School is a drag, as it’s always been, even if you’re experiencing it in a completely different way. In a new home… Across the ocean… With people who can’t understand you and you them. But, at least the food’s edible (cough cough, America)!
Oui, c’est vrai – French schoolchildren have it rough as well as anyone. Yet is it truly as harsh in opposing sides of the country?
Simple answer: It varies. Complex answer: Well…
Allow me to begin by providing some background information. Hello, there! My name is Haze Johnson. I am going to be a junior in high school this autumn, and I am currently studying as a language student in France. In a new home… Across the ocean… With people who work to help understand me, and me them.
Through Greenheart Travel, I have chosen the course of a month’s stay in France in not one, but two different cities. That means two completely different cultures, for the cities I am residing in are Paris and Arcachon, which are on different sides of the country (if you haven’t caught my drift).
My first two weeks I stayed in the outskirts en Provence, everywhere but Paris, in a little town called Bondoufle. My second two weeks I stayed five towns away from Arcachon in a village called Biganos-Facture, more specifically – Mios. While it’s true I wasn’t actually staying in either Paris or Arcachon, I was at least 30-45 minutes away from both cities.
In my Paris portion of the program, my school was located in a commune, Brétigny-sur-Orge; approximately fifteen minutes from my local residency. Each morning school would begin around eight and end around noon. Afterward, my group of 13 would head straight to our activity, most often in Paris.
During school we would spend our four hours studying material in French workbooks or watching traditional French movies and programs. I was placed in the intermediate section of my class and, to be honest – the one that got the least attention.
I was surprised to learn that most of the kids in my class had little to no training in French prior to the trip. The majority of the beginner group was; however, in a different program that didn’t require a certain amount of schooling to apply.
The beginner group consisted of about six students ranging from zero to one year of knowledge of the French language. They spent their time in class learning basic sentence foundation and vocabulary, actively working with each other with a true intent to learn something (which, to be honest, also surprised me). I was impressed with their congruous and compatible teamwork to say the least.
My section, the intermediate section, consisted of five students with the assortment of two to four years of assimilation. We were assigned to do lessons out of a workbook, mainly consisting of language dissection, questionable activities, and “storytelling” (prompts we had to fulfill with a paragraph or so).
Since we were left on our own a majority of the time, we contributed by reading off words in French or English (out of a vocabulary book our teacher had), and attempted to guess what they meant. It was harrowingly competitive, and I legitimately thought someone was going to be guillotined via the open window.
Other times our teacher would come over and ask us things for 10-15 minutes before spending the rest of the time with the other groups, which leads us to the advanced section.
The advanced group was composed of a total of two students, one to be added five days before we graduated. They had a knowledge range of five to eleven years of French. The girl who had eleven was, I believe, fourteen. I had no idea why I was even in her glorious presence.
Chynna Heu, who I have mentioned in my other articles, my trained hero in the Paris program, had nine years of experience. As a child she went to a French immersion school in Canada, so, as my roommate, it was her lovely luck to assist my measly three years in the most mature way she could; leaving me to fend for myself in Arcachon. Chynna, I trusted you. :,) I kid, I kid.
The advanced portion was truly admirable; however, they spent their class time doing who knows what. From what I could tell, they were listening to large chunks of recordings and translating, answering questions, and formulating responses. Our instructor spent a large amount of time speaking with them in rapid French as my group was trying to create the world’s longest Mobius Strip for four hours (and then some more on a moving train).
Our teachings were held inside of a modern French lycée, or high school. The classrooms were cute and colorful, and we still don’t know why the only bathroom was located in the main building (of, I would guess, three to six other, smaller buildings). We would meet every morning in front of a theatre before heading into our day of lessons.
Boy, was my stay there hectic. You see, I was absolutely in the dark the entire time I was in Arcachon. To be brutally honest, the organization of activities seemed extremely poor. No one knew what was going on after class, but then again, there were over 100 students.
A major change for me after becoming accustomed to a baker’s dozen.
Every weekday I would wake up at the same time I did for my Parisian school and make my way with my host sister to our station. We would ride to school via train four about 30-45 minutes each morning, accumulating our friends along the way.
Once we arrived at the Arcachon gate, we would have about a fifteen minute walk to school (in a large crowd, might I add). Upon arrival, we would wait for an extra 10-20 minutes before class in the courtyard. Our classes were held at a seemingly expensive Catholic school that was vacant for the summer. It was extremely beautiful and I have many great stories from the campus.
On the first day of school, everyone was buzzing.
Many kids were still there from previous weeks, but many were fresh and unfamiliar like myself. About 75 students (plus teachers) crammed into one classroom for placement. It was a rough process of assumption, but we were eventually all separated.
I was placed, somehow, into the advanced class alongside my friend Sarah who had been in Paris with me. We went through a written and oral exam, unlike in Paris where we just told our (single) teacher how many years we had studied. I remained in the class for about a week until I had been publicly roasted into the inferior intermediate class.
Yearning for my diploma to say “avancée“, I shamefully graduated in intermediate plus. But, it was nothing to cry about, I loved my class! Even though I was moved about five times through the same level and into different rooms, my final one was beautiful!
The last day of school was also my birthday, and I regret ever mentioning it to my best friends with the loudest mouths I had ever heard.
I was sung to nine different times in the span of four hours that day.
For someone who hates attention, I was absolutely thriving in despair.
Sarah Falcigno, whom of which was previously mentioned, had a birthday the week prior and managed to get away without anyone knowing. But no, not for me, I got four cakes and a pie, all from my friends and teachers. Sarah got a pie, too, but with no desperate and fleeting cries for help like myself.
Yes, I know I sound ungrateful – but, I am absolutely not. It was the best birthday of my life! I will remember it forever, especially the part where I kayaked into numerous trees because my Russian partner in crime, Iurii Alekhina, couldn’t say ‘no’ to a water fight (he was captain due to me having zero muscles in my body).
Class time consisted of a more inclusive (and much preferred) method of rigorous written and oral exercises. Everyone was prohibited from speaking any language that wasn’t French, and encouraged to speak up at any chance they could get.
Every class had to perform a song each week, and, well; it was humiliating for everyone. In the school was also a group of students learning English. We would play challenging games like solving riddles in certain amounts of time. We also did in-city scavenger hunts, local questionnaires, and, of course – a little card game called Les Loups-Garous.
So, the big question: Which was better? The Paris or the Arcachon program?
Unfortunately, I cannot answer that wholly.
The Paris program was better with activities and organization. What I remember most from Paris was what we did after class, like me “proposing” on the Seine in front of the Eiffel Tower and being “wed” below it right before it lit up in all its sparkly glory. Or, maybe even the time I witnessed the mile-long line in front of Louis Vuitton on the Champs-Elysées, just prior to Chynna standing in front of a crowd and singing a song a street performer didn’t know.
The classes were fun to mess around in (like making giant paper airplanes and flying them across the building or drawing horrifyingly detailed drawings) yes, but I barely learned anything during lessons. It was all just so amazing to get to spend time with my friends after school where we could absorb the city’s culture for ourselves.
But then there was Arcachon: Class was where it all happened.
Be it during a lesson where I was subject to eraser wars behind our teacher’s back, teaching kids learning English, getting my friends to teach each other their national anthems, chasing cute birds around the courtyard, or re-enacting scenes from musicals with the best company on the walk to and from school.
The activities were memorable, yes, like the time I was dragged down the side of the tallest sand dune in Europe by my Russian friend, Eva Van de Kerchov, who couldn’t speak English very well. Or, when I dropped a lob of Nutella onto my Converse shoes.
But, through all of that I could only do so much with so little.
My favorite part of those days were to step off the train to be body-slammed to the ground in a hug with kisses from a certain bubbly Spaniard, or to see a mop of curly brown hair stylishly flipped in my face by a “perfect” Sicilian.
The question still stands: Which did I prefer?
The honest answer? Both.
I wouldn’t have given up either for the world and you shouldn’t either. In fact, throughout my entire journey I created a travel book and wrote in it each day, taking a Polaroid picture for every page. The last four pages of both sections (Paris and Arcachon) I left to collect signatures and messages from the people I met along the way. It is my most prized possession of any material thing from the trip.
So, as I always say: Instead of putting days in your life, put some life in your days and get out in the world; study abroad for the journey of a lifetime. I promise it will be a decision you won’t regret.
About the Author:
Ever since Haze Johnson was young she has loved art, particularly traditional and digital drawing and photography. Follow Haze on her adventures in France during her teen summer language camp.