C’est La Vie: Living With the Locals in Rennes

Our group of 30 students gathered in the petite garden located behind the school building, standing across from 30 different French families.

Our group of 30 students gathered in the petite garden located behind the school building, standing across from 30 different French families. Some of the families appeared to be quite old, with skin weathered from years of smoking, while others seemed almost too young to be hosting.

One by one, the director of the program called us forward and introduced us to our new families. The families had been hand-picked based on interviews, questionnaires, and observations. We had spent the past three days in orientation getting to know the other students from the U.S. and transitioning to only speaking French. Now, it was time to put everything we had learned to use.

I was placed with a family of four that lived in the city of Rennes, about a half-hour by bus from the school. There was Michel, the father, who worked in a bank and ate more vegetables than any other person I know; Aurelie, the mother, who also worked in a bank and loved to surf in her free time; Irène, the daughter, who was 18 years old and just finishing her baccalaureate exams when I arrived; and Izis, the dog, who was surprisingly 18 years old as well.

Some of the families spoke English very well, but they were asked to avoid practicing it with us so that we could pick up French faster. Speaking only in French the entire day proved to be the greatest challenge of the program. In the beginning, I had to think through every sentence that came out of my mouth before I said it. Pronunciation and word choice were the most important; if we messed up our grammar, they could usually figure out what we were trying to say. Communicating, even at home, was absolutely exhausting. For example, there are two ways to express the verb “to clean” in French: ranger and nettoyer. Ranger refers to tidying up or rearranging, and nettoyer means to do some more serious scrubbing or even disinfecting. One day, I had to let my host mom know that I was going to clean my room, so I said, “j’ai besoin de nettoyer ma chambre.” However, I chose the wrong verb and my host mom didn’t understand what I meant—I should have said “j’ai besoin de ranger ma chambre.” I remembered learning the difference in class but hadn’t really thought it would be very important. I was wrong. “Ta chambre est sale?” She replied, alarmed by my statement, “Pourquoi est-ce que tu veux la nettoyer?” Even something simple, like telling your mom you have to clean your room, was difficult.

Over time, though, we began to adjust. The words started to come naturally, and it was much easier to process what even the fastest speakers were saying. We fell into a routine: in the morning we commuted to school, then attended about three hours of French class, made a quick trip to the nearby Carrefour for lunch or a snack, participated in an afternoon group activity, then returned home to have dinner and spend the evening with our families.

The group activity varied from day to day. One time we did a scavenger hunt for murals all over Rennes. We also went to a circus class and to a baking class at a traditional boulangerie. All of the classes we attended were conducted only in French. They served as opportunities for our group to come together and practice what we were learning from our host families and from collaborating with each other and locals in French.

We spent every weekend solely with our host families doing whatever it was that they had planned. These weekends were by far the most memorable parts of the trip, for it was during this time that we were completely immersed in French culture. One weekend, my family took me to spend two nights in Bordeaux for their annual friend group’s reunion. Oddly enough, their friends’ house was not really a house but a converted vineyard building, and so the three bedrooms and two bathrooms could not accommodate the twenty-five guests. The hosts’ solution was to set up a series of tents in the yard, each with two mattress pads inside of them for us to sleep in. This was quite alarming at first, especially since we did not arrive until after midnight, having just driven four hours in a very, very small car. Yet, despite the late hour, we were welcomed by a long line of lively and deeply tanned Southerners, most of them shirtless and tattooed. According to French custom, each unfamiliar person had to be greeted with les bises, or a small kiss on each cheek. Needless to say, the first night in Bordeaux was extremely discomforting.

Yet, by the end of the next day, I found that the discomfort had faded; in fact, it had almost disappeared. I had become friendly with almost all the party guests, and we spent most of the afternoon playing volleyball in the pool and talking. There was no alternative to jumping into situations like the one in Bordeaux head first, and it was from those experiences that we benefited the most.

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