Benjamin Revol, a native of Oraison in the south of France, is spending the year as a resident assistant at the French House. His job: to engage the residents and community through the French language. Before returning to Aix to complete his PhD, he’s happy to be sharing his language and culture and discovering life in Madison!
Where did you grow up and what is life like there?
I grew up in a town called Oraison that’s located in the Alpes de Haut Provence. It’s a very small town in the countryside where there isn’t much to do and everybody knows each other. There’s a small middle school so we all grew up together until we went away to the lycée. I was always interested in traveling and getting away. At the time, the internet hadn’t reached us (I didn’t have internet till I was 15 or 16) so we only had TV. We felt a lot less connected and a lot more remote. That’s something I talk about with the residents now.
You recently completed your Masters ACMA Etudes Anglophones in History and American Literature from Aix-Marseille University. What drew you to this field of study?
After high school, I went straight to university to study French. I actually dropped out because I wasn’t interested in the classes. I worked odd jobs for a few years and lived in Paris and London, which is very close and very convenient for French people.
After I while I wanted to start studying again, and I was always good at English, I’ve always loved it. Living in a small town, English was a gateway to the larger world. And obviously a major culture that speaks English is the United States. I’ve also always liked reading, especially French and American literature. So I went back to university and started a degree in English and went on to study literature, civilization, and history. The program at Aix-Marseille Université is really ambitious and challenging, and we have great professors. That’s what really made me want to do research and become a professor, my time at the university in Aix. It was a great environment to work in – in spite of the derelict buildings!
What’s one thing you appreciate about American culture?
One thing I appreciate is how varied the US is, there are a lot of differences, and yet it’s quite homogenous at the same time. You can come across something American, and say that it’s American, but at the same time there are a lot of variations. One specific thing would be literature. We always talk about Hemingway or Fitzgerald, but then there’s the Harlem Renaissance movement of the 1920s, or the underground poets of the 60s. Nowadays there’s lots of creative literature being done. I feel Americans are very creative and positive, while the French are a bit more conservative and a lot more negative. But maybe that’s a good thing sometimes, too, being realistic. Americans are always looking for ways to improve things without wanting to keep everything the way it is.
You’ve spent most of your time in the Midwest. What did you know about the region before arriving?
At first, I thought it was going to be boring! I thought there wouldn’t be much going on, but I didn’t have a clear idea. I also thought it would look too similar to where I come from. But when I got here, I started making friends really quickly. You’re in a university environment which is very inclusive so you don’t really feel alone, there’s always something to do, and there are people from all over the world. There are people from the east coast and Chicago who, even though they’re from the Midwest, come from a big metropolis. You also have a lot of international students which is really cool. Playing soccer, for example, really helped me make friends outside of class.
What are your impressions now that you’re here?
Now that I’m here, I know that it’s not boring! You get to see a part of America that you don’t get to see when you’re in France because we mainly hear about the coasts. Being here, you could say that Midwesterners are different than others. They are polite and have a culture of their own. You get to meet people and learn about them, and as a student of the English-speaking world, it’s a great thing to experience. In addition, the American university is a great environment, it’s much better than anything we have in France, in terms of an educational environment. The infrastructure is amazing as well, the libraries especially!
You’re teaching beginners French at the UW for the first time. How’s that going?
It’s going great, I love it. I was really wondering if I would since I want to be an academic. I knew I wanted to do research, but I still didn’t know whether I would like teaching. I think, as a first experience, it’s been very successful for me personally. I really feel good in this position. The relationship with the class is very fulfilling – and challenging! I’m usually really happy to go to work. The hardest part is all the administration that comes with it. That’s where I’m not very good. I’m not very organized!
What’s one thing your fellow French House residents or students have taught you?
That in order to have a good conversation, you have to listen before talking. Or you have to listen a lot more than you talk. I wasn’t too good at small talk before coming here, so I really had to learn that, and to learn on the job, because my job is basically to talk all the time. I thought I might have to prepare things to talk about and, as I told you, I’m not very organized, so I didn’t want to have to plan anything in advance. What I’ve learned is that people want to talk and you just have to ask questions. And little by little the conversation takes on a life of its own, it goes somewhere else, somebody else keeps it going. So I’m trying to listen as hard as I can.
The south of France has some of the best outdoor markets in the world. Have you been to Madison’s market on the Capitol Square?
No. I’ve heard about it and I wanted to go, but I was busy the first few weeks of the semester and then we’ve had bad weather. I didn’t even know there was one initially! But I’m definitely going. Do they have cheese curds? (Yes)
Right now, we are in the midst of UW Homecoming, apple picking season, and Halloween preparations. What is October like in Aix? What are people doing?
We’re just getting into the school year because the university starts later than it does here. It starts mid-September and usually we have a Welcome Week in late September, so October is really when you’re getting into the thick of it. Vacation is over, you’re starting the school year, things are getting serious. And usually the weather shifts and people start thinking about winter and about Halloween a little bit, but a lot less than in America. There’s usually a week of holiday around this time, too. Personally, I don’t really like October. It’s so gloomy after having so much sun for the past six months and living outside. October is really about getting to work and getting back to ‘real life.’
What’s one thing you want to accomplish in the next 5 years?
I want to pass the Agrégation (a difficult exam one has to pass in order to work in the public education system in France) and get my PhD. It takes one year for the Agrégation and four for a PhD. So another five years of working and studying. This year is kind of a hiatus, I’m working but I’m not getting ahead in my studies. And it feels really good because I get to improve my interpersonal skills, work as a teacher, discover Madison, live in America. It’s pretty fulfilling.