Monday, February 11, 2013

5 Months

I have been in this country for five months and four days.

Before coming, I was under the impression that by the five month mark I would be as integrated into the french society just like any french kid would be. In some ways I am; in some ways I know the workings of my school and home like I was born and raised along side it. I understand the relationships I've made and the boundaries this specific french society has installed.

At the same time, France continuously produces little quirks that will never cease to surprise me. I think this is what induces such a love for traveling within certain people - the characteristics of different societies that are so stark in comparison to our own. They tend to exaggerate different cultures, making everything bright and bouncing and interesting, when, for its inhabitants, these mannerisms are nothing but normality. But to foreigners, societal differences open up an entirely different world - a world with a rhythm so eccentric and perplexing compared to that of our own. And this rhythm rests in the hearts and minds of the citizens that occupy its territory - allowing us to be unified by something as intangible as the essence of a country.

For this reason I don't think I'll ever be completely habituated to french life - or I would have to stay much longer than one year to be able to achieve this feat. I'm just not part of this dance.

But that's okay! That's what makes exchange fun and interesting - I can live in a country for ten months and still learn something new every day of the journey. Isn't that what I signed up for?

So my french is coming along fine, I've made some really great friends, and I'm really getting the hang of the whole school thing.

The fact that five months of my exchange have already slipped away from me is horrifying. Don't get me wrong - I miss a lot about home. I miss my friends and family, I miss California straight up. I miss Trader Joe's and the sun. I miss being 100% comfortable and confident in my surroundings, being able to flop down on the couch and eat chocolate covered pretzels while watching all my favorite TV shows without worrying about being judged by my fellow household inhabitants. And I miss my dog. Dear Jesus Christ, I miss my dog.

But the thought of leaving this place sends shivers of fear down my spine. I know after I leave, I'll never be able to come back and have everything be exactly the same. I'll never be able to take the bus every morning while listening to my music and trundling through small villages that date back to before the birth of the United States of America. I'll never be able to play pool in the foyer with my friends during the times when my teachers decide not to show up to work. I wont be able to fling open my french shutters in the morning and be surprised by the result of a night-full of snow or rain or nothing at all.

Most of all, however, I'm scared of going back to being normal. Before my exchange, France was my goal. France was something to work for and be proactive for. France was a sign that I was doing something interesting and exciting with my life - that I knew what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go. But when I get back, I'll be just like everyone else. I'll have to face the imminent future, I'll have to blunder through the stresses of American high school with really no idea of what's ahead, or how I'm going to face it.

I guess that's the experience, though. I've learned a lot of things, like how to make friends, how to speak french, and how to keep my room clean for longer than three days. But most of all I've learned that I really know nothing- at least not as much as I thought I did.

So I think I should just accept what's coming to me blindly. I accept that I will one day leave this place, though it might make me cry. I accept that I'll have to face American high school and the goods and the bad's that accompany it. I'll have to work hard enough there to get into the colleges that I'll have to eventually apply for.

 It's all looks stressful, long, and hard, but it's all coming. And maybe, if I've done this experience right, I'll be somewhat ready for it when it does.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

I Exist

I realize it has been nearly three months since I've posted anything. I apologize. I should probably promise to post more frequently, but the truth is I probably wont. And that's not a bad thing! In fact, I take it as a sign of my thriving french lifestyle (I say at 4 o'clock in the afternoon - still in my pyjamas). I've been so busy complying with french normalcy, that I haven't found the time to write about it. In fact, writing about it seems bizarre - as we don't generally document commonalities. 

So I shall make a list of basically everything I've done in the past months:

-Established myself as part of my host family 

-Made friends
      This is mostly thanks to my amazing host school. Coming from a school of 2,000 people and going to a school of 300 was a strange adjustment for me, but I couldn't not be happier with the company that I'm in. Every single person in my class (premiere) is kind and open, making adjusting to this world of new faces a little bit easier. 

-Learned how to make some french desserts 
     My chocolate mousse is becoming mousse-ier in the fridge as we speak

-Eaten enough to feed the entirety Europe

-Progressed in French
     I would say that I'm about conversational in french. My grammar isn't all there, my vocabulary isn't the best, but I can get a point across all the same. I now use verb tenses (which, for me, is an achievement), and I've even started to attempt to work on my french accent. 

-Been to all the big cities of Nord-Pas-de-Calais 
     Lille - my favorite city of all time
     Valenciennes - also pretty cool
     Maugbeuge - embarrassing in comparison to the other two

-Started to participate in classes
    I am in the Literature track, meaning that I take  French, French Literature, History, Euro (European history taught in english), SVT (biology), Physics/Chemistry, and three different types of English. But because I'm an exchange student who is bored by the 8 hours of english which she must endure each week, I've started taking SES (social economic sciences) in place of some of my english classes. 

-Started to do homework/take tests
    Homework in France doesn't quite amount to the sometimes 6 hours of homework that I would do nightly in the US. Here - an hour and a half is groan-worthy. I've been doing what I can. Obviously I'm not the most active participant in French Literature (I generally sit in the corner and translate french documents into english), but I have managed to scrape by in history, my science classes, SES, and, of course, english. I can proudly say that I did not get the worst grade on an SVT essay the other day! 

-Gone to many an AFS gathering
     I've found that AFS France is a rather lovely association. Though every gathering tends to consist of a lot of repeating things us AFS-ers already know, AFS genuinely does care about the well-being of it's students. My AFS chapter is quite proactive, which involves getting up early at least once a month on a saturday to go hiking, explore a city, or just gathering for the sake of consuming french food. Though the activities we do can be boring, I've made some amazing friends with the other AFS-ers in my region, and I look forward to seeing them at least once a month.

Time has been moving quicker than I have ever imagined possible. In exactly one week one of my best friend's in France - Nicole, an exchanges student from Bulgaria - will be going home after completing her tri-mester program here. In her place, three other students will be coming for two months. But... what? That's not possible! It hasn't been three months, it's been three weeks. I realize that soon, four months will have passed, and then five, and then ten. Even from right now, I feel as though a giant clock is ticking away at the minutes I have left in this country.

After the first two weeks or so, homesickness virtually didn't exist for me. I'm not sure if it'll re-commence, but for now, I just feel a constant need to be learning the language and getting as much out of the culture as I can. 

Speaking of which, I have some chocolate mousse to eat. 

A bientôt 

Saturday, September 22, 2012


If you know me at all, you've probably witnessed me - red faced and breathing hard - ranting about Taylor Swift's lack of musical ingenuity. "She's not a musician!" I scream to nobody in particular, "she's a business woman who's lyrics are designed to feed the fantasies of the general female tween population!" I have a dedicated distaste towards pop music and country tunes, and I exploit my aversion in a rather loud and obnoxious manner.

Over the past two weeks, however,  I've come to appreciate all music - even American pop - for the way it brings people together.

Day-to-day conversations at school can be fumbling, awkward, and frustrating. But the second someone pulls out an ipod or brings up the new Mica single, these conversations suddenly become clear, as if I were back home, ranting to my friends about how Lady Gaga is a sell-out with the fluidity of a natural-born English speaker.

Because everyone relates to music - all types of music- in more or less the same way. No matter where you are in the world, the sound of an electric guitar or a symphony of violins can fill you up, move you to tears, or give you a reason to sporadically break into dance.

This is why I can make friends with people that don't speak my language, why I can connect with a person on a fundamental level, even if I don't know his name.

Yesterday, I sat around the living room with my host family, examining my host dad's old vinyl records. The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Simon and Garfunkel- all bands my own dad had shown me when I was young, and all bands that have been adored and popularized all over the world. The air was static with pure happiness as we shared favorite songs, concert memories, and beloved groups. Without any effort at all, I felt closer with my host family than ever.

So thank you Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry. Thank you for being so well-known that I can't go a day without being asked if I've heard of "Fireworks" or "You and I". And thank you to my favorite bands (real music) for bringing me closer to so many people in this country almost effortlessly - as if similar taste in music is the mark of a true and sustainable friendship.

I guess it doesn't matter where you are, where you're from, or where you're going - we're not all that different. We eat different food, speak different languages, and practice different customs, but we're all emotional creatures. We relish the deep, revel in joy, and express these feelings musically.

What I'm trying to say is this:

If you're someone out there getting ready to go on exchange or just go on vacation, I'd recommend bringing an ipod.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

En France

Over a year ago, I sat at my kitchen table, staring at my blank AFS application page, dreaming of this moment. And now here I am, en France.

This past week and a half has been overwhelming, exciting, gloomy at times, and oddly routine.

It started what feels like ions ago, when I said a tearful goodbye to by parents at the airport last Wednesday, and boarded a plane headed to New York for my gateway orientation.

I shall say this for both the orientations: they were definitely not what I expected. I felt, the entire time, to be in a strange limbo between two worlds: my home, and the unknown realm of Bellignies, France. Everyone was slightly on edge, slightly uncomfortable, anxious to meet new people and yet nervous at the same prospect. In large dining halls we would mingle, skipping from person to person, giving the same pitch- showcasing ourselves for each other with a summary of our most interesting attributes.

I also didn't expect to be so tired all the time. For the duration of the orientations, I was motivated to partake in AFS activities only by the prospect of maybe having a chance to sleep afterwards. But I did make some great friends, and I appreciated the orientation process as a whole. However, it feels great to be settled down, my bags un-packed, with a bed of my own to sleep in.

I met my host family on Sunday. I'd worried about meeting my host family since I applied for AFS last year. What if they're mean? Don't like me? Smell bad? It turns out that my host family is the best I could possibly have hoped for. They're eager to share their culture with me, explain what I don't understand, and help me learn how to live in this new country. My host sister and I are good friends, and my favorite time of the day is when I get home and can talk to my host parents. In short, any fears I've ever had about my host family have been completely extinguished.

I started school the day after I arrived in Bellignies. School has not been as easeful as living with my host family has proven to be. The language barrier between me and my friends makes it difficult to connect with them- which makes me miss my friends in the US. That being said, everyone is extremely nice, and I enjoy sitting in classes and listening to my teachers speak in rapid french. Though I don't understand much, I still appreciate the language, and can't wait for the day when I can understand all of what's being said. Go French! woohoo!

Well... that's what's been up with me. I'll try to post pictures sometime (as I have taken many), unless I forget, in which case I shall probably post none. But for now, I'm going to sleep so I can get up nice and early for school tomorrow!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

One Day Left

When I opened blogger to start writing this post, my countdown clock read: one day, four hours, and fifty-three minutes. It now reads one day, four hours, and twenty minutes, and I still don't know what to say.

Am I enervated? Alarmed? Panicing?

Sad? Confused? Overjoyed?

The truth is, dear readers, that I really don't know. My mental state is analogous to a moving pendulum, swinging from one side of my emotional-spectrum to the other, until, inevitably, the pendulum loses energy, and is reduced to a stand still - only to be set in motion again by any slight word or action.

 This morning I was jittery, prone to skipping around the house and singing. This afternoon, I was stressed, noticing, for the first time, that I have shown no apparent inclination towards packing up my room, a year of my life, into 44 pounds. Tonight, I was a mess, on the verge of tears, thinking of the people that I will be leaving for ten months in  roughly twenty-four hours time.

One day, four hours, twelve minutes.

But alas, time moves at a constant rate, and, despite my ever-changing mood, whether excited, stressed-out, or sad, my long-awaited dream looms ever closer. I have a host family waiting for me, a language ready to be learned, and relationships ready to be made. Soon, I will be in a room with hundreds of AFS-ers, reaching out to people from all over the world.

One day, four hours, eight minutes.

When the countdown reaches zero, I will be in the air, bleary-eyed, fatigued, and, most likely, emotionally drained.

At negative five hours, I will be landing in New York, ready to be whisked off to the hotel in which the New York orientation will take place.

Negative twenty four hours, I will be on my way to Paris, France. And from there? Who knows. All I know is that I want whatever's waiting for me - whatever that may be.

One day, four hours, and three minutes.

I was ecstatic this morning, stressed this afternoon, and dismal this evening. But right now? I'm tired. Though my bed wont be my bed for much longer, it is mine now, and I wish to sleep in it. So, I bid you farewell, whoever you are. I will write again when I'm safe and sound in my host-family's house, teeming with stories and information. Au revoir.

One day, three hours, fifty-nine minutes.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Host Family and Explicit Joy

That's right, ladies and gents, boys and girls, AFS has given me a host family. Oh, the satisfaction! Oh, the bliss!

I was first alerted that I did, indeed, have a family while in Spain. We were in a wonderful beach house that overlooked the clear Medetterianian Sea and white sandy beaches. The house, however, had one flaw (besides a rather horrible ant infestation): it lacked Internet connection. Some say that it is a sad thing, that my generation and the majority of the adult world has become so dependent on the Internet and technology. And you know what? I agree... most of the time. Not, however, when you have been given information that would form the foundation of the next eleven months of your life, and the Internet is the only means by which to access this valuable information.

(For any of you are wondering how I found out that I had a family though I didn't have Internet, it was because my mum was able to receive emails occasionally on her phone, but didn't often because the data plan was too expensive in a different country so.. yeah).

I know you may be asking "oh Niamh, how possibly could you have survived for the next hour without this prized information?" Well, concerned reader, I shall tell you. 

My mother's voice drifted upstairs to where I was reading a fantastic book about the psychology behind love and affection (it's called Love at Goon Park - it's quite entertaining, I suggest you all check it out). My mother was obviously in a very conflicted position. To tell me that I had a host family would simply put me into a state of panic and definite yearning. My father was out, and we would have to hunt for at least twenty minutes to find an Internet cafe. But, being the wonderful person she is, mum told me all the same.

I was immediately thrown into a crazed state of utter hysteria. I paced the floor, lay on the ground and then jumped back up again, bashed pillows against my head. To pass the time until my dad got home, my mother and I took turns guessing at how many siblings I had, where I would be located... etc. 

At last my dad arrived, knowing nothing of the madness that had taken place in his absence. Upon hearing him walk through the door, I grabbed my computer, took hold of my mothers hand, and charged with the force and determination of a girl on a mission.

we found an Internet cafe, in the end. There was a kerfuffle over the wifi password and a short pause in which I ordered a lamb-burger, but I was finally able to see where and who my family was!

Okay, I'm done wasting your time. 

I will be living in the small (<900 person) town of Bellignies. I will have 2 parents named Edith and Pascal, two host brothers named Simon and Remy (who are both in their twenties, so I probably wont see them too often), and I will have a host sister named Lucie, and she's only a year younger than me! I'm ecstatic. My town is way WAY up north (hello, winter?) and it's right on the boarder between France and Belgium. 

This is Bellignies on a map! It's such a small town that I could only find one or two maps on the Internet... but you can see that it's quite close to Belgium. It also happens to be about 2 hours away from Paris driving, which would be much faster on the TGV, I hope? It's also quite close to a big city called Reims, which, apparently, has a nice music festival. Needless to say, I'm excited to a point of near-combustion. 

That night, when I got back to the Internet-less apartment, I watched fireworks from my window, as the Spanish celebrated summer solstice. It felt though, at that moment, like the next year of my life was finally opening up, like I was finally gaining insight into the voyage that I would soon undertake. The Spanish were simply sending me off with those fireworks, painting the sky with warm colors that concretely contrasted with the deep, foreboding darkness of the night, wishing me good luck. 

I'm ready.  

Friday, June 15, 2012

Updates and Such

Soooo.... it has been about four weeks since I've updated this blog. And oh, so much has happened. Well, not that much. But something all the same.

If you please think back to two weeks ago, on a Saturday. It was a nice Saturday in my part of the Bay Area: the inklings of summer already starting to ebb through the warm haze of late Spring. San Francisco, on the other hand, had other plans for the weather. The wind whipped viciously, and the fog was thick and all-encompassing. Yet even this typical San Francisco weather couldn't deter the sheer excitement that was bubbling in my stomach. Yes, ladies and gentlemen (or whoever reads my blog), last Saturday was my pre-departure orientation. Woohoo!

The orientation was everything that I expected. We played some games, talked about some stuff, met some people. We didn't really talk about anything that I hadn't heard before (except for a really detailed tutorial on how to use a bidet), but it just rocked to be there, to feel like I was actually getting closer to the colossal question mark that is my year in France. I met so many ridiculously awesome people - the entire experience made me so grateful and happy to be part of such a great program.

One particular exorcise that I found most jarring was one to simulate the frustration that we'll encounter while struggling with a different language. We were given pen and paper, and then told to write our names with our non-dominant hand (my right, if anyone was wondering). Then, a bit faster, we were told to write the word psychiatrist. Without any time to write this, we were instructed to write the sentence "I am writing this sentence with my non-dominant hand" and then promptly draw a tree. As one might expect, our papers were full of incomprehensible scribbles. Though I knew that communicating through a near-tangible language barrier will be frustrating and difficult, this exorcise gave me a taste of just how trying it will be. But that's all good, it's all part of the experience, right?

A week later, school ended! This was a bittersweet experience. I don't feel sad about leaving my school - I mean, as long as my high school doesn't spontaneously decide to relocate or completely reconstruct itself, I don't think it will change while I'm gone. But it was strange seeing my brother and one of my very best friends (who's going to Thailand for a gap year, click here for her blog) graduate. I love both of them to death, and it's strange thinking that, when I get back, life with them won't be the same as it is now. But hey, everybody's constantly moving and changing, gravitating towards independence and "the bigger picture" of life. More than I am sad to see them leave, I'm excited to see the truly fantastic things that they'll achieve at Tufts University, in my brothers case, or in Thailand, in Carly's case.

I'm pretty busy for the remainder of the summer. Tomorrow, I'm leaving for a family trip to Europe, which will be fun. We're going to stay in Spain, France (haha...), and England. Throughout all of this, however, I am forced to take online classes to make up for the credits that won't transfer for next year. Honestly, there is literally nothing in this world that I despise more than online classes. Algebra 2B and English 10A might literally be the death of me.

Will Niamh make it to France, or will online classes crush her in a fiery pit of cyber-education? Stay tuned to find out.