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  • Charlotte Luke

“Universities like Cities”: My French Exchange Sister’s Observations of the US

In the summer of 1993, my mom participated in a foreign exchange program: she stayed with a French family for a month, and then her host sister, a girl named Anne-Charlotte, returned to the States with my mom. Once summer ended and Anne-Charlotte went back home, though, she and my mom lost touch for twenty-five years; each got married and had three children. Coincidentally, Anne-Charlotte’s daughter Philippine and I are the same age, which we discovered once my mom and Anne-Charlotte reconnected on Facebook. (According to Philippine, Anne-Charlotte spent 6 months trying to remember my mom’s last name. Finally, it was Anne-Charlotte’s mother who remembered it, which significantly narrowed the Facebook search.) Communicating via Facebook Messenger in not-so-perfect French and English, my mom and Anne-Charlotte arranged a second-generation daughter-swap. Thus, I was fortunate to spend 3 weeks in France this summer, and Philippine spent 3 weeks in the US. On her last day here, I talked to Philippine about her observations of America and compared them to my observations of France. Here were the 6 key takeaways:

1. There are major differences between the American and French education systems. When I asked her how the University of Georgia, which we toured together, differs from the universities in France, Philippine replied, “It’s easy. University in France is just a building with classes”―as in, a single building. “For the biggest, you have one [library] and one cafeteria, but it’s not like you, with all the gyms, things like that. It’s crazy.” Furthermore, most students at French universities don’t live on campus: “you have an apartment in the city like all the people.” And for younger college students (freshmen and sophomores), like Philippine’s 18-year-old brother, “if [the university] is close, they stay home, they don’t take an apartment.” By contrast, all freshmen at UGA are required to live on campus, and the university can house more than 8000 students. “It’s like a city,” says Philippine.

2. It’s not just the universities that are different. Although Philippine’s high school is also private, it is much smaller than Athens Academy. “It’s because we are in the center of the city, it’s just a building. But I think the [major] difference is the the teacher, I have the impression. For us, the teacher can never be your friend, never never never. It’s crazy to think that. And the teacher just come, they tell the lesson, that’s all. It’s not like you.” When we visited Athens Academy a week before our little interview, I had explained to Philippine that the students and teachers here get to know each other pretty well, especially since the class sizes are small. I told her that none of my classes last year had more than 20 kids, and her jaw dropped―her math class had 37 students! Plus, students and teachers don’t interact outside of class because there are no office hours or advisories. Philippine says she feels prepared for university, though, because the high school students are forced to be (extra) independent.

3. When people say Southerners are super friendly, apparently it’s true. On one of our walks through my neighborhood, we ran into a neighbor I had never met, and we stopped and chatted for a few minutes. Once we were out of earshot, Philippine asked me if I knew that person. “No,” I said, and her expression read, What? According to her, it’s not the norm in France to strike up conversations with strangers. “You talk with everybody,” she told me, “and that, it’s so cool.” Philippine also noticed during our walks that, even in my quiet little neighborhood on the east side, I “make very, very [careful] of the car.” Normally, Philippine is less concerned about getting smushed―perhaps because the cars in France are much smaller than in America, and the pedestrian-to-vehicle ratio is higher. “For example, in France, we cross the street when the little man is red, just because there are no car, or we run.”

4. Another Southern specialty: sweltering summers. Quebec City, Canada has a similar latitude to Paris, and the city of Lille―7 kilometers (about 4 miles) from where Philippine lives―is two hours north of Paris by car! Needless to say, Philippine found the South to be “very, very hot,” or at least the outdoors. Inside, though, my house is much cooler thanks to air conditioning, which her house does not have or need. “If we did not have air conditioning―” I began, and Philippine finished my sentence: “―we die.”

5. As you might expect, the food culture is different in the States... When we went to the grocery store, Philippine immediately noticed that everything is “more industrial,” or in other words, “It’s less natural.” The quantities are bigger too, like the gallon-sized jugs of milk (in France, milk is sold by the liter) and the XL packages of candy. We didn’t cook many meals, though, because my family loves eating at restaurants―a rarity for Philippine. “In France, [eating out] is just for special occasions or holiday. But never during the week when we are in school, never.”

At my house, Philippine noticed that “If you are hungry, you take in the fridge and you eat. In France, we have just three or four times for [meals]. And nobody eats in the time in between the meals. And you eat dinner very, very early, it’s crazy!” Philippine is used to eating dinner at 9 or 10 p.m., whereas my family normally eats between 5 and 6. Breakfast is also different. “You are all the day a different breakfast. In France, it’s just cereal or bread”―(French bread is so good)―“but never we make muffins or pancakes.”

6. ...but the music is the same. I asked Philippine for her thoughts on popular American music, which was a silly question because French radio stations play the exact same songs. “Do you think people learn English from songs on the French radio?” I asked. “No,” said Philippine. “When we sing American song, when you listen [to the French] sing, they just say [nonsense]’s a soup. We don’t pay attention to the words.” Certain English words have infiltrated the French language, though, like “cool” and “okay,” and one French song I heard throughout my three-week stay is called “Bad Boy.” Although English and French have similar, if not identical, words, French slang is alien even to Philippine’s parents. “Sometime when I speak with my brother, my father say, ‘Huh? I understand nothing!” For example, many slang terms are the inverted spellings of dictionary words: chelou is slang for louche (shady), and meuf is slang for femme (woman).

I hope Philippine had a good time in America; I know I enjoyed staying with her in France. And I hope you, reader, have learned a few things about both countries.

My trip to France