I studied away through IES Abroad in Nantes, a large city in north-western France, in fall 2011. When I told people where I was going, they assumed Nantes was a small town in the quaint French countryside -- wrong. It is the sixth largest city in France with a rich cultural history as the ancient capital of Brittany.
Choosing Nantes was the perfect decision for me. I knew I still wanted a large urban experience, but I wanted to have an experience beyond Paris. IES Nantes offered students classes within its program (only 68 Americans total), classes at the University of Nantes, and even electives at the Universite des Beaux-Arts, Nantes. I took advantage of all 3 opportunities, taking the maximum number of credits and taking 4 classes with IES, 1 at the University, and 1 live model drawing class.
After class, I went home to my host family. IES Nantes requires that all students participate in homestays. I was assigned to a young, artistic family with 3 sons, ages 7, 14, and 16. Needless to say, I was nervous at first, but this aspect of my experience turned out to be the most rewarding element by far. I was taken on family outings, trips to their beach house on the Atlantic coast, and introduced to countless delicious French home-made meals.
Meeting French students was difficult, but I was able to make French friends through IES Nantes English/French weekly conversation group, and oddly enough, with students I met on the Nantes tram. I had to be outgoing and risk that my French wouldn't come out perfect, but in the last month of my experience, I branched out of the clump of Americans I had settled into and managed to immerse myself in French student life. Unfortunately this took time, so I would definitely recommend considering a full year abroad, if your Bowdoin degree plans allow for it.
I will never forget my daily pastry runs at le Boulangerie d'Antan, sunset jogs on the banks of the Loire, and nightly discussions over tea (une petite tisane, as she called it) with my dear host mother.