It’s a wonder what a year in the French Riviera can do to break down cultural stereotypes. Just ask Emily Shaw. The Fort St. John student returned home this summer from her Mediterranean student exchange in France, “an amazingly beautiful, complicated” place full of opportunity.
“I remember getting on the plane, leaving, and thinking, ‘What am I doing? This is crazy,’” Shaw recently told a meeting of the Fort St. John Rotary Club. A 24-hour plane ride later, Shaw arrived in Saint Raphel at eight in the morning, where curiosity and culture shock waited, along with her host family. Late summer and early fall in the French Riviera isn’t like it is in Fort St. John.
“Leaving Fort St. John, I was wearing my pants, my blazer; it was a little brisk, I remember that. Getting there, I was hit by a heat wave,” Shaw said.
She was also hit by changes in fashion, food, and social norms, and the kind of French language skills high school doesn’t really prepare one for, even after six years of study. When she arrived, Shaw was so overwhelmed with the language that she could only reply with, ‘Je ne pas comprends’.
“I did not understand, because high school French does not prepare you for the fact it’s very fast, and when they talk, they have an accent,” she said. “They have different abbreviations and slang terms, and they compress sentences so that they’re shorter and easier to say, but then it sounds like something totally different. I wasn’t prepared for all that.”
Wide-eyed and soaking in all she could, Shaw stuck to her basics and listened intently. It took her three to four months to gain the confidence and understand the nuances of speaking French in France.
School in France was crowded — 1,700 studnets — and very formal and traditional, Shaw said — no phones, no food, no drinks. Students had to stand behind their desks waiting for their teacher before they were allowed to sit down. And, following her peers from class to class, she noticed none of them ever skipped.
“French kids, they just don’t, it’s a very different mindset for them. School is very very important. And for high school they did an insane amount of homework,” she said. “Here in Canada, it’s important, but it doesn’t rule the lives of people.”
Throughout her trip, Shaw also learned the differences between cultural myth and reality. French people aren’t really rude, as many say, but they are strong-willed and very forward with you, Shaw said.
They do smoke a lot, but they don’t wear striped shirts that often; and yes, “you see people walking with baguettes in their bags in their arms, everywhere, all the time. That’s definitely true,” Shaw said with a laugh. Food is a culture of its own in France, and centred around family, she said.
“It’s normal for the whole family to eat at lunch, dinner, even breakfast,” Shaw said. “Not here, where we’re rushed and eat at different times.”
While overseas, Shaw got to visit eight other countries, take in the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, and lived through the kinds of life experiences that makes one more independent and world-ready: meeting new people and making new friends, volunteering with Rotary in the community, dealing with a bout of holiday homesickness, and sorting through things like banking overseas and even having her phone stolen.
“I learned how to have confidence in myself,” Shaw said.
“Really, going through all these amazing experiences and the hard ones at the same time, it completely opened my eyes to the word and what it has to offer. If you search, you will always find new opportunities and new things that will help you to grow and become the better version of yourself.”
The exchange was sponsored by the Rotary clubs in Fort St. John. The clubs are playing host this school year to Giuseppe Sirugo from Italy. Meanwhile, Fort St. John student Kobe Tulloch is currently on exchange in Italy. You can read about Kobe’s journey at kobetulloch.com.
Email Managing Editor Matt Preprost at firstname.lastname@example.org.