My hand raised straight into the air without the slightest hesitation. To my 16 year-old brain, “a year abroad” in France would be just like sleep-away summer camp, with plenty of new people to get to know and unknown-yet-exciting experiences to discover.
Mrs. E., a petite, round French woman in her 50’s had just announced to my high school French II class that the school’s successful year-abroad program would be reinstated the following year, and upcoming juniors, like me, were invited to join the program traditionally reserved for sophomores. A pose of boys from my class also pushed their hands into the air, eager for a year of respite from the very strict atmosphere at our private prep school.
Six months later, there we were at the airport with five sophomore girls, all ten of us waving goodbye to our families, setting off on what would be one of the most transformative experiences of our lives.
A born adventurer, I was determined to learn the French language and culture, but summer camp, France was not. The French host family I stayed with offered a surprisingly tepid welcome. Having only finished French II, I could barely discuss the weather, let alone any other topic, which made making friends a bit of a challenge. I entered the very normal “silent period” of language learning, as I sat bewildered among my peers at school listening intently, yet unable to understand the fast-paced conversations around me.
In spite of these challenges, and with a determined spirit and an anthropological mind, I absorbed and learned as much as I could about the French people and their mores. I took hundreds of photos with my Pentax K-1000, drew the nearby mountains, and wrote and wrote.
At school I became friends with a girl named Caroline who had studied in the US, a few hippie kids in my class, and the Arab boys who rode the same bus to school. Those friendships buoyed me through the winter as I looked forward to seeing them every school day. On the weekends I focused my energy on grasping the French cultural patterns, and felt grateful to my host family for bringing me along on their trips to visit historic villages and to shop at local flea markets. I delighted in observing the people around me and letting the beauty of the southern French architecture wash over me.
Due to an unforeseeable problem, I was unable to live with my host family for the last three months of my year in France, and it looked like I would need to return home early, as no other families were prepared to host me. There were many trans-Atlantic phone calls and meetings between my parents and the staff at my school in the US. I wanted very much to finish the year and have the full experience I had signed up for, but no solution seemed to fit. My friends at school were very supportive, and in the end Caroline’s family, who had previously hosted an Australian exchange student, agreed to adopt me.
And adopt me they did!
Within a short time with this new family, I felt like I was “home.” Caroline’s two younger brothers welcomed me into the fold, and before I knew it I was laughing to Alexandre’s antics and conspiring with Nicolas about who-knows-what. My new French parents were filled with warmth and I settled in easily with the five of them. The following three months were filled with laughter and a restorative sense of family.
It was a wonderful period of my life, and I have fond memories of my French father explaining to me that I lived at “the most beautiful house” with “the most beautiful garden” in “the most beautiful country.” It didn’t seem far from the truth, as rolling hills of perfectly manicured grape vines, occasionally dotted with lovingly protected and timeworn farms, surrounded our typically provincial farmhouse. The landscapes were nothing short of gorgeous.
I returned to the United States at the end of the year abroad with extraordinary memories of the people and places of France. I had visited chateaus and cathedrals, and walked the streets of Paris, Lyon, Nice, Marseille, Avignon and countless tiny towns and villages. I had tasted more cheeses than I thought could possibly exist, and I could speak French well, though with terrible grammar and the sometimes-vulgar vocabulary typical of high school students.
I returned to the US with a new identity, one that was not solely American, but also infused with a certain Frenchness. My parents and American friends welcomed me back to the United States, though everyone agreed that I had changed and we all had to readjust to the changes that had occurred on both continents during my travels.
As I embark on this new adventure of moving abroad, I’m prepared for France to change me yet again. It will not be easy for my friendships or my relationships with my family, and there will be daunting challenges to face, but it is an exciting adventure that I think of with happy anticipation.