I spent about 8 months of my sophomore year in France. I had to go back to the US mid-March because I risked not being let back in due to COVID-19, but still got to spend enough time to get a good idea of what the country is like. Anyway, I figured some people are curious about what it's like to live in France for an extended period of time as a foreigner. This is a very long read because there is a lot to cover, so strap in. Background
I started researching foreign exchange programs freshman year of high school because I was interested in going abroad/becoming fluent in a foreign language. I'd already taken 4 years of French, so I decided to go to France through the Rotary program. I was placed in a small town in the south of France 20 miles from Toulouse.
I went Logan->Amsterdam->Toulouse. I was greeted by the French Rotary Club members and driven to my first host family's house by the dad. Despite my confidence in my French, I found it hard to even get a sentence out. Getting to the house was extremely surreal since it was the amalgamation of many months of mentally preparing myself and undergoing Rotary training. I was extremely awkward at the bise and even accidentally kissed my older host brother's girlfriend on the cheek... whoops. I was going through so many different emotions: excitement, fear, exhilaration, anxiety, uncertainty, accomplishment.
A couple of things that culture-shocked me:
- How fast French people actually talk and how much they slur and mumble their words
- How late they eat dinner, usually at around 8:00-9:00 pm (okay this might've just been my family in particular)
- The culture around drinking is much more relaxed. I was at a restaurant on my second day and didn't know what to say when the waitress asked if I wanted wine. I grew to like the taste of wine and champagne, both of which my parents had never really let me have in the US. All in moderation of course.
- That the stereotypes about gastronomy are true: a baguette is the centerpiece of lunch and dinner and they often finish the main course off with Camembert/Roquefort cheese
- The toilet and shower are in separate rooms
- Many people have the impression that most Americans own guns and I was asked this many times
The French schooling system is much different from the US; high school is the equivalent of grades 10-12 and also holds select courses for university students. School goes from 8:00 am-6:00 pm every day of the week except Wednesday, which is only 8:00-12:00. The schooling grounds resemble more of a college campus than a public American high school--you are free to leave the school grounds and go into town at any point during your breaks.
Every class was one hour long except for long block, which was 2 hours with a 5-10 minute break in-between. Each student was expected to carry around a leather pouch called a trousse which holds pens, pencils, highlighters, erasers, compasses, and sometimes joints/cigarettes. The length of the break depended on the particular day of the week but usually ranged from 2-5 hours in total. Most teachers were rather strict and did not allow you to go to the bathroom at any point during the period. Most gave out many worksheets throughout the lesson that you were expected to glue in your subject notebook.
Each town was fairly small (800-2000 people), so the school I went to was a regional school comprised of 8 or 9 different towns. There were about 1,100 kids that went there. The collège and école primaire were right next to the lycée. My school experience was a bit unique because the high school was under construction, so we were placed in "préfabriqués" (temporary boxes). Some classes were in the actual buildings though. There were buildings A, B, C and your classes were in a combination of the 3. They'd also move around a lot. Example, physique-chimie would be in bat B on Monday and then bat C on Thursday.
English class was a breeze. Kids would always ask me for help, and I was happy to oblige since it was the only class where having me as a partner was of any use. The only time it got annoying was when kids that never bothered to talk to me would hit me up after school asking for English help. My English teacher was admittedly not the greatest at English and I oftentimes had to bite my tongue about certain mistakes she was making. If I was tired then this was the class to sleep through.
On the other end of the spectrum, I found keeping up in French class to be nearly impossible and I think I wound up with a 7/20. We were studying poetry and prose from the 17th and 18th centuries, basically the French Shakespeare equivalents. Looking back I probably should've been placed in a lower-level French class (maybe 7th or 8th grade), which I'm sure I would've learned much more in rather than spending most of my time doodling on the pages.
I felt somewhat isolated at first but was eventually able to tack onto a group of kids. They introduced me to the joys of the French taco, one of the reasons I gained 15 lbs abroad. It's a panini with fries, kebab, special "sauce fromagère", and a select sauce of your choice. The whole thing is about 1000 calories and there was a taco shop on every corner of the street.
- About 60% of kids smoke in front of the school. Staff don't care and only get annoyed when kids litter the buds. There was a cloud of smoke above the courtyard in the morning. (I realize that this probably isn't every French school and that some schools are stricter. This was simply the culture at this particular school. Some commenters have pointed out that it may be something more common further South.)
- The system seemed very rigid and teachers were mostly strict. You do not have the same bond with a French teacher as you do an American one
- While laptop use in my American school is commonplace, we only occasionally used computers in France
- Kids waited in a huge line outside for 30 minutes for lunch, you almost have to fight your way through the crowd
- I saw many 15-year-olds riding mopeds and motorbikes to school
- The grading system is out of 20 with 10 being average
- How much you have to walk around campus to get to your next class in time. Some times kids would literally be sprinting to make it to the next bâtiment.
The French Language
I hugely overestimated how good I was at French. Upon arrival, I was struggling to string basic sentences together despite 4 years of school classes, and could only pick out a few words of what my host family was saying. TV shows and movies were even worse, as French people talk extremely fast in general and even more so on a script. I still struggle with understanding most films.
French students were sometimes unknowingly cruel by mocking my accent, which I worked very hard on perfecting over the course of my stay. On the other hand, they taught me tons of slang. Most French "street slang" are Arabic words imported by Moroccans, Tunisians, and Algerians. The most common one is wesh, which means "yo", but can be used as an exclamation eg "Wesh! Qu'est-ce tu fais là frère??" They also incorporate verlan into their lexicon, which are words with the syllables reversed. Example: frère=reuf, femme=meuf, fou=ouf, vénère=énervé, relou=lourd (annoying), etc. Guys commonly refer to each other by either mec or gros.
Over a period of 8 months, I went from constantly stumbling over my words and needing translations, to speaking at a fluent conversational level and only occasionally needing a translation or workaround word. My accent is not perfect, but it's pretty damn good.
There wasn't a ton to do on the weekends, so I kind of had to be creative with my time. Sometimes my host mom would run to the local supermarket and I'd tag along and buy myself some candy. French supermarket candy is really good and there are all sorts of stringy sour stuff. I'd spend the majority of the 70€ a month from Rotary on candy, tacos, and stuff at the boulangerie near my school. I'd call my parents for an hour 3-4 times a week as well.
On a few occasions I went into Toulouse with a few friends of mine. We went into various clothing/skating shops and ate at fast food restaurants (Burger King, McDonalds). Sometimes my host brother, who was 23, would take me to the movies with his friends. I didn't understand a ton, but enjoyed the experience regardless. When you ask for popcorn they'll ask if you want it "salé" or "sucré", and to my surprise most people preferred the sugary kettlecorn. Sometimes during the breaks at school I'd walk to the boulangerie on my own and buy a baguette and eat the whole thing raw. My host dad cracked up when I told him about this. My host family also had a pool and a weight room, which I'd use to workout sometimes. I also had a brief stint with the piano once I'd gotten bored enough. I wanted some physical activity so I took up English boxing. It was extremely rigorous and I'd be dead and bruised by the end of every session. I learned I was pretty bad at keeping my hands up and often get punched square in the jaw. My family would sit around the TV most nights watching a talk show called Le Quotidien. It was cool because the people on the show talked a lot slower and it let me learn about French current events and celebrities.
A big part of French culture is having apertif parties and inviting guests over to eat and drink. We'd start out with some wine, or soda for the younger ones, and light food like chips, pretzels, peanuts, jambon, etc. Then we'd have the main course followed by some sort of a dessert. Guests would stay quite a while, usually 4 or 5 hours.
One of my friends from a different town took me to a soirée (party) at his house because his parents were out of town. He invited 5 or 6 other kids. The music was blaring, everyone was drinking and smoking, and several kids were making out. That was a pretty crazy night. I had a few drinks and joints put in front of me and felt pressured, so I made the mistake of drinking and then combining it with marijuana. I spent the rest of the night with an extremely fast heart rate ready to faint, so lesson learned.
I started listening to a lot of popular French rap as well because it was all the kids at the high school were listening to. Artists like Niska, Gambi, Booba, Damso, and Angèle (not a rapper but a cool synth Euro-pop sort of thing). Kids also listened to American music, mainly Drake, Post Malone, Migos, Arianna Grande, and a couple other huge pop/rap artists/groups in US/Canada.
Coronavirus, getting home, and aftermath
Nobody in France was really paying attention to coronavirus too much until about mid-February, much like the US. Unlike America, France was much more on their game about cracking down on the spread of the virus. Macron made a national announcement on TV early March that there would be no school for an indefinite amount of time. This was met with much rejoice by most French students and my French school group chat exploded when the announcement was made. In fact for several hours after the broadcast, the internet was nearly impossible to use because it was so saturated.
The government started quarantine out in 2 week chunks. However as soon as those 2 weeks were up, they'd tack another 2 on. Although I was initially ecastic that school was cancelled, I got bored and depressed being at the house all the time. You needed a mask and print-out form to go outside, and if you were caught without either you were liable to get a hefty fine. So my family barely let me outside out of fear of the pandemic. I wasn't finding any motivation to complete my online French school work because it was defeating the purpose of the exchange (unlike kids who needed to do it to get their baccalaureate). All extracurricular activities halted as well.
At this point there was no reason to continue living in France as I was not gaining any meaningful experiences besides staying at home and following the news on lockdown. So I made the hard decision to return back home. The CDC was pressuring Americans living abroad to come back home anyway, and my mom, an employment lawyer, was not taking any chances. I had less than a 24 hour notice that I'd be going home, which was very hard to break to my family. At this point, a mask was not even required on the plane so I traveled without one. My dad picked me up at Logan and drove me back home. It was weird, almost awkward, seeing my family in person again after so many months.
I reenrolled in my school after about a month of being home and had to complete all of the online work. This was incredibly monotonous but I had no choice.
I haven't been keeping up with my spoken French too much these past few months, however I regularly text my classmates and keep them updated on my life. I watch French YouTube videos to keep up with my comprehension, and it's incredibly satisfying to understand nearly everything being said. I'm skipping ahead to AP French for my junior year of high school, so that's another positive of going to France for the school year.
There is much more that I could add to this entry and things that I haven't covered. I won't lie and say that it was a perfect dream exchange you see in the EF brochures, oftentimes I felt bored because I was in the countryside or overwhelmed at the prospect of being 3,000 miles away from anything I'd ever known. The trip certainly had its highs and its lows, but overall I am very grateful to have gone through this unique experience. My plan is to return back to France for my sophomore or junior year of college, this time in Paris. I will of course also visit the friends and family I made in the South, as they will always be in my heart. Hopefully some people here interested in living abroad in France will find bits of this post useful. And maybe French people will find it interesting to read about France from an American's perspective. If you have any questions, feel free to ask them here or PM me. Edit:
A few commenters have made valid points that my experience in France is not a reflection of everywhere, so it's unfair to generalize. I will keep this constructive critique in mind going forward. I have also added a little bit more about my time in the country.
Also it looks like the leather pouch thing is not necessarily French-specific, but it was something I'd never experienced in the US. Most things like markers, scissors, etc are supplied in the classroom and we're just expected to have one pencil or maybe a pen that we shove up the front pocket of our backpacks. Kids regularly lose their pencils 3+ times a day and the school hallways are usually littered with them.