By Sara Horsley

Mon expérience dans le Sud de la France croppedWhere did July go? Friends and family told me before I left for Arles that my six week study abroad in the south of France would pass quickly and that I would return home wondering what happened to July. It is a good thing I had my camera and journal to preserve these memories.

Each night I sat at my window looking out at an incredible scene. When it was hot in my room I could sit on the sill, without a screen, and feel the fresh air that blew through the window and feel peaceful and calm. I sat in this simple spot and reflected on my experiences from that day.

Three dinners a week and breakfast every day: these meals, all outdoors, were set aside for time with my host family. This is where my French began to truly improve. We would talk and debate for hours at this table. It was at the table where I learned the most about French culture through the stories shared and told by a French family. “À la table,” became my favorite phrase when I was hungry. My host mom cooked delicious food and never once did she make something I couldn’t adjust to accommodate my veganism. It was over a shared meal that I became closer to these genuine people who shared their home with me. My consciousness expanded: my sprit grew.

The French eat differently than Americans. They have dinner around 9:00 p.m.; in my city that is about the time restaurants begin to close on weekdays. Lunch is treated like an American’s dinner and people take their time to eat a substantial meal. I was delighted just knowing that each meal would be peaceful and enjoyed outdoors on the sidewalks or patios. I already miss the vegetable couscous at the restaurant le Méjan, which overlooks the Rhône River in Arles.

At times, walking through the streets of Arles, I’d see artists and musicians performing. When I saw their courage to share their art without hesitation as if it were a cushy job they went to each day, it gave me courage and the desire to make it an everyday goal to express myself through art—my own art. The respect, admiration, and money the artists received from passersby signified to me that their endeavors to create were appreciated and supported. It was as if their bills and coins were saying, “Continue to sing! Continue to play your guitar!”

La Place de la République in Arles, located at the center of the city with its fountain and benches, is another place I often stopped. Sitting on the corner of the stairs or on a bench to watch the world go by: lovers, weddings, stunt bikers and skateboarders, dogs roaming freely without leashes, and, of course, tourists with expressions of awe at the beauty of the city’s center. Sitting quietly on my bench, I met several French people and had conversations that flowed effortlessly in French, my second language. So much life in Arles happens right here.

Les Rencontrées is a very popular photography festival in Arles where I watched tourists and photographers walking the streets with cameras in hand or hanging around their neck to see the photo exhibits. Four separate times photographers asked if would model for them and I agreed to two of the photo shoots (the other two shoots did not fit my schedule). The first was for a professor of photography and the second for two students who were shooting for an internship workshop project. I felt so much a part of the French culture in this way; art has a lot of value for the French even if it is for an internship workshop. I appreciated the photographers who asked me to help them create their art, because in my dance choreography I ask other dancers for help in creating my art.

A concert at the Antique Theatre during Les Suds, a week-long music festival that happens throughout the day and into the night at several different locations in Arles, was awesome. To be outside, under the stars, in the peaceful fresh air made for a perfect night. Sylvia Perez Cruz opened the concert and enchanted the audience with her magical voice and was followed by Melody Gardot who added a touch of humor to her performance. My host mom loves Melody Gardot’s music and my gift to her was a ticket to join me at the concert together with the rest of my host family.

Where I grew up, I often hiked through the woods, and during my visit to France, I had hoped I might walk through the forest outside of the city for spiritual reflection. At the end of our study abroad program, the opportunity arrived to go with a group of students and directors to the Pont du Gard to picnic and swim. I wore my bathing suit under my clothes, but with the forest surrounding the area I had an irresistible desire to be surrounded by the wisdom of the trees, and I decided to follow my heart. As I walked, there was a magical trail that seemed to show up out of nowhere. It was the perfect trail without obstructions or harmful plants. I hiked alone and needed time for myself. It was as if this trail were made, years ago, just for me. No one was around and there were no “Do not enter” signs. The butterflies seemed to follow me before returning to civilization an hour later. It is overwhelming to think that I was in the south of France, alone in the woods, yet one with the world.

To the south of France with love: I wish to see you again.

Sara Horsely cropped Sara Horsley was born in Wilmington, Ohio, and is a student at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, where she is studying French and dance. She spent six weeks studying abroad in Arles, France, where she lived with a French family, attended classes at a local university, and integrated herself into the French community. 

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Text copyright ©2013 Sara Horsely. All rights reserved.
Illustration copyright ©2013 Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.