Three days in Paris with my students: A European exchange project

The French, German, and Swiss middle and high school students chattered excitedly in three different languages despite the fact that they were huddling at a bus stop at 6 a.m. in the chilly mountain air. They were going to Paris!

The students had the opportunity to take this trip through the Comenius Project, a European Union educational exchange project. The project is sponsored primarily by the European Commission, which then affiliates with other partners, such as the French Ministry of National Education.

John Amos Comenius, born in 1592 in Moravia (in what is now the Czech Republic), was a teacher, educator, writer, and philosopher. His ideas for reforming society via education, published in his pamphlet “Universal Education,” laid the foundation for modern education.

The students from the French high school where I teach took a special English class during the school year, “Classe européene,” whose goal was in part to prepare them for this exchange with the German and Swiss schools. At one point, there had been the possibility that Turkish and Spanish schools would participate in the project as well; however due to various reasons they were obliged to cancel.

The visit to France was the first exchange in a series of exchanges. In 2015, the schools taking part in this project will visit the German partners in Berlin.

Earlier the same week, the German and Swiss students and teachers had been welcomed to the small French village where I live and work. They stayed with host families of the French high school students (lycéens) from Monday until Wednesday. Each day, project coordinators at the lycée planned cultural activities for the visiting students and teachers. There was a scavenger hunt throughout the village, a visit to the local museum, and an afternoon spent in the mountains with raquettes (snowshoes). In the mornings, students from each school gave presentations about their countries, regions, and schools.

There were nine accompagnateurs traveling to Paris with the 46 students, including myself and eight other teachers. I had been invited to join the group by project coordinators at the lycée. Since the official language of the project was English (although none of the participants spoke English as their native language), the coordinators asked me to help with written and oral translations, in addition to assisting with the supervision of the students.

The bus arrived in Paris just after 2 p.m. Being February in Paris, naturally it was raining. We weren’t going to let that deter us from following the carefully planned itinerary, however. Students and teachers spilled out of the bus to take pictures of the Arc de Triomphe. I had been to Paris three times before, but had never climbed to the top of the Arc. The view of a rainy, gray Paris was spectacular all the same.


Our next stop was to lead students on a guided walking tour through the Place de la Concorde, le Jardin des Tuileries, le Louvre, le Palais-Royal, and la Conciergerie. We shared umbrellas around and the guide stopped the group under various buildings to present the main talking points.


It was typical Paris. Gypsies hovered on the fringes of our group, hawking their cheap souvenirs or approaching students directly to try to trick them into signing a piece of paper so that they would be oblivious to a pickpocket’s sleight of hand. The metallic silver man posing on a stool captivated students’ attention as they poked their heads around a building’s pillars to get a better glimpse, then shrieked and giggled when he turned toward them.

At 6 p.m., we checked into the large hostel where students would be rooming together in groups of three. The hostel also provided breakfast, picnic lunches, and dinner. After dinner, some teachers headed down to the large common area in the basement to plan the next day’s agenda.

On day two, the first item of the day was to take a trip on the Bateaux Mouches on the Seine River. Luckily, it was a beautiful, crisp day. We arrived early, so students had a chance to gather by the nearby Tour Eiffel and take photos.

We had a picnic lunch sitting by the pyramids outside the Louvre, then students had time from 2-4 p.m. to walk through the museum, filling out worksheets about various art exhibits. They had a bit of free time to wander through the shops after seeing the museum.

Next, there was a visit to the Sénat scheduled. This was highly impressive. The visit commenced with a short video, then our guide showed us around various gilded rooms. Upon walking into the golden main hall and seeing the throne with the capital “N” (for “Napoleon,” of course), students gasped, “Oh là là! Le roi, il est où?” They came up with several good questions for our guide, including, “Do senators have another job or career outside of their political work?” The response: Most senators have already had a career, usually as a fonctionnaire de l’état. Typically, they retire, then they go on to work in the Sénat.

The group ate a late dinner at the hostel that night. Most of the students and teachers wanted to go out for a night in Paris. I stayed at the hostel with two other teachers and 12 students. The hostel manager lent us speakers so the students could play music and dance in the common area. We procured some board games. I saw one of the middle school students setting up a chess board by himself, and scrutinizing the pamphlet listing the rules. I asked if he’d like a partner to play with. He agreed, and I showed him the rules for moving the pieces, while he taught me the names of the pieces in French.

The third morning in Paris, the Swiss and German students left for their home countries. I gathered the keys from students as they left their rooms and were hustled downstairs to the bus. The French students, teachers, and I continued on to the Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration for a short morning visit. Opened in 2007, this controversial museum is located in the Palais de la Porte Dorée, which used to house the Musée national des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie. Students seemed genuinely to enjoy this museum, with its interesting stone facade of 1,130 square meters depicting scenes representing French colonies. The purpose of this museum is to pay tribute to the history of diversity in France.

There were all sorts of social and political commentaries written on the glass windows of the museum:



Overall, the exchange program was a success. The students enjoyed themselves and were in awe of Paris, since it was the first time most of them had visited the city.

We departed Paris at 11 a.m. that day. Students rocked out to Stromae’s hit songs “Tous les mêmes” and “Formidable” played on repeat on the bus’ loudspeakers on the ride back to their villages.



Small-Town France Vs. Small-Town America

I enjoy trips to the city and have lived briefly in medium-sized cities in the past. However, I have to say I connect with rural towns on a certain level. After all, I grew up in a town in central Virginia where it was completely normal to see an escaped calf loping across high school property, men and women in hunting gear trekking through Walmart, and a farm-use tractor going ten miles per hour on a local road with twelve cars lined up behind it. Now that I’m living in a rural French town, I thought I would write a post comparing small French towns to small U.S. towns in general.



Small-town France

So how is small-town France similar to and different from small-town America? Based on what I have observed so far, I would argue that there are more similarities than differences. While I can answer this question solely based on the few small U.S. towns in which I’ve lived and the one small French town in which I’m currently living, I feel that I can make a few generalizations which hold true regardless of the town’s exact location.

Since this is an education-related blog, I feel that I should begin my comparison with student opinions on small-town life, which are usually freely offered:

A 16-year-old small-town American student: “Living here sucks! There’s nothing to do.”

A 16-year-old small-town French student: “C’est le pire! “Il n’y a rien à faire ici.” (Translation: “It’s the worst! There’s nothing to do here.”

In both countries, students ask me, with a certain amount of disbelief in their voices, “Why did you come to teach here?”

I sympathize with the students briefly, then ask them for positive reactions to living in [insert name] small town. Responses are generally along the lines of, “Well . . . you can go hiking/biking/skiing here.” I then ask whether students have to worry as much about problems like excessive pollution or high crime rates. The answer: “I guess not . . .” For those students who grew up in the town and are not recent transplants, another (generally) positive factor is that much of their extended family lives in the area.

I understand students’ (and adults’) frustrations with living in a small town. I freely admit that at times, it’s simply necessary to leave town to meet friends or just get a change of scenery. In Virginia, I had a car and left town many weekends. Here in France, I don’t have a car, but I am getting better at figuring out the infrequent train and bus system, as well as determining opportunities for covoiturage (carpooling).

As with living anywhere, there are trade-offs to living in a small town versus a city. The higher cost of living and increased crime, pollution, and stress that often correlate with city living are offset by perceived benefits such as more varied and higher-paying job opportunities, an increased number of venues for intellectual engagement, and a wider range of social events from which to choose. Furthermore, “outsiders” wanting to blend in usually have an easier time doing so in the city.

Here are some further similarities I’ve observed in small-town France and America:

  • In a time of need, there is almost always someone “just down the street” who can help you out. You’ll likely be expected to repay the favor sometime, but it’s nice to have someone you trust help you out without expecting monetary compensation.
  • Businesses often operate in unexpected ways. Here in France, my WiFi box was not delivered to the post office as one might anticipate, but to the épicerie (a grocery/ABC-type store).
  • There is a close-knit culture among co-workers, especially teachers. They understand the need for support in a small town, especially for those who are not natives and have few contacts in the area outside of work.
  • Small-town natives often have an intense amount of pride in their town, which sometimes is only evident when an outsider makes a disparaging remark about the town. The native vehemently defends the small town, despite just having complained about the lack of things to do in said town.


Small-town America

Now for some differences I’ve observed:

The small French ville is different from the small American town in certain ways. Notably, the French ville has a tightly clustered nucleus. The post office, schools, mairie, grocery store, médiathèque, banks, etc. are all typically within a five- to ten-minute walk from one another. In contrast, a “small town” in the U.S. may in fact sprawl for miles so that it’s unreasonable or impossible to walk from, say, the library to the post office.

Another difference is that French towns typically shut down for one to two hours in the middle of the day. They also shut down on Sunday and partially on Monday–banks are closed. Yes, boutiques and novelty shops typically keep similar hours in American small towns, but the U.S. still has many stores that remain open 24/7. In the small French town in which I’m living, the main grocery store and a few other stores are open until 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, but that’s about it. The kebab joint a few blocks from the center of town is one of the few available options for dining out on Sunday.

Keeping businesses open on Sunday in this region is a controversial topic. It made front page news in the regional paper, Le Progrès, last Sunday. The headline was, “Travail le dimanche: le Jura n’est pas Paris.” This translates to, “Work on Sunday: the Jura isn’t Paris.” Michel Dronier, president of the Jura Commerce Federation, opines that the weekend should be devoted to family activities. “Sinon, cela posera un problème sociétal…” (“Otherwise, there will be societal issues.”) He goes on to say, however, that it might be a good idea to reflect on having businesses stay open in tourist areas on Sunday.

So there you have it. Small towns in the Jura are caught in a conflict. From the paper’s stance and its opinion poll, it seems that many people (perhaps a majority) believe that businesses in the region shouldn’t have to adhere to big-city commercial standards. Family togetherness on weekends is of great importance. Notably, religion is not mentioned as a reason for closing businesses on Sunday. The flip side of the issue is that businesses need to combat economic stagnation and/or failure. Staying open on Sunday is often a good way to do that. I don’t recall the American towns in which I’ve lived having this discussion, but perhaps other towns in America have done so.

To sum up, I look at living in a small town as enjoyable, although sometimes a challenge. I do feel like an outsider here in France, for obvious reasons, despite the welcoming efforts of teachers and students. Yet I also felt like an outsider when I moved back to my hometown in Virginia to work for nine months after graduating from college this year. The town had changed a lot, but I had changed even more. I knew a couple friends from high school who were living in the area, but I mostly recreated my life in the town. I was now an employee of the public school system, not a student. As a substitute teacher, my elementary, middle, and high school teachers were now co-workers. I also made friends with people of all ages and various professions, whereas my younger self would have made friends only with people around my age.

Despite my limited experience in small-town France, I’d say that the majority of differences between French and American towns are actually larger cultural and linguistic differences characteristic of each country as a whole. There are many more similarities between small-town France and small-town America than I initially would have thought.

First Impressions

“Ah, les États-Unis—ils existent!” As possibly the only American living in this small industrial town of 6,000 people in eastern France, I have encountered several such reactions to my presence here, both joking and serious.

One of the things which has surprised me here so far is that people can’t necessarily tell that I am American. Of course, they know immediately that I am a foreigner when I speak French, and usually that I am a native English-speaker, but my American accent isn’t as easily recognized as I originally thought it would be.

It took me three days of continuous travel by plane, train, car, and foot to make it to this French town, where I will be teaching English for seven months. I have been living here for exactly one week now and it has been one of the busiest weeks of my life, second only to final exam week at William and Mary. I have been extremely fortunate to have had several people affiliated with the lycée here help me with the transition. Not only did one of the teachers from the lycée let me spend my first night here at her house, but she also reserved my apartment for me in advance, assisted me with setting up utilities, and helped me to open a French bank account.

My first few days here were a whirlwind of paperwork, moving into my apartment, meeting teachers and students at the lycée, and filling out more paperwork.

I am living in a valley surrounded on all sides by the Jura mountains. Apparently, I arrived during a rare period of sunshine. This town is known for gray weather, great ski slopes, and of course, la lunetterie (glasses-making and optics).

To give you a sense of this petite ville, here is a picture taken of the view from my apartment balcony:


I won’t begin teaching right away. I have un stage (an orientation) this coming week in Besançon, France. After that, I will observe classes at the lycée for several days before teaching on my own. There are at least five teachers with whom I will be working. I will teach primarily English conversation to high school students and to students in a two-year post-high school optician program. Each teacher with whom I will be working has different expectations for me as an assistant d’anglais, which will make my job all the more interesting.

The town doesn’t sell very many goods apart from food and glasses. I needed a cell phone. Thus, it was necessary that I venture out this week by train to a nearby town in order to buy one. Seizing this opportunity to buy other exotic goods, I not only bought a cheap prepaid phone, but also towels, a commodity which I honestly had not been able to locate in my new town.

Despite the difficulties of living in such a small town, I am glad that I’m teaching here. In the larger cities in France, not only is the cost of living higher, but so too are the chances that people will switch to speaking English with anyone they detect as having an American or British accent. Aside from teaching French students English, my objectives here are to learn to speak French more fluently, to determine the similarities and differences of the French and American education systems, and to challenge myself to create a new life in a place where I am several thousand miles away from anyone I know.

What should you know about getting your French long-stay visa?

Though some people cringe at the thought of going through the French visa application process, the experience need not be stressful. With some basic internet searches and a little common-sense preparation, you will be ready to do business with the folks at your “local” French Embassy, whatever your purpose for traveling to France may be.

I recently visited the French Embassy in Washington, D.C. to apply for my long-stay work visa. I had never gone through the visa application process before. My one-month study abroad in Montpellier, France during the summer of 2011 was through my home institution, the College of William and Mary, and I didn’t require a student visa. Here is a list of a few useful things to have in mind before leaving for your visa appointment:

  1. Don’t bother arriving at the consulate more than a half-hour early.

I arrived on foot more than an hour early for my 9:45 a.m. appointment and was instructed to wait just inside the gate until 9:15, at which point the guard checked my driver’s license and allowed me to pass through. I suppose the consulate’s rationale for this procedure is so that the waiting room doesn’t fill up too quickly. When I got to the waiting room, there were only a few people there; however, by 9:45 the room was packed and there were still people waiting who had arrived for their 9:00 a.m. appointment. I had expected to wait awhile for my appointment, so I was slightly surprised to leave as early as 11:15. If I had to do it again, I would book my appointment for 8:45 or 9:00– the earlier in the day, the quicker your application will be processed.

  1. Bring the OFII form.

Even if your consulate’s website doesn’t mention that you need to bring this form, the visa officer WILL ask you for it during your visa appointment. Make sure you fill out the top portion only, since the bottom portion is for you to mail in to the Office français de l’immigration et l’intégration during the first three months of your stay in France. Once in France, the office will request that you appear for an interview and medical exam. Also, print ALL the pages of the document, even though the last two don’t have any blanks for you to fill in. The visa officer will ask you for those as well.

  1. Make 2-3 copies of every document before you come to your appointment.

You need copies. However, if you forget them or need more once you’ve arrived at the consulate, there is a photocopier in the waiting room (at least this is the case at the D.C. consulate). Also, if you forget a document, the visa officers may be lenient about letting you have documents emailed or faxed to them that day. This was the case for one person in the waiting room with me, who was applying for a student visa. She called her institution abroad and asked them to email documents directly to the consulate so that she wouldn’t have to reschedule her appointment.

  1. Follow all directions on your consulate’s website.

This is the easiest way to make sure you’re not forgetting anything. Double-check instructions before you go to your appointment. The consulate has different procedures for each visa type. The teaching assistant visa seems to be the least complicated type, in terms of the number of documents required for the application.

For more information on how to schedule your visa appointment and what documents to bring, visit the French Consulate’s website:

If you are a teaching assistant, you’ll find the 2013-2014 Assistant’s Handbook helpful, as well as the TAPIF Facebook page.

After you successfully complete your visa appointment, sit back and wait for your visa to be mailed back to you! This is the consulate’s preferred option; it’s less of a hassle than going to pick up your passport and attached visa in person. The consulate’s website says the visa processing time is normally 2-3 weeks, but my visa arrived in the mail six days after I applied for it at the consulate. Time for me to buy that plane ticket . . .