My summer in France: Exploring a new world of language and culture

Lucy Peck

Lucy Peck

Lucy Peck, Staff Writer

This summer, I lived with a host family in France for a month and took immersive French language and culture classes at Rennes 2 University. I left New York with a limited knowledge of French and many inhibitions; I returned a month later with newfound confidence and language skills.

The program, run by the Council on International Educational Exchange, assigned me my host family and I emailed them a short bio with a picture of me (and my dog); they responded back saying that they were excited to meet me. Still, I was nervous that they wouldn’t understand my French or I wouldn’t understand theirs. From the moment my plane departed JFK (my first unaccompanied international flight), I was in uncharted territory.

Emerging from the arrival gate drowsy and disheveled, I made eye contact with my host family. I saw a woman and man huddled together, holding a sign that read ‘PECK’. The woman wore a linen dress and clutched a woven bag; the man wore white jeans and a collared shirt with a sweater draped over his shoulders. I could tell they were French — they just seemed like it, at least based on what I gleaned from “Emily in Paris.” After our first sweet but awkward encounter, it was immediately clear that I knew no idiomatic phrases or native jargon. Still, the exchange left me relieved to know that my host parents were kind and patient. 

We quickly piled into a tiny car with my giant duffel bag and drove to their cozy home in the Rennes suburbs, the capital of Brittany. I was startled by the lack of traffic that I was accustomed to in New York. I had an unobstructed view of the beautiful blue sky from every location. I wasn’t in Manhattan anymore — this would be a summer free of skyscrapers. Their house was nestled among trees. Upon entering, I stood in a kitchen flooded with light from the backyard. The appliances were tidy and small. A giant white dog bounded up to give me kisses, leaving my leggings covered in snow-hued fur. My host parents escorted me to my bedroom, small with a twin sized bed and a desk, and informed me that I had 10 minutes to unpack before our errand.

At the local farmer’s market, dozens of vendors sold everything from strawberries to pickles to fresh lemonade. All of the produce looked smaller and more intensely colored than what I was used to in the U.S. I was surprised to see that children of all ages were welcome in the bar by the farmers market to enjoy sodas and snacks. My host parents ran into some friends and sat down to catch up with them. I thought it was a great opportunity to learn idiomatic phrases, so I joined them. However, the jet lag caught up with me — the second I leaned my head back, I promptly fell asleep.

Dinner with my host family was at 8 p.m. I was starving during that first week by 5 p.m, but snacking was frowned upon in French culture. It was always worth the wait, though — I adored the gooey cheese and endless baskets of crusty baguettes that came with every meal.

I didn’t speak much those first few dinners, but I listened and began to add in comments as I gained confidence. After two weeks, I mustered the courage to join my host parents on the patio after dinner. Their post-dinner ritual was to gather on chairs outside to discuss the day, drink espresso, and smoke cigarettes. I had since gained a level of comfort in their presence so I wasn’t worried about intruding, but my limited knowledge of French culture made it difficult to converse. Did we have anything in common?

Panicked and frazzled, I started talking about The Kardashians — they must have seen them in the news. I was met with blank stares. “You’ve never heard of the Kardashians?” I asked in French. They shook their heads no. I looked up a picture of Kim Kardashian to show them. “Ahhhh, les Kar-dash-ay-uns,” they responded in their thick accents. “Oui!” I spent the next ten minutes explaining the finer points of the Kardashians’ love lives.’Talking to my host family wasn’t as intimidating as I thought it would be; they were understanding and did not interrupt me as I formulated sentences in my head and WordReferenced translations of ‘love triangle’ and ‘divorce.’

From then on, I spent as much time as possible with my host family, accompanying them to picnics and “Top Gun: Maverick.” I loved hearing their impressions and stereotypes of Americans, like how we eat McDonalds every day and drive huge cars. I also learned to adopt their environmentally friendly behaviors, like to take shorter showers and turn off the lights every time I leave the room. I still practice these habits and have encouraged my family to do so as well.

I noticed little to no changes in my language improvement for the first two weeks. Then, all of a sudden, I realized I could speak for long periods without pausing. As my bank of vocabulary expanded, I could talk with my host family about sensitive topics like Roe v. Wade and healthcare. (My host parents were shocked by the overturning of Roe and the exorbitant costs of the American healthcare system.) I conversed with French teenagers and finally learned idioms like ‘mort de rire’ — the French equivalent of ‘LOL.’ 

I gained a tremendous amount of independence during my month abroad. I learned the local subway and bus system as I commuted to my classes. After many wrong turns, I was finally able to navigate pharmacies, clothing stores, and cafes in town (iced coffee and Diet Coke, as it turns out, were harder to find in Brittany than I would have liked). 

I came to learn that the things you worry about are never the things that actually go wrong. Prior to leaving, I was concerned that I had packed all the wrong items and would never learn to do laundry on a new machine. It turned out, I had brought way too many clothes and on my first day, I was unable to leave the house (and missed my bus) because I did not know that some locks in Europe work differently — you need to push the handle up before turning the key. 

When I am scared to take a challenging class or approach a teacher to ask a question, I will remember the times when I dared myself to be bold in France. When I pushed past my inhibitions with my host family and in classes, I formed stronger connections with others, spoke with more French people, and made new American friends.

The second I returned to New York, I informed my family that I wanted to move to France. We’re still in negotiations.