School Year Abroad: Part 2

Maya L. '20 shares about her experience in school, with her host family, and exploring new cultures.

I am over two-thirds through my year in France, and I am already sad that the end is in sight. For the last 6 months, I have been engulfed in French culture, traveled around Europe, and eaten lots of baguettes and even more crêpes. This year I feel like I have learned more than I did in the last 17 years of my life-- not in the traditional book smart sort of way, but about myself and the world around me. Living abroad has brought some of the best experiences of my life, intertwined with inexplicable challenges of living in a new culture. And the dramatic differences between French and American culture, ranging from the length of our dinners to their core values and outlook on life, continues to become more apparent the longer I live here. 

My favorite parts of this year range from sitting in small French cafés, to traveling around Europe with the close friends I have made here. Since last August, I have lived in Rennes, France, about one and a half hours from Paris. It’s a cute university city in the Brittany region, whose specialties are crêpes and galettes, lucky for me. All of my classes, except for English and Math, are taught in French, which was extremely challenging at first as my head was constantly spinning, but feels natural now. I absolutely love my courses and teachers, and find myself genuinely interested in what we study, as it is relevant, interactive, and place-based. For example, in Art History we studied the famous Mont Saint Michel, and then visited it the following weekend. In Politics we are studying the immigration crisis, outlining plans of our own ideal education systems, and learning about French society and government. In European History we are learning about World War II and preparing projects about D-Day to present when we visit the Normandy beaches in May. 

Outside of school, if the weather is nice my friends and I love to go to Parc du Thabor, which is a gorgeous local park. Our go-to activity is to grab a few baguettes, fruit, and a jar of Speculoos (incredibly addicting cookie butter spread) and take it to the park or to a dock along the small canal that runs through the town. If the weather isn’t in our favor, the next option is a café for some coffee or hot chocolate. 

Next, the highly anticipated independent travel! My friends and I have organized 2 trips so far, and are currently planning another one for spring break. In December we went to Strasbourg for the weekend, otherwise known as the Capital of Christmas, to see their famous Christmas markets and extraordinary Gothic cathedral. In February we went to Chamonix Mont Blanc for a ski trip in the Alps, and skied across the border to Italy and Switzerland as well. Just learning how to plan these trips has been a challenging experience. Researching hotels, booking trains, getting around on our own, and getting a group of people to agree on all of these things is no easy feat. On the way to Chamonix, a couple of my friends and I somehow got lost at a train station, and had to find new trains and coordinate ourselves how to get to our intended destination. We’ve learned to be responsible enough not to lose our passports (after one of my friends did) and resourceful enough to figure out how to get somewhere when we’re lost. 

As for my host family, I absolutely adore and love spending time with them. They help me explore French culture by getting different French desserts from boulangeries each weekend, and taking me to the stunning beaches of Brittany just an hour away. My host parents’ curiosity about my life back home sparks plenty of questions about American culture, leading to frequent comparisons between our two worlds. Meanwhile, my little 11-year-old twin brothers try to teach me how to play Fortnite and how to do the Fortnite dances, neither of which I ever succeed in learning. A few weeks ago, my friends and I took my little host brother, Maxime, to a Rennes vs. Arsenal soccer game that we had waited 9 hours to get tickets for. It was all worth it though because Rennes (the major underdog) beat the famous Arsenal team! The French fans went wild, including Maxime, who watched the game again on TV once we got home late that night. Living in a host family has been a once in a lifetime opportunity to be completely and utterly immersed in a different culture and to see a different way of living. 

With that said, it is difficult to describe the experience of living in a host family, and it has also been one of the greatest challenges I have faced this year. My family is kind, generous, thoughtful, and fun. I eat dinner with them 6 nights a week, and we go on outings and watch movies together. But at the same time, they aren't my real family. No matter how kind my host mom is, she isn’t my real mom. They have their own traditions and ways of doing things, and we speak only French at home. After a couple of months, I started to notice all the little differences between my own home and theirs, from the lengthy dinners, to the fact that on movie nights, instead of changing into comfy pajamas or sweatpants, everyone remains in their regular school and work clothes-- jeans, dresses and heels. I still feel like I have to be on my best behavior 24/7-- even when I am stressed or upset and all I want to do is go to my room and not talk to anyone. And there have been times, such as when my parents called to tell me that my dog, Chai, had died unexpectedly, that I was desperate to be home with my own real family.

Lastly, probably the most rewarding part about this year is having a long, natural discussion completely in French, and realizing afterward just how cool it is that you were able to do that. It’s easy to think that I haven’t made any progress since the beginning of the year, but looking back and remembering the first month of the program when I was stumbling through sentences and practically playing charades with my host family, it is tremendously rewarding to see how far in the language I have come. I even just got my diploma in the French language from the French government (known as the DELF). 

This year has definitely seen its fair share of low points, but in a short two months, I will leave France with a second family, a second language, incredible friendships, and eye-opening experiences that I hope will inspire future students to take the leap of faith and do the School Year Abroad program.  

You can see more of Maya's experience abroad on Youtube.

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