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My Experience

Well, here it is. An account of my exchange in France in 1998. I will attach photos later.

I was moderately confident with the language before I left, having just finished the TEE (West Australian) French exam, but on arrival, I discovered that although I was able to make myself understood, I was totally unable to understand French spoken at the normal speed in normal contexts. However, my comprehension rapidly improved and allowed me to become an active member of conversations, something that I think is one of the most important steps in the exchange.

My first host family were to play a VERY important part in my exchange, hosting me a total of three times for extended periods. I probably ended up spending at least half of my exchange with them. In this first family, my host Father was an architect and a Rotarian, as well as one of those who were deeply involved in the declaration of Lyon as a UNESCO world heritage sight (one of only four cities to be classed as such: Prague, St Petersburg, Venice and Lyon). My host mother was a house wife who had taught herself English (very effectively) using her home computer. Fortunately, she restrained herself from practicing on me, at least at the start when it would have made learning the language much harder. I also had four host brothers, three of whom were present. Luc-20 (at the time), Sylvain-18 and twins Rémi and Guillaume-16. Guillaume was on exchange to Tamworth (NSW) until August, so I didnít meet him until later.

My first host family took me skiing in the first month when I got there, even before I started school! This certainly gave me a chance to learn to ski, but also gave me a couple of weeks to consolidate my French before diving into school, something that happened at the end of the February school holidays.

Just before school started, I joined my swimming club for the year. The club provided me with a regular exercise with a group of great people at the expense of a measly two nights a week. At least, at the start it was measlyÖ

School was quite a complicated affair, involving much boredom and loneliness at the beginning when I was not really proficient enough with the language to make myself properly understood, or to understand. Unfortunately, when I did get to the stage of understanding, I realised that I would have been just as well off not understanding, as the class was of a lower level of school than I was, and also I was in what was in effect, if not in name a remedial class. I counsel any student going to France to avoid getting put into the "L(iterature)" stream (unless you REALLY have an aversion for any sort of maths), as it is often considered an inferior class and is very difficult to participate in and understand. French literature is covered in a great detail, but in order to understand, your French must be of a very high level, History and Geography and languages are also stressed in this stream. However, because of the French education system favouring "S(cientific)" classes, the "L"  class has a tendency to be filled with those students who cannot get into the "S" or "ES" (economic and social sciences) classes. I later had an experience in the "S" class, in these classes, you have to be prepared to work as the teachers will not accept deadweight in the class (being already overcrowded), but the classes are far more easily understood. The level of literature is lower, though still moderately involved,  but the maths is fairly complicated, probably about the same as applicable and calculus in WA. The French school system is otherwise different to ours as well. Their first 10 years are more or less "normal," then they do an exam called the "Brevet." This is pretty much a school leaving exam. After this, if the students continue, they have another three years of what is called "Lycée." The first year is still general, but then they get split into the aforementioned streams. At the end of their two years they sit the "Baccalaureate," their TEE. They receive a mark out of 20 (everything in France is marked out of 20) and they receive their "Bac." Now, the bac is called after the stream it was done in, so you can have a "Bac S," a "Bac ES," or a "Bac L" (plus various other less academic variants). With these, you face your next choice, tertiary education. Tertiary education comes in various forms. You can go to university, but apart from the faculty of medicine, and to a degree law, universities are not regarded as being very "high-level" institutions. You can also go to one of the senior schools. There are schools of Commerce, Engineering and the Military school. There are also a few choice ones called "Ecoles Normales Superieurs" which have very competitive entry examinations and take only the best students. However, to get into these schools, as it is necessary to pass a difficult examination, several years of "exam preparation school" are necessary. These are like a go-between after school and before one of the higher schools. So basically, you get the privilege of an extra couple of years of school, just to pass the entrance exams. Overall, the Australian system is MUCH simpler and student friendly, and next time someone is feeling depressed by school, they have just to think of the plight of the poor French kids, an extra 4 years to no avail!!! Anyway, school was a bit of a write-off for the classes for the first bit, but a great opportunity to meet people, mostly outside of my class.

I also had a lot of social contact with other exchange students, we had a habitual café where we usually met on Wednesday afternoons (there was is no school in France on Wednesday afternoons). It was a really good chance to get to know them all and although contact with other exchangees is not encouraged, I felt that it was a really great thing as it certainly built up the number of friends. Among those I would call my closest friends now are some of the other students in Lyon with whom I got along really well.

Around April, I changed host families. My second family consisted of five people. My host Father Albert who was only there on weekends as he worked far from Lyon; My host Mother Marie-Nöelle a hyperactive teacher and their children: Matthieu-17 (at the time on exchange in Chicago), Lucie-15 (now on exchange in South Africa) and Antoine-12. I got along OK with them, though not as well as with my first family.

The real highlight of the trip would have to have been our Eurotour. Late in May, fifty-five exchange students crowded on a bus terrorising Europe in the name of cultural enrichment. We had a really wonderful time, and discovered just HOW liberal an interpretation the  French Rotarians had of the Rotary rulesÖ Anyway, between parties, we actually did do a fair amount of sight-seeing, and there were certainly many sights to see. As I am sure that most of you will either have been on such a trip, or had one described to you in detail, I will not bore you with another description. Suffice to say that it was wonderful, and that if ever you have the chance, VISIT PRAGUE!

After this trip, I returned to my 2nd host family where I got heavily into wallpapering. They were still at it when I left on holidays to Paris. I went to Paris with one of my friends whose father lived there. We stayed for two weeks before he had to leave for Peru (yup, another exchangee). I got to see a lot of Paris and was glad of the opportunity, even though it spent most of the time raining!!! My favourite place in Paris was definitely the Louvre, I spent MANY hours there and ended up with a much greater appreciation for art. After Paris, I left to England to visit family, many for the first time. This too was very enjoyable and I was able to see many sights both in-and-around London and somewhat further out. I even managed to see Stonehenge.

After this month-long holiday, I returned to France and went back to my first host-family. The same day that I returned, Guillaume returned from his exchange, and we all headed off to the centre of France to the family farm. We spent a month there walking, fishing, lazing, swimming, riding and meeting Eyrauds (my first familyís surname). There were literally hundreds of them. The family originates in a hamlet near to the farm called (surprisingly enough) Eyraud, and all the family goes back there in the summer to meet and catch up with each other. The family owns around twenty farms and houses in and around the nearest town, Chambon-sur-Lignon.  I spent an idyllic month there and really got to know Guillaume as we talked about our exchange experiences. At the end of the month, it was back to Lyon, and after a few weeks, school and a change of host families. It was at this return to school that I changed streams from the "L" group to the "S" group. Definitely an improvement. I got on much better with the students of my class (many of whom I had known previously anyway) and at this point understood everything they said in class, a definite bonus when one is spending ten hours a day a school (did I mention the long school days? 8am till 6pm). This good social situation, along with the continued Wednesday afternoon café sessions (with the new students who had arrived in August when the others left) and swimming, as well as one night a week of fencing, meant that I was spending a lot of time outside the house. It was a good thing for me that my third host family werenít more demanding in this respect. The family was very nice and as long as I obeyed their rules they were really cool. That was fine with me, and we got on just fine.

I went on my second holiday during my stay with them. I went for one week to Scotland to visit family friends and one week to Denmark to visit Rebecca Grivas (Hi Beck!). In Scotland I stayed in a manor house in an old farm. It was really good to be able to see some of rural Scotland. I even learned the sport of curling while I was there! Denmark was just wonderful. I stayed with Rebeccaís family for several days, including one in which we went to visit a Queenslander named Melanie. After our time in Ølgod (the name of Beckís town, we moved south to a city called Århus. There, we met up with some more exchangees (Americans) and I tried the wonders of the Danish hot dog. If ever you go to Denmark, DO NOT MISS THE HOT DOGS. They are REALLY good.

At the end of the school term, I changed family for the last time; once more, back to my first family. I stayed with them from the 18th December until I left France on the 15th January. Obviously, Christmas and New Year were both in this period. Christmas was a family affair involving both sides of the family and lots of magnificent banquets. There is no other word to describe the mountains of goodies with which we were presented. If I gained any weight during my exchange, I blame Christmas! New Year I spent with some of my school friends. We went to a farmhouse just outside Lyon with about  thirty other people while the hostís grandparents went to visit their children in town. We had a grand time and spent a fair deal of time cleaning up the next afternoon. New Year sparked for me what was a non-stop flow of nights out until I left France. I went out nearly every night and had a wonderful time, until it came to saying goodbyes. I never want to have to repeat all those goodbyes any time in my life. It was worse than moving house.

I would like to thank Rotary for this experience, and I would reccommend it to anyone.

Paul Dickinson
Exchangee in France 1998