On the 10-hour nonstop flight from Seattle to Paris, it finally hit me — I’m on my way to France. No turning back now!
When I landed at Charles De Gaulle Airport, I found other exchange students and we went to baggage claim together. In France, all foreign exchange students arrive on the same day, so they can meet each other before going to their separate cities. Students from India were waiting for their bags, and as soon as they saw my Rotary blazer, they gave me pins and business cards and told me all about their flight and how they already missed spicy food. We struggled to put our bags on luggage carts together, then headed for the exit where host families and Rotarians were waiting.
For me, the transition into France was shocking — you get on a plane in a familiar airport, where everything is in English — and hours later you’re a foreigner, greeted with kisses instead of hugs, and of course there’s a different language.
I arrived at 8 a.m., but some students would arrive later, so we walked to a hotel to wait. Not as simple as it sounds. We couldn’t take luggage carts outside of the airport and we had heavy bags to carry, full of everything we needed for the year. Everyone else had wheels on their luggage, but not me. I had opted for the rugged Alaskan duffel bag. Like a sourdough on the Trail of ‘98, I lugged my 49-pound bag on my back. When I got to the hotel, sweaty and tired, I didn’t make the best first impression in my disheveled Rotary jacket, although it was a good joke with the other people who tried to move my bag and needed help.
After a three hour bus ride from Paris to Angers in western France, I finally met my host family: Gouys-Isabelle, Florent, Leo-Paul, Lou-Anne and Fidjie (the cat). We drove to my home for the year in Cholet.
My first dinner was amazing: garden-fresh tomatoes, chips and pâté, then salad. Cheese and bread came after that, and for dessert, homemade tiramisu. It was another shock to eat so much bread — baguettes galore — but I loved it. We talked a lot and I went to my room right after, exhausted from all the traveling, and fell asleep for 14 hours. The first couple days were really relaxed, and I just unpacked, and tried to get adjusted to the time change. My host family was very understanding of me sleeping past noon the first couple days.
It’s fun and interesting to do normal errands with them that I don’t like to do in Juneau. For example, going to the store to buy school supplies. The grocery store was huge, and had things that were out of the ordinary for me, like skate wings and tiny green plums. That night, we went to a Rotarian’s house for a meet and greet. I introduced myself and they said my French was already pretty good, so kudos to Madame Duverger, JDHS’ French teacher extraordinaire.
The first weekend, my host family took me to an outdoor music festival called City Trucks in Pommeraye. There were two big stages set up in farm fields. I had done my research, and listened to some of the music of the French performers, especially BigFlo et Oli.
City Trucks was Friday, Saturday and Sunday with different artists each day, starting with the smaller acts and ending with the most popular. We saw “Arcadian” and stood more in the back of the crowd, conserving energy for later. When the sun went down, we listened to “Rag and Bone Man.” The bass and the speakers were so loud, the audience felt vibrations. We were given orange plastic cups at the entrance, and on one of the slower songs, everyone put their phone flashlights into their cups and swayed to the beat.
BigFlo et Oli were next. They were who most of the 50,000 people wanted to see. We moved as close to the stage as possible while they got ready. We were all tired of standing and jumping but the wait was worth it. I had listened to some of BigFlo et Oli’s music before, but it was amazing to hear them live with 50,000 fans singing along … in French! At the encore, they threw giant beach balls and blow-up swans into the crowd and showered everyone in streamers. It was an amazing experience, and I would love to go again next summer. It’s growing every year, and now I understand “festival culture” better, and why so many people attend Coachella.
While I was there, I couldn’t help but think about the Folk Fest in Juneau, and how it is much smaller but brings people together to listen to music. I couldn’t understand exactly what they were singing in French, but music is universal and everyone there enjoyed it, no matter the language.
• Bridget McTague is a Juneau-Douglas High School student who is spending her junior year abroad in Cholet, France, as part of the Rotary Youth Exchange. Follow along with her travel adventures by reading her bimonthly column “Bridget Abroad” in the Juneau Empire.