by Catherine Stevens, Corvallis Oregon
This July I traveled around France and furthered my French language education with the help of the Servas Youth Language Experience (SYLE). I also learned a lot about myself and gained confidence traveling by around a foreign country by myself. All told, I visited over 20 different cities and villages within six of the twelve regions in France! I tried regional food, learned about the history and conquests of different regions, and had a chance to experience neighboring countries (language, food, people) depending on which countries bordered the area I was in.
I started my journey by staying with a family in Milly-la-Forêt, near Paris, where I was introduced to daily family life in France. This included learning about the local markets, grocery stores, and French cooking. I helped my host mom with make a fancy dessert for her retirement party: apple roses!
One of the day trips I took was with my host family’s son to a nearby town called Barbizon. There I saw a house from the 1800s where early Impressionist painters lived and paid their rent by painting on the walls of the house because they couldn’t make enough money selling their paintings.
Another trip I took was into the nearby Forest of Fontainebleau, where I found natural sand deposits and huge rock formations. It was such an unexpected landscape to see.
I quickly became used to traveling by train and bus. I was able to take a bus into Germany on one of my off days because I was near the border. France is an old enough country that they developed their buildings and roads before cars became popular. For this reason, many roads are very narrow. Oftentimes cars will park up on the sidewalk to make room for traffic to go down the road. I also saw busses sharing a one-lane street with traffic coming from the other direction. I was surprised the first time I saw it, and then I realized that the city wasn’t going to push back buildings that were hundreds of years old just to add another lane for cars.
My next host family was in Pontcharra, near Lyon, in the south-east of France. I enjoyed exploring the town and nearby cities by train. My favorite memory is going to Chambéry with my hosts to watch the World Cup semi-final game that France was in, and won! It was there that I tried what is now my new favorite type of sausage, Diot. It is specific to the Savoie department in France, which was evident when I couldn’t find it anywhere else in the country.
Watching the world cup with one of my host families in Chambéry
One of the most interesting realizations I had was that most intersections that are not T-shaped have a roundabout instead of standard intersections with stop lights. I also noticed that in the middle of many of the roundabouts is a statue. For example, the Arc de Triomphe is in the middle of a six-road intersection. So my theory is that when roads became more developed, and needed to intersect, roundabouts were implemented as a way to not have to remove these landmarks. I personally think they are better than intersections with stop lights because they force drivers to slow down and look around themselves at where others are, rather than relying on the color of the lights.
Spending the day on the Bretagne Coast
My third host family was in Plerneuf, near St. Brieuc, in the north-west of France. It was very convenient timing that this was my last location, and this was my only host family who had time to come with me to various coastal towns nearby. After a month of spending my days mostly by myself, it was a good contrast. Out of all the towns we visited, I was absolutely blown away by the beauty of Perros-Guirec.
My hosts and a pesto pasta dinner I made in Plerneuf
I learned that France used to be controlled by other countries, before it became one country. This means that various regions used to speak different languages. As it turns out, the Bretagne region (where I was staying) is one where some people still speak (and some schools still teach) the old language, Breton.
The new foods I tried were incredible. Of course, the French are famous for their pastries, but I also discovered apple and pear sorbet and savory foods such as new types of seafood, shellfish, sausage, Breton galette (savory crêpe), paté, and rillette (similar to paté). For my last host family, I made them one of my favorite dishes: pesto pasta with sautéed zucchini.
Catherine Stevens has been a Servas traveler since 2016. She is a college student in Oregon, USA and previously worked as a web developer. She enjoys baking, trying new recipes, and cycling.