August 6 Pre-departure Journal
I have 20 days until my exchange. For the past 8 months, I KNEW I was leaving. I knew that when August 25th came around, I’d be leaving the life I just now finally understand. I have known this fact for quite some time now. So from 200 days, down to 20 days, my outlook is still the same: complete and utter denial.
I’ve prepared every day since Mr. DiPietro told me that my exchange to France was almost 100% going to happen. Everything seemed to be falling into place. I packed back in March, and my language skills are acceptable. The last part of my preparation, which I am now realizing is the hardest of all of it, is the mental preparation. I can stay in this wonderful pool of denial until I step off the plane, or probably even later, but I know that this will only hinder me from starting my exchange with a wonderful beginning. I know that if I wait until August 25th to realize I won’t see my mother, house, bed, or best friend for an entire year, it will keep me from absorbing this wonderful experience to the fullest.
I read the Exchange Student Survival Guide, spent nights reading up on exchange information and tips from culture websites, and read anything and everything Rotary Youth Exchange Florida was willing to give me…twice. But what I found to be the best help, of course, was the people who actually went through a year abroad in a foreign country. Rotexes- previous Rotary exchange students- are gold mines of information. I cannot thank Anna Breedlove and Mark Schmertmann enough for everything they told me. Although they spent their years in Belgium and Germany, the experience is generally always the same.
Six months ago, I thought all I needed to do was pack and perfect my French, and voila, I’d have a wonderful exchange year. But, after speaking with Anna, and reading the journals of current outbounds, I slowly discovered how unprepared I was. I thought the suitcases and currency transfer would be the hurdle to getting to France. Now, I know that these things were nothing compared to what’s going on in my head. I feel, for the most part, like a zombie. I’m stuck between two worlds- Half of me wants to stay in bed all day and think of what I am about to do, and my other half wants to soak up every last second I have in my hometown and see everyone one more time.
If there was a way, I would just appear in France. I wouldn’t face saying goodbye to everyone. Unfortunately, this is far from a possibility. So, every day, I make myself think about it. It’s like a daily exercise: envisioning getting on the plane in my little Tallahassee, and waiving to my mother. One day, this daydream won’t make me cry. But for now, I know I’m still not ready. I have 20 days to think of this and realize that a year is not a lifetime. That a year doesn’t mean I’m gone forever; that Rouen, France isn’t keeping me from the home I know and love, but giving me another.
At the beginning of the year, I thought that everyone should be required to have a year abroad before they graduate high school. I thought that if there was an economical way of accomplishing it, that an exchange year should be a replacement for the fourth year in high school. Everyone would be bilingual and have a better understanding of the world around them. Now, I see why this dream will never come to pass. I have never been tested this much. I knew that at times during this experience, most people would have quit. It was never an option for me, but it was a relaxing thought. Now, the most peaceful daydream I have is imagining myself setting my bags down in my new bedroom in Le Petit-Couronne, finally done with the preparation, and actually being there.
I would recommend that along with the guide books, Rotary blazer, and informative orientations, that each exchange student be assigned a psychologist. The emotions are unbelievable. Truly. Unless you’re living this, don’t pretend you get it. But I don’t think a psychologist would even help- I couldn’t fathom putting my feelings into words. Being a Rotary exchange student is better than most drugs I can imagine. I am more awake than ever, but I’m on cloud nine. No, not even that, I’m way above cloud nine. I’m looking down at cloud nine wondering why those people aren’t as happy as I am.
They say it takes a village to raise a child, well it also takes a village to make someone an exchange student. I’ve never been tested this much, and I don’t think I have ever tested my mother so much. Nor my friends, family, teachers, administrators…generally just everyone in my life. I have never asked so many questions, or asked for so many favors. Due to this, I know I will have a successful exchange year. I wouldn’t be letting myself down, or just wasting a year of my time, I would be throwing away everyone’s hard work. Now, I am indebted to nearly half of Tallahassee for some reason or another. Thank you Rotary for everything. From the bottom of my heart I cannot thank Mr. DiPietro, Al Kalter, and the rest of RYE Florida enough.
Merci, et a la prochaine fois, a bientot.
September 9 Journal
It has been two weeks. Just two weeks. This seems impossible. It can’t have been just two weeks. Not because time moves slowly here, it actually seems to just slip away, but because so much has happened. I arrived in Paris, France at 7 am their time, sans sleep, and met my host parents. We drove for one hour from Charles de Gaulle airport, to my little suburb Le Petit Couronne just outside of Rouen. This place is truly what its photos show. I’ve never seen such a beautiful country. Looking out the car window, I was waiting for the beauty to end, and the REAL France, the one they don’t show in the pictures, to arise. It still hasn’t. Everything about this country continues to amaze me.
What I’ve learned:
How to flush the toilet.
Crazy’s crazy no matter what country.
Arabs are the lucky race chosen for discrimination.
High school never changes.
Children’s books are sometimes too complicated for me.
France is going through a baby-boom. And it’s literally raining babies here.
The cars here are pocket sized.
Missing your bus happens only when it’s raining…and windy.
A letter from home makes me unconditionally happy.
I live in Miami.
Being an exchange student excuses anything.
Speaking English is the most liberating feeling in the world.
The French don’t believe in salt unless in mounds.
A beautiful day at the beach means 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
The French people shut themselves off from people they don’t know.
Small talk with someone next to you-unless you’ve been formally introduced- doesn’t exist.
Smiling at a stranger on the street doesn’t exist.
My Pride is a thing of the past.
A bar-be-cue here isn’t our bar-be-cues back home, y’all. That’s for sure.
School lunches here are considered fine dining in America.
I’m the American. I look it, I smell like it, I act like it, I smile like it, I hold my cutlery like it, I speak like it, I dress like it, and everyone knows it.
American football is a complicated curiosity to the French.
American tourists in Rouen make me giggle.
Street bums are hard to tell apart from the general public.
A tour of the local Prostitutes comes with trying your first French pastry.
Catholics here aren’t the same Catholics back home, in a less crazy kind of way.
My hair straightened will never be the same. Thank you, European wattage.
I am a toy here, something to be shown off, something for them to poke and prod, something for them to study - just as they are to me.
The French love an American accent.
Becoming friends with a café owner is a powerful thing. Free coffee truly does taste better.
Becoming enemies with a café owner is a scary thing. I can no longer enter one of the cafés in Rouen…whoops.
The men considered beaus here are a joke.
A dream in French isn’t much different.
A job considered minimal in the United States will get an entire family by here.
Students, bums, models, and doctors all use the city bus.
Everyone in France can quote Arnold Schwarzenegger perfectly, but can’t pronounce my name.
Parisians are a different species of human.
France is its own world - and most Frenchmen haven’t wandered outside its boundaries, nor have a desire to.
Ignorance thrives here.
The French don’t talk about politics. They don’t talk about money. They talk about sex.
What I Need to Learn:
Being the exchange student here makes me popular, different, a loser, the coolest kid in school, a freak, an outsider, powerful, useful, pathetic, interesting, fascinating, unique, uncomfortable, unusual, bizarre, a victim, a trophy, a burden, appreciated, forgotten, exhilarating, problematic, taxing, but never boring.
A journal of what I’ve learned would be quite long. A journal of what I’ve done here would be even longer. But a journal of how I’ve changed would be never ending. Just as my aptitude with the French language evolves every day, so do my opinions. What I consider a problem now isn’t the same. Being late, that’s fine. Missing my bus, that’s just dandy. Being called out in class for sitting incorrectly, I couldn’t be happier. It’s not apathy that allows such acceptance, it’s a transformation in pride. “My pride,” that’s gone. It disappeared the second I stepped off the plane in Paris and realized I was equivalent to an enfant in one of the biggest cities in the world. Now, I have a new pride. It is not the same as it was 14 days ago, one hour ago, and it won’t be the same pride 6 months from now. It’s growing and changing with me. I now find pride in who a person is; without the ability to communicate, WHO someone is conveys more than ever before.
Everything here is a test. A test of my ability to understand the language, to read a foreign map, of my host family’s patience, and of my appliances with the local electricity. I have never used a dictionary so much. I have never been so tired. And I have never been so happy.
Thank you, Mother, Rotary, and the wonderful United Airlines for giving me this opportunity and getting my bags here intact.
October 22 Journal
It wasn’t as simple as just choosing between the red and blue pill. But that’s basically what I did. I started this adventure one year ago, and I’m not gonna lie…I think I am just now realizing what I got myself into.
What had happened was…
It was early September 2008 and I was sitting in my Economics class diligently working as usual. Next thing I know I wake up in France wearing more clothes than I have ever thought possible, a head full of mixed English and French, a wallet with 4 different currencies all together totaling no more than 5 dollars, wondering how on Earth a visit to Leesburg, Florida and a stack of paperwork could have added up to this.
Well, two months into the year, I’m one inch taller and a case fit for Freud himself. The buzzing in my head from the continual French seems to be subsiding, and a quick glance at the Gros Horloge of Rouen is to check the time after school, not to stare in awe, camera in hand. Everything seems to be falling into a routine, just as they said it would. I no longer go to the wrong class and wait two hours to be told I’m in the room next door, and the smell of the Nutella factory just seems like something that should be there. The humming of the metro train sooths me now, for it means either the beginning of a daily adventure in a cheerleader-free school, or it proves I survived another day in the biggest city I’ve ever lived in.
My life, in one quick glance:
I wake up to a pitch black, generally wet, in my opinion, freezing village to the sound of an alarm on a phone I still don’t understand how to use. I brush my teeth- always remembering to be conservative with the tooth paste, because that just seems easier than finally having to translate the whole phrase “I need a new tube of toothpaste” to my host parents- with water that has two settings: searing and glacial. I make my way across the hallway, making sure to avoid the last step because it creeks. And when it creeks, a certain little 4 year old French boy wakes up. And there’s nothing quite like starting your day with a crying infant screaming in a foreign language.
I stand at the door, bracing myself for weather I thought only existed in Russia. I yell “Salut!” to my host family, who are most likely still giggling about the 7 layers I feel necessary for such temperatures, and start the quick ½ mile walk to the bus stop. The quick walk turns into a run, me cursing the whole way under my breath- that I can oh so clearly see, and me zooming past natives in shorts and tee shirts. I hop on the bus and it takes me to my metro station. Thirty minutes later, and 3 flights of stairs I come out into one of the most photographed cities in the world.
My school back home truly does seem like a scene from High School Musical compared to here. There’s no pom-poms, painted faces, school chants, decorated hallways, lockers, flags, mirrors, posters, bleachers, football field or cliques. School here has the same upbeat feeling, but in a study-hall kind of setting. Every girl is dressed to impress. Every boy is coiffed to the tee. The hallways are filled with LongChamp bags (for both men and women), high heels, dark wash jeans, and beautifully straightened hair. As of right now, the “flannel and cowboy boots” look is in. That’s one aspect of France I love- they currently hold to the highest fashion what my city finds fit for the local trailer-park.
Class begins with a lovely jingle, not the moaning bell I’m used to. I sit there with my English-French dictionary ready to translate any word I may be lucky to understand, and the native students begin writing meticulous cursive with their re-loadable fountain pens on ruler straight lines.
Although these kids may be in a spirit-less school, dressed in 500 dollar outfits, it’s not too different. In the end, high school is high school- with or without Zac Efron dancing up and down the bleachers. There’s the favored teachers, the toady teacher, the weird kid, the fat bitch, the girl everyone has a crush on, the hot guy every girl pretends to ignore, and the designated “smoking area” (but here it encompasses the entire outside of the school, and smoking breaks are between every class, side by side the professor).
Just as I seem to be adapting to the school and students, they seem to be getting used to me as well. The first few weeks, I was poked and prodded more than my Rotary blazer. Every day was like a conference, answering questions and explaining that yes, there is in fact lots of sun in Florida.
My courses at school include: French, a little bit more French, and then some more French but for the 5 foreigners, History and Geography, Social Sciences, English, and then a sports class- as of right now, we’re playing Rugby, and then it’s ice skating. After school, I visit the city, losing myself in the local library and free museums. I have yet to literally lose myself, but I can’t wait! That should be exciting in so many ways.
Once again, I take the wonderful public transportation home, and drink coffee at exactly 4:30 with my host parents. I play games with Valentin, my 4 year old brother, who I recently realized understands and speaks French at nearly the exact same level as me. We eat dinner- which is trust me, oh so French- and the daily routine starts over again. Finally having a routine is a blessing. Knowing what’s coming up, what’s most likely going to happen, and being able to mentally imagine a schedule for yourself makes this alternate world a little bit more like home.
So in two months, I think I’ve accomplished quite a bit. Not in the traditional since, but in the fact I’ve come from being a zombie-like baby too a communicating toddler. Maybe by Christmas, I’ll be on the mental playing field of a middle schooler.
This experience is more than I could have ever asked for. Thank you Mother, Rotary and the children’s section of the Rouen public library for giving me this opportunity and books I can understand.
January 6 Journal
You’re given a situation here, and you’re told to run with it.
I know an exchange student in the middle of France who goes to a private Catholic school in a small town from 8 am to 6 pm Monday through Saturday. I on the other hand have on average 2 and a half hours of French school a day. I’d say that’s a win.
I know a girl in Lille who spent 6 days in the Alps skiing with her host family for the Christmas holidays. I spent my vacation on the German border opening presents. I’d say we both won.
Rotarians back home always talked about the “Rotary” smile, and they taught us when it was appropriate to plaster that sucker on. I can’t get that smile off, it just seems to be getting bigger ever day. That, I’d say is a win.
I have a host family that treats me like a daughter, I have a host family that I know in the future I will want to visit, and I have a host family that is 100% honest with me. That is the biggest win of my exchange so far. Having someone always at the house when I return from Rouen keeps me busy. They always have something for me to do. They talk to me like a 17 year old girl, not a foreigner who can’t get the past tense correct.
The Ferets have given me more than a “warm” welcome. They have given me a real family on the other side of the world. This is one of the best and biggest surprises of my exchange.
On the other hand, I live with a host family where my Rotary club president is also my host mother, I have a host family that tells me their problems, even when I have no desire or heart to know. I do not want to know that you are in debt, I do not want to know your marital issues and I do not want to see you fighting. But honestly, there’s not a lot I can do.
They always say your first host family is the one you’re the closest with. And I now see why. They are the one that welcomed you to the new culture and like a baby duckling that imprints on the first thing it sees, I have a feeling we exchange students do the same thing when it comes to seeing our host parents for the first time after stepping off the plane. Not only did I open up too quickly and willingly to my host parents, but they seemed to cling to me as well. The day before I arrived, their 17 year old blonde daughter left for exchange in Argentina.
When my 4 year old host brother kicks and shouts because he misses his big sister and turns to me yelling that it’s my fault - they always sit him down and tell him I’m not replacing her, I’m just here when she happens to be gone.
All of this combined has torn down any wall between me and the family. Any barrier of politeness and secrecy is long gone. This is definitely not a win.
This situation has taught me to keep my distance. I now know how important it is too keep the walls up. Rotary gave a seminar on everything, from how to give a speech in a foreign language, to ways of preventing weight gain during the exchange year. If I successfully become a Rotex, this is a lesson I am strongly going to emphasize. Not having a host “family” and having solely “hosts”, where it seems you use their bed and bathroom and interaction seems vacant, is just as bad as being too close.
I can’t help but write this journal with a smile. One of the main reasons I did this year was to see where I messed up, and where I succeeded. I really should have known better. But it’s like a good day at the beach: you always forget the sunscreen. You should have known better, it’s quite painful looking at your burned arms, but you can’t help but smile looking back on your lovely day spent in the sun.
I change host families in two weeks.
Thank you Mother, for 17 years of morals that keep me upright in more than one culture, Rotary for this oh so lovely adventure, and plug in heaters that show -10 degrees Celsius who’s boss.
February 17 Journal
I vow to never again judge a foreigner. Be it their accent, their stories of the “home-land” or their bizarre ways of acting, eating or sleeping, I will never again judge. I’ve been the foreigner for 6 months now, and that’s only half way. I didn’t realize until now just how much that meant.
Let’s go back a little ways…when my French wasn’t so good…
At this point, I can look back and surely say that I was a noobie. But in the moment, it was awesome. It’s like being 4 years old with your pimped out motorcycle, and then when you look through the photo albums when you’re older and you realize you’re pooping yourself on a broken tri-cycle with a two different colored socks on. I still do, but back then only 4 little months ago, I loved it when people would ask me about Florida. “It’s always sunny there right??” I always smiled and gave the same answer. “In fact, no, sometimes there’s huge storms that last days and it rains profusely.” (All in French of course..) I just absolutely loved teaching people about Florida, it really made my day. Yeah America’s great, but educating the world on my home-state? What could be better?? It was seeing the unbelievably surprised look on people’s faces that made this specific question and answer session oh-so-satisfying.
I learned in the middle of October that I’d been saying the word “trumpets” instead of “thunderstorm.” Maybe in France it rains, but in Florida, the sunshine capital, it pours musical instruments.
I can safely say, I’m cold. I left Charles de Gaulle airport at 7 am a late August morning, and it was a little bit nippy. That was 6 months ago. And it seems to get colder every succeeding day. Needless to say, I look like a marshmallow. I wear more clothes than I actually thought possible. You know you’re from Florida, when in the “mild Normandy climate” (according to Wikipedia online…) you wear more layers than you have fingers. It adds up quickly- tank tops, sweaters, cardigans, hoody, jacket, heavy winter jacket…wadded up newspaper- learned that trick from the local hobos. During these months, thanks to my four year old host brother, and winter wardrobe needs, my French vocabulary developed rapidly in the areas of clothes and toddler toys. I don’t think there went a day where I didn’t say “jacket.” Be it “I need to put my jacket on”, “oh it’s cold, where’s my jacket?”, or “It’s cold, good thing I have my jacket!” Cleary this was a very important vocabulary word for me in my new life in France. I was beaming- I was speaking French, I had my awesome jacket, and people would always tell me how utterly adorable I was.
I learned in January that I pronounced “jacket” the same as “sheep.”
Your faithful foreigner,