December 13, 2023

By Haley Dittbrenner ’25

Three students pose outdoors for a photo From left are Victoria “Tori” Vile, Jackson Sweetwood and Haley Dittbrenner.I didn’t want to GO. I’ve always been a person who prefers staying at home in a well-managed routine and traveling to another country would certainly disrupt that. But Susquehanna, through its Global Opportunities program, requires students to study away from campus in a culture different from their own. So, I waited until the last possible moment to pack, and headed for the airport.

I remember staring down the trolley tracks on a sunny May morning, surrounded by family. At the airport I was surrounded by friends. I would later learn that my host city — Aix-en-Provence, a quaint city in the south of France — is a sister city to my hometown of Philadelphia. It’s almost as if the two cities were connected, family and friend supporting me in this adventure.

I chose the GO Short program to southern France because it was led by two professors in the Department of English and Creative Writing — Silas Zobal and Catherine Dent. As a double major in creative writing and publishing & editing, I wanted the opportunity to write in a new country. Plus, traveling for the first time with two professors I already knew gave me a confidence boost.

The first photograph I took in France was of a meal — corkscrew noodles, meat and French cheese. It was the first of many dinners I would share with my host mother, a woman older than my own grandmother named Marie-Paule Fanciullo. She spoke no English, while I spoke no French. The language barrier between myself and my surroundings felt as imposing as the city’s famous Aix Cathedral. Google Translate’s text-to-speech feature was my go-to during dinners. I soon became familiar with more and more French, and by the final week I could carry on a conversation without the need for translation. But even before then, I found unique ways to communicate. I would use gestures and cognates to speak in a kind of Frankensteinian hybrid of French and English. Marie-Paule learned quickly, from my broken franglais, the foods I liked and offered them for me every night. Her kindness showed itself through food.

Experiencing France through its art

There was a certain vividness to France’s sunny skies that you just don’t see in Pennsylvania. The compact streets were lined with yellow buildings and fountains, of which Aix-en-Provence gets its name: the waters of Provence. Rather than attend classes, we were tasked with completing a project that the city’s Musee Granet will later display within its halls. For me, this meant writing a short story with paintings to accompany it, all inspired by a particular sculpture in the museum. I chose Cyparissus by 19th century French sculptor Hippolyte Ferrat.

To accomplish our goal, we immersed ourselves in the art scene of France. We visited the workshop of Paul Cezanne, an Aixois painter who has greatly influenced my own work. We also visited an old shipping dock transformed into a living art show, where famous paintings roll across the ceilings, walls and floors. The artwork was animated, alive.

I spent my afternoons painting at my desk or in the park. I used my paintings to accompany my writing, and I expressed myself through visual art when I didn’t have the French vocabulary to do so.

New friendships 

My final night in France took place at a music festival — the Fete de la Musique, or Festival of Music, a summer holiday in France when people listen to music in the streets. My bags were already packed, my room in Marie-Paule’s house stuffed into three suitcases, but for one more night I was in France. At every street corner someone new was playing music, a semicircle of listeners crowded around them. I remember sitting at one of the fountains, the sun setting behind me, listening to the music with two of my best friends — one with whom my friendship pre-dated our time abroad, and the other who I developed a friendship with while in France.

I look back on my experience in France with great appreciation. Where I once dreaded leaving the comforts of my predictable routines, I’m now considering future trips to Prague, Turkey or France again. I’ve grown from being a timid homebody, something that negatively impacted my daily life, to an adventurous person who longs to return to the sunny city of Aix-en-Provence.