Special to The Valley Echo
Editor’s note: David Thompson Secondary School student Katie Watt recently returned from France, where she spent three months as part of a student exchange. Katie’s photography is frequently published in both The Echo (she is the photographer of this week’s cover photograph) and The Pioneer.
I must say that it was quite a challenge staying in France for three months. The schooling was quite a laborious task with the long hours that began at 8 a.m. and stretched all the way until 6 p.m., much like an average work day, and with the language barrier it became rather difficult to immediately communicate what I wanted to say without a lot of effort.
On top of it all, I found that the hardest part was being apart from family and friends for such a long time — something I didn’t really think would be an issue when signing up for the exchange, but by the end I certainly proved myself to be wrong.
While all these things were challenging, I do not say them negatively, however. Though it was difficult, it was difficult in a good kind of way: one that pushes you to learn new things and go outside the comfort zone. Of course, that wasn’t the only good thing I took away from my trip. I also learned a lot about their culture, interesting lifestyle, and just overall a lot about their country in comparison to our own.
Oh, right, and the language, too. I certainly did receive the ultimate French language education, but I admittedly found learning about the different ways in which the French live to be much more fascinating.
As it quickly became apparent, the French are a very kind, cheery, beautiful group of people who hardly play into the Western stereotype, despite eating copious amounts of bread with every meal, which really, is hardly a bad thing considering its quality, like nearly all their food there.
Though vegetables are rare in their diet, the meat, soups and desserts were absolutely incredible, and not only was their food fantastic, but their style and sense of art was, too. I won’t go too far into depth with it, but the art program at the school was much better than ours here in Canada. While we provide students with easy projects and little criticism, the program there was far different as it was instead taught as an academic subject opposed to an elective. But despite their art program, I did find the rest of their education system quite difficult as the hours seemed to drag on and on without end, and it seemed as if they never went too far in depth with their subjects before moving on. While I did find the schooling part of the stay to be one of the more challenging aspects, in the end I admittedly didn’t care too much as I was efficiently learning the language and I had four weeks of vacation to go elsewhere.
Though France is quite a small country — so small, in fact, that it could fit within ours nearly 16 times (had Alaska belonged to us and not the Americans) — its regions seem to be incredibly diverse. Up in the north are the Alps — the towering mountain range that makes our own Rockies seem like mere hills in comparison; and down in the south are sandy beaches with palm trees. I was quite glad that I got to experience my stay down in the south. I thought that the change in landscape was amazing with the rolling hills scattered with old traditional houses, and sandy beaches that we don’t get the pleasure of enjoying out here in the interior of British Columbia.
But while I did find all this to be interesting, it was the unique difference in culture that I thought to be the most incredible. How the French seem to be so open about everything, from emotions to public affection, while we are so unlike that in many ways.
At first, I found it rather odd seeing people kiss so openly in public, and how every greeting must be met with a peck on the cheek, but towards the end I began to find it rather enjoyable — I thought that it was something strangely beautiful in its own unique way. That wasn’t the only cultural difference, of course, as the French sense of humour was very interesting, too. It seemed that there, everything was able to be joked and laughed about.
In our own lives, many people avoid making jokes about certain topics because they seem to be afraid of offending each other. This, however, is hardly true in the French way of life — it was as if everything from religion to family relationships were made fun of. Of course, it did take some getting use to at first, but in the end it did seem to be oddly… humbling, in a sense.
But while all these differences in culture were very intriguing, perhaps the most interesting difference was the amount of tradition that still held true in their modern way of life. When I say that, I don’t mean people riding in carriages to work opposed to taking transit, or reading the paper instead of watching television — no. By traditional, I mean how their old ways still seem to wonderfully prevail in the ways of the new world through their values, ways of self expression and, interestingly enough, through language, too.
Unlike here, in the cities and towns in France there are many ancient, beautifully crafted cathedrals and churches that stand boldly in the centre of the “ville”, portraying hundreds of years of history, while our country is hardly even that old to begin with. Driving through the countryside was amazing, too, as one could be looking out the window towards a hill where nothing but houses stand now, but once was full with people suffering in the Middle Ages from the Black Plague. Well, that may be a rather dark thought but, really, it was an incredible concept.
So while my stay certainly did have its challenges of homesickness, difficulties in communication, and just adjusting to an entirely different lifestyle in general, these were also the benefits as they taught me new aspects of life, and pushed me to try things that otherwise would be outside my comfort zone. I had a wonderful time getting to meet new people, and it was great to have the unique chance to learn about the country and its different regions from the locals’ perspective.
I won’t lie and say that living in a foreign country for that long wasn’t difficult, but in the end I must say that it was entirely worth it.