While immersed in France for four weeks, junior Erin Wilson (left, with a friend) went on field trips, including one to Carcassonne, a small town famous for its medieval citadel and castle. (Photo courtesy of Wilson)

CAVS AROUND THE WORLD: Junior spends summer in France, experiences ‘horrible’ heat wave

 In the “Cavs around the World” series, students discuss their summer internships, jobs, volunteer work and classes.

Junior Erin Wilson lived in France for four weeks with a host family as part of a cultural immersion program through the Council on International Educational Exchange Global Navigator.

Q: How did you discover this program?

A: I just looked up European summer programs. Then I had to write a couple of essays on why I wanted to go and why I was eligible for a scholarship. Those were all in English, though.

Q: When did you find out you were accepted?

A: I found out a lot later than normal because so many kids applied this year, and they had to go through all of the applications. 

After I got the email, I had to find time to take a three-hour placement test. There were listening, speaking and writing (sections) in French. This placed me into the level of classes I took over the summer.

Q: What classes did you take?

A: There were grammar and writing sections, but most of the time it was culturally focused. We went on lots of field trips.

Q: What kinds of field trips?
A: One time we went to a dance academy in Occitanie, which was for native dances, and that was pretty cool. They also demonstrated how to use flutes and bagpipes native to the region.

My favorite was when we went to Carcassonne. It’s a small town famous for its medieval citadel and castle. I enjoyed it so much because the day we explored the citadel, there was a huge festival called the “Fête du Vin Rosé et des Fromages de l’Aude (Festival of Rose and Cheeses of the Aude province).” There were marching bands, acrobats and performers, and the whole citadel was decorated with flags and balloons. 

Q: Where in France were you for most of the program?

A: We stayed in Toulouse, but on weekends all the kids from the program – around 70 — went on field trips to different cities in the area.

For example, we went to Port-Vendres, which is right on the Mediterranean, and stayed there for a weekend. We went on lots of hikes, shopped around and stayed on the beach for most of the time.

Q: How was your experience with your host family?

A: It was really awkward at first. We were nervous and didn’t talk a lot, but after the first week we got to know each other more, and they were wonderful.

There was a mom and dad, and I also had a host brother, who was 11, and a host sister who was 6.

The parents knew English, but I spoke to them in French.

Q: How was the weather there due to the European heat wave?

A: It was horrible. It was so hot. 

The first week I was there, it was actually raining, but then it went quickly from 70 degrees to 105. And it stayed like that all day and all night.

Typically, here, that would be OK. But in France, where they’re not used to that weather, they were severely unprepared for it. No one had air conditioning. We had hand-held fans to use.

Q: How did you cope with the heat?

A: I had to buy different clothes because this heat wave was absolutely not normal. I also bought one of those fans you power by plugging into your phone.

I had to buy a water bottle — there weren’t public water fountains.

Q: How did you get around?
A: Where I was staying with my host family was a bit outside Toulouse, in a village called Blagnac. Every morning, I took a 40-minute tram ride into the center of Toulouse, where I had school.

From there, we would just walk or, if it was hot, take the metro. But then again, it was also hot in the metro.

Q: How close did you become with the other participants?

A: We were actually allowed to spend the night at other kids’ host family’s houses. I didn’t, but during the weekend trips we stayed together and bonded.

Most of the friends I made live in California, too, so we actually got to see each other again after we came back from France. And we’re planning to go to Lake Tahoe in the spring.

Q: Did this experience help you understand French language and culture more?

A:  I definitely know more about the culture, and my understanding of French has increased a lot. I’m not quite sure about my speaking, though. That’s roughly the same (as it was), but I learned more obscure words that I wouldn’t have learned in a classroom here.

Q: What differences did you notice between the U.S. and France?
A: People just stare at each other, and it’s not considered rude. Someone could just stare at you all day, and it would be OK. 

 Another thing was the fact that no one had snacks in between meals, which are really big. For dinner, we had giant appetizers, then a huge dinner and a huge dessert. In my family, I didn’t have to eat the dessert, but I know for other kids, if they didn’t eat some of the food, it’d be highly disrespectful.

We also ate dinner really late. My family had dinner at 8:30, and that was mostly because we had small kids who needed to go to bed. But I know other people would have dinner at 9 or 9:30, and it would go to 10 or 11.

Q: What kinds of food did you eat?

A: The specialty there is duck, and they make a regional sausage and goat cheese. But I don’t like goat cheese. I tried the duck, and I didn’t really like it. It was pretty chewy. But the sausage was amazing.

Q: What about breakfast and lunch?
The program gave us money for lunch, so we’d go out and buy that during the week. But during weekends and for breakfast and dinner, my host family cooked for me.

Q: How was dessert?

A: They’d have these little cakes, canelé, that were pretty much just sugar and caramel. I didn’t like them because they were too sweet and left a strange, almost bitter taste in my mouth.

Q: Was it difficult speaking French while out and about and during classes?
A: It was challenging. I would go up and speak French to order food, and the server would reply to me in English. It’s like, “I’m here to practice my French, (so) please speak to me in French!” But most people who worked at restaurants spoke English. 

We speak only French to the teachers there. But with the American students, we would speak English to each other because our levels of French varied.

Q: What was your favorite part of the program?
A: Living with a host family was amazing. I’m still in contact with them, and they have family here in California, so when they come up, we’re going to visit each other. And vice versa if I ever go back to France.

I also loved meeting new people. The American students were from all the different states, and it was fun hearing their points of view and why they decided to go on the trip.

Q: How was the trip between the United States and France?
A: It was scary because I’d never flown alone before, but it wasn’t that difficult. 

There was one time on the way back when my flight got delayed in Paris for four hours, making my layover only 45 minutes in Texas. I had to recheck my bag and go through customs again, which was pretty challenging. I rushed through that, and I thought I was going to miss my flight, but I didn’t.

Q: Do you feel more independent now?
Yeah. I’m definitely not afraid of traveling alone anymore. Before going to France, I never knew (much) about public transportation. But after taking the tram, the metro and the bus regularly, I can figure it out anywhere.

Q: Do you plan to return to France?

A: I definitely want to go back to France, and now, more than ever, I want to travel. I’m already planning to go somewhere next summer.

By Sarina Rye

Excerpt originally published in the Sept. 17 edition of the Octagon.

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