Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The First Leg of the Trip

Today I woke up in my bed, to my alarm clock, in my room, realizing this was the last time I'd do so for 10ish months. After packing and repacking all my clothes, doo-dads and knick-knacks into a massive check-in piece and two backpacks I had my last breakfast in Maine. So maybe an omelette isn't the best breakfast before flying but so what!
I went to the Portland Jetport and said good-bye to my family, but hopefully not for long, thanks to Skype and all the other wonders of our age. I ran into Victor, an exchange student I'd met at the pre-departure orientation who will be heading off to Spain. It was definitely nice to see someone I knew who was going where I was. At the very least, it told me I was in the rate terminal. After losing my boarding ticket three times in a row and repeatedly finding it in my backpacks or under my seat, I boarded the almost-one hour flight to JFK airport in New York city. Thankfully they had the mini-tv's built into the backs of the seats with Direct TV, which offered some relief from the endless chorus of cries, shrieks, gurgles and yips from the three babies and dog in the seats around me. It was kind of funny, passing over Portland, looking down and realizing that I couldn't recognize anything from the air and yet if I was anywhere below I'd be perfectly oriented. As I saw Maine slip out from under the hull of the commercial jet I realized that even if Maine is the home of crazy weather, lobsters and gun-toting, LePage-supporting rednecks, I would still miss it and everything and everyone there.
When we touched down, I disembarked and found Victor and Carrie (also a friend from the orientation) as well as a girl from my middle school, also going to France, and another AFSer. Together we navigated JFK and made it to the baggage claim where we ran to and fro looking for our carousel. After a little we found it, and our luggage. Now if only we had found the AFS reps as easily. No, no no... Instead we did laps of the baggage claim, the appointed meeting spot, looking for people in AFS shirts. After a while we just sat down and decided we'd call them in a half hour, if they didn't show up first, that is. To make a long story short, they found us and we met up with other AFSers, looking equally bewildered, nervous, excited and exhausted.
We took a bus to the DoubleTree Hotel, the site of the New York orientation for all people going to Europe programs. After being issued an AFS shirt, name tag and international student ID card (complete with a horrible picture I totally didn't know they were going to use for that) I was ushered into a room packed with other students. We mingled and met new people and I met a ton of other people going to France. I got my room key, dropped off my baggage and came back down to hang out. We did a welcome thing and an "icebreaker activity" which consisted of running around asking people whether they could fit any of the description in the "people bingo" sheet. All for candy, of course! How else would they get a hundred or more teenagers to go up to a random person their age, quickly introduce themselves and ask if they could burp on demand or had a cat or came from a bilingual family????
Then we had dinner, a buffet from the hotel, which turned out to be a most hilarious affair. Between talking, cracking jokes, telling stories and trying desperately to eat like a Frenchman, we had a lot of fun and laughs. (In case you didn't know, which you probably wouldn't (I mean, hey, I didn't know either until I read a book about French culture) the French eat with both the knife and the fork, fork in the left hand, knife in the right. They don't cut their food and then drop the knife, like we do here at home, but rather keep it in their hand to use a tool to assist in the loading of food onto the fork. They also don't switch the fork to the other hand, they don't put their hands in their laps at any time during a meal (a sign of not wanting to talk or having something to hide: often looked upon as suspicious or nonchalant and rude) and the French never, EVER put their bread on the plate. It very specifically goes on the table and is used as a sort of spoon and mop for sauces and such.) Anyway, I'm sure you can imagine what happens when you put that many people of that age in one room to bond over rice, chicken and coconut cake.
After dinner, we had a "country resource" (a.k.a. a past AFSer from the destination country) come talk to us about what it's like to live in France and to answer our questions. That was pretty informative but more fun was the 3 hours of free time that came next. I hung out in a friend room with a bunch of other people going to France and AFSers drifted in and out with miscellaneous items such as laptops and burned popcorn smelling of old cheese. We listened to loud music, watched TV, showed each other where we were going to be living and going to school and overall got to know each-other better. It was really fun and I know a made a lot of friends that I'll be able to talk to when I'm in France.
So now I'm sitting in my bed in the hotel room at a quarter to 12 PM, tapping out an account of my day. Tomorrow we get to wake up bright and early to do all sorts of AFS activities and get phone numbers and emails of the people who won't be finishing the trip with us. Later in the afternoon we'll be heading back to JFK to continue on in our journey: first the long haul from New York over to Zurich (where we will all be breaking up into our individual country groups) and then, after a 4 hour layover (the perfect opportunity for me to use up some Francs from the last visit to Switzerland at the world's finest chocolatier, Sprungli) the rest of us going to France will take a shorter flight over into Paris.
Since I'll be getting up pretty early tomorrow (7:45, ARGH!!) I guess I'd better get some shut-eye now. So I'll see you in Paris where I'll be staying a couple nights for the France orientation.
Bon Nuit, Good night!
-Benji from NYC

Monday, August 22, 2011


This is it. The final week. I'm down to my last week of living in the US and then I'm gone. So far, this last month has been pretty hectic. After recently returning from Hawaii, I've started working again and will be doing so pretty much until I leave. In the mean time, I spend my days scrambling around photocopying passports, sending emails to AFS and stocking up on socks and outlet converters. And, of course, getting in as much time with my friends as possible. It seems weird that the people who I've been with every day for 15 and a half years are going to vanish from my life.... C'est la vie!
In Hawaii, I called into an AFS phone conference with a former AFSer from France. Can I say "illuminating"? It was very interesting to hear about what my life might be like next year. I was told to keep a small booklet on me where I can make my own dictionary for words I need to learn. I wonder what will be in there by the end of the year. I also learned that sports are done with private clubs, not school teams like here in America. I guess that's good since it will be much better funded and organized but it'll probably be expensive for me. Nonetheless, I'm excited to play tennis, nordic ski and play soccer in France. As long as I don't get head-butted!
I'm really excited to get to Paris for the three-day orientation. Myself and 400+ other AFSers from around the world are going to temporarily inhabit a youth hostel somewhere in the City of Lights, no doubt scaring the crap out of the other hostel guests, as we'll all be running around with cameras and pantomiming to each-other in dozens of different languages. We'll take a bus tour of Paris which, while being a great way to mark us as tourists, will be exciting because I haven't been there yet. Although I've been through part of Provence it's very different from Paris (rural to suburban and small wine-making villages to the world's most-visited city) and it'll be awesome to see such a famous, amazing place. Then I'll proceed to my village, maybe my train or maybe with my host family, I don't know yet. I can't wait to meet my host brother Guillaume who is almost a twin to me, our birthdays being 2 days apart! School is going to be a whole different matter though.
So French schools are very very different than American schools, as one might imagine. In French high school, or lycée as it's called, there are only three years instead of four. When a student enrolls, they have to pick a "major": S for scientifique (this is a math and science based curriculum), L for littéraire (mainly history, literature, writing curriculum) and ES for économique et social (economics and social sciences). You stay with this curriculum throughout lycée according to your interests. Now, ideally I'd want to be in literature because I'm a reading-writing bookish kinda person. As fate would have it, I'm in S so I'll be learning geometry, various algebras, biology, physics and I think chemistry. While you do study mostly your "major's" topics, everyone does take classes in everything else, just not to such an extensive level. I'm hoping to get into an English class- perhaps the one class I'll pass and get credits for!
I'm probably not going to have anything to write about until I'm in transit to France so good-bye America and à très bientôt for now!