We started losing speed. My eardrums told me we were getting lower. Oh, how I longed to be at a window seat to see outside when the wheels hit the ground of the country I would call home for the ten months! The torpor induced by the more-than-fourteen-hour trip was jolted loose by sudden overwhelming elation as I felt the plane finally touch down. I looked to the little Colombian girl who had been a faithful companion on the flight from Dulles airport in Washington, D.C. to Charles de Gaulle in Paris, and grasped her shoulders as I excitedly shrieked in disbelief, “Oh my God, we’re here!”
I still clearly remember the ecstasy of my first few months as an exchange student in France with the Intrax exchange program (http://www.intraxinc.com/) . I began the long journey of accustoming myself to a completely new family, school, town, and country. The way of life with the Durand-Pichotka family on the outskirts of the minute, rural town of Grand-Fougeray in Bretagne, France (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brittany), turned out to be what I had been searching for in the dreams of my future. I had not, until then, known how to make those dreams a reality.
The family lived in a large, very old stone house that they had bought twenty years earlier in its provincial condition. Anna, a fiery German painter (www.anna-pichotka.com/fr.html), Patrick a very French scientific researcher, their son Youri, and their daughter Delphine, however, did not lead a provincial life. The walls in the house were covered with the family’s art, and more strikingly, their never-ending book collection.
What one could never find in the house, however, was a single television. The Durand-Pichotkas had no time for television. Each day was a new project, be it planting crops in the farm-like garden, leading the flock of sheep from one field to another, or redoing the wood floors in the bedroom. They spent every free minute enriching their lives with books, art, food, and friends. Each night was spent around the dinner table, talking about anything and everything.
One of my first weekends in France, before I met any of my French classmates, I took a trip to the British Film Festival in Dinard, a short train ride away from where I was (http://www.festivaldufilm-dinard.com/) with a couple other American students. Dinard is a cute, quaint little town with a lot to offer culturally. After watching several great films in English with French subtitles, we ate chocolate covered waffles on the beach and eventually returned to our youth hostel just across the water in a great, historic town called Saint-Malo.
Saint-Malo, a walled port city, is a town right on the ocean, most known for its historic district dating back to the Middle Ages. The historic district is a giant maze that is great to spend the day getting lost inside of.
Matilda from Sweden, Billie from Australia, and I, from Oregon, usually took off to Rennes on weekend nights. One weekend in September we participated in an annual music festival, Les Transmusicales (http://www.lestrans.com/). We didn’t even end up going to see any of the advertised bands, but rather walked around the streets where bands were literally playing on every corner and in every bar. Tons of fun.
One of my favorite parts of French high school is the fact that there are so many vacations during the school year. It allowed me ample opportunities to travel around with and without my host family.
My host family and I took a few trips to Paris, about a four-hour car ride from Grand-Fougeray. Aside from seeing the traditional tourist attractions such as the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, we ventured off into the lesser-known “quartiers”. We did a tour of the African section and enjoyed the street markets where we bought several pairs of shoes and shirts for five Euros each. We then wandered around the “Arabe” quarter where we delighted in the tasty and inexpensive kebab (http://jamiehurd.files.wordpress.com/2009/01/kebab.jpg) and new finds like delicious Turkish honey desserts.
During winter break, we spent Christmas Eve at Mont St. Michel (http://www.ot-montsaintmichel.com/histoire_gb.htm), a 14th century abbey that is now a commune, still complete with an operating cathedral, jetting out into the English Channel. By day it is accessible by car, but at night the tide comes in and covers the parking lot in water. However, even if you do get there during the day, don’t be tempted to play on the beach around it; It is surrounded by quick sand!
When in France, whether you bounce from Paris to St. Malo to Grand-Fougeray, or just decide to remain in one place, the most important thing to remember to get the best out of your stay is to do what the French do – talk and eat. Eat and talk! Talk and eat together! As long as you’re eating and talking with French people, learning about who they are and what they feel their culture is, I can almost guarantee you will be happy. Hey, it might even change your life a little!
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