During my sophomore year at the University of Michigan, now many years ago, I discovered an organization that placed students in math and science in other countries for practical work - for what would now be called co-oping. The organization's primary objective was to exchange students among the various European countries, but somehow we managed to start a branch at U of M. I eagerly joined, and successfully lobbied a couple of professors who agreed to sponsor a foreign co-op student for the summer.
When I applied myself, hoping for a placement the summer between my sophomore and junior years, I thus had a preferred status; as someone who had worked for the organization, I went to the front of the queue, so to speak. Since I speak fluent French, I asked for France, Belgium, Luxembourg, or Switzerland, countries where French is spoken.
But placements for students from the United States were limited, and I was offered a spot in the Netherlands, at the Agricultural University of Wageningen, assisting a professor of mathematics.
Dutch has several levels of gutterals, with pronounced somewhat like the German "ch" and a couple more that are deeper in the throat. Gouda, the cheese, for example, is pronounced something like "How-da." It took me a week to learn to pronounce the name of the town, and until I could, I didn't dare go anywhere. Most people my age and younger spoke English, but many of the older folks in the towns surrounding Wageningen did not.
I still remember my excitement that first weekend when I boarded the bus for a nearby, larger, town, Ede (pronounced Ay-da).
In relatively short order, I found a ballet class in town - I was passionately fond of ballet at the time - and signed up for lessons. It was there that I had my first lesson in cultural insularity.
"I'm an American," I responded when asked where I was from.
"Oh, so am I," a diminutive student replied. "I'm from Nicaragua. How about you?"
"I'm from the United States." And that is how, to this day, I respond when asked what country I'm from.
But soon, being then as now, a voracious reader, I faced the knotty problem of finding reading material in a town without any large bookstores. Hurrying down to the local library, I asked what I needed to do to join: pay a small fee and fill out a form.
The library's supply of books in English was quite small, but fortunately they had a couple of bookcases full of books in French, including a lot of Georges Simenon. So I spent my summer reading through the library's entire supply of Simenon's Maigret novels, some of his others, various memoirs about the war, a memoir by a French doctor, and several French science fiction novel, as well as a French translation of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.As my father was an attorney, I was familiar with the difference between the French legal system and ours: under French law, the accused is guilty until proven innocent, making Maigret's investigations, the ones leading up to his arresting the guilty party, all the more important.
I very much enjoyed my summer reading. You simply never know when being fluent in a foreign language well will come in handy.
About the Author:MuseItUp Publishing and of the companion book of poems, Sand in the Desert.. She is one of six Poetic Museling. Their poetry anthology, Lifelines, was released by Inkspotter Publications last November. She is presently at work on two more novels set in the universe of Relocated.You may visit her website, http://www.margaretfieland.com or http://poetic-muselings.net/. You can find her on Twitter as @madcapmaggie and on Facebook as madcapmaggie.