Bonjour! Wow, I can’t believe I have already been on the wonderful Côte d’Azur for five weeks. This last month has felt like one of the longest, but also one of the quickest months in my life. I am so fortunate to be hosted by the Rotary Club of Beausoleil, which includes the towns of Beausoleil, Cap d’Ail, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, and La Turbie (all of which surround the Principality of Monaco). I am so grateful for every day I wake up in this amazing country.
My first host family lives in a little village called Peille, about half an hour north of Monaco, at the start of the Alps. Peille has a population lower than the number of students at my high school back in the States and has one road in and out that you have to take for 20 minutes to be in another population center. At first, I was a little daunted by the thought of this, but it has been amazing to be living in nature and being able to live in a little village that has the small winding streets and beautiful architecture that people visit Europe for. In Peille, the church bells ring every day at twelve and seven, the restaurants are family-run, and everyone knows the names of all the other people and animals around town. There is no supermarket, no McDonalds, no movie theater, but instead a boulangerie and three restaurants that are open one day a week. The newer buildings here are 200-300 years old, and the village is full of now-unused communal washing and bathing spots and two-hundred-year-old artwork. It's like living in a medieval village with modern-day people.
I never feel cut off from the world, though, because I attend school in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, which is a town on the coast that lies in between Monaco and another town called Menton. It is about an hour away from my house in Peille, but I love being able to go from being in a quiet village to a busy town every day, with a 10-degree difference in temperature and the 3000-meter difference in elevation. It is there where there are supermarkets and McDonalds, so I always have the comfort of living in a city. I go to a private Catholic school, but this means something different in France than it does in the States. Here, private schools are still funded by the state, so they follow almost all of the same rules as public schools, and despite the church in the middle of the campus, there is no uniform, mandatory mass, or extra days off school. Most people go to my school because of the proximity to their house or the more rigorous coursework and longer school hours.
My school day here is very different from what it was in the States. First of all, there are two alternating weeks with different schedules. For each of those weeks, every day has a completely different schedule that ends at different times. For example, on Monday during week A I take 2 hours of French literature, followed by 1 hour of math, 1 hour of history, 1.5 hours of physics and 1.5 hours of biology, all of which runs from 8 am to 5 pm. Then, on Tuesday during week A I will have gym for 2 hours, math for 2 hours, social and economic science for 1 hour, and then the French as a foreign language class for 1 hour, with school ending at 4. Having to memorize 10 different daily schedules has been tough for me. To make matters even harder, every class is in a random room (both teachers and students move rooms), so I might have history in room 402 on Monday, but on Tuesday I will have it in room 306. We even change rooms in the middle of class sometimes! Long story short, French scheduling is very different.
I am in the grade “seconde” at school, which is the equivalent of 10th grade in the States. Here, I have one class of 40 people, and we move around to the different classrooms together. There is no choice of classes in seconde, and there is no separation based on level (like on-level, honors, or AP), so I am with the same people all day, every day. I take (only including the academic classes) French literature, math, technical and numerical science, programming, math, physical science, biology and earth science (one class), history and geography (one class), gym, English, French as a foreign language, and social and economic science (thankfully I was able to exempt taking Italian). I also have “vie de classe,” “orientation,” and “DST” every week. Unlike most of the other exchange students in my district, I get no special treatment (except for no Italian) at school. I get the same work, the same grades, and the same hours as everybody else in my grade. I also can’t say I’m not tired when I wake up at 5:30 to go to school and return at 8 pm. It is a challenge, but I feel it has helped me improve my French even more.
One of the things that surprised me about France is that the students are not rigid, highly academic workers. Yes, the teachers are generally strict and most classes are on a lecture format, but I was given the impression before I left that every class would be the students sitting quietly and respectfully while taking notes, and then packing up and leaving for the next class. This is definitely not the case. While French student note-taking still leaves me speechless with the amount of different colored pens, the perfect handwriting, the use of rulers for every line, and the crazy amount of highlighting, most French students are laid back. They talk in class (even when they’re not supposed to), joke with the teachers, don’t always study, copy each other’s work, and don’t always get stellar grades. The one thing that is still very rigid here is that the structure of the class is to sit down and get the notes from the teacher, and then learn the material at home for a later test.
My Rotary district, 1730, encompasses the French regions of Alpes-Maritimes, Var, and the island of Corsica. It spans from the border of Italy to Toulon from east to west and from the coast to the low Alps from south to north (and Corsica). I am very lucky because I feel that 1730 is the best district in France, with the beauty of the coast and the mountains and the very warm, sunny weather (I don’t I would survive the winter in northern France). I am extremely happy with my placement in the district, for my house is near the city bustle of Nice and Monaco, the quietness of Peille, and the small town with big-city vibes from Roquebrune-Cap-Martin and Menton. My school is in an amazing location as well, for it sits on the border between Roquebrune, which is a bit more suburban-feeling, and Menton, which is an extremely beautiful old city that has an amazing downtown area. From my classroom, I can see the ocean, and instead of having pigeons as pesky birds, we have seagulls. The bus ride to school every morning is a mixture of mountain scenery, medieval-era villages, and an overview of Monaco and the many yachts that line its waters. I am also in a very unique place because the town of Menton borders Italy, so the city is as Italian as it is French. Local cuisine is a mixture of Italian and French food, every sign and menu is in Italian, and a large population of the town only speaks Italian. It is pretty cool to say that the students at my school commute from three different countries (France, Monaco, and Italy) every day.
For some reason, when I thought of going abroad before I left, I didn’t think about the aspect of speaking French. I anticipated the many social and cultural differences, but when I thought about learning French, I only saw the end in which I would be fluent, not the first 5 months where it would be a struggle that I’ve gotten used to enduring. I did study before I left though, and thank goodness for that. I have been taking French class at school since the sixth grade, which left me being able to say basic words and phrases, but not much else. Throughout the years, I have also studied French at home (not intensively, though) because I think that it is a beautiful language and I always had the dream of studying abroad (this is what also motivated me to plan my classes years in advance so that I would not have to retake a year of high school if I went abroad). I only really started taking it seriously in December of last year, when I found out that I was officially going to France. That’s not to say that I studied for three hours a day and became fluent before I left. No. I changed some of the ordinary things in my life to French (watching movies in French, setting my devices to French) and slowly built up to learning different tenses and grammar tips. Another thing that has really helped is for about 20-30 minutes every other day, I would take everything that I thought in my head and translate it into French. This was hard, but it helped me master a lot of phrases that I used frequently. If you are applying to go abroad or have already been accepted (if so, congrats!), I know you have heard/will hear to study study study your language, and I am going to be another voice in the crowd and agree. While I know it might not seem too serious for you right now, once you land in the airport of your host country, you will regret everything that you never learned in the language.
Because I studied the language, I was pleasantly surprised to find that when I touched down in the airport in Nice, I could understand almost everything my greeters were saying to me (looking back they were most likely using simpler words but all the same). That day was one of the hardest for me thus far because I was hot, tired, sick, and getting used to being in a completely different country (I had never flown before, and the farthest I had been was Toronto). Since then, though, I have found that I am taking to the language pretty well. This doesn’t mean that I can speak complicated sentences or use many tenses, but what I can say comes easily to me. Just being in the country and hearing French has made me able to understand almost everything people say to me (even if it is just the general gist of the conversation). I can read very well too, and writing has become slightly easier. Speaking is giving me the most trouble because I have to formulate a phrase very quickly, but it does have it’s pros because almost all French verb conjugations are pronounced the same despite wild differences in spelling. Thankfully I found a teacher last week who is very nice and willing to tutor me in French once a week for free, so I hope this will advance me even more. Thus far, I have been learning words by improving my listening comprehension. Every few days, I will start to hear a word or phrase repeated a lot that I never noticed before, and I will look that up and learn the phrase and any related grammar additions. Learning from situations has helped too, for nothing helps you learn the word “I missed the bus” better than watching the only bus to your village pull away and leaving you stranded. Every day, I feel that I don’t make a lot of progress, but looking back I can definitely see an increase in ease of use of the vocabulary if nothing else. It helps that I am a perfectionist in this situation, for a lot of people tell me that I speak French well, but I am never content at my level and always striving to learn more. I wish I had more time to sit down and learn, but my school schedule plus homework keeps me busy until 11 every night.
The process of learning French has given me a different perspective on English and other languages in general. Whenever I learn a sentence or a conjugation or a verb tense in French, I compare it with English in terms of how it was phrased and made up. Since I have been speaking English all my life, everything just seems right, but now I am finding out why. It is also interesting to learn French phrases that have no translation to English and vice versa. It really shows how the language we speak can shape our personalities. I have found that I am already starting to lose my grip somewhat on English and English grammar (for that I apologize for the horrible grammar in this journal, for I already wasn’t great at grammar in the States). I have even found myself to write in French while making this post and having to delete it and start again.
Rotary district 1730 has a smaller exchange program compared to many other parts of France and the world, but I feel that this is better. The district chairmen and administration are extremely nice, and we have monthly get-togethers. There are 17 exchange students in my district, all of which I have grown close too already. Almost everyone can speak English too, even if it was not their maternal language, and if not it is becoming increasingly easier to speak French to them. Every time we have a discussion as a group during our outings, it still amazes me that the information will be initially spoken in French, then translated to English, then Spanish, then Japanese, and then (sometimes) Chinese. I would have to say I have grown closest to the Americans in my group purely because of our shared experiences and memories. One thing that is a little inconvenient is that I am the furthest away from everyone else. While I do like this because my exchange is purely my own and I can never speak English to anyone, the next closest person to me lives in Nice (about an hour away). I could go to many cities in Italy quicker than visit the other students. I personally feel that I live in a better area than the others, though, so I wouldn’t change anything if I had the choice.
One thing that I have noticed is the lack of language preparation and willingness to try from some of the other students in my district. A lot of the inbounds in my district did little or no studying of French beforehand and exclusively speak in English here, which shows during our district meetings when only me and a couple of other students can understand what our officers are saying. This only motivates me to try harder with my French purely to see the difference between myself and those who don’t take the initiative to learn during their year abroad.
I am extremely happy with my host Rotary club. Everyone in the club is extremely nice and very close to me and is patient when I attempt to say a sentence that I have never said before. My host counselor is amazing and I am so lucky to have her. My club is also extremely active within the community, so I always have something to do if I am bored (which thus far has been never). I could not have asked for a better host club.
I also could not have had a better host family. My only host sister is in Argentina this year for her exchange, so it is just my host parents and I, which I actually prefer because it is a nice change of pace from having three sisters at home. My host parents are extremely kind, patient, and outgoing. It is nice that they can fill the silence when I can’t think of anything to say. They always bring me out and about and keep me busy. They always make time for me and go out of their way to do things for me, which makes me grateful every day. Also, they are both musicians, so music and art are usually part of my day. I don’t feel like a guest in their home, but a part of the family. They are super proper like some of my friend’s host families and are very informal with me, which I love because I don’t feel the need to watch my every step when I’m at home. I also never speak English with my host family, partially because they don’t speak English and partially because I asked them not to, which has helped tremendously with my French. I have absolutely zero complaints or hesitations with my host family and I am extremely fortunate.
There has definitely been a considerable amount of highs and lows, but at this point I almost feel that I overprepared emotionally for exchange because none of the challenges have been as extreme as everyone made it out to be during training. No one is mean to me, I haven’t felt left out of conversations, and I haven’t been homesick at all. I only call my family about once a week. I don’t check social media a lot (I didn’t in the States either), but whenever I see a post about home I am never longing to go back, just curious about what’s happening because I am so out of the loop. Maybe I am still in the “honeymoon” phase of my exchange, but it hasn’t been so hard because every day I’m still me and it’s still my life, I am just living in a different place. I have felt frustrated many times though. When I have a long day at school and everything goes wrong, or if I am frustrated by not being able to say what I want to in French, I just want to shut myself in my room and take a break. The hardest part of my exchange is to resist this urge, even if it just means sitting in the family room instead of my bedroom. These little things keep me distracted and help me move forward past the frustration.
France is a country very culturally similar to the United States, so in the big picture, things are not that different from life back home. I have found that it is the little things that constantly remind me that I’m not in the States (other than the language of course). I have compiled a list of some of these minute differences (These might not apply to all of France- this is just what I have experienced):
There is no AC in the buildings. The only place I have encountered AC is in cars. This is very noticeable at school during the warmer months, for it can get extremely hot and students are not allowed to wear shorts or short skirts
There are no water fountains. At school, students drink directly out of the bathroom sinks and there are ancient spigots that people drink from in public areas
The toilets have their own room- they are not in the bathroom
A lot of the showers have no curtain or door
The buses have stop buttons that one must press if they wish to get off
There is an extremely high amount of scooters
The roads are very narrow and turn into one-lane roads constantly, creating some crazy situations when cars are coming at each other in opposite directions
Most highways (called autoroutes) are privatized and have a lot of tolls
The French write their 1’s like they are typed (Americans write 1’s like I), their 7’s with a line through the stem (to prevent confusion with 1), and their 9’s like they are typed (so that it almost looks like a g)
The paper here is 8.5x12, and it is a mixture of grid paper and lined paper
There are no folders for school papers- the French cut and glue all their papers in their notebooks
Notebooks are very large to accommodate for the papers
The French think of Mcdonald’s (called Macdo) as a luxury- it is rare that they ever eat so unhealthy like that
Most meals have multiple courses- at my host family’s house, we have soup, the main dish, bread, cheese and ham, and desert (4 courses)
These are just some of the differences I can think of off the top of my head.
Throughout my month here in France, the only day that I haven’t gone out is the day that I am writing this (I am home sick from school). Because of this, I have traveled and done a lot of different activities while I have been here. I am very fortunate to have host parents who love to go around and show me the area, a host district that puts together many trips, and a host school who goes on lots of trips because it is a private school. Here are a few of the things I have done and the places I have been so far:
Larger towns I have visited:
Menton: a pretty coastal city with a very tranquil vibe and a beautiful old downtown
Roquebrune-Cap-Martin: a town with an old fort, great (pebble) beaches, and a history of welcoming many celebrities such as Coco Chanel
Monaco: a separate principality on the water surrounded by France that is famous for its royal family; various attractions such as casinos, museums, and the Grand Prix; yachts; and one of the richest places in the world (⅓ of its residents are millionaires)
Nice: one of the largest cities in France, featuring it’s famous Old Town and Promenade des Anglais
Cannes: A beautiful city known for its film festival
Éze: a beautiful town with a very pretty historic village perched on a mountain
Grasse: A (once again) gorgeous old town famous for its perfume
Île Saint Marguerite: an almost uninhabited island with an old military fort, protected forests, and amazing beaches
Saint Tropez: a town known for its sailing and celebrities
Sanremo, Italy: a pretty Italian Riviera town
Some things I have done:
Went paddle boarding, sailing, and kayaking on the Mediterranean
Swam at a secluded cliff beach
Learned some Italian while navigating my way through Italy
Biked for 5 hours along the Italian riviera
Visited a Salvador Dali museum and the Casino Monte Carlo in Monaco
Went hiking in the mountains
Met some famous French celebrities (who I don’t know of) at a movie festival
Walked the red carpet used for the film festival in Cannes
(Attempted) to watch a regatta in Saint Tropez
Visited a perfume museum and factory in Grasse
Had a 4-hour long lunch with a bunch of British Rotarians
Ran for the bus/tram (many, many times)
Acted as a translator for many, many people
Got my lunch stolen by a seagull
Flipped an entire sailboat over
Got stung by a jellyfish
Participated in a flashmob
Cooked American meals with French ingredients (which didn’t turn out well)
Had a birthday party on the beach
And much, much more.
For me, it’s not just the big experiences that make my exchange, but the little interactions between people of all different ages and origins. One of my favorite memories is when one of my exchange friends invited me to her second host mother’s house, where she was having a grape picking and wine-making party for her vineyard. I cherished the feeling of community when everyone was sitting in a circle, picking grapes off the bundles. Everyone was laughing and having a good time, and despite my rudimentary French, I felt closer to them all by the end of the night.
When it comes to making French friends, I consider that I have so far succeeded. While it was daunting at first to go up to random people at school, everybody is very nice to me despite the language barrier and is happy to help me learn French. It also helps that I have joined some after-school activities, such as sailing and windsurfing, to help me make friends outside my school. I haven’t felt excluded by anyone in terms of attitude or appearance as well (French teens and American teens dress the same).
On a final note, if you are considering applying to go on exchange, just do it. It is an adventure that you will never regret, and I am 100% that you will have the time of your life, make amazing friends, and feel like a truly global citizen of the world thanks to the youth exchange. I would like to thank the Rotary Club of North Fulton and the Rotary Club of Beausoleil, as well as Rotary Youth Exchange Florida for giving me not a year in my life, but my life in a year.
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