Sunday, August 31, 2008

Julie's Pool Side Adventure- French Version

Exactly 4 days after I arrived in both France and Japan my host family took the local pool for some summertime enjoyment. It is on occasions like these that I am given a full blast of the host culture, nothing is held back in a big wet pool. It is also in times such as these that I realize just how different the world is. And I figure if you can learn that from a trip to a pool, imagine the possibilities.
Anyway after a large lunch of leftover Indian food, my mischievous host sister Coline peered over the table at her father and brought up the idea of going to the pool. Well, not just any pool. The pool with the great big slides and wave pools and many such activities. And of course, when I lied and said I liked swimming in pools (which I do not like one bit) the plan was set. We got dressed and headed off for the pool complex on the edge of Dijon. The ride was not quite as scenic as the other journeys throughout this local area, in fact I was quite grossed out.

After we arrived, unloaded; and entered the pool complex, I knew right away that I was in for a mind-baffling experience.

Before I go into it I should probably explain a little bit about my avoidance of chlorinated swimming pools. I have grown up in a town with a wonderful community pool, in which I attended for the majority of my childhood summer vacations. I used to swim for HOURS before I would exit the water, my hands pruned to the point where I could just flick my skin off painlessly. By then I could never understand why my Mom and the other adults would jump in the water and then quickly get out. But as of recent, I refuse to into public swimming pools unless I have no choice. I babysit quite often and summertime illnesses can always be attributed to the pool. And no matter what they say about the safety of chlorine, with how many kids pee in the pool, are we not just swimming in pee? And so with the French pool that I was going to be swimming has less to do with the fact that it is French and more with my disgust for pools in general.

The first and probably most prominent thing I noticed in the pool was the bathing suits. The women wore tiny bikinis, which were quite appropriate considering mostly everyone is skinny. However, do not be fooled because there are a few fat French woman, and they wear tiny bikinis as well. But then there were the men- oh god the men! I could not help but let go of a little chuckle when I say my host father, Jean-Francois is an extremely tight set of shorts that squeezed his legs uncomfortably. Yet he was dressed quite conservatively by standards of the other men at the pool. In fact, all the other men wore those ridiculous ball-crusher suits. Okay, fine, I'll call them by their proper polite name of Speedos. I could not believe that I was surrounded by hundreds of Frenchmen in Ball-crushers... eh... Speedos. On top of that I was wearing a bikini top and short nylon shorts. I have never felt comfortable in a plain bikini bottom.

Well, in America and Japan, at least.

Now as everyone- men, women, children -- stared at the stupid girl in shorts that were more conservative than even most of the mens ball crushers, I felt utterly embarrassed. It was truly horrifying. But it had happened before, just over 2 years ago in Kochi, Japan. That time the locals were staring at me for the opposite reason, wondering, "look at that big weird foreigner dressed in a tiny bikini! She should not be wearing that bathing suit here in Japan!"

Coline and I ventured through the big disgusting pool searching for the entrance to the waterslides. There were so many people in the water and no lifeguards. Everywhere I turned I bumped into someone and then quickly apologized. This was not the case for the other way around. I was kicked, punched, and swum into and never received so much as an excuse me.

While Coline and I waited on line for the slides, I was appalled at the dozens of children who cut us in line for a quicker turn at the slide. Coline was too small and quiet to say anything, and I was too not French to even try. That was until I broke out my secret weapon, "Hey kid! Do not cut in line; That is very rude." The victim child peered up at me, and said, "Je ne parle anglais (I do not speak English)" To which I said, "Okay I don't care! DO NOT CUT!" He and the other little kids decided not to try and cut the big scary English speaker again. On another occasion on the line, a group of teenage boys asked me in French why I was wearing boy swim trunks in the water. I directed the question to Coline, who told them, 'she is American!' They seemed to understand right away. Though I was not sure that I quite understood it.

There were two water slides at the park, a blue and yellow one. Coline liked the yellow best because it had a 90 degree drop and gave you whip lash, while her father enjoyed the slow and steady blue slide. I think I preferred neither, however. I was too big for the yellow one, because when I exited the tunnel, I was always on my head with my feet in the air. Every time I popped my head above the water after coming down, Coline was roaring in laughter, and Jean-Francois described me as a hurricane exiting the tunnel. While the blue one was far too slow and old for my taste.

The rest of the time at the pool was spent fending off ball-crushers, defending my shorts, keeping Coline afloat, and enriching myself in an entire different culture via the pool.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Un Petit Peu

Welcome to France, Jersey Girls!
Have you ever had or heard of one of those out-of-body experience, whereby you look, at your life and think this is not me.

Or is it?
Could that really be me?

That girl who can speak Japanese from having had a phenomenal one year stay in Kochi, Japan. The same one trekking out yet again into the world, this time to France. And finding herself living in the most incredible place words can describe. Driving down a road, originally built before cars, passing beautiful rustic thatched cottages, alongside miles of vineyards ripening as I speak. Then to be placed in a host family with a heart of a gold. This can not be me. I am not allowed to be this lucky since I have obviously reached my quota with Japan.
Or have I?

This is me in the back seat on the way to my new family's
house in Fixin, France.
Having not slept an ounce on my overnight flight from Washington Dulles to Paris, France, I should have been trés fatigue. But with a dose of French espresso and a stomach wallowing in nerves, I was wide awake as we pulled up to the gates of the Robert family home. The home is located on Route des Grands Crus, which is one of the more famous routes in the world for wine lovers. The narrow road, barely large enough for two lanes hauls various tour buses through slumbering villages alongside great vineyards. The house is located right on the street, with gates opening to a small courtyard for parking the car.

Alex, my fellow Rotary Youth exchange student in Dijon, peered at the house with me in utter awe. I like to think I am well-traveled, having visited many beautiful places around the world, but in that moment I realized something quite important. Something I have never seen or felt, but have been missing. I have seen the natural splendor of Yosemite National Park, Arcadia, Lake Powell in America, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, jumped in to fun experiences of amusement parks, cruises, beach excursions, and indulged in the strange foreign culture and language of Japan. But I have missed something rather important in all of these grand adventures. Always I have been grasping for the next new and exciting adventure, somewhere very different, exotic, daring, new, and fresh. I have always sought answers to the questions of where I am going, but not who I am. For I have always discovered in those fresh daring trips who I am, but not where I come from. A wise history teacher once told me that before you can change the future, you must be able to understand the past. Standing there, in front of the Roberts beautiful home, I finally understood what he meant.

Am I really going to live here? Oh my.
Within seconds of the getting out of the car, the gate slowly swung open and two woman were
hustling down the steps from the front door. "Bonjour, Monsieur! Bonjour Julie!" the older woman called. I should not say older, as she did not look a day over 35 years old. I recognized her to be Leonie Robert, my new host mom. The other woman was much younger and she quickly introduced herself as Charlotte, my 18 year-old host sister who would be heading to India for the coming year. They both did the obligatory French greeting, a kiss peck on each cheek, which I was too excited to really notice. Leonie and the Frenchmen spoke for a moment as I said goodbye and good luck to Alex, who was now being dropped off at her host family in the city of Dijon. I liked Alex a lot, though she had a much bigger personality than I was prepared for this early in the morning on such a nerve-wrecking day.

I think I have actually died and gone to heaven in France.
As they drove away, Leonie broke out in perfect fluent English, picking up my bag and directing me through her incredible home. We first went up the stairs to the second floor, directly to my new room. Their instant kindness melted away my nerves and I was suddenly so excited I could barely stand up.

My new room made it even worse.

I was given Charlottes room, an ENORMOUS white open space, whereby my queen-sized bed was actually on another floor, a loft. There was a huge closet underneath the loft, half filled with Charlottes things and half-empty for my belongings. On the other side of the room was a gigantic desk that wrapped around the room and held many French books, such as Harry Potter, the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and many more of the favorite stories. I almost cried when Leonie asked, "is it okay?"

Charlotte continued the tour around her home, showing me her sister and brother's perspective rooms,
Fixin first impressions.
followed by a tour of the living room, kitchen, and backyard. Each area was more splendid than the last. Until finally she released into my new room, where I began to unpack in search of clean clothes for a hot shower. There is nothing better than the feeling of a hot shower to wash away all the ickiness of airline travel and pure weariness. When I was all finished, I quickly retreated back to my room where I began the tedious task of unpacking. In my experience, unpacking all of your belonging on that first day in a new house; is one of the more unpleasant experiences of the year. Yet, I was not too upset unloading all of things into my new incredible loft room.

After a few moments passed, I heard the sound of approaching footsteps. An older Frenchman with a warm smile and a laugh that resembled Austin Powers introduced himself as Jean-Francois, my host father. He bombarded me with various questions in English and then announced it was lunchtime, gesturing me to follow him downstairs. I did and found myself in the backyard of their beautiful home. I never truly thought much about my year in France, but I remember my school French lessons about French family life. How families always eat together, and lunch is the most important meal of the day, and the French love being outside. That was almost perfect to the description of that afternoon, sitting at a wooden pick nick bench, I ate a delicious meal with the family. The rustic quant house in the background covered in Ivy leaves, a family dog bounding in and out of the hedges, warm French bread wafting delicious scents. It is hard to imagine this kind of specter still exists.

I learned quite a few intriguing things in that meal. Leonie is actually a German, married to a Jean-Francois, a Frenchmen. She had been an AFS exchange student to St. Paul Minnesota for one year, learning English, and becoming American enough. After college, she had gone to an English program in Britain, where she met her husband, Jean-Francois. They have three children, Charlotte, 18 years old, and future Rotary student to India, Antoine, 14, and 'the devil' Coline, at 10 years. There house is full of animals, Timou, the big silly golden retriever, Monsieur Chat 'Mr.Cat,' who had already taken a variety of nips at my toes, and a guinea pig. When Charlotte applied to Rotary, the Roberts agreed to host a student. But since they were only one family the student would have to bus back and forth to Dijon, where the Rotary had a special school. But at the last minute, another Fixin boy applied to Rotary for Brazil. His family, the Bernards, own Clos Saint-Louis, a local vineyard and wine producer. And so, there were two host families in Fixin, which meant that the student could go to the local school instead. One student became two students, Julie Garner from New Jersey and Andrew Ludwig from Wisconsin. Essentially Rotary has little do to with the coordination of my life here. The Roberts and the Bernards arranged everything, including the fact that mid-year Andrew and I will just switch families, and I will only have two families this year.

You can't possibly be serious about the fact that I get to
live here. For a year. Can you?

After lunch, I helped the Robert's get ready for tonight's party. Charlotte was leaving for India the next morning and they were having a farewell dinner for her. Then Charlotte took me to meet Andrew and on a brief tour of Fixin. Andrew, I soon learned, was as close to fluent in French as someone who had studied French in an American high school, could be. Already I can feel that our experiences are being compared, which I need to work hard and change. But he is the nicest guy I could hope to spend this year with. We toured the vineyards around his home and then trekked through the aging streets of Fixin toward our new school. (I'll save that for another time...)
When we returned to the house, I rushed upstairs for some much needed sleep. And as soon as I awoke, it was time for the party. I put on what I thought would be a nice outfit, but quickly learned that I was going to need a new wardrobe. The party was at best, okay. There were a lot of strange people that knew of me, but did not want anything to do with me when I was not fluent in Francais. The men and woman all did the obligatory introductory kiss, which I will never ever get used to. Give me a break I spent a year in a country where kissing is nearly a crime with personal space boundaries.
Fixin vines. I

Charlotte's friends were very cool, by French standards, all killing off a pack of cigarettes and baffling that Andrew and I refused the sticks. The most entertaining bit of the evening was when Monsieur Bernard insisted on getting a picture of Andrew and I with our first glasses of champagne... ever. I also won a bottle of Fixin White wine for helping someone with an English itinerary. I'm not exactly sure what to do with it.

Sleep came very easily that night, as soon as I calmed myself down over the lack of French and worry over making friends. What can I say I am a worrier no matter where I go?