Early in my Sophomore year of high school, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to host a French exchange student from Lyon. Although she would only stay for three weeks, the idea of housing a stranger caused my parents a bit of angst. They eventually agreed, and a few months later, Marie arrived in our city. This exchange program experience turned out to be the highlight of the year for both of us. The following year, I decided to host again and had another positive experience with Clem.
That summer I flew to Lyon, France and split my stay between Marie’s house and Clem’s house. The exchange was one of the coolest experiences of my life. I would recommend a foreign exchange program for anyone who has the opportunity. This is also the high school version, which differs from university study abroad programs, or even post college.
As someone who travels frequently, here is why I believe an exchange program is an irreplaceable opportunity:
See Authentic Culture
There is a difference between traveling and vacationing. Vacationing is sitting at an over-priced restaurant, with a waiter who speaks perfect English, staring at the Eiffel Tour, with tourists as far as the eye can see. Vacationing is fantastic.
However, I wanted to travel. I wanted be around people whose English was just as bad as my French. I wanted to see the daily commuters. I wanted to experience the differences in food and education. I wanted to incorporate their fashion trends into my wardrobe. I wanted to look the part by buying a jean jacket and adopting a middle part.
Priced Just Right
The monetary expenses will vary based on the length of the exchange. The chaperones’ expenses are sometimes added to the students’ bills. Some exchange programs also require payment to the family hosting, so these are things to consider when evaluating the cost.
My exchange group spent three days in Paris before taking a train to Lyon, France. Aside from the plane and train ticket, my solo expenses were metro tickets, the hotel room, and food in Paris. Once we arrived in Lyon, my family, as expected, provided me with food and bus tickets. The school in Lyon paid for our excursions to a chocolateria, cooking class, high ropes course, and multiple museums.
The trip was still not cheap; it is expensive to get to Europe from the States. However, given the amount of time I spent in Lyon, I saved an incredible amount of money.
Relationships (good and bad)
You won’t love every person you meet. There are unfriendly people in your hometown, and likewise, you will encounter unpleasant people wherever you go. You will meet rude servers at the ice cream shop, and uncomfortable family members and friends of your host who completely ignore you.
However, from every person you meet, kind-hearted or cold, you will learn and your life perspective will broaden. Marie had two younger siblings, neither of whom spoke more than a few words of English. However, I loved our interactions–me attempting to speak French, and them laughing and sharing things they felt I would find interesting. This was just one of the many relationships of value I developed during the the exchange.
No Planning Required
This can be a good thing and a bad thing. My leader wanted to take us to many museums, which really aren’t my thing. However, the positives outnumbered the negatives. First, chaperones takes care of arrangements so you don’t have to stress about filling your time with the right stuff.
Second, your host lives in the city, so they will know the coolest activities that aren’t advertised in a tourism book. They’ll know what to do, where to shop and what to eat. I had some amazing food in Lyon, the capital of gastronomy. Notably, Clem took me to an amazing ice cream shop where I enjoyed a European staple, stracciatella ice cream.
You will experience lifestyle differences, from which you can pick and choose what you would like to incorporate into your future. For example, although I can’t equate two families’ customs with the whole country, I found that families value sitting down together for (late) dinner more so in France than in the United States. They usually eat outside, and they take their time enjoying the food and each other’s company. This is a social norm that I would love to incorporate into my life.
On the flip side, some social norms are note-worthy, but worth leaving. One morning, I was eating breakfast by myself in the kitchen. Across from the kitchen was the parents bathroom. I got up from the table and turned around to see the glimpse of a naked body. I quickly turned away.
Another day, my host was studying for the Baccalauréat, so I went to swim in their pool to pass time. However, as soon as I went to the door, I see the mom swimming in the pool, topless. I rushed back upstairs. The French concept of indecency is a custom I would not like to incorporate into my lifestyle.
My family was a bit nervous about me traveling to Paris. My grandmother, God bless her, is the type of woman who assumes that because dangerous things have happened in Paris, Paris is dangerous. Not the case. However, when you are traveling somewhere with a high crime rate, especially if you don’t know the language well, numbers provide peace of mind.
When we were on the subway in Paris, a woman passed our group chanting, what sounded like to me, a religious chant. It didn’t even sound French to me, so when she brushed my shoulder as she passed, it made me jump a little. However, my chaperone, who spoke fluent French, informed our group she was just a pan handler singing about money, and we realized she wasn’t a threat.
If you don’t know the language of the country, it is safer to be with people who do. This is a benefit of staying with a family from the region.
While waiting by the bus stop in Lyon, a male beggar approached two women for money. When they refused, he started yelling. Another man stepped in to defend them, and the beggar assumed a fighters’ position and tried sheepishly to kick the defending man.
At this point, our chaperone suggested that we walk away. The beggar started to follow us, and we nervously giggled as we picked up the pace. I could laugh in that situation because I knew I had safety in our group of 11.
I could go on and on about other benefits and stories from my exchange. In my opinion, it really is the best way to travel with meaning and purpose. Whether you’re going for a week or a year, it will be an experience you’ll never forget.
Also published on Medium.