Withow Leadership Scholars

One of the best times that I’ve had in France was—ironically—with a bunch of Americans. I belong to an on-campus group at OU called the Withrow Leadership Scholars, which is housed under the College of Arts and Sciences. Before I went to France, I knew that the group would be arriving in Clermont at the end of the semester. It seemed convenient when I applied, but I had forgotten to consider my final exams. It took forever for my professors to get the exam schedule to us, and unfortunately (but unsurprisingly), there was a conflict.

The LS group was scheduled to spend the first few days in France in Paris, and I was determined to go. Despite having spent nearly six months in France, I had only spent a total of six hours in Paris. And that was not enough time to truly enjoy the place. I’d seen the base of the Eiffel Tower, and Notre Dame’s façade, and that was all. The final day in Paris was also the first day of my exams, which meant I’d have to get back to Clermont overnight if I was going to have the best of both worlds. After a lot of back and forth between Rhonda Kyncl and my primary professor, Elodie, with me acting as the liaison, I was able to book my tickets and meet my group in Paris.

The very first day we met up, with everyone arriving at different times. It took the better part of the day for everyone to arrive. In the meantime, we spent some time in the plaza near Notre Dame. But once the entire group arrived, we were all checked into our hotels—I was staying at the historic Normandy Hotel with two other girls whom I’d never met before but who were actually very nice. Then we followed our guide, Christophe, who lives in Clermont but met with us in Paris because he was one of the first French students to come to OU in the 90’s under the university exchange program, to the subway. We disembarked in front of an unassuming restaurant, and I walked in, laughing and joking with my new friends. Little did I know that I was in for the best meal of my life.

Our donor had rented out “La Petite Chaise” and paid for a four-course dinner for our entire group of 26 people. It turned out that “La Petite Chaise” is the oldest restaurant in Paris, and it had been established in 1610. As I had a spirited political debate with the only member of our group who was a Trump supporter, one of our group members pointed out how amazing it was that we were having political debates in a place where hundreds of political debates must have occurred, in dozens of languages, over nearly 400 years. We all got quiet after that and just thought about it. I was also just so grateful to even be a part of this—I was only able to participate in something so great, so timeless and yet new, and so delicious because someone saw something worthwhile in me and chose me to be a part of this organization.

The other best parts of Paris for me were the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay—two historic art museums that house some of the most beautiful, most awe-inspiring, and most influential works in the world. I’m the kind of person who shamelessly cries at art. It’s just overwhelming to think that someone created something so aesthetically pleasing—or in some cases, so meaningful—that their own generation and generations thereafter just felt compelled to preserve it, to admire it, and to encourage others to admire it. Even though I was happy to have made new friends in my group, they weren’t really conducive to my having my transcendent experience in the Louvre. We all had certain works that we wanted to see, and we argued about the best way to get to most of everything that everyone wanted to see within the allotted time. Some people’s desired exhibits were closed, which was a little frustrating, because the Louvre is freaking huge. There’s no eloquent way to impart how big the Louvre is. You could probably spend a week in there and still not see everything.

It didn’t matter, though, because although I didn’t get to stand in one place contemplating the timeless aspect of beauty and poignancy for ten to twenty minutes, I did get to experience with my own eyes some of the most amazing works of art in history and the world, including the Mona Lisa (which was horribly crowded and a little frustrating to get to), and later, in the Musée d’Orsay various works of Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh is my favorite artist, even though I couldn’t truly enjoy Vincent’s Starry Night or self-portrait because my feet were hurting so badly from the trek in the Louvre.

After that, my new friends and I went for lunch in a little alley near Notre Dame, and found a Reggaeton/Latino club in the heart of Paris! —which was interesting to me and exciting for two of our group members, both of whom are of Latino heritage. We went back to the hotel for a quick nap, mostly because we were full but also because the sun was so draining, and then we went back to the Latin club with a few other members of our group. We were the loudest, most enthusiastic dancers in the place, and we had a lot of fans. “Grinding” is not a thing in Europe, so we were sort of the “naughty” Americans for dancing on each other. It was funny, and entertaining for us and for the others in the small bar/pub. Despite our need to wake up early in the morning for a hop-on/hop-off bus tour of Paris, we stayed out late. My feet were killing me again, so even though we were only twenty minutes from the hotel by foot, I hailed a cab and took whoever wanted to ride with me.

After another day in Paris, with great food and a good time with friends, I had to leave a day early because of my finals. In fact, for the next week I had to miss several activities with LS. They took a walking tour of Clermont, wherein the history of several areas that I’d been walking by for months was given by the tour guide—I had an exam. They hiked the Puy-de-Dome and went to a Renaissance fair—I had an exam. They got to go to this bouncing/climbing warehouse—I had yet another exam. Luckily, I didn’t really feel like doing most of that stuff anyway. By the time I had finished my finals, the fun had begun.

The day that I finished my final exam, I ran back to the dorm to meet my group. They’d stalled the bus for me, and I was grateful because that was the first of a series of once-in-a-lifetime experiences that would span over the rest of the time that the LS was in Clermont. We first went to the Michelin Museum, which I thought would be boring, but turned out to be interesting as well as informative. I was so pleasantly surprised that I bought a t-shirt to commemorate it. From there, we boarded the bus again and drove out of town. I hadn’t been privy to the conversations wherein our itinerary had been detailed the day before, on account of my tests, so I had no idea where we were going. But I was certainly not expecting to pull up to a castle.

A short man, who turned out be the owner of the castle, met us at the end of the long walkway. He bought the property back when it was practically a ruin but has since spent an unfathomable amount of money restoring it to its former glory. He invited us in, and I took a ton of pictures of us just walking up to the ancient structure. I was lucky enough to be seated at the table with both Rhonda and our host, and we were then served a delicious lunch by actual butlers, complete with coattails and gloves. He served us wine from his family’s winery and ensured that the Muslims in our group were served halal meat or no meat at all. He was incredibly accommodating as well as accomplished, and even though he could be long-winded at times I learned a lot. For example, during the tour of the castle—after coffee on the terrace—I learned that this castle was owned by Catherine de Medici, who married into the French royal family and whose son eventually wed Mary, Queen of Scots. It was honestly amazing to be able to actually walk around in such a place. As someone who loves history, it was honestly an experience that I can’t even begin to consider how to replicate.

The second once-in-a-lifetime experience that I owe to the Withrow Leadership Scholars was being able to have brunch with the mayor at the hôtel de ville, or townhall, of Clermont-Ferrand. The LS were not the only OU students to attend—Global French Global France was there as well, and I believe a group of engineering students also. We got flutes of champagne, little nibbles such as “roulettes,” and several photo ops. In what world would someone as ordinary as myself every get the opportunity to be able to do something like this again.

Thirdly, I was able to go to Lyon with my group and stay in a very nice hotel for about three days. This is not really a “one-in-a-lifetime” opportunity, since I could always take a trip to Lyon—eventually. But it was certainly the only way that I was going to be able to visit Lyon during my study abroad semester, since I spent much (well, more honestly, most) of my money on going to Porto for my last our-of-country side trip. To be honest, I’d never thought much about Lyon as a travel destination, but I’ll never make that mistake again. It was hands-down my favorite city in France. I could almost live there; I could definitely retire there. It had lots of shops, lots of activities, lots of historical sites—like Paris, without the anxiety; but it was relaxed without being boring, unlike Clermont, which is one of the sleepiest towns I’ve ever visited. It was amazing: I went shopping, climbed a hill to a basilica, ate delicious street food. Lyon was a dark horse, I didn’t think I’d fall in love with it, but I did, and I can’t wait to go back.

The final activity that the LS group engaged in with our tour guide, and with our entire group (many of us had made separate travel arrangements to other countries or back to the U.S.) was a tasting of the Auvergne region’s cheeses, breads, and most importantly, wines. We met on a Friday morning, took the bus to a banlieue, a suburb, of Clermont. It turns out that Christophe’s parents have a wine cellar, and his father was all too happy to share his collection of Auvergne wines with us. We had reds, whites, rosés—and because we were underground in a 13th century wine cellar, none of us even noticed the fact that we were getting hammered in the morning. Thanks to my studies, I got to participate in conversation with Christophe’s parents—who spoke little to no English and laugh with Rhonda—who is now allowed to drink wine thanks to her recent conversion to Catholicism and take selfies with my friends despite the horrible lighting.

We wandered back to the bus around noon, laughing and generally being a nuisance. Thankfully we were in France, so being wine-drunk in the morning is not terribly frowned upon.

The Withrow Leadership Scholars is a group that I applied to on a whim, with no expectation of actually getting in. But I think that it was the jewel in the crown of my study abroad experience. I was mildly concerned that I would lose all my new-found self-confidence once I was back on U.S. soil. But the “preview” of having two weeks with the other members of LS was enough to convince me that this wasn’t just a six-month fluke. That I really have grown into myself during my time away from home, and even though it’s nearly time to go home, I am more secure in who I am. It took a trip to the other side of the world, but I found myself.

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