I was recently packed up and shipped off to France to live with a lovely, quiet host family. While yes, it was by choice, no, it was not easy. The lure of fresh baguettes, red lipstick and french caramel has been stuck in my brain since the day I left my year long Paris adventure in the summer of 2008. Remembering what life in France was like for me as a 9 year old only sent my mind into an upward spiral, imagining what life could be like for a sixteen year old with a taste for the unknown. The idea of glamour and the simple beauty of daily French life was built up higher and higher and higher until it hit me like a ton of bricks the moment I stepped off the plane in Paris.
My nose was twitching at the scent of the first PAUL patisserie in the CDG airport, and my eyes were franticly darting all over, soaking in the familiarity of all things French. I felt a rush of ecstasy, and even though I had only lived there for a year of my short life, it was as if I had come home! The train ride to the beautiful city of Lille only forced my excitement to mount, as did gushing with the other students in the program over anything we could find that differentiated from home. We weren’t in Kansas anymore.
We lugged our baggage about 5 blocks where a van was waiting to grab them for us, and from there we walked to our hostile. The hostile alone was enough to make the designer in me drool, with exposed brick walls, oversized and rusting silver lamps, long, thin wooden tables and corrugated metal roofing. We spent one of the best weeks of my life there. I bonded with a few of the other students faster than I think I have ever bonded with anyone, over our shared duo of both mounting excitement and mounting dread. We packed so much into that week though, that with the jet lag included we were ready to drop dead at a moment’s notice. Our quick day trip to Paris was 6 hours total, in which we somehow squeezed in 1) The Louvre, 2) Le Tour Eiffel, bien sur! 3) The Arc de Triomphe 4) Rue Saint Martin 5) The Champs-Ellyses, AND 6) An hour of “personal” (shopping) time. No idea how that was accomplished. Back at Lille again that night, we made homemade crepes and played never have I ever until 2am, at which point we went back into our room, and acted like idiots cracking up over nothing until 3:30. The French culture and language classes we participated in that week were definitely eye opening. I think that was the final wake up call to all of us that this was not a vacation. Our five months would not be spent in a beautiful, big city with all of our new best friends, but in tiny towns, far apart.
The day before we met our host families we were all under the spell of a blissful mist of sarcastic self-put downs, giggling over the atrocities that were our french skills. The mood quickly took a turn for the quiet, and almost awkward during the last hugs, the last goodbyes, and the last full sentences in english.
Stepping off the train to meet my host family my heart was pounding in my chest, and I was visibly shaking. I was going to live with these random strangers for almost six months! What was I, insane? Why the hell did I choose to put myself in this position?
When I saw them it was all good. They were smiling and I was grinning and it was obvious that I was just as nervous as they were. We grabbed my bags and hopped/squeezed in the car to drive to my new home.
For some reason, arriving at their house was one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever experienced. It was like a physical representation of my next six months, of a place that I knew would be comforting in the future but for now was just a building.
The first night and day were the toughest by far, the highlights being crying at dinner, crying in the shower, crying in bed, crying on a Skype call that was set up with my dad upon entry into the house for the first time, and crying while washing dishes. A lot of crying went on.
The Herbreteaus are sweet people who live in a very small town of 6,000 people. Their house is refreshingly spotless one hundred percent of the time. Everyone has one of everything; one washcloth, one towel, one napkin, one fork, one knife, one spoon, one plate, you name it. Following their waste not want not attitude, every single crumb of food that is brought out or opened, is consumed. Every crumb. Literally, if you see a crumb of food on the table, you eat it. We have a running joke in the house about my “fight for the salt”, or combat pour le sel. I myself am I proud saltaholic, so you can imagine my withdrawals upon realizing that they don’t use salt in their cooking here. Nope. Close to none. It’s taken some adjusting. Oh! No oils or fats either! Needless to say they live a much healthier life than I do, so hopefully that will rub off on me.
In Santa Barbara I was used to being around friends for close to 100% of my free time. Sleeping in the same place, eating together, laughing together, driving around together, and generally being together so much of the time was just what we did. I’ve never known life any differently from that. I have a very good relationship with my parents, but I really wasn’t accustomed to an excess of “family time”. Here, everything you just read is flipped upside down. From what I can tell so far, the only time friends are around each other (I’m generalizing) is at school. Weekends are mostly to spend with family, playing board games or cooking. To be honest, I feel like I’m 7, playing house with my friends, but in a very good way. As an exchange student there really isn’t a better way to learn the language than to be around the family, because I’m forced to participate. At school, it’s easy to sink into the background, but not at home, and that’s what is so rewarding about the family life I experience here.
Today I did what I love to do when I travel, which is wander around an unknown city with a camera, an appetite, and a shopping list. I found myself in the farthest corners of the beautiful old city of Rennes, comparing various crêpes du pommes et beurre salé (hot salted caramel and spiced apple crepes). I spent 40 minutes in a French design and cuisine bookstore, I finally found the boots I’d been searching for for weeks, I tasted the best food I’ve had in a very long time, and I sat at different cafés writing in my journal for hours. Today was the day that reminded me why I came here. Today I saw beautiful style, beautiful people, beautiful buildings, beautiful cobblestoned streets, and beautiful food that you just can’t find in America.
Although the language often swirls around past my head, sometimes it breaks through my bubble, and even if it goes in one ear and out the other, I am now able to relax, and I can completely appreciate the smallest victories (when waiters don’t realize I’m American, when my grammar doesn’t sound like a 3 year old etc.). Those are the moments I’ll be living for over the next six months. No matter how bad my day is, I’ll always have those moments.