MONTPELLIER, France - I can pinpoint the moment it finally sank in: I'm living in France.
It's midnight on a chilly Friday in February. I've been invited to my first real French party, an animal-themed soiree thrown by a friend of a friend in a tiny, white-walled apartment with high ceilings near the opera house. I have cat whiskers drawn in eyeliner on my cheeks and a bottle of $8 white wine as a gift for our hosts.
Everyone's chatting and dancing to Kanye West remixes and smoking cigarettes off the wrought-iron balcony. I've finally stopped being nervous and started talking to the guy next to me, who's dressed as a tortoise, when there's a knock on the door.
"Les flics!" someone yells. The police. They're at the door, complaining that the neighbors can't sleep. I'm ready to slip into panic mode, but no one bats an eye; we all file downstairs and out the door, waiting for something to happen.
Then someone pulls out an accordion. Someone else produces a tuba. Before long, we're all waltzing in the street to some French folk tunes I've never heard before.
Traffic stops. Cars honk. Everyone sings along.
I turn to my friends. "This would never, never happen back home," I say, eyes wide.
I've said it before, but tonight's the first time I really mean it.
I was in Montpellier, a college town in the south of France, only for a semester. But by the end, it felt more like home to me than my Penn State dorm room in State College.
Getting here was the hardest part. The paperwork is exhaustive - on my visa form, the French consulate asked me to estimate how many hours I have spent studying French. The cost is daunting - counting tuition, fees, and general expenses, my parents paid about $16,000 for the semester (and that's not even close to the $25,000 it would have cost me to study in Paris). The worst part, though, is the waiting - once I turned in all my visa forms, once I packed everything, once I said goodbye to everyone and everything I know, there's nothing left to do but sit in the terminal and worry.
So I'm lucky that I have a mother who's a former French teacher - she convinced me that studying abroad, no matter how worried I was, would be nothing less than life-changing. And I'm luckier still that Montpellier turned out to be an absolutely perfect fit.
It's no Paris, but it has its own charms. The city center's 19th-century buildings, dripping with wrought-iron balconies, compete with the enormous apartment complexes and neo-Grecian office buildings in the neighboring Antigone district. There's the Corum, the boxy, hypermodern opera house - and St. Pierre's, the enormous Gothic cathedral that's so old it looks almost organic, as though it grew straight out of the bedrock.
Immigrants from North Africa run kebab shops in buildings dating to the Renaissance. Half the streets in the city center are so narrow you can barely squeeze a Vespa between buildings. Some aren't streets at all - they're staircases, with shops perched on each step.
At the center of a garden that dates to the 16th century there is an ancient tree whose crevices are stuffed with handwritten wishes. Most deal with love and money. One, in childish handwriting, asks for a dinosaur to ride to school.
Montpellier is like a college town on steroids: There are three undergraduate universities, a business school, and one of the oldest medical schools in the world, which adds up to about 80,000 students - almost double the number at Penn State's University Park campus.
On holidays and weekends, the students rule. Place de la Comédie, the main square, is packed every night from 5 o'clock into the wee hours of the morning. The discotheques fill up at 1 a.m. and kick the last stragglers out at 5 to the strains of outdated American pop.
On Mardi Gras, I get a phone call from a friend who lives on one of those twisting back streets. Come quick, she says - there's a party in the Comédie.
It's more like a flash mob, with heavily costumed students waving banners and singing and spray-painting buildings. By the time I get there, the local police are placidly putting out several small fires. C'est typique, they say.
When not watching our peers destroy the town, we take classes at Université Paul-Valéry, the liberal arts school here. It's lively, but no Penn State: The architecture is best described as Soviet-chic, and I can walk across the entire campus in less than five minutes.
Like a lot of things in France, classes at Paul Val (nothing in France goes by its full name) are vaguely American but markedly different: We read only two or three books a semester, the professor rarely asks questions, and French students might roll up half an hour late to class but take the most fastidious notes I have ever seen.
My French skills fluctuate from minute to minute. One day, as I'm lazily flicking through pages in Balzac's novella Adieu in a class on 19th-century French literature, our professor calls on me.
"Quel est le signifiance de ce passage?" she asks, smiling kindly. Never mind that I've been taking impeccable notes, all in French, on the significance of this passage for the last 20 minutes. Never mind that I carried on a nuanced, thoughtful conversation in French about my studies while on a date the previous night. Right now, my mind is completely, terrifyingly blank.
Everyone stares. I stare back, pause, and stammer out a sentence that a 5-year-old would laugh at. The professor's smile fades. Two weeks later, she treats us all to a 10-minute rant about how she expects much more from les étudiants américains. Such is life.
There are things about France that make you appreciate life in the United States: There are constant train strikes (the worst one leaves us stranded in Milan on our way to Venice over spring break); literally nothing is open on Sundays; and speaking your mother tongue isn't exactly advisable - the French are standoffish at best if you don't make at least some effort at their language.
But these are quibbles, really, when you live in a country where no one cares when you spend five hours at a cafe, where no one works more than 39 hours a week, where the art of the apéro - after-dinner drinks - is taken extremely seriously.
Like the French, college students appreciate the fine art of doing nothing.
And for the last few days in Montpellier, we appreciate that art, too. The days are long; the nights are longer. The sun finally comes out after weeks of rain, and we take a tiny, overcrowded bus to the beach. We waste entire afternoons at cafes. We people-watch as though it's our job. In between, we're writing final papers and filling out course equivalency forms for our inevitable return Stateside, but they're almost an afterthought. We're all trying to take everything in, one last time.
I'm somewhere over the Atlantic, watching cloud formations out my window, my bag full of souvenirs for my parents.
A few rows ahead of us, French high school students are passing notes and snapping pictures and generally being rowdy teenagers. When we fly over Long Island, they lean over their seats and point at the swimming pools and Little League fields below. When the New York skyline comes into view, they gasp. When we touch down on the tarmac, they applaud. Everyone joins in.
I don't know exactly why they're clapping - maybe they're happy the plane didn't crash; maybe they're excited to be on American soil. But I know what I'm clapping for: one perfect semester abroad.
I haven't stopped talking about France since I got back home, and I probably never will. It sounds maudlin and cliched, but my mother was right: France was life-changing.
Did I miss my friends and family? Sure. Did I occasionally curse the existence of the French language? Of course. Will I be on the next flight to Paris after graduation in May? You bet.
Air France, Delta, and US Airways fly to Montpellier from Philadelphia, with a stop in Paris. The lowest recent round-trip fare was about $740.
Things to see
Enormous cathedral visible from almost anywhere in the city center. Dates to the 16th century. 6 Bis Rue de l'Abbé Marcel Montels.
Jardin des Plantes
Built in the 17th century at the University of Montpellier as a royal garden. Like most things in Montpellier, delightfully unkempt. Look for the Wishing Tree toward the center and leave a wish of your own in one of the tree's crevices.
Arc de Triomphe/
Place Royale du Peyrou
Tree-lined avenues, beautiful views of the city, and a statue of Louis XIV as Hercules. At night, go to see the lights on the aqueduct toward the east end of the park.
The city's premier art museum, home to more than 800 classical and contemporary pieces.
L'ecusson (city center)
The city's historic district, known for lavish private mansions dating to the 18th century; named for its distinctive shape (ecusson means shield). Be warned: It is easy to get lost here. Have a map ready.
Place de la Comédie
The main square, lined with excellent cafes and several movie theaters, and home to the Fountain of the Three Graces, something of a city symbol.
Mosson flea market
In Quartier Mosson; take the blue tram line to the Mosson stop. One of the most well-known flea markets, open Sundays from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Esplanade Charles de Gaulle. An opera house that doubles as a conference center, this sleek, modern building stands in front of one of Montpellier's central parks and hosts orchestra performances, operas, and contemporary and classical concerts. Climb the stairs to the roof for a panoramic view of the city and prime people-watching.
11 Tunnel de la Comédie. The older of Montpellier's two opera houses, dating to the 19th century, this venue is significant for its stunning interior and robust program of classic operas.
2733 Avenue Albert Einstein Domaine de Grammont. Concert hall hosts larger contemporary acts, such as French rock star M and the rock musical "Mozart L'Opera Rock."
5 Rue du Grand Saint-Jean. Hole-in-the-wall dance club frequented by students (Wednesday is international student night). Plays a standard mix of techno, house, and Lady Gaga.
12 Rue Anatole France. Nightclub about a block away from Cargo, with a more underground vibe. Frequent concerts and a steady diet of diverse music and up-and-coming French artists make this a popular late-night destination.
20 Rue de Verdun. Montpellier's one-stop shop for the indie-rock crowd. Hosts frequent concerts; doubles as a popular bar and dance hall that plays everything from the Rolling Stones to MGMT on the dance floor.
Charlie's Beer Pub
22 Rue Aristide Olivier. Delightfully dive-y bar that plays classic American rock and caters to an exuberant student crowd every night. Grab a seat by the pool tables in the back, introduce yourself to the bartender, Rudolph, and ask for a pint of Maredsous beer.
5 Place Saint-Côme. Proudly out-of-place Irish pub in the middle of a neighborhood full of trendy wine and cocktail bars. Caters to a mix of internationals and locals, but worth going to for the Celtic jam sessions every Friday night (bring an instrument along and join in).
Places to stay
8 Rue Maguelone. Three-star establishment seconds from Place de la Comédie. From $91/night.
Ibis Montpellier Centre
95, Place Vauban Boulevard d'Antigone. Economy hotel close to the city center and the Polygone shopping district. From $86/night.
10 Rue Baudin 34000 Montpellier. Cozy 12-room hotel close to the city center. From $95/night.
- Aubrey WhelanEndText