Hampshire Life: Exchange program leads to a once-in-a-lifetime trip to France

This article was originally published in the August 26, 2011 issue of the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

Staff Writer

The road wound up the small mountain, a one-lane, serpentine route that lurched around blind curves, with a steep hillside on one side and a precipitous drop on the other. Unable to see far ahead, and with virtually nowhere to pull over, I honked our car's horn as I crept toward each turn, scared there might be another vehicle around the bend.

I was in southeast France, driving a rental car with my wife and two children to a gîte rural, a vacation rental home. A year earlier, I would never have imagined being here, or anywhere in France, but things had changed since then.

During the winter, our family had hosted a French high school student, Fantin Bouclier, in our Northampton home as part of an exchange program: Fantin had attended 10th-grade classes for three months with my son, Sean, at the Hartsbrook School in Hadley. Then, from April through June, Sean had lived with Fantin's family and taken classes at his school, the Ecole Perceval in Chatou, outside of Paris.

In the spring, my wife, Joyce, had begun lobbying for a trip to France. Since Sean would already be there, she said, it would make sense for us and our daughter, Marissa, to join him when his classes ended. It would be a once-in-a-lifetime travel opportunity, her thinking went, and we'd also get to see Fantin again and meet his parents, Laurent and Françoise.

I wasn't so sure. For one, I suspected it would cost a small fortune, more than we'd ever spent on a vacation. In addition, I'd lived in France for a semester as a college student in the 1980s, and the experience had been decidedly mixed. I'd enjoyed traveling in France and other countries in Europe, but I'd felt intensely isolated and homesick at times; though I could read French pretty well, my conversational skills weren't very good. My studies in French had ended once I'd returned home.

Yet I'd continued to follow current events and read about French history and culture over the years, and I was curious to see what France looked like today.

That is how I came to find myself behind the wheel of our rental car in early July, climbing to our gîte outside the tiny hamlet of Pont de Lebeaume in the valley of the Ardèche River. And when we arrived sans accident at the 320-year-old stone cottage and met our friendly hosts, Véronique and Christian Bouloni, I said to myself, "I'm glad we're here."

The seeds OF our two-week trip to France were really planted after Fantin, 15, arrived at Logan airport in Boston last Dec. 30 and settled into life at our house. Although his English was limited, he was an amiable kid who seemed comfortable with us and with himself. Fantin and Sean discovered common interests like music and movies, and he found himself very much welcomed at Hartsbrook, a Waldorf school in which studying a foreign language and living abroad are important parts of the curriculum.

Fantin also got to know classmates through Friday-afternoon ski trips to Berkshire East and his participation in the school's annual musical. When he needed to decompress or communicate in French, he talked to another student from Ecole Perceval, Jean-Noel, who was also at Hartsbrook, or texted or emailed friends in France.

Though I had had reservations about hosting a student for three months, mostly because of the disruption in our routine, I came to like having Fantin in our home, and I began asking him more and more questions about his family and life in France.

With the help of our French-English dictionary, I also read two French comic books Fantin had given Sean as a gift, "Lucky Luke" and "Asterix." I felt rusty gears starting to turn in my head: Half-remembered verb tenses and expressions began coming back to me, and I started compiling a vocabulary list to study.

By the time Fantin returned to France on April 1—with Sean right behind him on a separate flight—we'd decided to take the plunge and go there ourselves. Joyce, who'd learned some conversational French while living in Brittany for a year in 1990, bought a few French grammar books to help us brush up on our language skills and began planning our itinerary.

Our enthusiasm took a hit, however, when, several weeks into Sean's stay in France, he called to say all was not well.

Just as Fantin had been initially overwhelmed at Hartsbrook, Sean felt lost at first at the Ecole Perceval, also a Waldorf school. But even as his language abilities slowly improved, he didn't find the school particularly welcoming—an issue that other Hartsbrook students at the school also reported.

The relationship between some of the Ecole Perceval teachers and the students, Sean said, seemed almost antagonistic. Also, the teachers by and large did not cut the foreign students any slack, as the Hartsbrook teachers had with Fantin. Students like Sean were expected to do all the work the French students did, despite their lack of language skills.

In addition, except for Fantin and a couple of his friends, the French students seemed largely aloof, Sean said, and not especially interested in getting to know him or the other foreign students. Whether this was a function of cliquish high school behavior, something specific to the Ecole Perceval or its 10th-grade class, or a reflection of larger cultural differences was hard to know.

Faculty and staff involved with study abroad programs at local colleges say it might well have been due to the differing cultures. Janie Vanpée, a professor of French studies at Smith College who has directed the school's Year in Paris program, says Americans sometimes assume France, as a modern Western nation, isn't that different from the United States, save for its language. "The cultural differences can actually be quite profound," she says, "and that's something it takes many students awhile to learn."

For instance, French high school classes go until 5 pm, and there are no after-school sports or activities. Socializing takes place outside school, Vanpée says. Also, the French educational system has a more hierarchical relationship between teachers and students.

Moreover, adds Mount Holyoke French professor Elissa Gelfand, the French are generally more reserved than Americans—less comfortable, at least at first, in opening up about themselves. But she says Mount Holyoke students who stay for a year in France not only make much more progress learning the language than students who go for just a semester, "they also have an easier time getting through some of those social barriers and making friends."

Vanpée notes that students studying abroad should expect ups and downs. "It's all about stepping out of your comfort zone. If you're living in a foreign culture and you're completely comfortable, there's probably something wrong."

Whatever the circumstances, we were encouraged to learn that Sean felt quite comfortable chez Bouclier. Laurent and Françoise were generous, gracious people who helped him with his French and took him along on family trips to Paris, Versailles, Normandy and other locations. We told Sean to hang in there and try to stay positive, and he said he would.

On our flight to France at the end of June, I wondered whether we might run into some more generalized anti-Americanism. In May, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a potential candidate for the French presidency and the head of the International Monetary Fund, had been arrested in New York and charged with sexually assaulting a hotel maid. U.S. press coverage of the story —pictures of Strauss-Kahn in handcuffs and tabloid headlines like "Le perv"—rankled the French. Such images are illegal in France until a person has been convicted of a crime (this week the Manhattan district attorney dropped the charges).

The issue was still all over the French media when we arrived. A copy of the news magazine L'Express devoted coverage to topics like "Ce que les Américains pensent des Français" ("What the Americans think of the French") and "Deux siècles d'amour vache" ("Two centuries of a troubled relationship").

I needn't have worried. The French, says Smith College French professor Hélène Visentin, separate their political views of America from their interactions with individual Americans. And much as they prize their own tongue, they recognize the importance of English in the global economy; Visentin says more French students today study English than in the past.

Signs of U.S. popular culture are also common in France. I saw one guy in Paris wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers jersey, while a sidewalk break dancer who asked the crowd—in English and French—for donations for his performance wore a New York Yankees hat.

Though we always initiated our conversations in French, in many places we found people willing and able to speak English. When we met the Boucliers, who hosted two dinners for us in their apartment in the town of Croissy sur Seine, the conversation was mostly in French but included some English as well.

The Boucliers gave us tips for getting around the Paris region, and we spent a few days checking out well-known attractions like the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and the Palace of Versailles. Then it was on to the Ardèche, a high point of the trip—a warm, dry region filled with beautiful medieval villages, hiking trails that sometimes followed paths laid out by the Romans, and fine swimming holes. It's popular among tourists: As we floated on canoes down the rather crowded Ardèche River, for instance, we heard a mini United Nations of languages around us, including French, Dutch, English, German and Italian.

But apparently few Americans visit the Ardèche, and we attracted a fair amount of interest. The owner of a bakery said she was pleased to meet us and confided that the many Dutch tourists in the area weren't popular "because they bring all their food with them for their trips and never buy anything in the local stores."

Our trip also led to a part of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, in southwest France near the Spanish border, that was studded with ruined medieval fortresses, and then to the Loire Valley, site of elaborate châteaux from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We were back in Paris in time to see the fireworks on Bastille Day, July 14, before it was time to head home.

In the end, despite his struggles at the Ecole Perceval, Sean felt positive about his experiences in France. And the trip, though expensive, didn't break the bank. Our travels have also left me wondering—is it too late for me to take another crack at trying to learn French? I wonder what's available at a place like Northampton's International Language Institute ...