Sarah Wiegreffe 
2012-13 Outbound to France
Hometown: St. Augustine, FL
School: Bartram Trail High School
Sponsor: District 6970, FL
Host: District 1680, France
The Rotary Club of Strasbourg Centre

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This has got to be about the third time I have tried to write this blog entry. One of the hardest things I have come across on exchange is trying to express my experiences adequately in words. With the exchange students here I can never shut up about my exchange, but with family and friends back home I find myself at a loss for words. I get asked all the time by French people if I enjoyed something I did or somewhere I went or something I ate, or if I like it here, and my answers may come out simple in French but in reality everything is so much more- people are more than nice, the food is more than delicious, and the things I do and places I see are more than great.

Last week was four months in France, and I wish time would slow down. I feel entirely at home in my city, at my school, with my French family and friends, and with the other exchange students. I’ve realized things I missed out on in the U.S. that I would have never experienced had I not gone on exchange, from public transportation to French pastries to being a middle child to escalade.

Public transportation. I’ve developed such a love/hate relationship with it. I’ve had my fair share of running through the cold rain, waiting forever to find out I missed the bus by 2 minutes, or squishing onto jam-packed buses. Even though there are days when I miss being able to drive, I love the ability to be able to go places without having to rely on someone to give me a ride as might be the case if I did not drive in the U.S. The public transportation here is affordable and accessible, as well as environmentally friendly, and many people use it, considering gas is expensive, there is little room for parking, and driver’s licenses cost upwards of 1,000 euros! At a young age kids here are able to have freedom like I never knew before driving, because they have public transportation. I am lucky to live in a part of the city with great bus access, and there is also a tram in the inner city and the gare, or train station, where for 10 to 20 euros you can h op on a train and take a day or weekend trip to other cities in the region, perfect for visiting the other exchange students when we have our Rotary weekends.

French pastries. Or to make your mouth water even more, let’s just talk about French food in general. There is very little, if anything, I have eaten here that I haven’t liked. Bread and cheese really are staples here. Even the school cafeteria serves different varieties of fancy cheeses every day. From anywhere between 40 and 80 cents you can have a caramel cappuccino from a coffee vending machine, and for 70 cents you can buy the most heavenly chocolate filled pastry called a pain au chocolat at school during break. Needless to say I know where the majority of my money has gone!

Being a middle child. I am so lucky to have such a sweet and generous host family, even though sometimes they probably think I’m crazy for my American ways. In the U.S. I have one younger brother, now I have an older French brother and a younger French sister. They help me immensely with my French, and I have picked up a lot of slang and conversational things from speaking with them, things that you can’t learn from a textbook or in classes.

Escalade, better known to you as rock climbing. The school sports are very different here. Because school can go from 8 am to 6 pm several days a week, there isn’t much time for extracurricular sports or competitive sports teams. However, there are intramural-type sports open to all students during the hour and a half lunch break, so I do rock climbing with some friends for 4 or 5 hours a week. The sports in P.E. class are also a bit violent. We did 6 weeks of French boxing, which involved punching and kicking each other repeatedly in the forehead and stomach.

One thing I still cannot wrap my head around after four months is the generosity and kindness I have come across through my exchange, both here and in the U.S. Never did I expect to meet so many people who have given their time and encouragement to make my exchange possible, many of them people who were complete strangers before I got involved with Rotary, some before I arrived here four months ago. I feel so blessed, and I can’t express my gratitude enough for everyone, especially Rotary Florida, District 6970, District 1680, my host family, classmates and teachers, Rotary clubs, and family and friends back home.

"It is our choices who show who we truly are, far more than our abilities."

-J. K. Rowling


A la prochaine!

 


April 12, 2013

This Saturday at the Rotary conference in my district, I’ll be giving a speech about what this year has brought me. It’s funny, I can talk in French but I have so much trouble writing in English. It’s honestly the hardest thing to describe my life here to Americans, because to me everything about it has become completely normal.

So this Saturday. First of all, I’ll have to assure everyone that I really do come from Florida, seeing as to how pale I’ve gotten. The impression here of Florida is that it is like a continuous vacation, quite interesting.

I’ve been on exchange for seven and a half months now, and it honestly feels like seven and a half weeks. The exciting thing about exchange is that there are always new things coming up, from big events like school vacations, holidays, changing families, bus-trips, or weekends with the other exchange students, to the small events of the week, like lunch in the city with school friends or volunteering at the food bank. I’m always learning the most random interesting things, whether from the other exchange students, from my French family and friends, or even from what I pick up on in class.

What have the past almost eight months taught me? I could spend a day talking about the obvious cultural differences, like the clothing, the food, the weather, the school system. But what I find the most interesting is how I myself have changed, which is what I’ll be taking about Saturday. If I hadn’t made the decision to take on this adventure, I wouldn’t understand myself at all like I do now. I see more clearly now my strengths and my weaknesses, but I also see how I have changed. I am so much more patient and flexible, more self-confident and assertive. I keep on doubting my English, which is awesome. I know it would have taken me years to develop the same qualities back in the U.S. These things we learn as exchange students aren’t like anything you can learn from a textbook, with a teacher, in a desk. These are real life experiences, and a ton of them packed into ten short months.

I now see that life is almost never black and white. Everything depends on perception, convictions, beliefs. One thing Rotary Florida often advised us Outbounds was to never think of the things that would occur as bad or good, correct or incorrect, just different. This is something I had memorized, like I memorized the words of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, before leaving the U.S., without really understanding the meaning or the importance of the words. It took experiencing another culture to get it.

Now I see that in reality, we live in the grey. Each person values things differently, whether silence or speech, presentation or depth. It’s clear that Americans will always understand me better than the French or people of other cultures. But that’s the point of exchange- to put yourself in unfamiliar situations, where you could say you lose yourself to find yourself again.

The expression “The adventure begins at the end of your comfort zone” doesn’t really translate into French, but I’ll be trying to communicate it anyway. When I reflect on all that I have been able to do that I would have either not had the opportunity to do or would have never made the choice to do, I am ecstatic I chose this year for myself.