Reflecting on the French Experience

Reflecting on the French Experience

Réfléchir: to reflect

Souvenir: to remember (also a noun for memory/souvenir/keepsake)

I’ve been home in the United States for two weeks now, and I realized the importance of reflecting on my experiences abroad before rushing into the next phase of my life. Going into the program, I wanted to become fluent in French, learn about the French culture, and to “become a better version of myself.” But I learned so much more than I had expected, and while three months dealt me a lot of life lessons, I am by no means done shaping and practicing the values and morals that I learned. Three months is just not enough time for that, but it gave me new lenses for viewing the world with an entirely different perspective.

It showed me what truly matters to me. It re-shaped my ideas of success and happiness. It gave me a whole new appreciation and gratitude for my country, hometown, faith, family, and friends. It instilled in me core values and beliefs. It reiterated the important things in life. It provided greater clarity of my strengths, weaknesses, likes, and dislikes. It taught me, and is still teaching me, how to deal with stressful situations, frustration, failure, disappointments, and setbacks. It filled me with a new sense of awe and wonder. It pulled the rug of comfort out from under me. Traveling and living in a foreign country, even with a host family, forced a new kind of independence and growth in me.

I lived with a host family in France for three months. It was my first time out of North America and my first time being so far away from home for three months. I always tried to be grateful for everything I had, but I couldn’t fully appreciate what I had until I was removed from it for such a length of time. I had to be physically removed from my family, friends, and hometown, to realize just how blessed I am.

In the same regard, it re-shaped my idea of success and happiness. Originally, success for me was the idea of leaving Fort Wayne and beginning a career outside of Indiana. To me, people did not leave Fort Wayne because they were comfortable there, or maybe did not have the courage to leave and discover what else was out there. Now I actually realize what a wonderful place it is to live in, and especially to raise a family in, (although for travelers, it admittedly does not have the tourist attractions that other cities have). Now, staying close to family rather than living in an exciting or appealing town is a worthwhile sacrifice. I still want to explore and discover other cities, and to be open and flexible if a career opportunity opens itself up to me, but I will always have those ties down where my family lives. Living in France permanently is just too far! I don’t want to miss too many precious moments with my loved ones, especially seeing my nephews grow up. I am so grateful I chose this exchange program after college while they are still toddlers, instead of studying abroad during college when I would have missed their births. There’s just something about my 3-year-old nephew looking for me when I’m gone that makes me want to be there for him. Even though I had an amazing experience in France, I was never happier to be back in Indiana.

My travels further instilled in me certain core values and beliefs. For example, I value honesty, respect, learning, generosity, humor, friendliness, flexibility, liberty, thoroughness, environmentalism, and spirituality. Honesty: I could have gotten away with student discounts and even under-18 discounts if they did not look at my ID, but I value honesty at all times. Friendliness: this is a cultural difference between French and Americans, which I mentioned in an earlier blog. You won’t see French smiling at strangers on the street. Some French may take friendliness as being insincere, while I value it as a supportive and inclusive gesture. After all, Mother Teresa said “Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.” Don’t think all French aren’t friendly though, I was fortunate to run into very friendly and generous strangers. My last Sunday in Bordeaux, Chanel and I were going to visit the Chateau de la Brede (Montesquieu’s castle) which is rather out of the way and a bit difficult to get to without a car. When we got to our connecting bus stop, we realized it didn’t run on Sundays. But the woman who was selling poultry near the bus stop called three taxi services for us until one agreed to come get us, then she gave us two cooked quail! On our way back, we decided to walk along the highway because the taxi was expensive, and one of the cars stopped to give us a ride. They had been on the tour with us and recognized us, and as it turned out, they lived right across from Chanel on the same exact street! Quelle chance!

Another core value for me is spirituality, and my faith will always remain unapologetically my main drive and passion in life. On my day alone in Paris, I chose to visit the Sacre-Coeur and its tower and crypt, followed by the Chapel of the Miraculous Medallion on Rue du Bac where two Marian apparitions occurred to St. Catherine Labouré in 1820. (Note: St. Catherine’s body is incorrupt and displayed in the chapel! I wasn’t told that and completely missed it because I saw many churches in France and Venice with statues of saints on display, but she is one of the hundreds of true, incorruptible saints!)

My trip definitely helped me to figure out and narrow down what I like and don’t particularly care for. For me, there is no trip more important or life-changing than a pilgrimage. I originally took tourism classes in college with the idea of working in ecotourism, but that didn’t even energize me as much as learning about pilgrimage tours did! I also love photography, especially of nature. Whereas I love reading and writing when I have plenty of time to devote to it, I also like privacy, so even this blog is a bit out of my comfort zone! Fame or fortune will never be something I care about, but making a difference in other peoples’ lives and always continuing to strive to learn and to improve myself while helping others will always be most important to me.

I am so thankful for the foundation of French I had built before arriving, which allowed me to improve a lot when I was there. I can read and write in French so much better, and I could definitely tell I was understanding so much more and speaking better than when I had arrived. My French improved significantly more than if I had lived alone, and I learned so much more about the French culture because of the constant exposure and opportunities the Londeix family provided for me. I also learned a lot from tutoring my host family in English. I actually prefer to tutor French than English, although teaching will most likely never be a calling for me. I prefer more behind-the-scenes work. I did see improvement in each of the family members’ English, and I tried to adapt my motivation techniques from motivating college students that I tutored at the university, to motivating younger students where a GPA is not of any concern yet. In addition, I learned the importance of being able to take criticism when learning or teaching a foreign language. Pride is a barrier to improvement, and you have to be humble and not take corrections personally. Your self-worth and intelligence are not measured by knowing every correct pronunciation, conjugation, expression, or fact. You must also be assertive yet kind when correcting others. Without this, a language exchange doesn’t do a whole lot of good!

Being outside of my comfort zone in a foreign country required me to practice patience, selflessness, humility, integrity, thoughtfulness, problem-solving, and kindness. It taught me, and is still teaching me, how to deal with stressful situations, frustration, failure, disappointments, and setbacks. My last week in Bordeaux was particularly stressful due to a minor car crash. I was riding one of my host family’s bikes to my friend’s host family’s house, and a car was turning and collided with me. I had noticed he wasn’t stopping and was braking as hard as I could, but I couldn’t stop in time. My oldest host family sister, Clemence, even witnessed the accident. I was fine physically, but shocked, embarrassed, and worried about the consequences. It didn’t help that the driver stuck his head out the window and immediately began yelling at me in French as cars were lining up behind him. I pulled the bike up onto the sidewalk (the front tire was smashed and impossible to maneuver) while he pulled over and came back to continue yelling at me until I finally told him I didn’t speak any French. Of course I could speak some French, but in that kind of situation I was at a loss for words, and the most disappointing part for me was that after three months of living there, I still couldn’t explain myself or communicate effectively in French. It was stressful following that night with figuring out our insurance and how to deal with getting the car ‘s scratches and bike’s wheel fixed. I went to the ER a day later with a headache that wouldn’t go away, and fortunately they accepted my program’s medical insurance. It wasn’t anything serious, but they prescribed me three medications. I was so happy when I went to the pharmacist and I understood all of the instructions the pharmacist told me in French! I definitely got a full look at the local life in Bordeaux thanks to that whole experience. It was an experience to learn from, and I was officially a Londeix after that, as they told me! I worried so much about it though and kept discussing it with my friends, when I should have just put it in God’s hands and enjoyed my last week (as much as I could with the headache and feeling as though my stomach was bleeding out from the prescriptions.) I am thankful for the insurance coverage and support from Greenheart Travel. I guess I made good use of all of the services they provided me!

After three months in Bordeaux, I am back where I was a year ago, job-searching and living with my parents. But I am not the same; I have grown and matured in ways that only a foreign exchange student can fully understand. I have a French family now and amazing friends from all over the world. I have a new-found awe of the world: of the people and places, of the architecture, art, history, languages, and the beauty of all of the natural wonders.

I will be placing a greater importance on the richness of my relationships, spirituality, travels, and physical health, and placing a greater simplicity on my material and temporary riches. I am worrying and complaining less. I’m putting my faith in God and my future in His hands. I am acknowledging gratitude for the many gifts and blessings in my life while offering up any annoyances, discomforts, or challenges that will inevitably arise.

Am I fluent in French? Not quite. Did I learn about French culture? Absolutely. Did I learn my vocation and calling in life? Not quite. Did I gain a new perspective and appreciation of life, the world, France, the USA, Indiana, Fort Wayne, and myself? Absolutely!

I still have so much to learn and so much traveling I’d like to do. France may be about the size of Texas, but it has so much to offer, and I feel so fortunate to have experienced life in France for a few months. I’m going to keep striving to perfect my French and I hope to travel again soon! Either way, I’m a pilgrim on this journey of life, and I’ll always remember my life-changing and eye-opening experience during the Language Exchange Homestay Program in Bordeaux.

My last night in Bordeaux with French friends and international cuisine

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