Friday, June 23, 2017

What NOT to Say When I Get Back

      As I put my finishing touches on my French fluency exams and I can literally put all of the days I have left on a single page in Microsoft Word when making a calendar for my last month (not even) in France, my mind suddenly comes to the realization that it tries so often to ignore...again: Wow, there isn't much time left. My mind can't help but wander to the US every once in a while. I can only imagine how popular I will be when I get back, with people bombarding me to ask what I did during my year abroad, how the flight back was, and all in between. An exchange student often feels increased frustration coming home because of the types of questions people ask or the type of things they say, even when they mean well, that explicitly show that they don't understand what the student has just been through. Here are some questions/remarks that it is typically better to avoid, especially the first few months after arrival and during readjustment.

       1. How was your trip/vacation/voyage? It simply wasn't that. I did travel a little bit, but that wasn't my main focus. I worked as hard here as I did in the US, just in different ways.
       2. Do you speak French? Yes, I do. Even if my host mom speaks English as well as I do, we still talk in French!

       3. What was your favorite part? I am going to give you a list of dates and you will most likely have no idea what they correspond to. I don't have a favorite part! 
      4. Is the US or France better? I didn't do this to choose a country. I can say now there are things I prefer about the US and there are things I prefer about France. My heart is in both countries, however.

      5. Don't be sad that it's over. You can go back and visit. I know I can. What I won't be able to do is go back to when I was 16 with all the same people and the same "feeling". Visiting will be great, but it just won't be the same. This is the year I grew up.
      6. Do French people shower? Please don't pull out all those ridiculous stereotypes on French people (even if it makes me laugh!)
      7. You are so lucky! Even before I left, when people called it "luck" or got jealous about my year abroad, my blood pressure rose. I worked my guts out to get here, and I arrived and worked more. I am fortunate but not lucky.

      8. Overusage of home: Coming home, back home....I often have to stop myself from saying these types of things myself. France is no less my home than the US. I am leaving home to go home.



Enjoy the Present and Be Positive (The Last Two Weeks)

           And here I am....the last two weeks. In September, I told myself that these days would never come. June seemed so far away. In December, I wanted this day to come but it just didn't seem to be coming fast enough. Now, I am here. I think that I will soon be back in my native country, but I remember it as if I never left. Half of me just wants to lay in bed and cry, and it takes all the energy I have to make the most of my last days here. I realize, as I've learned this year, that I am a very small part of this world. Everybody's life around me continues. My host parents still go to work, my friends are still studying for the BAC. When I left the US, although my friends and family were sad to see me go, their lives continued. I started a new one. When I go back to the US, I will start another one. Everyone's here will continue. It's harder to say goodbye than hello during an exchange year.

          However, like I said, I am making the best of the present moment, which I was reading about the other day. Staying busy so that I don't think about two weeks from now is one of the ways I handle "this." Though I do have to some serious planning/pressures for when I get back to the US, I don't forget to have fun. Marseille, the Alps, my French fluency tests, countless parties and events with seems to never end, and it doesn't have to yet.

         Marseille was magnificent, as almost every town near the sea is. I went with my host parents and AFS group about two weeks ago. I went during Christmas break, but that was a rough time. I was glad to create better memories with my host mom and AFS friends on our boat ride!

         My French fluency tests were last week, and overall I am pretty satisfied. I studied hard and did my best. This time I was able to control the stress better. I feel more confident about one test than the other, but we'll see when I get my results next week. Perhaps the most memorable events of the day were not actually the the tests themselves, but the getting there. Our train got stuck on the way to Lyon, and we would have been late for my exams if my host mom was not figuring out another way to get there. We ran to catch our bus and to get to my second exam also. There was even a confusion about where the tests were being held. That's a day with my host mom I'll never forget!

        The Alps were amazing as I expected, but they are not as close as you all think! I loved climbing on the rocks and playing in the snow with my host parents!

         As much as I try to  focus on France, I always get asked questions, particularly, "How do you feel about going home?" Some immediately say "You must be excited to see your family again." Others say "So, are you sad?" I'm not sure myself. Sure, as I listen to "Welcome Home" I smile at the thought of seeing my cousins again (especially since I missed the family reunion this week and my Chinese cousins are home) and I try to plan out my first words for my parents when I find them at the airport and how I will teach them the bise.

        However, the happiness of seeing my family back home does not hide the fact that I am leaving a life behind here. Some people do not understand how people that are not biologically related can be so close to me, but that's been the greatest gift this year has given me. When I waved at my parents in August and said "See you in July", I meant it. I would love to be able to say it here. Right now, the thought of going back comes as a shock, even if I knew it was coming for the past ten months. I've read about it, heard stories about it, but it just doesn't seem real. When it does acually sink in, little by little, sadness is the first feeling.

        If I had the choice of going back to the US, I'm not sure I would, at least not yet. On the other hand, I guess the greatest present I can give to my host parents at this time is to put into action what they've  told me these past five months. I can't have everything in life, so I have to make the most of what I do have. I had understood the first part well before coming to France, but the second part took more work. All that to say, I'm going to list why I am excited to return "home."

1. Family and Friends

        Obviously, the #1 reason why I don't want to leave France is the #1 reason I want to go back. It's been extremely hard to be away from everyone, and everything, I knew this year, especially in December. I can't wait to see my nanny again and the countless others!

These are the crazy cousins I've missed!

2. Being Able to Understand Everything

       It's been pretty cool to not have been pressured by all the school responsibilities this year, but it was frustrating when I wanted to put in the effort with my classmates but couldn't. May I never forget how draining certain times were when I was just trying to figure out what was being said around me or to understand the personality of those around me.

3. Root Beer and Fried Chicken

      I can't say I prefer American food over French food, (That would be a crime!) but there are some food/drinks I will be happy to taste again.

4. Discover my Hometown

     I actually wonder what it's like to go further than the Giant grocery store or to sit and watch the cows pass by on the Amish farm...

5. Hugs

     I don't really miss them at all now. I've adapted in several ways. However, I put this element because if I don't remember how hard it was at the beginning, how should I expect everyone else to? (I remember the first real culture shock the week of September 17-24.)

Thursday, June 8, 2017

My School Year in France: More Than Just Academics

           Tomorrow, I will do it for the last time. My host parents will wake me up in the morning, and I will force myself out of bed to go see my friends. More precisely, I will get up and get ready for school. My host mom will drive me down to the bus stop, where we will sit and chat for a few minutes before giving each other a morning hug. I will then get on the bus, which is not yellow, for the record. It seems like not so long ago I was doing these things for the first time in this town.

           School in France taught me much more than just academics. By immersing myself in French and the French lifestyle every day, I was able to learn about the culture and language. I lived something many others won't. School here is so different than in the US. The teachers are more distant, the days and lunches are longer, the students are put in specific classes for their future, and from my experience, the students are closer to each other. It's not better than the US, it's not worse, it's just different. Personally, I really like this school system.

             While my host mom was worrying about how I would adapt to my new school and make friends in January, I was learning how to do just that. I was getting by in the language, and I was adapting, for the second time. While many of my relationships in the US date back to so long ago that I don't know how they formed, I saw relationships form themselves right in front of my very eyes here. I still remember who approached me first at my schools and who came back. I remember the first day at my second school when Maxime came up to tell me that I probably could come in later the next day because there was a test. I remember when I was so confused with the schedule and Mathilde and Elsa (from different schools) came to my rescue.

             Anyhow, I did make intellectual progress as well. Not able to read a simple chapter book in French when I arrived, I can now read French literature with the others. I understand biology class, and I finished the year off with a test that was finally graded! I've done math concepts in French. Even if I don't understand it all now, I at least am a little more familiar with it than at the beginning, and I bonded with my friends and my host mom as they explained the lessons to me.

            What will I miss the most about this school year? Will it be the lunches in town that I ate out with my friends, either during breaks or when we finished class early? Will it be not having the afternoon off Wednesdays and Thursdays? Will it be when I remember the Wednesdays my friends accompanied me to where I ate out with my host parents and my host mom yelled back at us "You guys are so slow!!!" Will it be the pride I had as I did real French schoolwork on my own? Most likely, I think it will be the people that have brought me this far. I've loved every minute of it. It's safe to say this has been one of the best school years of my life.


Friday, June 2, 2017


                About three and a half weeks ago, my tennis coach from my old region called me, offering me tickets for the first round of Roland Garros. It was something we were previously planning months ago, but of course I lost hope that it would be possible when I changed regions. My first instinct was to say "Yes!" but I quickly remembered all the other events that were going on at the same time. I had just gotten home from a big weekend in Paris, and I had already planned to go back and see one of my host families in Champagne Ardenne what would be the weekend after Roland Garros. However, over the next few days, my host parents and I reasoned together. I could miss a day or two of school (again) since the main focus would be on the Baccalaureat, which I am not taking, and even though it would be a cramped schedule, I do have to take advantage of being in France!

                Last Sunday, my parents put me on the train, and I was off to my old town. It was my first time taking and changing trains alone, but I got through it and felt really proud of myself afterwards.

               After 7 hours of traveling, I stepped off onto the train platform of my old town and into the heat. I had forgotten how small, and how hot, it was. My tennis coach came and picked me up and we did the bise and started talking like I never left. "It's so bizarre to be here..." I told him. "It's like I've lived another life since."

               He took me down to the tennis courts where a tournament was going on. A group of people were at a table, and he pointed to a woman, saying "I think you know her." To be honest, I did not recognize her, but she quickly recognized me. "Oh, it's Janae! The one who changed families and now lives in the mountains," someone said. I was quickly offered a brownie and invited to sit down. Everybody started talking again. They started asking me about my old host family, why I changed, and then they said "Oh, we have to talk slower. She might not understand." I can speak French...and understand it now!" I thought. Her French has tremendously improved!" my coach chimed in. It"s always a little frustratring to get asked the same questions over and over again, but I accept that it's normal.

                When we got to my coach's house, he showed me around, including the hallway of tennis racquets. We quickly made our way to the living room for the French Open. It was playing in the background while we chatted and while I texted my host parents.

                 Around 1:00pm the next day, I saw a few clay courts before quickly finding my way to the central court (Philippe Chatrier) with my coach's family where Djokovic was scheduled to play. I quickly found our seats, which were at the perfect angle. From that point on, I just savored every moment. I looked to my right, where flags from different countries were waving at the top of the court. I looked down onto the court and had time to see the players make their appearances. The match soon got underway. Every few points, Djokovic would tap his racquet on his shoes to get the clay that was stuck off. He won the first set easily but had a little trouble in the second.  Shortly after, my coach texted me from the other main court, advising me that Nadal was playing.

First match of the day for me: Novak Djokovic 

               I tried to explain to those I was with that one of us had to stay and the other two could go see Nadal. Due to the noise and all, we had miscommunication, so I found my way over the other court all by myself and found a seat. In that moment, life was as good as it could get. I had my second favorite player (next to Federer) on his favorite surface in front of me. He played so well that I felt that as soon as I got there he finished. What came next was not expected; he did his interview in French. People say that he barely speaks English, but he gave us a few sentences in French, substituting the English word when he didn't know what to say in French.

Rafael Nadal (the King of Clay) on the Suzanne Lenglen court

             I texted my coach, letting him know Nadal had finished and we could rejoin each other. When he didn't reply, I decided to find my way to Court 17 where another favorite had just kicked off his match: David Ferrer. However, as soon as I had got going in the right direction, he called me.

              After talking with my coach and his family for a little bit and walking around with them, I found myself in line to watch David Ferrer. I guess I was the only one who had the patience to wait! English was going on all around me, even the American accent! My host dad always tells me "Be patient!" and if there was one time in my life that I listened to him it was at this time. I heard the grunts and every once in a while I saw Ferrer pass through where I could see to go get a ball.

             About an hour later, I found myself a nice seat on the side, and I believe it was the  the beginning of the fifth set. I just took in the match. I watched Ferrer as he served, a pretty good one, and how he hit with all his force, just like Nadal. He and his opponent were getting to almost every ball, though many times it seemed it was Ferrer on the offensive. It made me question why he wasn't one of the "Top 4" in the game. It seems he has the game to be in that, and he's hovered around the top ten for years. My coach texted me informing me that the other match on Central Court was beginning. The score at the time was 4-4, so I told my coach I would be right over. That was a joke. The match carried on until Ferrer finally took it 13-11 after about an "extra" 45 minutes or an hour. It was also raining a little bit, so I found myself sweating one moment and putting my sweatshirt on the next. Thankfully, the rain didn't stop the match.

             Afterwards, I found my way to the Central Court to watch the last match of the day between Alexander Zverev and Fernando Verdasco. Unfortunately, it didn't last for long because the rain started up again. Besides, the approaching nightfall encouraged the officials and the players to come to an agreement to stop the match.

             Seeing a tennis match in person allows you to see everything, good or bad. I did see Djokovic throw his racquet Monday and Ferrer complain that the courts were too wet. Thankfully, I didn't see any injuries or sick players, like I did at the US Open years ago.

             I always tell people that I can't choose the best day of my experience, but this one would definitely be in the running. The only thing that could have made it better is my family. I was texting Dad from up in the stands while watching Nadal, but if there is one day I could choose to share with him person this year, that would be it. Tennis also gives me a sense of peace. It was something I loved, for the most part, doing with my dad in the US. Our world stopped when we were at the US Open together. Of course I missed my host family too.


              It's interesting to see how a tennis tournament even varies between countries. Unlike the US Open, there are no lights nor roofs at Roland Garros, which makes it a very weather sensible tournament. It's also a lot smaller than New York and there are some tennis rule changes.

             Unlike the night before due to my excitement, I slept very soundly the night after Roland Garros. We got back to my coach's house around 12am. The next day I accompanied him in the rainy weather to his tennis classes, and he let me play with his class. Of course, I became the center of attention. One lady told me "I just love your tennis playing!" and proceeded to tell me that I was hitting like Nadal.

            It was hard to say goodbye to my tennis coach. He was someone I really enjoyed seeing in my old region. It feels like just yesterday he was translating everything in English, and this Tuesday he was wishing me a good return to the United States as I stepped into the train.

            I'm so glad I've been able to do a lot of "things" lately, and I have a pretty busy schedule until my return to the US. The last month is the time to do all you have not done, due to school dying down and your growing independence. It's also a tip a Brazilian exchange student gave to me last year to not think about your return. Just keep yourself busy.