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Vive la France!
by Eric Leventhal, Editor-in-Chief

What does senior Sandy Combes think of Freedom fries and liberty dressing? After spending nearly a year in France as a foreign exchange student, she has a new appreciation for the country that many Americans love to hate.

Combes had dreamed of going to France for years, but former middle school French teacher Diane Knuth helped make her dream reality. "I've wanted to do it, but I never knew how to," said Combes. That is, until Knuth helped her contact the American Field Service, an organization that has been helping place foreign exchange students for fifty years. AFS found a French family for her to stay with near the town of P‚rigeux in the Bordeaux region. She was placed with the Bihls, a family of two parents with an eleven-year-old daughter.

P‚rigeux may have been far away from home, but it was by no means a vacation. Combes attended the Lyc‚e Laure Gatet, which ran on a block schedule, making it seem more like a college than a high school. Since the European education system requires students to choose from among five majors, Combes opted to specialize in literature. Because of her poor French, she had a very difficult time in the beginning. "I had [French] in school, but it's nothing like the real thing. For the first three months I didn't understand anything," recalls Combes. However, with diligent effort she improved steadily, and by the end of her stay she was fully fluent.

Combes also had difficulty adjusting to French family life. The Bihls insisted on eating every meal together, and spent much more time together than the average American family. The change was difficult for Combes to adjust to, as her family back home rarely even had a family meal. The friction between Combes and the eleven-year-old daughter even forced her to switch homes for the last month of her stay.

In the late winter and early spring, the debate over the potential American invasion of Iraq reached its peak. Many French students approached Combes asking her what she thought about Iraq and George W. Bush. At least in P‚rigeux, the vast majority of people were against any invasion of Iraq, and seemed better informed about the news than most Americans. Fortunately for Combes, she shared their opinion and was able to engage in many interesting conversations on the topic. She says that her most interesting discourses were with a Moroccan boy whose perspective was quite different than she was accustomed to. According to Combes, the French don't hold a grudge against Americans or treat individuals poorly when they come to visit. During her entire stay in France, Combes was not once treated rudely because of her nationality.

Now that Combes is back in the U.S., she feels like a changed person. "I think I grew up. I'm a lot more talkative now," said Combes. Does she plan to return to France any time soon? It doesn't look feasible in the near future, but she would love to return. "It was the best year of my life," Combes reflected. "If anyone else has the urge to go, just do it!"


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