Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Easy Beginnings

          Not all beginnings have to be hard, and the past week and a half has been a reminder of that. School has never been so enjoyable for me, even in comparison to the US, and I love my host family. That's about all it takes to make me happy in this point of my life.

         The day has finally come. I can finally  understand what in the world the French teacher is talking about in class, and I can now do what the other students do, to some extent, in many of my classes. Wow! Looking back to September, I never thought I'd say that. This weekend marks one of the first times where I have been able to accomplish the French literature homework that my French teacher asked the rest of the class to do too, with a lot of help from my host mom. School is stilll very hard, but progress is progress.

           I also quickly made some new school friends. One thing I really enjoy about France is the students don't seem as cliquish. They come up and talk to you, and they talk to just about everyone in their class, and outside their class too! I know some of them seem to be absolutely beside themselves that a real American happened to step foot into their school, so they may take extra interest in me, but in general, everybody hangs out with everybody.  My one friend tried to help me make sense of math the second day of school, a class I have not taken since June of last year. Friday I discussed the differences in the French culture with my friends, one of my favorite topics. Generally, we either study together or play cards when we don't have class.  I have never gotten so many compliments for how well I speak the French language. That means a lot, to say the least.

            The students have also been really helpful in getting me to my classes, helping me get through all the fun stuff you have to do when you are a new student arriving late from a different country, and getting me to the bus. I only messed up one time, which is when I got off at the wrong bus stop yesterday mainly because I was talking and not paying attention to where the bus was going. I have to say, the bus system is quite different here. In the US, each "yellow" bus had a specific spot to sit in when the students came out. Here, each bus parks in random order, and you don't know if it will be late. Now I have to search for my bus every night. Furthermore, depending on what time of the day I take the bus, it takes a different route, so now I have learned that when I take the bus at 5:00pm I am the first stop, and on the the 6:00pm bus, I am the third stop. You live and you learn.

Just a few of my new friends and me having fun during our break at school!

              It has also been a fantastic first week and a half with my host family. I feel at home, and I am acting like it too! From tennis conversations on life to more light-hearted discussions about who is going to win this or that match in the Australian Open, it has been a blast. We have inside jokes, and I even have a few nicknames. I am called "the sloth" for my fondness of sleeping in on the mornings, which I was given on my third day here. No one back home is surprised.

            This weekend, my host dad made it possible so that I could watch the Australian Open live. That's exactly what I did for a good bit of my weekend in my pajamas on the couch. I watched Serena vs.Venus, Roger vs. Stan and Roger vs. Rafa as well as the mens' doubles final. Sunday my host family made just as big of a deal out of the Australian Open as I did. I watched the final between Roger and Rafa all morning, then we ate lunch while watching the last set, and my host dad even taped my reaction when my favorite won his 18th Grand Slam title, which many people said he would never accomplish by the way:) Like my host sister said a few minutes before she started asking questions about how the game was played, "I like tennis because you like tennis." I even woke up my dad with a Facetime call to the US saying "Dad, he did it! Roger won his dix-huitième, I mean, eighteenth, Grand Slam title!"I like watching just about any tennis match with Roger Federer in it, but it was something special to see him lift that trophy Sunday afternoon.

              This weekend, I also made an American peanut butter dessert with my host sister and host mother with a recipe that my grandmother gave me. For me, it was a flashback to the good old days when I visited my grandparents and I always waited for when my grandmother said "Janae, do you want seconds?" I was surprised we actually found Philadelphia cream cheese in France!

            As I write this, I think of my AFS friend Kristina who just returned to Russia the other day after having completed her semester abroad in France. We were together not so long ago. Time goes so fast. For me, today marks five months down of my experience and about five months to go.If we are well on the way to building cars that drive themselves and cars that fly, as I've heard, is there not a way to stop time too?

Kristina and me



Monday, January 23, 2017

Chapter 3

                My temporary host mom looked at me as we sat in the train station Friday afternoon and said, "You can't keep a bird from flying." Ten minutes later, we said our goodbyes, and I was in the train for a new town and a new chapter of my AFS experience.

                I arrived in my new town in the evening. About five seconds after I got off the train, I heard "Janae!" from behind me and my new host mom and I embraced with the French kisses as she said "Bienvenue!" My new host dad came up to me, shivering, said "Salut!, did the bise, and we went to my new home.
              My new home is in a little village outside a bigger town, where I will take the bus to go to school. The bigger town is actually made up out of a few towns around here. My location is pretty close to the mountains, though we do not live IN the mountains. Some type of mist is always in the distance, which my host mom told me is because of the mountains. We are an hour away from Switzerland.
             I have two host sisters, which I see every other weekend. My host family has already hosted before, and they are very involved in the AFS organization. I haven't met any other AFSers from this region, but my host dad has been showing me pictures, and they already set me up with an AFS volunteer who will show me around at school.

             Friday night, we talked a bit, and I started unpacking, and my host mom took out a cup for my toothbrush and toothpaste and said "This is what we give to all our exchange students." I looked, and it said "DORA the Explorer!" Yep, that's what I am, an explorer.
             I quickly learned that my new host family really likes America, and that's a relieving thing to know these days! They have books on the US, a poster of New York in the hallway, and my host dad just ordered an American flag. Saturday night we spent two hours talking about their trip to the United States, where they covered a good bit of the West Coast. As an American, you come here thinking you are going to learn about France, but, in reality, you learn just as much about your own country. They also said that they like America for the hugs! I thought they were joking, but I guess not. Needless to say, I've been getting my fair share of hugs lately, thanks to long goodbyes to just French people that are...different! My host family also really likes peanut butter!

Just a happy kid in France!

My first time eating raclettes:)

           I feel like every time I switch families, I try a new cheese and a new bread. I made baguettes with my host mom Saturday. They turned out okay. Sunday, we had raclettes for lunch, a specialty of this region. My host mom explained that people who live in the mountains typically eat it after skiing. It's potatoes with cheese melted on top, and if you want, you can add different types of meat or you can keep that to the side. I can say that in January, after my taste buds have had time to adjust to the cheese of France, it is really really good!

          Sunday afternoon, my host mom's parents came, and I talked to my host grandmother and host dad about my life in the US and showed them photos. I told the family a little bit about how I got the opportunity to study abroad in France as well. My host grandfather was watching rugby, so I tried to talk about that a little too. We all ate a yogurt dessert which I helped my host mom make.

            Today, my host mom took me to my new school to enroll me, and I will start Wednesday. I am in the Science section instead of Literature, which I was in in the other school. It's a bit bigger than my other school, but I will manage. After that, we went shopping, in which she insisted on buying an outfit for me that I can play tennis in with her. Then, she bought me a French patisserie, called a Suisse, and we came home. That brings us to now.

             I don't know what stage of studying abroad to call this. I feel the hardest part is over, but sometimes it still is incredibly draining. Speaking French literally takes all of my mental energy, to be able to form phrases and conjugate correctly. I am becoming more autonomous, after packing all by myself twice and finding a way to get my luggage downstairs and off the train without people I knew around. There have been definitely days I've fet alone, but I quickly learned that there is always someone around who cares in AFS world, even if you just met them a few times in person. On the contrary, maybe you haven't met them in person...yet! Life is crazy, but life is beautiful. I am so excited for these next months.

Friday, January 20, 2017

And the Stone Rolls Again

               Chapter 2 may have only lasted for eleven days, but there's no doubt in my mind that it was just as important as the other four months, Chapter 1. During this time, I met another family who I now consider as part of my own, which was the most fulfilling part of it all, but that's not even a portion of what else I experienced and learned. I see my very life changing before my eyes, and it's been through the hardest times of my voyage abroad that everything seems to be coming together. Of course, in January, that's a prime time to have that moment where everything clicks. It's a combination for me.

               My dad told me a few weeks before I left the US as I was listing off all I wanted to do and see in my lifetime, "A Rolling stone gathers no moss." However, through all these transitions, I feel I have gathered a lot of moss. I would not even call my host families and friends "moss"! As I told my special ones here in this region of France, "I will come back!"

               Wednesday , I went out with my AFS friends in Troyes, and we just had fun together. We shopped, went to a café and  it was great. We departed, expecting to see each other again

An evening in Troyes
A treat:)

               The call came Wednesday evening that I had a new family waiting to host me in the mountains of France. I've never felt the definition of bittersweet better than this moment now, and unfortunately, there is not even a translation in French. My new location sounds excellent. I have a new family, and I will discover a new way of living. The bad news...it's September all over again for the third time in two weeks. I will change schools, regions, and pretty much everything else I have come to know these past few months will change. Thankfully, I have knowledge of the French culture and language now! However, the hardest part is always the goodbyes. Unlike the first time I switched families, I will be far away from everyone I know in France.

               Goodbyes at school did not come easy, and I did not know how much my class appreciated me until I got a handwritten letter in English that really touched my heart. Just a few of the touching things they wrote were "You teach us so many things we ignore, your culture being one of them. You are a great person. Don't change who you are."

               My older temporary host brother came for my last evening here. He sang to me and played his guitar, we watched a movie, and we ate dinner together. It was truly a special time to have him take time out of his schedule unexpectedly to come say goodbye and say "Oh, we can watch a movie. Of course I have time."  When his mom got home, we had a photoshoot. One of those photos is now a background screen for my phone.

              Here I am on Friday morning just making the time go by and collecting my thoughts before I get on my first train and am sent into the unknown. I am ready. I am confident. I am excited. My favorite saying to all my special ones back here in this region is "Je reviendra". I will come back.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Being Happy Where You Are

               It's been almost a week now since I said goodbye to my first host family, and things are going pretty well. I guess I have to make them go well. I've found it really helps to keep myself busy and to not contact my family, friends or former host family too much, so I've been putting that to use. My temporary host family has really helped me improve my French accent, and I'm even getting my fair share of cooking in. Also, it really helped to have already explained from where I come from to one family. This time, I immediately brought up the Amish:) I've found that adjusting here came much easier than expected in general. I know how this country works, sort of. It's more that I know how I work. I've learned how to learn how to adjust. I am happy where I am, who I am with, and the different experiences I've been having even this week.

               It's interesting to see how this family is different from my other host family. It's pretty fun to wake up to your door creaking open some days, hear a meow and then have a cat jump up on your bed and come snuggle with you. (By the way, many French people kiss their pets.) My stomach adjusted to the eating times of my first host family, but we eat earlier here, so I have learned to eat a normal "American" lunch in order to have a healthy appetite in the evening. The very first night I walked into my room here, I noticed that there was a blanket with New York on it. How nice:)

             The villages are different too.  If I thought my other village was small, well this is even smaller, so I guess it's good that Troyes is only 25 minutes away. Yep, I'm the kid who complained of her hometown city in her home country being too small, and the closest "big" city here is the size of that. It's funny how life works, but I am not complaining in any way! This is Europe. The towns are different. I am happy. I've had my fair share of traveling anyway, and Troyes will always have a special place in my heart. That's where it all started here,

             Today was one of the best Sunday afternoons I've had in a while. I went with my "temporary host mom" to my "temporary host brother's" house and we had a grand time. We ate French patisseries and coffee, and I was able to hear about his experience as an exchange student in Brazil. In fact, I demanded to hear about it:) Then, he pulled out his guitar and treated us to some songs he wrote in Portuguese and some other songs as well! It was just so good to be with them in a stress free situation. I know that I want to be an AFS volunteer just like my temporary host brother after my experience abroad. It's after the year that you see, or hear about, how much the experience impacts you.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Chapter 2: A New Beginning

              First of all, I know I haven't posted anything here in more than six months, but as I am officially declaring a new chapter in my experience, I am going to seriously and try to update my blog these days.

             Goodbyes to my first host family came Monday night, with my host mom reminding me in French "Your adventure will continue without us." She told me that a week ago as well, but at that time, I didn't want to hear it. In some ways, I didn't want the adventure to continue. I wanted them, the life that I had the last four months. I will be blunt and say that saying goodbye to them was so much harder than saying goodbye to any of you in the US. When I left my fellow Americans, I had a date I would be back. For my host family, I have no idea if I will see them in two weeks, two months, or two years. More than that, they have been all I've known in this country. They picked me up from the train station in Troyes when I hardly knew how to speak their language. They taught me it. They explained their culture to me, when it was possible! Everywhere I go and everything I do reminds me of them. It is a good chance they taught me whatever I am doing or saying. Also, I felt so blessed to have such a wonderful family who made me feel so welcome. Some exchange students want to change families, but for me, I was "swimming in happiness", as they say, in French. It's possible that they will never know how much they mean to me. They never studied abroad. They never had a stranger welcome them into their home and teach them how to live in another culture.

            Eleven days after the hard news that my beloved host family and I would be parting, I think I am ready to move on. I went through my stages of sadness, anger, confusion, and there's no reason to believe I may not go through them again, but I think the acceptance stage is here. I see that, as many other times, my host family was right again. Even without them, I will be ok. And, honestly, it was the love they showed me during our goodbyes that I knew I could call a successful end to Chapter 1 and that I could find the desire to go on, though it took some digging.

           I guess I will always wish I could've given them a better few last weeks. The days leading up to our separation were not the best. For three weeks, I was super homesick and cultureshocked. After the news of our separation, I feel like I had hit rock bottom completely. However, they took those time periods pretty well, even if they didn't understand all that was going on inside of me.  I will always wish they could've see the day where I could speak perfect French and the day where everything suddenly clicked. I wanted to celebrate my 17th birthday with them. I will always wonder if we could've stayed together if "this" or "that" did not happen.What can I say? The one time where I really felt life was perfect and I was happy with what I had, it all changed.

        I still have six months left in France. I can say I think I successfully made it through the hardest part of my exchange and that I feel like after surviving this, I can make it through anything. However, I will be careful! At this present time, it kind of feels like September again: new people, new ways of living, different way of talking, etc, so I am trying to be patient with myself. I think I can learn a lot from these past four months. There are two things I aim to do these next six months that may have not been priorities the last four months. As I am in the middle of switching families and resituating myself, I am going to focus on less contact with my family back home and more on learning French and getting to know my surroundings and people here. I will still do my best to actually update my blog here and Facebook, but those evenings I've spent texting all of you will now be replaced with a French book for example. I trust many of you got your time in with me these past weeks when I was so homesick and missed beautiful America so badly. Secondly, this French accent has to improve. I am so sick of it.

              Like my good friend Clément said, we usually think that the AFS motto "It's not better, it's not worse, it's just different" can only be applied to cultural differences, but it can also be applied to changing host families. I don't have to forget the past four months, but I can't be afraid to move on, to learn and to discover. My former host mom said the same thing in fewer words Monday night as we had our last hug and kiss: "The AFS adventure continues for you."