La Vie Est Belle

La Vie Est Belle

What a month it’s been! I’m learning so much about myself and falling in love with France more and more.

Being completely honest, it wasn’t an easy transition. In fact, this Language Exchange Homestay has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done!

It took some time to get adjusted in Bordeaux. I realized just what a creature of comfort I really am. It turns out, my comfort zone ends at being physically sick in a new, big family in a foreign country. I didn’t expect the French cuisine to cause me any problems, but it took two weeks until I could stomach it! I think the bacteria in the cheese was new to me, as well as eating red meat again for the first time in years (and there is a lot of meat in the French diet). I will have to devote a whole blog on just the food though! And don’t get me wrong, my host family is fantastic and the meals here are divine!

In addition, I caught a head cold and really only felt homesick because I didn’t feel well physically. It was a busy first week in Bordeaux because the kids were still on winter vacation, which meant squeezing in a lot of tutoring before they returned to their busy school schedules. I had to quickly figure out where each of the kids were at in terms of their English abilities and to adjust lesson plans accordingly. I also had to work alongside the language barrier, which is actually more difficult with the kids because they speak faster and cannot describe what they mean as well as the adults can (it’s a constant game of Catchphrase and Charades). You can imagine how frustrating it was for me to not even be able to understand a 5 year old!

Fortunately, my homesickness (mal du pays) didn’t last long and as I felt better physically, the cultural differences became more interesting and endearing rather than making me feel isolated or frustrated.

I knew I would be able to adapt to living in France because humans are just adaptive creatures, but I put a lot of pressure on myself to adapt as a local. My French is good enough to get around just fine, and there are plenty of places to eat and shop just like in the U.S., but I want to be able to speak fluently and fully adopt the French lifestyle.

The French school schedule is still a little bizarre to me. I had assumed the kids and Aude would be at school all day (Olivier is working on his PhD so he travels and comes and goes for his work) and I had heard that students have 2 hours for lunch. In fact, Aude and the kids come and go from the house throughout the whole weekday! The elementary students have about an hour and half for lunch where the parent chooses whether they eat in the cafeteria or come home (Mayeul and Hortense usually come home). Aude teaches but not every day and is home for lunch every day except Thursdays. The middle school (or in French, the college) has 3 possible schedules for the students. Clemence and Armand have the C schedule which allows for the most freedom. All middle school lunchtimes are only thirty minutes in reality, which Aude said is plenty of time because the kids eat so fast. They will have some breaks throughout the day where they come home for a couple hours, and if a teacher will not be present one day and there isn’t a substitute, they are free to leave. The A schedule is the most strict and they would have to stay at school in a certain room for a study hall. Wednesdays are days for recreational activities. They go to tennis practice and guitar lessons!

I usually tutor them around 5pm at night, and dinner is around 7:30pm and they go to bed afterwards, but sometimes I will tutor them during the day when they’re home. I also work with Olivier with his pronunciation whenever he is home. I remain very flexible and truly hope they are benefitting from having an anglophone around! Olivier stated last week that he thinks his English has improved, and I agree. He often translates for me when I’m lost in the conversations. Hortense also came into my room at 8:30am on a Saturday asking to work on English, so I guess that’s a good sign? She loves the English alphabet game app that I found and always asks for my iPod now!

I don’t have a routine yet, but I go day by day and stay very busy! When I’m not tutoring or lesson planning, I’m either studying, exploring, running errands, or exercising. I went to the library with Aude and Hortense one day and found some great books and CDs for learning French, and we picked out some DVDs as well. I especially like practicing my French by watching movies in French with French subtitles!

My favorite film I’ve watched here so far has been La Vie Est Belle. I would pause it to translate certain words and I was able to understand it really well and learn some new phrases. Although it is a sad movie, I really appreciated the humor and enjoyed the character of Guido. It made me realize the power of having a sense of humor, and how I take things way too seriously. Coming to France I knew I would need to laugh at myself, but I’m a lot more Type A than I thought!

Although I love France and Europe, this trip has made me realize all I have to be thankful for at home too. It showed me what is truly important to me. I could live in the coolest places in the world, but if I’m not with family and friends, it’s meaningless. I keep coming back to the quote from Into the Wild, “Happiness is only real, when shared.” Traveling and visiting sites by yourself is fun, but it means so much more when you can share it with your loved ones.

I’ve also realized the importance of conservation and living simply. I realized how few possessions I have with me, and yet I don’t miss anything from home (save for a few books I wish I would have brought with me). My host family of 6 people aren’t as wasteful as other smaller families. They use far less paper products than in U.S homes and they reuse and recycle a lot of things. It was eye-opening this weekend when Saturday was an overcast day due to pollution! Clemence said it was the first time Bordeaux had a grey blanket in the sky hiding the sun (that’s how she described it in French to me). The air smelled a little smokey too. It was advised for old and young people and for those with respiratory problems to stay inside, and in Paris and Bordeaux all public transportation was free. My host family only owns one car and I’ve only ridden in it a few times so I was naive to think all families drove so little. The public transportation is great here, and I love being able to walk everywhere! It takes everyone’s effort though to conserve our resources and take care of this Earth. I worry about its state when my little nephews Micah and Zeke get older!

This week was also a turning point because I’ve made some friends and enhanced my social circle. I met Clotilde, who is the same age as me and lives two doors down from me! She is studying to be a lawyer and wants to improve her English as well. I got together with Clotilde and her other language exchange friend, Chanel, at McDo on Thursday. Chanel is from Vancouver and is staying here to learn French since she studied political science and French is the other official language of Canada besides English. She is 27, and like me, is taking time off to travel and improve her language skills. It was such a relief to be with someone else who struggled to communicate in French. I hadn’t realized how lonely it was to be the only person up to that point to be lost in conversation or unable to explain what I want to say. We spoke one hour in French and then one hour in English. Chanel has been in Bordeaux since November and said it was weird to be chatting in English again after practicing French for so long!

Yesterday, I met up with Chanel and we went to the market at the quai de Chartrons near where she lives. There were lots of booths set up with all different types of French delicacies, cuisines, and of course cheese, bread, and wine! Then we went to a local cafe for coffee before joining a language exchange group at an English bar. I had been researching ways to meet people, which is not easy when you’re not a student! (I tried a Zumba class but it was all older women and truthfully just not as fun or strenuous as Zumba in the U.S.) Aude told me Bordeaux is a very close city and it’s difficult to get into a social circle, which she found when she moved here from Paris years ago. I found this group that meets every Sunday for two hours and is open to anyone wanting to practice any languages! We had a great time meeting a variety of people, and we’ll return next week. There are so many people, especially Europeans, who speak multiple languages. This isn’t the case in the U.S. so much, and makes me even more determined to master French so I can move on to learning Spanish : )

After that I went to church with Clotilde and her boyfriend, Romain, at Notre Dame for the night mass. This has more students and it is a beautiful church! Afterward I met her friends and we went to McDo like they often do after church. Because I hadn’t known anyone my age up until then, I hadn’t explored Bordeaux at night. Bordeaux is breathtakingly beautiful with the historic buildings illuminated at night!

I also met one of Aude’s friends on Friday who has 4 children. We had lunch at her house which has the most magnificent backyard (I need to take a picture next time for you!) and her children are so adorable. I played hide and seek with the two youngest ones, and the oldest showed me the different trees and plants and flowers around the yard. The way she described them and smelled them in her sweet French voice, you would have thought she was seeing them and smelling them for the first time! I loved getting a look inside another French family’s lifestyle, and I am looking forward to meeting them again and even practicing some English with them too.

Last night, I dreamed in French more than I ever have before, and I didn’t want to wake up! I’m happy to continue working on my French today. All of the headaches and exhausting days are worth it. I’m thankful for my host family who is so patient with me and helpful, and I’m cherishing these new friendships!

The French are much friendlier than outsiders believe them to be, and sure I’ve met a few bordelais who clearly did not have the patience or energy to put up with an anglophone that day, but I can understand now how difficult it is. A lot of French people know some English, but there are others who speak almost none, and English is a tough language to learn! It’s much different teaching English than it is French. I’m motivated to become a better English tutor and to share more American culture with them. I’m truly gaining a new perspective, and it’s important for us all to learn that not everyone thinks the way you think or works the way you work. Your way is not superior to another way, it’s just a different way of doing it.

This week I’ll be tutoring two more kids in English from a family that Aude is friends with. I can’t wait to explore more of Bordeaux and feel less and less like outsider! I’m realizing how short my stay is here, and I wish I could stay longer and see all of Europe! I am prioritizing the sites I have to see here, and savoring each quirky, heartwarming, humbling, precious French moment here!

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