samples of freshly baked baguettes and pastries to a variety of seafood stalls, the market also attracts local musicians and artisans.

Language

Living in any foreign country presents multiple challenges, but moving to a new country where there is a different language presents an additional barrier that is often difficult to navigate. As language students, we often enjoy navigating this particular obstacle and long to one day speak a second language as fluently as our first. Nevertheless, the reality of learning a foreign language can be frustrating. No matter how long you have spent pouring over grammar rules in textbooks, memorising obscure verb conjugations for exams, or writing painfully long essays on any number of subjects, the fast-paced, colloquial language of native speakers can be intimidating. Unable to look up certain vocabulary or construct the perfect sentence is no longer an option when meeting French students in class or talking to people in stores. Quite the opposite, you walk onto the streets and, fairly often, feel bewildered by the quick pace of conversations as well as the unfamiliar slang and abbreviations. While the French of Brittany is not the incredibly fast French that rolls off the tongues of native Parisians, it is also not the slow drawl of Provence. Patience with yourself is therefore key. Simply give yourself time to grow accustomed to the differences between daily conversations and the more formal, grammatically correct French in the classroom and never hesitate to ask people to repeat or rephrase. Unfortunately, it can sometimes feel all too easy to revert to English, whether with other British or American students, or with locals whose English will sometimes even feel better than yours! However, if you persevere and continue to speak in French, locals will be all too happy to help and, inevitably, correct your French along the way!

Travelling in Brittany

One of the best perks of living in Rennes is that you can easily explore the surrounding region and even enjoy day trips into Paris and to other fantastic cities. Only 45 minutes from the coast, take the Ouibus or the train and go north to St. Malo to see the old fortified city or south to Vannes, near the megaliths of Carnac. Explore the picturesque cities of Fougères and Dinan to witness the gorgeous medieval Breton architecture and reserve an entire day to visit Mont St. Michel, only an hour to the northwest along the Normandy border. If you want a city break or simply a change of pace from Rennes for the day, head south to Nantes or east to Paris to discover more museums and a vibrant social and night scene.

Food

Of course, one of the main attractions of France is its incredible cuisine. We often conjure up images of delicious regional wines sold at local vineyards, the distinct crackle of a freshly baked baguette, and the peculiar aromas that accompany any one of the hundreds of French cheeses. We long to enjoy the long, drawn-out meals comprised of three, four, or more courses and are envious of the incredible diversity of flavours packed into one dish. Brittany is no exception. Like every region in France, Brittany boasts its favourite delicacies and delights. However, unlike almost every other region of France, Brittany is not known for its wines. Due to the climate, which is very similar to that of the British Isles, in addition to the poor soil quality for vines, cider is the drink of choice. With lunch or dinner, it is not uncommon to enjoy a boulée de cidre, or a mug full of cider, usually with Brittany’s most famous dish: galettes. Similar to savoury crêpes, galettes are thin, light pancakes made from buckwheat and filled with any number of fillings—ham, cheese, vegetables, fried eggs. Children commonly enjoy a galette saucisson for lunch, a sort of Breton hot dog, while adults and restaurants prefer to serve and eat the galette complète, a fried galette filled with melted cheese and thin slices of ham and topped with a fried egg.

Naturally, the variety of cosmopolitan restaurants in Rennes will offer you the chance to enjoy other authentic French cuisine as well as international specialities. For breakfast or a sugar-filled dessert, stop in any bakery and sink your teeth into any number of buttery croissants or pain au chocolat, fruit-filled tarts, or, my personal Breton favourite, the Kouign-amann. Reminiscent of the flaky layers and doughy centre of baklava, this caramelised dessert is served either as individual cakes or as a large tart, topped with a light dusting of cinnamon and sugar.

Overcoming the Challenges of Studying in France

While studying abroad and taking advantage of the opportunity to immerse yourself in an entirely different culture presents itself with an unlimited number of unique possibilities and unforgettable experiences, there also exist the numerous obstacles and hardships. From homesickness to subtle cultural nuances, adjusting to your time abroad is an on-going process that requires patience and flexibility.

Bureaucracy

Like Italy, France is known for its convoluted and frustrating bureaucracy. Long lines, obscure rules and regulations with no obvious practical application, and stacks of forms are all too common. French citizens themselves complain about the bureaucratic nonsense, but knowing how to effectively navigate the complicated system as a foreigner can be a daunting task.

Top Tip:Be assertive. Whether at the post office, picking up a prescription at the pharmacy, or discussing visa requirements at an embassy, don’t be afraid to ask blunt questions and be a little pushy if something seems unfair or unnecessary. While it is important to remain polite, never hesitate to demand explanations or ask to speak with a supervisor as bureaucratic government branches and businesses try to make you jump through extra loopholes. As the French say, “On doit se débrouiller!” You must persevere!

Strikes & Protests

It is nearly impossible to spend an extended amount of time in France without encountering large protests or lengthy strikes. With a lively political culture, French citizens are often active in local, regional, and national issues, organisations, and unions and will peacefully take to the streets to express their views. However, this can also disrupt your daily routine and schedule.

Top Tip:Try to be flexible. While large protests may simply divert bus routes, lengthy strikes sometimes mean your train reservations will be cancelled or that you may not be reimbursed for certain tickets. However, there is nothing you can do besides trying to stay positive and patiently figure out a solution. Remember that strikes and protests are just a temporary inconvenience and make the most out of your time in France!

Money

As a student, money is always a concern. From budgeting limited funds to navigating the ins and outs of personal banking internationally, studying abroad entails an additional layer of financial frustration.

Top Tip:Do plenty of research beforehand. In the hustle and bustle of preparing to go abroad, it is easy to skim over the dull practical aspects in your haste to arrive. However, take the time to talk to representatives at your bank about the best options for withdrawing cash and create your own budget spreadsheet before leaving to avoid any extra hassle once you arrive. Not only will you feel more organised and prepared, but you will be able to focus on your time abroad rather than constantly worrying about money and banking back home.

Social Media vs. Reality

Social media can generate a constant stream of photos and videos of friends and acquaintances abroad and, as a result, create unrealistic expectations for your time abroad. It is easy to feel like everyone else is always travelling and always going out. However, this is far from reality.

Top Tip:Relax. Remember that you are abroad to live in a different culture, not to see absolutely everything and do absolutely everything imaginable—you are not strictly a tourist, but rather a resident. This means that sometimes you will have a low-key night in watching a movie or that you will spend a weekend afternoon doing chores around your flat. While it may appear that all your friends are constantly on the go, remember that social media only gives you a brief glimpse into someone’s life and that they, like you, are also taking time to relax and take care of themselves.

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