Today marks three weeks since I left my home in a small suburb of NYC to start my semester abroad in Toulouse. It’s starting to sink in that this will be my home and my life for the next four months, although it still feels like yesterday that I stepped off the plane at the Blagnac airport.
The buildup to meeting our host families was huge, but when the moment came, it was nowhere as scary as I imagined. After the eight other new students and I got our overstuffed suitcases from the baggage claim, we met our regional coordinator, who talked to us for a few minutes. Then, we walked down the terminal to meet our host families, who waited for us at the end. Everyone’s experience was definitely different, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that, because we had already spoken over the phone, my host family felt more like old friends than complete strangers. We left much more quickly than I thought, heading out to the car after only a few minutes.
We spent the Sunday spending time with our host families before orientation started the next day. Resisting the urge to nap after an exhausting day of travel, I walked around the town with my host sister. Even though it was rainy and everything was closed, everything still felt magical. The suburb of Toulouse felt like my hometown in some ways, with its 8,000 inhabitants and neverending hills. In other ways, it was markedly different; after all, my hometown doesn’t have a castle in the middle of houses, schools, and little shops.
Orientation was even more helpful than I thought it was going to be. I had panicked in the days before departure, digging through pages of Google results and frantically asking my French friends about the smallest details of their country. I was relieved when I realized that CIEE would fill us in on all the information I was scared that I was missing. We spent the next four days learning about high school in France, the host family experience, program rules, and cultural differences. Class sessions took up most of the day, but we still had lots of time before, after, and in between to order hot chocolate and try new pastries at the cafe down the street.
After four days of orientation, I finally felt prepared for the first day of school. The teachers were amazingly gentle and understanding with me, and I realized I didn’t have to stress about understanding everything right away. While all of the French students knew I was coming, they waited for me to approach them instead of coming to talk to me. This discouraged me at first before I figured out this was yet another cultural difference. After I talked to my classmates, I discovered that everyone was really nice. Meanwhile, the other exchange students found me right away, and we bonded quickly. While the differences between the American and French school systems continue to surprise me, school is beginning to feel comfortable and routine.
Discovering new things every day is more than I could’ve dreamed of. I’m finally starting to settle in, and I can’t wait to see what the next four months bring.