Posted by Greg Durrett (INRIA–Bordeaux, France)
Hi everyone! For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Greg, a rising senior in CS (6-3) and math (18). I am participating in the MISTI-France program. My internship is at the INRIA Sud-Ouest research center in Bordeaux. INRIA is France’s national computer science research institute, affiliated with a number of different universities in different parts of France. This one is affiliated with the University of Bordeaux 1, so I’m actually working in the Institut de Mathématiques de Bordeaux (IMB) at the university. What I’m doing is essentially analogous to a UROP, and the academic setting in France is actually quite similar to that of America. My project is on using certain statistical methods to analyze the dynamics of disease propagation during epidemics. It’s really interesting stuff and I could go on all day about it, but I imagine that anyone reading this would rather I didn’t, so I’ll stop there…
There was a small conference my second week here, with our research group hosting an associated team from China working on similar problems. Most of the talks were way over my head (as they mostly over the heads of the masters and PhD students as well), so the main benefit to me was a series of free lunches and a final conference dinner at a fairly nice restaurant. The meal followed the French “prix fixe” model. You have three choices for your entrée (appetizer), plat (main dish), and dessert, all for a fixed price, and the restaurant changes all of these daily. Dinner starts with an apéritif (a before-dinner cocktail) and dessert is followed by coffee, so dinner is pretty protracted; the whole affair took around three hours. And, of course, no dinner in Bordeaux would be complete without one of the region’s world-famous red wines. Unfortunately, having no taste for fine red wine, I was more or less unable to drink it.
I’ve managed to find time to do a little traveling around the area as well. Last weekend, I went with some people from work to Arcachon, a beach resort about forty miles from Bordeaux or so. It’s not directly on the ocean, so the water is warm enough to swim in, and the beaches are pretty fantastic. The picture is of me and Peng, a friend from work who’s originally from China. We’re sitting on the Dune du Pilat, a gigantic natural sand dune a few miles from Arcachon. As you can see, the view of the basin that it overlooks is pretty spectacular.
A few random observations:
- Around the university, I have not seen men exchanging cheek kisses as a greeting, and I myself have so far only exchanged the cheek kisses with girls. However, around the city, I have seen male-male cheek kisses (including between two tough-looking kids in baggy clothes, which was somewhat striking).
- While I guess Mexicans take a siesta, the French prefer to deal with the post-lunch food coma a different way. Our lunch group typically goes to a café near the university to have coffee before heading back to work, and I gather that this is very common in France.
- Europe is very linguistically diverse. Our small conference included only the researchers from the IMB (including me) and the visiting Chinese researchers. French and Chinese were spoken within each group, and English was a sort of least common denominator for communication. However, my advisor is originally Spanish, so he and another girl spoke in Spanish, and another group of researchers spoke in Italian. So in the end, French and English only got me so far at the dinner table…
- Europeans like American media a lot. Cinemas play all of the big American movies, video game stores sell predominately American video games, and apparently American music has become so popular that radio stations are forced to play a certain amount of French music. Michael Jackson’s death was a huge front page headline in “Le Monde,” and everyone at work was talking about it the next day.
Like Emily in Toulouse, I have found myself essentially immersed in French, as I am the only MISTI-France person in Bordeaux, and I only briefly met one other native English speaker as he was leaving for summer vacation. I interact with my advisor in English, as he spent some time in the United States and his English is quite good, but I speak French to all of my friends at work and everyone else I talk with in day-to-day-life. I’ve found that talking with people for a long time in another language can be mentally exhausting, and it’s a bit harder to just “chill out” with friends when you’re struggling with a bit of a language barrier. But above all, it feels great to finally be putting six-and-a-half years of French education to good use!