Thursday, May 25, 2017

"Normal" Days in France

             "Janae, you're going back to the United States soon, right? Did you like your time here? Will you be able to tell the Americans that it was cool?" The questions come up more and more frequently. My response is always something like "Yes, I'm going home, I mean, back soon. It was very very very "cool". I don't have the words to describe it."

             They say it's the "little things" that count in life, and the deeper into my AFS experience that I get, the more I am reminded of that truth. I have a busy month coming up in June, but before getting lost in all the extraordinary opportunities I get to live as an exchange student, it's important to treasure the little moments, the moments that I didn't and won't have in the US: going out into town with my friends when we don't have class and buying a tennis book and cookies, sitting next to my host mom on the couch as she is going through Twitter, etc.

             Some say it's the first few months of exchange that are the hardest, some say it's the holiday season, but rarely do I hear that the end is the most difficult. That very well might be the case. Knowing when to work, knowing when to spend time with my friends, and preparing myself for the United States are just a few things that are coming into perspective.

             I will pass my French fluency test in about two and a half or three weeks. I decided to take two levels, B1 and B2. Everyone is sure I will pass the B1. On the other hand, the B2 is much harder as it's college level. The four parts are Oral Comprehension, Written Comprehension, Written Production, and Oral Production. I would say the Written Production is the hardest for me. The way of writing is completely different in France, and four possibilities exist for what type of piece I will have to write. Keeping that in mind, I will have to then understand what I have to write about. I have an hour to write  my piece, which has to be around 250 words, using correct and advanced language.  That said, I have not practiced the Oral Production very much. For that, I will be given a document presenting a problem. My job will be to find what the problem is and give my opinion on it. Then I will talk with the examinator and will argue for/ defend my point of view. I might speak French well in my friends' point of view, but the pressure and language level required can change everything. The Oral and Written Comprehension will still be difficult, but maybe a little easier, I'm hoping. I will just need to work fast and be super concentrated.

              This last Saturday, my host dad got two more tattoos. Tattoos are normal for him and my French family, but they weren't normal for me before I got to France. On his left wrist, he got "Family" tattooed across with DNA bonds on the top and rope cords stretching across the bottom, representing how his natural family comes together with his family from around the world. I really appreciate that thought. He also has a world map on his calf (is that the English word?) with Wanderlust written across the top.

             At the end of the school year, I think I'm finally getting into the groove of it! Yes, I know. It's not too early. I feel pretty confident about a biology test I took the other day. My teacher said the one I took before was almost perfect, except for the fact that I didn't write an introduction and conclusion. This time, I did that. Then, after the test, I found out that I had written a similar answer to that of my friends'. I also tried my very best to use formal language in order to practice for the DELF.

           The weather has been particularly hot this week after a few rainy ones. I got out to play tennis with my friend yesterday. It's been about a year and half or two years since I played in heat like that. It made me think of the days in July when I used to play with my dad, which I really hope we will do when I get back. Despite the heat, our playing session was great. I helped my friend with her serve, we caught up with each other's lives, and we played a friendly match. I'm really happy with the fact that I don't need my dad or a tennis coach by my side to play. In the US, as soon as something wasn't working, I would run to my dad for advice. Not having that opportunity when I first got to France was difficult. I had persuaded myself that only my dad knew my game and he would be the only one I'd listen to for tennis advice. Soon, I realized, I'd have to listen to someone else, even if that someone did not have the same mother language as me. After changing regions of France, I no longer had a coach, but it felt normal to be independent, so I started putting two and two together to fix little problems in my game. I'm still nervous for when I get home. Have I lost something since I haven't played as often as my tennis teammates played this past year? Will I have time to be invested in the team my senior year?

          Last night was a very fun night, to say the least. My host dad took my friends and me to our friend's concert. Maxime had been talking about his concert for weeks before and was reminding me all this week, even after I told him, "Yes, I'm coming, and I'm bringing Sibel and Elsa too!" We had a great time. The music was very well played, and we enjoyed seeing Max play his saxophone. I was a little tired when I got home around 12:20am, but that goes for everybody!

At the concert (with Elsa and Sibel)

         I have a long weekend due to Ascension Day, which I will dedicate to my preparations for the DELF and other work. Sunday morning, Mother's Day in France, I will head back to my old region of France to see my old tennis coach and to go to Roland Garros! Like I think I've made clear, life is about as perfect as it can get here! I'm living every moment to the fullest.

                                                                   45 days left

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

When You Are an Exchange Student....

         Since I have some friends who are going to be exchange students soon or who are considering taking the jump, I thought I'd give them some pointers on what it's like in our world, particularly mine. I guess this could apply to any period of time, but I, of course, am writing from a ten month point of view. It's all from experience!

         1. Expect to be asked questions...a lot. I am not kidding. When you first arrive, you will be the talk of the school, well, really the town. Your host family will introduce you to their friends and family like you are a prize they won. People will know who you are before they've even met you. Questions will vary simply from "Why did you choose this country?" to silly stereotypes on your own country to everything in between. You will find yourself replying to the same question over and over again and to questions that you can't really explain. Hang in there! After a while, the attention dies down, but there are always people who ask you if you speak your host language eight months after you've arrived.

         2. Prepare your loved ones. When you first go, your parents might not really realize that you really are gone. I had been on exchange for two months and my dad told me he was still in denial that I had even left. You have to make it clear to everyone back home that you will not be on Facetime with them every night or even every two weeks. You simply can not be in your home country in your head and in your host country. I suggest doing a blog or having a social media account so that you can keep your loved ones updated. This works better than texting or e-mailing for two reasons. Instead of writing the same thing to twenty different people, you can update them all at once. Secondly, you will be doing yourself a favor because you will not be actually talking to your mom, which can bring about or worsen homesickness, but she will still know you are alive and well. That said, a note written back home every once in a while or a separate e-mail for a birthday does not hurt.

       3. Decide why you are going abroad. Each student studies abroad for different reasons. It is so important to write your reasons down, and don't lose the paper like I did. When it gets hard, go back to that paper and it will encourage you to keep going.

      4. Savor each moment. This is a year of your life you will not forget. You don't have to enjoy every moment, but just realize that each moment will be looked back on as irreplacable. You will look back on the harder moments with some type of feeling in between sadness, pride, relief that it's over and the desire to experience it again.

      5. Keep a journal. You don't have to tell everyone everything. Simply keep a journal. I haven't even left yet, and I look at my journal from time to time. It's special. Write in your host language to see your improvement!

      6. Get connected with your host family and friends. You will quickly find that the things you never did with your mom or dad are being done with your host parents. Either they will invite you just to go to the store with them, or you will find yourself sad because they didn't invite you to. While it is likely that you stayed on your phone in your room while your mom did this in your native country, things like this are a great way to get to know your host family and friends. Also, you can learn new vocabulary in your second language! If they are doing something or going somewhere and they don't think of inviting you, ask to participate. (You can use google translate if you can't speak the language. They will get the idea.)

       7. Learn your country's expressions. I wish I had done this before leaving. It would've helped a lot. Just do it. It only takes a few minutes and is very amusing!

      8. You don't have to be strong all the time, but don't give up. You will have hard times on your exchange. It could be as simple as you getting tired of not being understood in your second language or as hard as a host family change. Get the emotions out. Talk to someone. I know what you might be thinking. How am I supposed to tell my host family what is going on if I barely know the language... or them? (Note: Exchange students are a great resource because they are (to at least some degree) going through the same thing that you are. Also, they become some of the people after your year abroad that you can really connect with.) You will see that the hardest parts of the exchange help you grow and they are your proudest moments. If you really have no one to go to and you are going to get lost if you step out of your appartment, turn on the shower and just let it out. There's a solution for everything.

       9. Don't expect to be understood. I haven't gone home yet, but I expect it to be a little frustrating. I have experienced so much, but many people just think I just spent 310 days in Paris. (Close family and friends: In case you are reading this, that last sentence does not apply to you.) For those who know better can only hear my voice as I tell them the first time I celebrated a French Christmas, not experience what I have, or even have the desire to. No one understands, and no one will. It's ok.

      10. Use humor. When people ask you what you miss about your home country, don't be shy. I love when the French do something that is typically American. I will then leave a sly comment, indicating how I feel about that particular custom. For example, if I see my friends hugging, I will say "Oh, we're not kissing anymore! We must be in America!" with a giant smile, and then they will say, "Oh, do you want a hug Janae?" That's how reputations are born.

       Those are ten basic tips I would give to any exchange student, although I could go on all day.  I know that no one will follow each of these because I certainly didn't follow every tip that I had been given before going abroad. That's ok. That's part of why each of our experiences are different. You learn along the way.

 Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. 
                                                                     -Neal Donald Walsch


         Well, that was easy. I knew the title would grab everyone's least all the Americans. I've been to the Big Apple of New York, and now I've been to the City of Love. I absolutely love it. I love big cities, and I had always wanted to spend some time in Paris with my loved ones before returning to the US.  Up until this weekend, I could say I had been to Paris, but that was only to get off my plane and to change my host families. I know I will get the question countless times upon my return to the US, so now I can say, "Yep, it's been done. I've been to Paris."  We recently got home, and just like when my dad takes me to New York for the US Open, I am already replaying memories in my head, wishing I could relive every moment.

         The saying "Work before play" was heeded this weekend. (Random fact: I've gotten a lot better at not procrastinating this year!) In fact, my host parents originally took me to Paris for my SAT. That's the great thing about taking international tests here. They are always in a big city that requires traveling, so you are tempted to spend more than just a few hours there for the test!

          I was up at 6am Saturday morning for the SAT. Unfortunately, it did not go as well as I expected. It was probably the worst testing experience I've had. I've been a nervous testtaker for the past few years, but this was the first time I completely blanked out. It was a timed test, so I found myself constantly thinking about the time and nothing going into my brain when I was reading the passages that I had to respond to questions for. What's worse is that I know I did badly. I'm the type that thinks they failed and end up getting an A. However, when you have five mintues left and only half the paper is filled out...there is proof you failed.

         That was just for the reading part. The writing and language test went for a few careless errors I probably made while rushing to get all the questions answered. However,  the reading part is one of the most important parts of the test for me as that's normally my strong area. Math went okay, but I am not expecting a great score either just because it's math. I was mentally finished by the essay part. I simply do very badly having to read a passage and write an essay in an hour. I will get my scores back in June or July, and if I need to retake it, I can in the US. What bothers me most about the test is that I know I could have done better, and I don't really feel like I deserve such an awesome weekend in Paris after I messed up on one of the most crucial parts of the weekend.

         Immediately after my SATs, which ended around 1:15pm, my host parents took me to the Arc de Triomphe, amidst the rain and my disappointment about the SAT.  I decided to let it go, at least for the weekend, because like my host mom said, there is nothing I can do about it for now, and I didn't want to ruin a weekend that many people only dream about experiencing. The Arc de Triomphe is famous for the First World War, the Unknown Soldier and Napoleon's success. It wasn't too painful to get to the top, but it was a spiral staircase, so going down made you feel dizzy. At the top, we had a good view of what is known as "the Star, which refers to how the street sections come together. We could see the Eiffel Tower in the distance, although the top was covered in fog and clouds.

A view of the streets of Paris from the top of the Arc de Triomphe

        We stopped for a quick bite to eat in the tunnel that led from the subway to the Arc de Triomphe, and then my host parents took me down the most famous street in France: the Champs Elysées. It looks like just any other street in Paris, but all the luxurious stores are situated there. My host dad was delighted to see a Starbucks, so we explored one mall.

        I remember falling in love with the idea of the Bateau-Mouche when I studied it in French class two years ago. It's a boat that takes you all over the Seine and you see many famous sights. At this time, it had stopped raining, so we happily took our seats on the top part. My host parents started talking to me in English, which always gives me a laugh. During our boat ride, we saw the two museums from afar, the Musée d'Orsay and the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Notre Dame, the ferris wheel, and more than I can even remember. Afterwards, we went back to the appartment and had a relaxing evening. I happily texted all of my family members saying "Hey, guess where I am...PARIS!!!" I don't text my parents very much, but I sent them some photos from the first day.

My host mom and me on a bridge in front of the Seine with the
Musée d'Orsay to our right and the Eiffel Tower in the distance

Family pic on a bridge!

Me on the Bateau-Mouche

              We were up and going the second day at 7:00am and were some of the first ones under the rain in line for the Louvre, one of the biggest museums in the world that houses the Mona Lisa and countless other works of art. It originally started out as a castle nine hundred years ago. I would say it is about three times as big as Park City, for those of you who know what I am referring to. It had everything. I am not really an art maniac, but I did appreciate walking on the grounds of such great artists and where much of the history of France took place. After all, if I have ancient French ancestors that were once kings, I must have been in their territory.

             My favorite part was seeing what was first used to build the museum when it was a castle. We were next to what would have been the dungeon and walked in what would have been the moat. We also saw a mummy, sarcophagi, and countless artifacts dating back to thousands of year B.C. It took hours just walking from room to room admiring paintings and sculptures representing religions, love, myths, landscapes, etc. It seemed like each culture had a different way of painting. We saw European, American, African, and Egyptian art. What's more is that even the ceilings were decorated. I would be looking all around myself trying to get the most out of each room and then my host mom would tell me to look up at the ceiling too.


       It's so easy to get lost in the Louvre, so I guess you could say we decided to play hide and seek. While I was looking at a painting, my host parents would run into a different room and hide from me, all three of us dying of laughter when we found each other. My host dad also has this fascination with escalators, so he had fun this weekend.

       After our seven hours at the museum, we went to the Notre-Dame. We couldn't go to the top because that part was closed, but we did take a tour of the inside. A service was going on too. I really don't know how anyone concentrates in a service when there are people from all over the world observing!

       I know everyone is waiting for this one. Yes, of course I did go to the Eiffel Tower. That was Monday morning. Again it was raining. I walked past the same place I did eight months ago when I first arrived in France, and I just don't know how time flew by so fast. It was cool to reminisce and also a little painful.

           It was amazing to stand under the Eiffel Tower and look up at it. Not only is it sturdy, obviously, but it is really pretty. You can tell it's French. I remember reading the mystery book series "The Magic Treehouse" and one book was about their trip to Paris. Thinking back, that's probably where I got my adventurous ideas from, so I was reminiscing back to my childhood while standing under the magnificent structure. After the admiration came the tiring climb.....six or seven hundred steps for the top observation deck. I'd say it was worth it, although gym class the next day was pretty hard!

         From the top of the Eiffel Tower, we could see all over, especially after the sun came out. I immediately went to comparing the Eiffel Tower with the Empire State Building. Unlike the most famous structure in New York, I did not feel the tower swaying. That would have been cool, but I don't think my host mom would've liked it! I only saw a few skyscrapers in the distance...welcome to Europe. Unlike New York, there were not all the posters and billboards that you could see from miles away. From my experience, everything seems closer to Paris than in New York. For example, I could see so many famous French sights just from being at the top of one structure: the Montmartre, the Pantheon, the Notre Dame, etc. While atop the Empire State Building, I had to squint just to see something that was in the street next to us.

Our view from the Eiffel Tower (on one side)

        I now know why Paris is called the City of Love. There were newlyweds taking pictures all to the bridge and in front of Notre Dame. Being in Paris also made me thankful I spoke English. People would come up to us and just assume we spoke English. Well, luckily they were right!

        I am also really thankful that we had such a great weekend in Paris. If we had not had such a good time outside of my exam, it probably would not have been a good weekend for me. We had a great appartment, which was just a mile away from Roland Garros. Even if the tournament was not going on, I can still say I've been at least near it. The waiting lines were not too bad either. After all, during that time, I just had fun sassing my host mom in English and laughing at my host dad's English accent. Ah, good times!

        It was hard to say goodbye to Paris, as I plugged in my headphones with my songs about the city and prepared myself for the ride back home. The next time I will be there will probably be to take my plane back to the US. This isn't like a trip that I did with my dad to New York  the last few years, knowing I would return each year. In fact, I don't know why I keep referring to New York in my post about Paris, but I get this rare happiness when I am in big cities with my loved ones. Life is perfect.

                                                                     60 days