I made it!
I really don't know where to start with this post. So much has happened in such a short period of time. I've been in France for all of a week and a half and yet....it seems like I've been here for so much longer. Maybe if you hear about said week and a half you'll understand...
Our story starts on a Wednesday, Wednesday September 2nd to be exact. On Wednesday, after a short visit to NYC, I was dropped off for orientation. Saying goodbye was not nearly as hard as I expected (probably because I had already had my going away party and was so ready to go), but it was still difficult. For the rest of the day Wednesday and the first half of Thursday I talked with AFSers from all over the country who were going to France, Spain, Austria, South Africa, and possibly some other places. We watched a film that followed some AFSers, which was actually really interesting. Group orientations were held with all the France kids, during which we were supposed to learn vital information about the exchange. However, be it due to AFS's many other orientations or an excess of excitement, it didn't do much except make for a very long and tedious day.
But all that boredom payed off (and not only because I learned new card games). At 5:15 on Thursday, after all the other groups had already left the hotel, the 53 France kids headed off to JFK international airport and....waited some more. Finally, the time came to board the plane. I sat in the second to last row, and in a plane that huge that is a loonng way back. About an hour into the flight, we realized that the $10 AFS gave us at the airport for dinner was unnecessary, because Air France feeds it's passengers (even in economy) very well. The flight attendant even seemed slightly offended when we asked if it was free ("But, of course!!"). After the meal (which had like 5 "courses"), I managed to fall asleep for a good amount of time, and I awoke to breakfast (which, honestly, was a bit of a let down after dinner).
The plane that took me to France
When we arrived in Paris at around 10 AM Friday, everything went very smoothly. Customs was so simple I didn't even realize what it was (I went up to a window, handed them my passport, got it back, and kept going), and my large, silver suitcase was very easy to spot. After we left the baggage claim area, they split the semester kids from the year kids. I don't know what happened to the semester kids, but us year kids got taken out to a bus and driven away to the hostel-ish place we were staying at (getting a fleeting glance at funny French cars in the rental lot as we left).
The room at the hotel/hostel
The hostel was not in the picturesque part of Paris, so I didn't get to see any famous monuments on my way there, but I still enjoyed looking out the windows and marvelling at the fact that I was, really and truly, in France. When we arrived at the hostel, the 5 of us (all American, all heading to the same region) in room 215 couldn't get into our room because it was in the process of being cleaned. So, we headed down to the cafeteria for lunch. We got to meet a lot of people from all over the world, which was really fun. We finally got into our room and settled down a bit (and by that I mean took very long naps), and when we were finished we went and met more people. We did energizers with girls from Germany, compared accents with girls from New Zealand, and discussed how cold was cold with a girl from Canada (which is very interesting, having the other members of the discussion live in Alaska and Vermont). There was a meeting in the evening, and then it was off to bed.
Making friends in the hallway
Saturday morning dawned, and after breakfast we split into small groups (7-10 people) for orientation. The orientation was actually very interesting. The difference between AFS USA and AFS VSF (France) is that the volunteers with ASF VSF are young people, not older like those of AFS USA, and therefore run very nice orientations. Our group leader had finished his exchange to Wisconsin 2 years ago, and I think the other volunteers were about the same age. Anyways, we did a little activity to address our hopes, fears, and solutions, in which we realized that A) everyone had the same hopes/dreams/solutions, and B) everyone knew the AFS mission statement. After a morning in orientation discussing what was to come (sprinkled with anecdotes about our group leader's exchange), the afternoon was most anticipated: the tour of Paris.
At the Eiffel Tower
Admittedly, the tour was while on a bus, and the only place we got out was at the Eiffel Tower, but still! It was Paris! And finally (actually) seeing the Eiffel Tower was fun. It is, for lack of any other adjectives, large. Sadly, our group managed to miss the group picture, but ce n'est pas grave. There was an orientation that night about leaving in the morning, and then another night of much needed rest.
Sunday was the big day. We woke up at 5:30 and, since the group going to the Rhone region was so big, loaded into a bus (rather than a train) a little past 7:00. The trip down took a long time, but we stopped for a while for breakfast, stopped for a while for lunch, and stopped for a while for an afternoon snack. It wasn't until we arrived at the meeting place that I realized that the feeling in the back of my head (and the bottom of my stomach) wasn't boredom or disinterest, but rather nerves (and boy was I nervous). They told us to smile and look happy when we got off the bus, and I was forcing myself to look happy so much so that my face began to hurt... Luckily, there were only a few people meeting us where the bus dropped us off. As it turned out, the meeting was actually up a large hill the bus couldn't go up. When we finally made it to the top of the hill, we filed into a little courtyard where all the families were waiting. I searched and searched for my host family, and I finally spotted them. I know this sounds cheesy and very movie-like, but I swear it was like a patch of blue sky that interrupts a rainstorm. The knot in my stomach released, and I was met with a wave of happiness/relief/excitement/I don't even know what. The volunteers called out an AFSer, then their family, and then they would meet in the middle and have their picture taken (while the onlookers clapped and newly made friends said goodbye). After a quick hello, photo op, and suitcase find, we headed off to the car to go to my new home. (Oddly enough, out of all the funny French cars they could have had, they had the same Volvo station wagon I have in the US, but in a different color and with a stick shift).
Driving home was incredible. The area of France I am in is gorgeous, the town is beautiful, and it is all so vastly different from Towson. The house is lovely, and have a very nice room (painted in my favorite colors) with a nice little balcony. My host family is very, very nice and very understanding of my limited language skills, speaking slowly to me and repeating important parts of conversations I probably missed.
My new French Room
I didn't, however, have a ton of time at the house, because Monday brought school. I rode the bus with a boy from the town who was in my grade, and he introduced me to a girl who is in my class. The first day I understood very, very close to nothing, and it's a good thing Emeline was there to show me what to do/where to go. Luckily, the first day of school is the same all over the world, with petty paperwork and class expectations. However, even not doing very much work, I caught on to something very different for me: The French take notes. Now, that's not as obvious as it seems (and yes, I do take notes in school normally). In the US we do worksheets. Teachers pass out papers if they need to say something. Important facts, questions, and homework are on dittos. In France, however, all this is dictated. It is the student's job to write it all on notebook paper (which, by the way, has lines going in both directions). And French notes are perfect. They use rulers for perfect underlining, different colors to denote importance, perfect outline format, and never miss a word.
The rest of the week is a big blur. I've been introduced to a lot of people, all of whom ask: 1) Does she speak French? (In French) (The answer is always, un peu), 2) Where in the USA are you from? (In English) (Do you know Baltimore? No? It's close to New York. Yes, I've been to New York), and 3) (to the person I'm with) How do you say "How long are you here for?" in English? (In French) (And then they're surprised when I answer the question in French)
School in France is very different from school in the US. It's kinda hard to explain with out an example:
Start: 9 on an A week, 10 on a B Week
1 hour of Economics on an A week, 2 on a B week
2 hours for lunch
1 hour of math
1 hour of History/Geography
1 hour of French
As you can see, they have A weeks and B weeks. So, not only is the schedule different every day, it is different every other week. Secondly, 2 hours of lunch. Very Nice, very nice indeed. And lunch is pretty snazzy. You go up, slide your card, which allows you a tray. On the tray you get: A desert/ fruit, a cheese/yogurt, a cold starter (salad), bread, a hot meat/fish, and a hot vegetable. It's all real dishes and silverware and you get a glass and a pitcher of water per group of people eating. There is a break at 10 and a break at 3, and most days I have a free period due to a lack of 2nd foreign language. If the teacher isn't there, you don't have class that day. If you don't have anything happening at some point in time, you can leave school grounds (go into town, go outside and smoke, etc). It's pretty chill overall.
But, like I said, the week has been a big blur. A big blur of French, interrupted by a 20/20 on an English quiz, a New Moon trailer, and glorious sunshine.
Over the weekend, a cousin who is studying in Lyon visited, and in the process I learned new words (French I'd hear around school), learned a new card game, saw a French movie (LOL Laughing out Loud), and saw a little bit of Lyon.
Some interesting things about France:
-Fountain pens: Yeah, people use them
-Erasers for said fountain pens: OMG, COOLEST THING EVER!!!! I have no clue why they aren't in the US. They have 2 ends: Efface (erase) and recrit (re write) and they work like magic!
-Kissing on the cheek (greeting): Very french, but very normal. It's kind of funny, if someone sees a group of people they know, they don't wave, they go over and kiss every one of them. But it's like hugging here, just a greeting (no romance)
-Keyboards: The q is where the A should be, the ; where the M should be, 3 keys on each of the number keys, a shift required for a ., and an ! key
-Buses: So they take public transport buses and put them on school routes for the morning and afternoon. But their public buses are our coach buses (without a bathroom)
-Motorcycles/scooters: They have a designated shed at the school for them. French kids drive them. Very quickly.
-Walls: Not as obvious as it sounds..... People don't have nice little fences around their yards. No. They have 8 feet high stone walls. With gates
-Donkeys: Live next door.
In conclusion, life is good. I'm enjoying France immensely, total immersion is doing wonders for my comprehension, my speaking is getting better, and everybody here has been super, super nice.
That's all for now, I think!