When I began my Fulbright year to France, I hardly knew anyone in Paris and was alone at my host institution, Ecole Polytechnique. My master’s program was largely international and taught in English. I was disappointed to find that there was no contact between my program and the famous “polytechnicien” students – the ones that march the Champs-Elysees in uniform every July 14th. After all, one of my main reasons for coming to France was to integrate with the local community and improve my language skills. I realized I would have to make an effort to fit in.
My first push was to sit with random students at the cafeteria. I learned that the group I met had been involved with the school musical the previous year, and they encouraged me to audition to be a dancer the following week! I had ample free time and nothing to lose, so I threw myself into it. The play was Moulin Rouge – and what a dream it would be to dance the French can-can while living in Paris!
The audition and beginning were challenging since everybody knew each other well and they were not particularly interested in an unfamiliar American master student. How could I integrate into a group that lived together, played sports together, took classes together, and even did military training together? I could barely follow their conversations – not because they were in French, but because they included a million acronyms referring to Polytechnique’s associations and traditions. The spins in rehearsal made me nauseous, and I felt like an outsider.
But slowly over several months, the others got used to seeing and dancing with me. They started saying hello on campus, inviting me for lunch, and even offering a place to sleep during long rehearsal weekends. Rehearsals became more fun as dancing brought us together. In a school of only fifteen percent women, I was especially happy to find a supportive female community.
During the preparation, I became very impressed by the other students who put the whole production together themselves. From the costume design, to the orchestra and live filming – as well as the amazing singers, actors, acrobats, and choreographers – students ran the whole production. It was a great community because we were working towards a common goal, and everybody was talented and motivated. I was particularly inspired to see so many top engineering students involved in a creative production.
In the end, our hard work throughout the year paid off and the musical was a huge success. My favorite moment was dancing the can-can in the spotlight with my frilly skirt. I knew that my Fulbright friends were in the audience, but I was also honored to be part of this incredible group. The show may be over, but I will be excited to see my friends march next Bastille Day on the Champs-Elysees. The lessons I learned will also stay with me – don’t overlook chance encounters, push myself to do things that make me uncomfortable, and keep dancing!
Leanne Block – Fulbright to France 2017