Life in France is irresistible to alumna Ruth Redhead
By Linda Shapiro
Alumna Ruth Redhead has led two lives for more than 50 years. She has divided her time between France and the United States, relishing the differences between the two cultures. While she taught French at South Dakota State University from 1963 to 1993 and has lived in Minneapolis since 1995, she frequently travels to France. "Life is slower in France," she says. "People take a long time for meals and strolls. There are lively public gardens to read and walk in," says Redhead
When she is in Paris, Redhead stays in the lively Fifth Arrondissement. "I have housing with shops nearby," she says, "and I'm near the Luxembourg Gardens, away from traffic and tourists, but close enough to walk everywhere. Transportation is so easy--I can go anywhere. I attend courses at the nearby Collège de France, where anyone can go for free. It was established by Cardinal Richelieu in the 17th century."
Redhead received a Ph.D. in French from the University of Minnesota in 1971 after studying at the University of Vermont and in Grenoble, France. Her area of concentration under Professor Armand Renaud was 17th-century French literature. "My thesis was on Madame de Lafayette, a woman who was liberated for her time. She lived in Paris, while her husband resided at their château in the country," says Redhead. "She wrote four successful novels that were, of course, published anonymously, had her own salon, and was a close friend of Madame de Sévigné."
Redhead's peripatetic life, lively curiosity, and independent spirit are reminiscent of Madame de Lafayette and the influential women who enlivened French cultural and intellectual life in the 17th century. After earning a master's degree from the University of Vermont in 1954, she returned to Grenoble, where she had studied French, to take up philosophy. During her teaching years she traveled frequently to France, spending two sabbaticals to do research and write several articles and a book and often taking students on summer study trips. She recommends that students spend as much time studying and living abroad as possible.
"It's important to go to a place where you are forced to use the language. I went to Grenoble in the 1950s because there were few Americans and English speakers there," says Redhead. She recommends that students stay with a French family and become "part of the life" by making French friends. "And students need to take courses that will really make them work," she says.
Why should students today consider a degree in French? "Besides the fact that it is such a beautiful language, the literature is very rich and rewarding. French is spoken in many countries all around the world," says Redhead. She points out that French equips students for jobs in a variety of fields; one of her former students became an investment banker in Switzerland.
"Because the French are well-versed in the history and literature of their country, the language is an entrée into the culture," says Redhead. She goes on to describe some of the differences between French and American culture. American friendships are more casual, she says. But although it is more difficult to make friends in France, "once you make them, you really keep them." Redhead is still in touch with the daughter of the family she stayed with in the 1950s. She also points out the emphasis on aesthetics in every area of French life. "Of course, there is an emphasis on cultural events like plays, concerts, expositions," says Redhead. But the appreciation of beauty and intellectual stimulation extends to everyday life: exquisitely arranged shop windows, excellent cuisine, invigorating conversation around a variety of topics. As Redhead puts it, "Even the bridges are beautiful."