Sunday, April 30, 2017

After Eight Months of Exchange

         I don't know how ten months turned into ten weeks, but it happened, and it happened fast. It was a good week. I got to play tennis with a friend on Monday, which was good because the rest of the week was rainy and colder. Thursday, I explored Lyon with my friends, and it was cool to thoroughly cover the town. I had gone before, but this time, I feel like we did more. Friday night I was at a party. I spent the other days at home working and annoying, hugging, joking with, and speaking in English with my host mom.

In Lyon with my friend in the Croix Rousse 
At a park/zoo with my friends in Lyon

         Here are some things I've noticed after....oh goodness...eight months in France.

        1. Time and emotions are messed up. Halfway through my experience, it felt like an eternity since I had seen my parents, but now, when it really has been a long period of time, it seems like it was just yesterday we were saying goodbye outside the JFK the bushes....with the hotel man staring at us awkwardly and smiling.

        2. Yes, I admit I had misconceptions about my exchange year. Before I left, I looked at all the problems and uncertainties in the US, and I told myself, "Well, surely when I get back, this and that problem will have taken care of itself." In reality, it's me who has changed, not everyone and everything in the US. That's ok. After this year, I feel like I can say "I can conquer the world!" Look out! I am bringing back evidence this time!

       3. It's not you, it's me.  If I could, I would keep traveling the world, exploring new cultures, trying new foods, doing things for the first time that scared me, and much much more, but I can't...yet. That's why I am enjoying my time in France to the maximum. If that day does come, however, everyone back home has to know that it's not them, it's me. I used to be ashamed of my longing to go everywhere and do everything, but now I am not. My curiosity is simply a big part of what makes me me.

       4. The last 100 days are the best. Maybe it's because I fluently speak the language now, or maybe it's because my family and friends here are perfect for me. Whatever it is, I just don't want it to end.

       5. I am so happy with all I've done.  It felt like I had so much time at the beginning. It was way more than a two week vacation, so I didn't rush to accomplish all that was on my bucket list in France. I actually never really thought about it. Now, I realize I have so much left that I want to do, but sometimes I like to think back on all I've done, and I tell myself, "Wow, if it wasn't for this year, that may have never happened!"

        6. I enjoy school. Ok, I don't enjoy the actual fact of doing trigonometry, but I sure do enjoy being able to do my schoolwork in my second language. I only have six weeks left, so I just enjoy even being in class with my friends. I know I am going to miss that.

        7. I finally found my "species". There are cats, there are dogs, there are humans, and then there are exchange students. We of course are humans, but it's just different. I just never felt like I fit in back in the US. This year, I met exchange students from all over the world, some who didn't even speak my language, but I so very quickly felt at home, like I was finally talking to someone of the same mindset.

       8. People are still acting like I left yesterday. I seem to be the only one who writes "See you soon!" when I send something to my Americans. Really, guys? This is the moment you have been waiting for, or almost.

       9. Do I have to call it host family? It's a shame. When I get home, I will have to continually say "My second host family". In my US family's eyes, they will just be another family in the world, but to me, they are much more than that.

     10. I am really going to miss my host dad speaking English, or trying to. I know he is going to have something to say about me including this, but oh well, I am going to anyway. Those are honestly some of the best moments of my exchange year!

Maybe the journey isn't so much about becoming anything. Maybe it's about un-becoming everything that isn't really you can be who you were meant to be in the first place.


Sunday, April 23, 2017

Five Ways I've Changed Since I Left the US

        I know I've been posting a lot more than I had been other weeks, so first of all, count yourselves blessed. This week I am going to put myself back at work and I already have some plans with friends, so this may be the last post for a while.

        Life updates are great, but I'd like to focus on a question that I get a lot here (from others and myself).  How have I changed since I've been in the United States? I can't give a definite answer because that is something you all are going to see, but here are just a few ideas. I also like writing for myself, and I figured I'd share this piece. (Warning: This is particularly targeted at my friends and family in America, so maybe my precious Frenchies do not want to read. If you do, do not come to me saying "Why do you have to focus on the fact that you will leave so much?") I'm preparing myself to leave France. It's hard. Writing is one way I do it.

        It also is good to write posts like this one because it is important to realize that not only has the tongue been moving in a different way, the stomach been digesting different foods, but I cannot tell you how much time I've spent mulling over the thoughts "Wow. I've changed, or have I?" "My life would've been so much simpler if I stayed in the USA." It's so hard to realize yet so beautiful "Wow, this is who I am." Maybe studying abroad is a big tennis match. It's more mental than anything. Wait, maybe that is a big part of life?

       So here we go: Five "simple" ways I've changed/ things I've realized.

       1. Sometimes you need to focus on yourself.

       Before I left the US, I put a lot of emphasis on my family and friends. It's logical, especially after I learned I would be leaving. It would be 11:00 at night and I would be helping my friend with math instead of studying myself, I rushed home from an exhausting week of school and an exhausting day of work to go out and mow Dad's lawn. (Maybe that is not too much, but those are just two examples. I could write a whole blog post about that.) I am not saying that is bad, far from that. In France, my host family and friends are a high priority. However, I carried that US mentality over to France.

        It was fine at first. I texted this and that person about my awesome host family, e-mailed a friend telling them about my awesome daily life in France, laid in bed Facetiming Mom and Dad, etc. It must have been about a month or two ago when I was viciously preparing for the SATs, my French fluency test and trying to keep up in school.  All of sudden, it seemed like all of these problems in my family appeared. Another three things were added to Janae's "to do list." The problems may not have been that serious, or maybe I was not called to solve them, but being 4,000 miles away certainly makes the simplest worry a problem. However, I couldn't do much even if I was called to from 4,000 miles away. My host mom also said one night as she was doing dishes and we were talking about my past life in France "Too much contact with your parents are often the reason for a host family change." I painfully learned to limit my contact with my family and friends in the US and focus on myself.
         2. I am more independent.

        This year I lived something one of my best friends in the US told me all the time: "Janae, you care too much about what other people think!" I think it hit during the host family change and is now reinforced every day here. During the host family change, I felt really lonely and like no one accepted me. My parents couldn't understand what I was going through, and of course it was difficult between me and my host family. For another time in my life, I was being shuffled all around again. That's about the time I reasoned with myself "Hey, maybe I don't need everyone else to surive!" I still remember the pride I had after packing my suitcase all alone twice and getting it downstairs.

        I realized this year just how individualistic I am. Many people think what I am doing is crazy, even if it is admirable. I've discovered so many new things here and ideas too. It will be more evident when I get home, but I really am learning how to think for myself and do things for me. My host family and my US family are completely polar opposites,and instead of complaining "I am in the middle!" I tell myself, "Oh, look at this difference! Which path am I going to take?"

        It seems ironic, and maybe it is. Through studying abroad, you learn how to be a better listener, but you also learn how to maybe decide "I don't think I am going to go along with that person's idea." It is all about finding a good balance.

        This is the first year, or month, that I will dare to tell everyone "I am proud of myself". I always waited to hear it. This time, it is what I think. Of course, I like to hear it, but if I don't, I am not going to cry in my room like I did before when it came to people not agreeing with me.

        3. Idealistic to Realistic (You can't have it all.)

        This will probably surprise some people. What? You were more idealistic before getting to live your dream and flew away by yourself and got yourself through each day in a foreign country? Yep.

        Going abroad definitely humbled me. It made me realize the truth of doing what you love. How did I get so good at French? Why did I not come home at Christmastime?  I was doing what I loved, and I still am. I do not classify this year as the hardest year of my life because it is purely what I like to do.

         Before I went abroad, I wanted to be the best at everything. I either did it or I didn't. I still want to be the best at everything, but I realize I just can't. At this time in my life, it is really necessary to choose what is important for me. I am 17. Even when I come back from this "trip", it will soon be graduation and, well, I am not going to say I am going to leave right away after returning.

        Summed up in one sentence, you can't have it all, but with hard work, you can have (almost) anything you really want if you are patient and dedicated.

       4. I take a step back before judging things.

       "It's not better. It's not worse. It's just different." AFS students have that drilled into their heads for cultural reasons, but I think that applies to much more in life than just the difference between white bread and a baguette. Of course, the first few months here I was constantly reminding myself of this little saying, as it was necessary, but it's now just my way of thinking. Maybe not everything in life is either right or wrong. That's the first time I've considered that. Something (or even someone) can be better for me and worse for another person, but that doesn't mean the thing (or person) is bad or good. There are limits of course, I know.

       5. Home has a different meaning.

      "Home sweet home". "Janae, we're loooking forward to when you come home." What does home mean? Yes, in French, it's "a la maison", but even that changes into "chez" sometimes. Anyhow, am I really coming home? Is home where I was born or where family is? I have a lot of family and friends worldwide. Laughing with my cousins on a snowy night at Grandma's house is my home as much as visiting an AFS friend in Japan is (if that ever happens) or coming "home" to my host family after a long day at school. (Cousins, I cannot wait to do that again.) Furthermore, my host dad told me something that really touched me a few weeks ago. He says I am at home wherever I go. That's me. I love going to new places, doing things I've never done before, and that can quickly become my home.

       I am not coming "home" in July. I am returning to a home in 77 days. I will be leaving home to come home.


Thursday, April 20, 2017

Friends, Family, and Birthday Wishes!

            Fulfilling. That's a word I will readily use for these past few days. I've taken a break from studying and have just been relaxing and being out with friends and family.

            I was getting ready to sit down and study Monday evening when my dad offered to take me down to the tennis courts. I accepted the invitation and absolutely loved our time together. My service was not the best at first, but after I got into the groove, it started to come back, which, of course, was at the end of our little playing session. Also, my host dad had this little spin on his backhand. When I ran up to get the ball, instead of coming towards me, the ball always went the other direction. It would have been quite frustrating in a match, but all I could do in this moment was look up at my host dad and laugh with him. We must have been out at the courts for two or three hours.

            I went to Elsa's house the next day. We baked cookies and talked and then her father gave us a ride to another friend's house to play Mafia. Her father was really impressed with my ability to speak French, and then Elsa said "Yeah, I know, it's crazy!" I know I shouldn't brag about myself, but that's a huge compliment, like always! The Mafia games went well, although it's completely different here. There are so many more characters, and my friend is an expert at the game, so he adds little things and I feel like I'm back in school straining my ears to listen to every word just to have a basic understanding of what I'm doing. I even took notes, but then Elsa turned that into a paper sailboat, so that was the end of that. We had fun eating sugar that night as well.

           I also got the chance to hear my friend Maxime play his saxophone. I pleaded with him, using every excuse I could think of: "It's my birthday in two days!" "You're going to miss me in July!"His sister came to help me, and five minutes later, I got to hear him play. It's cool when I get to see parts of my friends' lives because they are all so interested in me, what I want to do in France, etc.

          Wednesday was the grand day outside with my school friends and AFS friends, etc. I organized something like it last vacation, and everybody really enjoyed it, so I did it again. I've never really been the type to organize things, and now I know why. I must have spent as much time planning this afternoon as much time as the afternoon took, but the smiles and laughter on my friends' faces quickly paid me back. I invited my Japanese AFS friend to come with us too, and my friends were so happy about that.

           It was a bit colder than we expected. I don't understand it. Why is it cold now? It was supposed to be cold last month when it was 75 degrees, not 50 degrees now! Anyway, we had fun playing a different version of soccer and volleyball because we were short on supplies and people. Then we acted like a bunch of kids and played hide and seek. Elsa played the flute for us too! Needless to say, I was very tired last night.

           Today, I have the privilege of celebrating my 17th birthday with my host family in France, which is another dream come true. I say host family, but that's just to specify that my real mom and dad are not here. My "host" family feels like my real family. However, I have an exchange student problem. If I was born at 4:45pm in the US, that means I have to wait until 10:45pm here to celebrate my birthday, right, thanks to the time zones? We might as well celebrate it tomorrow! I don't know what my host parents planned, but I know they planned something. I've been out of the house way too much lately, so they've had too much time to get something together! The letters from my mom, grandparents, and cousins hanging on the fridge will soon be opened. Also, I've already received plently of messages wishing me a happy birthday through various sources, and my American family is not even awake yet! I'm sitting here writing this update and my phone keeps lighting up. I feel so loved!

           French people really like nicknames. They'll take the most simple name "Janae" and turn it into "Jaja". My host dad was the first to do this, although my friend at school claims she did not need any outside influence to call me that. It took my host mom a little while to start calling me Jaja, but now that's even normal. (She prefers to call me her "little mess", or her "cannonball". Those who know me will understand.) I guess it started because my host family has always had students with two syllabe names or nicknames. What's more is that Jaja does not even exist as a nickname. Sure I will call my friend Maxime "Max", but Jaja?! However, I love it. Now when I hear Janae I think I'm in trouble.

           This has been a really great first week of vacation. It feels kind of weird to not have studied in three days or so because I certainly have plenty to do, but I've decided to take advantage of my time in France first. Apparently, even after studying, my scores have not gone up for the SATs, so that's a bit frustrating. Perhaps after a long break I will suddenly be able to do my math so much better.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Tennis, Carnival and Vacation!

          Yesterday afternoon I was released from school for my last two weeks of school vacation in France. Of course, I will finish in June when my classmates are busy preparing for their big test, but after that, I will not return to school in France, or at least high school. I look back on each portion of school vacation, and each time there is a clear image in my head that immediately comes back.

          In October, I imagine myself sitting at the kitchen table writing my mom a letter answering all of her questions about France. Not the prettiest pictures come to mind when I think of December vacation, but I think it was a crucial part of my experience abroad. At that time, I was lying on my bed in tears in Marseille facetiming my dad saying "Dad, I miss you. I want to come home." I'm so glad I didn't. When I think of school vacation in February, I think of all the friends I have here that I was happily spending time with. If you look at it closely, I think each school vacation represents an important part of my experience: smooth sailing, the crash, and getting back up again.

         I had a good time with my AFS friends last Saturday. We went bowling and went to a café and talked. We weren't very concentrated for bowling, but we had fun anyway. In the evening, we ate an Indonesian meal in honor of my Indonesian AFS friend celebrating her 18th birthday. It was a great time for being together: my host parents, my AFS friends, and the birthday girl's family. I was completely exhausted so I didn't go out during the night.

         The next day, I went to the mountains with my host dad. No, before anyone gets excited, we were not in the Alps, but, like I've said before many times about my adventures in the mountains, "I could see them!" (Going to the Alps is a plan this vacation or in June!) I love going to the mountains here in France because that's exactly a reason why I came to France. I want to do things I can't do in the United States. On one side, it was the pretty sunny side of France, and on the other I could see the snowy peaks. We also stopped at a café with a pretty view, and I had a strawberry drink that does not exist in the United States. It was one of my best days in France.

          It was just a normal week of school, we'll say, except for yesterday. We may not have had the best concentration, but I'd say we sure deserve a break. Yesterday was the carnival. Everybody came dressed up in what they wanted. Of course there were three people dressed as Donald Trump. That's a given, right? Others came dressed as a washing machine, a clothesline, yogurt, tea, doctors, penguins, a Chinese dragon, crayons, and even a boat. Some people had costumes so big that we had to glue ourselves to the wall to let them through in the hallway. My parents told me numerous times throughout the school day "Take photos for us!" and then sat happily looking at them last evening.

         I found that the carnival was cool because everyone took part in it, or almost everyone. Even the teachers got into it! There are definitely less fun days at school in France, but when we have them, we go all out! In the US, it seemed like there were always special occasions, so students didn't participate as much, myself included.

         My friend Elsa gave me the idea of dressing up like a minion with her and another friend, so I went for it. Wednesday I was able to formally introduce my friends to my host parents, even though they already know all of them by name and nickname, as Elsa and Laurentin joined us for lunch. Then we went into town to buy all that was needed for the carnival: yellow pants, yellow shirts, and overalls.

          I have to say: One of the best feelings in the world is when your host parents know all of your friends' names and call them as you do. Laurentin becomes Laulau, Sibel becomes Sisi. There are so many little things parents do that you don't realize until you study abroad and join another family. I remember back in October when my other host dad was taking me to tennis and he was going through the names trying to find the one for my AFS friend from Russia. He listed off some from school and some from home before I had to give him a hint!

         Yesterday afternoon, after school,  I stayed with my friends instead of going home. We started playing a game but then got to talking and playing with carts that were left from the Carnival. Afterwards, we went to a park next to the school and took photos. Some people who walked by looked at us strangely, as there were Pokemeon and minions in the bushes, but that's ok. My one friend started playing his harmonica and we had to guess what song he was playing.

La Belle Vie!!!
          Tennis. I've never appreciated the sport so much. I crave to play like I crave to taste root beer. Wednesday afternoon I got out with a friend to play.  I'm happy with my game for the most part. My host dad came with his camera to take photos and videos. Apparently, he went home after dropping us off, grabbed his camera, and came back. I have to say, as soon as I see someone I know watching me, my game goes downhill. However, here, it was ok. After all, we were just hitting for fun.

Yes, the tongue does help!

           When I got home, my host dad showed me all the photos he took and then he and my host mom started commenting on my photos. Not bad for the first time in three months and without my dad by my side, but apparently I need to wait until the ball comes down more before I hit it during my serve, and I realized some other tiny errors that I made.

         This next week, I have my host sisters and my host parents with me. I'm already busy planning events with my friends, of course, You all know I can't possibly survive two weeks without seeing my school friends. I'll be studying too because the SAT test is directly after the school vacation.

85 days 


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

100 More Days

         This is the time where weeks start to feel like days and days start to feel like minutes. They all say the last three months go by incredibly fast, and they're right. However, I still have time here, and I am making the most of it.

         The weather is beautiful, and I am enjoying every minute. When it was snowing in my hometown in the US, I was outside in just a light sweater. The tennis courts are repaired now, so as soon as possible, I will be more than extremely happy to use my racquet again.

         I am also enjoying doing spending lots of time with my friends now, especially since the big project they were all doing is over. My friends and I finished class earlier last Thursday, so instead of going home, we stuck together and went to the park. We ate snacks, played with snails, and just had a good time. Today after school, two of my AFS friends joined my host parents and me for lunch, and I spent the afternoon with them. One came to my house and let's just say we had a "reflection time" of our experience with my host parents. Two days ago, it was one of my special friend's birthday. Besides taking part in planned events, I enjoy just working beside my classmates and spending little special moments with them. It's common for me to go out on the weekends. In fact, I often have so many invitations to do this or that with these or those friends that I have to really think about what I want to do, which is the case for this weekend.

At the park with school friends!
         For me, everything is going well with AFS. In mid-March, there was Open House at a local high school, so I went along with my host parents to present the organization. It was also an opportunity to collect AFS wristbands, pins, etc! It amazes me how many people seem to want to go abroad here. Of course, half of the people I talk to that want to go abroad want to go to the US to learn English. It is true that France is a smaller country and we were presenting at a school who hosts lots of exchange students, but sometimes I wish my home country was more open-minded.  I had lots of fun chatting with my international friends and advising those, as best I could, who want to go abroad. It's a pretty amazing feeling to talk about your experience abroad, but at the same time it's something that you can't really describe. This is coming from a person who has trouble just describing normal, everyday feelings!

        The last official AFS weekend of this year was this past weekend. I met up with an American AFSer who I have not seen in seven months, and I hardly even recognized her at first. I also met lots of French teenagers who will be going abroad very soon. Like always, there was a lot that happened, but I had two major takeaways.

        In November, at the other AFS weekend, we drew a rollercoaster to represent our experiences. Of course, everything was going so well then, so I drew a steady line on the rollercoaster to represent smooth sailing and an easy finish. Isn't it funny how life works? This time we did that activity again, and I was able to see how my rollercoaster changed.

        For another activity, we also wrote a letter to ourselves, telling ourselves of what we hope we did in France, as we will get the letter back in July. The three initial questions we were told to reflect upon during the letter were these: What did I want to accomplish in France? What did I do? What do I want to do in these last three months. Once I got home, I was able to concentrate more, so I took an additional two hours to do that activity for myself and I added a fourth column: When I Get Home. I don't think I ever realized how much I've done here until I wrote it all out. I printed out the paper and showed it to my host parents. Now it's hanging on my wall.

With my awesome host dad this past weekend!
     Spending time together with an AFS friend from Indonesia this weekend (We are always the last to leave
because our host parents help organize the events.)
          My study materials arrived for the French fluency test a few weeks ago, so I am thoroughly enjoying mself with that. The three essential parts of the test in June will be writing, listening and speaking. The presidential elections in France will take place at the end of this month, so I am staying in the loop. My French is still coming along nicely, and now I am even writing Frenglish without trying. My host mom is there to remind me when I forget how to speak English. I can listen to French music and understand now.

          School is going well, even if I am now completely and utterly lost in math class. So much for taking trigonometry in French!  I have lots of homework, as always, and I did not even mention the SATs yet. However, my French teacher today told me, "You are very motivated!" and went off about how happy she is with my work. Yesterday, my science teacher was impressed with how well I understood a concept and told me "You should be in the scientific section!" It's the little moments like this that keep you going. Needless to say, I owe a big thanks to my host parents for correcting my French errors (as late as midnight)!

          As far as events foreseen in April, there is obviously my birthday, and I am sure I will be beyond spoiled then. This weekend, I am getting together with the same AFS friends I saw today to celebrate one's eighteenth birthday. School vacation is in a week and a half! I finish school early Thursdays, which allows me a good few hours to pour into the SAT or the DELF.

         Another thing that has been on my mind a lot lately has been my return. I remember arriving here and telling myself "That day in July will never come!" It's still "far away", but it's coming. It's not that I don't want to go home, but the things that I am experiencing here cannot be replaced. There is something that seems to be magical about going abroad. Besides, I have almost everything and everyone I could wish for here. The only thing that soothes me about my return is that I really can't wait to see the joy on my parents' face when I greet them. One goal that I was reminded of this weekend, and that I've had all along, is that I don't want to leave France having any regrets. I want to do, see and learn all I can.

         Ok, since I traumatized all of you in the US with my other countdown so much, I'll humor you with this: 95 days. (Hey, that's for whoever is picking me up at the airport!)