August 16 Pre-Departure Journal
August 16, 2009: Reality
Little by little the realities strike me that I am, in fact, leaving for FRANCE in just a handful of days. I suppose I could say that last December when I received a call from Jody telling me my heart’s desire had come true, that might have been the first reality, but that would not be true. Now, looking back, it was merely a vague gesture that I would have to defer my enrollment to Sweet Briar College. Even the January Language Camp wasn’t much of an indicator. More like a weekend get-away with a bunch of friends I had not yet met. All the emails from France, the papers and speeches and Rotary meetings, they were just information and good times. Perhaps leaving the June Orientation should have been an eye-opener with all the sweet Good-Byes, but I knew I’d be seeing many of my new friends in the weeks before our departure. And it is true; I have seen many soon-to-be-Outbounds, which only slowed my sense of reality. Even the lack of seeing them wasn’t a huge sign, because it’s only been about two weeks since some of the first have left.
The reality of my departure began falling into place several months ago, but has recently taken a turn on an out-of-control TGV (fast-speed French train). First, it was the ending of a good relationship, knowing of my impending departure, and it was pointed out even at that time that I was denying that I am going, not verbally, but in action and mental state. It wasn’t fair to continue to act as if I were to stay in Gainesville, because that wasn’t true, and I had to deal with what would be my future reality: France. Caitlin (in Denmark) is absolutely right when she says that relationships are a real part of life. But they don’t have to be the only part of life, not when the whole of our lives is to be found, and not when we are about to embark for a new life in a new land with new EVERYTHING. It isn’t fair to hold back someone else or to hold yourself back in fear of growing into a new person, unknown back home, but perhaps the person you are meant to be, even if doesn’t seem like holding-back is what you are doing or about to do.
Soon after the break-up, another piece of reality was finding a home for my wonderful, perfect horse, Lucky. Thankfully, that has fallen into place perfectly, and I bring him to his new home today.
Then it was my eighteenth birthday and receiving a Joyeux Anniversaire card in the mail from my first host family, signed by everyone, complete with “gros bisous!” which made my WEEK! The family cheerfully reminded me that I will celebrate my next birthday in France. Was that a bird, a plane? No, it was another slice of the Reality Pie.
Applying for my Visa in Miami, wearing my Rotary blazer, and speaking very quietly in French to the woman behind the glass, that was an exhilarating experience, because almost no one I know in Gainesville speaks French, save for my French teachers and a few other students who I can’t understand anyways. Now, every time I get the chance to speak French with a French person, ha, I get too excited to communicate comprehensibly. A 20-minute Skype video-chat the other day with one of my host families, haha, it left me excited, thrilled, embarrassed (for my difficulty understanding what they said), slightly confused, and completely exhausted!
In the last two weeks or so, man, that TGV is trying to beat the Concord plane (another French invention)! The Welcome Home Dinner, buying new luggage to withstand international travel, other people’s Good-bye parties, meeting some wonderful new Inbounds (including the French girl, Juline, whose family will be my first host family), learning more and more about what will soon be “My Life In France, the Simone Faas story” (Sorry, Julia Childs), and lastly my own Good-bye party. These all pulled reality from the sky faster that Chicken Little could run for cover!
Maintenant, c’est J-9 (Now, it is 9 days to go). I’m in the single digits, and it’s only coming faster. Dear friends of mine have begun to leave for college, and soon my college friends will be back for another round of Good-byes. I’ve begun to pack, I’ve taken my French final and written countless emails and Facebook messages in French, and I’ve received my final flight information from the travel agency. I’ve even begun to make friends with the “oldies” in my French Rotary District, the ones who are from southern-hemisphere countries and arrived in February and will leave in January.
I’m excited to meet everyone face-à-face, hear French spoken everywhere around me (even if I only catch about 10% of what is ever said), and see what life without ceiling fans is like. Well, maybe I’m not too excited about that last one.
Déjà, j’ai peur. Still, I’m scared. Not so much of what I will see and experience, but of what I’m leaving behind. I know I’ll be fine, and it will just be different. No more trail rides with my mom, or tennis matches with my dad, or impromptu sushi at Shooting Star at 1:30 am on a Monday night with my best friends. Mais, j’ai espoir. But, I have hope. I have hope that these things will be substituted for new things with new people who will love me all the same, even if it takes a little while. I have hope that my new reality will be just as blessed as my current one.
Thank you, Rotary, for giving me tickets for the wildest train ride of my life, so far that is. I’ll have to see just how crazy the TGV really is. I’ll let you know.
Merci beaucoup et gros bisous!
September 10 Journal
I’ve been here two weeks now, and I truly love it! While everything is new, my adjustment hasn’t been too hard. So many things here, and the way of life, it’s all very similar to my lifestyle in Florida. My host parents are really really nice, and they’ve definitely made me feel at home, like I fit in very well here. I also love that other exchange students seem to be nearly automatic friends! That certainly makes life easier! I’m lucky that I have two in my town, and we all go to the same school.
I'm settling down pretty well. I don't quite have a routine yet, but I think in another week or so, I will. I've started to make a couple friends in class, some girls who have a friend who was an exchange student in Australia last year- She has an AWESOME accent!! Everyone has been very very nice. Strangers (which is like EVERYONE, lol), classmates, teachers; so much for the rude French!
My French is coming along pretty well, but I still have difficulties understanding what people are saying. I understand my family, other host families, and most of what other students say to me. But I can’t for the life of me understand anything the teachers say! Even when they speak directly to me! The other day in History, we were going over WWII (or as they say here, La Deuxieme Guerre Mondiale), and my teacher looks at me and says “blah blah blah Roosevelt”. “Quoi???” “Blah blah blah parles de Roosevelt, s’il tu plait”. OHHH! Ok. Wait! Panic! “Which one?!” hahaha then I realized 1) my teacher doesn’t speak English, and 2) We’re talking about WWII, which one did I think she meant?! So I spoke (IN FRENCH!) about Roosevelt for like a minute or so (but it felt like forever). Haha, every time I have to speak French in class, I always have to take a deep breath afterwards! It’s so much work to get all the words I want/need out in the right order quickly enough to be understood. When I finished, the teacher said “Merci!” And with a bit of light-hearted sarcasm, I replied “De rien” (you’re welcome/ Of Nothing). But, you know it’s bad when even the lady who takes your lunch tray can tell you don’t speak the language…
But for now, pretty much everything is going really well. I don’t think I’m gonna get quite as fat as I had feared- My current host family is realllly realllly healthy, and they eat a ton of veggies all the time, and today I asked if they had any chocolate, but the only thing in the whole house that had any chocolate was ice cream! I thought I was in France!! Also, I walk sooo much here! My first week here, every night and morning I could feel the muscles in my legs and butt that were being over-worked from all the walking and stairs I had encountered.
I’ve been doing a good bit of touring around the area, and everything is so beautiful and historic. On Saturday I went to a sea town called Boulogne. I told my mom I went to Boulogne, and she said that her father had been in Boulogne right after D-Day in Normandy. But she also said it wasn’t much of a tourist spot then, June 1944.
I feel part tourist, part student. I have a bus card, a train card for students, a school ID card, keys to my house, all the things of someone who lives here and goes to school here. But I also carry around a dictionary, maps, and my American bank cards because I don’t have a French bank account yet. I go on weekend excursions to big, historic cities, see sights, buy postcards, take lots and lots of photos. It’s funny, but I guess this is what being an exchange student feels like. You can feel at home, but also know that it’s not quite home. Not yet anyways.
I have my first Rotary meeting tomorrow night, and I’m sure it’s going to be full of Bisous (cheek kisses) and “merci pour tout!”s (thanks for everything!). This has already been an amazing experience, and I’ve barely begun. C’est seulement le debut! It’s only the beginning! Thank you Rotary!!!
October 7 Journal
Walking down the street from my school to the Centre Ville and then onto the Gare to catch a train to Lille to hangout with some of my exchange friends, I pass by sweet-scented, entrancing bakeries, nearly overpoweringly-smelly fisheries, countless specialty stores for wines or cheeses, and dozens of little boutiques which thrive on foot traffic. I confidently cross the roads knowing the French actually yield to pedestrians, and with a cautious eye I watch out for the presents left on the sidewalks by the local dogs. Typically dressed in Converse sneakers and an outfit of mostly black, grey, and blue jeans, I fit in fairly well and only provoke a curious look (which the French hide well), when I say more than a few words at a time.
It has now been six weeks since I’ve arrived in France, and it has probably been the most frustrating, most fascinating, most emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausting six weeks of my life, but I’ve also experienced some of the most rewarding moments I could’ve imagined. This is no longer just a vacation, but a real life here, albeit different from the life of a normal French student, it is nonetheless a life. I go to school, I have friends, I speak French to teachers and students and my family, and hurry just as much as the other students to get in line as quickly as possible for lunch. Unlike my French counterparts, though, I don’t receive grades in class, and I’ve worked out a plan with my English teacher to attend extra classes to talk with some of the younger students to get them a little more excited about speaking English, which also gets me out of some of the 6 hours of Economics and 4 hours of Math I have everywhere which I don’t understand at all. I’ve also arranged to attend some lower-level Spanish classes in hopes to re-learn my first foreign language.
The French are anything but rude, having been incredibly warm and generous to me in every way. I love my Rotary club here, as they are very similar to my good-ole High Springs Rotary Club: usually between 15 and 20 older gentleman, many retired, meeting for dinner once a week to catch up about the goings-on of the area and to do a little bit of good for the world. I have one other exchange student in my club, Dario, from Argentina, who arrived in February, and in the chance he reads this, I’m not going to inflate his ego by detailing just how much I appreciate everything he has done for me so far during my exchange, and how I really don’t think it would have gone so well without such a helpful, experienced hand to show me the ropes. Something I really love about my Rotary district here (and I think most of France) is that we have “Oldies” and “Newbies”, for the kids who arrived about 4 or 5 months before from the opposite hemisphere. Mine are absolutely amazing, showing us the tricks of the trade of being an exchange student, what to take advantage of, pitfalls to avoid, where to get the best Kebab sandwiches, where there are free bathrooms, etc. You know, the important things in life!
I was recently talking to Hollie (outbound to Brazil), and she suddenly remarked that it’s incredible how much courage we have to be doing this exchange. But I quite honestly said that I don’t feel very courageous at all. I simply feel like I’m a living a life somewhere other than where I lived not so long ago. More than being rocked by the differences, I’ve been surprised and comforted by all the similarities I’ve found. Yes, the cars are smaller, and people don’t seem to use Dryers to dry their clothes, preferring to hang-dry even when it’s only 50 degrees Fahrenheit outside, but for the most part, life here is not drastically different than the life I’m accustomed to: children are still entertained by puppies, people eat almost all the same fruits and vegetables just in different ways and amounts, and when I turn on the radio, I’ll soon hear a song hailing from the US of A.
Being away from America and Americans, and seeing other perspectives has oddly enough made me a little more Patriotic and appreciative of my homeland. I was certainly not expecting such positive responses from people when I told them where I come from. In the English classes of the Seconde students (like Freshmen for French high school), when I tell them I come from the USA, I often get “Oh!!! Quelle chance!!” (Oh!!! What luck!!), which only increases in enthusiasm when I tell them I live in Florida. It never ceases to amuse me and give me a little pride to know I come from a place so well-regarded, even if only for our music, movies, TV, and clothing, which are the main reasons the kids cite.
Time here moves both so quickly and so slowly. At the same time that I cannot believe six entire weeks of my exchange have flown by, I also cannot believe that I didn’t know these wonderful people six weeks ago, I didn’t know the bus route until just a few weeks ago, and I didn’t know how to say almost anything in French just a few months ago. Some weeks go by so quickly, full of hours of lectures in school, outings with friends to buy frites before the bus comes, and whatever else that seems to fill my days. But then there are moments which seem to last forever, which I’m often finding myself wishing they would.
I’ll leave you with a short list of some things I’ve observed:
People park their cars on the sidewalks, and that’s the right thing to do.
The only way French people could possibly have enough nerve to drive in cities is to have almost complete disregard for their own health, and absolutely none for other drivers.
Pedestrian always have the right-of-way. So do any stray animals.
The only people NOT shocked by hugs are exchange students and their best friends.
Speaking in English with other students always gets looks, from very interested to disgust.
Teenagers are the same everywhere, they just dress better here.
December 3 Journal
How many times have I sat down and began to write this journal? I don’t even know anymore, but since before November I have been thinking of things that I wanted to share, to tell everyone. But time just moves so fast here, it’s not fair that life can take the days away in only 24hrs. I’m a product of my generation, and I feel an entitlement to have more hours in the day to enjoy the good times, but I’m also quite alright with letting the bad or gray or gloomy days slip into the deeper recesses of my memories, traces only to be left in my nightly journal. The last month and a half has been a mix of emotions, as such is the life on exchange. I have felt like there was no better place to be in the world than where I was at that moment, and there were times when it would have been fine to crawl away for a little while. Never, however, have I wanted to leave, unless it was to go on vacation somewhere else in Europe!
Back in mid-October there was an Inbound weekend for about 7 Rotary districts in Northern and Western France. Around 300 exchangers from something like 30 or more countries gathered on the beaches of Normandy at the beautiful Mont St. Michel. Mont St. Michel was once a religious sanctuary, as it was an inaccessible island when the tide was in, helping to keep out most people. For my district which is 7 hours from the coast of Normandy, it was a 3 day weekend, loading up buses at 7 am on Friday morning, and returning to our houses around 8 or 9pm Sunday evening. In between those times, we saw many WWII museums and memorials (including THE Normandy beach from D-Day), toured adorable little coastal towns, and also walked 13 kilometers (like 7 miles I think) barefoot on the hard Normandy sand around the “Mont” of Mont St. Michel. This latter event was a thinly-veiled attempt to tire-out the excited and always-ready exchange students, because Rotary had organized for all the students to have a dance after the dinner that night after the march (there were Rotarians at the back ‘threatening’ the slow students- that makes it a march, not just a walk). Thankfully their efforts didn’t stop us from having a great time together.
Unfortunately, I got a sprained foot from the march, but I didn’t even realize it until about 3 days later when the swelling went all the way down in one foot, but the other was still very tender and swollen. But that didn’t hinder me, either, from dancing until 2 am the night of the dance, along with many other students, determined to enjoy every minute with these amazing people. It was a chance to reconnect with a bunch of people from the flight from D.C., including some of my Florida buddies! I got some Sunshine State lovin’ with Bridget and Chauncey, which was one of the things that really made my weekend super awesome J. Another thing that gave me a little boost of confidence was that my district had progress interviews with all the August arrivals, and they graded everyone’s French, and they gave me 4.5 out of 5!!!! I’m not exactly sure what a 5 signifies, because I am still very very far from fluent, that is for sure, but I know that means that I did pretty well. I have to take joy in the little things!
The next weekend, Diana, her host parents (my second host parents), and I left for the Côte D’Azur, a.k.a., the French Riviera. I think I have found where I want to spend the rest of my days. White-capped mountains dropping into the bluest of blue waters that exist on Earth, all backed by a deep, brilliant blue sky which held the heat perfectly, and a sun which cast everything in a beautiful golden light during the day and a fuzzy pink haze in the evenings. We spent a week between Monaco and Cannes (where they have the Film Festival every year), visiting perfume factories, hand-blown glass workshops, beautifully ancient little towns, and eating some of the best, if not THE best, food of my life. It was pretty warm in the South, and everyday (save for the last) was a day of perfectly blue blue blue skies and maybe a puff of clouds here and there. After lunch most days, I had a chance to go to the pool or beach and take a little nap in my swimsuit. I always positioned my chairs, whether at lunch, a café, or the pool, to receive the most amount of sunlight as possible. It literally made me happy, as pathetic as that may sound. I think being in the grey North takes its toll on my spirits from time to time, so being in the Land of Sunshine and beaches was a little like heaven.
The weekend after the vacations for All Saints Day (Toussaints) were over, there was another Inbound Weekend, this time in my town for our district’s “Exotic Meals”. All the students had to make food typical of their country, an entrée and a dessert. With 41 students in my district, it certainly made for a really interesting array of flavors. I was very impressed to see some things that other countries eat regularly. The Asians all had surprisingly spicy food, but still really good. I made chicken in orange juice and white wine because that’s something typical of my house, even if not all the US. Other Americans made macaroni and cheese, pasta salad, and roasted potatoes, and for dessert we offered TONS of chocolate chip cookies, and a pumpkin pie. After the dinner and cleanup, all 40 some us (some Rotex came along) had a big sleepover in the upstairs loft of our YEO’s house. I don’t think I went to sleep until just before 6am. I love exchange students.
The following weekend (two and a half weeks ago), I moved to the family who took me and Diana to the Côte D’Azur, and they’ve also taken us to Boulonge-sur-Mer for a day trip to the beach, and Paris for a weekend. I had already spent a lot of time with them because of the trips hither-to, and also because I take a weekly tennis lesson with the host mom and I often spend the night after my lesson. So, it hasn’t been a difficult adjustment at all to live with them, and I think we get along really well already.
This past weekend, I made a Thanksgiving dinner for 16 people, with help of course! On Saturday, my host mom and I started cooking around 3 in the afternoon, and later 3 of my girl friends came over (an Aussie, Diana from Colombia, and a French Rotex who went to Australia last year) to give me a hand preparing the desserts and side dishes, and whatever else needed to be done. My host mom dealt with the turkey, thank God, because that was a challenge I wasn’t entirely too keen taking on. I did, however, stuff the turkey and then suture it up quite well. So well, in fact, that when my host mom was inspecting my work, she said that in France, they would say that because I can dress a turkey well, I’m good marriage material! Haha!
In any case, I tried to make the menu as authentic of an American Thanksgiving as possible in a country which calls cranberries a “rare fruit”, sweet potatoes don’t exist, and there is no condensed cream of mushroom soup, sour cream, cream cheese, or many other ingredients we take for granted in the USA. I experimented with making cranberry sauce out of dried cranberries which my host mom had found by the hand of Grace, and she made thick cream of mushroom soup. We made, in the end, salmon mouse in cherry tomatoes and an artichoke dip with tortilla chips for starters, then mashed potatoes, corn pudding, pearl onions in cream sauce, stuffing in the turkey and stuffing out of the turkey, sweet potato casserole from a box of mix my mom sent me, perfect cranberry sauce (tasted just like the stuff from the can, only better!), lots of turkey, lots of green bean casserole, then lemon meringue, chocolate pudding, and pecan pies for dessert. I think I blew my host mom’s mind when I told her we cook green beans in the oven. Through all this, though, I have a feeling that next year, living in a college dorm, I will be cooking all the time, taking advantage of the ease with which one can cook in America.
This next weekend I’m going to Strasbourg by the French-German border to see the Marche de Noel (Christmas Market and festival). It’s supposed to be the most beautiful in France, and there’s a good chance it will be snowing, too, just to add to the Christmas wonder! I’ll be going with my third host family, Dario, and Diana (who is currently living with them). This will be a great opportunity to see a European Christmas celebration at it’s finest!
In school I’m slowly making more friends, or at least on that track with more people. It took me awhile to realize that it was up to me to start talking to people, that they weren’t necessarily going to come up to me and start chatting all on their own. I’ve seen that the more people I speak with, the more they talk back, the more people I have to bisous in the hallways, the more people I have to eat lunch with when my regular girls aren’t there. I used to kinda feel like the kids were a bit closed, but I’m finding that to not be true if I make the effort to be open with them. And that’s a bit what being here is about, right? Opening up to new people and new things and learning and teaching? It seems that way, because that’s what feels good and right to do here.
Other than being flattered by Rotary thinking my French is pretty good, I can feel that it’s getting better by the kind of conversations I’ve been able to have. With my second host mom, I’ve discussed things like the death penalty (which is not legal in France, but there is currently a lot of debate to change that), educational systems, economics, health care systems, and so many other complex subjects. Also, when I’m speaking in English to people who are NOT in France, I have to stop myself from using basic French phrases which just flow next-to-naturally now. Sure, there are many times almost every day when I don’t understand, can’t say what I really want, or am not understood because of my accent or I just plain messed up, but these interruptions in trying to live ‘normally’ are becoming less and less frequent. I recently had a dream in which I went back to Florida for a few weeks, as if for vacation, knowing I’d be returning to France, but when I was in Florida I was trying to speak to people in French, which obviously didn’t work too well. Despite not being able to speak back home, it made me realize that I’ve started to have dreams in French!!! Even though it wasn’t entirely in French, it is still a good start! I feel like learning another language is like holding keys which open magic doors. What lies behind those doors is one of the most treasured and beautiful things known to mankind: Communication. With communication, knowledge can only continue, friendships made and strengthened, eyes opened to insights never even hinted at before. I’m finding these keys one at a time, and I can’t wait for all the doors to swing wide open for me.
Thank you, Rotary, for giving me the chance to do this, to take part in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I wouldn’t change where I am for anything.
The 4 month mark passed right at Christmas while skiing in the French Alps with my hosties and Diana. The 5 month mark was a going-away party for a friend on a half-year exchange. The 6 month mark passed welcoming our Newbies, the new Southern-hemisphere arrivals to our Rotary district here, which has made me and my August-arriving comrades official Oldies, a day once-believed unthinkable. I’d like to believe that this time has never gone to waste or passed in vain. Perhaps I could spend a lot less time online and more time reading in French (working on Frankenstein right now), but other than that I feel like I’ve taken almost every possible opportunity to go out and live this life to the fullest.
So here I am, mid-March, shocked at that fact, shaking my French-thinking head, and regarding the warm, clear blue sky with suspicion, as it’s an old friend I haven’t seen in quite some time, one who could change to clouds and snow by tomorrow.
Where I’ve been and how the time has truly passed would take forever to recount (believe me- I’ve written that Rotary journal and it was wayyyyyy too long). I could go weekend to packed weekend, detailing every adventure through this incredible country, laughs with friends, tears when saying au revoir to our Oldies, but through it all some common themes would be found:
I love France and would quite prefer to never leave (except maybe for sunny vacations to visit Florida when it gets a tad bit too grey here…).
I have amazing host families who have been very kind and extremely generous with their time and resources (I’ve been to Strasbourg for the annual Christmas market, skiing at one of the best ski stations in France, seen a ballet at the Paris Opera house, and vacationed in Corsica for a week- all in the last three and a half months)
The friends I have made here, in particular the other exchange students are incredible and unforgettable people. The experiences I’ve shared with them all truly have made my exchange just as wonderful, if not better, than I could have imagined.
I’ve recently started on my 4th journal book since being in France, so my thoughts could go on for kilometers (the unit of measure for everyone ELSE); However, certain moments and memories stand out among them rest:
The sound of thousands of bottles of champagne popping just after midnight on New Years while standing among millions of people in front of the Eiffel Tower.
The sense of awe and peace I felt while seeing the endless snow-covered mountain ranges of the Haute-Savoie in the French Alps.
Dancing until 3 am on a Thursday night with my oldies and then being only 5 minutes late for class the next morning (after taking an hour of trains to get there).
Walking into a church I’d never heard of in the Latin Quarter in Paris while it was snowing outside, and finding a woman singing hymns with an organ and walls covered in hundreds-of-years-old paintings, faded and crumbling away.
Crying like a baby when saying goodbye to my oldies.
Thinking I might leave this world for good while the plane to Corsica dipped and dived in high winds in the mountains of the little island.
Almost getting asked to leave the Louvre with Bridget (Outbound to France).
How I am supposed to leave this new life, this new world I’ve found and fallen in love with, I’m not sure. I do know that I have 4 months left and I plan on having zero regrets when I do leave. So here’s to 4 more months of good fun, great food, and my lovely lovely France!
May 19 Journal
During the time spent on exchange, one’s mind is constantly filled with thoughts. Even for those more or less philosophical, the thought process will be pushed to its limits. This creates amazing things, but more often than not, this will lead to incredible fatigue. Everyone wonders why exchange students are always so exhausted when it often seems that we aren’t exerting much energy, but I promise that we are, in fact, burning thousands of calories by all the little or not so little notes that pass through our minds.
At the beginning of exchange, the mind is over-loaded with information, trying it’s very hardest to make sense, learn, and continue to function as normally as possible in situations that may seem terribly abnormal. Between the new language, culture, and environment, an exchange student goes through a mental whip-lash.
After a few months, this early whip-lash heals, and things start to settle where they should be. The thoughts turn into those of the host language, the culture becomes part of one’s own habits also, and the environment becomes to feel more and more like home and a natural environment. The mind relaxes and starts to work at a more average rate, still learning, processing, and making many efforts, but more easily now.
As time hits a climax, and the descent begins, thoughts may start to become stressed in the opposite way, worrying about what’s left to come, perhaps trying to fit as much in as possible, thinking about time passed and time to come, things learned, things yet to learn, what’s been done, what is left to do. Just after the mid-way point, a strange phenomenon comes over exchange students. We feel that tomorrow will be our departure date, time is running out, and that this year, this life, these incredible and strange series of events will soon be ending. This may lead to a strange combination of thoughts and emotions, a mix between fears of leaving, perhaps a bit of happiness to see those we left in what sometimes seems like a past life or yesterday, and often much confusion. Perhaps even frustration. Everyone sets these little benchmarks in their mind, saying by such and such point in time they will have reached this said goal. That time may lie anywhere along the course, but by the halfway point one might feel like language, social, and cultural goals should be met. If these aren’t met, stress can ensue. If they have been met, well, I know at least personally, it’s not always easy to see the progress one has made when we can see how much further there is left to go.
Right now, I feel as though I’ve long passed almost all those well-known benchmarks: Dreaming in the host language, holidays, real friendships that have evolved in another language, weight gain (just a lil’ bit!), stints of homesickness, and those ups and downs which are all part of the process. So here I am, with 2 months left before I board that big white bird heading back over the Atlantic. 61 days to check off the last few things on my To-Do. I feel like in this ever-quickening descent things are already winding down. Next week Diana, the only other exchange student in my town, will be going back home. Her school in Colombia starts in mid-July, and she still have some loose ends to tie up before starting at the University. Then my district will have our last Rotary weekend, where we will receive our little diplomas, and then cry our eyes out. Then I’ll celebrate my 19th birthday (gettin’ old!). After that will be the end of the school year. Then my parents and cousin come for two weeks, during which time most of the kids in my district will be heading off in their own directions. Then my school will have its version of Senior Prom (but a LOT less extravagant), then the French National Holiday on the 14th, then I will have only a few more days to soak in my last moments of exchange before that July 20th D-Day. Yes, my own personal D-Day. Departure Day. Oh, how I am not looking forward to that day. Sure, it won’t be all bad. First of all, Chauncey, Bridget and I are all on the same flight to the US and then Florida, so we will have company to cry in. And, yeah, I’m looking forward to stopping off at Publix on the way home from the airport to get crispy Fried Chicken and SWEET TEA! Then the next day I’m heading to St. Augustine Beach for a little get-together with RYE FL’s newest group of Rebounds. And, of course, seeing my family and friends, all that shebang. So obviously my first few days should be alright.
But outside of that… the idea of leaving this country of tiny cars, tiny roads, and huge appetites when the occasion calls, it scares me. I was anxious about coming, but I was also very ready to leave and discover something brand new which I’d been looking forward to for almost my entire life. And now, here I am, fulfilling all those dreams and expectations, without a doubt experiencing the most incredible year of my life. I have host families who I love, and who really care about me, and I cannot imagine not seeing on a regular basis (for those whom I don’t live with anymore). I have friends, French and foreign, who have become such normal yet important parts of my everyday life now. The French language, which even with it’s confusing rules and booby-traps, I love so much and could listen to forever. And oh, France, the beautiful lady, La France, elle me plait. I wish I could articulate all the nuances which entrance me, the lifestyle which even at its simplest still has a touch of class.
Enfin bref, I’ll stop fretting for the moment, I just need to tell myself to take a little breath, stop the churning in my stomach, and enjoy every last hour I have here. I feel the Belgian beaches calling to me soon…
I’d also like to fill in a few details of my adventures, going back a for a good moment. I've actually cut this in half, only covering through January. In the next few days I'll put up February to the present!
The Christmas Market in Strasbourg was great! The oldest Christmas market in France, dating back about 400 years, it’s also the largest, with hundreds of little vendors in little wooden huts. We had fantastic weather, too, clear and mild, so there were easily thousands of people in Strasbourg for the market. We also saw the symbolic bird of the region of Alsace, which is the Stork, you know, the baby-carrying kind. Turns out that story is the same one told in France, as well as Colombia (Diana) and Argentina (Dario)!
The next weekend was the last Rotary weekend with our Oldies. They all left between the end of December and the middle of January, so this was the last opportunity for all of us to be together. We put on our own Christmas Market to raise money for our trips, and then we had a musical evening of talent, where several students played instruments, danced, or sang. Me and another American, Cholpon from North Dakota, did an a capella version of Silent Night (in English) which was rather good, if I do say so for never singing together before that night! After the ‘spectacle,’ our Youth Exchange Officer gave out the Diplomas to the Oldies, which was the beginning of a good many tears. After a small tear-fest, we did all that we could do- We danced the night away!
(I hope you all are still reading this… Sorry about it being so long!!!)
A week later, I was in the car with Diana and my host family at 4:30 AM heading to the Alps for a week of skiing. It was my first time to ever go skiing, and certainly the first time to ever see so much snow. It had been snowing for about two days straight before we left, and the snow continued while we drove south. Not that I remember much of that, sleeping most of the way except for a coffee and pastry stop and later lunch time. We spent the next 8 days in what became my own personal Snow Globe. When we arrived to the mountain range and began mounting the steep drive, the snowflakes were swirling around in the wind, going in every-which-way, eventually falling and attaching themselves to whatever solid object they first encountered on their descent from the Heavens to the river and gorge which lay below. I was truly awe-struck by the grandeur and natural beauty of the Alps. Skiing was a great way to really see some of the nature, especially if you go as slowly as I did! Hah, no, I picked up skiing pretty well, finding my balance and getting my act together nicely. I can’t wait to do it again!!
We stayed in the mountains until December 26th, which meant we spent Christmas there. This was certainly different from any Christmas I’ve ever had before, and perhaps because of the snow, the tiny tree decorated with gift ribbon because we didn’t have ornaments, or the lack of the weird smell my heater makes in Florida at Christmas time, because it hasn’t been used in many months, but it didn’t really feel like Christmas. We went to the evening Mass at the small church in the ski station, and there I felt like it was Christmas, having passed the last 7 or so Christmas Eves in the choir loft at my own church in Gainesville. Despite the differences, and perhaps even because of some of them, I had a great Christmas Holiday. Skiing at 9am on Christmas day (we opened our gifts on Christmas Eve) was certainly something I wouldn’t get the chance to do in Florida!
After getting back from the Alps, I spent a few days in Dunkirk visiting my Australian friend, Holly, one of my Oldies. We made cookies, watched movies in English, and talked and talked and talked. Not too good for the French, but good for the soul, sometimes!
When I got back from Dunkirk, I got the Rotary Go-Ahead I’d been waiting for, letting me know I could spend New Year’s Eve in Paris at a friend’s place. Paris on New Year’s Eve is absolutely incredible. During the afternoon we climbed up the stairs to the Cathédrale du Sacré Cœur (Sacred Heart Cathedral) which gave us a great view of the city, even on a foggy winter night. The energy the city had was palpable, filled with tourists and French people from all the sprawling outskirts of Paris, and all their friends who paid a visit for the night. Millions of people, packed super tight everywhere they went, the city was filled. When my friends and I finally pushed our way as far up in the crowd as we could get, it turned out that the couple in front of us was from Miami, of all the places! Just another reminder that I’m never too far away. Le Monde est petit! The world is small! And the Paris metro is even smaller. What a battle that was. One which we lost. We still ended up walking a good hour after we couldn’t get anymore metros… But no prob, a nice calm stroll after all the excitement does everyone a bit of good. And there wasn’t any snow or ice to be seen!
The following week was a different story, however. For my host sister’s birthday in August, her parents had gotten tickets for her to see a ballet at the Paris Opera House to see a dance by her favorite choreographer, Bejart (my host sister used to be an avid dancer when she was younger). Her parents had also bought a ticket for the mom, and knowing they would likely have an exchange student living with them, they got one with the idea that student could come if they wanted. Well, that student was me, and I couldn’t have said “OUIIIIII!!!” faster or more enthusiastically! Leaving after lunch Friday on the TGV (only takes an hour to go from my town to central Paris) and staying until the afternoon Saturday, it was only about a 24hour stay in the big city, but it was great. The Opera House is very beautiful, very old (there’s a modern one in a different part of town), and much smaller than I expected, but nevertheless impressive. The ballet was modern and kinda kooky, but also mesmerizing with the way the dancers moved and twisted their bodies. I’m no dancer, but I can see that not just anyone can move like that.
The next day it started snowing while we were eating breakfast. It continued to snow for most of the morning, a slow, clean snow, no harsh winds, making it still pleasant to be out and about. We spent Saturday in the Latin Quarter, visiting the Notre Dame Cathedral, La Sorbonne University, and enjoying walking the cramped and crooked alleys of the original city of Paris, the heart of the city. With the fresh white blanket deafening any noises, this city which just one week ago was filled to the brim with people and noise was suddenly a calm, peaceful sanctuary while I walked along the Seine running next to the courtyard of the Notre Dame. My host mom told me I was extremely lucky to be able to see Paris like that. In all her 40-some years, she’d only see Paris under a new snow maybe once or twice, and still never as much snow as we got that day (maybe 2 inches that stuck to the ground). It seems like just one more occasion when I’ve been graced by chance this year.
Rotary, thank you for everything! If it weren't for you, I'd be in college right now, worrying about finals. Instead, I'm wrapping up an extraordinary international adventure!
Merci!! Bisous!! - Simone
July 9 Journal
With less than 2 weeks left, it's all winding down. The Good-byes are starting, the ‘lasts’ are in full swing. I’m trying to optimize the time between friends, host families, traveling, and just getting everything done to make that possible. Despite the fact that I don’t have regular extra-curricular activities here, or even ‘curricular’ activities, either, I somehow manage to fill my days and still procrastinate from doing other things.
I remember reading one of the former exchangers from Florida wrote in a journal that Rotary was almost being cruel, giving us an amazing year, full of adventure and emotions, a new life, a new self even sometimes, and then we have to say Good-Bye to so much of it, maybe to never come back again. Even as I live my life here, knowing in my mind that I’m not actually French, I wasn’t born here, and have only been here for 10 months, it’s already impossible to imagine myself and my life without all that I have here. Leaving my new friends, families, habits, favorites… It’s all too surreal…
I’m gonna go back a little bit, and give an idea of how I’ve filled some of my days this spring time!
In February, I spent several days in Rouen visiting Bridget. We had a great time, cooking, eating, talking (there seems to be a trend here…). Then we decided to expand the RYE FL reunion, and we hopped over to Paris to pay a visit to our Momma Rotex, Anne Breedlove, the one and only. Former Rotary exchanger from Florida to Belgium, she was studying in Paris this spring, and happened to have a very comfortable floor in her cozy Parisian apartment. She was pretty busy with classes, so Bridget and I toured the city a bit. It was on this excursion when the security guards at the Louvre almost asked us to leave. I guess they didn’t care for me lounging out on a bench next to ancient Roman statues, or that Bridget was drinking from a water bottle there, either. But no biggie! We know that Rotary Smile well!
After I got back from Paris, I showered, unpacked dirty clothes, took a nap, ate, and repacked fresh clothes. The next morning I headed to Corsica for a week with Diana and her host family (they were supposed to be my third host family, but I ended up not changing families like normal in January). After a fairly terrifying flight of bouncing around above cragged mountains tops, we were rerouted to the other side of the small island, for a safer plane landing. This was ensued by a 3 hour bus ride through those ever twisty-turny mountain roads. This was followed by a very long line at the car rental place, which was followed by us getting lost trying to find our rental apartment. Somewhere around 10pm we finally started getting settled into our vacation on the beautiful Mediterranean Island. The next morning, it snowed. The rest of the vacation ended up being quite nice, a bit colder and rainier than expected, but very pleasant nonetheless. Corsica is a piece of wild beauty, completely different from the well manicured metropolitan France which I know. It was refreshing to see untamed beauty for the first time in a very long time.
After flying back up to the North, we spent the last weekend of the 2 week February vacations at the host family’s mountain home near Strasbourg. It snowed a good part of the weekend, giving me plenty of time to start planning my parents’ vacation in France in June. And perhaps I threw a few snowballs, too.
The next weekend was a Rotary Inbound weekend, and we welcomed our Newbies (only 4). We also had the Country Presentations, where a couple representatives of each country in our district gave a PowerPoint presentation all about their country and customs. Each country was allotted 10 minutes. We have about 15 countries who presented (Southern Hemisphere didn’t, they just got here). Most were quite interesting, but I will admit to dozing off somewhere between Taiwan and the Philippines… Sorry!
Not long after all that, I had the chance to go to London and stay with some friends for a week. The city was great, very different from the cities in France, and the people were also quite different from the French. It was very strange to be surrounded (well, mostly) by English again, strangers speaking to each other, and understanding almost every single word (except for those weird words that are only said within the Queen’s territory). I was every bit the Tourist, hitting up all the photo Ops, going to a comedy club, and seeing a play on the West End (Wicked! It was INCREDIBLEEEEE!!!). We started off trying to be good, visiting museums, but then we ended up just taking photos in front of the landmarks and trying to keep warm. I had a fantastic little English getaway, and I can’t wait for the next time I can have a PROPER English Afternoon Tea!! Scones, clotted cream, jam… mmmhhh…
In the middle of March, Rotary had a multi-district long-weekend in the City of Lights, Paris. About 90 exchange students from 5 district participated, and I have to say it was one of the best Rotary weekends I’ve ever had. The pure insanity and fun, it was unforgettable. Making new friends, seeing people from the flight and the last Multi-district weekend in October, and just feeding off the energy of everyone else, it was wonderful. And Paris wasn’t that bad, either, haha!
I actually went home a little early from the Paris weekend, skipping out on the trip to Versailles to go home and get ready for a little trip to Belgium. A while back at a Rotary meeting, I was talking with some Rotarians about my future plans, saying that I want to be a veterinarian. Well, turns out one of the men, his daughter is in veterinary school in Liege, Belgium (about 2 hours by train from Lille). So I left the Rotary weekend, pulled a similar trick to the one I did before I left for Corsica, but left the same day, later in the afternoon, to spend a few days with the daughter of the Rotarian. I loved it! There was a moment during this year when I was debating if veterinary medicine was really what I wanted to pursue, or instead perhaps follow a path along the lines of language studies. But after the visit to the school, and finding myself in an anatomy lab once again, there was no denying that this is where my passions truly lie. And if I could do that in Europe, well, that is certainly something worth taking a look at!
A week after I got back from Belgium, it was April 1st, which started the 12-day BusTrip! Racing from city to city, somehow managing to find time to take about 1500 photos, it was fantastic. Once again, I played the part of a tourist: I had a beer in Munich, I got a charm for my necklace from the original Swarvoski store in Austria, visited Juliet’s real balcony in Verona (and saw the love-note covered entry way to the courtyard, which truly took my breath away), took a gondola ride in Venice and have a festive mask to mark the memories, I bought a hand-painted watercolor piece from a street artist in Florence, and took the epic “pushing” photos with the Leaning Tower in Pisa. I also bought chocolate in Switzerland, ate pasta for almost every meal for a week in Italy, and had more gelato than one would think is possible. Good times, good times.
The weekend after I got back from the BusTrip, I changed to my third and final host family. I had been with my second host family for five months, and I really feel as if I have another family across the Atlantic. Before I even moved in with my second family, I already knew it would be good, and it was, to say the very least. It was almost too easy for me to love the family- from the New Year until I left, we watched the entire series of West Wing (Martin Sheen as the President of the US, it ran for seven seasons, and was a great and realistic depiction of life and work in the White House), one, two, sometimes three episodes in one night, after dinner, on the couch, normally while eating some yummy chocolate. With my REAL American parents, we did the EXACT same thing, except it was when I was younger, and we would all cuddle in the bed with the dogs, but otherwise the same- after dinner, chocolate, West Wing. Not too hard to adjust, eh? So leaving was pretty hard, but I only live a twenty minute bus ride away now, and more than month after I’ve moved, I still see my second host mom once or twice a week for lunch (they live less than a five minute walk from the high school). When my parents and my cousin come, they will be staying there for our time in the North of France. And when I leave for the US, I’ll spend my last few days with them, and they’ll drive me to the airport for the final Au Revoirs, at least for now. It was with them that my French made the amazing strides which it has, that I have seen and learned so much about France, that I have grown into the person I am now. I have been lucky with all the families I have had this year, but to find people who are so well suited for me to live with, that certainly goes above and beyond what one can expect.
My new host family is great, too, in different ways. My new host sister just turned 18, so it’s nice to have a host sister with the same age (my other host sisters have been in their early twenties and were only home on the weekends). She was also a Rotary Exchange student last year, when she spent her Junior year in Frederick, Maryland. We never speak in English, but she sometimes helps me when I forget or don’t know a word, and we talk about the US pretty often, especially the differences in high schools. It’s been great to have someone around who really understands what it’s all like, this whole crazy exchange life deal. And even though all of my families are from the Northern area of France, my current family is very much ‘Northern’, which has also been different. They’ve shown me a part of the France that is incredibly regionalized, speaking with the northern accent and dialect even, the habits and oddities of our region, truly embodying the spirit if the Nord.
Just a few days after changing families, Bridget paid me a visit for the weekend (well, Friday evening to Tuesday evening is mostly days during the weekend…). We had a Rotary weekend, which was an exotic dinner, so all the students made a dish typical of their country. She made sweet potato pie, and I made a tuna pasta salad. So once again, we cooked, ate, and talked and talked, but this time we had another 40 exchange students to join us! This was also Bridget’s first visit to the region of Nord Pas de Calais, the most Northeastern region in France. Well, one shining example which sums some things up quite well: “I like having the Red-Necks in the North for once! It changes things up for me a bit.” Voila, Thank you, Bridget.
In the beginning of June, I had the amazing chance to attend the French Open, also known as the Roland Garros in France, in Paris with my second host parents. I’ve been playing tennis regularly for the last 5 years or so, so when my host parents proposed this to me a few months ago… well, actually, I didn’t know how to react because I didn’t recognize the name they used, Roland Garros. It was only later when asking my real dad (the really big tennis fan in the family) if he knew of a big tennis tournament in early June (I couldn’t remember at what point in the year the French Open was held), when I realized that my hosties were taking me to the biggest tennis tournament in France! It was the day of the Quarter-Finals, and on our court we say Serena Williams get defeated by an Australian, and then Rafael Nadal beat a fellow Spaniard. They were fantastic to watch in person, but it must be said that they were long. Made all the shorter, however, by trips to get ice cream and do a bit of shopping in the boutiques!
Other than all that, I’ve had little day or weekend trips all over the North, which has either shown me that my former coal-mining region actually does have some natural beauty, or I’ve gotten rained on. I’ve also been to Paris a few more times (I think I’m up to 8 times now?), eaten wayyyyyy too much amazing food (not Rotary 15, but… I’ll be nice to myself and say 5… my pants may tell a different tale), and just generally been enjoying myself.
I did my presentation for my Rotary club recently, telling them all they wanted to know (and plenty they never thought to ask) about the USA, Florida, Gainesville, and my life before France. I think they enjoyed it! I can’t wait to show and tell my Rotary back home everything about this year, and how much I truly appreciate everything everyone has done to make this year absolutely extraordinary. Thank you, Rotary, for everything!!
July 19 Journal
“All good things must come to an end.” Even if I am not always in agreement with this statement, it does hold some truth. In my case, this amazing, unforgettable, eye-opening, life-changing thing must come to an end. But at the same time as I say ‘end’, it’s really just the ending of this chapter. Exchange students with RYE FL know very well that “Once an Exchange Student, Always an Exchange Student.” Al Kalter has told us many times that the process of being an exchange students lasts a minimum of about three years- Year 1, the year of preparation, trying to learn the language, gearing up for the exchange, getting in contact with future host families, etc; Year 2, the actual year of the Exchange, living in the foreign country, learning the language, and immersing oneself in the culture; then Year 3, the ‘Rebound’ year, re-assimilating oneself into their native culture, language, and lifestyle, and learning how to find a balance between what they’ve learned and experienced the year before with where they live and are doing now. That’s the minimum, and between hosting exchange students later, becoming part of Rotex, and continuing to share the ‘Rotary Gospel,’ the experience of being an exchange student can go on and on.
I’m leaving tomorrow, and no matter how many times I say that, or look at the calendar, or say to my friends back in Florida “Ok, how’s Thursday for meeting up…,” it doesn’t seem the slightest bit true. That today is the last day I will spend more of my time speaking French rather than English, watching TV only on French, riding around my little French town which hasn’t excited me in about 10 months, none of it seems real. Despite the contact I have kept with people back home, the photos, and my life I had before, sometimes it feels like it was a dream, and the life I’m living now is the normal one.
At the same time, I see very well that my time here has to come to an end- the children of my host families who went on exchange are all back now, almost all the other students in my district have gone home, my French friends are leaving for their family vacations or summer jobs elsewhere. I also see that my life in the US will pick up and continue when I get home- friends, outings, then college will start a mere month after I return. I’m doing my best to be reasonable and think clearly about it all, so when people ask how I feel about going back, I give a meek smile and vague answers about a good year ending, but I need to go back to school and all. I give them run-of-the-mill responses, knowing that if I started talking about how much this year means to me, and how impossible it seems to just get on a plane and fly away from it all, I won’t be able to control my recently highly-active facial sprinkler system. I can only have so many tissue packets in my purse at one given moment!
Last week, the results of the BAC were released. The BAC (Baccalaureate exam) is a test given to all French students at the end of their last year in High School. It is at the same time their graduation from all their classes, a cumulative exam for almost all the subjects they have studied throughout high school, and admission to all the public universities in France (Private colleges often have other tests and applications, on top of the scores from the BAC). At my school, the principal stood behind a lectern and called out the name of all the students who passed, and the ‘mentions’ which are given for having scores in certain ranges (Quite Well, Well, and Very Well). Almost all the teachers of the senior classes come to congratulate the students, and wish everyone good luck for the future, as it is the last time they will see most of the students (there is no ceremony of Graduation in France like there is in the USA). I saw most of my teachers there, which was great, some final ‘Au Revoir’s (goodbyes) and ‘Merci’s. I’ve become pretty close with my English teacher, who is an absolute angel, even having dinner at her house when my parents and cousin came for two weeks in June. I wasn’t too surprised but was very flattered when she said that she thinks I was the best exchange student she’s ever had in her classes (my school normally has between 3 and 5 exchange students a year), but I was moved to tears when my history teacher told me how much she appreciated the efforts I made, and that she, too, thinks of me to be one of the best exchange students she’s ever had in her classes. The sincerity of things like that coming from teachers I never even took tests for is really touching, a reminder that this isn’t just a year in MY life, but I, too, play a role, however minor or major, in the lives of those around me.
When my parents and cousin came in June, we spent most of the second week in the North of France, staying in my town here, Lens, at my second host family’s house. That week we had a dinner with all my host families, my ‘godmother’ and ‘godfather’ of Rotary, and a couple other friends. I had done a similar event for Thanksgiving back in November, but this time it was also a way for my family to meet all my OTHER families. While we were all having the ‘apéritifs,’ my parents said a few words, which I translated. They expressed their gratitude for everything everyone has done for me this year, that they can’t thank them enough for taking such good care of me, and they were so happy to see that I was in such good hands, surrounded by people who truly love and care about me. Once again, this didn’t finish with dry eyes. As sappy as some of this may sound, it was almost startling to realize that this group of people, about 20 people gathered for a summer evening with drinks in the garden, was all held together by certain a remarkable string: Rotary Youth Exchange. Each and every person present was in one way or another deeply involved in the exchange program, and by extension me, too. I’ve spent this year with these people, these families, living my life, and also being a part of theirs. Despite the students before and the ones who will come after, it’s incredible to realize that my desire to live in France for a year has also truly affected so many others, people completely unknown to me one year ago, but now I can’t imagine my life without.
I know when I return to the States, people will ask about how I’ve changed. For the moment, I can’t really say just how much I’ve changed, because for me it’s been a natural process. But more than ‘changing’ (I certainly don’t feel shockingly different), this year has been about becoming more of who I am, who I was, who I will be, stronger, wiser, and overall more capable of taking control of my life and what I want to do with it.
I keep saying that it’s all over, but I know that it’s not true. I know that I’m going to come back to France and see my families again, my friends will come visit me, and I’ll go see my buddies in Australia, New Zealand, South America, all over North America, and God knows all the other places that are my list! My memories are not going to disappear when I get back to Florida, the photos will not vanish, and the changes in my life will not be washed away by the Florida beaches.
Words escape me to express the depth of my appreciation for Rotary, for all they have done, lives changed forever, horizons widened while the world is made a bit smaller.
Encore une fois,
Merci beaucoup au Rotary!
Gros Bisous ! -Simone