American Teenager in France

Written by Tami Sulistyo

canoe-minnehaha-creek-1

Summer of Anne

I don’t know why exactly, but I became obsessed with the idea of studying the gorgeously musical French language. In 6th grade my opportunity arrived. I registered for the one class I had access to, at a school a few miles down the road from my own middle school. I was granted permission to take the public city bus to get there. Every day the same bus driver greeted me at my stop, and as I climbed aboard would ask me to say something I had learned in French class. He once was snacking on what he claimed were chocolate covered ants, and offered me some. He said they were delicious. I declined. I still don’t know if they were chocolate covered raisins and he was teasing me, or if they truly were what he claimed they were. Drives me nuts not knowing.

In 9th grade my mom’s college roommate’s French professor asked for recommendations of an American family his daughter could stay with for the summer to practice her English and experience life in the USA. We volunteered. I was so excited. I could practice my French with her I hoped.  I had always wanted a sister. I wanted to take Anne everywhere and show her everything, all at once. She was content to take it slow and easy. I give her credit for trying to put on a happy face on some of the excursions I dragged her on. I remember wanting to hike all day along Minnehaha Creek, just to see how far we could walk. It was muddy and tiring Anne put up with my enthusiasm.

I remember one time we were standing outside in our front yard. It was a sunny warm day. Right as my dad walked up she had stubbed her toe or something like that and yelled out “Merde!” in French. My dad started chuckling and her face turned bright red as she had thought he would not understand. We tried to make her feel better and we certainly were not offended. I have to say, on the flip side, having been able to study a handful of languages and having been fortunate enough to travel internationally some, it is awfully fun when people are speaking about you in a language they think you don’t understand, and you suddenly say something to them in their language. The shock factor is a blast to behold. So satisfying.

bitterrootflickruserfsnrAnne did put her foot down once, turning down the chance to go on a two-week hike in the mountains of Montana and Idaho with me and the local YMCA group. Just not her thing. Thank you, mom, dad and Alex for hosting Anne while I was away. My brother and I were both quite proud of having Anne staying with us all the way from France. I understand Anne and my brother watched a lot of movies while enjoying ice cream while I was away. At the age of 8, he was impressed to learn that in France they also had both race cars and hens.

My two trip guides had looked at the weather forecast and declared we did not have to bring too many warm clothes as it was mid-July and we would more likely be hot than cold. Suffice it to say, it snowed up in the Bitterroot mountains. A lot, lot, lot of snow. Our group of 12 hunkered down in tents in the same spot for several days during that summer snow storm, trying to stay remotely warm despite wet sleeping bags. Card game after card game kept us sufficiently distracted to not overly worry, but anxiety still gnawed at us. Then we got lost because the trail markers were covered up. And cell phones were not a thing. We each had to take a day to lead the group forward. May I just say that I was as directionally challenged back then as I am now. When we finally got down from the mountain several days late, warm pizza and hot chocolate were just about the best things ever. Listening to a Bob Marley CD over and over as we rolled through the endless open landscape of North Dakota wasn’t as bothersome somehow on our trip back as it had been on the way there, and I was glad to see Anne and my family again.

At the end of the summer Anne’s family came personally to pick her up. They offered for me to come visit them in Poitiers, France sometime in the future. I instantly blurted out, without thought, “How about now?” They looked stunned, but agreed. Ok! My parents also said it was fine, so I packed my bags and off we went. I am proud to have parents who would support such a move, as nothing had been planned or approved or arranged, and fall semester of 10th grade was about to commence. My home high school said to go ahead if I like, but they would not guarantee granting me credit for the courses I would take in Anne’s high school in France. I was up for the risk.

Autumn of Poitiers

Anne and her parents lived alone in a small farming village outside of Poitiers, France, in a lovely house on a quiet road with fields all around us. It was enchanting. I could not be more excited. I was given my own room, a welcome refuge for when I needed to process all that was new, both the exciting and the challenging parts. I was 14. I soon started to understood a bit more of the culture shock that Anne had likely been going through over the summer. A lifetime experience, full of adventure and growth that was simultaneously easy and difficult. Anne was an only child. She was delighted to have me there as a companion, like I had been when she was on my turf. Now with the tables turned, when she was in charge, doing almost everything together, as wonderful as it was, it was also hard for me some of the time because I had been brought up to be fiercely independent. I’m sorry Anne, for not understanding you were likely going through the same thing when you stayed with us.

luxury-pyrographic-hard-cover-creative-magnet-button-diary-book-note-book-notepad-4-colors-sent-randomlyThis was also my first time away from home for more than a few weeks, and I became incredibly homesick but was far too proud to call it a day and go home. Now I understand why people send their kids on actual formal programs to study abroad, so there is a support person on staff nearby to check in with who can help you understand what you are going through and can help you learn skills to adapt to the new culture and to being away from home. I didn’t have that and had no idea how to appropriately comprehend or deal with my struggles, so I wrote them all out in my diary that I hid under my mattress, exaggerating as I wrote, which helped me process the normal everyday ups and downs that I didn’t talk about out loud.

downloadI was in awe simply being where I was, having made my dream of one day getting to France become a reality far sooner than I had anticipated would be possible, loving getting to explore the local culture and speaking in my broken French all day long every day. Each day Anne and I would board the train to go into town to her beautiful high school. The best thing about the day was when we were given a piece of French bread and a bar of French chocolate to go with it as a snack. In many of the classes I had no idea what was going on a good portion of the time, because my French was just not up to par. I learned rapidly though, and either outright passed all my classes, or the teachers felt sorry for me and passed me anyway. Not sure. In the end, my school back home did grant credit for the semester in France, but not without a fight. One day in France we were in social studies class, watching a video we were told represented typical daily life in America. The camera zoomed in on a family with four neatly dressed kids and a father sitting at an oval dining table while their smiling mother served hot dish. By the clothing they wore, to me it looked like the video was made when my parents were growing up. The hot dish, a Minnesota phenomenon, should have been my clue. But I was utterly stunned when a guest walked into that family dinner in the video, and I gazed at the screen into the eyes of the pastor of my church, whom I adored, Pastor Youngdahl. I shot up out of my desk chair and exclaimed, “That’s my pastor!!!!” I was so excited to see him that I started crying. It was a joyous moment that helped me get through my homesickness and filled me up with strength and courage.

approaching-old-poitiers-from-the-north-2005One day I was out picking bright red juicy strawberries in the impeccable garden behind Anne’s house when the neighbor called over her fence, asking me to come see their bunnies. Showing me their various rabbits, the neighbor asked which one I fancied. I pointed out the one I liked best. Later that day they invited us over for dinner. Guess what was on the menu? My favorite rabbit. I felt so bad. I had no idea. I was too polite to say no, though I was slightly horrified. Tasted like chicken, as the saying goes. It was a nice gesture of them to have us over for that special meal. This was a traditional multi course multi hour affair. At one point the host asked if I would like another serving of food. I proudly used my French and declined by stating, “No merci, je suis pleine” which translated literally would mean “No thank you I am full” but in French apparently turned into something akin to “No thank you I am pregnant” or something to the effect of being a pregnant cow. Thankfully I have a decent sense of humor and don’t mind being laughed at. I blushed, learned my lesson, and kept on using my French. I am convinced that a key to rapid learning of a second language is actively practicing no matter how embarrassing you feel your knowledge and skill level is.

I found soon enough that many French people wanted to talk politics with me, in animated conversations where I very clearly felt they were seeing me not for who I was, a person with my own political views, but rather as a representative of my government back home, regardless of the way I happened to feel about it. This was an odd sensation. It was as if I wasn’t really there. They were talking at me and seeing through me. Yet I know that no one meant me any ill will. I am a proud American through and through, but that has never meant to me that I am a reflection of my current President.  I am me, I am American, with my own identity, and I am a separate entity from the political actions of my President. This repeated experience and the isolated feeling it gave me deepened my intent to see each person as their own unique and wonderful self, influenced by culture, but not the same thing as the culture they come from.

images-2I loved to jog. Back home I was on the cross-country and track teams. I would keep running because I always wanted to see what was waiting for me around the next corner, and the next. In the outskirts of Poitiers I would often go jogging by myself down the country lanes surrounding the house in that farming village. I loved eyeing the colorful crops and seeing what the local people and animals were up to while I felt the sun, clouds, wind or rain beam down onto my shoulders as I ran along. One time as I passed a farmhouse, the farmer stopped what he was doing on his porch to gawk at me. As he did so, his wife saw what he was doing and leaned out of her window and whacked him on the head with her broom. I laughed merrily and ran along. But then I stopped in my tracks. I had been trying to do as they do in Rome, while in Rome, as they say. In this case, at that time, it meant I had not shaved my legs in weeks. It was my experiment. As I was jogging, I suddenly felt the hair on my legs waving in the wind, back and forth, back and forth as I moved along. I was thoroughly appalled. I could not take it one more second, and so I walked very slowly all the way back home, trying desperately to not feel my leg hair move in the breeze. That walk took forever. I went straight into the shower and shaved. Suffice it to say I have never since grown out my leg hair.

One time Anne and her parents took me with them on a short vacation by car to a beach in Spain, Puerto de la Selva.  I was swimming in the ocean when a handsome boy came cruising by sailing along so fast and smoothly on his wind surfing board that I was enamored. Transfixed, I had never tried one of these boards but I really wanted to. Eventually he came over to me and asked if I wanted to try. I thought I said an enthusiastic sentence in French that included a “yes please!” but I must have gotten it wrong and said something completely inappropriate because he looked at me in utter disdain and took off as fast as he could, never looking back, never coming back. I still have no idea what happened. I was so bummed!

lorenzo-street-magician-screen-shot-2014-08-06-at-11-35-50After I had been in France for about three months, my mother came to visit me. I was so glad, as I had been incredibly homesick. We traveled by train to Paris to see the sights just the two of us. Walking along, we came upon a circle of people and stopped to see what was going on. There was a street performer asking for a volunteer. He pointed right at me as mom and I approached, and the crowd cheered. I had no idea what I was signing myself up for, but I gave in and he motioned me into the center of the circle. As the crowd watched, he told me simply to stand with my legs firmly apart and under no circumstance was I to look down. “Got it!” I said, and nodded my understanding. The next thing I knew, there was something like hot wind down low between the base of my legs. I was so stunned I looked down right away, as a reflex, instantly forgetting this street performer’s warning. He was blowing fire from his mouth through my legs. It was over in a second, and did not hurt. But when I looked back up, every single person in the crowd, including my mother, was staring mouths agape at me in silence. I had absolutely no idea why, but clearly something was wrong. I felt then like a caged animal in a zoo or in a circus ring. It was terrifying. I broke away, pushing through the crowd, and sprinted as fast as my legs would carry me down the street and into the first restaurant I came to. I rushed into the restroom and glanced at myself in the mirror to see whatever it was the crowd had seen. I had no eyelashes – they had burned right off, and my eyebrows were singed. I was in no pain whatsoever but my appearance was not ideal. That time I did not find the humor. I was mad, and embarrassed. I recovered quickly enough, but have never forgotten that distinct feeling of being stared at while being surrounded.

Before I knew it, the semester had ended and it was time to say goodbye. I packed my suitcase and off I went by train through France to London, where it was snowing like the dickens. I caught the last train to Manchester before all public transport was shut down due to the intense and deep snowfall. Family friends, who had been on that bus tour around the world we had gone on a decade earlier, were my hosts. They lived in a rural area in a charming log cabin warmed solely by their quaint wood-burning furnace on the main floor. My quaint bedroom for the few days I was with them was on the upper floor, and the heat did not quite reach there. I have never been so cold in all my life, and lay shivering all night long. My reward in the morning was a big delicious and hearty warm breakfast followed by a long hike along a bluff under brilliant sunshine and blue sky, surrounded on all sides by pristine glimmering white pure untouched snow as far as the eye could see.

Back home for Christmas, I was ever so glad to be there, yet found it very difficult to transition back into life with my friends. They were interested in boys and rock stars and skiing and gossip and fashion. Not that I wasn’t, but their lives had gone on for so many months without me that they were accustomed to not inviting me to join them. For a while they kept forgetting I was home and I got left out. I wanted to talk about and share my adventures, but that novelty wore off for them after awhile. I felt out of place, and like there was a divide between us. I felt like I had changed and they had not. I just did not know how to relate to many of my friends, and I didn’t have the tools or understanding to get through what I now know is called reverse culture shock. It was so hard for me to readjust that I actually changed high schools, thinking that might be the solution, but the challenges were within me, not around me. I had to change inside me, to find my place again, not back to who I was before my semester in France, but to where I was comfortable in my new skin, having grown and changed a bit over the last half year.  Eventually I settled in to me again, but it took about 9 months. I was running with the cross-country team that next Fall, on a warm, sunny afternoon, with fully shaved legs I might add, when I realized I was me again.

Recently, I became determined to try to find Anne, as we had lost touch for so many many years. From searching her name on the internet I realized  she just might be a teacher in the same general area in France. I messaged the fabulous young woman from Paris, Pauline, who stayed with my own children for many summers starting when she was 16, and asked her to please call the school in France and inquire about Anne. The next day, on International Woman’s Day, Anne sent me a Facebook invite and we have been chatting ever since.I apologized to her for the fact that I must have been both a challenging host and challenging guest. She was gracious and kind, and I am incredibly thankful to be rekindling our friendship now. I hope to meet up in person again some day, and perhaps our own children might visit each other at some point.

Reflection:

  • Have you ever felt like a caged animal, trapped and as if the world were staring at you under a microscope? How did you “get out”? Have you ever contributed to making someone else feel that way?
  • Have you ever been too proud and stubborn to give up on something even though it made life much harder to stick it out, and may have been much smarter to at least talk about it with someone who could have helped in some way?
  • When is a time you were able to laugh at yourself in a healthy way, that has been able to help you in a positive manner somehow?

Please share your answers if you are interested in doing so by leaving a reply at the bottom of this page or at storylighthouse@gmail.com

Copyright@2017StoryLighthouse

 

Tami Sulistyo’s LinkedIn profile:

https://www.linkedin.com/in/tamisulistyo/

 

Note: Pictures for this story are taken from Google Images.

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