Through the rigorous selection process and several orientations, Rotary does its best to prepare the outbound students for the rollercoaster of emotions that they’ll face during their year abroad.
They told us about the inevitable crash of emotions around the holidays that we’d all face in some way or another, but also explained that it was very normal, and promised that it would pass. As December approached, there was nothing I could do except just brace myself and wait it out.
I remember how my stomach did backflips the first time I saw a holiday window display early on in December. While every other year this would have made me ecstatic, this year, all I could think about was being so far away from all the people that I love most on Christmas. For a few days, I got myself into a little emotional rut that I couldn’t seem to get myself out of. Although I was sad and missing home I reminded myself once again that I was in France. I had worked so hard to get here and that I couldn’t let any moment go to waste. From that moment on, I tried to not focus on all that I was missing out on back home, but focusing on experiencing how people from another part of the world celebrated one of the best times of the year.
In the middle of December I was able to travel to Bourges, a town about an hour away, for my third Rotary orientation with all of the other inbound students in my district. We all made a Christmas dessert from our country, and sang Christmas carols from back home. Together we visited the famous and beautiful cathedral of the town, as well as the local Christmas market.
That night was one of my favorite memories in France so far just because it was like a storybook. There were vendors selling anything you can imagine from little log cabins covered in garland, kids passing their holiday wishes along to “Papa Noel,” and a team of tap dancers tapping along to old-time Christmas music. Everything looked good, smelled good, and there was just an overall good feeling. It was that night when I really started to feel that it was Christmas.
Christmas is done completely different here in France than back in the United States. In France, of course, food is a huge part of the culture. Here, Christmas Eve is really the big celebration where you spend the day eating a huge lunch with all sorts of different courses. We spend about four hours at the table eating at lunch, and as soon as we were finished, we started preparing for dinner, which was another four-hour production.
In France, you open presents at midnight on Christmas Eve, which is exactly what my family here and I did. It was weird doing this without my own family, but my host family did their best to make me feel at home. Normally in France, Christmas stockings are only for little kids, but my host mom surprised me with one just because she knew that I did that back home.
I enjoyed spending Christmas with my current host family because they have a daughter on exchange in the United States right now, and while they don’t always show it, I know it’s hard for them not having her here all the time.
Every family has its own holiday traditions. Whether it’s the ornament you put on the tree first, the foods that you cook, the music you listen to, the movies you watch, or the friends or family you’re with, it’s all part of what makes the holiday season so special. While I know and love each and every one of my family’s Christmas traditions, this year, I was fortunate enough to experience first hand how another family in another country celebrates this special time. While there were many differences, I came to realize that no matter what country you’re from, there is no better gift than being surrounded by the ones you love.
Ashley Bliss is a Cooperstown Rotary exchange student. Follow her adventures on her blog at www.ablissfulbonjour.wordpress.com