October 22, 2011

A Whole New World

So I suppose you noticed the change in my blog's title... well, the other day I realized that the expression "C'est la vie" has an entirely different connotation here in France. It actually means something like "Such is life... sucks to be you." So yeah, I changed it to something that all around means something better. La vie est belle ––> Life is beautiful. Very true and has a positive meaning in both languages. So there you go, my new blog title and so coincidentally my new change in perspective... and my new realization in that I have to change myself.

This week was insanely hard, wonderful, surprising, and most of all it was a genuine wake-up call. Culture shock... Boom. In a way that I never would have expected. I've been here for almost two months, but now I'm finally starting to live the French way of life and am learning how to really adapt and grow and change and actually become a part of this new world. So much to talk about. The pages of my mental diary are overflowing so here I go to spill the surplus here for everyone and all to read and maybe even ponder about...

An exchange changes you. I'm just starting to really see and understand that. I was blinded the last two months by the impressions that people had given me before I left. I was still being an American in France. Now I'm going to try and live like a French girl in France. This is my new world and I can't keep on thinking that's it's okay to live like an American here because that's who I am. I am going to change who I am because my wake-up call has told me that it's not okay to keep living like everyday is a vacation, like everyday is just for having fun, like believing that change will come without work. These impossible thoughts are gone now, well they are at least in the process of disappearing. Nothing will happen at once and I need to learn how to slow down and really learn from this exchange.

Let me backtrack... so before I left for France I got a lot of advice. A LOT of advice– from all the Rotarians, past exchange students, current exchange students, family, friends, teachers, etc. etc. Everybody had something to tell me and to advise me on. At first I was really glad to have all this advice. Usually I freak out when I go do something without any clue of how to go about it, so I kept relying on the one hundred pounds of advice in my head for my first two months here in France. I tried to do the things that the past exchange students had advised me to do... but the thing is that everybody's experience is completely different. No one is going to have the same exchange year. Some people might spend it like a vacation. Some might spend it like a constant party. Some might spend it learning the language. Some might spend it trying to ace school. Some might spend it with other exchange students. And some just might... go with it. Everyone is probably going to be like the last group, no matter what kind of impressions you have. People told me that school isn't important, that friends are easy to make, that the language is tough in the beginning, that you can change anything that you don't like, that you'll eventually get the hang of everything, so in the mean time just have fun and don't work too hard. "It's your year. Make the most of it." What does that even mean? To everyone it means something different. Usually that means vacation and fun... but you know something, for me, I'm learning that it really doesn't mean that. I think to make the most of this year I have to learn to be French. If I end this year living like a real French person, I think I will have succeeded in something very important. I already have a pretty good grip on the language so that isn't the hardest thing. The hardest thing is leaving America behind me...

I figured out a major cultural difference here. At first when I came here everything was all beautiful, cheese-y, and Frenchie. I guess I was in that "vacation" phase, but I was actually just denying the fact that I could speak the language and that I could have worked more... and yet I kept thinking that since I'm an exchange student, I can have it easy... but no. It's complicated. For the students who don't speak the language very well at all, then yes it would be like a vacation for the first couple months. Floating along, not understanding anything. That's nice for them. For the students who can speak the language, then it's easier to make friends, communicate with your host family, and– yeah kind of impress people. That's nice. But in France, the students work. I'm the first exchange student ever to have come to Cambrai. But in school, I'm like another French student to the teachers. So they don't think I work hard enough. That's true. I'm not very good at writing in French, so French class is naturally more difficult for me... I've improved on my speaking a lot, but my writing is still at the same level as when I left America. Yes, I'm actually going to start working now. I'm going to start doing my homework– even if I can't write very well in French. At least it will be work. With work, I can improve. I got two wake-up calls. One on Wednesday when I finally approached my host mom about changing classes. It wasn't a pretty conversation and the last couple days have been those of reflection for me... I'm not going to change classes and I'm okay with that. I mostly wanted to change classes because I wanted to make more friends with the people in that class. I didn't think about the work, the math, or the grades. One very important cultural difference that I realized between America and France is that France isn't a country of change. America is. America is liberty and change. America is if you don't like something, you can change it. You're on your own. You can do anything. Never settle for less. (Obama's election? Change. Change. Change) While on the other side of the ocean, France is old buildings on old streets that haven't changed for years. France hasn't changed much. Generally. Let's not get technical with history and all.... Anyways, France gives you rules that are meant to be followed. America gives you rules that are meant to be broken. France tells you to do something and you do it. America tells you to do something and you ask why. I am American, but I am in France. Therefore, voilà cultural difference 101. I think things will get better from now on, now that I understand life here a little more. I'm not clueless so therefore I am going to start cracking down and get working. I'm not a nerd and I'm not a party-goer. I'm just going to get the most of my year. I'm going to get lost, learn, and learn to go with it. I can't force change. It has to come on it's own. So scratch off that whole thing about "If you don't like something, change it." No. Adapt to it. Deal with it. You'll be glad you did in the end.

My second wake-up call was today. My host parents sat down with me and we talked... mostly about all the things that I need to change. Such as my work habits, constant persistence, my resistance to the word "no", etc. Basically, they told me that the "Welcome to France, Aja!!!" period is over. No more vacation. No more tourist. No more slacking. Of course, I'll still be American in my heart and mind, but I'm going to convince myself to change that little whiny, persistent, vacationing American that she is French and that no matter how hard it's going to be, it'll turn into some fabulous changes and memories later in life. That talk wasn't pleasant at all to listen to... but it was necessary. I'm starting out at zero now. Wipe the slates. Sharpen the pencils. I'm ready now. I'm aware of life here and I'm aware of myself and my mistakes. You can't move forward in life if you don't make mistakes and realize that you have made mistakes. If my host parents had told me that I'm doing incredibly well, that my main goal should be to just make friends and improve on the language, that they're very proud of my progress... then that would have done nothing but maybe make me smile. Good is good, but there is always a better. I'm lucky that I can speak well. Now I need to prove to everyone that I'm a smart kid and that I'm capable of working just as hard as the others.

So why did I say that "La vie est belle" when I have to actually work harder now and face my new reality? Because I'm much happier than I've been in a long time. I'm appreciating everything that I have here and not focusing on all the little things that I would want to be different. I have it really good here and I'm super happy. I wouldn't change the last two months, but I'm going to make the next eight even better. It's ironic how that now I'm on school vacation (the Toussaints) and heading out to the beach on Monday... I'm realizing how this exchange isn't a vacation at all. Life is very ironic sometimes.

Okay, yeah, that was a little more than just some surplus thoughts I admit. I hope I didn't bore you. My thoughts might be really different in a couple months, so we'll see. For now, you know what's going on in the crazy thought train that's going off the tracks in my mind. Well... you know most of it :) Now for some of the general highlights that happened during this crazy week...

So I got an X-ray for my arm and nothing's broken. I've never gotten an X-ray before so that was interesting. I get to keep the picture, so I might be cool and bring it back to America with me. There's hardly any pain now. We figured out a great solution for my horseback riding. Since I can't continue with the advanced group, I'm actually going to get private lessons with Christophe every Thursday afternoon until I'm advanced enough to rejoin the other group. Christophe was very happy to hear that I wanted to continue and he even gave me a huge smile. Unusual and wonderfully surprising. So that's good, but I know it's not going to be easy. Even though I'll be running solo, I know he's not going to ease up. I'm going to read a book with all the vocabulary about horseback riding so hopefully that will help me understand all the things that Christophe shouts out at me during the lessons.

Also, I saw a play at the theater with my class on Thursday. It was fun getting to take a field trip and talk with more of the girls in my class. The theater was packed. We saw "Les Femmes Savantes" and uh, I sort of slept through the whole thing :P But so did all the people around me. There was nothing but a door and six people running around in poofy clothes the whole time. Brilliant. They apparently spoke in Old French so nobody else understood anyways. So yeah, I got to catch up on my sleep a bit. Took some pictures too:
The poster for the show had three white ducks on it. Don't ask why. I don't know...

With Adeline :)

With Adeline and Manon D.

Left to right: Marion, Florence, Eloïse, Marie, and Adeline. The girls in my class! :)
That afternoon I finished early and went over to Céline Vanpoulle's house with Céline Damelincourt. Céline x2! Céline's house is gorgeous, like a mini-mansion. We ate some oranges then did homework... well they did homework while I doodled. I love doing little things like going over to a friend's house after school. We only stayed for an hour or so before Céline #2 had to go. I went with her and went back into town by myself. I am so proud that I managed to send two post cards to the USA by myself! I asked for stamps and got my change and everything. Oh yeaa... :D So since I was in town anyways, I called Marie-Michelle and then she met me there with her usual groupie of friends. We shopped around and I bought a great, purple, wool scarf. Giant wool scarves are really in fashion here. People in America would never them, but here almost all the girls have a giant wool-sheep-scarf wrapped around their necks. So yeah, being trendy so do I now. I'm a shopaholic.

I didn't have any classes on Friday! That was verrrry nice. I slept in late, watched some French T.V., then was late to my lunch-date in town with the girls. We ate at the Bar à Pattes again because since I was late, we didn't have enough time to walk to the Japanese restaurant :P. It was still amazing and I ate the same thing as last time. Pictures (of course):
Céline and Phillipine :)
With Mathilde :)
The cool kids. :D

Céline's chocolate dessert and my Speculoos tiramisu.

Les gourmandes

So then that Friday afternoon I went to Saint Bernard like usual. They had this big Autum bake sale with TONS of cakes, cookies, chocolates, brownies, tarts, and even pumpkin soup. I helped set it up. I wanted to secretly take something to eat, but then I realized that it wasn't free and that it was for the little kiddos' parents to buy.



So then Saturday (today) was wonderful. We went to my horseback riding place in the morning (I didn't ride) and I watched the girls' lesson while freezing my fingers off! It's so cold here! I'm glad I have my new scarf.
With Hermes. My big horsie :)

The barn dog. He kept me company when I went into the club house to get warm. So cute, right?

Then in the afternoon I went into town with Justine. I always tell myself that I'm not going to buy stuff whenever I go into town... but I always do. Seventy euros seems like a lot to get each month, but when you need something like a pair of shoes, suddenly you're almost out of money. But yeah... it was super fun like usual with Justine. We went to a lot of different stores that I hadn't been to yet. I like Cambrai's stores, even though the French people think that the selection is lame. I realized that there are like seven bakeries just in Cambrai. It's a small town, so I find that seven is a lot! But not for France :) I love French bakeries. Well, I just love sweets. We each had an amazing macaroon at one of the bakeries. Apparently, macaroons are a lot of work to make– sometimes it takes three hours just to make one! They're kind of expensive, but so worth it.

Macaroon au Speculoos
She got raspberry.

My town :D Sunny but freezing.

Them bakeries...

Then later I bought a small perfume and a Beatles poster haha. I always buy Beatles posters everywhere I go... It's funny because my friend back home in the US has the same one. I'm going to hang it up in my room to get my home decorating groove on. Later, Justine and I stopped by a different bakery and bought little chocolate beignets. Ahh.... so so so good.

Heaven in my mouth.
The cathedral

Random candy guy that's always hanging out now that the ice cream man is out of season.

Miss Justine and Me :D
I had that big talk with my host parents after my shopping spree and I found it better just to sit still, listen, understand everything, and nod– rather than to defend myself. It worked out and now, like I said before, I'm so ready to make the most of this exchange. I might even do some more homework on vacation. Possibly. But it is legit vacation now... so... Anyhow, things are better now between my host parents and me. I had a feeling that they weren't all too happy with me this week because of obvious reasons, but the talk really cleared stuff up. The storms are over, I hope. I'm so ready for vacation. I'll have Internet in Saint Malo so I can blog, but not at l'île de Ré later on. Going to pack tomorrow. Good night beautiful world. A bientôt, bisous. :)


  1. I hope you're doing well :) I'd never really thought about the whole "getting along with a new family" aspect of an exchange until I started reading your blog. It sounds rough, but it's impressive how optimistic you are!
    Do you have any pictures of Marie-Armelle and Xavier? It'd be nice to see what they look like :)

  2. Wow, I'm speechless. I'm SO proud of you.

    Big hugs, have a great vacation:)

  3. BTW, I personally don't know anyone can work as hard as you do, so there:) Don't forget to have fun too:)