Northside Students’ Take on Toulouse, France
by Coraima Camacho
Last October, French exchange students from Émilie de Rodat, a private high school in Toulouse, traveled to Chicago and were hosted by Northside students. This past spring break, Northside students currently enrolled in French III, IV or AP, traveled to Toulouse as part of a seven-day full immersion experience. Accompanied by Mr. Alexander Hughes, Counseling department, and Mr. Jeffrey Mallon, Social Science department, in place of Madame Anne Mabra, Foreign Language department, students engaged in sightseeing, French culture appreciation, and group projects.
Upon their arrival in France, the group was welcomed by their exchange students with gifts at the airport, followed by lazer tag and a welcome party in the evening for the students not too affected by jet lag.
Similar to when the Émilie de Rodat students stayed in Chicago in October, Northside students were present during some of their host student’s classes and encouraged to participate in class activities and/or discussions. Unlike Northside, Émilie de Rodat’s class sizes are very small, so not all Northside students were able to attend classes with their host students. However, Kimberly Grabiec, Adv. 902, and Brianna Gonzalez, Adv. 900, fondly recall their classroom experience. Grabiec remembers being in class with her host student, Pasma, and being impressed that a French student was able to name all of the United States presidents. On the other hand, Gonzalez spent less time with her host student’s (Anouk) classes. She states that Anouk’s Spanish class was her favorite because she was able to understand the content and help her out when needed, otherwise she sat in the back of the class reading a book.
With the exception of some special days, Émilie de Rodat students typically attend school from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm. Additionally, French schools do not offer extracurricular opportunities to students, so many of them engage in sports, dances and classes elsewhere. Hence, the amount of time left for hanging out with friends and spending quality time with their exchange students was limited.
When her host student was not in school, Grabiec would accompany Pasma to her karate lessons or family trips to the supermarket. In the afternoons, she had dinner with her host family, where she mostly ate Nigerian food--particularly plantains. Similarly, Gonzalez attended Anouk’s track practices after school, spent quality time with her host family and their family friends during dinner, and even attended an intimate get together hosted by Anouk where they ate meat and potatoes with fondue. On two occasions, Grabiec and Gonzalez were able to shop in little boutiques in downtown Toulouse and browse around many bakeries, cafes, and crepe stands. Grabiec and Gonzalez noted that due to the size of Toulouse, there “were not a lot of H&Ms or Forever 21s,” a contrast from the various chain stores found around downtown Chicago.
On other days throughout the week, Northside students spent time sightseeing in downtown Toulouse and nearby cities. This included visits to art museums in downtown Toulouse, a tour of the medieval town of Carcassonne, and a hike and picnic in Cirque de Gavarnie, a cirque in the center of the Pyrenees mountains, close to the border of Spain.
Students were able to admire the beauty of the southern hilltop town of Carcassonne, famous for its restored medieval castle, La Cite de Carcassonne. During the trip, the group received a guided audio tour and admired the castle’s numerous watchtowers and fortifications. The following day, in downtown Toulouse, the group visited the Musee Des Augustins, a fine arts museum that features an impressive collection of paintings and sculptures from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century.
Half of a day was devoted to a tour guide-led hike of Cirque de Gavarnie, which, according to Mr. Hughes, was the “best part of [the entire] trip.” Students boarded a bus for the long and bumpy ride to the mountains, where they then began their hike to the top. Once at the top, Gabriela Jimenez, Adv. 902, and several other students engaged in snowball fights and made snow angels. Gonzalez recalls that at one point, the tour guide, Ivon, asked the students if they were ready to ski. Gonzalez thought it was a joke, until they began to slide down the steep mountain steps. On the way back to the bus, the students stopped in a little town to eat ice cream and admire the scenery.
To gain a better understanding of the similarities and differences between French and American culture, Northside students partnered up with one another in pairs and created presentations, all in French, for their host students and French teachers. The group presentations took place on the last day of the trip at a cozy restaurant, where a projector was set up and the group celebrated with a karaoke session. The presentations included comparisons between French and American sports teams, music genres, gastronomy, and more. Grabiec partnered with Nina Robinson, Adv. 911, to compare French music to American music. Gonzalez partnered with Kaarina Sorensen-Jarrett, Adv. 909, to discuss the popularity and influence of America’s hip hop scene.
Northside students who participated in the trip were very saddened to leave behind their exchange students, yet felt the experience was life changing and recommend that people participate in exchange programs and take the time to immerse themselves in other cultures. Grabiec considers the experience enriching and a true eye-opener because “when you’re in French class you don’t really know how to differentiate stereotypes [from life in France],” and it is “cool to see how [what you learn about the French culture and its customs] manifests into everyday life in France.”