After visiting France in high school, Linfield College senior Katherine Thomas knew she wanted to experience the rest of France as a study abroad student in college. Thomas achieved this dream last spring when she spent a year in Marseille.
“Marseille is the city of contradictions for many reasons, both political and social,” said Thomas, a French and international relations double major from Washougal, Wash. “When most Americans think of France they think of glamour, Paris, architecture. When they come to Marseille, they are sometimes disappointed or at least surprised. Because of the concentrated North African immigrant population, there are certain parts of Marseille that do not feel like France at all.”
Thomas lived in the Noailles neighborhood, which is primarily populated by North African and West African immigrant. In this area, Thomas heard more people speaking Arabic and Wolof than French.
“The Noailles outdoor market for which Marseille is known is honestly like a little chunk of Morocco or Algeria plopped in the middle of Marseille,” said Thomas. “It’s dirty, it’s smelly, it’s loud, it’s chaotic, busy and out of order. The whole atmosphere is totally and completely not French, but it’s awesome.”
The entire city is permeated with this feeling, according to Thomas, who recalled sitting in her room near an open window one evening, listening to an Arab family across the street chanting and clapping to a song in Arabic.
“It made me smile because I knew that was such a unique thing to hear for someone who lives and goes to school in McMinnville,” Thomas said.
Once she is done with undergraduate studies at Linfield, Thomas plans to move to Portland and work with a non-profit, humanitarian group or international relations organization. She also hopes to visit France again someday and teach English.
“Each person I met in Marseille − whether they became an acquaintance, best friend or simply a stranger I spoke to, I valued the conversation I had with each given person because their story or their conversation became a part of my story,” she said. “I felt as if each time I met someone knew I was digging deeper, integrating further, rooting myself more into the heart of the city.”
Thomas said the experience has boosted her confidence and made her more comfortable in whatever setting she finds herself.
“I try to see each place I am at as a chance to dig deeper and get to know people more, learn their story, to invest in others,” she added. “Studying abroad definitely had that impact on me. It also made me realize the unpredictability of life and the way things usually never go as planned, for better and for worse.”
by Alyssa Townsend ’15