I can’t believe that I have already reached the half-way point of my stay here on La Réunion, a tiny island in the Indian Ocean a good distance off the coast of Madagascar. There are many pros and cons of living on a tropical island. Pros: beaches, mountains, hiking, waterfalls, and volcanoes. Cons: the islanders have their own ways of doing things, and there is nothing you can do about it; you have to adapt.
First of all, time exists on a different plane on La Réunion. If you are given a time to be somewhere, as a general rule, you show up ten or fifteen minutes late. It’s okay; everyone does it. The islanders definitely take the French “Fifteen Minute Rule” to heart. Also, you have to abandon the notion (commonly held by many Americans) of a store or shop that is open 24/7. In fact, many places don’t open until eight, nine, or even ten in the morning. Then, they close a few hours for lunch, and then reopen for a few hours in the afternoon, and then close for the rest of the night. Also, they are not open as many hours on weekends as they are on weekdays. Buses stop running around seven or eight at night. The lesson to be learned from this is that you can’t take things for granted. Don’t expect a place to be open; don’t expect a bus to be running or be on time; because, it probably won’t be. It is important to not be too adamant about your plans. You have to be flexible, because, trust me, your plans will be changed.
As a foreign student, the single hardest thing to get used to on the island is the university. For someone who has enjoyed the structure and organization of an American university for the past three years, it has been very frustrating to deal with the disorganization that plagues Université de la Réunion. As a foreign student, you can expect to spend your first month here at the university trying to organize your class schedule. All classes don’t begin on the same week as they do in America. In fact, some classes start one, two, three, or even four weeks later than others. Also, beware that classes can change rooms and times at anytime. I found that religiously checking the department bulletin board for posted notices is the best way to keep track of changes. Don’t expect any other form of communication.
Learning French on the island is an emotional rollercoaster ride. Within a single course of a day, you will meet and talk to someone and be able to understand almost everything, and then you will meet someone else and barely be able to understand anything. Just when you believe that you are finally getting the hang of it, reality sinks in, and your confidence is shattered. The Islanders speak Reunion Creole, and when they speak French, their Creole accents and use of Creole vocabulary can be quite strong and can make things difficult to understand.
But even though being a foreign student who is learning a different language can be quite frustrating, you just have to remember that there is always light at the end of the tunnel, or more appropriately, there is always a beach on the other side of the island.