2004-05 Outbound to France
Hometown: Gainesville, Florida
School: Gainesville High School
Sponsor: Downtown Gainesville Rotary Club
Host: Bethune-Brunehaut Rotary Club, District 1520, France
September 13 Journal
The trip to France was easy enough, I left Jacksonville saying goodbye to my parents (they handled the situations heroically, no tears or grabbing on to me) and headed to Washington D.C. where I met up with all 65 of the other kids going to Paris from the eastern side of the states. The plane ride was long and cramped, but adrenaline was flowing so forcefully that I swear it went by in 15 minutes.
After arriving in Paris I waited for about 30 minutes for my maman d'acceuil (host mom) to find me. Because she doesn't have a car a Rotarian had to take us home, but before he did he took me on a very short but undeniably sweet tour of Paris. The city is incredible. It is everything the books and movies make it out to be, but it's real! The Rotarians keep saying how impressed they are with my French, but I don't think it's my French, I think it's just the fact that I put forth an effort to communicate. Speaking and understanding is still difficult at this point, and exhausting... but I think well worth it in the end.
My family consists of my mom and my two brothers, myself, and of course the dog (Lisa). We all live in a tiny little house in a tiny little town named Verquin. It's incredible how much alike my brothers here (Nicolas,18 and Julien, 11) to my brothers at home. Verquin is basically just a neighborhood... although I'm not complaining, it has made it very easy to make friends with all the locals. I've found at school and at home all the kids are extremely warm and nice to me. Friends have kind of found me here, the people are great! Only outdone by the food...it's amazing. Too good, I can already feel myself stretching out a bit. Too much cheese and bread I think.
They also have this chocolate fondue stuff... that is cold and ready to eat, on anything called Nutella that I swear will be the death of my figure...ha.
It's dinner time here, so I should go, but I promise to be better about updating my journal as time passes and things start to pick up here. A beintot!
October 12 Journal
I'm starting to feel more at home here. My house is no longer like a hotel, I do the dishes every other day, I mop the floor, I clean rooms... I do laundry, I act like a member of the family. And if I neglect to do one of these chores I get the same scolding my brothers would receive. But honestly I wouldnt have it any other way. The same can be said at school with the kids and teachers alike. I've gotten past the point of marvel for my classmates. They don't stare at me when I walk in the room anymore, or fall out of their seats trying to help me if I drop my pen (this actually happened once), they say good morning to me in the same fashion as all the others... with 2 sloppy, sleepy kisses on the cheeks and a quite, unconcerned "ça-va?" But I think what they don't realize that they are doing for me is making me feel like a kid in their class, not like a strangely dressed American girl, but like a motivated French student... or as motivated as I can be oblivious to what's going on around me. My teachers all have unique ways of dealing with me that vary greatly from really rather nastily harsh to almost warm and motherly. I still can't understand about 80% of what the profs are talking about during class, but strangely enough I don't seem to have the same problem with the students. A strange phenomenon.
My host Rotary Club in Béthune is really amazing. There are roughly 40 members of the club and only two exchanges, myself and Eileen (a great girl from New Zealand) so we get treated like little princesses. Every Thursday we go to this 14th century castle turned restaurant for the weekly Rotary meeting. The meeting itself is rarely a time of great interest for Eileen and myself. We have to give a quick 5 minute speech at the beginning of each meeting but after that we can concentrate on the 7 course meal being served to us on silver platters (real silver platters, not the expression).
Apart from every Thursday my Rotary councileur, Gérard, takes us to Paris as often as he can find an excuse to. Last weekend it was to watch the biggest horse race in the world, the Grand Prix de l'Arc de Triumph. I also spend a lot of time in Lille, bowling or shopping...really one doesn't need an excuse to go to Lille other than it's an amazing city. The city is always doing something different. Last year they renovated every building and made the entire HUGE city look like ancient China. This year they turned centre Lille into an enormous jungle. Complete with animal and rain noises when you enter any store and canopies of live trees. I've also been to Belgium for a kayaking expedition (25 km's!) and this school break I hope to go visit Germany. It still shocks me how easy it is to travel in Europe. Every country is just a train ride away and passports are almost always not needed.
I haven't felt much of any home sickness my first 5 weeks here. I miss the Florida sun, its really unreasonably cold here...there has to be someone I can talk to about the temperature because 4°C is just crazy for October. Although I know I can't really be complaining with Meryn already getting to play with snow and Matt trekking to school every day in his ice boots, but all the same...way too cold for this Floridian. I miss being able to make jokes, funny jokes that is. The humor here is extremely different. Sarcasm doesn't exist... at least not in the ways I've been trying to use it. And believe me I've tried, but all of my attempts bomb miserably. When my host mom asked me if I was cold, I told her as blatantly sarcastically as I could muster "ah non, il fait chaud!" so she turned off all the heating in the house and I woke up in the morning able to see my breath. I haven't attempted sarcasm since. I miss being able to be the leader in class or with my friends. And I miss being able to help people out when they have a problem or comfort someone when they really need it. My friend's dad died yesterday in a car accident. And what do I say to him? "ça-va" would be an insult. "Je suis désolé" just doesn't seem to cut it. I don't yet have the vocabulary to be anything other than a pitiful attempt for him, and that's harder for me than anything else here has been so far. I think living without those little advantages I took for granted surrounded by people who spoke the same language as me will just make me try harder to help out the disadvantaged when I get home.
November 8 Journal
Wow, I miss being able to say that...the last time I tried I was with 2 Aussies, a Kiwi (the name for people from New Zealand), 2 Mexicans, and a Colombian and they made fun of me. I guess the dignified culture of southern United States is a refined taste. They don't know what they're missing...ha.
So, it's been more than 2 months since I've arrived here! crazy huh? I've been reading the other exchanges journals and we all seem to be saying the same thing, that time passes you by without the courtesy of letting you know...so it must be true. I've been doing my best to make the most out of my days here, I promised myself at the beginning of my exchange that I wouldn't sit too idly for a long period of time and I think I've been fairly successful so far. The most recent exciting news I can provide is that for the last school vacation I took a trip to Switzerland!
We went to Paris in the morning and spent the day there doing things that one can do in Paris. Before that day I had blindly loved Paris in the way that most tourists love Paris. I would marvel at the buildings and get all excited and revved up with my camera and my tennis shoes to see the sights. But a couple weeks ago I was rather violently forced to see the other side of Paris. The real side of Paris as one might say. Eileen and I were on the métro going back to meet up with our friends in the youth hostel when we noticed two guys hunched over another rather intimidated looking kid of about 19 or 20 from what it looked like. Eileen and I both guessed right away, correctly, that we were watching this poor kid get mugged on the métro only 5 or so feet away. We were completely helpless to do something.
Frankly, two teenage girls alone in Paris cant really afford to get mixed up in that situation. But what bothered me more was that no one else on the train made any effort to help, and it was obvious that everyone noticed as we had. Once the métro was slowing to the next stop the guy who was so obviously being mugged stood up and punched one of his attackers in the face. A fight broke out then and Eileen just kinda stood there watching...shocked out of moving. I pushed her through the door and we, along with all the other passengers in our car ran out of the train and into the Paris street. We looked back just long enough to see that the 3 men had remained on the train and that the young man was clearly fighting a losing battle outnumbered and left on his own on the métro. I felt horrible about it, and I still do...but what could I have rationally done?
Walking out of the métro that night I seemed to noticed more than I had ever before the amount of starving and sick people on the streets. All the kids, and women, and men begging for a little scrap to eat or some money. That day in Paris was spent more productively than the day that I spent 4 hours in the Louvre, or the day I walked up the l'Arc de Triumph or the Eiffel Tower. The real world seeped through my golden image of the "city of love" that day...and although it scared me it also helped me realize that I'm not a tourist here, that I don't have a tour guide or parents to usher me along or hold my hand.
It's all part of the process I think, but thanks to that rather traumatic experience on the train I actually have an exact moment this year that I realized that I'm taking care of myself here, and that I need to do a good job.
On a much lighter note...the trip to Switzerland was amazing! It was so freeing organizing and traveling all by our lonesomes. The first day we were in Switzerland we took the 4 hour train ride to Winterthur, where Sybelle, an exchange student in Eileen's house last year, lives. Her family was so unbelievably welcoming to us. We walked in to our room to find Swiss chocolats on our bed and upstairs to find a classically Swiss meal, that also happens to be a specialty of northern France, called "roclette." which is basically just fancy talk for melted cheese over potatoes...yummmyyy...In the morning we went to see a really awesome castle that was originally built for the Hapsburg dynasty. Fascinating huh? I got to exercise that wonderful little Rotary smile and exclamation of amazement for you Al, I know you would've been proud. We then spent the day in Zurich buying lots and lots of chocolat and eating most of it. Monica can tell you all that Eileen and I ate more chocolat than could rightly fit in our stomachs. She laughed at us, but on the inside I knew she was just jealous at all the weight I was gaining. (Don't worry Monica, when you come to France...which you are doing you have no choice...we will stuff coffee, bagette, cheese, and nutella down your throat)
The next morning we woke up ungodly early and drove with Sybelle and her dad to Mt. Titlus to climb the coolest mountain in the Swiss Alps. It was super duper extraordinarily cold on the mountain. Eileen and I had kinda assumed that we were going to be doing some tame, but heart pumping TRAIL hiking...oh how wrong we were. When we got the the base of Mt. Titlus we stood looking up, marveling at its height when Sybelles dad came up and handed me a rope to put around my waist. I thought it was a bit over kill that we'd be tied together just walking up the trail until we proceeded to actually CLIMB the mountain. As, in with spikes on our shoes and polls and Katie falling down about 6 times, and Sybelles dad finding it all quite amusing while telling me I needed to go on a diet which is probably true...
After we descended from 10,450 feet in the air we climbed in the car and headed out to meet Monica! It was so good to see that girl again, I had no idea how much I really missed that laughing purple face. I spent 3 good relaxing days with Monica meeting her Swiss friends, eating with her Swiss family, taking Swiss trains to Swiss cities...well, you get the point. And whatever you do don't let her tell you she's not integrating enough or learning the language fast enough because she is really doing an amazing job with the, at times, difficult situations she's been given. It was really interesting to see how one of my friends are doing their exchange. Everyone has different ways of going about doing the same basic things, different goals for their exchange, different motivations. I realized that you can't really compare two exchanges with each other because each student takes something different away from this year, everyone is looking to learn something different and everyone, even the ones who come home early, end up learning more than they realize at the time.
P.S. Sam, watch out! cause I'm coming to Germany next!
December 15 Journal
I've been meaning to write this journal for quite some time now, I've started 4 times...but just thinking about everything that has happened in the last month and a half is a bit overwhelming, let alone the prospect of having to sit in front of the computer for so long. But the longer I wait the longer this little entry gets...and none of us want that I don't think, so here goes:
In the middle of November I went with my Kiwi friend, Eileen, her host bro from New Zealand Fréderic, and a couple Aussies to the France-All Blacks rugby game. For those of you who follow this brutal sport, or even know how it's played you can well imagine the intensity and excitement in the Stade de France. I was feeling a bit nostalgic surrounded by 50,000 screaming, body painted, half drunken, absolutely insane men, felt just like home in the good ol' swamp. The game was interesting not because 3 men got carried off the field on stretchers but rather because the game is so contrary to the natural behavior of the French. Badminton is more their sport, something quiet and respectable. But the French tried with all their strength, and still ended up coming out of the game 39 points behind the All Blacks. Fred, Ei, and I were sitting in a sea of French men, wearing their navy blue berets, waving our kiwi flag and being generally as obnoxious as we could be...all in the good spirit of the game, of course...During the game a man sitting beside us asked us if we could hold up a huge sign he had made asking his girlfriend to marry him, which eventually got us on French national television with it...and he got engaged.
The day after the big match in Paris I changed families, and cooked Thanksgiving dinner. I use the word "cook" to make myself feel better about how little I actually did. What I really did was reheat an already cooked turkey, some stuffing, sweet potatoes, greens, gravy, and put the cranberry sauce and the pecan and pumpkin pies on the table. But I didn't burn anything...and that, for me, is saying quite a lot. So all 3 of my families piled into my new home, making 19 of us...and we all ate as much as we could. I tried to explain some of the traditions, such as saying one thing you are grateful for before starting to eat, but they were hungry and started eating anyway, or the fact that one must eat 2 or 3 plates full of food...but everyone seemed to be full after their first...but I continued in my regular fashion figuring its an American holiday, I can eat like an American for this one day. They mistook the gravy for a soup and started eating with their spoons...and I had to convince them all that the sweet potatoes were not abnormally large carrots and that the pumpkin pie was supposed to be that color.
Changing families was an experience. it almost feels like starting your exchange all over again, new people to meet, new rules to get used to, new types of food to eat, an entirely different city to get lost in. My new family, the Detombs, are made up of three, yes three teenage boys, a little 4 year old girl, and my host parents. Everyone in the family moves at an incredible pace, balancing school and work with badminton, volleyball, and piano lessons for my host dad; piano, kick boxing, and swimming lessons for my host mom; theater for all of the kids; piano, horseback riding, karate, and voice lessons for my little sis; drum, xylophone, soccer, tennis, and debate team for my 16 year old host bro; and trumpet and handball for my 14 year old host bro. The house is always moving, there is always music playing, people joking and eating, girlfriends giggling, and people talking. I've already felt my French starting to improve just in the 4 weeks of being here. We talk about everything, they travel and have the same passion as I do for art. As I'm writing this my host mom is playing the piano, Louis is upstairs playing the drums, Victor is in the kitchen cooking, and my little host sister just asked if she could write something to you all. So now she's sitting on my lap with something to say, I'll translate after:
je suis la petite soeur de catline ! vous saver ce que c' est que cache-cache? vous voulais savoir ce que c' est bon on cen fou on pace à otrochause.
She said in her interpretation of the French language: "I am Caitlin's little sister! Do you all know what hide and seek is? Do you want to know what it is? Ok, no one cares...on to other things." She's a surprisingly smart little girl. My first day here she asked me how to say je t'aime in English and I told her "I love you." A week later she had remembered and said "Caitlin, I love you"...It's nice having a little sister, a bit like babysitting 24 hours a day but she insures that there is never a dull moment. Right now she's attacking me with with a toothpick which is not really a toothpick but rather a sword, and she's not really my little host sister, but rather a ninja.
My first weekend with my family I went to Lille to see the Mexico Europe exposition. There I got to stare at one of Picasso's most famous statues and a few of his amazing paintings. My family had to tear me away from the museum. A couple weeks later I went with some friends to the Musée des Beaux Arts also in Lille where is saw a real live Monet. And not just any Monet, the Monet. His "view of London by the water", which also happened to be my favorite puzzle when I was younger. Monet was just one of many, there were paintings by Degas, Sisley, Renoir, Manet, Matisse...It's amazing to me how these painting still have so much power, there is such a feeling standing in front of one of these works of art. These paintings hang on their little designated spaces of wall, so unassuming, no special lighting, no body guards, no elaborate frames...just beauty that will never grow old, or tiring to look at. Next week I'm planning to stay in paris for the week with Eileen and we've decided to spend a day in the Louvre and in the Musée d'Orsey...I've become such a dork for art, but I figured no better place to do it than in France.
A couple weekends ago I went to Germany for the weekend with some friends and a Rotarian to see the Marché de Nöel in Aachen. We just drove past the Belgium border, undisturbed...no customs, no passport checks, not even a man in an orange vest to quickly wave us through. Just the subtle change in scenery. Belgium is really beautiful, a bit like Switzerland I find. Speckled with green forests and laced with rivers, opposed to the coal mines and smoking stacks of the factories that northern France is famous for. We passed into Germany in the same fashion, as simply as crossing the street. The market was sweet, a very large version of the market in the center of my city. I didn't buy much besides ginger bread and a cup of hot wine, an Aachen specialty, but I had a nice time walking around the cobble stone streets and looking at all the hand crafted Christmas decorations. We all decided to head over to the old church where Charlemagne was crowned the Roman Emperor and afterwards to the corresponding museum. I have to admit I was a bit creeped out by the artifacts in the museum. The display was made up of Catholic relics, the forearm and thigh bone of Charlemagne, old popes and saints teeth, hair, and anything else conservable and desired by the people of their time. Also on display, in an extravagant all gold statue was a thorn from the crown of Jesus, a nail from his cross, and the cloth used to whip his forehead after he was taken off the cross. Walking around the museum Eileen and I stumbled across a small fresco that I recognized immediately, but couldn't quite remember where. After a few minutes of staring at it I realized the painting was a document in my AP European History test last year, this continent is like a huge text book...just a bit more interesting.
For the last couple weeks I've been traveling around, spending quality time with my friends from the southern hemisphere that are getting ready to go home. Next week I'll be heading to Amsterdam with the girls and Liz's mom who came from Australia to take her on a quick trip around Europe.. after that we will be living in Paris for the week. *sigh* the rough life of being an exchange student.
January 31 Journal
Things are still spinning, just at that right pace between out of control and stomach churning. I've been waiting for things to slow down, for me to get control over the days that pass by here... but I now doubt that day with ever actually reach me. And I might be happier that way. In a way, this year has given me more freedom than I've ever had in my life, and in another it's taken away all the simple freedoms I took for granted back home, like being able to say "I'll do it later" with the knowledge that I'll be there to do it.
Christmas came and went, the holidays were supposed to be the time period where I felt the most homesick, but I think it might have been the happiest I've been since stepping off the plane. I don't have any wonderful traditional stories to tell you, we didn't put shoes outside our door, or jump over waves and make wishes. I didn't wake up and see a pile of presents under the tree with my name on them, or eat an extravagant meal on silver plates. I was, however with my family... or my "host family" as they would be called in a perfectly P.C. world. the term doesn't seem to fit anymore though, they aren't hosting me, they are living with me, teaching me, talking to me, laughing with me (and occasionally at me)... they get frustrated with me, and are proud of me. Logically we all know I'm leaving in 2 months, but nobody seems to accept the fact, at least not out loud.
During the holidays I went with Eileen for a week in Paris, where we stayed with her family and played our dorky little roles as tourists. There are some fine differences between us and the average tourist stumbling around Paris, however. We know how the métros work, we don't speak to each other while in the métro station (if we spoke English we are assumed as tourists... thus vulnerable, and if we speak French our accents are noted... and we are marked as foreigners as well) so we don't speak, and have avoided countless stares and uncomfortable situations in the process. We know how to hold our bags, how to keep the cell phone on the body and not in a purse, how to look and not look people in the eyes, but one thing I haven't yet mastered that the Parisians do effortlessly is pass by a starving child sitting on the street without their heart pace doubling and not as much as a glance. I'm sure this "talent" would be adopted with time...although I'm not sure if I ever really want it to be. We were there for New Years Eve, as well as the rest of the world it felt like. We went to the Centre Pompidou in the afternoon, got lost in some Picassos, Matisses, Warhols, just to name a few. Then heading to the Champs Elysée and became one of the miniscule dots of black lining the sidewalk on the most famous street in Paris. For the countdown to 2005 we hopped on the métro and headed over to the Eiffel Tower, where we watched the fireworks and the festivities, as people from all over the world stumbled around...elated at the idea of one more year down.. and a whole future of years to come. It became apparent, at around 1 o'clock, why we were only non-Parisians under the Eiffel tower... the locals knew better. All 70,000 or so of us attempted to hop back on the métro to get back to center Paris at the same time. if you do the math, you'll see that this little problem was completely impossible. But that didn't stop us from ignoring the rules of physics and stuff all of us in this tiny building at once. Ei and I ended up waiting in line for 3 and a half hours before finally getting back to where our beds were patiently awaiting our arrival.
Last month I was inducted into the Verquin City Hall Wall of Fame, after their annual "ceremonie des voeux" (ceremony of wishes)... as a citizen of honor. The whole ordeal has become somewhat of a joke between my host fam and myself, they call me the queen of Verquin (the city I lived my first 4 months of exchange). Every year in the small city of Verquin, the men gather together and nominate 1 woman to be the citizen of honor for the year, this year... mysteriously, it was me. I got a call from the mayor informing me about it, and telling me I would be making a speech in front of a small gathering of Verquinois (citizens of Verquin... they just add "ois" to the end of the cities to signify that), which ended up being 2,000 citizens, all staring at me in wonder. It became apparent as the night went on that it was my jacket, and not me personally that attracted attention. I've decided just to sport the Rotary jacket everywhere I go now... people just assume I'm important... ha, if only I didn't leave a trail of pins in my wake.
Its getting steadily colder here, although I'm finding the weather quite bearable now. The first few months of exchange I was ALWAYS cold... and it was just 16°C here, which really isn't that cold. But now that its -2°C... I'm doing fine, I think I'm going to melt when I get back home. It started snowing the other day while I was in History, I asked my teacher if I could go outside just to see it first hand, and she decided to take us all outside to play in the snow. It's an interesting thing, living with snow...especially for the nervous habit people who need to always be messing with something, throwing a ball, or doodling (example: me) ..its like you're surrounded by playdough that never stains the floor, and won't turn your hands strange colors.
It's been getting harder and harder to express myself in English, my personal thoughts now don't sound like my own, but like a tiny French radio telling me exactly what I'm thinking. I'm dreaming, eating, breathing in French... so you all will have to excuse me when I get back for my 2 syllable words and complete lack of comprehension.
I'll leave you all with a few pictures I've collected over the months.
March 23 Journal
I know I know, I haven’t written in forever, and I feel bad about it...really, I do. But I have a good excuse, as good as any at least, I've been really, unbelievably, more than ever before...busy. Everything changes from day to day here and I find it so hard to sit down and concentrate long enough to update you all on what’s been going on.
I guess I’ll start with the 2 week vacation we had in February. It couldn’t have come at a better time, I was starting to feel the stress of school for the first time all year, God forbid...so 2 weeks of traveling is just what the doctor ordered. I spent the first week acting as tour guide for my friend Deborah who came to visit me for a short 7 days of hardcore French sightseeing. She told me she wanted to do all of France in a week. I didn’t think it was possible, but I soon learned anything is possible when you’re motivated enough. We did just about every overtly touristy thing we could do in Paris during our 4 day stay in the city. Our youth hostel, the same one I use every time I'm in Paris and in need of a bed (they know my name there now) is located 2 minutes walking distance from the Sacré Coeur, the most amazingly beautiful church I’ve ever seen in my life. The walk up the seemingly endless flight of stairs up the hill to the white cathedral had to be the highlight of Deb's trip for me. We did our own little tour of the church, walking around staring at the stained glass windows with the sound of the 100 person choir in the background, as we did at Notre Dame as well, but I was struck each time with an uneasy, guilty feeling. I’m not an overly religious person, I know the Bible, I’ve been to church a good number of times in my life, but I’m not what one would consider a "good Christian" or a good Buddhist, Jew, Hindu, or any other of the numerous religions to grace our society, but there is something undeniably unethical about selling post cards and "prayer candles" inside a place of worship like that. I might be the only one out there, but I just don’t think it’s right that a man is on his knees having a very personal and heartfelt connection with his god while a tourist in an orange jogging suit, tennis shoes, and fanny pack is paying too much for a penny with the stamped impression of the church 3 feet away.
I spent the second week of the February vacations in England with Mollie, the only other exchange student in Béthune. We stayed in London for 5 days, succumbing to the colorful call of the red double-decker tourist bus, stopping once to take a 3 hour Beatles walking tour, which was AWESOME...I never thought I’d hear so much about the Beatles in such a short time, and to venture inside both the Tate Modern and the National Gallery museums. We also got the opportunity to branch out of the city a bit when Mollie’s cousins from Australia who were living and working in England at the time offered to take us on a small 2 day road trip. After Bathe, where we marveled for a day at the ancient Roman baths decorating the city, we headed over to Stonehenge where we made the circle around the mysterious gathering of stones; the inexplicable rock formation hadn’t lost its effect for me even the second time seeing it.
I got a third week of vacation earlier this month when my Rotary chairman invited me to go skiing with him and his wife in the French Alps for a week. We were a 15 minute drive to Geneva, the mountains were indescribably beautiful, the weather was impeccable, the people were nice, life was good. I was sick for the first 3 days, however, more sick than I had felt in a very long time. With a fever and complete lack of appetite I felt absolutely miserable, but refused to let that stop me from enjoying my days of skiing.
The first 2 days we went cross country skiing, which I found unusually difficult...I don’t know what it was about the sport but I found it impossible to stay vertical. I’m blaming it on my weakness and the nauseated feeling I was blessed with while doing the 15 km treks, but I am possibly the worst cross country skier to ever buckle on a pair of skis. The third day Bernard and Anne Marie were nice enough to buy me a lesson with a ski instructor to learn how to down-hill ski. The technique (is that the English or French spelling? it's all the same to me now...) seemed 100 times more natural to me and within the hour I was feeling ready to take on the black diamond slopes, or at least the green circles...The next day while the adults set off to go cross country skiing I pushed the play button on my CD player and found myself free and in a state of nirvana as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and I swayed on rocking chair lifts and glided half gracefully down the enormous slopes.
Which brings us all to last weekend when I was just one in the crowd of 350 exchange students in France to participate in the first ever annual exchange student gathering in Paris. It was my 27th trip to Paris this year, so the sightseeing tour had lost a bit of its novelty, yet I couldn’t help smashing my face, along with every other kid on the bus, up against the window as we rolled down the Champs Elysée, past the Louvre, along the Seine, and right up to the youth hostel where we were ALL staying, cramped in together for the 3 days of organized chaos. Exchange students, if I may generalize for a moment, are unbelievably talkative, interested, and lively people...so you can imagine the mayhem that erupted as hundreds of us from all over the world were trapped inside a building together for a weekend, armed only with our blazers, Rotary cards, and the implanted desire to socialize. The poor, poor Rotarians who accompanied us - I felt bad for them, I really did, but that didn’t stop me from taking advantage of the situation, along with all the others, as I attempted to meet each exchange student boarding in the hostel. The most memorable afternoon of the weekend was the visit to the French Senate, a forum usually closed off to the public but who opened their doors to us all for an afternoon as we took the tour of the castle turned government building and got the opportunity to speak a bit with a few selected senators. An hour before we were scheduled to arrive the senators had called a mandatory and emergency meeting to discuss the education system in France at the moment, which, in my opinion, is facing a crisis. The session lasted until 4 o'clock in the morning but no official word has been released on what they all have decided. Hopefully something dramatic, because for the past 3 months here the time I’ve actually spent doing productive school work has been cut in half due to the incessant manifestations and strikes of students and teachers alike, all fighting for something that no one has been able to explain to me yet.
So, in a nut shell...that’s what’s been going on. Life as usual here...nothing too out of the ordinary...the fact that I’m even capable of saying that makes me realize how jaded this experience has made me. A friend and I were talking the other day about how shameful it is that we can take a trip to Paris and not ever consider it worthy of mentioning to our parents, or how it just "slips our minds" to tell everyone that we spent a week in the south of France. Shameful, I know. But even if I don’t take the time to express it I really don’t take for granted any minute that I spend in this amazing country with these amazing people.
P.S. Today marks 7 months for me here in France, Happy 7 month anniversary Michele! It feels like so long ago we were sitting in those stiff airplane seats watching Jacksonville as it got smaller and smaller out of the miniature plexiglass window. Congratulations next year’s outbound class! Good luck with everything. Anyone coming to France, feel free to email me. Those not going to France, feel free to email me as well. Good luck you all!