Tomorrow marks the beginning of my second week as an editorial intern at L’Indépendant, a local newspaper in Saint-Omer, France. Since my abrupt exit from the worlds of Instagram and Snapchat, there has been some confusion about where I’m currently located and what exactly I’m doing, so I invite you to read on to find out.
This summer, I am spending six weeks in the north of France, in a small town near the Belgian border (and I mean, small, total population about 15,000). I’m here as part of the John Carroll Summer Internship Program hosted by the Georgetown University French Department and the government of Saint-Omer every summer since 2016. The program brings interested Georgetown students to Saint-Omer and places them in local organizations that volunteer to take on American interns. The entire program is completely free, except for the round-trip ticket to/from Saint-Omer. We are all placed with host families, who also volunteer to welcome complete strangers into their homes for six weeks and receive nothing in return, which is perhaps the most incredible and generous thing I’ve ever encountered. Why Saint-Omer? As it turns out, Georgetown University’s founder John Carroll attended the Jesuit College here in the 1740s thanks to British prosecution of Jesuits on their territory, the American colonies included. A local history enthusiast rediscovered this unlikely connection between her town and Washington, D.C., and soon the program was born. How do I know all of this? The first article I wrote for L’Indépendant was about our program, so I am armed with fun facts about John Carroll.
The newspaper I work in (aka the only newspaper in the area) has been around since the mid-19th century. I actually found an article they wrote about Napoleon III’s visit to Saint-Omer in the archives last week. The building in which the paper was originally housed is still around, bearing L’Indépendant’s window sign. The newsroom has since moved, but not very far. Having worked in a local American newsroom a few years ago, I was particularly interested to see how the two would compare. My most immediate observation on my first day was that the smell of burned, stale black coffee seems to be universal to newsrooms everywhere. A classic French cultural quirk is the obligation to enter every office and peruse every nook and cranny for your co-workers in the morning in order to say hello and give them a mandatory kiss on both cheeks. The ritual makes it hard to feel awkward about asking the way to the bathroom on your first day; no ice breakers needed.
For all the panic among American journalists about the slow death of their craft, I can tell you that print journalism is alive and well in Saint-Omer. In fact, my boss explained to me that local businesses are wary of buying online ads and typically opt for the conventional paper route when approached by the ad team. L’Indépendant does have a website, but they only use it as a means of promoting their print edition and don’t post the majority of their weekly stories online. They do run a pretty up-to-date Twitter reporting all the local happenings.
So far, I have attended multiple court hearings, sat in on a meeting with every town mayor within a 20-mile radius, and made my editor crack up by poking fun at Americans’ terrible geography skills in my article. Written in French, just to reiterate. I’m pretty proud of that part. So proud that I pinned that story on my Twitter. Check back next week to see if I’ve made a fool of myself while trying to interview a local!
The best way to describe the town of Saint-Omer itself is serene, but loaded with history. Just this weekend, I visited La Coupole, a WW2 bunker complex constructed by the Nazis during French occupation. It was designed to serve as a launch base of V-2 rockets, which were intended to be used against England. Touring the facilities and being confronted with a replica of those rockets makes you really glad that the Germans never succeeded (for this and many other reasons). In this bunker-museum, every American visitor also gets to face the fact that one of the key figures behind Apollo and U.S. space industry development during the Cold War was none other than a former S.S. officer, Wernher Von Braun, whom the American military secretly brought to the States after the end of the war. Von Braun even managed to become a naturalized American citizen. The most chilling part of the exhibit is a timeline of Von Braun’s life, from his visits to the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp, whose inmates were used as slave laborers in the rocket program Von Braun was heavily involved in, to his naturalization as an American citizen only ten years later. I leave it to you to make your judgment on the morality of placing scientific advancement over criminal accountability, especially when we remember the extent and horror of those crimes.
On a more cheerful note, another one of Saint-Omer’s main attractions are its UNESCO-protected swamplands, which I will have a chance to visit on Wednesday. I’ll be sure to report exactly what is so special about these swamps and why exactly they need protection.
Although it’s only been a week, I am certainly enjoying my time here so far and I am excited to share more updates with you all in the coming weeks!