Monday, 29 February 2016

Au Revoir Lille

PROGRAM: Language Immersion
WRITTEN BY: Mirella Carr

Before beginning the blog, I’d like to take a moment to remember the 130 lives lost in the Paris attacks on the 13th November 2015 in an act of terrorism that will not be forgotten and I, along with millions of other people, will stand in support of these devastated families and the French population.

Now only a few hours out of Sydney, on the last leg of this seven-week long journey, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the adventure my exchange in Lille had been. Not many can say that they’ve been to a foreign city, speaking a foreign language in a new family and school for seven weeks, but luckily enough, 23 others and I can.

We left the city of the Harbour Bridge on the 8th December 2016, sights set on the City of Love (and from there, our respective cities - Lille, Bordeaux and Rouen). Boots and coats in suitcase in head of the long winter ahead, passport in hand - we were ready to set out. The flight was long and boring, as expected, but went without problem. Finally at the famous Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, we were all so excited and equally tired and possibly even a little nervous. The seven of us going to Lille then had a 2-hour bus ride after which we finally met our host families (or part of).

Éric (my exchange’s step dad) met me there and took me to their home…of course stopping at the ‘boulangerie’ on the way home to get me a ‘pain au chocolat’ (the start of what was, WAY too much ‘authentic French’ food). Being a Wednesday, Jeanne (my exchange), returned home at 1pm from school. We had lunch with her, Éric and her best friend – Zoë. For me, the hardest part was over. I was always nervous of first meetings, especially not knowing how much French was expected of me. But, these nerves were wasted, as the family was so nice and if I ever didn’t understand anything, it was never awkward but just funny for everyone involved. They would always help me and it’s important to make it clear you are here to speak French only from the very start, and my family helped me with that.

The next day it was off to school. I was placed St Thérèse D’Avila with one other Australian who wasn’t in my classes but I could always count on for a super quick English conversation during breaks. I was lucky to be in a house a total of 10 metres from the front door of school, directly in the centre of Lille city. Although, it didn’t make getting up for school much easier, when school started in the dark at 8am in the freezing cold, I don’t think I ever quite became used to that part.

The classes and teaching methods in French schools are so very different to Australia. Jeanne took English, extension English, French, Spanish, Latin (4 languages!), maths, PE, religion, geography/history, biology and physics/chemistry. The classes were the same length as my ones at school but they seemed to last for a lot longer because I understood very little. The classes were 30-35 people and there were 6 of these classes in each grade so about 200 people. The days were long, starting at 8am and finishing at 5:30pm, a long day when you’re used to finishing at 3:20pm. We had 2 15-minute breaks during the day and one 1.5-hour break for lunch. But we didn’t eat till 12 every day at lunch – no recess!

Despite all these changes, the food was one of the biggest. My family made it very clear from the first day that I should get prepared and used to a life of cheese consumption for the whole 7 weeks, which was exactly what I did. The biggest meal was at lunch; dinner was generally a small thing with a lot of baguette and cheese. Lots. Not to mention the snails I also had for dinner…not as bad as one would think.

After the initial week I was told that it would be an easy ride from there. However, for me it was a different experience. The holidays were the biggest challenge for me because this was when I discovered I had a lot of differences to my host sister especially because we spent every day all day together. As well as this, missing family and friends was a common trend amongst all the Australians in this Christmas period. But I was lucky enough to have some awesome experiences like driving over the Belgium/France border for extended family Christmas day and then the day after we drove in the other direction to a town in the Reims wine region. We stayed there for 3 nights and here the family took me to many sites such as the cathedral in Reims – a major tourist destination that I was lucky enough to be able to see.

Over the duration of the holidays and first few weeks of term, my family took me to both Bruges and Amsterdam. These were beautiful cities with amazing sights and we had some really fun times here. The weekend I spent in Amsterdam was one of the highlights of my trip especially because I became so close to both Jeanne and her older sister (Manon) over the duration of the trips.

We had New Year’s back in Lille and then we were back into the swing of school where I worked on my French and it was all cemented. The constant listening was enough to dramatically improve my skills and each day it was nerve racking but so rewarding to speak French each day and see it improving.

We had 3 meet ups with the Australians – Christmas markets (and time well spent on the huge Ferris wheel and gazing at the beautiful dessert creations France does too well), ice-skating and the full day battlefields tour. These were some really great experiences and it was always fun to meet up with the others and see how they were doing on their exchanges. We also had opportunities here to go see the more touristy side of Lille and do some sightseeing.

One of the most special days of the whole experience was the last day of school in, which I was asked to do a presentation in English about Australia for their English class. I played them songs such as Waltzing Matilda and Down Under and then their teacher asked them to sing the Australian National Anthem despite the fact they did not know the words or the tune. They then had a surprise ‘class party’ for me with a signed card from them all.

And then it was all over and before we knew it we were at the meeting point in Lille saying goodbye in the cold at 5:30am for the last time to all our beautiful host families. I promised my host sister I will see her again, and there is a high chance she will come back and stay with me during her long holidays, which we are both so excited about. And with that, 7 teary-eyed Australians set off on our journey back Down Under. We were so very excited to get home and see our friends and family but in the same way, we dreaded leaving the beautiful country. I am so thankful for having had the opportunity to go on this trip and know I will remember it for a lifetime and I have made a friend that I will have for a lifetime.

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