Monday, October 3, 2011

One Month Abroad

   I cannot bring myself to believe that my first month here in France is already gone. Everyone told me that time would fly but I’m just starting to see how quickly it can really go.
Most of my posts since getting here have been about what I have been up to and all that has happened. This one will be a little different, targeted more for a prospective exchange student and what to expect in your first month away from home.

   Personally, I like to feel prepared and equipped, especially, I found, when going abroad, alone, for the first time. Prior to departure, I prepared by reading books about studying abroad, as well as lots and lots of blogs.
   In those books you can find the “adjustment cycle” which is a graph that describes the feelings and phases that exchange students go through throughout the year. I thought this was so great, a page that would tell me exactly where I am emotionally and what to expect in the following weeks! However, now that I am on this graph I’m finding that it is not that clean cut.
But of course, no two-exchange students are experiencing the same thing right now, so all is forgiven in the graphs faults.

   The first three days in my host home, were very emotional. I was homesick and it hit me, pretty hard, that ten months is quite some time to go without your family. I was also probably communicating too much with everyone back home which made me feel split right in half; should I be exploring all the new places, food, and people around me, or should I be writing about it all to the people I love back home? It is definitely hard to find the right balance, but my e-mail not working for the rest of my first week definitely helped me find it.

   Yes, that’s right, my e-mail broke and did not deliver any of the letters I had from home until the end of the week, it’s an unsolved mystery but a real blessing because in those days without mail my mind was forced to choose the half that is here in France. By the time the words from home did show up on my computer I was feeling a lot better and was then able to find the right balance.

   Besides being away from home there are plenty of other new things to get used to in the first month, and by plenty I mean just about everything.
   Some of those things are much easier than others, take for example all the delicious food, habituating to life in the middle of a town, and making new friends that I know I’ll keep in touch with long after these ten, and now nine, months are up.

   A more challenging one, that I did talk a lot about in a previous post but some how still have more to say, is school.
   Not understanding everything and being a “foreigner” can get annoying, and on top of that everything requires effort, school in one word, is exhausting. However, being in Terminal has turned out to be great because the schedule is significantly smaller than that of other years, either starting later of ending earlier in the day. I am also finding that I much prefer the long classes with fewer a day than what I had at home (the same seven periods for 45 minutes a day). Teachers are beyond nice and although you should try all the work and give it your best shot, expectations for someone who has been in the school system for less than a month are not very high. They are willing to be flexible for you, either by grading differently or assigning different work; and on top of all that, everyone in class is available if you have questions and are very eager to help. But at the end of the day, it’s important to not get too stressed about school. I am going to try to get the BAC but what is most important to me is to spend a great year in France, not at my desk.

   Another huge change is the family that you are living with. Essentially, these are the people that are making your life here possible for you so no matter what happens, you owe them a huge thank you.
   It is also important to know that as an exchange student you are not a houseguest; which may take a few days to kick in. What I mean by that is to expect to have chores and to be treated like any other member of the family.
   My best advice for living with your host family is to be someone you would want to host yourself, someone you would want to be around. Make conversation, be interested, and try new things. Come to think of it, let’s make that advice for life in general.

   My host family asks me constantly whether what we are eating is available in the U.S and because my answer is always “yes” I think they feel a little disappointed in the lack of new things they have to offer me. But what they aren’t realizing is that, yes, products can be shipped over the U.S, but what cannot, and what I still have to learn and discover is the culture. Which, although does not differ from my own American culture like black and white, has its differences.
   All my life I was told that food is a big part of the French culture, but I never realized what that meant until well, now. It is not just the way it is eaten (speaking of which, am I the only one who was not aware that cakes must, at all times be eaten with spoons?) But prepared, enjoyed, even savored. Food is treasured here, and even though it differentiates by region, it’s what people all over France take pride in. So yeah, don’t laugh at the idea of food being like royalty, you won’t make many friends.
  Also, I way over packed because although the stereotype that French don’t bathe and shave is completely false, they certainly have no problem recycling outfits.
Speaking of stereotypes (which maybe we shouldn’t be), the one that the French love their vacation could not be more true, at least for all the French people I have talked to. During the week it’s all about plans for the weekend and during the weekend it’s all about the countdown to vacation. Which is already coming up in just three weeks!
   Although time of off school and work is important, it is evident that time spent in school is taken very seriously. This is the year of the BAC for my classmates which means that they have to know what they want to do with their lives and fill out papers, confirming the job they want, as early as December. The decisiveness about the future and ambition among kids just one year older than me is striking.

   The first month is when every thing is new. It’s like Christmas morning every day… or we could just call it by it’s name: “the honey moon period”. As with all the phases of an exchange student (we sound like bipolar people, don’t we? But we go through lots of changes!) this period means something different for everyone. For me it meant that everything I did and experienced in the first month was glossed over with a sparkle. Getting a croissant before school felt like being the star in a cute old French movie, hearing French was like people singing a song everywhere I went, writing notes with ten different color pens at school felt like an achievement. The end of this period, where I am now, is when all this feels like everyday life, not a cute old French movie.

   According to the graph in the survival guide that I brought with me the “arrival stage” is now over and all just within October I will experience fatigue, homesickness and “settling in”. Sounds like a busy month! I’ll get back to you on how that all goes. (:


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