UCEAP Alumni and Friends


by Emma Warshaw

Studying abroad can really be a strange time in any student’s life. On the one hand, you travel on the cheap, crashing in hostels with your friends and mildly concerning but probably harmless other travelers. On the other hand, opportunities for once-in-a-lifetime adventure present themselves at random, leading to some of the most sublime and inspiring trips you will ever have. For me, this past November was the latter: I checked a box on my bucket list and participated in the olive harvest at a family-run farm in the Luberon Valley of Provence. As if my biology nerd self wasn’t already thrilled enough to be romping around in nature and talking about the chemistry of olive oil, I was also hosted by Thomas and Sophie, two of the nicest and most interesting people I’ve ever met who also happen to be University of California alumni.

Early in the morning, just as the fog was starting to clear and the Provençal sun was beginning to shine through, the other two UCEAP Lyon students and I arrived at the train station, bleary-eyed but excited.

“You must be the UC kids,” said a man. We turned around to see Thomas waiting there, a big smile on his face and a bag of fresh pain au chocolat in hand, ready to show us the Luberon Valley that he loves so much.

As we drove to the farm, Thomas told us the story of how he and Sophie met. While an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz, Thomas decided to go to St. Andrews University in Scotland for his UCEAP experience. Within the first semester, he met Sophie, a French exchange student also studying at St. Andrews but for the semester. Eventually, Thomas had to return to California to graduate and then attend UCLA for graduate school. He and Sophie stayed together and when he suggested she move to Los Angeles with him, she agreed. Sophie also enrolled in a master’s program at UCLA and the rest, as they say, is history.

As we drove along, we arrived in Grambois, the tiny village where Piégros, Thomas and Sophie’s olive farm, is located. Thomas took a quick left onto a dirt road and we bounced along for about a mile to reach the house, the dense forest eventually giving way to the spectacular farm. The house sits on 85 acres of land, nestled into a valley and accessed only by a private road. Currently, the farm boasts about 3100 olive trees as well as honey farming and bee keeping operations during the summer months. To the west is a spectacular sunset view every single day. At night, the perfect seclusion of the farm allows for star gazing and moonlit walks in the olive groves. Piégros is, quite simply, paradise.

As the weekend went on, we hand-picked olives and helped cook large family meals for a house full of friends. We jumped on the back of tractors to ride around the farm and went to tour the olive oil mill. Every day, we dipped fresh baguette and croissant in Piégros’ gold-medal winning olive oil, steadily ruining all of our abilities to eat any other olive oil ever again. Later, Sophie took us on a backroads trip around Provence, showing us beautiful villages that I will never be able to find again on my own and a spectacular view of the French Alps covered in snow.

On Saturday afternoon, Thomas and Sophie held their annual Thanksgiving lunch, a much-anticipated event for their friends and family every year. It was a traditional Thanksgiving meal with a French twist, and by that I mean a turkey they somehow found in France, which is much easier said than done, and gratin potatoes followed by Sophie’s homemade brownies.

As I sat there eating this incredible meal under the sun in Provence, I struck me how surreal the whole weekend was. Thomas and Sophie very clearly value study abroad experiences: a UCEAP trip decades ago quite literally changed the entire course of their lives, but the more impressive thing was that they managed to coincidentally make friends with other UC alumni on the other side of the world. As I sat there eating, I listened to their friends tell stories of their own UC study abroad adventures and describe the lives they set up for themselves throughout Europe after earning their degrees.

Overall, the weekend was sublime, but also an inspiring and much needed trip for me. This spring, I’ll be graduating and moving on from my undergraduate years at UC Davis. While my time with UCEAP in Lyon has been a few of the most memorable months of my life, the idea of having to leave France is heartbreaking. In the back of my mind, I know that I can come back and even live here in the future, but the idea of accomplishing that entirely alone, without the safety and security of an organized school trip, is daunting, to say the least.

This weekend with Thomas and Sophie made the idea far less terrifying. They have taken their world-class UC education and created an amazing life for themselves in Europe while also joining the global UC community. Now, they take in current students to show us what’s really possible. I think that’s probably the true power of a UC education: yes, we all end up book smart, but we also become part of a larger community that takes care of its’ own, no matter what country we’re in.

Pictured below: Emma Warshaw (UC Davis), Owen Braithwaite (UCLA) and Lauren Cameron (UCLA)


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