Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Notre étudiant d'échange

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I've never been one to believe another culture is superior to ours. I mean, I like German food and Italian leather and English comedy, but Merica! Right?

 Friends, my view has been changed. Last month, we hosted a young Frenchman for almost two weeks. Jean-Claude(1) is fourteen, in his last year in the college, roughly equivalent to our thirteen-year-old Youngest's eighth grade. Jean-Claude was here to practice his English and immerse himself in American culture, which, I like to think, he did. But I can assure you, we learned as much if not more than our exchange student.

1. There is no free refill in France.  One Friday evening, I took Jean-Claude and Youngest to the Portland Museum of Art (3) and followed it up with dinner at the most Maine-centric, American spot I could think of: Becky's Diner. Jean-Claude ordered le hamburger (4) et les frites and un Coca.  We were half-way through the dinner, chatting, when the waitress came by, swept up his glass, and returned with the free refill. His amazement was epic. "Yes," I said. "America is a magic land." Youngest thought his bemusement was quite funny until he informed us there were no doggy bags in France. She could not have been more horrified if he had told her they served actual dogs pour le diner.

2. The French way with fashion is real. I suspect Jean-Claude was a pretty typical fourteen-year-old French boy. (5) So it was interesting to compare him to our neighbor's son, a pretty typical fourteen-year-old American. Each morning, they stood together at the end of our driveway, waiting for the bus. Jayden (6) wore baggy shorts (7), a T-shirt and a huge down parka. Jean-Claude wore impossibly slim jeans, sweater I'm pretty sure was cashmere, a sporty, trim ski jacket and a skinny scarf that he tossed and twisted in a way that I couldn't have replicated without the help of a How-to video on YouTube. Jayden looked like he had rolled out of bed on his way to audition for a role in BREAKING BAD. Jean-Claude looked like a Ralph Lauren model. (8)

3. French children have beautiful manners. I knew that Jean-Claude would be used to sitting down and eating his meals en famille. We eat together when we can (9) but we made the effort to do so every night and for breakfast and lunch on le weekend. I discovered the first night that Jean-Claude wouldn't touch his food until I had sat down and picked up my fork. Ross and Youngest would be chowing away, but he sat there, despite urging, until I was at my place. He asked politely for everything. He didn't ask to be excused until everyone had finished eating. He cleared his plate away and loaded his things in the dishwasher every time. (10) He and Youngest spent a lot of evenings at the kitchen table - the warmest spot in the house - and when she got up to do something Jean-Claude stood up as well. I always thought I had done a pretty good job with my children, but if they go to France, people are going to think they were reared by feral weasels.

 4. There are no cheerleaders in France. In our attempt to be typical Americans and to interest a sportif fourteen-year-old boy, we took Jean-Claude to a Portland Red Claws basketball game. There we discovered the French do not have giant mascots, mid-game contests to win a car (11), fifty-fifty raffles and cheerleaders. This last seemed to be something Jean-Claude would not have been adverse to importing. We also taught Jean-Paul to say, "Merica! Yeah!"

5. France is a socialist hell-hole. We discovered this during a discussion of higher education. Jean-Claude's older sister is planning to study engineering, which will set her family back a cool $1000 a year. Jean-Claude would like to study medicine, however, so his tuition will be free. At this point, Ross announced his willingness to live under the dread specter of socialism for his childrens' sake. Somehow, Jean-Claude's parents, despite struggling with this oppressive system of  theft-by-taxation, manage to have a nice home in Amiens, ski regularly in the French Alps, and travel to India and Morocco. (12)  But no free refills! So there is that.

(1) Not his real name (2) 

(2) But it's totally the name of our friend Katja's husband from Normandy!

(3) Free admission on Fridays!
(4) Youngest and I discovered that in France, the polite way to eat a burger in a restaurant is with your knife and fork. We figured this out when Jean-Claude tried to use his utensils to tackle a typical American hamburger (ie, a 5"x5" cylinder of meat, cheese, toppings and sauces.)  One must assume les hamburgers are a great dealt smaller in France.

(5) Except for bearing a striking resemblance to that boy in ONE DIRECTION all the teenyboppers are crazy about. Seriously, Jean-Claude had middle-school girls literally following him around giving him notes.

(6) Also not his name, but you have to admit, it's becoming increasingly typical. When you're a senior citizen, your lawyer, nurse, accountant and garage mechanic will be named Aiden, Brayden, Jayden and Caiden, respectively.

(7) Yes, shorts. In Maine. In February. It's a thing.

(8) In addition to handing him notes, he had five girls texting him at all hours.

(9) Okay, we eat together maybe once a week. I'm sorry, Mom, I know you raised me better than that.

(10) Seriously. My 55-year-old husband can't manage that trick.

(11) Not to mention the mid-quarter little-kid ball-shooting contest and the magic act at half-time.

 (12) Perhaps the government saves somehow by not having cheerleaders?


  1. It does sound as if your family had a wonderful visit with your exchange student. It’s quite an experience to see our world through the eyes of someone from another country.

    Guess I’m crossing France off my list of places I’d like to visit . . . beautiful clothes, lovely manners, but no refills for my coffee cup? The thought alone is enough to send me off to the kitchen in search of another cup of coffee . . . .

    This “thing” of shorts in Maine in February? Shivers run down my back just thinking about this . . .

  2. This is one of my favorite posts.

    a) The Feral Weasels is a great band name;
    b) The Feral Weasel is a great pub name;
    c) "Aiden, Brayden, Jayden and Caiden walked into a bar..."

    When you are done with Jean-Claude, send him to my house. Please.

  3. This certainly made me smile. What a charming young man. And I have to confess to laughing about the filling of the dishwasher - I'm still working on getting help with unloading the clean dishes, help with loading is but a dream. And thinking that they would learn how to load a dishwasher by looking closely before unloading is probably pure folly.

  4. I love this post. Thanks for the chuckles!

  5. I'm fixated on "feral weasels," too. Still smiling from that one. "Jean-Claude" sounds adorable. I'd better not go to France, where I'd be regarded as a knuckle-dragging philistine.

  6. What can you say about a country with 432 cheeses? Vive la France! Quirkfarms great post!!!

  7. Truly delightful and entertaining start to my day!! Thank you. When you are done with mysteries, JS-F, you can begin a career as a humor writer.

    When my girls were growing up we had many, many exchange students -- from Japan, China, France, Sweden. One French girl came for several summers, and our oldest daughter went to Paris. It was one of the most enriching parts of our family life.

    Our French exchange "daughter" visited us recently with her three children -- their manners were awesome.

  8. Once upon a time little European me stayed with my American cousins for a year. Middle cousin went to France for a week and when she came home her parents asked about what was different. Her reply was "they eat like Zee". I was super confused, until I realised she meant that I ate with my fork in one hand (right) and my knife in the other (left) just as I had been taught.

    Also in my even more socialist country I didn't pay a penny for my MEd, nor did my sister for either of her nursing degrees nor my brother for his computer engineering. :).

  9. This is a wonderful post!!! So delightful.

    My niece and her family have lived in France on the Swiss border for a number of years now. Her girls are now 6 and 5 and are learning in an all-French school. As much as I miss them and look forward to having them closer, I love that they're experiencing a foreign culture. I hope they remember all this when they come home.

    Love the scarf!

    BTW, Julia, we're looking at a house in your general area this week.

  10. Julia,

    I don't know what I love more: your entertaining post OR the delightful footnotes!

    Back in 1972, a French-born friend of my family asked my parents if my second youngest sister could stay with friends of his in France for about a month during the summer. They had a daughter around her age. Then, at the end of the month, they wanted the daughter to come back with my sister, and stay with my family for a month. It was a chance for both teenagers to perfect their English/French skills.

    My sister kept writing to my parents that she couldn't understand an odd fixture in their bathroom, and she didn't know how to ask them about it. Of course, it was the bidet!

    My sister and the French girl are still in touch all these years later!

  11. Julia, you could be the next big humor writer in America. Had me choking on my tea.

    Lovely piece! Jean-Claude was certainly fortunate in the draw for exchange families. I'll bet he had a blast.

  12. Too fun, isn't it, to experience a new culture right in your own home? We had an exchange student from Cincinnati's sister city of Munich, and Vanessa is still a part of our family.

    It makes me sad that two of the other posters here said they'd better not go to France. It's such a wonderful country, and I'm so glad I've been able to go more than once to experience it. It might be a "socialist" country, but if you're sick or have an accident while you're there they will take super good care of you, and for almost nothing. Plus, you can walk into any pharmacy, share your symptoms, and walk out with something that will fix you right up. No need to go to the doctor, generally.

    That education thing? Brilliant. Tuition in the US? As much as $70,000 a year now. Who can afford that?

  13. I'll bet Youngest suddenly had every girl in school begging to be her BFF! What great kids--yours and the young man from France. But shorts in winter? That seems to be a boy-thing here: Pants? Them's for sissies! 'Merica forever!

  14. Great post! I find American arrogance aggravating at times--especially from folks who haven't traveled much and think America is THE BEST no matter what--spouting party lines. Please.

    This is definitely a soapbox topic for me.

    Thanks for being part of my great launch day yesterday, Julia, Red, and Reds community!

  15. Don't usually have time to read blogs other than the ones I'm involved in, but glad I read this one. It was amusing. I liked the Aiden, Brayden, Jayden and Caiden references-I can see me using that in a future blog. Funny how names go in cycles. LOL Cher'ley

  16. The Feral Weasels!!!! Love this post, Julia. And if I were fourteen, I'd be leaving Jean-Claude notes, too... Manners, fashion-sense, AND he speaks French...

  17. Wonderful post, Julia. You are so funny. I'm traveling today, currently at Atlanta airport, so it will be short. Had a great seat mate here, an author of a trigger therapy book (muscles). Talked about books and her first book signing coming up. I'm on way to Virginia Festival of the Book. Would love to be at Left Coast, too.

  18. I also learned that if you go to a cocktail party in France you will not be offered a drink until all the guests have arrived... and you NEVER pour yourself one.

    But these are also people who trample you to death to get on a subway or bus before you.

    Love them anyway.

  19. Julia, thank you for sharing. It sounds like you and your family had a wonderful experience. I am not sure but I think that in France, they test students in the 6th grade to see if they are on the academic track or vocational track. Also, remember that France lived through two French revolutions with the overthrow of the royal family and two world wars.

    Lisa, I get what you mean. I was reminded of a new friend from Scandinavia. He asked me why Americans do not travel outside the USA. I am sorry to say that many Americans cannot afford to travel. I know Americans who travel overseas and they can afford to or they work three jobs so they can afford to travel or they are part of an exchange group to defray the costs of travelling overseas. And I wonder who won a copy of your new book, Kilmoon.


  20. Julia, loved reading this! We had an exchange FAMILY visit us... and talk them to le baseball at Parc Fenway. They would have preferred le football (soccer).

    It was a challenge explaining baseball rules (in field fly, anyone?) in French. They LOVED our lobsters.

  21. Make that TOOK them to le baseball...

  22. A few years ago we had a 16 year old french boy spend 6 weeks with us in the summer. He was astounded at the free refills, was extremely polite, and also dressed beautifully. He insisted on ironing his own shirts and always helped clear the table. One day he insisted on cooking for us and turned out a beautiful meal, topped with a bottle of champagne he had brought for us.

    The most fun thing was the day we took him to a professional baseball game in Denver. As it happened, President Bush was in town for a speech and wanted to see a baseball game, so we all had to go through metal detectors, etc in order to get in. Then, he loved the hot dogs and peanuts, etc. He was fascinated with the game and asked tons of questions. Then came an intentional walk. When we explained what that was all about, he exclaimed "That's crap!" and we all had to agree with him.

    My oldest daughter is a French historian and has spent tons of time in France and I have been able to visit her there several times. I found the French to be extremely welcoming as long as you make an attempt at their language and are polite to them. They are extremely polite. Every time you enter a shop, someone calls out "Bonjour." I loved that!

    I'm so glad you had a good time with your young friend and hope you are able to stay in touch with him. We have stayed in touch with ours, visiting in his home several times when we were in France. It's wonderful to have friends in different countries and cultures.

    Thanks so much, Julia, for sharing this experience with us. Too many Americans are so inbred and think the US is so wonderful that they are closed to the wonder outside the US.

  23. I realized when I finished reading this that I had a huge smile on my face. Thank you, Julia - this was a total delight!

  24. This has been a strange week for me so far, and your post was a hoot. Thank you so much for the humor, I needed it. And "feral weasels" is one of the all time greats !

  25. I don't know, it seemed like we came out about even to me after reading through your list.

  26. What fun Julia--it sounds like he had a wonderful experience and so did you guys! My husband's family had an exchange student way back in the 60's--they are still in touch. Eve and Michel came all the way from France to my mother-in-law's 100th birthday party last summer...

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  28. Great post, Julia! Hugely funny!

    We have two who could pass for Jean-Claude. The other two are feral weasels. They know who they are.

    I could easily pass for a feral weasel, but whenever I am in France I am treated like family.

  29. I am still laughing. Wait, I'm going back to read it again.

  30. You have me wanting to host an exchange students, but first, I want a hamburger . . . and I just flashed back to an Oprah show on fashion on which the European guests politely commented on American clothing as "so . . . comfortable."

    and today I finished the wonderful and very suspenseful _A Fountain Filled with Blood_ . Reverend Clare Fergusson could probably make a church-goer of me . . . especially if she offered a ride in a helicopter, too.