Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Breaking Bread and Stereotypes at the French Naval Academy

In this post, Midshipmen 1st Class Jeffrey Pearson and Michael Tesluk write about their experiences studying abroad in France last semester.

When you hear that two Americans are going to spend a semester in a French military environment, immediately there are many stereotypes of both cultures that come to mind. Determined to keep an open mind and learn about our naval allies across the Atlantic, we traveled to Brittany, France, to see what the French are all about.

Leaving behind the USNA brigade of 4,500 midshipmen we met the roughly 200 French aspirants – or officers-in-training – with whom we would participate in academics, physical fitness, and professional development.

We soon found that the smaller class size lent itself to a strong sense of camaraderie and unit identity. After four months at “La Baille” – the equivalent of calling USNA “The Yard – we appreciated learning about the culture, improving language skills, and becoming a part of this tight-knit group of future naval officers.

We wore many hats during our time in France. During the day we were students in classes ranging from geopolitics to computer science. Some afternoons we were sailors and participated in sailboat, zodiac, or yard patrol craft exercises. A few times we played the role of French commandos during amphibious assault training evolutions. One week we were diplomats as we represented USNA at a large leadership conference for service academies in Paris.

Many times we donned the camera and backpack of a tourist and visited many different parts of France and numerous unique neighborhoods in Paris. But most culturally enriching were the times after the midshipman cover came off and the relaxed weekends spent with our French counterparts began.

Social opportunities were abundant and afforded us the opportunity to practice language skills and share culture. We learned that eating bread at meals was not just a nutritional aspect, but a crucial institution of the nation. Meals were always slow-paced and a time for conversation and storytelling.

Often French midshipmen would host parties at their houses off campus to celebrate birthdays or get together to watch a big rugby or soccer match. Overall the fun times, the social dynamic, and even the humor were very similar to that of midshipmen at USNA.

Understanding our French classmates was not just a challenge of cultural differences, but also a practical challenge in language comprehension. The first month or so was difficult for the American ear to adjust to the quick blur of French.

Additionally, French naval students and officers use a vast amount of jargon and slang terms that are definitely not taught in the French curriculum in America. After a lot of exposure to varying accents, tempos, and styles of speaking, we gradually became more comfortable in everyday conversation, class lectures, and interacting with people in town.

Overall this Spring 2014 semester was an enjoyable and educational experience for us. We made many rewarding personal and professional relationships that will carry into our naval careers. We exchanged many uniform items and sentimental mementos of the French and American cultures as souvenirs of our experience. And, we look forward using what we learned last Spring in working with our French naval allies in the future.  

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