Week 8 – Vacationing in France

My final blog post for this trip falls right at the end of a 2-week break from school, and so I thought it would be appropriate to talk a little about what a vacation looks like in France. One of the first differences I noticed is that, according to some of the kids at school, it’s quite normal to get a whole two weeks off instead of just one. In fact, pretty much every school vacation is for two weeks. Personally, I think this is quite smart because it means you can go out of town for a week, then still have time to yourself at home where it could be easier to do any homework and hang out with your friends. And this is exactly what we did.

Vacation Days

First off, we had a few days off since the week before the break ended on a Wednesday. Then Florine’s family and I packed up our bags and headed to L’île d’Oléron for a week to go “camping”. I’ve put camping in quotes because that is what they called it, however the experience is not what I think a typical American thinks when they hear the word camping. Instead of sleeping in tents in the woods, cooking your food on a campfire, and exploring nature, when the French go camping it means little houses surrounded by more houses all in a fenced off community with a couple amenities like a pool and a small restaurant/shop/bar where you could buy baguettes.

The house, like a lot of things in France, was small. Maybe that was heightened by the fact that we have four kids/teenagers living in close quarters for a week, and the walls were thin enough that you could hear any conversation in the common room/kitchen from your bed. Still, you learn to live with it.

Despite the rather limited space, I had a great time there. The house was about a five minute walk from the beach, which I loved. Because of this, we saw some pretty great sunsets. I also learned how to play pétanque! (Well, sort of learned. I picked up the rules from just watching, so there could be some subtleties I’m still missing out on, but I learned enough to play.) For those of you who don’t know pétanque, the basics are you take turns trying to throw your balls as close as you can to a small wooden ball called the “cochonnet”. Whoever is closest after the round ends gets points, and they you start over. You keep playing until one person or team reaches a certain number of points. However, there are some complexities to the game. For example, on your turn you can knock other player’s balls away with your ball, but if at any point your ball hits the sides of the play area, it is “dead” and won’t be counted.

After the week was over we headed back to our house in Azé (located just outside of Château-Gontier), and spent the rest of the vacation at home. Of course, we did take a few small day trips to a nearby castle and a mall. I slept in, read some books, and also managed to procrastinate my (French) homework until the last minute- just like I do while on vacation in the US. In these ways, at least, it’s not that different here.

Final Reflections

Since this is my last blog post, I wanted to take some time to reflect on a few things I’ve learned about French culture or gotten to experience during my time here. Here is a list of some take a ways:

– First off, I learned what the bises actually means to French people. It’s a greeting, a sign of affection. You do it in the morning, in the evening, when you see a friend or family member at the store… Even if not everyone does the actual kisses over the cheek, it’s an important part of their culture. To them, it’s just a normal part of life. (If you think that it’s a little weird, you might be surprised to know that hugging someone as a greeting or a way to say good bye is just as weird to the French. They don’t ever do it except maybe to comfort someone.)

– French bread. I already knew this, but French bread cannot be beat. Seriously, there’s bread with pretty much every meal. You can eat it with cheese, with pâté or similar spreads, or just eat it plain. Baguettes cost around 1€ a piece, and with a family of six we can easily finish one or two off per day.

– Castles. I’ve had the opportunity to visit one other French castle before going on this exchange, but now I’ve seen many more. It seems like every other town out here has a castle of it’s own (or at least used to at some point).

– It can be good to laugh at your self sometimes. One of the first things I noticed here that seemed different from what I’m used to in America is that people here make more jokes at another person’s expense, and everyone from family to friends seem to tease each other more. It’s all in good fun, even if you’re laughing at each other it’s not supposed to be mean. While this was a bit disorienting at first, I think it’s good to be reminded not to take yourself too seriously. We all mess up sometimes and if we can laugh about it and move on, then we’ll be ok.

– Everything is just two hours from everything else. While this isn’t entirely true in practice, I think this statement sums up some of the differences regarding space between France in America. While “It’s about two hours away” may actually mean a four hour drive, the fact that the French consider that a long road trip, still surprises me.

Finally, I want to say thank you to Bush, to Lycee Victor-Hugo, to the cities of Seattle and Château-Gontier, to my own family and to the incredibly welcoming and generous Brielles family for putting this all together. I don’t know how many people will actually ever read all of this, but it’s been quite an amazing experience to get to be apart of. Big thanks to everyone involved!

Week 5 – A Crossover of Culture

One of the aspects of French culture that I keep going back to as I think about similarities and differences between here and the USA is my fascination with French people’s apparent love of English music. I’ve been lucky enough to have visited France one time before this ten-week stay, and one of the things I remember clearly is my confused happiness upon hearing songs that I knew (or at least knew what they lyrics meant) while on a long car ride to visit the local castle.

One thing that I’ve noticed here that is different from my experiences at Bush is that a lot of students will listen to music on portable speakers or just out of phones while hanging out during lunch or free-periods. I’m sure some students at Bush do this too, but it seems more common here. Maybe it’s because there’s more free places away from classrooms where people are working, or maybe it’s just a variation in the culture surrounding music here. Whatever the reason, it means I’ve gotten lots of chances to listen to what types of music people my age like to listen to.

While the music I’ve heard ranges from rock to 2010s pop music to folk songs it’s clear to me that a good deal of the music people here listen to has English lyrics. Of course I’ve still heard them listen to plenty of French songs (Stromae is a popular choice, along with other songs they all seem to know the lyrics to while I’m left trying to make out the words), but there’s no denying they listen to a ton of English songs.

When thinking about how I’m adjusting to life here in France and how all this English music is affecting me, I find it difficult to decide if the positives outweigh the negatives. On the one hand, it’s comforting to find a little piece of home here across the sea. When an English song comes on the radio there’s an immediate relief of knowing what the people are saying without a struggle. At the same time, it can lead to a little stab of homesickness when a certain song reminds me of people who I’m missing while over here.

I also find it intriguing how much French people actually understand what they’re singing along to. Usually when a song they like comes on, they will sing along to the chorus, or maybe the whole song if it’s slower/ they know it well enough/ they look up the lyrics on their phone. Still, even if they do a good job mimicking accents and pronouncing words, it doesn’t always mean they understand what they’re singing. I want to be clear this is not a criticism- I’m sure the same goes for me when I sing along to the few French songs I’m familiar with, I just find it interesting.

There have been times when I’ve asked someone if they understood the lyrics and they said yes, but other times they admitted to having no clue. I’ve tried my best to explain the meaning of the chorus in “Can’t Hold Us” to both some friends at school and to my host family and it was surprising when I realized they didn’t really understand the feeling behind the song. Though maybe I’m not giving them enough credit by saying that. One thing I’ve certainly learned while over here is that you don’t always have to understand exactly what someone’s words mean to understand what they’re trying to say.

France Exchange Week 2- Visiting Normandy

This weekend is a three day weekend since we have Monday off for Easter, and because of this, my host family and I have taken a trip to Agon-Coutainville. Agon-Coutainville is a small town in Normandy, about 2 hours from Mont Saint Michel. We spent most of the day today driving to and visiting a couple of historic places in Normandy that are either on the landing sites of troops during D-Day or otherwise honor the countless lives lost by American, British, and Canadian soldiers during the liberation of France during WWII.

White crosses and Stars of David at the Normandy American Cemetery.

The first place we visited was the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. It was sobering to see the thousands of white crosses in the cemetery, each one representing the life of a life lost here in Normandy during WWII.

The Overlord Museum

Later, we visited the Overlord Museum, which showcases numerous exhibits of posed soldiers which are based on actual photos taken of soldiers during the war.  The museum also has lots of artifacts, such as the gear they carried, and a number of massive tanks, restored to how they would have looked while in use.

Monument and cliffs at Pointe du Hoc

Lastly, we stopped at the Pointe du Hoc Monument, and although we didn’t go into the visitor center, we got a chance to walk around the field on top of the cliff, explore some of the ruins of the German bunkers and marvel at the expanse of ocean before us. It amazed me to see the steep cliffs which soldiers scaled during the attack to dismantle the German guns which would fire down on troops on the Utah and Omaha beaches. What amazed me even more was to see how the grassland atop the cliffs is still marred with large craters, carved out by bombs during the war.

While the significance of these sites is not lost to me, it was also interesting to me how many different people we saw at these sites. Since appearances alone didn’t give away everything, I found myself listening in to accents and languages spoken, and because of this I can tell we passed many French, German, Spanish, British, and even a few other Americans during our visits today.

I feel very grateful to have gotten this opportunity to engage in another culture and visit places like these that I wouldn’t otherwise get to see.