Abroad: Everyday Life with Ancient Artifacts

As an American, when you study abroad one of the first things you notice is the difference in cultural history between the United States and your abroad country. Chances are, you’re heading to a country that has an existence that is decades, perhaps even centuries, older than America’s. Being in France, this is one of the incredible aspects of European life to which I have become increasingly accustomed.

The France we recognize today has existed since the signing of the Treaty of Verdun in 843 A.D. Before that, the Gauls ruled the land from 52 B.C., and vestiges of the Gallic and Roman empires still exist today in Toulouse, Marseille, Nimes, and other southern French cities. In comparison, the United States roots its prehistory in its Native American ancestry, but our country’s story usually begins with the first permanent English settlement, Jamestown, which was settled in Virginia in 1607 – a full 764 years after the unification of France in 843.

I give you this lecture as a means of historical perspective. I have seen some pretty amazing things here in Toulouse that all relate to this history. For example, the city, like many European cities, used to have a wall that surrounded its perimeter to keep out unwanted guests. Remnants of the wall still exist on some of Toulouse’s streets. The base of the wall, right up next to the sidewalk, has a Plexiglas casing around it. This is because the base of the wall dates all the way back to the Roman Empire, and it still stands today, not ten inches from where I walk to class each and every week. You find the same phenomenon with buildings as well. The churches date back to the 14th and 15th century, and there are stone towers throughout the Toulouse that used to guard the center of the city – these date back to the 7th and 8th century. The amazing part is that these towers sit in between apartment buildings and downtown stores and restaurants, and just stand there today as strong as they were when they protected Toulousains from bandits and marauders.

You see the antiquity of Europe no matter where you are. The buildings are older, the streets are older, the history is older. There is even a multitude of languages within one country. For example, France’s national language is, of course, French – but there are more than 30 regional languages across the land. The regional language of the Toulouse area is Occitan. Toulouse attempts to preserve this cultural tradition by posting street and metro signs in both French and Occitan, and there are museums and historical societies dedicated to Occitan and its culture. But knowledge of the language is rare and increasingly so, and it will not be long before it is extinct.

All of this may seem obvious to you – yes, Europe is old and there are castles and walls and churches, blah blah. But if you really think about that, comparing its age to that of the United States, it really is amazing. This means that most European countries have hundreds of years of history – wars, treaties, disagreements, land changes, culture – that America doesn’t have. This really defines who we are as a nation and how we handle our international exchanges with Europe. But it also makes me extremely proud to be from the United States, where we have built so much and gone so far in so little time comparatively.