Reflections on SYA

Tell me “Rent,” how DO you measure a year in the life?  A school year is such a long time, that try as I might nothing seems strong or evocative enough to capture the raw sense of what it means to be a high schooler studying abroad in France, what it feels like to be an outsider and an insider, to have feet on either side of the Atlantic and be pulled in so many directions it feels your heart may snap. But it doesn’t. Instead it’s pumped full of love, greasy, salted-buttery love by the local French, those elusively great, maddeningly curious creatures.
Fitting in with them is a game of chance, a series of trial and error. One shockingly non-rainy day, I’m wearing what my mom considers to be my sister’s uniform: plain long sleeve tshirt and black leggings. Simple enough, it’s camoflage back home in the bubble. But on the streets of Rennes, I feel naked, stripped bare by the sly glances of the chic adolescents also waiting for the bus that can’t seem to get here fast enough. Three minutes have never dragged by so slowly. It’s enough time for me to feel absolutely certain that the entire country hasn’t heard of dressing for comfort. As time goes on my wardrobe is drained of color, bit by by, painstakingly culled to conform to the firm French belief that black is the new black. Looking like you belong is the easy part. Nestle the leathery strap of a Longchamp in the crook of your right arm and you’re practically halfway there.  Better yet, snag a coveted sparkly tote without a clasp whose impracticality is overlooked by the French school girl masses, redeemed by a wider range of color options, adding shades of grey to the arsenal of black and navy staples. These colors are your golden ticket: like the pens obligatory to suive the lectures upon which French courses lean so heavily and the only colors acceptable in the traditional striped Marinière.
The modern French man or woman still dons this classic, one of the only remnants of the stereotypical Frenchman that has enraptured the western conscious for years, appearing throughout the media, the darling of old Hollywood and the eternally bright muse of the pre-second world war literary cavalry. Gone are the effortless smokers à la Audrey Hepburn, elegant in their self-harm. In their place are the swarms of sagging, Nike-wearing adolescents who roll their own cigarettes like they were born doing so. The hipsters have gone totally digital, preferring their smoke in artificially flavored shiny e-cig format. Mastering their look of disdain, superiority and carelessness is an art. Walking down the streets with your eyes focused on absolutely nothing requires a level of godlike self awareness. Add to that the struggle of preventing your one functioning earbud from falling out of your ear and you’ve got a one woman circus, a juggling semi-pro.
After a year abroad, I’d say send in the lions, my life is a juggling act- reconciling or rather tactfully suppressing the American-ness, while retaining the essence of yourself (which given my youth is rather unformed and fuzzy) and absorbing as much of the French as possible. The outward gestures come easy, by now my blood is probably 50% cheese and the weather in Britanny is predictably unpredictable but could never be considered warm, at least by my southern standards so the all black becomes the unofficial uniform of the deplaced Americans trying desperately I blend. It’s the inner heart and spirit of the French people that I’ve been earnestly seeking these past nine months. Striving to perfect my breathy “ouai”, the seemingly required moniker of French mothers. Avoiding the goth-look while clothed head to toe in black. Looking flawless despite the weather, time of day, or day of the week. And how do they avoid what I have dubbed the france 50, like the mythical freshman 15 but brought on by decadence rather than ramen? What’s their secret?
A whole school year and yet I fear I leave with more questions than answers, so I turn to my ratchet jar of speculoos for comfort (thus making me the opposite of rachitique)  to drown out the sorrows at having to part from this magical world which has so much still to be discovered. Au revoir. And in the words of my obvious twin, Arnold Schwartzeneger, I’ll be back.


...and now

…and now



From the first school trip...

From the first school trip…

the Original crew (from L-R: S.V, A.N, G.O, me, D.G and I.C)

…to the last.


Vignettes of a year abroad

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.


9 months.  A roller coaster of emotions pitching back and forth turning you upside down inside out over and over so fast you can hardly breathe, hardly take a moment to stop. pause. And take it all in. Before the car tips and you plunge head first once more into the firey depths of the unknown, falling deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole, a never ending spiral of discoveries and cliches and heartaches and bellyaches from laughing so hard and stories, so many stories. The kind of stories you can’t wait to tell your grand kids as soon as they’re old enough. But my brain has a mind of its own: uncontrollable, my mouth lets it all burst out. A tidal wave of memories…cresting high, swaying indefinitely for a moment, /held/ by the sudden silence of anticipation till suddenly, it becomes unbearable and comes crashing down. upon. the shore.  Littering the ground with almost as many moments of note as there are grains of sand, decorating my life like the shells belle-ify the beach. Spilling the remains of a year well spent all over the primed stretch of previously pristine real estate.
Act 1
In the beginning, there was darkness. nostalgia would hit like a linebacker emerging from the blind side with all the force of an arch rival out for blood, blinding the senses and robbing me of reality, swapping it for distorted perceptions of life “back home” conjured out of my irrational fear of missing out. Personifying every demon I’ve ever had, dragging the retired beasts out of hiding for one last hurrah. Layer upon layer they piled up, encroaching on the new world I’d created. Like a mantra of my insanity: afraid of being alone, of drowning myself in the cliches, of disappointing “them”, of losing myself to become someone I’m not, afraid that no one cared; fear of regret, of not living enough and of going too hard. Little me at the bottom of this well built out of my worries, gone where not even a talking fish and Harry Belafonte could dig me out. Slowly but surely, the walls began to crumble from the inside, one brick at a time shoved aside, piled up and stamped upon. Making my way towards the light at the end of the darkness, on the carcasses of my old insecurities.
I left my old skin down there, shed among the ruined remains of my negative thoughts and fears in an ironic twist: I’m terribly scared of snaKes.
Out of the cold pit of a grey winter, chilling, depressing, & threatening to freeze my soul, I emerged sometime in the second semester to the serenity of what had become my city. Routines morphed, changed form and adapted to the novelty like an accomplished shape shifter and I found myself pounding the pavement in my capris ignoring the stares I received from the few classmates I passed and the other Rennais crazy enough to be voluntarily upright and moving as the sun steadily creeped up the sky. Pushing my tired lungs up the increasingly steep incline, rapping  formidable  to myself in the intimate recesses of my mind, planting one foot in front of the other past the wall that was white at the beginning of the year and is now covered in graffiti tags from grenier man to I heart sex, rounding the corner through the gate. Standing, breathless as the suns rays softly light up the newly bloomed rows of flowers that stretch out like a rainbow carpet bringing the parc du thabor to life to greet another day. I love for these moments when time slows around me and all I wish for is a photographic memory to freeze forever the way I feel right now, a sleepy contentment steals into my soul. the haphazard pieces of my life are at least temporarily aligned. This happiness is dangerous (bottled and hawked it’d fetch a fortune), but fleeting. Sneaking in and out, a thief in the moment, it’s presence reassuring and revitalizing, a sign that despite the rampant stress of teen life, peace is possible.
The calm Peace of an orderly mind gives way to the raucous happiness of a flock of juniors drunk on sunshine. Spinning, dizzy from the freedom. Playing tag like a bunch of school children, crying out I’m so out of shape and cursing out your closest friends for giving you the most intense cardio you’ve had in months. Giddily flopping on the ground in mock defeat, yelling eff you at the top of my lungs as a respectable old couple promenades by blissfully unawares.
Friday afternoons, liberated from the shackles of school, turn into nights spent doubled over, cackling over the pure horribleness of the human mind. Cards against humanity delivers guffaws and dark truisms, promising that “Only two things in life are certain, death and some really f***ed up shit”. Our youthful spirits are undaunted  by premonitions of darker days. For now, life is, simply, good.
But life is life, even in france. When the tables turn, things can and will suck. Whether the magnitude of suckyness drowns you to the ends of infinity or not depends. I give in a little and treat myself, wallowing French style (tea, chocolate, vienoisserie and les Intouchables), and trying to prove that a little fudge factor never hurt nobody
But one by one the fudge piles up, a veritable mountain of delicious goodies with a sad payback for anyone who isn’t born with the paradoxical metabolism of a French boy: those twigs with little tufts of hair Who can vacuum up twice their weight in one sitting and gain not a pound. Where back home I was short and skinny here I’m close to average height and on the relatively chubbier side of things. That’s my culture shock, guiding me back towards the culinary pillars for comfort. Burying myself in The 3 C’s chocolate cheese and carbs. Stuffing my face with soft squishy baguettes topped with Comte and its pungent, spreadable cousins, with slices upon slices of chèvre cleaved from the log in the fridge that’s half its size by the time my gouter is over, telling myself it’s ok because I’ve got to take advantage of it all while I can. It’s no surprise that I’ve avoided a scale all year especially when dessert is a fundamental course after each meal.
It’s one thing to blindly inhale the fruits of other peoples culinary prowess but after over 3 hours in a kitchen churning out a 20 min cupcake recipe, pulling out gingerbread that tastes like cardboard because molasses apparently doesn’t exist in france, making hot chocolate so thick it cools and doubles as frosting and frosting that melts into straight butter, baking sugar cookies that taste like the ocean I mean Is it really my fault that one white powder resembles the other? My one crowning glory is a pasta dinner cobbled together on the last day of October with my 7 new best friends, getting scared shitless by the asshole who keeps startling me in the middle of that zombie movie causing me to almost spill my tea.
Time seems to have compressed itself into a few medallion moments. it seems like no time has passed but who am I now is Tara 2.0. I know I’ve made it when it’s pouring again but despite having cried myself to sleep the night before and having had a total of 10 hours of sleep over the past two days, I look classy: all black, check. scarf, check. jean jacket, check. Longchamp, check. The only tell tale sign of my Americanness this morning are my combat boots, water stained and wearing thin: they were nearly new when I arrived. Those shoes are my story, that sole is /my/ soul objectified, in a good way. Urging me forward, just another step more. From the coast of Brittany to the streets of Rennes, in the halls of the Louvre to an open mic in an upside down bar, a travers the transepts of multiple cathedrals, through chateaus in the Loire and the gritty tunnels of the Parisian metro, capital hopping- from Berlin to Madrid to lisbon, scuffed from dancing at my French friend’s 18th birthday in a one bedroom apartment somewhere in Strasbourg, covered with a few drops of champagne and more than a few grass stains. Together, we’ve survived.

A Grab Bag of SYA France Advice

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.


  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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?
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. 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.
  17. 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 that will unblock them!
  18. 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.



Saying Goodbye

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.

I.S, Mr. Brochu (the SYA France's Resident Director),  and I on the last day of classes

I.S, Mr. Brochu (the SYA France’s Resident Director), and I on the last day of classes

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.

Graduation with R.R

“Graduation” with R.R

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


Today I Am Wiser

…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
SYA France Class of 2014-- Ne me quitte pas

SYA France Class of 2014–
We did it #victory










(This format was inspired by one of my friend’s blogs: check it out!)

Back to Reality

After two weeks of vacation, this past week was a rather harsh awakening. We were welcomed back to school for the first time in a fortnight with the French AP exam, which will be the standardized college-bound result of all of our months of immersion. So besides you know, keeping up our reputations and proving we actually learned French while in France, there was no pressure riding on this exam or anything… The majority of the test did serve as a bit of a confidence booster, and the facility with which I could answer certain questions made me realize that this year has done more for my grasp of the colloquialisms and writing style of the French language than I may have realized.

Going back to school also marked the final two week block and the start of goodbye. Sadly, the first event to come to an end was my involvement with the local retirement home. As we sang both French and American songs, I looked around the circle at the many faces I knew, recalling each memory we had formed together. The stories I heard and the afternoons I passed in this now-familiar building were one of a kind. When I signed up to participate in this activity, I had no idea it would turn out like this.

In addition to the reality of returning to the school grind, I’m forced to acknowledge the fact that I only have one week of classes left. When I arrived all those months ago, heck even at the beginning of the second semester, my year still seemed to stretch out before me, open-ended and full of possibilities. Although for the past few weeks, I’ve been keenly observing the countdown, this reality has yet to sink in. Like I’ve said for the past month, I can’t imagine leaving. Life here is so normal now: these people, this house, these streets, this routine have become a part of me. How do I let that go?

Returning home from our very last school trip this weekend and internalizing the beginning of my series of lasts compounded the resounding aura of finality. It saddened me that this was the last time I’d converse with my English teacher and his family at the front of the bus with the same group of people who’ve formed a little bus gang since our first excursion, the last time I’d singalong with my entire bus (my art history teacher and his son included), the last time my classmates and I would occupy the Fac de Droit bus stop on a Sunday evening, and the last time I’d fall asleep en route only to be awakened by a reading of “Où est bébé elephant” or an announcement of the Discotech password for the night. Even our destination showed traces of nostalgia. In going to Normandy, we’ve kinda come full circle, seeing that our first all-school excursion was crossing the baie de mont st Michel in Normandy. Additionally, the atmosphere was reminiscent of our first weekend school trip around Brittany: the coast, the brisk weather blowing over the rows of white crosses at a cemetery and a cathedral for good measure. No trip with SYA is complete without one! Following in the footsteps of the brave men and women who arrived in these cities and on these shores all those years ago was touching and inspiring- a moment of reflection for us all.

(French WWII propaganda at the Memorial of Caen)

(#victory announcements showcased at the Memorial of Caen)

(Les plages de débarquement)

(La Cathédrale de Bayeux)

(The impressive facade of the cathedral)

(In honor of the unknown soldier at the American WWII cemetery in Normandy)

(The German WWII cemetery with my American and SYA classmate A.S)

After the bittersweet conclusion of yet another school trip and in anticipation of my upcoming AP exams, I write this in a sort of stupor. We’ve entered the realms of single digits, a cold undeniable truism that has yet to sink in. I’m reluctantly going through the motions of someone who has to return home in a week: I’ve finally pulled out my suitcases after postponing the inevitable for days. I keep having to remind myself that this is real. But unlike my reality checks nine months ago, I have no desire to believe myself. This is one case where I’m content to led someone else be correct, as long as I never have to leave. I can’t fathom that it’s almost over, to the point that I’m tempted to pull a Peeta and question everything around me. SYA France 2014: real, or not real?

(My host sisters, host dog Lucky and I after celebrating my host dad’s 50th birthday en famille)

SYA goes South

Last week’s “jaunt” to Provence, marked our final big school trip. The conglomeration of sights we visited represented how far we’d come since our preliminary forays into calverts and our first church exploration way back on the first trip around la Bretagne.

This time around, we experienced a bit of a flashback with our program. In addition to the customary set of churches and cathedrals, including a striking and intricate black one, we toured our last château fort of the year. Mixed in with this art history review was some traces of our recent studies on Impressionism and modern art. We visited not only the new Van Gogh foundation in St. Remy de Provence but also the cloître that used to house Van Gogh and his fellow insane artist peers following his manic ear cutting incident. Additionally, we had the opportunity to visit the Vasarely foundation in Aix to get a glimpse of his avant-garde “Op Art.” Throughout the week, I was amazed at the ease with which my classmates and I can comment on art (both old and new), recognize the parts of a medieval castle or identify the style of an ancient cathedral. 
More fat babies (without whom no museum is complete)

More fat babies (without whom no museum is complete)

Black Cathedral

Black Cathedral

Love me some castles

Love me some castles

Look at those voutes

Look at those voutes

Les chateaux return

Les chateaux return

A Mausoleum in St. Remy de Provence

A Mausoleum in St. Remy de Provence

A reproduction of Van Gogh's bedrooms

A reproduction of Van Gogh’s bedrooms

The French spirit

The French spirit

word play

Word Play (Ni dieu, ni maitre)

At our last cathedral on the route back to Rennes, we stumbled upon a Catholic Sunday mass being conducted in Portguese by an Angolese priest. It was frankly kind of magical to be in that moment, all of us captivated by the music and the streaming light of the airy nave.
SYA casually does Catholic Mass

SYA casually does Catholic Mass

Upon our return, Mr. Brochu surprised us with a “reverse pont“. While some people take Fridays off when they have a long weekend, he granted us an extra day between the official vacation and our AP French exam. During this sort of buffer day, I realized how weird it felt to be without all of my classmates. I have gotten so used to being constantly around these 65-70 other people and I don’t know how I’m going to manage going home to not seeing these faces every day. Even my teachers and their children have become part of this weird extended sort of family. I remember remarking even in the beginning that I felt oddly close with this group (or at least certain members) almost immediately. These past 8 going on 9 months and especially the past two school trips have solidified these relationships. We’ve been through so much together and despite whether or not we all see each other again, I’m eager to make the utmost of the little remaining time (almost exactly two weeks) we have left as this incredible SYA France class of 2014.
the Original crew (from L-R: S.V, A.N, G.O, me, D.G and I.C)

the Original crew (from L-R: S.V, A.N, G.O, me, D.G and I.C)