In January of this year, I took part in an RMIT Study Tour with the College of Business to Brest, France. It was a great experience to study an intensive two subjects overseas and I thought I would share some of my experiences and reflections of my time overseas.
I believe my France study tour was somewhat of a unique experience compared to many of my fellow students on the tour, as I came straight from the United States after completing an Exchange at Arizona State University in semester 2, 2018 (which I have talked about here). Having not been in Australia for over 6 months, and being back with a group of 20 Australians, I felt a bit of reverse culture shock – which is defined as “the negative effects experienced while readapting to the environment of one’s own culture” (Tomlin et al., 2014). Along with readjusting to the Australian culture, I also had to adapt to the French cultural and social dynamics; which was a challenge in itself!
Prior to arriving in France, I was slightly nervous about how I would adjust to the language barrier, as well as leaving North America as I had been there for a significant amount of time. I also had quite mixed emotions, as I had to say goodbye to many of my close friends that I had made whilst in the US. To prepare for my trip, I practised my basic French-speaking skills on the language learning app Duolingo, as well as downloading Google Translate, to ensure I was respecting the French culture and at least trying to communicate in their native language first. Whilst I have been to France numerous times, I have never travelled there alone. Paris does have the reputation of not being the safest place to travel as a tourist and so I was hyper-aware of the risks of travelling around the city by myself. Thankfully, the hostel that I stayed in ran a walking tour where I met a great bunch of people and teamed up with them to explore the city together.
Our guide on the walking tour joked that its part of the French national identity to protest everything, and the French people are proud that they can lobby the government in this way. We did get caught up in one of the Yellow Vest riots in the city, which was a very eye-opening and frightening experience. As an Australian, we are not opposed to protests, however, I have never seen the amount of police and army personnel at an Australian protest as I did at this one in France and genuinely felt pretty scared to be caught up in it all.
Unfortunately, the effects of the protests on my time in Paris didn’t end there. To save money and a night of accommodation, I opted to catch a FlixBus to Brest overnight. I had travelled a fair amount on buses in the US, so I wasn’t too worried about the 10-hour bus ride to Brittany. Whilst trying to get a taxi to the bus station, I experienced a lot of difficulties with the language and trying to communicate where I was needing to go, and due to the protests, many of the drivers were not taking fares which resulted in missing my bus. This situation certainly tested my adjustment to the French culture, but thankfully, I was able to organise another couple of buses to get to Brest by the next day.
Arriving in Brest, I wasn’t sure what to expect but was definitely surprised at the significant language barrier, with very few of the locals able to communicate in English and how everything on a Sunday was closed! With all the commotion trying to get to Brest, I hadn’t really given much thought about the actual study tour itself, and my expectations of it. I was looking forward to meeting the rest of the RMIT group, making some new friends and intrigued by what we were going to experience at Brest Business School for the two weeks, as well as the company visits.
However, my bad luck didn’t stop when I got to Brest. On the Monday morning I became very sick with a stomach bug and was vomiting for the rest of the day, resulting in me being bedridden for the first few days of the tour.
Although, this did give me the opportunity to experience the French healthcare system. On the Monday evening I still wasn’t feeling well, so with the help of my roommate, we called emergency services and organised a doctor to come out to the hotel. Thankfully, the doctor spoke relatively good English and was able to diagnose me pretty quickly. The doctor was very patient in explaining what each of the different medications was that he was giving to me, as well as what I would need to pick up from the pharmacy the next day. I was pleasantly surprised the visit from the doctor wasn’t too expensive and I was even more pleased that the prescriptions from the chemist were a lot cheaper than what we pay in Australia.
By the Wednesday I was feeling a lot better and finally made it to the school. Brest Business School (BBS) certainly wasn’t what I was expecting, as it felt more like a high school rather than a university. We had back-to-back classes like in school, with scheduled breaks for lunch. I’m not sure if this is standard for tertiary education all over France, but I was surprised by the rigid structure of it, although on reflection this should not have been such a shock as the French are known for their structures and planning within the business world (Hofstede Insights, 2019). In the first week, it did feel like we were the intruders in the school, with the French students not wanting to interact with us, however, in retrospect, this could have been to do with our lack of French-speaking skills and their limited English.
The company visit to SDMO was interesting, as it gave us a glimpse of what the French business culture is like. Even just sitting in the conference room, we could get a feel for the hierarchical nature of the company and the many structures and processes that they have in place – relating back to their high uncertainty avoidance (Hofstede Insights, 2019).
Another difference I noticed whilst in Brest was that public transport was more expensive than I was expecting for such a small place. Although by purchasing the weekly pass, it did make travelling by bus slightly more economical. Having travelled around several cities in the US and Paris beforehand, I can appreciate the Melbourne public transport system a lot more. Whilst PTV has its faults, it is definitely a lot more affordable than many other cities around the world and fairly reliable.
I also found it quite funny that Uber wasn’t available in Brest, as coming from the US, even in the smallest towns you could generally find an Uber anywhere! This was a bit of an adjustment for me in a good way, and I ended up walking to and from town much more than I may have done if Uber was available.
After a nice weekend of getting to know several members of the RMIT group and getting to explore Mont Saint-Michel, I felt more prepared for the second week of classes. The second week was certainly more challenging than the first, however it was really rewarding, and I enjoyed getting to apply the concepts that we learnt about when working in our multicultural groups.
On the Monday we were introduced to the French students and participated in some simple cross-cultural exercises. This was a great way to break the ice with the other students and also learn more about the differences and similarities between the French and Australian cultures. I think learning about the “culture iceberg” was a real eye-opener for me and taught me that empathy is certainly a skill required when working in a cross-cultural environment.
On the Tuesday we were introduced to our groups and started the business simulation game. What became quite apparent within the first few hours of starting the game, was that the French students were more experienced than us and that the language barrier was going to be a significant challenge. Being partnered with students completing their Master’s degrees whilst we were working towards our undergraduate, didn’t seem overly logical to me at the time. All the while this did lead to frustrations and additional stresses in some groups, however on reflection it did give us the opportunity to work and learn at a higher level than we are normally exposed to. I also found communicating with the French students during the game to be particularly difficult, as they would often not understand the English and sometimes it felt like they just didn’t want to interact with us. Thankfully, the French student in my group, Louis, probably spoke the best English out of all the BBS students and so we established a good rapport and communication within our group.
When setting up our groups we were advised to set clear parameters on how we are to communicate, and I think this really helped us. At the beginning, we made it clear that the RMIT students within the group were to speak slowly and clearly, without using slang and that Louis should feel comfortable asking us to explain anything he didn’t understand. We ensured that we were respectful of each other and identified that there were five cultures/nationalities represented within our group of four (France, Australia, Scotland, South Sudan & Somalia). This really aided us throughout the week, and we ended up winning the game.
On the Friday getting to interact with the French students and teachers in a more casual setting was really enjoyable, as we got to look back at the week and actually socialise and bond with each other. At the time, the exercise of building the poster didn’t really interest me, however, once we got talking and discussing the ideas and issues behind it, I found it to be incredibly useful. The poster was the first form of reflection that we did for the week and it was great to hear from other teams about their experiences and challenges. I’m glad we did the poster as it gave me an appreciation for reflecting on events, as well as giving us the opportunity to see how far we had come in understanding cross-cultural dimensions in only a few days.
Overall, it was an interesting Study Tour in Brest, France and one that I am glad I got to experience. Having to adjust not only to the French culture but back to the Australian culture was a challenge, but it certainly gave me an appreciation for the many intricacies of a nation’s culture.
Whilst I went into the two weeks with very little expectations, I left with an appreciation of the French culture and their way of life. It also allowed me to analyse the Australian culture and how we can be perceived in a foreign context. I was challenged on this tour, but I believe that has allowed me to grow into a more culturally aware individual.
I hope to take what I have learnt on this study tour and through the reflection process with me in my future career. I certainly hope that I get the opportunity to live and work overseas, and I know that what I have gained from this tour will help me in adjusting to the cross-cultural dynamics of wherever I end up, and even in my everyday life.