La vie à Toulouse: Student Guest Post by Caroline Heater
Hello, everyone!! I am a "Toulouser" and my name's Caroline (but in French it's pronounced "kah-row-lean" with that phlegm-filled R sound). I'm 16 and I'm from High Point, North Carolina. I'm writing this at the start of my third week in Toulouse! And in case you wanted to know what I look like, here's a photo of me.
Also something you should know about me is that I love lists and here are three reasons why:
1. They're easy to create for almost any topic.
2. They're easy to read because they're pleasing to the eye.
3. They're more entertaining than regular writing.
See, I just made a list about why I love lists!
Unlike most of the other Toulousers here with me, I am NOT a city slicker. To give you some reference, High Point has a population of 110,000 and Chicago (the home of the majority of the Session 2 Toulousers) has a population of 2.7 million. But to me, the population density is not as defining as the mere aura of a city. Big cities move faster and there's an entirely different flow of life. It's hard to explain precisely, but I'm not used to this new feeling of city-life, and I'm really enjoying it. That alone is my favorite part of studying in Toulouse: the undeniable energy of the city that vitalizes me.
My other favorite part of studying in Toulouse is my family. I mean it when I say that I could not have received a better family. I have a very kind and understanding mom, a really funny dad, and a cool brother. (Pictures below)
In my opinion, the homestay experience is the one component that differentiates an ordinary study abroad trip from an extraordinary study abroad trip. I want this blog post to stand out. Therefore, I'm not gonna give you the intense rundown of my emotions and how I'm dealing with them or explicit details of everything I've done so far or any sappy quotes and comments about the magical experience of travelling and here's why:
1. Y'all don't need to hear nor do you want to hear about my petty teenage-girl emotions or struggles etc. (those are reserved for my diary, duh).
2. From what I've read on this site, y'all get a pretty explicit rundown of every significant thing us Toulousers are doing from learning how to make French pastries or attempting to hip hop dance at a studio (graciously written by our super rad program leaders Bridgette, Kyle, Becca, Lana, and Cynthia)
3. I'm sure all of y'all have seen lots of inspiring quotes, videos, photos, blog posts, elsewhere about how wonderful and life-changing travelling can be (it's not that I don't appreciate how incredible travelling is, it's just that I don't feel obligated to contribute to the mass of sappy, travel-themed paraphernalia).
Instead, I'd like to give you readers the raw reality of what it's like to study abroad. All the embarrassing moments, strange observations, ups and downs, curious thoughts, and (sometimes) trying challenges. I want to tell you things you wouldn't know if you've never studied abroad first-hand, and hopefully answer some questions you might have about what it's like.
To start, I have a pretty hefty list of things that are different/interesting in France (I started a list on my first day here). You have a chance to see through the lens of an all-American girl witnessing the wonders of southern France!! Wow!!
(DISCLAIMER: these are not generalizations of ALL FRENCH PEOPLE, just quirks and characteristics I've noticed of French people I've met or my French family, or of French culture IN MY FRENCH HOME in general. Also, I love France and French people and I don't want any of these to sound biased or hateful ALSO, if I use the term "mom" or "dad" or "brother" immediately assume I'm referring to my host-mom, host-dad, and host-brother. If I'm referring to my US family I will specify.)
1. Smoking is very common and it's allowed in many more public areas than in the US.
2. The name for the USA in French is "États-Unis" literally "States-United". But if you look more closely, you will realize that the French word for state is just "state" spelled backwards and with an accent.
3. Pedestrians do NOT have the right of way, therefore, they are held responsible in legal cases (with exceptions I imagine, like if a car came up on the sidewalk or something I don't know). However, this doesn't mean I've seen people get hit by a car. Only one (true story, I will share later); the drivers are still respectful and considerate of pedestrians, just not as much as they are in the US because they aren't required by law.
4. The bathroom arrangements. Even though there are three bathrooms in the house that I'm staying in, only one has a toilet. One bathroom (the one used by the family for bathing) has a sink and mirror, a bedeau, and a bathtub with a handheld shower faucet that you manually wash your body with (Pictures below).
The bathroom in my room has a sink and mirror and a regular standing shower with a mounted faucet (pictured below). And then there's a separate tiny bathroom (right by the kitchen) with a toilet and only a toilet (pictured below).This means that me and 3 other people share one toilet. Also, this means that after one uses the toilet, one has to travel to another bathroom right after, to go wash one's hands. (Or use the kitchen sink, but that sink only has dish soap). For some reason, this is very silly to me, but it's how their house was designed.
1. The toilet bowls themselves are much deeper and longer than in the US and they flush with a little silver button on the top behind the bowl.
2. My family doesn’t save leftovers and eat them later. I knew that to-go boxes in restaurants weren't a thing because they give smaller portions, but I thought they would still do home-cooked meals as leftovers. They don't. One of my first nights here I asked if I could pack the leftovers of the dinner we were eating for my school lunch the next day, and the look they gave me was a mixture of surprise and disgust. They said (this was all in French of course) "If you want to, you can, but it will be very gross and cold." I did take it and it tasted fine, but I decided never to ask again.
3. I have yet to see chip clips. All the open bags of cereal, chips, etc. stay open and unsealed. The only thing I’ve seen sealed is bread, but no chip clips. There was one morning when I tried to pour myself some of my favorite French sugary cereal and nothing fell out of the half-full bag when I tipped it over because the sugars had melted in the heat and hardened the mass of cereal into a rock. I showed my mom and she pulled out what looked like an ice pick and began to stab the cereal until it broke apart. I couldn't help from laughing because she looked like a true serial killer. *wink* In the end, it tasted the same.
4. Ziplock bags are less common. On the rare occasion they want to save food for a later time, they use tinfoil.
5. Breakfasts here are typically on the sweet side, compared to the savory American breakfasts I’m used to. Most French people's breakfasts include a cup of coffee and a small cake, cookie, or croissant. When I asked if I could make myself eggs one morning and THEN I added salt to it, my parents were in a bit of shock. But they understood I need protein to last through these busy days.
6. They don't eat much between meals. Snacking is frowned upon.
7. They never eat anything sweet except for breakfast and sometimes after lunch and always after dinner. (My family worships this rule)
8. Their milk comes in smaller bottles; it's kinda like in the old days when the milk man would come around with a dozen or so glass bottles of milk. The bottles are that size and you usually buy a pack of half a dozen or a dozen bottles. Also, they're not refrigerated in the grocery store. They only have to be refrigerated once they're opened. Also, they don't expire for a LONG time. The first bottle I drank out of when I got here didn't expire until OCTOBER 10, 2017!! I thought the milk-carton-expiration-date-printer had made a mistake.
1. They only drink/use milk for breakfast. At home in the US, I drink skim milk with every meal, which means we buy 3-4 gallons a week. It's not like that here.
2. Here, they drink water with most meals. The water comes from 1 Liter bottles they buy in grocery stores (which they don't refrigerate). My family doesn’t drink their tap water (pictured below).
1. The cups are tiny and their drinks are almost never cold because they don’t use ice very often. (In the photo it doesn't look very tiny but I promise it is)
2. You can't legally drive a car by yourself until you're 18.
3. New drivers (18-year-olds that passed their test and are fortunate enough to use or own a car) have to put a sticker on the back of their cars with a white background and a bright red capital letter "A". (You tell me if that's a little ironic) It stands for "Apprenti" which is like having a provisional license.
4. You can legally drink alcohol at 18.
5. The doors shut differently. This isn't for all doors, but a lot of the doors in my house and also in the house of my mom's friend are peculiar. They don't shut by being pushed fully under/into the frame. They were made to just rest against the frame, so even when the door is shut, it looks like it's not. I learned this the hard way after pushing with all my might (thinking "Wow this door really is tough to close") and my brother informed me it's already shut.
6. In my house, a lot of the doors lock in the house (not just the front door, bedroom doors, and bathroom doors but also the door to the kitchen, office, and closet), but they don't lock by pushing/twisting a little button on the handle but rather with a very old-fashioned, hand-held key.
7. AC isn’t as widely used as it is in the US. There are very few places I visit that have AC (really nice cafés and restaurants). Instead, they keep the windows and doors wide open. I love it personally. It's the whole idea of bringing the outdoors in. It's fun before the mosquitos (which they call "muhstique"). Since I've arrived here I've probably obtained 26 or so mosquito bites.
8. Also, all the windows in my house (including the full-length windows that are the size of a door and sometimes used as doors) have shutters. The dramatic kind that you open by using two hands and leaning out your window with birds chirping and wind blowing through your hair and mice helping you stitch your clothes. (Just kidding that only happens in Cinderella's world). (This photo is the front of my house)
9. Also a lot of the windows open by a vertical slit down the center (you pull towards yourself to open them) whereas in the US they often open horizontally by someone pushing upwards. (This photo is of my lovely bedroom)
1. Spongebob is "Bubbly Pons". When I first heard this from my mom's friend's 18 year-old-son, I actually started crying because I was laughing so hard.
2. Ketchup is much sweeter.
3. They speak and laugh much quieter. I've had tons of moments where I was with my friends at a café or just walking down the street talking and laughing as loud as we wanted to, and I look around and realize, I can barely hear any of the other conversations happening around us.
4. A very popular chain grocery store is named "Casino" and so there are giant signs for "Casino" on every corner. At first I thought the people of Toulouse had a serious gambling problem or something. (Photo below)
1. If you think Nutella is loved in the US, it's WORSHIPPED in France.
2. They love American shows, but of course, they have French voices speaking over the English ones.
3. The bathrooms aren't separated by gender (or at least the bathrooms at our school). It's just one big bathroom with separate stalls. What's really weird is that the stall doors have signs indicating male or female but all the stalls are identical. It's not like the male stalls have urinals in them or anything, they're all the same.
4. Public bathrooms and trash cans are less common, even in the center of Toulouse.
5. Almost all the cars are manual-drive.
6. They have TONS of roundabouts and sometimes the public buses have to go up on the center median to get around them.
7. Sometimes I wonder if they don't mind having tons of gnats in their faces. One night I was playing volleyball with my dad, my neighbor, and my neighbor's dad in the backyard, and the gnats were literally unbearable; now I don't live in a cabin or anything, but like I said, I'm not a city slicker. I'm a Girl Scout; I'm very comfortable in nature and comfortable with bugs so when I say it was unbearable, I mean it. These gnats were going up my nose and in my ears. It was a nightmare, and I could see they were attacking everyone else too but they weren't phased by it. It was bizarre. I think this stems from a cultural difference wherein the French believe nature is acting on them and Americans tend to view nature as something they can control.
8. They love to wear neutral/dark colors and prints, which of course means I always stick out like a sore thumb.
9. Clothes dryers are less common so it's a great joy to have my underwear hanging in the yard for the whole world to see (that was sarcasm).
10. Dinner is between 7 and 9 PM.
So now for the ups:
1Feeling wildly cool for being in a foreign country for a whole month without your parents.
2Having something really cool for your summer. The question "What are you gonna do this summer?" and then later "What did you do this summer?" is the perfect setup for a coolness competition and you always win.
3You really learn what it's like to be without your friends and family for a whole month, and a lot of maturing can occur.
4You also learn how other people live, and it is very enlightening on one's perspective.
5It's just generally a ton of fun.
6It's a great chance to eat a ton of REALLY good food (especially desserts).
7It's cool to be the center of attention in a new family. All eyes are on you, and somehow you always manage to make them laugh with your silly accent or poor grammar.
8It's a great chance to meet new people from the US that are your age.
9It's a great chance to take a ton of awesome photos and videos.
10You get to use the target language in real-life scenarios, and you become much more comfortable and confident with it.
11It's a great chance to meet new French adults and peers.
12It's a great chance to learn how to navigate a city without a GPS and/or how to use public transportation.
13It's really fun to find the best store for crêpes, macarons, wifi, fast meals, good deals on clothes, etc. in a new city you're not familiar with.
14And loads more.
And the downs:
1. It's wildly tiring. More tiring than you'd expect. Not only physically but also mentally. Everything that used to be really easy at home (like talking about your day during dinner, or asking for more food, or politely explaining how you need more soap, or asking if you can stay in the city after school tomorrow) now takes at least a little bit more brain effort if not a lot more. Your brain gets very very exhausted from all the use. Also, I never actually fell asleep before midnight or woke after 6:30 AM. It's challenging to get the right amount of sleep. And also, the days are all jam-packed with activities that sometimes require a good amount of physical exertion (like walking all over the city or dancing in a hip hop class).
2. It can actually be very frustrating. There were a few times where I wished no one would speak to me in French, not because I didn't want to have conversations in French, but because I was so sick of feeling like a burden. For me personally, it's really really hard for me to hear French and comprehend it. Speaking is an absolute breeze for me. Of course I forget certain vocabulary and I make mistakes, but my sentences flow very easily and my pronunciation is good enough that French people understand me. But listening and comprehending is still a big struggle for me, and sometimes I feel like it's such a burden for French people to try and communicate with me, and I feel embarrassed. Sometimes I feel like we might as well be silent because the amount of effort it takes to keep a conversation going makes it not worth it.
3. Culture shock is real. For me, I don't experience any homesickness but I do experience culture shock. I don't know why they don't just call it "Craving your native language and rejecting the target language" because that's all it really is. I keep getting little spurts of it especially early in the morning, but they pass eventually. Ultimately, you just gotta keep on keeping on.
4. It's more difficult to form an impression of someone when they speak very little English. I think we form impressions of people by studying what they wear, what they do and probably the biggest part of how we characterize people (really without even realizing we're doing it) is by noting what they say and the way in which they say it. So when it's difficult to note that, you have this gap in your impression of them. For example, for the first week and a half I really thought my brother didn't like me very much because he often laughed when I tried to speak French, but then later he gave me a phone charger for my iPhone with the correct outlet (for France) and that was really nice so maybe he does like me. He just speaks so fast that I can't keep up.
5. It's a little frustrating not being able to keep up with/contribute to conversations amongst French people during meals, car-rides, etc.
6. It can be hard to express yourself in all the ways you would like to. Not just verbally but also, you always want to seem polite and happy and positive and sometimes it's hard to tell if you're doing a good job of that. Also it's hard to tell what they think of you if they don't explicitly state it. It was actually my biggest concern before I came to France that my family would think I was really stupid and that they wouldn't be able to sense my humor/sarcasm, etc., but thankfully they have, and I know for sure because they said so.
7. Some things that you have at your home in the US can be hard to be without like AC, pets, parents, siblings, friends, no homework in the summer, a car and the freedom to drive it, certain foods, sleeping in, taking really long showers, etc. I really miss my dogs above everything else honestly.
And finally some embarrassing/interesting experiences:
1. The very first day that we were allowed to leave the school campus for lunch, me and some other "Toulousers" trekked to a nice crêpe restaurant called "Le Bol Bu" (photo below).The restaurant was a good 7 minute walk away from the school campus and we had two hours for lunch. We took a good while to find the restaurant so by the time we arrived we'd already used 40 min of our two hours but we had our orders in as soon as we arrived at the restaurant. It was a very cute place I must say, but it took FOREVER. We had to ask for them to-go when we had 20 min left before we had to be back at school. If you don't know, asking for food to-go isn't really a thing in France, so we felt pretty awkwardly American. We briskly walked back to the school; when we were pretty close to the school, one "Toulouser" realized she had left her jacket at the restaurant so she ran back and said she'd meet us at the school. So the rest of us walk back to school, and by this time I've already called Mathilde telling her we'd be a little late, and she said it was no big deal. But we found a new entrance to the school that looked identical to the usual one except it was locked and shut (the usual entrance everyone uses is always wide open). So basically I call Kyle and he's as confused as we are, and then I call Becca and she tries to direct us back to the usual entrance but we get lost. In the end she ran out to find us and we ran back (and I mean ran, this chick is a literal cross-country coach) and made it just in time for our city tour with Eric.
2. One day, my mom and I went to visit with her friend Isabelle. At Isabelle's house (who by the way is a wonderful woman she's pictured with me below). I broke a dish while trying to lay on her outdoor couch, spilled my Coca Cola all over the table during dinner, found a snail in my backpack (because my backpack was outside on the ground), and when we left, I forgot to grab my charger and converter. To say the least, I wasn't my sharpest self.
3. One day I went to my favorite shop to buy macarons (Au Poussin Bleu photo below) and after I bought them I went outside, sat down, and ate them. But what I failed to notice was that I was sitting on the furniture for the next-door bar/restaurant. So the waiter thought I was ready to be waited on. So he walks up and says something to me in French (I don't know what it was because it was very fast) but it was probably something like "Hey, how's it going can I get you started with something to drink?" I thought he was asking for money so I just said "Oh, non merci." He was a bit confused but he left. Later, he came back and i assume he asked me if I was ready to order my meal but again he said it in really fast French so I couldn't understand him. And this time I said "J'ai dit déjà! Non merci!" Which means "I already said no thank you!!" This time he threw his hands in the air and left. To be fair he wasn't in a uniform, holding a pen and paper or anything like that. Also I was facing away from the restaurant so I didn't see where he came from or where he went after talking to me. But after I finished eating my macarons I realized what had happened, I was wildly embarrassed and felt really bad because I was really rude. I tried to go in and explain and apologize but he didn't want to speak to me.
4. So my commute to school in total was right around 30 minutes with the metro, but the metro line I used closed on July 17 for construction. So this meant I had to start using the bus. It was a little bit more complicated but not too terrible. I memorized that I would take bus 12 in the morning to school and bus 14 in the afternoon to my house. But on my second day using the bus, after school, I got on 140 accidentally because I didn't see the zero. It was hidden by another bus. 140 went the complete opposite way that I needed to go and i didn't realize this until I was at the end of the opposite direction. Now I know I sound wildly oblivious and stupid, but you must remember I've never used public transportation alone until this trip and also it was my second day via bus so I wasn't familiar with the sights I should be passing or the names of the stops the bus should take. Anyway I called my mom when I was at the opposite end and she said it wasn't a big deal. I got on the right bus and had to go ALL the way to the end of the opposite direction and the entire ride back home was an hour and 40 minutes.
5. One time I was shopping after school with some other "Toulousers" (keep in mind there were lots of people around us) and we went into a LUSH store (which is like body and skin products). I was standing and looking around and an employee tapped my shoulder and told me my dress was stuck on my backpack. I turned so red because this a big struggle for me: dresses and backpacks. Sometimes the backpack will catch the back of my dress and the dress will stay raised because it's between my body and my backpack (and it's really hard to tell when this is happening without feeling my lower back every few minutes with my hand to check if everything's fine). Anyway this means that my entire butt was completely exposed for lord knows how long and I didn't even know it.
6. One time I was coming back from school via metro (because it was still open then) and an elderly lady got really really mad at me. It was rush hour so there were a lot of people on this metro. I walked in with my backpack on my back and I don't remember bumping into anyone or feeling anyone bump into me but after the train takes off I feel this tug on my backpack handle. I turn around and see this little elderly woman sitting down and she starts yelling at me very incessantly. I had no idea what I had done but I just kept saying "Je suis vraiment désolé" which means I'm really sorry, but she wasn't satisfied. I felt really awkward. She got off on the next stop and when the doors closed after her I whispered to myself "Elle est folle" which means she's crazy; I didn't think anyone could hear me, but several people did and got a big kick out of it.
7. This is the story where I saw someone get hit by a car. I was with my favorite "Toulouser" sitting and eating ice cream at the capitol (the giant square/shopping plaza in front of the Toulouse town hall) after school one day. She was sitting across from me facing the store and I was facing the street. This area is full of pedestrians so not a lot of cars come through here. So there was a teenage boy on a bike (I would say he was 18 or so) delivering food for uber eats. He was just biking along and this car was trying to back up (I don't really know why) and both of them saw each other. I guess they just thought the timing would be different, but the car hit him. He was fine though the car probably wasn't going over 5 MPH I would say, but everyone freaked out. The kid wasn't super mad, and the driver seemed very apologetic. The kid just picked up his bike, adjusted his backpack (which had the food in it) and pedaled away. I just hope he wasn't delivering cupcakes.
8. And now for my favorite story. My family and I were at our neighbor's house. They have a 14-year-old girl who likes to play volleyball (as do I), and a 11-year-old boy who likes to draw. The parents were very sweet and so were their children. It was a fun night: we had dinner outside, had a volleyball match with their net, and after dinner the children showed me their bedrooms. As we were walking back outside where the parents were eating dinner, I walked right into the glass door really hard. To be fair, it was very dark, and so I was watching my feet to make sure I didn't trip. If I had looked up I'm sure I would've noticed it. Also, in order to get to the backyard you had to walk through two thresholds which used sliding glass doors and the first one was not shut. So before I slammed into the second glass door which was slid shut I had passed through one that was slid open (hopefully you can imagine this). Anyway, when I got to the table we were all laughing (parents too) and I actually started crying because I was laughing so hard. I explained in French how I've seen that scenario happen in movie, but I never thought it happened in real life. To say the least I'm pretty clumsy.
So there you have it. If you made it to the end I'm really impressed. Thanks for reading!