“A Year in Provence” or “A Year in the Merde”? It is up to you

Study abroad and learning about a new culture

This year four million lucky students will have an international experience in a foreign higher education institution. The success of this experience will depend on many things, but mostly on their ability to adapt to the new culture.

2 million students studying abroad

Across the northern hemisphere the new academic years are beginning (if they have not already done so. This also means that millions of students are preparing to leave home and discover a new culture. According to the OECD, nearly two million students will have a cross border experience in the coming year. The most popular destination is still the USA (though its market share has been falling since 2001) followed by the UK. Australia recently took the third spot from Germany which is then followed by France.

Where most international go

The most popular destination is still the USA followed by the UK
Source : OECD

If you look around the blog world, you will see lots of excited stories of students leaving their families for new exciting adventures. These are often accompanied by photos at airports or of packed suitcases. Robert Louis Stevenson once said:

“It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.”

Whether this turns out to be true will of course depend and how well they adapt to the new culture.

A Year in Provence or A Year in the Merde

Any student coming to France might be interested to read through two books on French life. The first is A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle. It recounts his decision to move to France with his wife in their middle years. It is NOT a good book. It gives an insipid and sickly view of French life. However it is worth reading as a prelude to A Year in the Merde by Stephen Clarke. This is a far more biting and incisive vision of the workings of Paris. It is much, much funnier. What is interesting about the books is how they begin. Peter Mayle’s book contains 12 chapters going steadfastly from January to December.

Stephen Clarke and Peter Mayle

Clark’s book is far more biting and much, much funnier

How do you translate “La Rentrée” into English

“The year began in January,” the book begins blandly. It gets progressively more bland as it move from one month to the next.

Stephen Clarke’s book is as much a satire of A Year in Provence as it is of France. It opens with:

“The year began in September. Anybody who has ever lived in France knows that the year begins in September.”

Clarke is right and anyone that has lived here knows the importance of La Rentrée. To this day I am still incapable of finding an adequate translation. Back to school? The beginning of term? Neither of these seems to conjure up the importance of this magnificent event. French people even make resolutions for La Rentrée as most people do for the New Year.

What Mayle and Clarke show in their opening lines is that the former had understood little about French culture and the latter had got it all. This should not be surprising; Mayle lived with his wife in an isolated part of the country, spoke little French and clearly had a limited amount of contact with French people. Clarke lived in France for many years, was single for a lot of the time and clearly tried as much as possible to learn the language and the culture by mixing with French people. Ad that is what makes his book so good to read.

International students are increasing in number

This year two million students will have an international experience in a foreign higher education institution

For anyone embarking on a temporary new life in foreign shores there is a lesson here. All forms of exposure to different cultures are beneficial but many students lose the full value of the experience by doing the equivalent of what Peter Mayle did i.e staying with fellow countrymen and avoiding the painful task of understanding the culture. The result is still positive, but it will be a bland one.

Expatriated to my home country

This week I was contacted by an Indian friend of mine. He spent the first 30 years of his live living in the Karnataka region before coming to France to do an MBA. For the past two years he has been working for a French multinational and has been doing very well for himself. Imagine my surprise though when I received a text that said excitedly:

“I am being expatriated to India!”

Expatriated to India?! Now there is a man that has really adopted his new country to the full!

To add to this text and as from tomorrow, I will be publishing a series of photos from students who have had a study abroad experience.


See also:

UK student Leanne Dickinson on living and studying in France

Textbooks and Passports: “In France, says Leanne, “there is a lot of contact time and note-taking.” The university system “seems to tie you a lot more”. This contrasts with the British system.”

Niché Bragahi: How my studies in France encouraged me to pursue a career in teaching

Textbooks and Passports: “Studying abroad, according to Niché, “is about going out of your comfort zone, discovering new things, developing your linguistic skills”

Pack Light, Feel Better: Seven Travel Tips

QGOSS: “I love traveling light. The lighter, the better. Next month I will be traveling through Europe for a month and a half with nothing but my backpack. Note: I’m a college student, a recent college graduate who enjoys couch surfing and hostels. This isn’t for everyone. So how does one go about traveling light?”

The power of a language

Modern World: “I personally see a language as a tool to understand something different, it can be a different culture or values that are reflected in the words and the idioms, different professional background, but in the end , this tool helps us with the most important thing – communicating with people like us.”

European Reading List

Global from Home: “For some reason I’ve been putting off making my European reading list. But last night I finally got my Global Reads by Region page up and running and I decided I need to get going with my European books as well.”

Mark Thomas  Grenoble EM  ESC Grenoble  GGSB  Strategy  Blog  Global Ed  International Affairs in Higher Education  Business School


Filed under Business Schools, Careers, Countries, Education, Exchange study programs, France, Great Britain, Higher Education, India, Intercultural, International studies, Internships, MBA, Travel, Uncategorized, USA

9 responses to ““A Year in Provence” or “A Year in the Merde”? It is up to you

  1. Wonderful and insightful piece. I’ll be sharing some of your thoughts soon on my blog….My university, James Madison University, sends students all over the world. Everyone of them should read this.

    • Mark Thomas

      Thank you Graham for your kind remarks. JMU is a great institution and I know that you do a lot of interesting work overseas. I very much look forward to reading your forthcoming posts.

  2. I 100% agree with your thoughts on what makes a bland or vibrant abroad experience. I would also say that many students make the return home a bland process too by leaving all they learned abroad back in their host country. So many people seem to think that cultural immersion can only be found overseas. I’m so glad you found my blog because I’m very much enjoying yours.

    • Mark Thomas

      Elise, Thank you for reading and for your comments. I agree that it is not easy to make the most of the international experience and it is something that needs to be worked on. I look forward to reading more on your excellent blog.

  3. aurora

    This is really funny. I found this article right after I saw a girl reading it on the train on my way to Grenoble! I am excited to read the book

    • Mark Thomas

      Aurore, This is quite a coincidence! Enjoy your time in Grenoble as well as thebook and feel free to post up your comments on it.

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