Robin, outbound to France

Bonjour!! I have been in France for nearly 2 months now and so much has happened I can't begin to describe it all. So I'll write about what I would have wanted to read last year, when studying abroad was just a dream...and now it's just everyday life!

I left home on August 24th, the last flight of the night. It seems like forever ago that I did that, but it also seems like it could have been 10 minutes ago. Goodbyes are always hard, and sometimes when I think about it, I'm like, "Oh my God, I can't believe I actually did that." It's nerve wracking, the day you leave, because what was all in your head is now becoming your life for the next year. I was thinking, "How on earth am I going to manage speaking French all day?" or "What will it be like to meet my host family?" or "How will I SURVIVE?!?!?!" But rest assured, I speak French all day, my host family is lovely, and I am very much alive, and enjoying my exchange.

I am glad I took 4 years of French, because it provided a really nice background. However, I think you can get a decent background in the language in the few months before you leave. My host family does not speak a word of English, so I am fully immersed. It is a sink or swim situation, and so far I am swimming! No one at school speaks English either, and I am in a class with no exchange students. This sounds daunting, but I feel I really got lucky with this.

The week before school started, I travelled all around the Nord Pas de Calais region, visiting different churches, museums, monuments, and generally sightseeing. The day before school started I was hanging out in Belgium (hahaha that sounds so weird, but it's like 20 minutes away.) I feel like I was more nervous for school before I left. The day school started, I think my mind kind of shut off so I wouldn't explode with jittery feelings.

Going to school that day felt like being shoved off a bridge! I woke up, and before I knew it I was getting on the public bus (not knowing how the public bus system worked!) and soon I was at school. Found my classroom, and then there I was. Sitting in French high school. I heard horrible things about French high school. Everyone seems to hate it. But I'm going into my 3rd week there, and I don't hate school at all.

On the first day, there was a long break between 2 classes and I had no idea what to do, so I was just kind of standing there for a second, and a group of French girls said I could come with them. Ohhhhhh I was SO relieved. Turns out, they're awesome people, we have a lot in common, and they are quickly becoming very good friends!

Here are a few things about French high school :
• You cannot sit down until the teacher tells you you can sit down. Again, sounds scary, but it’s really not. You just sit down when class starts.
• You do not have the same classes every day. It’s more like a college schedule. My hours, classes, and basically my schedule changes every day. Sounds horrible and complicated, but it’s really not. You have a schedule and just follow the schedule!
• Sometimes I have long breaks in between classes and me and my friends hang out in the town.
• The school schedule does not necessarily match up with the bus schedule. Meaning, some days I wait 2 hours for the bus to come after class. On Wednesdays, my schedule is so messed up, I have to wait 4 hours, but I think I am getting this changed. Everyone takes the bus, and it is a public bus. Sounds scary, but it might as well be a school bus because all students take it.
• On Wednesdays, school ends around noon. I am going to start going to a French class in Dunkirk Wednesday afternoons.
• The cantine (lunch room) at school is amazing, and food is really good. Wayyyyy better than lunch at American high schools, still not as good as food at home, but really good.
• My favorite class is history and my least favorite class is ECONOMICS. I have like 7 hours of economics a week.

• ALSO everyone does the bisous (kiss thing). Takes a while to get used to, but now I am an expert! 2 cheeks—left, right, just do it to everyone to hurt no one’s feelings. It is kind of nice because everyone does it and it feels like everyone is one big family, but at the same, it causes HUGE traffic jams in the hallways because if you see someone you semi-know, you’re obligated to do the bisous. But it’s one of those cultural things you have to experience first hand to get the hang of.

• In French high school, you have to choose a “track” to take—Literature, Economics, or Science. I originally wanted to be in the Literature track but I am in economics, and glad I’m there. It’s a more balanced course load.

• My name (Robin) is a boy’s name in France. Wow. Horrible. People pronounce my name “Robon” with a big French R, because that’s how the name is pronounced in French for boys. The first week, everytime I answered “oui!” to my name, people kind of snickered, because everyone thinks it’s a boy’s name. Now they pronounce my name “Robeen”, but I kind of miss just plain old Robin! I even took my name for granted back home, ha. But I know I will miss “Robeen” when I return to the U.S.

In addition, I have been biking SO MUCH with my host mom. I looked forward to this before I came, but I didn’t think much about it. We basically bike every day, and while I thought this was a flat region (and in general it is) there are definitely some steep slopes, and it tires me out every day. I pictured casual bike rides, but I’m talking like we biked through 4 towns one morning in the cold and wind! However, this is good. Being constantly busy gives you less time to be homesick. ALSO this is good because I am not getting fat, haha. However, I am writing this journal now because it is the first time since I’ve been here I’ve had some time alone. Being busy is great but it is nice to have some time to yourself.

I’m trying to think of other things I would have wanted to read about…oh, language! Like I said, 4 years of French provided a very nice background. I can understand questions and answer back, but I can’t give really thorough answers, or have a really nice conversation. I’d say I can understand about 70% of everything, but it really depends. Sometimes I understand conversations word for word, and other times I have to ask people to repeat something three times, and then I still smile and nod. There is no magic formula. I think I can understand more than I can speak though. Immersion is really cool though. And with my exchange, there is no other choice but to speak French.

None of my family speaks it, and this is a pretty rural region, so no one really knows English that well. At first, I was just learning more words at first, and by now I am beginning to see a clearer change in my French. Sometimes I say things and I don’t hesitate at all and the words all come out so quickly and l’m like “That was smooooth!” And then other times I can’t think of the right words and it’s frustrating, but honestly, it’s not a big deal. You learn this way also…mistakes are a good way to learn. Like one time I accidentally said my brother was 18 hours, not 18 years old. (No idea how…but when you’re talking fast words can get mixed up, trust me!)

Smiling and nodding works a lot. However, it gets frustrating when you’re like “I really want to understannndddd” but honestly, the language is going awesome. I can get my point across, and I understand most of everything, and I participate in school. It’s difficult and I can’t fully express myself, but something that helps out a lot with learning a language is curiosity. Sometimes I look around the house for just things I don’t know how to say, and I either look them up or ask.

Also, while immersion is the best way to learn, you can’t just let words fall over you and assume you’re going to come out of the year bilingual—you actually have to work on it!

Another thing—this year is not a vacation. You’re not backpacking through Europe. You’re not at an exchange student party. Take the effort to get integrated with your culture and family first. Exchange students are amazing people and you will instantly be best friends, but it’s soooo important to really focus on the culture and family first, I think. Don’t be that kid that asks for permission to take the train to meet some “friends” in another city and be really vague about it on your 3rd day in your country. (Hey these people are real!)

Making a real effort and focusing on your country and your host family is so rewarding….that’s one of the best tips I can give. Also with this idea, just don’t picture your year as a big trip. I had no idea what life would be like in France, and I was so delighted and so fascinated when I realized it’s just life here. Ordinary life. And that’s the most beautiful and most rare things in the world to have—I get to live an ordinary life in another culture and in another language, and truly an ordinary life. That’s the magic and rarity of exchange, and that’s where the magic is!

One last thing before I go! I want to talk about the region I am in France. I am in the Nord Pas de Calais region, on the very tip of France, bordered by Belgium, and then the North Sea, and straight across in England. No one really knows about this region, but it is the joke in France. Nord Pas de Calais is known for being cold, rainy, industrial, the people kind of simple, and with weird accents. Let me clarify. Do not trust stereotypes. This is an incredible and beautiful region in France. The people are considered to be the “warmest” in France, and I have found this to be true. Everyone has been so kind and so helpful to me.

Yesterday, for instance, I was with my host mom in Dunkirk, and suddenly we were sitting in some people’s house for a big family meal, I had no clue who they were (I think somehow related to my host mom) but they talked and joked with me as if we had known each other our whole lives. The weather is what it is. It rains some, but when the sun is out, no one takes it for granted. This area is Flemish country! Way back when, this part of France used to be a part of Belgium or the Netherlands (or something like that…I can’t really remember!) Either way, Flemish (like Dutch) was spoken here, and this area has beautiful Flemish architecture.

At first, I thought I would not be learning true French culture. However, in this day and age, there is no “true” French culture. I am learning and experiencing something I could never have learned about in a textbook. This region is absolutely breathtaking. I’ve learned some Flemish words, eaten waffles and “frites”, ridden my bike past windmills, and all the while been in France! (Oh that’s also a cool fact—this region has windmills!) I cannot begin to describe how happy I am to be in this region, and also in this Rotary district—the best in France! It truly is. And to the people who in a few months will learn they are going to France—pretty sure one of you will be in this district, because Florida sends one person to d1520 each year. And if you are sent here, get ready for a treat!

I have to go now! I hope to be able to write soon. These weeks have been amazing, and I am excited for the weeks to come. There have been tough times and there will be tough times, but the good is SO much better and more abundant than the bad. Bisousssss!

Robin 

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