Oberlin Blogs

Becoming Bordelaise

January 25, 2023

Hanna Alwine ’26

Planning ahead has never been my strong suit. I am consistently late, no matter what time I get out of bed in the morning. My planner hasn’t been touched in months. The day before fall break was the same day I bought my bus tickets back home. Until 24 hours before classes resumed the next Monday, I hadn’t figured out how I was getting back to Oberlin from said fall break. My tendency towards procrastination has only been exacerbated by college life with increasingly busy days and a mounting list of responsibilities. 

A few months ago I was accepted into Oberlin’s Winter Term abroad in Bordeaux. I jumped at the opportunity to spend three weeks abroad in Bordeaux taking French classes four hours a day, five days a week. My sophomore year of high school I studied abroad for six months in Brittany, a region in the northwest of France, but was sent home early when COVID began making its way through Europe. This trip presented the perfect opportunity to brush up on my rusty French while visiting people and places that I had left three years prior. Despite knowing months in advance that I wanted to take a weekend to make the trip up the coast, I didn’t book my train tickets or AirBnB until the week before. In a night fueled by panicked scrolling on various European travel sites I found fairly cheap tickets up the northwest coast of France and back – Bordeaux to Rennes, Rennes to Bordeaux, a 500-mile trip to be completed in the span of 48 hours. I found an AirBnB as well, a small place with canary yellow walls – Chambre au Calme – that looked out onto the city. 

As luck would have it, I booked my Chambre au Calme for the wrong dates, a fact I only realized the night before my intended departure. This is how I ended up on a train, destination Rennes, with no idea where I was going to sleep that night. 

On the train ride I booked a hostel that boasted free breakfast and proximity to the train station and the city center. Though the hostel was sweetly decorated and even had yellow walls in the common space, it was also a 30-minute walk from the train station and smelled slightly of asparagus. I had never stayed in a hostel before and had been unsure what to expect. I shared my room with two other women in their late thirties. The morning before I left we spent an hour conversing in French – the true immersion experience. 

The rest of my trip was similarly paradoxical. I had experiences that made me doubt my decision to make a solo trip in a foreign country and others that made me wonder how I would ever leave. I spent my time in the city oscillating between these two extremes. The joy of eating baguettes and listening to French street performers and the frustration of walking through quickly darkening streets, hands freezing into sticks of ice because I’d forgotten my mittens at the hostel. 

I have been convinced that this is the reality of city living. Its composition pushes people and boundaries uncomfortably close. Community is forced by proximity. Interactions are made on the basis of necessity. Close together people butt heads more often. Tension builds when you are physically forced up against people in a tram car or unexpectedly dropped into a shared bedroom because of your subpar AirBnB booking skills. From this tension results extreme experiences. You use your last tampon in a bar bathroom at 11am on a Sunday when every pharmacy in all of France is closed. You order a coffee in a cafe and it tastes exactly like the one you’ve been missing for three years. You spill your drink on your lap in what is already a tense dinner encounter. You meet a woman in a thrift store and she tells you her life story in a mixture of Spanish and French, then gives you a ladybug clothespin as a treasure before you leave. You miss your train. You stumble upon a pop-up book market. 

I have only ever lived in small towns. Carlisle, the college town where I grew up, is only slightly bigger than Oberlin. When I had the opportunity to study abroad in high school I chose France. I had visions of days spent strolling by the Seine and views of the Eiffel Tower from my host family's apartment. Instead I ended up in a small French village smaller than my home town. Apart from a sprinkling of houses, Saint-Sauveur des Landes had a library, a boarded-up patisserie, and a restaurant that doubled as the post office between the hours of ten and two. Small towns take the peaked extremes of city living and flatten them to plateaus. Small towns provide an ease of living that cities don’t. I like being able to go on solo walks and getting coffee from a barista who knows your name. I like the simplicity of visiting a local library on a Monday afternoon and quiet streets after 11pm. 

I appreciate small towns, but I’ve always envied the city life and the way art and culture collects, pulled to where the people are piled on top of one another. When I finally chose Oberlin I was worried I had chosen incorrectly. Of all the small towns I’d lived in, Oberlin is one of the smallest with its handful of working stoplights and desperate need for another bookstore. In comparison to my high school friends attending universities in much larger cities – New York, Pittsburgh, Providence – my interaction with a larger world outside the one I’d left felt much more limited. Oberlin’s public transport is abysmal and it's next to impossible to bike to Cleveland. Unless you have a car it is virtually impossible to explore the surrounding area. 

But Oberlin didn’t earn my attendance through its location, but through its programs. While it's true that other universities have access to international programs, very few have ways for first-years to go abroad. Just this year I had friends go to Greece and Guadalajara, Belgium and France. Small liberal arts colleges in cities are few and far between. Through Oberlin I get the best of both worlds. I am able to experience city life in far-flung corners of the world through Winter Term and semesters abroad while still being able to retreat back to small town life where my biggest concern is whether it is cold enough to wear a hat to my class across campus or whether Azzie’s has run out of bagels that morning (spoiler alert: if it’s after 10 o’clock, they have). I think I may always be disappointed in Oberlin’s size and separation from city living, but I appreciate the familiarity afforded to me by a tight-knit community. Oberlin acts as a home base – there are ways to spend time outside the borders of its small-town campus, but it always remains as a place to return. 

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