Madison Rittenhouse
2011-12 Outbound to France

Hometown: Davie, Florida
School: Western High School
Sponsor: Davie/Cooper City Rotary Club, District 6990, Florida
Host: Rotary Club of Mulhouse Vosges & Ensisheim, District 1680, France

Madison's Bio

Bonjour! My name is Madison Rittenhouse and I am a Rotary Youth Exchange Outbound Student of 2011/2012. I will be spending next year in France! I’ve traveled abroad to many places with my family, but I’m truly infatuated with France, and I’m so thankful for the opportunity to immerse myself in the country’s culture. I am currently a junior at Western High School, and am planning to graduate early this year. On my exchange, I am really looking forward to gaining some independence and maturity, and learning how other cultures function in everyday life.

I have only one sibling, my older sister Chloe, who is also my best friend. She attends the University of Richmond. Her major is International Business, and we are very alike in our fascination with global affairs. My main interests include my family, art, history, outdoor activities, travel, dance, and my job. I work for Pure Energy Entertainment as a dance coordinator for social events.

My biggest fear about the upcoming year is being able to communicate on such minimal grounds. I am neither shy nor quiet, so having to limit my conversations will be difficult. However, I’m constantly working to improve my French so that my first few weeks will be that much easier.

My attraction to France sparked from the few unforgettable places I’ve traveled to in the country (la Tour Eiffel, l’Arc de Triomphe), not to mention the art, the language, the people, and the food! I’ve also heard from many personal references that the education system runs very differently, and I’m ready to embrace dissimilar academic challenges. I have no idea what lies ahead, but I’m certainly ready for some new experiences!

The Rotary Program has given me such an amazing opportunity, and I’m so thankful for it. It changes students’ lives everywhere, and should receive such prodigious recognition for doing so. Thank you so much Rotary and everyone involved. Au revoir pour maintenant!

Madison's Journals

Monday, October 17, 2011

I don’t even know where to start. I arrived here on August 24th, and it is currently October 9th. I have absolutely no idea where that time has gone.

The first three weeks literally slipped away, a blur of happiness and hilarious conversations. When I arrived, I could speak a lot more than I could understand. Now, a month later, I understand SO much more than I can speak. It’s mind blowing how complete immersion can do that to you. Honestly, it’s all about the vocabulary.

I absolutely love my school. The first day was stereotypical, like a scene from a movie. I don’t think my friends at home understand just how much teenagers over here glamorize Florida, and no matter how many times I persist that I don’t live in Miami, it never seems to get through to them. Of course their commentary is followed up by “Why do you want to live here? It sucks.” However, this is just human nature. No matter who you are or where you’re from, familiarity breeds contempt. I feel bad for ever taking advantage of living in Florida. It really is such an amazing place, but for now I will continue my love affair with France. <3

My friends here are amazing, and everyone is beyond nice. It is so refreshing to be surrounded by new people all the time. I love the fact that we can leave for lunch, and there are no hall passes or bathroom permission slips. I guess the same unspoken respect goes to the teacher’s though, because we have to wait to be seated and we stand up whenever an adult walks in the room. I really could never imagine that happening at Western High School in Davie, Florida. It’s a new concept, and so is the grading scale, the test formats, the style of note taking, even the paper. Tiny details but it’s all so interesting to me.

Also, as far as cultural Rotary events go, I’m actually learning a lot more than I ever thought I would. When we had our first district assembly, we all ended up having a huge dance party and learning some Latin dance moves thanks to the students from Ecuador and Argentina, obviously followed by some American fist pumping. We made our new shy friends from Thailand and Japan learn to shake their hips like Shakira, and I taught my new friend from Chile how to Wu-Tang. It was actually hilarious and adorable, and could have been a Rotary Youth Exchange commercial. Aside from that, my friend from Argentina has taught me all about the differences of Latin and Spanish culture, along with A LOT of Spanish. I can’t remember ever only speaking English now. It seems too easy.

To conclude, now that I am a month and a half into my exchange (and can’t even BELIEVE I am saying that), I can officially say that I have been to Colmar, Strasbourg, Belfort, the Vosges Mountain Range, tried so many native foods from Alsace, have made the acquaintances of the women who work at the patisseries (plural) by my school, have taught my French friends American dance moves, embarrassed myself a little, missed a bus or two, have screamed aloud on the train (the tracks are so close together and they go too fast), done my laundry only two times (so busy and thanking myself that I over-packed), spent I don’t want to know how much money on new clothes, learned literally hundreds of words, had a deep discussion with my art teacher about my favorite American painter (in French, obviously), had muscles and chocolate mousse at the school cafeteria (they don’t serve pizza every day like Western does), passed a French literature test, and on and on and on. I can also say that I’m just not homesick at all. You can’t be. Everything moves too fast. Also, it becomes really hard to keep up with your old friends at home, especially when you’re always on different time zones. But you make friends in your host country! And life takes its shape again.

I’m living day by day, always surprised and always learning something new. It’s something I should’ve been doing for a long time. I can’t thank the Rotary enough for teaching me that.

Monday, December 19, 2011

 It’s almost Christmas and I’m not keeping track of time anymore. I had 9 more months left to go, and then 8, and now 7. I just can’t think about leaving yet.

One thing that completely separates my life here from my life in Florida is the transportation system. I have left every single weekend by train for the past couple of months, visiting friends and family that just so happen to live nearby. I have been so busy with Rotary events and visits that I’ve gotten sick from lack of rest, not to mention the cold weather I'm just not accustomed to.

I’ve seen so many places and things, from palaces to museums to Christmas markets to night life to castles. I’m even getting lazy with taking pictures now; my tourist life is slowly fading. To be honest, there has never been a moment where I’ve had nothing to do, between Christmas gifts and birthday parties and family and friends. I wouldn’t change this new pace of life for anything.

Around the third month of exchange, things did get a little hard. It almost felt pathetic to fall into the emotional pattern that was so very “text book”, that the Rotary forewarned. Unfortunately, it’s true and life will become overwhelming at times. You’ll end up depending a lot on yourself to pull through, and each person will form their method of controlling their emotions. The realization that no one will run to hug you when you cry transpires, and all of a sudden you'll develop new strength that will allow you to handle just about anything that’s thrown at you.

Then, on your good days, you’ll laugh because you realize just how luck you are and how amazing your life is. I do this all the time now, and because I already finished high school in Florida, I am enjoying being 17 and not getting grades at school (still participating though, of course).

I can’t even begin to deal with how excited I am about the rest of my exchange, between skiing in the Alps to a week in London with my school, two Rotary bus trips all around Europe, parties and exchange students, and summer excursions with friends and family who will come to visit. It feels unreal that I will have to return and go straight to university. Life is just playing out right now, always surprising and always unreal. Feels weird to have a definitive plan, but for right now I’m just enjoying every moment.

Sometimes I think about my exchange and I know I would’ve had fun if I had stayed with my friends and family, inevitably seeing their photos and hearing their stories and what not. But now I just have absolutely no idea what I would do if I didn’t know what I do now, and if I hadn't realized how much I had taken for granted. I’m so much more thankful for everything now, and even miss my little town, friends and old high school (I thought I’d never say that). Honestly, nothing can change someone’s life like a little perspective.

February 25, 2012

Exchange can only get better and better.

I celebrated my six months in France yesterday. It's sad to think that half of my exchange is already over.

In terms of adventure, I went to Alps for New Years with my host family which was just absolutely amazing. I went trekking through knee-high snow in an untouched forest. It was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my life. Inevitably I was ridiculed for being from Florida as I jumped and plunged into the snow. I tried skiing for the first time, only to find out how ungraceful I am.

A couple weekends ago my mom came to visit me. We stayed in Basel, Switzerland which is a 20 minute train ride for me. We then visited some of our friends who live in Freiburg, Germany and went to a spring carnival. It was amazing doing three countries in a weekend, a unique facet of the European experience.

Yesterday was my first day of spring vacation. Tomorrow I'm leaving to Strasbourg, then to Paris for our first bus trip (Paris/Barcelona). In March, I have a "stage" with the Rotary, a sort of internship where I will attend a technical "lycee" for a week and we learn how to work hands-on in a patisserie and a butcherie. Then my class is taking off to London with the school for a week, benevolently sponsored by my host Rotary club, followed by a huge reunion with all of the exchange students in France. This is currently my schedule for next month, and it's exactly what exchange is about. Living, seeing, experiencing.

I think the best thing we can take out of exchange is learning not to generalize, understanding that stereotypes do not define a culture, and developing tolerance.

I have come across so many different people. There were plenty of people who were genuinely interested, or ignorant, or critical, or mature, or formal, or casual, or intelligent, or funny, or motivated or completely rude. There is no way stereotypes do any justice to a country or its respective ways of life.

You will inevitably meet exchange students from all over the world who you instantly connect with, and all of sudden the world is a lot smaller than you thought it was. Somewhere along the way we lose our tendency to generalize. The perspective allows us to grow so tolerant and so interested in the rest of the world. Trivial problems that used to worry us dissolve into distant memories that we always laugh about. For this, I cannot thank the Rotary enough, but there's so much left to learn.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain