Vagabond is She, jade nature-lover,
Vindicated cerulean waters flow in and around Her, a
Vaudevillian on the stage of life.
Vanished She is from the sight of sea-sick sailors,
Vivacious with only plum water lilies,
Vain and insatiable, to keep Her company.
Vicissitudes of fate have kept the salty water moving about Her—no
Vendetta held. This jade mermaid, lovely,
Verbose, is like no one else; uniquely
Vigilant on the stage of life, dancing
Valorously to Her melancholy Moonlight song.
Violins sing the syrupy music that so
Vexed Her into the electric blue dance which
Vacillates between slow and fast,
Veracity illuminating the cerulean water around Her.
Who knew that this metaphorical vagabond would end up truly wandering all ends of the Earth? My name is Veronica Winslow, I am 17 years old, a junior at Fleming Island High School, and I am inexplicably and completely beyond thrilled to be given such a fantastic opportunity; I cannot thank Rotary enough! I live with my mom and dad and my younger brothers—who are twins—James and Daniel. My family is completely weird and that is why they are mine. And wonderful.
Joy finds me in many different ways; writing (obviously—I hope), singing, dancing, reading, and adventuring. My room is filled with books, notebooks (filled and empty), pictures, zillions of stuffed huskies, plenty of rubber ducks, and many other random trinkets, such as a ukulele and a Batman action figure. Remembering must be my absolute favorite hobby, I do it a lot and I keep everything—even the rolls of toilet paper I carried with me at Warped Tour just in case the Port-A-Potties were extra gross. Without memories, I would be nothing.
Yes, I am quite silly. And yes, that makes me delightful company. Spontaneity defines me. Adventure attracts me like a magnet. My life is a wild, beautiful ride and I love it.
Adventure is calling again, and so begins this vagabond’s next wild, beautiful ride!
July 21 Journal
I leave for France in thirty some-odd days. Up until now, I felt as though the day would never come. Now I am freaking out a little bit.
Okay, more than a little bit. And I’m not even leaving as early as others.
Nonetheless, already I’ve changed in ways I never thought possible, and I cannot even begin to imagine who I’ll have become by the end of this exchange. All I know is that I am proud of who I am right now, and I am proud of who I am going to be. This is a strange feeling; pride in something you don’t know, something you don’t understand completely. The entire idea of this exchange is still eerily surreal to me. Yet every decision I make leads directly back to it, “Will this be worth it before I leave?” “Do I really need this now?” Even, “I don’t need that skirt—I’ll be living on the side of a mountain pretty soon, here.” Somehow this is all quite nonchalant.
Then there are the times when I sit back and concentrate really hard and the tip of the Youth Exchange iceberg hits me a little: a year is a really long time. I imagine all the school nights this past year when I laid in bed thinking, “I wish this year was over. I want it to be summer. I want this to end. I can’t take another day of this.” I thought I was in pure agony then. That’s about the time I translate it all into French, add a dash of as many horror stories as I can conjure, and picture myself curled in my host-bed, crying and singing the National Anthem. Now that’s what I call agony!
Yet, for some weird reason, I cannot wait for it. I know I will be that much stronger the next morning—that much more determined to dominate the French language, the French culture, to truly become bi-cultural. It is perhaps one of the most difficult things I have done so far, trying to explain how I feel about this exchange. It isn’t one specific emotion, but it’s not really a bunch of conflicting ones, either. It is something only an exchange student can know: an ever-changing mixture of excitement, curiosity, nervousness, hesitation, anxiety, worry, pride, thankfulness, and amazement. I think I even missed a few there.
I don’t think I can thank all of you Rotarians enough for giving me the opportunity to genuinely have a hard time figuring this entire ordeal out. You have presented me with the greatest challenge of my life and I love every minute of it.
See you on the other side!
August 15 Journal
I know, I know. Maybe I’m a little overzealous with the journals, but what can you expect? I’ve witnessed multiple goodbyes before my own, so I’ve grown a little anxious. Plus I like writing. And I’m so long-winded I have no idea how I’m going to keep all of my journals relatively short.
To be quite frank, I feel incredibly left out. School starts on Monday, so not only will my fellow exchangers be long gone and settling in, I won’t even have the comfort of my permanent-Florida-resident friends to confide in. And even though it’s still utterly unreal to me, there’s nothing I want more right now than to leave. Everything I’m feeling is very strange; a weird mix of polar opposites. I’m a walking contradiction! Part of me wants to crawl into bed and hibernate until August the 26th arrives, while the other part of me wants to go out and do as much as I can before the same date. On the one hand, I’m couldn’t be more jealous of Renee for leaving tomorrow, but on the other, I’m scared motionless of the whole ordeal. I am constantly vacillating between two completely different outlooks, yet no matter what way I look at it, my anxiety never dwindles.
Today I visited my old (YES!) high school. I went to see Mlle. Fitchette, my French teacher from the days of yore, as well as Mr. Merritt, my English teacher, both of whom were quite influential to me in my final high school days. As I sat with Mr. Merritt in that stuffy portable I used to wander into every day for third period, trying to find the goofy things he often hid for us to find—attention to detail!—his future students came and went, introduced themselves, and tried to get a feel for the insanity they would soon be faced with. I leaned quietly on a desk and observed them—those kids whose shoes I was in a mere year ago. They had absolutely no idea how much they are going to grow, just like I didn’t. Even after hearing speech after speech about “Oh, how much you’re going to grow!” I truly never imagined thinking back on the past year in disbelief at how far I’ve come. And I have to say, it’s an astounding feeling.
I also packed today (photo). Round one. It wasn’t nearly as hard as everyone makes it out to be. Unless I’m just not packing enough, but let’s not add to my paranoia.
No matter how left out I feel right now, nothing in the world could make me rescind my utter commitment to this program and all it has to offer. Never in my life would I return to where I was a year ago; I’m so much happier right here and now than I ever have been. Thank you, Rotary, for giving me more than I ever could have asked for!
September 1 Journal
I have never felt weirder. Everything is in French, as expected, but occasionally I will actually realize that and shortly thereafter I will realize that I actually comprehend most of it and shortly thereafter I go through some bizarre wormhole emotion and it is gone again. It’s fun!
Five days I have been here. And by five days, I mean an eternity. So much has happened and I have kissed so many strangers, I hardly know what to do with myself. Already I understand French so much better than when I first stepped off the airplane. I have even improved my speaking. It’s the vocabulary I need to work on, which my host brother, Stef, and host sister, Ketty, are incredibly enthusiastic about. They got me a white board in the kitchen, where they write the words and phrases I learn. For example: les flics = cops. Apparently it’s funny when I try to say ou (like in you), so they make me say the name of their cat in front of everyone and their brother. It’s Touffue, which does not look hard to pronounce, but let me just tell you. It is. C’est pas grave because Stef cannot for the life of him say “word,” “world,” or “throw.” Now that’s amusing.
My flight was excellent and I got zero sleep, because the 65 of us outbounds sort of took over the plane and made it our own little celebration. We even talked about politics with the flight attendants. Everything went smoothly for me; I made tons of friends, collected business cards and pins, and gave out my own. The only problem I ran into was check-in at the Paris airport. I had to pay the overweight fees because United Airlines failed to tell me the Paris luggage requirements. Yay emergency funds! As for my flight to Lyon, I only remember jolting awake briefly to note we had taken off.
Everyone was restless at baggage claim in Lyon: this was IT. The moment of truth. We stumbled confidently out of baggage claim to lots of French gibberish, kisses, and bienvenues. My host family didn’t recognize me at first because I cut my hair. Oops. Nonetheless, they were incredibly nice and Stef immediately took my bags for me. Such gentlemen Frenchmen are! It was surprisingly hot outside, especially in my Rotary getup, so I got to experience my very first (and very inevitable) embarrassing Rotary moment! As you may know, very few cars (not to mention houses) in Europe have AC, so you have to depend on the windows. My family lives in the mountains, so all the roads are tiny, winding, and constantly moving upward. And they drive fast. So there I was, minding my own business, depending on the windows and continuing to overheat, when all of a sudden it hit me: I was gonna be sick. It was futile to fight it, but I did anyway. To no avail. Lucky for me, they understood and pulled over right away when I put my hand to my mouth and went completely pale. Stef says “spew up” all the time now. Whee.
But let me just say that even French carnival food is delicious. And French bumper cars? Top notch. Nutella is also the best thing ever. They love the song “YMCA,” and anything by Queen, but have no idea what they mean. American TV shows in French are weird, especially the Simpsons and Desperate Housewives (Dez-pear-aught ‘Ousewives). Cheese and fruits are their dessert and they eat bread with everything. They ask me a lot of questions about America and positively freaked out when I told them that anyone under 18 has a curfew. I’ve only seen 3 McDonald’s, which were tiny. Everyone shaves, wears deodorant, and is anything but rude. This winter, it’s going to snow! I absolutely love it here.
I have my own room on the very top floor of their house (which my host dad constructed himself, along with everything in it) along with a second room just below it, which houses my salle de bains (just a shower and a sink) and a desk. However, the only times I’ve been in either room so far are to sleep and shower. I have been to Grenoble twice already and got to experience a Granita, which is like an Icee, only about a trillion times better. Stef plays Rugby, so I got to go to one of his games. I went hiking on the mountain my family’s house is on, where we picked and ate wild mountain blackberries. I’ve been to a French grocery store that was our equivalent to a Wal Mart, only really classy. There was a three day fête in a nearby village, and I went to two of the nights with Ketty and Stef. This is where the carnival was, along with a discotheque, which we danced at until it ended at two in the morning.
Everything is wonderful right now, I can only hope that it stays this way long enough for me to express myself well en français. Thank you, Rotary, for this phenomenal opportunity; I may be completely off my rocker, but this is the most fun I have had in a long time. Merci beaucoup!
À bientôt et bisous!
September 29 Journal
It has been one month. One month and I’ve come so far in building myself a life here in France. Honestly, I can’t think of what to say next; every day I think of a zillion things I want to put in journal and tell everyone about France, but it’s hard to keep track of everything.
I sat down the other day and tried to write a college application essay in my spare time, but my mind was whirling with too many emotions to express, too many insights to articulate, too many observations to record, and too much general bursting for me to get down one coherent sentence before thousands more came whizzing through. I thought I learned an unexpectedly large amount about myself in my days leading up to departure, but that doesn’t hold a menorah to the even more unexpectedly large amount I’ve learned in the past month. I mean… whoa. That’s all I can really think of to explain it all at this point. My mind is spinning so much that I can only hope it will get at least slightly more lucid as the months roll by.
My French has progressed phenomenally. I can understand almost everything, but articulation isn’t quite my specialty yet, even though I’ve begun to think in franglish and learned most of the slang.
School is really long—I get out at 5pm everyday but Wednesdays and Fridays—and I’m in the class Scientifique, so I have an overload of math and science classes. English class is usually embarrassing because I have to teach them words like totalitarianism and my teacher always asks me random questions about expressions. I suppose I just feel out of place speaking English while the kids in my class have no idea what’s going on.
I have picked up jazz, salsa, and tap dancing classes in a town near my school, as well as theater classes. I’m really glad I decided to because it’s another outlet for me to make friends and see some friends from school (while attempting to work off my soon-to-be Rotary 15). I’m so relieved to have friends at school. One of my biggest fears before arriving was that I wouldn’t make any friends, but I’ve found a few really nice girls in my class who include me in their goings-on at school. It’s a great feeling for me to walk on campus every morning and have a group to look forward to seeing.
My family is absolutely wonderful and I’m so lucky to have had them as my first family. I’m really dreading the day I’ll have to switch because they truly treat me as one of their own and I most definitely feel that first host family bond with them. They take me places and teach me things; they’re always eager to hear about my day at school and they are always concerned about whether or not I need or want anything.
The food. Oh my goodness the food is unreal. The stereotype that the French eat very little is rubbish; I eat more here than I did in the States (and I’m seeing the results), but I have no idea how I’m going to handle going home without all of this delicious cheese. Every day I eat something new and amazing. I swear the French are food geniuses.
This weekend was my Rotary orientation weekend in Annecy. I had a wicked time meeting with all of the other kids in my district and, to make Rob Overly happy, singing Fever at the talent show to represent a portion of the Americans. We got to spend some time in La Veille Ville d’Annecy, being obnoxious, touristic exchange students and taking crazy group pictures every 5 minutes. I think sometimes we scared the locals a little screaming stuff like “Vive le Canada/USA/Chile/Mexico/ [insert various other countries here],” and the word for ‘platypus’ in Spanish, but what else is to be expected of a large group of Rotary exchange students?
I’m really beginning to think of this place as home now and I wouldn’t wish to be anywhere else. Except, perhaps, Vegas. I’ve discovered that I’m freakishly good at poker.
As always, I have to thank Rotary profusely for this opportunity—it’s still so unreal to me, but I am so beyond glad it’s all really happening. Merci vraiment très bien, Rotary!
November 7 Journal
It’s a new month and another chapter, I suppose, but it’s still hard for me to believe it’s only been two months.
Most everyone else is saying, “Wow! These past couple months have just whizzed by!” I’m not going to lie and say mine have, too.
Don’t get me wrong—these have been probably the craziest two months of my life, in a good way. My Rotary Rollercoaster had its ups and downs, twists and turns, and loops as well, but it’s beginning to settle into a smooth, well-oiled joy ride into the next eight months. This is why I’m amazed that it’s been only two months. In that short amount of time I’ve become just about fluent in French (aside from my laughable accent), made a group of close friends who truly care about me, established a daily routine, settled into a new family, and integrated myself into another culture. Trust me, that’s a lot to do in just two months.
In addition (yes, I realize my English has digressed so much I must resort to pathetic transitions), I no longer feel as though I should be considered an outbound. This word implies too much that I am headed somewhere, but I’m not anymore. I’m already there. I’m home.
OK. Enough with the gushy.
France is honestly a magnificent place. The ridiculously attractive men here—of which there are many—aren’t big-headed jerks who would just as soon play an average girl like me than pay me any mind at all. In fact, they are painfully (yet genuinely) polite and charming to the point where I sometimes don’t know what to do with myself and get scared that I’m charming enough in return.
I don’t have a clue what miracle method they use on their children, but somehow the sharing lessons are much more effective; absolutely no one—at any moment—eats, drinks, chews gum, or even smokes (yes—many people I know smoke, and no, Al—you don’t need to worry) without first asking if the others around them want some. They are also much more polite to just about everyone than I ever expected and they are incredibly loyal as friends. Friendship takes on a much deeper meaning here that you would have to experience to understand. Sure, it exists in the States, but it is much harder to come by than it is here.
I have read many of the other outbound journals and many have said they get a lot of attention because they clearly stand out as a foreigner. I have not had that kind of luck and must say that made it a tad bit tougher for me at the beginning, because no one can tell I’m not French until they hear me talk. Granted, I can communicate effectively in French, as I said before, but I have to work for my friends, which just makes the experience all the more enriching for me, because I know who my real friends are and who the people who just want to talk to an American girl are.
Living in the countryside is incredibly new to me. I don’t live in walking distance of anything but other houses and cows. As a matter of fact, I once lay awake in bed one night for at least an hour completely terrified of a noise coming from just outside my house before I realized it was just a cow mooing. I have also had the misfortune of hearing a cow belch, which must be one of the most disgusting noises on earth. It just so happen that my next family is farmers who make and sell foie gras and keep live (yet very sick) geese that occasionally honk and make various other sick-geese noises late at night. Yet every morning I wake up to the breath-taking beauty of the mountains outside my window, which are beginning to become snow-capped. Actually, I experienced my first snow (in ten years) here one cold October night recently. I was ecstatic, and although it was late and I was ill-equipped, I ran outside to play in it.
Another fun countryside quality is that everything is extremely laid-back. No one is ever in a stressed, frantic hurry to get things done. The state of mind is very “eh-don’t-worry-we’ll-do-it-eventually” rather than the typical American OMGNOWNOWNOWGO. I rather like former.
I finally had my first Rotary Club meeting and passed on proudly the Orange Park Sunrise flag before eating one of the most delicious meals of my life. However, in the introduction of myself, I managed to say that I love Nutella AND cheese without making the distinction that I like them separately, so even after my ceremonious handing-over-of-the-flag, one of the Rotarians stood up to ask how I cut the cheese to put the Nutella inside. Still, the food was fantastic and if anyone cares to let me know what a guinea fowl is and where/how to find and raise them when I get home, I will be absolutely delighted. It’s my new Thanksgiving and Christmas and any other night I feel like it specialty. Really, try it. It will change your life.
I have to thank Rotary, even though it will never be enough, with all of my heart for giving me this opportunity. I am so far beyond grateful for all the friends, family, and new experiences these two months have brought me and those that the next eight will contain. I have honestly gained and grown so much as a person I cannot believe it.
Donc voilà—merci mille fois, Rotary! C’est vraiment la plus belle année de ma vie et je n’arriverai jamais à vous remercier.
Gros bisous à tout le monde! À la prochaine!
Veronica's Special Message for 2009-10 Outbounds
Dear Future Outbounds,
I send you the best of luck, from my heart, for this is surely one of the best experiences you will ever have. However, I do not wish you luck in getting your first choice country; I wish you luck in getting the country which will best fit you, where you will surprise yourself with how you love it and how close to your heart you will hold it and everything about it. Being an exchange student is not about where you go, but what you get out of the experiences you encounter, how you use the knowledge you'll gain, and who you become as a result. It's about what you learn about other people, the world around you, and yourself. It's about the friends, family, memories, and life you make.
Rotary Youth Exchange is the experience, not the country. You all are already lucky enough to be part of RYE-Florida, which is one of the best youth exchange programs out there, and to have Rotarians who dedicate their time and effort to give you this opportunity and who truly care about you, but then you have the exchange itself. I am having the time of my life--through hardships and all, because it's not all rainbows and flowers all the time--and I am just as excited for you all to begin your own adventures.
You may not get it now, which is to say that you really don't get it now, but you will. You will in just about a year, actually, just like I did. It'll hit you really hard, how phenomenal all of this is, and suddenly you'll want to climb up on a tall structure, yelling and prancing and flailing your arms. Hopefully you won't actually do so, but it's a nice thought.
Just remember (as I'm sure the Rotarians will tell you hundreds of times) that you are special, and you have a great lot to live up to; it's a huge honor to be an exchange student, but I know you all can pull it off because I trust the RYE-Florida Rotarians to only pick those they truly believe in.
In all, I wish you luck and strength and everything you could ask for in the upcoming months. Especially patience, because it's going to be hard to wait.
Good luck, and let the adventure begin!
P.S. Practice your languages! It really helps. A lot.
January 5 Journal
It’s been a while since my last journal. Partially this is because I’ve been lazy. No, this is because I’ve been lazy.
A lot has happened since my last update: my 18th birthday, Christmas, New Year’s, and my first host family change. I’ll go in order.
Everyone in France gets very excited about birthdays, and takes it as the utmost importance to wish you a happy one. All day, my friends told my other friends and kissed me and sang to me and a few girls from my class even bought me pins at a local store in my favorite color (which is green, for those of you who don’t know). My host parents bought me coffee mugs and a nice perfume, and my host brother wrote me one of the sweetest letters I have ever received in English (albeit very poor English). This letter is one of the defining moments of my exchange, so I’ll let you read a snippet, mistakes and all:
“I’m glad you was like you are. I’m glad that my “fake sister” was you because you’re really nice, even when you don’t laugh all the time because of me L… I apologize for it. But you’re an easy to bother you know… And I will try my best to stop it, I don’t want to let you [have] bad memories of me! … I’m happy to share times with you, like your first shooting star, and I’m not happy because there weren’t a lot of these times. Because of Rugby, and school… But I’m sure you’ll do more when I’m at your home! … I remember your first days at home. One thing makes me very laugh: Even if you detest James Blunt, you nearly sang a song of him… Just to make me happy… Such a kindness! … I like the relationship we have, it’s like we are good friends and brother and sister too. That’s just what I hoped.”
This letter caught me off guard and made me incredibly happy at the same time; it’s one of those things that I will cherish forever, a true defining moment in my exchange where I really felt it: that I am truly doing well here—that I have entered the hearts of a family as someone who means a great deal to them.
This was definitely not a typical Florida Christmas. There were no palm trees, no Christmas carols, less decorating enthusiasm, no stockings, no heat, and only someone completely off their rocker would wear flip-flops (although I dreamed about wearing them).
Christmas Eve was spent grocery shopping for the tons of food we would be eating over the next couple of days, including driving out to a farm to buy a turkey with everything still attached. That means the head. Then came the preparation: opening up the turkey and pulling out all of its insides to cook and make a sort of stuffing with, plucking out the roots of the feathers, and chopping off the head. I almost decided to be a vegetarian, but French food is too good to give up meat. Around ten o’clock, we sat down to eat, beginning with the turkey, which was delectable, and potatoes. The next course included caviar from Germany, which was not delectable, and Russian vodka, and finally we ate a little dessert of chocolates and dried fruits. Around midnight, we opened gifts, because the next day a large group of extended family would be arriving with even more gifts for those present. I got earrings, a variety of French DVDs, an all chocolate recipe book (which I will be worshipping in the future), and a pile of presents from my friends and family back home, which I won’t go into detail about. I gave my host family a photo album half-filled with pictures from my stay with them, Florida postcards, and a long thank-you letter (in French!). They were very grateful, and I still see it out around the house all the time, which is very special to me.
Christmas day, extended family began to meander in with more gifts and lots of Christmas spirit. We talked and cooked—I baked cookies, which everyone loved!—and drank the traditional aperitif before sitting down to eat around three. There was foie gras (my personal favorite), fondue (also a favorite)—both of which I ate an impressive amount of—cooked peppers, asperges (I don’t know what they’re called in English), smoked salmon, two or three different wines, more caviar, and homemade Yule logs for dessert. We finished with this meal around six thirty, and then opened gifts. I got a box of chocolates (sometimes I think they want to fatten me up), lavender from Provence, candles, and a candle holder from my host extended family. After gifts, we talked and played with our gifts until the crowd began to dwindle out and head home.
My Christmas was different from what I’m used to, but it was not any less enjoyable. To the French, Christmas is not about material things or commercialism—it’s the people we’re with that are important to them, and I could not have been any luckier for the people I had around me this year.
My New Year’s was also quite a different experience, but I would not have changed it for the world. I went to Megève, France with my host sister and four of her friends for four days to stay in one of the most prestigious ski resorts in France, right near Mont Blanc. The apartment we were in was right on the course and walking distance from the rental and forfeit center. Every night we made a typical (and delicious) French meal, including fondue and foie gras, which I adored as usual. My host sister and I didn’t ski much, except for when we did so in our bathing suits to change things up a bit. It was cold, but I felt like a real Floridian (aside from my missing tan). New Year’s Eve we went into the town to get free hot wine, which is even better than regular wine. The town officials made it in a giant iron pot in the town center over a huge fire. We didn’t stay long because it began to rain a little and it was freezing, so we headed back to the apartment and drank champagne and wine, wished each other good health, and then had a huge snow ball fight. My team was getting clobbered, so we decided to sneak around the barrier (which was a large bush) and ambush the other team. They gave up, so we rolled down the hill in front of the apartment and made snow angels until it was close to midnight, when we went inside, changed, warmed up, got more champagne, and headed back outside to scream our own countdown. The neighbors joined in and even had some fireworks to complete the moment. We gave each other bises (kisses) and individually wished each other a good year and best wishes. Bed wasn’t a question until around four thirty in the morning, after we had danced ourselves into exhaustion.
New Year’s Day was when I legitimately went skiing, although I made the mistake of trying snowboarding without any instruction. My tailbone hurts.
Host Family Switchage:
Changing my host family was hard. I absolutely adored my first family and really did not want to change. I also ended up with three times more baggage than when I arrived here. I already knew my second family, so that helped a little with the awkward level, but a lot is going to change for me over the next three months. For one, it’s a farm with lots of sick geese. Two, they have three kids who live at home all the time, one who goes to school with me and two who are younger, along with another son who no longer lives at home. Three, as expected, their way of life is different and it will take some time to get adjusted to it.
It was incredibly difficult for me to pack up my things and clean out my room in the days leading up to the change. I really began to think of these people as my real family—I am completely comfortable with them and felt truly at home in their house, in their presence. My host mom and I spent a lot of time together because it was often just her and I at home during the week, and we have grown to know each other as in a real mother-daughter relationship. We know each other. With my host dad and brother, we got to a point where we could mess with each other just like I did with my real father and brothers. My host sister and I, we tell each other everything. When she comes home from college to visit, she tells me all the gossip and rumors and everything that happened to her since the last time we talked, and I can do the same. I’ve never had a sister, and my relationship with her is just the way I imagined a sisterly relationship to be.
The night before moving day, my host mom made me my personal favorite of hers: green beans. There is something magical about the way she makes green beans that I just can’t enough of them. Then my host dad and I watched The Simpsons for a few hours while eating chocolate and Petits Suisses, my favorite desserts.
The hardest had to be to watch their next host daughter show up with all of her baggage. It’s not right for me to go into lots of detail, but essentially this next host daughter is not the type to make host families happy, so it hurt me to watch my family take in someone who might cause hurt. At this point, it would absolutely kill me to see my family unhappy or stressed because of someone they make such a sacrifice for.
I know I will go back and see them again soon over the weekends, but what is going to be the hardest during my adjustment period in this second family is not to be able to see my first everyday like I’m used to; it’s almost like leaving on exchange a second time, just less far away.
I was not made for snow. Or cold. For a while, I actually believed that I loved a real, hardy winter time. Boy, am I silly.
One week, I spent three days snowed in the house due to three feet of snow. Two of these days, I spent with no electricity, which meant no hot water. I learned the art of sponge bathing. To pass the time in the dark, my host mom and I made doughnuts by candle light and read when it was still light outside. We also shoveled clean our very steep and long driveway, only to wake up the next day with a fresh blanket of snow in the path we’d cleared.
This happened again (minus the power outage) the week after, during the days of a strike, where the students of my school blocked the high school. This means we put up barriers and staked out the gates so no one could enter; not teachers, not students, not janitors. I missed the first two days because of the snow, but made it for the third and final day—the day before Christmas vacation. We had hot chocolate, cookies, games (one which was exactly like Sharks & Minnows, just on land running around like idiots), and music. The best part is that the reform being protested was actually sensible; it was just that no one wanted to go to class.
My time here in France is growing shorter by the day, and I can hardly believe four months have already gone by. Earlier, some of you might remember, it really felt to me like the time was in slow motion, but it’s picking up the pace each day that passes and I am dreading the day that marks my last four months, because I know they will disappear quickly. My French comes to me naturally now, even some of the hardest conjugations, and I’m incredibly proud of this. I think I’ll have a hard time not slipping into French occasionally upon return.
I’ve developed a life here almost without realizing it and this is a phenomenal feeling.
Thank you Rotary for this wonderful opportunity, and I promise to work on my laziness. Good luck again to all of the future outbounds—I hope to see all of you in August!
À bientôt (vraiment cette fois)..
Gros bisous !
February 24 Journal
It's been a good while since my last journal. And I do hate to keep you all in suspense.
However, I have an excuse this time! For one, I wanted to wait a whole month between journals rather than racking them up like J.K. Rowling; and for two, I just got back from two weeks of vacation!
For these wondrous two weeks of vacation, while I'm sure the rest of you were working hard, I got to go on my first Bus Trip and spend a week in Paris. For the trip, I hopped in a bus with 40 other exchange students who are also in France and we went to Dijon (yes, like the mustard), Avignon, Nimes, Narbonne, Barcelona, and Figueres. This was perhaps one of the best weeks of my exchange because I got to see and learn a little bit more of France, act like a tourist and take silly pictures everywhere, and I went to Spain! I even learned a little Spanish. How to sing La Bamba, that is. We saw plenty of sites, of course, like the Pont du Gard, the coliseum in Nimes, the Gaudi houses in Barcelona, and my favorite: the Salvador Dali Museum in Figueres. But I won't bore you with the itinerary details. The most important (and probably the best part) was being surrounded by 40 others going through about the same things as I am. It's a relief to compare exchange experiences and stories with others who truly understand the importance, no matter how silly the story may seem to someone else. I found life-long friends on this week-long trip and I certainly hope I'll have enough time in my life to go see them all in their respective countries. It was tougher than one might think to leave each other at the end of the trip. One week may seem like nothing at all, but when a group of people come together who already have a strong link, that link can only be made stronger and more prominent and therefore harder to break. It's difficult to find such a feeling of togetherness elsewhere in the world.
As for my week in Paris! This I spent with my host grand parents, who know Paris quite well, so they walked around with me to show me what a real Parisian feels like. I also did tourist-y things like walk the Champs-Elysées, take pictures in front of the Arc de Triomphe, get my caricature done on Montmartre, and pick up a coffee from Starbucks (how could I resist? there're barely any in France). It was a great feeling to be mistaken for a Parisian and be asked directions by visiting Frenchies, and to walk through la Ville des Lumières at night, surrounded by the bustling night life of Parisians and tourists alike. I even saw the Eiffel Tower glitter!
Other than my vacations, there doesn't seem to be much more I can recount. This is good; it's really a signal that my life here is officially complete. France is the norm for me now and I truly love it. The only down side is that I leave this place I call home in 4 and a half months, which I know will pass entirely too quickly, because the day I arrived feels like it was just yesterday. I honestly ask myself some days just how I plan on managing when I get back home. No delicious French food, no more traditional French meals, no more kisses when I see my friends, no more mountains, no more countryside, no more small town, no more French, for that matter... Seriously, what will I do? Granted, I'll be thrilled to see everyone again, but I'm beginning to realize how much I'll miss this place when I leave. I've already left home once, not too long ago, and felt the sickness; I don't want to do it again.
To finish, as I always do, I want to say thank you to all the Rotarians that made this year possible. It has been a true privilege and I plan on taking full advantage of these remaining months. Thank you so much, Rotary! Merci beaucoup!
A la prochaine!
March 27 Journal
I'm almost exactly on time for my journal this time around! It's hard to realize that one month has gone by so quickly, knowing there are only 3 and a half left now.
"Time, why do you punish me?"
-Hootie and the Blowfish
This past weekend, the 20-22 of March, I had the opportunity to take part in an immense Rotary conference. The some 350-odd exchangers who are in France as well took a trip to Toulouse. We spent the weekend exchanging pins, stories, and cards, and I even got to see Ashley and Ale again! On Saturday, we went to the Natural Science Museum of Toulouse and spent some time walking around the center of the city before heading to a big dinner/flag ceremony/talent show, which lasted until 2AM. During the flag ceremony, we had a competition between the Canadians, the Mexicans, and the Americans to see who could sing their National Anthem the loudest. We won. I lost my voice. Best weekend ever.
The time for a new and final family switch is approaching and I'm having another hard time with this. Not only does this actualize the last leg of my exchange, but I've also become quite close to my host sister, and I'll miss being in a house that is always full of life, where there's always someone to talk to and something to talk about, since my next host family has no children. I've even come to love living on a farm with no neighbors and no Internet. It's calm, and the view is beautiful.
I would really enjoy telling everyone about the unique and exciting things I've gone out to do during this year, but I just can't. Not because they're against the rules, but because I don't find them as unique and exciting as someone who's never been to France may find them. My days are like any other days: I wake up, get ready, take the bus for 30 minutes to get to school, go to class, spend the two 10 minute recreation periods outside and any free hours I have at the café next to my school with my friends, take the bus back home, hang out in my room with my host sister watching movies or talking, eat dinner with the family, shower, finish movies/talking with my host sister, sleep, repeat. Weekends, I generally spend at friends' houses or I go into Grenoble to see the other exchange students in my area. This Saturday, as a matter of fact, I was invited to a costume party and will be going as 'old school punk.' There will be pictures.
I would also really enjoy listing the cultural differences between France and the United States, but I think I'll have to wait to get back to the States before being able to go into great detail.
Lately, in reflecting on the fact that I'm already almost at the end of this experience, I've come to realize just how much I've changed. I've grown stronger, more patient, braver, and independent; I've become bilingual, bicultural, ambitious, determined; I've lost all tendencies to procrastinate or sit around and do nothing. Some things I can't explain, but I feel them; and perhaps those who knew me well before I left will be able to feel them, as well.
"I'm someone different now, those days still live in my dreams."
Response to "The Inconvenient Truth"
(These thoughts and remarks are strictly personal and based on experience, as well)
I was inspired to write this section of my journal because of Frederik (from Denmark). After reading his journal from January, I realized than none of us really do get into the truth of it all. So here I go: Exchange, for the first 6 months, is extremely difficult; and although it may not be true, I feel it's especially difficult in France... especially for an American. Thanks to the media and biased information on the United States that are sent out to foreign countries, an American automatically has a bad image when going abroad. For a two week vacation in France, you wouldn't notice, but when put into a high school surrounded by Frenchmen who are fed nothing but the mistakes Bush made to Paris Hilton's latest escapade to the statistics on obesity to the economic crisis, it's hard to prove all Americans aren't horrible, selfish people who eat unhealthily and are either filthy rich or dirt poor. From the beginning, I was asked tons of questions on these subjects and more, and had plenty of people tell me they hate America. It's hurtful, and for a long time I felt like an outcast just because of my nationality, sometimes even among other exchange students. The only way to overcome these prejudices is to prove that Americans are not all that bad by presenting yourself in a way that doesn't live up to the images foreigners have, by defending your country, by mastering your host language and impressing those around you. You have to be willing to laugh at yourself, and prepared to rebut any given stereotype. As Frederik mentioned, I've met plenty of people at school who seemed interested in me and asked me questions, but never gave a second thought to inviting me somewhere or sharing a friendship with me. I agree completely that we are kept in the dark from these tough truths, and we shouldn't be. With some other outbounds last year, I remember wondering (and, sorry Al, even laughing at), why Al would ever ask us to do bunches of research on our own country before the exchange. I mean, come on! we do live here, after all! Now I know perfectly well, and strongly suggest that this research be done. I even suggest that future outbounds do much less research on their host country and much, much more on America, because we learn what there is to know about the host country once there, but may not know as much as we think about our own country.
"To climb steep hills requires a slow pace at first."
I had the same image of myself as Frederik did before leaving on exchange: that halfway through, I would find myself surrounded by friends who care about me and know me well--real friends who are happy to spend lots of time with me and take me places. While I've finally achieved this goal, it was not easy, by any means.
I, too, am incredibly impressed with (and immensely proud of) the bravery of all past, present, and future exchange students, even if we don't realize beforehand why we are so brave. There are very few people in this world who could handle spending so much time so far away from home, and even fewer who could handle the difficulties that come with it. It is extremely important that all future outbounds understand that I am not trying to turn them away from exchange. There will be ups, downs, lefts, rights, twists, turns, tears, and smiles, but you were chosen because you show the strength it takes to take on one of the hardest challenges anyone could be faced with. An exchange is understanding, strength, change, and bravery. And this is an exceptionally honorable endeavor.
"It's something unpredictable, but in the end it's right: I hope you had the time of your life."
I'll top this journal off as a normally do: with an enormous THANK YOU to Rotary. Even if this experience is a hard one, I greatly appreciate the opportunity to be challenged so. Merci beaucoup! A la prochaine!
May 31 Journal
Sorry for the delay on this new journal; my time has been so filled and passed so fast, I haven't quite had enough to sit down and reflect a little. Nor have I wanted to, considering I have just over three weeks left here. The rollercoaster I rode on at the beginning of this exchange has restarted, slowly but surely, these past few weeks; I've become so comfortable and happy here that just the thought of leaving pains me, but I'm also ready to return and begin a new chapter.
Writing this journal reminds me that it is quite possibly (if not surely) the last one I'll write while in France. It reminds me of my last three weeks before my first departure: the frantic urge to say goodbye, the fear of not fitting in, the anxiety, the restlessness, the hesitation covered up by excitement, hiding sadness. I wanted to desperately to get started and discover what this world had in store for me, yet I was secretly petrified to leave my comfort zone for fear of finding myself in a place void of familiarity.
This is, once again, how I feel.
I’m growing increasingly worried about saying goodbye to everyone, about leaving my contact information with those whom I want to keep in touch, about leaving a mark behind with those who knew me. This transitional period is a time filled with joy, underlain by melancholy.
Il ne me reste moins que 3 semaines en France.
This means that the next time I pack my suitcases won’t be to change host families. This means I will soon no longer hear French everywhere around me. This means I’ll soon be faced with the ultimate hardship of exchange: going home.
At this moment, in everything I do, I can’t help but realize it will all soon be gone. I’ll no longer (and will never again) walk the halls of my lycée, saying hello to and kissing each of my friends; nor will I eat lunch or go to the café with these friends during breaks. I will no longer wake up to a view of the mountains, sun streaming through my window, beautiful spring flowers blossoming everywhere, sheep strolling past the house. No longer will I struggle with the ancient door to my host family’s house or jump every time their loud telephone rings. I will no longer sit down every evening to home-made French deliciousness with cheese and yoghurt for dessert. The more I realize how used to these simplicities I am, the more the tiny ache in my heart grows.
I’ll miss this place (“the magical land of cheese and wine,” as a friend once called it) in a way very few people can understand; in a way I never thought I would.
“You never really leave a place or person you love; part of them you take with you, leaving part of yourself behind.” -Anonymous
Since my last journal, my life has been a turmoil of trips, vacations, school, dance repetitions and family changes, which have caused my last months to disappear without a trace.
My spring break—the first two weeks of April—was brilliant. I spent a week and a half on my Rotary Europe Bus Trip, where we visited France, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Monaco. Much like the Spain trip in February, I valued this time not only to experience other countries, but to create strong bonds among the other exchangers on the trip, forming lifelong friendships. The other week just after the bus trip, my REAL family came to visit, and I spent three days showing them around Paris (and mildly flaunting my French skills) before heading back down to my mountainous region. We spent the next few days exploring what I’ve been living for the past nine months, going to the city, open-air markets, and eating ridiculous amounts of food with my host families. My mom even insisted on taking home some cheese and wine, assuming she’d have a hard time leaving it even after just a short week.
On a long weekend, I went with my host family to the south of France, la Côte d’Azur, where the sun was shining and the heat was rising and the air buzzed with summer. We stayed with my host brother’s godfather, whom I am extremely happy to have met. He is a joyful man, about the age of my father, and bursting with life. I spent hours talking to him of everything from life to 1800-year-old olive trees. After just a short time in his company—and his mocking of Americans—he already treated me like the daughter he never had, giving me advice such as, “You need to be a tad egotistical in your lifetime. Putting others before yourself is always important, but you need to think of yourself as well, and what makes you happy, because when you’re old like me, you’ll want to have done just as much for yourself as you did for others. You’re young, beautiful, and smart. Take every opportunity you get.”
He and my host father taught me to play pétanque, a game typical to the South of France. This game is played in two teams, made up of anywhere from one person to six; we played as two teams of two. Each team has six metal balls (about the size of a softball) and the game is played in a pit of fine gravel about 15 meters long. The team who starts the game throws a small rubber ball between 6 and 10 meters from where they’re standing. The point of the game is to lance the metal balls as close to the little rubber ball as possible and be the first to reach 13 points. The teams take turns trying to do so, and once one team places a ball closer to the rubber ball than the first, they switch off. Whichever team has one or more of their metal balls closest to the rubber ball after everyone has run out of balls, gets the number of points corresponding to the number of metal balls closest to the rubber one. It is a surprisingly difficult and entertaining game, which the French take very seriously.
I just had my dance recital, of which the theme was West Side Story. I participated in jazz, tap, and salsa with five choreographies in all. We performed Friday and Saturday night, both of which went extremely well. For me, Saturday night was the best because I didn’t mess up at all in salsa, which was my hardest choreography. At the beginning of the year, I started in salsa level I, considering this is the first time I’ve ever done salsa, but my teacher thought I had a high enough level after a month of classes and decided to move me up to salsa II. I did well and learned quickly, but it was still tough because the moves were quicker and slightly more complicated. Still, I had a wonderful time.
Coming up on my schedule for the next three weeks is the DELF, an exam to test my level of French which will earn me a diploma if I pass, l'antimonome, the French version of prom, and my going away party.
I’d like to thank Rotary, as the ending to this last journal, for everything they’ve given me the opportunity to do since I’ve been in France. This is a year I will never forget and will always be thankful for. I appreciate to the full everything Rotary does for us exchange students, it’s truly an amazing experience! THANK YOU SO MUCH ROTARY! MERCI BEAUCOUP!