Crepes, Baguettes and Cigarettes

Living abroad in France as a teenager


Photo by Chris Karidis via Unsplash

Whatever the reason, the allure of travel and the appeal of studying in another country is undeniable. One common destination for studying and living abroad is France, a country often praised for its romantic and beautiful scenery and rich history.

Alexis Herrington, Feature Editor

Many students often consider taking their high school education abroad, be it in the pursuit of cultural immersion or stemming from a desire to become more proficient in a foreign language. Whatever the reason, the allure of travel and the appeal of studying in another country is undeniable. One common destination for studying and living abroad is France. The country is often praised for its romantic and beautiful scenery and rich history. After hearing endless praise for this famous country on Europe’s western coast, I was curious to see if these were clichés or if all that I had heard was, in fact, true. To answer my questions, I recently sat down with three Boulder High seniors to hear about their experiences with studying abroad in France. 

One of these students, Cecily Ure, had planned on going abroad for a long time, but it was only a hypothetical idea until she met a fellow student who had done an exchange program to Taiwan through the organization Rotary International. Ure contacted Rotary a year in advance and began a long process of interviews. Eventually, she was awarded a scholarship to live abroad and spent the following year in Les Sables d’Olonne on the west coast of France.

Throughout her time there, Ure stayed with three different host families. She says she was “scared because it’s a big deal to see how you fit into the dynamic of a family.” However, she found that she got along with all of them. Her host siblings were very supportive of her and helped her adapt.

Ure attended a private school. At first, school in France was extremely difficult because no one in her city spoke English. On top of that, “people weren’t nice and accepting, which made it hard to connect with them,” she says. She noticed that “people were more cliquey, and they only interacted with their immediate friend groups.”

Other differences Ure noticed were that “everyone at my school dressed the same. The fashion in Boulder is definitely more diverse, which I prefer.” She also noticed that “the environment was much more serious, which is possibly a side effect of studying at a private school.” She says, “The relationships between students and teachers were very formal. For example, teachers called students by their last names.” On the other hand, Ure noticed that “the government seems much more trusting of the people, especially with things such as alcohol.”

Ure struggled with the language barrier, although she was glad for the challenge because it allowed her to become fluent in as little as three months. She says that “it was especially hard at the dinner table because my host families were talking quickly and it was hard to keep up.”

Ure says going abroad taught her to “appreciate small things [she] never noticed before, such as good fruit and going to Whole Foods.” She also missed talking to her little brother every day. She says she “missed a lot of things that [she] used to subconsciously take for granted.”

Katja McMillan’s family had been thinking of moving to France for about 6 months prior to making the decision. They ended up settling on Aix-en-Provence, a city in the south of France, because of its international community and the fact that it has an international school.

McMillan says she was initially worried about how she was going to get along with so many new people, but since she went to an international school there were students from many different parts of the world and it made for a welcoming environment. McMillan says her parents “had [her] go to a private international school because they thought it would be easier to integrate.”

Although she lived in Aix, McMillan went to the International Bilingual School of Provence in Luynes. She enjoyed being in the south of France and wasn’t worried about being new because so was half of her sophomore class. She says “This made for a bit of a weird environment because it was just everyone trying to get to know each other at first.” She says that it was initially hard to relate to people from different places. There were people from all around the globe – everywhere from the United Kingdom to Cameroon.

One thing McMillan says she enjoyed about France was how much freedom teenagers had there. According to her, “There was just a lot more for young people to do. We would go to cafés with large groups of friends and we didn’t have to worry about making too much noise. There were a lot more places like this where young people could just destress. On a Friday night we would go to a café and then spend the rest of the night at a beautiful park. Some of my friends also had apartments in Aix, or when we got bored of the city, we could take day trips to nearby towns.” McMillan values how things in France were very accommodated to the youth. “For example,” she says, “every town had a skate park because they realised that it was important for young people living in the countryside to have something to do.”

Another thing McMillan enjoyed was how her whole grade felt like one big group of friends. She says it was common to take the bus to Aix with one person and then to “link up” with a lot of others, and “By the end of the day the whole grade would be hanging out at the park.” McMillan talked about the dynamics of these friendships and how they were always changing. According to her, “Because people moved away so often, loyalty became a very vague concept.” McMillan says that the dynamics were changing so fast that they were “something [she] never really figured out.” 

Another difference McMillan noticed was the relationships between teachers and students. In contrast to Ure’s experience, McMillan says there was a lack of respect towards teachers among the student body. This resulted in a lack of respect for rules at the school. McMillan says “a lot of kids would go to the smoking corner during lunch and breaks. You would walk into the bathroom after these breaks and girls who smoked were chewing gum and spraying Victoria’s Secret perfume.” As students would walk into class after these breaks, teachers would just shake their heads in dismay.

Unlike the other two students I interviewed, Julia Salomon had been moving back and forth between France and the US frequently throughout her childhood before actually attending school there. When she was six, her family decided to move to a town called Lourmarin in southeastern France.

Like Ure and McMillan, Salomon attended a private school. She talked about several differences from her experience at Boulder High, such as instead of everyone having a different schedule, she would go about her day with the rest of her class. There was no such thing as credits – students studied the curriculum that the government provided them with. She says it was also different because everyone knew each other and it felt like the whole class was a group of friends. Salomon would know people for so long that in high school she would still be close with people she had gone middle school with. She would also hang out with people who lived close to her because “since everyone lived so far away from one another in the countryside, it was often hard to meet up.”

Salomon says her family had always been planning to move to the U.S. so that she can have the American high school experience and so that she could go to college here. They picked Boulder randomly because they saw that it received high praise as a place for families to settle down.

Salomon says “moving was hard because I had just adapted to high school in France and when I moved, I basically had to reinvent myself in a new place.” Salomon says having her close friend Clemence be with her for the first part of it made the transition a lot easier and it was reassuring to have a close friend by her side. 

Salomon says joining Poms was something that really helped her adapt to Boulder High. She had wanted to be a cheerleader at first, but when she saw that the school had a dance team she realized it fit her better. She also met her good friend Charlotte Geritty through Poms. Salomon says, “Charlotte played a huge role in why it was easy for me to adapt so quickly. She introduced me to all of her friends and pushed me out of my comfort zone.”

Some of the things Salomon misses most are her friends and how close-knit the community was in her hometown. She also misses her house, the beautiful weather in the south of France and small things such as Apéro (a time for wine and snacks in the afternoon). She says “It’s really different here because it’s almost as if life is moving at a faster pace. In France, things seemed to move slowly. Here things happen so quickly, such as friendships and relationships in general.” 

Thanks to these three students, I had the unique opportunity to hear about a young person’s thoughts on living in a foreign country. Although each student had completely different things to say about their time in France, what rings true throughout all of these stories is that each student felt that being immersed in a culture outside of the Boulder bubble and, on a larger scale, the United States, was an incredibly formative experience.