“This is the real France,” my friend, the chinese teacher explained to me. The tiny village where we had been situated in the Loiret region of France was clearly no Paris. My sleepy village only about 70 kilometres south of France’s capital seems worlds away from the lively Paris, where people come to from everywhere and nearly everyone speaks English. That’s not the case here in the real France where the usual American mentality of convenience and instantaneous results is reversed and instead we have to adapt to a way of life which values taking its time. This is evident everywhere I go in France as one can observe the typical ritual of sitting at a café on any given street corner smoking and sipping coffee in the most leisurely manner as if there is nothing at all on the agenda.
The “real France” does not adapt to you but you must learn how to live in it. Nearly everything is closed by 7 p.m. in a small town like Montargis and nothing is opened on a Sunday. Also, the majority of the towns’ inhabitants are not fluent in English, which leads to some communication errors as my french is still improving. I am living in the high school which appears to be in the middle of the forest, accordingly named Lycée en Forêt, which is even more removed from the so-called “Centre Ville” (really only a few streets of stores) of Montargis. Surrounded by trees and greenery, it is a lovely natural scene. The sharp contrast of school’s bright white institutional-looking buildings is the only thing that breaks the illusion of being in the middle of the forest. At times it feels like I’m a bit removed from civilization though. For example, when I call to order pizza on a sunday night because nothing else is open the man tells me that they “don’t deliver to the forest”.
On my first week of classes I am asked to introduce myself to the students, the lycéens, who are between fifteen and eighteen years old. Eager hands are raised and the most oft-asked questions are, “What celebrities do you know?” (because, of course, all Americans have lunch with Hollywood A-listers) “What are you thoughts on the NRA?” “Do you own a gun?” (No) “Do you know someone who owns a gun?” (I don’t think so?) “Do you like One Direction?” (Sure why not) and “Do you have a boyfriend?” (teacher vetoes as an appropriate question). They want to know everything about the U.S.; a world they have only imagined from what they have seen on the silver screen.
Their vision of life the U.S. has come from movies and television series such as Weeds, Desperate Housewives and Pretty Little Liars. One of the English teachers tells me that when she visited the United States she felt like she was in a film. Most of the students have never met an American. In a way the portrayal of U.S. middle class life by the media isn’t so far from the truth. In a lesson on “consumer culture” one of the English teachers, Julie, writes key phrases describing U.S. culture on the board as students call out, “lack of personality,” “big houses,” “throwing money down the drain.” This is what comes to mind when they think of the United States and its “consumer culture”. Most of the students want to go there anyways so it must not sound too bad to live in big, identical houses in suburbia where fast-food restaurants, shopping malls and superstores such as Walmart and Wegmans are always at one’s disposal.
I ask them to tell me about themselves too. We go around in a circle and I ask them to talk to me about their hobbies and what they would like to do after they take their bac (similar to a college entrance exam). “I want to be a lawyer,” “I want to be a French teacher” , “I want to work in Tourism in the U.S.,” “I have no idea what I want to do after the Bac,” “I play football,” “I love American series,” “I like playing video games,” “I like to smoke weed and look at beautiful girls” (um okay?) I think back to my own language classes when we did similar activities to practice talking; about hobbies, future careers, interests, television shows. I can’t remember what I would have said. Probably something along the lines of loving fashion, visiting my cousins in Florida, not knowing what I wanted to do when I “grew up.” The point wasn’t so much what you were talking about so long that you were talking.