Michael Murray
2005-06 Outbound to France

Hometown: Jacksonville, Florida
School: Bartram Trail High School
Sponsor: Bartram Trail Rotary Club
Host: Wissembourg Rotary Club, District 1680, France

September 2 journal

The first day of an exchange is much like being born again. Bright lights, being hugged and kissed by strangers. You obtain a newfound sense of innocence and naiveté. Speaking, reading and writing proves to be difficult, and your food is prepared for you. Much like a newborn, you are spoiled. Your heart pounds, all the while your stomach replicates a child's shoe string.

When I wanted to start writing this journal, I couldn't seem to convey the feelings one has in his, or her, first week of an exchange. Unless you have done it, you simply can not understand the emotions one goes through. In essence writing this entry feels as though I am preparing a speech for a deaf and blind convention. I apologize if that sounds somewhat arrogant, but in all honesty, I am just being well...honest.

Nonetheless I will discuss about my happenings, and whereabouts. I am situated in a nice-sized village known as Wissembourg. It is as French as French gets. The town streets are lined with shops, cafés, and fruit stands. On any given morning you will see old men playing Bocce in the park, while women carry fresh baguettes, direct from the bakery. Teenagers wiz by on mopeds while the younger children and elder men prefer the more manual form of transportation, bikes. The town is situated at the foot of the black hills, and just 10 minutes from the German border. Surrounding the village are fields and fields of corn, grapes, and apples. It sounds somewhat clichéd but it really is everything I read about in French class. The landscape is pure and breathtaking, it simply negates the contents of your wallet.

My host family is wonderful. My host father is a pharmacist, and owns his own local pharmacy. I have 2 host brothers, and a host sister. All three kids enjoy horseback riding. My youngest host brother of ten years is very adamant about me learning the language as quick as possible. Who knew board games with a ten year old could be so educational. We all eat lunch and dinner together every day, so whomever says the French lack morals, hasn't the slightest clue. On that note, every negative stereotype I have heard about the French has proven to be false. They are warm, inviting, people and flattered to have foreign guest amongst them.

My summer comes to a close today, as tomorrow I start school. My last few days of summer consisted of a drive to the Maginot line, coconut ice cream, a German water park (where I learned no man is ever too obese for a Speedo), running up a mountain, and cafés. I think I hit the jackpot.

September 28 Journal

"Little acorn becomes the mighty oak" - The Fruitbats.

Month one has come and gone. Alors...

Born out of wedlock, the Alsace region is like the child of Germany and France. His parents had quite a few custody struggles (Franco-Prussian, WW 1, WW 2) and in the end his mother, France, was awarded custody. He eats dinner with his father (Bratwurst, Sauerkraut, Beer), and dessert with his mother (tarte, crepes, champagne). He embodies many traits from his mother, and more then he likes to admit from his father. For years he struggled with identity issues but has since evolved into a well rounded individual. I imagine Alsace and Switzerland would get along quite well.

Yes the analogy seems rather strange but its the most accurate description I could conjure up. When I wrote my last journal entry I think I overlooked the Germanic influence that fills the area, but shhhh, don't let any Alsatians know that I said that. The Alsatians pride themselves on being individuals.

The last time we talked was the night before school started. Aside from my three, nine hour days, I really enjoy school. My first day resembled the testimonies of most exchange students. Following students, pretending to take notes, and smiling while shaking my head with indecipherable motions when questions were thrown my way. Nonetheless I survived. I think most exchange students will agree, the first few weeks of school are the most tiring days of your life. I was physically exhausted every day after school, and the 2-mile walk home seemed almost impossible. Luckily, I have a pastry shop that conveniently falls in the middle of my route. This isn't just any pastry shop, this is Réber's. The man chosen to represent all of France in global pastry competitions. And it just so happens he lives in my village, and my host parents are good friends with him.

I have been going to school about a month now, and understand a majority of what's being said, and can carry on a conversation with classmates with little or no trouble. The only class I seem have any trouble in is "Sciences, économiques, et sociales." I love the topic, it was one of my favorite classes in the states, but the vocabulary can seem out of my league on most days.

What I really like about school here is the lack of social hierarchy. Each morning kisses and handshakes are exchanged by all, regardless of the clique you fall into. Every day I eat lunch with a hodge-podge of characters. Which brings me to my favorite anecdote thus far.

Everyday someone shoves headphones in my face and politely asks "Can zoo make zees verds in French for me?" But this one particular character (5 foot nothing, and 120 pounds) wanted the lyrics for some god-awful 50 Cent song. In exchange for the lyrics he offered me his "gang's" protection. Needless the say, I now walk the (cobblestone) streets of Wissembourg feeling a little safer.

Football, or soccer as some say, is my new sport of choice. I watch it just about every night with my host dad, and play with his team.

The highlight of my month was an afternoon trip to Strasbourg with my friend, and fellow exchanger Brandon. Being that it was a Wednesday, we got out of school at noon. From school we walked to the train station to catch the 12:18 from Wissembourg to Strasbourg. While on the train we joked about the amount of fètes, or festivals, the French have. In just my first month we have had Fète des Chevals (Festival of Horses), Fète de Vin (Festival of Wine), and Fète de la Bière (Festival of Beer). But I had never laughed so hard then when Brandon told me of his trip to the post office 2 days earlier. Upon his entrance he saw balloons, flags and tables filled with drinks and pastries. Fète de la Poste. Why Not? Back to the story. We arrived in Strasbourg, about an hour after departing. The train station in Strasbourg is a work of art, and I would soon learn that just about everything in that city is. He showed me the ropes, about purchasing tickets, where to punch them and where to check for your platform. We left the station hungry and in search of our long awaited lunch. Enter Kapob. It's simply the best food I have ever eaten, and has since found its way into my regular diet.

Once filled up, and possibly overfilled, we departed for the Cathédrale. Upon carelessly turning a corner, my eyes opened as wide as they ever have. I have never seen something so large, and so detailed. After finding our way into a few German class photos we departed for the top. The spiral staircase, at times small, seemed to turn forever. Every now and then there is a little hole in the wall to show you how far you have climbed. Once at the top we walked through a little arch that led me to the maybe the most thought provoking moment of my life. How did they get this giant bell get up here? How did I get up here, or even here in France? The city expands across the land below and at the horizon are rolling hills and mountains. As I sat and watched the workings of a city, I decided my life is one in a million. Thank you Mom, Dad, family, friends, and Rotary. I love you all more then you know.

October 19 Journal

Round 3...ding...ding...

I have some advice for future/current exchangers and travelers alike...

Never ask what you are eating. The question itself is not rude, but your reaction to the answer may indeed seem, should I say, unmannerly? I.E.:

Mike - This is pretty good what is this
Host dad - Sausage...
Mike - I noticed you were a little hesitant with your answer, may I ask why?
Host dad - Well it's "black sausage" mike.
Mike - That being...
Host dad - Sausage made from pigs blood.
Mike - makes a face similar to a fish being hooked.
Town Butcher (seated directly across from Mike) - You don't like my sausage?
Mike - Rotary Smile. It's...wonderful monsieur.

Time here has been well spent but I wouldn't be painting an honest picture if I sugarcoated everything. This is life. I have homework, school, boredom, and a sufficient amount of frustration. If you're reading this, and considering applying for the program, please note you will not be some happy go lucky tourist bumming around romantic, foreign cities every weekend. You will get homesick, you will get frustrated, and you will have rainy days (I say "rainy days" metaphorically and literally because quite frankly, I don't really care for rainy days). With that said, you will also have sunny days, the best moments of your life, conceive unexplainable thoughts, and yes on some weekends you will bum around romantic, foreign cities. An exchange is an emotional roller coaster. You could hit rock bottom, and within an hour be at the peak of your happiness. But hey, this is what you're signing up for, to push yourself. I hear it's a lot like being pregnant. So to all the mothers reading this, we can break bread in that sense.

It's fall here in Wissembourg. It's a rather tragic season. Everything is dying but not without vibrancy. I've been deprived of this season for 4 years now. It's really a shame Florida doesn't have a real fall. There is a really neat sense of "preparation" that comes over everyone. The dinners are getting warmer, the heavy blankets are coming out, and all the men are chopping wood for the fires.

The park next to my house is covered with leaves. Walking in it has become rather habitual for me. It's where I'm learning to be my own best friend. Before leaving I was a very needy person. For instance I dreaded a Friday night spent at home, but now I'm overcoming that, and giving a lot of time back to myself.

A few weekends ago 7 exchange students and I got together for the John Butler Trio concert in Strasbourg. One of the girl's host mothers insisted we stayed at her three story apartment in downtown Strasbourg. (I know, I spent a paragraph talking about how tough life can be here.) I really "dug this pad." It was situated right next to the massive cathedral I talked about in journal two. Every window and balcony offered a Kodak view of the cathedral and in the foreground were rows and rows of uneven European roof tops, think Mary Poppins. Before heading off to the show, I had heard there was a Mexican restaurant near the apartment. A Mexican/Australian (geographically impossible) exchanger and I were the only 2 that had ever known the word "enchilada." After some convincing we all left to eat. It wasn't La Nopalera but I managed to find some solace that night in dinner special #4.

With our digestive systems on their death beds, we departed for the concert. I didn't know much about the artist beforehand but he turned out to be a really cool guy and had some good things to say about life, war, and poverty.

After the concert we did some dancing, kind of irrelevant but I like dancing.

When you spend a weekend with fellow exchangers like this it's really interesting. Everyone is pretty like minded, and silently acknowledges that we're all here with similar ambitions. This is the formula for good conversation and what I like to call "Tanner Family Moments"

This past weekend my host dad came home with tickets to the big soccer match in Strasbourg. This couldn't have come at a better time for me. Earlier that afternoon I asked my host counselor if I could go on a trip to Sweden for a week with my English class. Denied. So you can imagine I wasn't in the best of moods. When my host parents told me I was going to the match my spirits were lifted immediately. You see, I have been watching soccer just about every night with my host dad, so to finally go was pretty exciting.

The matches are unlike anything in the states. I noticed a large group of hooligans cheering at the beginning of the match. 30 minutes later I thought, "My gosh they are still going at it, and they haven't let up one bit." Strasbourg's team isn't even that good! Even when they were losing these guys were belting their team's song. They sang non stop for 90 minutes. I'm not naive. I am pretty sure there was some beer involved, but nonetheless I had a new metaphor for "never give up" sitting just a few rows away.

Upon leaving the stadium a homeless man struck up a conversation about the match with me. The match wasn't televised, so I made the connection and I thought, "This guy has no food, and no home, yet he insist on going to soccer games. Stupid? Probably, but he's doing what he loves." I had some thoughts that are pretty difficult to put into words. The best I can say is, do what you love, regardless of what struggles and setbacks you're going to encounter for it.

Thank you so much Rotary. You have opened my eyes to what really matters in life. I wholeheartedly believe in this program and its motives. You guys make the world turn.

With Love, Mike

November 2 Journal

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." Henry David Thoreau

I'm standing on the balcony of a castle. A castle that lies on the highest mountain of Alsace. In front of me lays an infinite collage of villages, vineyards, and autumn leaves. So far detached from shopping centers and teenage demographics, I have formed a desirable bond with nature. You see, when you utilize a park bench as a school desk you are going to learn a lot. It's not so much scientific information, but practical information. Take for instance something such as leaves. I couldn't tell you the scientific logistics of a leaf, but what I could tell you is when you apply the life span of a leaf to your own, you will discover a wealth of happiness. Blow with the winds, live vibrantly, accept your change and pass on with peace. If I am Thoreau, then Alsace is my pond.

Today is the last day of my 2 week vacation. Lets recap...

I visited a castle with my host parents. Knights, drawbridges, the whole kit n' kaboodle. I woke up to a gray, gloomy, rainy day. I came down to breakfast a little upset because of of the weather. I knew that we wouldn't be going if the weather wasn't spectacular. Lunch came and the sun started to come out. We took our chances and headed to the south of the region. I feel really guilty sleeping in the car because the landscape is always so pretty. We made our ascent up the winding roads and finally arrived at the castle. It was mind blowing. So much history. The castle was first built in medieval times. Over the years it became ruins. In the early 1900's it was rebuilt for the emperor of Germany and Prussia as a place to stay on the WW1 front lines. I can't justify how amazing every view was, perhaps some of the pictures can.

After our visit to the castle we headed down to a small village known for its white wine. I was walking up the streets with my jaw dropped. All I could do was wonder at what time "Mickey's Toon Town Parade" was coming through. It was everything Disney ever aimed for, only this was the real deal.

I spent 2 nights at a friend's house. He lives in a village about 20 minutes away. This village was about as Alsacian as you can get. His parents asked me what my favorite Alsacian dish was. I answered, "la tarte flambée" and without hesitation his mom insisted that we have it for dinner. Thomas and I rode our bikes through the town (when you get a license you really forget how awesome bikes are). As we rode down the sloped streets everyone we came across was quick to say hello, in Alsacian. The warm Alsacian greetings are so nice.

We played some soccer with about fifteen ten-year-olds. I really like little kids. They really make me want to be a teacher.

On the third day the family took me into Strasbourg. Thomas' family was heaps nice, and got a real kick out of me trying to speak Alsacian with them. It's a really interesting language. Most parents speak it, and although their kids don't speak it, they understand every word of it. It's a little bit of German, and a little bit of French. Nobody can write it either. I consider myself pretty lucky because the language is on its last generation, and it's estimated to be dead in 30 years.

You wouldn't know it was Halloween here unless you looked on a calendar. I searched the market for a pumpkin to carve but came up short.

We had a Rotary meeting. My Australian friend Brandon had to give his big presentation to our club. Our club is really small. Brandon and I are the only students. All the old men treat us like their grandsons. The presentation really put everything in perspective for me. Time wise that is. I swear I go to sleep on Sunday night and wake up on Thursday afternoons.

While at the meeting, I had the chance to meet my next two host families. My second family has a boy in Canada, and my third family has a girl in Texas. I learned that I'm moving in with my second host family towards the end of this month. Its going to be interesting. Doing it all over again, only this time I will have a clue as to what's going on.

My third host family has a farm, tractors, and corn. I'll be living with them just in time to start planting for the summer. I'm really excited.

Every visit to Strasbourg is a little more difficult then the last. 2 days ago I found myself standing in a department store just dumbfounded with the things people buy. As a society we have done a really good job at blurring the lines between "need" and "want." You need water. You don't need a Mercedes, you simply want one. I really like my rural, secluded village.

I leave you with my Top 5 for November.

5. Henry David Thoreau
4. Sigur Ros
3. Trying to speak Alsacian
2. Tarte Flambée
1. Nature (parks, mountains, trees, etc.)

December 3 Journal

Today, on my way back to school, I saw a woman get hit by a car. She was crossing the road and before I knew it her body went ragdoll to the pavement. She was still conscious when the ambulance arrived, but blood dripped profusely from her cotton white hair. For the rest of my classes I found myself staring out the windows wondering why people can be so frivolous when the end just might be around the corner. Take risk, be humble, and don't be worried by trivial happenings.

As far as Mr. Walt Whitman is concerned I have been contributing my verses...

On the first Sunday of November, fellow exchange student Brandon and I went to a village festival with his current, and my third host family. Upon arriving at the festival we found a large dining hall with an abundance of Alsatian food and music. We addressed our appetites and preceded to court ladies on the dance floor. One of them being my third host mom, Mary Paul. I'm not too familiar with Alsatian folk dancing but she showed me the basics. She endured 4 waltzes and left smiling with all 10 toes intact.

After the festival we all went back to the house for some coffee. I have found that it is a good idea to meet your host families before actually moving in with them. Makes the move-in process a little more relaxing for both parties. They gave me a tour of the house and afterwards took me out back to see the endless rolling fields, and the bulls. Brandon and I kept our distance, all the while admiring our host dad's fearlessness. Its a shame I left my Matador equipment at home.

Thanksgiving morning I found myself sitting through a 2 hour lecture on 17th century French poetry. My left hand on a sheet of paper, the right hand tracing around it with a pencil. I was drawing hand turkeys. In light of a little nostalgia, and regret for not preparing a big dinner, I marched into town and bought the pie I could find. I brought it home and explained the holiday to my host mother. I went upstairs to wash my hands for dinner and when I returned downstairs I found the table set with candles and Thanksgiving colored napkins, plates, and placemats. The color combination turned out to be a coincidence but nonetheless I was flabbergasted at how generous the Bonnaves have been with me. After our dinner, my host dad, Thierry opened a bottle of champagne and made a toast to me and wished me luck with the rest of my time in France.

A little later that night, while watching a soccer game Thierry called me to come outside. Snow.

All that night I sat in a trance, watching through my window. As the snow was mounting around the cars and sidewalks my feet screamed with anticipation, while thoughts reflected on the past three months. I couldn't take my eyes away from the streetlights. I had never been so happy to be alive.

I woke up the next day to find Wissembourg blanketed in snow. I put on my new winter jacket, scarf, gloves and hat and made the mile trek to school. Everyone at school had the same feelings running through them. The first snowfall had come and with it came excitement, and a sense of winter camaraderie. My entire class decided to skip our hour of German and go join what seemed to be the entire school in a snowball fight.

That night I walked home from school with all the town Christmas lights illuminated. It was my last night with the Bonnave family. I came home and everyone got ready for a big warm dinner. They took me out for my last night to try the ever so popular escargots. I was really hesitant at first, but bit the bullet and "assimilated." They actually turned out to be really appetizing. For dessert we had my favorite, "La Tarte Flambée à Pomme," which is lit on fire right before you eat it.

The next morning I packed up my belongings and said my goodbyes. It will always be difficult to leave your first host family. They bring you into a new world and watch you take your first steps. After 3 months a room becomes a bedroom, a house becomes a home, and strangers become a cherished family. But changing families is part of the deal, and keeps things interesting. I remember Al told me "You're not losing a family, you're only gaining another." And that's just what I did.

My new family is wonderful. My host dad, Bernard is an amazing cook, and teaches me the finer points of wine, while my host mom Michelle is a Pharmacist. Dinners here are amazing and afterwards I talk to my host mom for an extended period of time at the table. They have 2 sons. One, 17, is on an exchange in Canada, and the other who is 22, is currently enrolled at Cornell University in New York. The latter of the 2 will be home for Christmas. Last Sunday, after lunch we took a tour of my new village Seltz, and visited the Seltz Christmas market. Children running through the streets, Santa Claus, and everyone talking over a cup of hot wine. While there I met the Mayor of Seltz who invited me along with my host dad to see The European Parliament in action. That said, in January we will tour the parliament itself, and get a chance to watch a session.

With all the emails I got in regards to the subject I feel as though I should take a second to shed some light on the riots. From what I saw, the American media portrayed every city as ruins gorged by mass hysteria. Yes, France has a problem with racism and poverty, but at no point was there an effort at a "Muslim led coup" as one American journalist put it. That said, don't watch the news.

Be humble, and enjoy the things that don't cost a dime.

January 26 Journal

"Here's me overseas, across the pond by the Dover peaks. I've smuggled myself into new nationalities."

-Matt Pryor

Time has quietly slipped 5 months out of my pocket in exchange for a plethora of great experiences. The last two months have certainly been a bombardment: beautiful landscapes, marvelous friendships, thought provoking conversations, 5 new kilos, and a few goodbyes.

I am really starting to establish myself here. I have inside jokes with kids at school, I know the train times like the back of my hand, and "I didn't understand," is no longer an excuse for why my homework is incomplete. Teachers would just respond with "Well Mike, you certainly don't have any trouble talking to your friends during class, do you?"

Just to get it out of the way, I feel as though I have to say that you will find people who you don't get along with on any continent, in any country. I found the best you can do is keep your spirits high, and try and find the better in them. They may say discouraging things, but just take it with a grain of salt, smile, move on and as mom always said, "be the better person."

From the top...

The beginning of December marked the first weekend with all the other exchange students in our district. We had all met up before but no longer then a few hours. The day started with Brendon and I leaving school at noon to catch a 2 hour train to a small city in the south of Alsace. Once all assembled in Belforte, we were picked up by an array of Rotarians with whom we would be spending the first night. We were provided with an interesting cast of characters. My Rotarian happened to do some underground fur trading while another had boasted about a secret society he had belonged too. Nonetheless, they were kind enough to put beds and fine cuisine at our disposal. That night we all did some bowling. Bowling alleys are indeed an international institution composed of, but not just, creepy regulars sporting even creepier mustaches.

The next day we all met up for breakfast and were interviewed by the regional paper. We all posed for a bunch of photos donning our pin clad vest. The photos, nor the article did I ever end up seeing. From there we headed to the city's soccer stadium to take a guided tour. We were shown just about everything and were even given the chance to run around and play on the field. After the stadium we piled back into our vans and headed back into Belforte to attend one of the region's many Christmas markets. We danced, took pictures, walked around all while the street performers never fell short of providing perfect holiday music. That night we returned to the stadium to attended a match. All the girls complained it was too cold, meanwhile the hooligans in the section next to us opted not to wear shirts.

The final day we beared the cold weather and faced off against Rotex in an extremely competitive soccer match. Seeing as we were all from countries where soccer is not a religion (yes, they do exist) we lost. We then ate a fine meal with the local Rotary club. While on the topic of food and Rotary clubs, I would just like to say, at times, being a Rotary exchange student in France feels criminal. It seems like an elaborate scam set up to eat the best food possible all the while leaving each restaurant with my wallet intact.

We all said our goodbyes that afternoon, and headed back to our respective cities, and villages. Going to school after being with all the exchange students is always difficult.

One Wednesday afternoon Brendon and I headed into Strasbourg to see the much talked about Christmas market. Strasbourg boasts itself as the Christmas capital of Europe, and boy did it live up to its claims. The city squares hosted an array of booths. From homemade art to hot wine and crepes. Night fell and the the city became illuminated by lights strung from building to building. We purchased a hot wine, found a nice spot to sit and reflected on our years. All the while people passed, and musicians played. I tried my hardest to really soak up the moment.

Soon enough the Christmas break arrived, and my host brother returned home from college in the states. I spent most of Christmas break in my pajamas. I developed a pajama ridden routine that much differed from the usual French school days (8:00 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.). Christmas eve came before I knew it. My host grandparents came over for a big dinner and we all exchanged gifts. That night I also opened all the gifts that were sent to me from the states. I would like to say thank you to everyone back home (specifically Adam, Greg, Joey, and Mac - you guys went over the top and renewed my sense of humor). The holidays passed without any of the predicted homesickness.

For New Years, I went to a party in a village with a bunch of kids from school. Turned out to be a really good time. Nobody really watches the TV on New Years here so I was caught off guard when people started counting down. As we entered the new year, everyone exchange hugs, kisses on the cheek, and best wishes. Someone put it as a "bisous fest."

Because Brendon was a southern hemisphere student, he completed his year at the beginning of January. We had more going away festivities then I can count. On his last night we all went out with all our friends from school. The night quickly passed and before we knew it, we had reached 5 o'clock, and it was time for him to say goodbye to everyone. He said encouraging things to everyone. I went back to his house where we slept until noon. When my host parents came to pick me up, we wished each other luck and parted not with "Adieu," but, "A la prochaine." I would just like to thank him for all the help he so willingly gave me. He's a great mate, and if you're lucky, someday you too may cross paths with him.

January brought a long overdue chance to explore this country I have been calling home. Along with 50 students from school, I departed for a week long ski trip in the Alps. While on the road, we crossed through Switzerland where we stopped at a highway rest stop. While in Switzerland, I "assimilated" and bought way more chocolate then necessary. The lady at the counter only spoke Swiss German, providing for an interesting transaction of chocolate and money.

We arrived in the Alps late that night. The next morning we woke up and got ready to receive our ski equipment. The instructor asked me if I was a beginner. Though I had never skied I dreaded the word beginner, and feared a week long crash course confined to the bunny slopes. So I thought for a second..."It's probably just like ice hockey, and I played ice hockey for a long time. How could it be any different? You have some blades attached to your feet, only they are wider, and instead of one stick you get two sticks. I am probably already a professional skier and I just don't know it!" I told the man with the equipment no, I had skied before. When he asked me what size skis I was, I could only give him a blank stare. Beginners group it was. I quickly learned the big difference between hockey and skiing are these things called mountains.

I could only help to think that our group, the beginners, were the Bad News Bears of the mountain. I made up one fifth of the ski crossed hodgepodge.

By the third day everyone pretty much had the hang of it and we had little or no trouble on the slopes.

For the duration of the week I shared a room with 6 other guys from my class. In this room, I learned that no matter where in the world you are, when you put a bunch of teenage boys in a room together, there will be people spraying deodorant on other people for obnoxious lengths at a time, someone's mattress will probably end up outside in the snow, or a kid will get locked in the bathroom.

On the last day the entire group went to the peak of the mountain for a sunny picnic in the snow. Here was the prettiest view I had ever seen in my entire life. We also saw wild mountain goats, none of which responded to my calls.

Today I took a much anticipated trip to see the European Parliament in action. My host parents and I, along with the mayor of my village and some other locals headed into Strasbourg, to visit the European Union's capital. We started with the European Council, where we saw a live session taking place. We sat above the chamber and watched as the council prosecuted a representative sent by the Belarusian totalitarian government. As tempers flared below us, I had way too much fun with my 9-channel translation headphones, each station projecting a different translation of what was being said on the floor. They were oh so diplomatic. I was amazed to learn that some of these translators spoke upwards to 11 different languages. Just as things started to turn on the fiery Belarusian, we had to leave in order to tour the European Union's parliament. The difference between the council and the parliament is that the council is a body of representatives from each country that investigates different situations in Europe. When the investigations and debates are concluded they simply make suggestions. Whereas the parliament assembles once a month in order to vote, enact laws, and distribute capital. We got the chance to talk with some representatives, and they were kind enough to field our questions. For me, a political buff, this might be one of the coolest experiences I have had here so far.

And so I conclude, until next month...

"J'ai trouvé des amis. Je leur ai donné un peu de mon âme un peu de ma vie." -Tryo

With Love, Mike

March 6 Journal

At times I felt as though I had a strong grasp on reality. Days where I woke up and felt like playing by “the rules.” Other days I would wake up and debate reality, and ponder a future riding the rails, and swear I would do everything in my ability to avoid a monotonous, day in day out lifestyle. I have recently learned it’s the median of my old thinking habits that turned a math class daydream into reality. I had an idea, to live in France all while walking the tight rope from childhood to maturity. I took the initiative, and worked to create a productive life that also strays far from ordinary. Everybody works for something that makes them feel alive. To some, that’s a new car, to others it’s experiencing the world.

Happenings…

On the exact day of my halfway mark I walked into town and decided to get a haircut. I will save you the story of making two trips to two different haircutters trying to convince somebody that I wouldn’t regret cutting it all off. When it was finally all gone, I felt ready to start the second half of my year.

I was lucky enough to take not one but two ski trips to the Alps this winter. This time I actually got to stay in Switzerland. Apart from feeling oh so neutral and eating way too much chocolate, I did some skiing and snowboarding. In Switzerland, people don’t seem to be too fond of chair lifts, rather little poles that go in between your legs dragging you up the mountain. Sure sounds easy until you fall off about a mile into your trip and are forced to walk another mile in snow up to your knees. One particular voyage I fell off in what felt like the arctic grand canyon. This remains the only instant of my exchange year where I thought “I want to be home, in my bed.” I sucked it up and finished my trek to the top of the slope to find the rest of my group.

A few days after coming home from Switzerland I was invited by a Rotarian to make a day trip into Germany. I have lived on the German border for 6 months now, and seeing as this was my first actual trip into Germany I was pretty excited. I spent the day walking around the city with the son of the Rotarian who was studying at a local university. Because he was a history major I saw him as a great person to spend the day with in such a rich city. We visited a castle and he showed me old trails where persecuted philosophers used to sneak around. After walking around a bit we decided it was getting chilly and took a coffee in a local café where we talked about secret societies, the new world order, and such.

Right before my two week vacation from school came to a close, I changed families. While packing up my things I could only help to think, “the next time I do this I’ll be going to the airport.” My third host dad and brother picked me up on Friday afternoon. I had already known the Hammers pretty well so the moving in process was much more relaxed and felt pretty natural. I live in a pleasant village called Kaidenbourg consisting of just 3 streets, and some 200 inhabitants. My host family has a farm and six cows. Life is good.

It has been snowing every day for the past 5 days so I took it upon myself to finally make a snowman. With the help of my younger host brother, I built my largest snow man to date. He would later be named Sydney. Upon waking up Sunday morning, I learned that somebody in Kaidenbourg is not to keen on winter fun and decided to ruin my five-foot-five carrot-nosed friend in the wee hours of the morning. Je vais te trouver, et quand je te trouve ça ne sera pas jolie…

I saw that the new outbounds had all been selected. Seeing those photos was just another nail in the coffin. I can’t even process that I have but 4 months to go.

To next year’s outbounds, congratulations. I can only really say that your exchange year is what you make it. It's true that the first half can be tough, but take it from me, work hard and you’ll be reaping the benefits this time next year. Good luck, and I look forward to meeting you guys at the Welcome Home Dinner.

Until next month…

May 6 Journal

Spring has arrived, and with it came the long awaited, and highly acclaimed Bus Trip. The trip that consists of 52 exchange students, 14 days, 12 cities, 4 countries and 1 bus. A formula that can only produce the best of atmospheres.

My trip began at the crack of dawn on the 5:45 train to Paris from Strasbourg. Once in Paris, myself and the other participating exchange students from district 1680 would meet up with the rest of the group. From the eastern train station we were led directly to the bus where a few other kids had been waiting. A half hour had gone by when I realized the bus was packed. I still continue to be astonished at what happens when exchange students are together. The fact that we were all exchange students naturally made us amicable but because we would be spending the next two weeks sharing the same bus, hotel rooms and dinner tables we could sense the familiarity that was yet to come.

We did a quick (to some disappointing) bus tour of Paris, only stopping at the Eiffel Tower for what seemed like a quick photo shoot. From Paris we headed to Strasbourg. To a few of us this was home to us. I could sense a look of misunderstanding on the faces of the other exchange students who were not fortunate enough to have been placed in such a region like Alsace. I recall one person seeing all the local village names (Niederbroan, Ammerschwihr, Kaysersberg, etc.) and asking if we had already crossed into Germany. Once in Strasbourg we were let loose to find something to eat. Alsace being one of the more conservative regions, and the day happening to be Good Friday, everything and anything seemed to be closed. We trekked on, found some kepab, and proceeded to the guided tour of the city I thought I had known so well.

From Strasbourg we departed for Munich. This was one of the cities I had been really looking forward to on the trip. I can’t lie, before this year I had the impression that German culture seemed to fall on the colder side, but a trip to Hofbräuhaus certainly proved me wrong.

Within a 4 hour drive, what once was Germany became Austria and gloomy cloud-filled skies became clear as glass. We were more then mildly amused in the two lovely cities of Innsbruck and Salzburg. I found as though the sausage vendors and Austrian folk groups who were displaced in the streets proved to be crucial elements in making Austria one of my new favorite countries.

Next stop Italy. The drive through the Italian alps was astonishing but my tired state left me feeling rather guilty for not having my eyes plastered to the bus window. So I stood up, and let myself ride shotgun with the driver. We arrived to our hotel which was situated in what seemed like “any beach town U.S.A.” about 20 minutes from downtown Venice. Gloomy weather was back in town but that didn’t stop all the girls in Italy from donning oversized sunglasses that made them look more like insects then super models. I hate to be honest but I would hate it even more to lie. Venice, to me, resembled a pair of jeans from Abercrombie and Fitch. Meticulously dressed yet all too expensive. I did however amuse myself a little too much with the ever so famous pigeons.

From Italy we drove across the coast into the south of France. The most breath taking sights I have seen since my coming here. Villages perched on cliffs seemed to hang on for dear life. Like many places in the world the south means sunny weather which in conclusion gave us the first day where we could throw on a pair of shorts. A lunch break in Nice had me on the brink of making a down payment on some real estate. From Nice we went to a perfume factory where I learned about the most boring job in the history of employment. On the way to Marseille we made a small detour in a little seaside village. It was here that I was perusing up and down the streets with 2 other friends and happened to see 2 famous French actors. One of the kids who was present at the time happened to a huge fan of their soap opera and asked if we could take a picture. Later that night back at the hotel we watched the series and went nuts every time they came on the scream telling everyone in the hotel lobby that they were our friends. Didn’t believe us? The proof is in the pictures…

We left Marseille early in the morning and headed directly for Lyon. We only got a quick guided tour of Lyon. Everything I saw was through a bus window so I don’t feel as though I have much to say about this city although it looked like it could have been a good time.

Like every morning the loud banging on our door with a voice telling us we had 5 minutes to be in the bus became rather habitual for the kids in my room. We hit the road in search of Geneva, Switzerland. We took a guided tour of the United Nations headquarters. I learned a lot about bureaucracy and my tour guide conveniently denied any knowing of the New World Order and the powers that be. After the tour we were let loose yet again in search of a late lunch.

From Geneva it was off to our last city, Dijon. The ride was rather melancholy. Everyone had known the end closing in. After a fun night in Dijon we all woke our tired eyes to pack the bus for the last time. The group had already started to split with certain students taking the train from Dijon back to their respective cities, and villages. Those of us still remaining boarded the bus for a 5 hour drive back to Paris were we would be disposed at selective train stations. The goodbyes were hard. In two weeks these 52 kids had become family. We shared everything from headphones and opinions to hotel rooms and classic exchange student stories. These were the best two weeks of my life.

I returned to Kaidenbourg eager to see my host family and sleep in a real bed. I still had a week left of my school vacation to recuperate from the fatigue brought on from the voyage. Since then I have found myself back in the classroom, back to the simple life in my wonderful farming village of 150. For the past few days we have been anxiously waiting the arrival of a baby calf.

Life is perfect right about now. Ici tout va bien.

I would just like to thank my amazing parents and let them know how much I appreciate all they have taught me over the years. I wouldn’t trade them for the world.

La vie est très belle. Alors, souris.

July 3 Journal

The curtain-call,

And so like all things in life, my voyage has come to an end. The last few weeks have been filled with every emotion you could think of. I look back on my year in France and can only smile and exhale with a sense of accomplishment and understanding. Nobody can take this from me. The size of my heart has doubled in making space for the amazing people that have graced my life. Whether it be my amazing host parents or the lady in the Paris airport who tried to convince me that going home was not the end of the world, I’m convinced people are good. Coming home is hard. I’m trying to embrace this culture without losing everything I learned to appreciate in France. It does a number on your heart, and feelings.

In a matter of a few days after coming, I moved to Miami to start college at Florida International. As for now, I will be studying French. I’m looking forward to seeing everyone at the welcome home dinner.

I would just like to again thank you all. La vie est belle alors profitez bien…