The following day was a whirlwind of networking. As luck would have it, a former teacher and mentor of mine was at the conference and I enjoyed getting to reconnect. I also managed to link up with some of my Student Voice friends/colleagues with whom I discussed at length the benefits of technology in the classroom and how it should be carefully leveraged so that it’s a tool on the path to deeper learning instead of an end result.
I turned right on Bolton Road… and it all started coming back. I passed the abandoned kennel, the towering walls of kudzu, the empty streets, the giant landfill, the rickety old rocket ship play structure and the Hottie Hog’s (the only restaurant within miles, categorizing this area as what is sometimes referred to as a “food desert”). These were all landmarks with which I had familiarized myself over two weeks last summer as part of Atlanta 2.0, a pilot course on urban planning and Atlanta.
As a part of this course, we were tasked to identify flaws in the Bolton and Riverside neighborhoods, choose an area we wished to help and devise a plan to fix the problems we had targeted. My group from last year suggested turning an abandoned lot into a food truck park and replacing the fields of invasive species with a useful park that could serve as an aesthetically pleasing community-gathering place. However, despite all of our conscientious plans, when I recently returned to the area a year later, it was as if we’d never passed through, with our heads full of ideas for change.
Regardless, this course last year opened my eyes. I learned what qualified a public space as “bad” or “good” and picked up on certain techniques others have used to transform the former into the latter. Being back in these neighborhoods, I began to realize that my home in Marietta is also somewhat in a “food desert,” like the neighborhoods of Bolton and Riverside. This type of characteristic is something one doesn’t notice until one starts purposely looking for it, in an active search to identify an area’s flaws. To me, my area is simply home. It is what it is and I don’t make any effort to change it, yet I was shocked that the residents of Bolton and Riverside hadn’t taken action to fix their little corner of the world. Realizing this hypocrisy has led me to better understand now why the projects we attempted to put in place last summer failed. My peers and I had lofty goals, and we recommended sweeping measures that we felt would solve the issues we identified, but we failed, in some instances, to fully take into account the key problems facing the Bolton and Riverside communities.
However, now I realize that the key to innovation and successful change is to understand the customer’s needs, something that this year’s group learned early on. They put a greater focus on identifying the true underlying problems of this neighborhood, which go further than its lack of food options or infrastructure. Simply put, the area of Bolton and Riverside lacks a sense of community. As a member of the Home Owner’s Association for a subdivision less than 5 minutes from Main Street said, Bolton’s biggest issue is that no one wants to go there. The area has fallen into serious disrepair but no one wants to fix it because they don’t see the allure or any potential dividends in doing so.
This lack of community engagement is what this year’s group of Atlanta 2.0 students is trying to change. This summer, I had the fantastic opportunity to sit in on their final presentations and hear their proposed plans to revitalize the area. Most, if not all of the plans focus on a sort of “pre-vitalization” to draw people to the neighborhood and to convince its inhabitants and store owners/potential investors that this area is worth saving. Using temporary and relatively easy preliminary steps such as recycling older tires to be used as planters, organizing a Farmer’s Market, and setting up mini green spaces known as “parklets” on the corner of deserted streets, the students participating in this course intend to elevate the public space.
It’s a noble goal, to craft a place where residents want to be, to make it more beautiful, more sustainable and more functional. This new approach focused on first creating the desire for change within the community (the “why”) and I was struck by how business-like it seemed. Even as a newly inaugurated intern for a local company, I’m well aware that in business, the customer is king. It appears that this applies to many other facets of life. In returning back to Bolton and Riverside, I’ve witnessed the importance of having the right intentions in everything you do. If it’s not what’s wanted, change is useless, and can even be a nuisance.
This is a spoken word poem derived from an English assignment that I performed at our final assembly yesterday. The transcript is found below. Enjoy.
To the SYA France Class of 2015, what follows are a few nuggets of wisdom compiled with the benefit of hindsight. Take it to heart, or not. Either way, just know that you’re in for an amazing time. You’re probably never going to be an American high schooler in France again so take advantage of all the opportunities that come your way. This is truly a once in a lifetime experience.
- Always carry an umbrella because weather in Bretagne is bipolar. The times where the day started off sunny and ended with pouring rain are way too many.
- The map they give you is relatively useless.
In the beginning, just go out and wander around with some friends. You’ll stumble upon some neat things, especially on Saturdays (there’s always some protest or another happening), plus once you walk the city a couple times, it’s amazing how easily you can get everywhere. The bus system is pretty reliable depending on the line. To get into town from school, take the 1 or 9 from the Guéhenno stop which is right by Carrefour (or from Fac de Droit stop which is further down across from the cafeteria of the actual Fac de Droit).
- Don’t go out to lunch everyday unless you happen to have extra spending money.
St. Vincent and Jean Macé (the two local high schools whose cafeterias SYA students can eat at) have decent food for free (slash it’s included in your tuition). Downstairs at St. Vincent is like a school café, with amazing cookies and more fast-foodish options. Jean Macé often has warm baguettes and good desserts but don’t try and take two because at the beginning of the year the lunch ladies will be watching and counting. The only downside to eating at the French lycées are the ridiculous lines that require you to get there before the doors officially open if you want to avoid getting caught in the tidal wave of pushy, hungry teenagers and eat before class starts.
- On school trips, JP’s bus is the best. Hands down. Especially on the Loire. His commentary is stellar, there may be disco-teching involved, his son Pierre is super cool, he will wake you up by singing or by reading French children’s books into the microphone and we even had entire bus sing-alongs.
- Bring number 2 pencils and a planner if you are going to want one, because they only have super expensive fancier ones here. Pretty much everything else, except maybe certain brands of beauty products and hair stuff, can be acquired in Rennes if you forget or run out.
- Make a rough budget, either for just yourself or with your parents, sooner rather than later.
Trust me otherwise you’ll finish the first semester and be like what happened to all those euros I had? Food happened, that’s what
- Invest in a good coat, a hat, at least one scarf (yes boys, you too) and some warm socks (my friends from the northern states swear by Smart Wool). Despite the weather, the French generally look flawless and unless you want to stick out like an obvious foreigner, sweatshirts and yoga pants aren’t gonna cut it every day.
- No pain no gain applies pretty well to getting closer with your host family. You have to put in the effort but after giving it a month or so if it’s not working you CAN switch. I know a bunch of people who switched and were much happier, but I also know some people who decided to tough it out. Nothing’s perfect so it’s up to you. If things ever get too much, just know that you can even switch second semester if need be.
- Come prepared to write letters.
Receiving mail is like Christmas every time you get something. Until you’re actually here, you may not realize how far away from everything you are and it helps to get little messages from home. Everyone knew who got care packages and letters cuz we all checked the table daily hoping shamelessly that it was for us.
- Sometime in your first week you should figure out your phone situation.
You can buy a French mobicarte, which is basically a rechargeable SIM card that you can pay a plan for each month, you can just plug it into your American phone if it’s compatible or get a cheap little phone here. I would personally suggest either bringing an unlocked phone or getting a cheap one here and reimbursing your host family for a real phone plan. To get one, you need a French bank card so it has to be in your host fams name but I found that it was much cheaper MUCH cheaper. The provider Free has a plan where I paid 2€ a month had unlimited texting, their wifi (which shows up randomly all over France, especially at bus stops in Rennes) and a total of 1-2 hours of calling locally and to America. One of my classmates also recommends Orange for phone stuff, because the others are supposedly “way ratchet.” There’s one at Colombia (the Mall) and in the Centreville and others spread around here and there.
- Do something with your friends and/or your host family for Halloween, Thanksgiving and/or Christmas.
It’s a good way to share your traditions with others, experience the way the others celebrate and bond with the people you care about, who have helped make you feel at home. Plus who doesn’t love a good holiday?
- Around january, after the long-awaited Christmas break is over and almost everyone has had to say goodbye to their families again, a lot of people tend to get kinda depressed. I know in our year, a bunch of us only realized this afterwards and bemoaned not being able to mope together. Misery loves company so I’d suggest gathering those interested for like therapy sessions with hot cider and some chocolate when things get rough.
- Last year, a former SYA-er told us to be ready for things to “get weird” come second semester. I’m not 100% sure to what she was referring but weird is a pretty good descriptor for the inter-SYA relationships (platonic and non) that sprung up later in the year. Consider yourself warned.
- Independent travel. Do it.
Starting in october, you can go on trips over all of the free weekends once a month. Take advantage of this opportunity to see not only other cities in France, but also other parts of Europe.
- Everything is closed on sundays. Even Carrefour is only open til 1pm.
Just a little reminder that France used to be a strictly Catholic nation.
- Choose some kind of activity outside of school early on and stick with it.
Not only is it a decent way to meet French people, but it helps to have an extracurricular to clear your head when school gets a bit much.
- Y’all will have Netflix next year, but for some websites that don’t work outside the US (pandora radio, hulu, etc.) a bunch of my classmates suggest downloading an app at hola.org that will unblock them!
- Keep a journal or a blog or both. You’ll want to have a way to capture everything and something to look back on when the year is sadly over.
Thanks to my wonderful classmates for helping me put this together. Vous allez me manquez tellement.
This is it.
All that’s left are the final goodbyes, to my host family and my friends (who have become like family). Nine months later, here I am.
Last week was a whirlwind of assessments, scramming to enter just a few more grades into the book, walking casually into two APs and sleeping not a wink. Despite knowing that it was my last week of school in France, the fact that the structure still seemed relatively normal as opposed to the exam week I’m accustomed to back home made it harder for the reality to sink in.
On my last weekend in Rennes, I did my best to profitez. spending as much time as I could with my both host family and friends, soaking up all that is Rennes. True to form, the weekend was a weird one weather wise. It was sunny and beautiful then suddenly pouring at least five times on Saturday alone. Despite the crazy weather, I made myself get out of the house to wander around town with some friends. Because this is France, we ran into a marriage and two protests, one of which, being the curious kids we are, we decided to follow. Lots of gas ensued and we wisely changed tactics. That evening, I went out to a fancy crepe dinner with some of my closest friends from this program. After dinner, we swung by my friend G.O’s host to celebrate his birthday. It was a fabulous last “night out” in Rennes.
Today was our last official day of school. We received our diplomas at a lunch with all of our teachers. Words are not enough to express my emotions at how real this all was. Following lunch, I casually hung out with my classmates, jamming out and playing cards. In the evening, we celebrated at a French-American barbeque with our families, teachers and classmates: all the worlds collided for one last reunion*. The whole day had an eerie aura of normalcy– I can’t wrap my mind around the idea that this is over, that I won’t be seeing these streets in a few days, that when I wake up on Thursday I won’t go to double langue with the best group there was.
Peace out Rennes, it’s been real.
* the italics suggest the French definition of the word which is more of an everyday meeting than the English connotation implies
…because I have survived my junior year. Most people will extol the hardships of this penultimate year of high school, complaining about APs, the pressure of the impending college process and a heavy course load. “My” junior year was memorable and hard for other reasons, namely that I spent it taking most of my classes in a language that is not my first, in an old Victorian house located in Rennes, a city in the westernmost region of France, where I lived for nine months without my family. If you’ve read this blog before or have been keeping up with my adventures, this is old news, as is the fact that I can’t believe it’s over. Nine months seems like a long time at the start, even halfway through and especially during the dark winter months. But now that I’m at the end, I feel like nine months couldn’t have possibly already passed.
Things I know thanks to this year:
- surround yourself with people who care about you and you will never be alone
- what a triskell is
- that winters can be long and depressing
- the joys of speculoos
- there is no such thing as a non-rainy season in Rennes
- that the best crepes and galettes are found in Brittany
- a long run and a hot cup of tea can help relieve most of life’s struggles
- I am an expert in franglais and can no longer really speak proper English, so it seems
- nine months is a seriously long time
- nine months is no where near enough time
- this too shall pass
Things I have yet to learn:
- how to live without salted butter, French baguettes, half days on Wednesdays and my 65 new “relatives”
- how to say goodbye
(This format was inspired by one of my friend’s blogs: check it out!)