A Rotary Youth Exchange Blazer Story

The day had arrived. The day I was looking forward to and dreading all at the same time.

I was in charge of one of the big suitcases and the rolling carry-on while she wheeled the other big suitcase and shouldered her overstuffed backpack. We followed the signs to Lufthansa and entered the ticketing/check-in line. After months of learning, checklists, paperwork, to-do’s, and last minute errands, we realized then that she still wasn’t ready.

“Amy!” I fake scolded. “Where are your luggage tags? You were supposed to write them out long before we got here!”

“I know. I forgot. I didn’t have my host family’s address.”

“What do you mean? It’s in your paperwork. Get it out.”

Down came the backpack and out came an envelope full of the documents she’s supposed to travel with:  names and address of her first host family, the Rotary club in France that will host her, passport, birth certificate, permission to attend school, her insurance policy, parental permission, travel itinerary, and several other items. We pulled out the one with her host family’s address and I read it to her as she wrote it on the tags. She was nervous and her handwriting was atrocious, almost illegible.

As we fumbled with the tags and reorganizing some of her documents, a young girl got in line behind us.

“You can go ahead,” I said, scooting over the two suitcases I was in charge of.

She smiled and wheeled on past us, all of her luggage neatly stacked on a rolling cart.

“Mom,” Amy whispered, “do you think she’s an exchange student?”

“She might be,” I said. “I just don’t know why she’s all alone. It seems like someone would come to the airport with her.”

Once we felt organized, I told Amy to put her official Rotary blazer on so I could take her picture. All of the kids in our Rotary District – District 5470, the southern two-thirds of the state of Colorado – as well as all students going abroad through any of the United States Rotary clubs are supplied a black blazer. They exchange and collect pins and proudly display them on their blazer as they progress through their year abroad.

Amy gave me a look. I knew what it was about. Yesterday, as we were loading up to leave our home in Grand Junction and drive to Denver–where she’d be flying out of–she said, “Mom, what should I do with this blazer? I hate it; it’s so ugly. I mean, why don’t they just tell us to go buy an attractive, well-fitting black blazer that we actually like instead of SURPRISE! HERE’S THE UGLIEST BLACK BLAZER WE COULD FIND FOR YOU!”

I laughed out loud. Both of our emotions had been running high for the past two weeks as her departure day loomed and both of us had had a few outbursts and good cries over nothing, really. She wasn’t being ungrateful or disrespectful to the Rotarians who had helped her get to this point, just open and honest and funny. We all know that a heavy, black, too-big, too-constructed blazer is not what any teenage girl wants to wear, let alone travel in or meet their new families in. They want to wear comfort clothes and something in which they feel attractive and that represents the way in which teenagers dress in the country they’re from.

When my laughter subsided, Amy gave me a pouty look. “Mom, I’m scared I won’t be funny in France. I mean, how can I be funny when I don’t even know the language?”

“Honey, I think that anything you attempt to say in French will probably be hilarious. You’ll be plenty funny and interesting.”

photo 3

I got the official departure photo and then helped Amy neatly fold the blazer and tuck it into her carry-on. “You should probably get this out right before boarding the plane and wear it for at least a little while on the plane. It’ll help other exchange students notice you, if there are any others on your flight. And make sure to wear it when you layover in Germany and maybe when you land in France. You’ll be safer in it – airport personnel are probably familiar with these blazers and they’ll know you’re an exchange student and a minor – and people will be less likely to mess with you.”

We then went to the counter, just as the other girl was finishing her check-in. “Hey, are you with Rotary?” she asked, looking hopeful. “I saw your blazer.”

“Yeah!” said Amy. “Are you?”

“Yes. I’m going to Croatia.”

“Where are you from?” I asked, knowing she did not live within District 5470. Croatia is not one of the 20 countries that students in District 5470 can exchange to.

“Boulder,” she answered.

“Are you here alone?” I asked, feeling at once both a little sorry for her and also that perhaps I wasn’t letting my daughter be independent enough.

“Oh, my dad’s here. He’s parking the car or something.”

“Are you traveling through Germany to get to Croatia?” I asked her. If so, that would mean she’d be on Amy’s flight.

“Yes, I’m on the 5:30 flight.”

“Cool,” said Amy, her eyes lighting up. “So am I!”

She gave the ticketing agent her passport and as he finished up his work, he asked, “Any seating preferences?” Not knowing exactly what that meant, Amy responded with, “Umm… no, I don’t think so.”

“Well,” I started, “is there any chance you could seat her next to the young girl who just checked in? The one in line in front of us? They’re both minors and they might feel more comfortable sitting together.”

“Sure,” he said. “I can do that.”

We were plenty early to the airport, but Amy was too nervous to have lunch or look around in the shops. So we made our way to the security area and plopped down on some seats there. I asked Amy how she was feeling. She seemed okay. I felt okay myself, compared to what an emotional mess I’d been the two weeks leading up to this point.

The line going through security looked long and I guessed the process might take about 45 minutes to an hour. After a while, when it seemed like it was probably time for Amy to make her way to her boarding gate, I said, “Hey, maybe I can stand in that line with you. That’d give us a little bit longer together.”

The woman in charge of the entrance to the line said it would be fine, that I’d just have to exit the line when they started checking boarding passes. “Unless, of course, you get randomly selected for Pre Check.”

“Pre Check? What’s that?” I asked.

“Oh, we randomly select some people to go through a faster security line. You don’t have to take your shoes off.”

“Okay,” I said and we started winding our way through the serpentine straps used to create and manage a line of people. We didn’t go more than 20 feet before a man said, “Pre check. This way.” We veered off to the right into a different line.

I guess we were randomly selected, I thought. Amy was the one to notice. “Interesting. Everyone in this line is in a family. Look at the babies and kids. And us. The other line is all men. Nice random selection.”

I had it in my mind that I would be with my daughter for about 45 more minutes before I had to say goodbye to her once and for all, but the Pre Check line was only about two minutes long. The time was now. “Oh my gosh, Amy, we have to say good-bye now. Are you good? You okay?” I pulled her in for a hug.

“Mom, I’m sad,” she said, and started to cry a little.

I was sad, too, but tried not to let it show. “Don’t be sad, be happy. Go have the time of your life!” And I let go of her. And I walked away. And I cried, but not as badly as I thought I would.

I had to go upstairs to level two to exit the area. When I got up there, I realized I could look down on the security lines. So I found a quiet spot and stood looking over the railing, scanning like crazy to locate Amy. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t figure out where that Pre Check line was. Or maybe she had already gone through it.

I glanced at my phone, it being in my hand, and saw a notification from Facebook that Amy had mentioned me in a status update. What? How? I thought. She’s in an airport security line. I opened it up and there was a picture of me standing on level two, looking for her. Randee Bergen spying on me it said. What? She saw me and I couldn’t see her? I wish I was spying on you! I wish I could see you one last time! I thought. Or, maybe not. Maybe this is for the better.

photo 2

I exited the airport and went to find my vehicle in the parking area. Should I leave? Was it okay to leave the airport and head back to Grand Junction when she had more than an hour to sit at her gate? What if her plane didn’t show up or wouldn’t be able to take off? Maybe I should stay.

But I couldn’t. I drove away.

When I stopped to get gas, I texted her. Are you at your gate? Have you found your friend?

Yes, I”m here, but I don’t see her anywhere!

You will, eventually. I love you!

Not too long after that, there was a text from Amy. I found her and guess what? Her name is Amy!

Crying, I typed. No, that wasn’t texting language that I typically used; it was something Amy would have said. It usually meant happy tears, oh how special, how meaningful, something like that.

Then I added a smiley face and pushed SEND.

photo 1

 

Friendship in France

We Americans! We’re a bunch of insincere and pompous phonies. Liars, even!

Or so the French seem to think. Our tendency to strike up a conversation with just about anyone, and go on and on past the small talk and into deep ideas and details about ourselves, is incomprehensible to the French.

In my reading of Au Contraire! Figuring Out the French, the nature of friendship–and how it differs there from here in the U.S.–is so far the most interesting and easy-to-illustrate aspect of French culture.

I have found myself in several situations over the past few months doing just that–explaining how friendship in France works–and with complete strangers to boot. First it was a man at a wedding reception, someone I didn’t know, someone who sat down beside me to say hello because he had heard that I was from Grand Junction, a town he had been to a few times and had really liked. An hour later he knew a whole heck of a lot about my town and myself and my daughter going abroad and I was teaching him about French culture. Next it was a lady who was in line near me to get passports. We started talking about where we were going (I’m not really going to France, just want to be prepared in case there is an emergency while my daughter is there) and she made a comment about the French. I thought I better explain to her that much of our perception of the French stems from our differences in how we build relationships. And then there was a parent at parent-teacher conferences, a mom I sat near at my daughter’s swim meet, the man at the…

Well, since I’ve explained it so many times, I’ll share it with you, too. It really is quite fascinating.

Visualize a French person with about five concentric walls built around him. The outer wall will be the highest and each successive wall going in and toward the individual will be shorter. Now visualize an American, also with concentric walls surrounding him. The American’s outer walls are low, but as the walls get closer to the person, they get higher, taller.

Now, imagine that you are trying to develop a deep and lasting friendship with each of these two people. With the French guy, it will be extremely difficult to “get in.” It may take weeks, months, years to scale those outer walls. But, once you’re over that barrier, there will be a mutual agreement to commit to the friendship and it will become easier and easier to get close to the person, to get to know the real him.

Now, the American. I’m sure this will sound familiar.  You can approach almost any American and start a conversation. And as long as you’re not creepy or overstepping boundaries or holding a person up from whatever it is he or she was just about to do, most Americans will keep chatting with you. Just like I did with the guy at the wedding reception and the lady in the passport line. Not only did we chat, but I shared a lot about my life, including that my daughter was going to France and oh by the way let me tell you something interesting about the French culture.

The thing about the American’s walls, however, is that even though it’s easy to get in, it’s difficult to continue climbing upward and inward to the real core or the real self of an American. In fact, we Americans may not ever truly know our closest friends and family members. We usually have a lot of mediocre and somewhat superficial friendships.

As I said, once you’re over the outer walls with a French person, you’re in and expected to commit to a truly amazing friendship. With Americans, a friendship might be based on a shared interest, a hobby, or just the fact that two people are coworkers. Once someone loses interest in the hobby, quits a job, or goes his or her separate way in life for whatever reason, the friendship might be over. Not so true with the French.

Another difference in friendships between our two cultures is that Americans are into “doing” whereas French people are into “being.” We like to do things with our friends–go out for coffee, go hiking, take the kids to the park, go to a movie. The French are more inclined to just hang out together. They might talk about what they should do and what it would look like, but no one minds if the group never gets around to doing it. To them, talking about it is fun enough.

Also, Americans don’t like conflict. We tend to not bring up anything that will cause an argument or jeopardize the friendship. The French consider this to be boring and tedious. In France, people like to argue. They look at it as entertainment, as educational, as something that friends can do together. French friends can be direct and frankly critical and it is not at all a problem between them.

I really like that aspect of their culture.

In America, the backbone of the culture is the individual. In France, it’s friendships, groups, the “circle.” In our country, most of us can easily carry on if a friendship or relationship falls away. In France, you are expected to put your heart into a friendship, now and forever. A common expression between friends in America is “I owe you one.” The French language has no equivalent to this. They do not keep score. If you’re not friends, there are no obligations; if you are friends, you’ll do nice things for each other no matter what. And it is baffling to them to hear us say to our new “friends” or to those we were once close to and happen to run into, “Yeah, I’ll give you a call,” or “We should get together sometime and catch up,” when neither party has any real desire or intention of doing so. Liars!

So the French find it weird that we’re so open and chatty with whomever, wherever. To them, that seems arrogant and cocky. Wait, isn’t it the French who are supposed to be arrogant and cocky?

What’s Coo5king?

What’s cooking?The Cooking Pot

The question reminds me of an emergent reading book that I’ve used with my young students. Mrs. Spot, Mrs. Spot, what have you got in your cooking pot?

Just one week after committing to working on my big writing project,–the memoir–for ten minutes daily–just ten minutes each day–I’ve got something else cooking. A couple of something elses, actually.

The memoir is, therefore, being returned to the back burner–its default position it seems–where it can simmer quietly while I focus on the front burners, one of which is heating up real quickly and needs my immediate attention and the other which will require occasional stirring over the next eight months while its contents slowly thicken.

So, what’s cooking now, you ask?

Without much effort on my part, I have found myself chairing a committee to put on a 5k race. The PTA at my school started kicking the idea around last fall. I happened to mention, at one of the meetings, that I was on the board of the local running club and could find out a lot of good information for us about timing runners, insurance, advertising, choosing a date that didn’t conflict with other races in the community, and other considerations.

Shortly after my kind offer, I was holding a large pot and a recipe card with nothing on it except 5k, preparation time three months, actual cooking time two hours.

And, though the starting gun just went off, I can already feel the heat of a burner set to high.

You see, the 5k is happening in April. That gives us just three months to bring this concoction to fruition.

I must say that I did take the pot willingly. Though I have plenty going on in my life, organizing a 5k race sounds like a lot of fun. A small race like this is all about the kids, the joy of exercising, and building community. How could it not be fun?

(I say that now.)

So, yes, I gladly took the pot when it was offered.

Since we’ve never held an event like this at our school and since I’ve never been involved in planning a race, let alone taking the lead, this 5k will be produced (almost) from scratch. I say almost because my experience with running a few 5k’s will help tremendously in thinking through the hosting of one. The first night that I felt the heat, I awoke at 1:30 a.m., realizing I needed to start listing my ingredients. Now. The burner is on high, already, the blue flame visible, licking the air, in my face, because the pot is not yet on the burner, not yet on the burner because there’s nothing in it, nothing in it because I hardly know, at this point, what’s required, nothing in it because I’m just toeing the line, toeing the line of a long list of preparations, a long list that does not yet exist.

By 2:30 a.m., I had a three-page planning chart.

Me? Cooking from scratch? Who’d a thunk. What I know at this point is that I want my 5k to turn out better than most of my cooking endeavors have. Thank goodness for the great team of ancillary cooks–fellow teachers and parents–that will be in the kitchen with me.

potsOn my other front burner, I have a less demanding recipe, but something that, nonetheless, needs my attention as well. Over here I’m whipping up some French cuisine. This dish requires reading and researching and learning as much as I can about the country of France, which is where my daughter is going for her Rotary Youth Exchange experience, which will start in August or September.

So the 5k is on high, the French cuisine on medium, and my memoir? Well, it is once again on the back burner, on low, back to low priority status. But here’s the thing with the back burner. As long as there’s a pot on it, and as long as that burner is on, even if it’s just on low, I’ll tend to it. Perhaps not in the sense that I’m adding any more ingredients or even stirring it all that often. But I’ll be continuously breathing it in, mulling it over, as it wafts through my kitchen, in and out of my thoughts. I’ll consider next steps, once it takes its place again at the front of the stove.

So, that’s what’s cooking. That’s what Mrs. Spot has in her cooking pot–planning a big event from scratch, slowly thickening her knowledge of France and the youth exchange experience, and, always, stirring ideas for the memoir.

France Vicariously

Yes, I realize that I’m not the one going to France; it’s my daughter who’s going to be the exchange student. But I can’t help myself. I’m going to take this opportunity to learn as much about France as I have time for.

If I was starting up a whole new blog I suppose I would call it Vive la France du fait d’autrui. Or maybe just France Vicariously, since I would know for sure then that the words were in the correct order.

No, I do not parlez-vous français. My daughter is in French III class, but no, she does not speak French either.

It was right before Christmas when we learned she’d be spending her junior year in France. I wanted to put something under the tree to get our great learning adventure underway, so I started with these three little dictionaries that I found in our local Barnes & Noble.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We got a few good laughs from these literal meanings:

J’ai un coup de pompe. I’m feeling tired. Literally, I’ve been hit by a pump.

Il y a du monde au balcon. She has big boobs. Literally, the balcony is crowded.

Tu me gonfles. You’re getting on my nerves. Literally, you make me swell.

Je lui ai roulé un patin. I French-kissed him. Literally, I rolled a skate to him.

I’d say, from these examples, that this dictionary is definitely written for teenagers.

In addition to the confusion that such literal phrases will create, we also learned that French hipsters from the suburbs of Paris started “verlan” – a form of French slang created to confuse the uncool. Verlan works by rearranging the order of letters or syllables of a word. A sort of French Pig Latin, it sounds like.

And, of course, there are the French abbreviations, symbols, and acronyms used when texting.

:—) Je t’m +. C ni is the equivalent of Tu es un menteur. Je ne t’aime plus. C’est fini. You’re a liar. I don’t love you anymore. It’s over.

The smiley face emoticon with the long nose means liar. Bonjour Pinocchio.

How about this one? Cpa5p means C’est pas sympa. That’s not nice. Yes, the fourth character is a five.

That really isn’t nice. They’ve got their basic French, crazy literal phrases, verlan, and Frexting. (This is why I’m perfectly happy to be doing the French experience vicariously.)

After Christmas, we ordered several books, the one that grabbed my attention the most being Au Contraire! Figuring Out the French.Figuring Out the French During the Rotary Youth Exchange selection process, we learned that France is one of the most difficult countries to go to for an exchange. But why? Surely, we cannot just say that the French loathe Americans. There has to be more to it than that.

Mort Rosenblum, in Mission to Civilize: The French Way talks about how surface familiarity can be deceptive. “Outsiders go wrong by looking at France through their own optics. It is always a jolt for veteran travelers to find that culture shock in France is more severe than in Saudia Arabia or Bolivia. Elsewhere, things look and sound different, so you expect them to be different. France looks like home, or at least like familiar old postcards and paintings. Surprise.”

The authors of Au Contraire! say that the surface similarities and hidden differences can lead to situations that are uncomfortable, confusing, comic, or catastrophic. One example is this. When Starbucks launched its French business in 2003 they imported their friendly U.S.-style customer service. Patrons were initially shocked and appalled when the baristas asked for their first name after placing an order.

Calling someone by their first name? It is clear that my daughter will be guilty of many a faux pas during her time in France. I hope to learn what I can ahead of time and share them with her and here on my blog as well. She, in the meantime, will be busy learning the basics of the language.

For now, c’est fini.

OPEN IT!

They said we’d know by December 17th or 18th. They said the letter would come by mail. U.S. mail. In the mailbox.

December 17th came and went. No letter.

December 18th came and went. No letter.

And so I was awake in the wee hours of the 19th, not realizing at first that it was the day, the day the letter would arrive, that had me awake, feeling anxious.

Please, I prayed, let it say yes. Let it say she’s been selected.RYE

Please, I prayed, let it say no. Let it say that she won’t be going away, that she won’t be leaving me.

How could I want it to say anything but yes? This is what my daughter wants. This is her dream. To be chosen as a Rotary Youth Exchange student for her junior year in high school. What an incredible opportunity. Why would I want the letter to say anything but yes?

How could I want it to say anything but no? This is my baby. My friend. My roommate. My daily joy. How could I send her away for ten months?

But December 19th came and went. No letter.

That left the 20th. Friday the 20th. Surely they wouldn’t make us wonder all through the weekend. Yes, the 20th had to  be the day.

But the 20th was problematic. Amy was leaving school early with her swim team for an out-of-town two-day swim meet. She wouldn’t be coming home on the 20th, wouldn’t be home until late afternoon the following day.

“What if the letter comes, Amy? What should I do?”

“What do you mean, what should you do?”

“Should I open it?” How could I not?

“No! Wait for me!” Of course. Of course, I knew I should wait for her. It was her letter. It would be addressed to her. But how could I wait?

And then, there it was. The letter in the mailbox.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI brought it inside. It was well sealed. I held it up to the light. No luck. I texted Amy. Your letter came.

I wasn’t expecting a return text right away. She was at a swim meet, after all. But, she responded within seconds.

OPEN IT!

My older daughter was there, home, on the couch. “She wants me to open it!” I told her.

“Well, do it, Mom. What are you waiting for?”

“I don’t know.” Yes, I did. “I guess it seems like she should be here.”

“She said open it, didn’t she?”

“Okay.” I slipped one finger under the flap on the back and lifted it carefully, a few millimeters at a time.

“Mom, hurry up! Just tear it open!”

“I can’t.” I sped up a little though until the flap was entirely unsealed and the letter was visible.

I removed the letter from the envelope and held it to my chest.

“Mom.”

“It’s too exciting. I’m scared. I’ve never been this scared to open anything before.”

I unfolded the top third and scanned for those crucial first few words. There they were. It is with great pleasure…

Relief. Relief, relief, relief. Relief that my daughter won’t experience the disappointment of not being selected.

I read those five words aloud then, and, once again, put the letter to my heart.

“Come on, mom! Where’s she going?”

It would be in the next paragraph. I folded the bottom third down and there, in capital letters, wasOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

FRANCE. Her original choice, the country she wanted to go to in the first place, when she started this process two months ago, back when she thought she could choose a country and they’d say okay and that was all there would be to it.

“FRANCE!” I told her sister. Her sister who will be off to college next year. Her sister who knows, as I do, that the time for them to separate after all these years of growing up together will be much easier if they leave home at the same time.

And then I cried. I laughed and I cried. I went into the kitchen and came back to the living room. I sat down. I stood back up.

“I don’t know what to do,” I said.

“Mom, let her go. She’ll be fine.” My daughter looked at me as if I was crazy, as if surely I had to have agreed to letting her go long before this point, this moment of getting the letter.

“No,” I explained. “I mean right now. I don’t know what to do with myself.” I was too thrilled–too needing to talk to Amy, to hug her, to celebrate with her–to do anything else.

FRANCE!

The months of preparation begin now.

FRANCE!

10:23 p.m. on 12/6/13

in a bed

in a hotel room

snowing and a single digit outside

it’s so cold in here

even with the thermostat past ninety-five

and i can’t snuggle

alone

not even my dog

uncomfortable

won’t let my face touch the pillow

just my hair

won’t let my skin touch the blanket or the comforter

just the sheets

i assume they’ve been washed

stomach rumbles

was expecting some dinner this evening

that didn’t happen

lack of communication

too cold to go out and get some

wifi isn’t working

lamp is too low, too dim to read by

so i just lie here

immobilized

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While I’m here in this motel room, my daughter is in the hotel meeting room. She’s mingling with inbounders and rebounders and other outbound candidates like herself. It’s District Rotary Youth Exchange weekend. She and 39 other candidates from across the state are vying for 28 available spots in 20 different countries.RYE

Inbounders are exchange students from other countries who have landed in the state of Colorado. They’re here, at this weekend event, as ambassadors to their community and country. Tomorrow they will “sell” their country, trying to get the candidates to list it as one of the top five places to which they’d like to be assigned.

Rebounders are students from our state who were abroad last school year and are now back at their local high school. They attend to talk about their experience and answer any questions the candidates and/or their parents may have.

Outbounders are what the 40 candidates hope to be – leaving their family, house, school, friends, and community for the life-changing opportunity to be a foreign exchange student.

Also here this weekend are more than 50 Rotarians from around the state. They will observe the candidates all weekend as they participate in structured activities and less structured social time. And they will conduct 120 interviews, two with each candidate and one with each candidate’s parent(s).

After a three-hour parent meeting this evening, I have much to consider as I lie here–cold, hungry, alone, uncomfortable–but all I can think about is what my daughter, if granted this opportunity, might feel like those first few nights that she lies in a strange bed, in someone else’s house, on the other side of the world, a new family to get to know, with cultural and language barriers, an ocean away from her people, her home, her life, the bed that has held her all these years.

How will her poem read?

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A Moment in Time is a shared blogging experience, where writers document and share their stories from the same moment on the same day. The day and time for the next A Moment in Time is posted by Randee every few days in such a way that you’ll have a heads up on the exact moment to which you need to attend and focus on and, if it’s significant in some way, write about and add to the list.

To read what others were doing at this moment in time, click on the link below. And, think about participating in the next moment in time.  🙂

https://randeebergen.wordpress.com/2013/12/04/a-moment-in-time-1023-p-m-on-12613/