Passport to Colby

Passport to Colby

When students start Colby with a semester abroad, they arrive on Mayflower Hill with a different perspective

By Ruth Jacobs | Photos by Christopher Grant


Despite their initial hesitation about the program, most students embrace the European experience and arrive excited about the months ahead. Katie Peterson ’10 traveled from California, missed a connecting flight, arrived in Paris after the group had left in a chartered bus, had to find her way to Dijon alone with all her luggage—and still arrived at Colby’s Dijon apartment with a huge smile. “That’s why I love my job,” said Colby French Professor Jonathan Weiss, resident director in Dijon. “You get these students who are so enthusiastic and happy to be here.”

Professor Jonathan Weiss guides the students through a tour of Dijon.
Professor Jonathan Weiss guides the students through a tour of Dijon.

Chelsea Nahill, one of 19 Colby students in Dijon last year, saw France as an adventure. “It kind of feels like one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that you just have to take,” she said while dining outdoors at La Mère Folle (“Crazy Mother”), where, wanting to immerse herself in everything French, the then-17-year-old tasted foie gras for the first time.

Weiss works hard to prepare students for what they are likely to experience. Standing in the living room of Colby’s 17th-century apartment in the heart of the city on the students’ first day in Dijon last August, Weiss introduced the group to some of the cultural differences. And there are many. “I try to understand everything from the inside without first evaluating,” he said, encouraging them to do the same.

Since the students live with families—“to give them an entry into French life,” according to Weiss—he begins with that transition. Circled around the room, facing the tall windows that overlook a courtyard, some students look bewildered, some enthusiastic, some both. “Let’s get to one of the most tension-producing areas for you. That’s the homestay,” Weiss said. The French don’t eat much for breakfast. Hot chocolate, coffee—maybe a croissant. If you’d like a hard-boiled egg, he said, ask for it.

After a detailed account of differences in eating habits, Weiss moved on to etiquette. “Every society thinks that others are rude simply because they don’t understand what the rules are,” he said.

The kiss? “It’s the same as saying ‘hi.’ There’s no difference,” said Weiss. “What would be a little suggestive would be a hug.”

“Those who make the leap ... at the end of the programs feel as though it was a good decision and it was worthwhile.”

—Parker Beverage, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid

Along with the physical greeting, always say “bonjour” and “au revoir” (hello and goodbye), he said. When you walk into a store, say bonjour. When you leave, say au revoir. “Always ‘bonjour,’ ‘au revoir,’ ‘bonjour,’ ‘au revoir’—that’s the least level of politeness in France. If you want to add to that, ‘bonjour, monsieur,’ ‘bonjour, madame,’ then you’re really polite.” The French are more formal than Americans, Weiss explained.

Then he warned students of differences they might find annoying. “You have to deal with dog crap. French people love to let their dogs do it on the street,” he said. They park their cars on the sidewalk, he continued. The bus drivers go on strike. People smoke just about everywhere. But he encouraged the students to be accepting. “Learning a language can just be in your head ... but to learn to live in a country, to understand it from the inside, that takes heart,” he said.

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