I've always loved France; since I was little, I've been obsessed with the food, the people, the fashion, and the literature. My room was decorated with cheesy, store-bought Eiffel Tower paraphernalia and posters, and having a grand apartment on the Champs-Elysees became a dream of mine. I began learning the French language in middle school and excelled in all of my classes, due to my passion for the country. But there was one little caveat: I had actually never been to France.
I was inspired to go abroad by my love and passion for France. I wanted to actually see the Eiffel Tower, to walk on the Champs-Elysees, and taste a fresh croissant in a stereotypical French cafe. But most of all, I wanted to be fully immersed in the culture, language, and people of France. I was able to not only do the things that I had dreamed about, but I received the opportunity to live in a seaside town, Biarritz, with an amazing host family. The only way to do that was through a summer study abroad program.
Why did you choose SPI Study Abroad?
I chose SPI Study Abroad for a number of reasons. First, it provided comprehensive and required language classes. I was extremely interested in improving my French, and it was one of the main reasons why I ultimately chose to study abroad.
Second, SPI places participants with a host family; I knew from the beginning that I wanted to stay with a family, as I knew it would provide me with the cultural and linguistic immersion that would be the most beneficial and that I desired.
Third was the level of support and structure that was given to participants. While I knew that I wanted to be in a structured environment where there were required activities with the program, I also wanted free time to explore and experience things on my own. SPI provides participants with a level of independence and free time that many other programs either give too much of or not enough of.
What was your favorite part about France? How about the city of Biarritz?
France is obviously amazing: it has incredible food, a rich culture, and friendly people. The city of Biarritz, where I spent the majority of my time, reflected this. Biarritz is a seaside town that is known for its lavish hotels and surfing culture, as well as its unique Basque culture. The town has three main beaches that are all surrounded by a vibrant downtown, where there are many shops and restaurants. Despite the upscale hotels in the area, the city has a laid-back vibe due to the heavy influence that surfing has on the region. As a result, there is a mix of both expensive and inexpensive; you can shop at Hermes and spend $300 on dinner, but you can also shop at unique boutiques and eat gourmet food on a teenager's budget.
I was in Biarritz for two weeks before the tourist season and for two weeks during the tourist season, which leads me to the best part about Biarritz; there is an amazing mix of locals and tourists. There is always traditional Basque culture, but there is a mix of tourists from other parts of France that influence the food available and the activities. I loved meeting people not only from Biarritz, but from other parts of France.
What made your experience studying abroad in France unique?
The city of Biarritz is known as an area for French language study, and as a result, there are hundreds of international young people studying abroad there. Being a teenager in such an environment provided an extremely unique experience in which I had the opportunity to make friends from all over the world.
I had gone to France to learn about the French culture, but I learned about so much more than just that. I learned about the Swedish school system from girls that were in my French class, some Spanish phrases from my Spanish housemates, and about the Brexit from actual British teenagers. Dozens of people came into and out of my life each day. and there is really no other place or time that such an experience can occur.
How did local staff support you throughout your program?
The local staff were very involved in our lives abroad. As this was a high school study abroad program, there was a level of "watchdog status" that the local staff had to have; they had to make sure we were safe, healthy, speaking French, and making good decisions. The program directors became good friends of mine, and I became extremely close with one of them. They are young, understanding, and easy to talk to, in both English and French. If any problem arose, they were always reachable by text, in one of the activities, or in school. At night, at least one staff member was in the downtown area of Biarritz in case anything happened. I felt extremely safe and taken care of during my time in France.
What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?
I wish that I had the nerve to speak to strangers earlier in the program. In the beginning of the program, I was embarrassed to speak French, petrified that I was making a fool of myself. As a result, I neglected to attempt to have in-depth conversations with my host family (at first), talk to boys at the beach, and try to have an extended exchange with a waiter or a shopkeeper. These are the things that I came to cherish toward the end of my program and led to some of my best memories. There would have been so many more experiences if I had not held myself back linguistically and had just gone for it.
Describe a typical day in the life of your program.
The SPI program is very involved. We would wake up, eat breakfast, and be at our language school by 9 a.m. Thankfully, the school was only 100 yards away from my apartment. We would then spend three hours in school, learning and reviewing French grammar, listening, speaking, and culture. I was placed in a class level at the beginning of my stay, and continually moved up through the levels throughout my time in France. Our host parents packed us a bagged lunch that we would eat in the courtyard of the school.
In the afternoon, there were usually two daily plans. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, SPI would have mandatory activities. We visited half a dozen neighboring cities, as well as museums, aquariums, and other local attractions; we even went to the movies one day. After the activity was completed, we could enjoy free time for the rest of the afternoon, evening, and night. On Tuesday and Thursday, there were optional activities that included surfing, cooking class, rafting, and kayaking, among others. If you chose to not do an activity, you had a free afternoon to spend shopping, at the beach, or with your host family.
On Saturdays, there were mandatory day trips. We visited San Sebastian, Spain, and Bordeaux, France. There were group tours in both cities followed by periods of free time with occasional check-ins. It was the perfect way to not only learn about the history and architecture of the city, but about its shopping scene as well. On Sundays, the whole day was free, so we often spent the whole day at the beach.
What did you enjoy doing in your free time?
Free time was eating time. My friends and I frequented the small food stands, bakeries, and ice cream shops in Biarritz. We often went out for ice cream at least twice a day, in addition to the snack runs to the churro stand and patisseries. We made an effort to eat dinner out at least once a week; a highlight was when a huge group of us sampled the specialties of the Basque region at one of the best restaurants in Biarritz.
On Sundays, we went to the local market, which was hands down one of the best parts of the trip. My roommate and I would take a reusable bag to the large indoor market and fill it with bread, meats, and fresh fruits. We would feast on it for lunch, and for the rest of the week. The region was brimming with fresh and delicious produce, as it was summer. Some of the sweetest fruits and best sandwiches I have ever eaten came from that market.
What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?
I stayed with a lovely host family in their apartment. The family consisted of a mother, a father, and two daughters. There were also up to three other exchange students in the apartment in addition to myself and my roommate. The international dynamic of the household created an atmosphere that became one of my favorite parts of the trip. With so many people in the house, all of different nationalities (French, American, Irish, Swiss, Spanish) there was often not a common language between us other than French. It is a bonding experience to communicate with people that have become your temporary family in a language that is not your own.
I stayed in a nice room with another teenage girl from my program. Our host mom and dad made us breakfast, lunch, and dinner; they were amazing cooks, but their good traits do not end there. Both of my host parents were extremely welcoming and made every effort to include us in conversations and nightly family activities. There were many nights when I went from discussing American politics (using my limited French vocabulary) to sitting on the couch with my host sister and housemates watching a movie. My accommodations could not have been better.
What is one thing every student should know before participating in your program?
Every participant should know to cherish the time with their host family. It is such a special experience to live with a family, and every effort should be made to communicate and bond with your host parents and siblings. Stay at the dinner table a little longer than you would otherwise, ask if you can help make dinner, offer to take your little host sibling out to ice cream, stay in if your host parents offer to put on a movie, because it is entirely worth it.
Now that you're home, how has your time in France impacted your life?
Studying abroad has impacted my life in a variety of ways. I have become a much more personable and open person, particularly when talking to people that I don't know. There were only strangers in my life; I needed to approach people and talk to them without hesitation or embarrassment, otherwise I would not have had friends.
I am also a much more independent person. Without my parents there, I had to manage money, navigate, and plan all by myself. Not only was I doing that as a sixteen year old girl, but it was in a foreign country while I was speaking a foreign language. I had to be much more aware of myself than I normally was, and that has carried over into my life at home now. I continue to be independent (I've even gotten in a couple of fights with my parents over this topic).
Lastly, my love for France and the French language has grown. My French grammar and speaking has drastically improved, and I now know that I want my life to involve French and/or France in the future, whether it is working there or living there. I am not just the girl who takes French in high school anymore.
Would you recommend SPI Study Abroad to others? Why?
SPI Study Abroad is an amazing program for teenagers who want to learn a language, experience a new culture, or simply love to travel.
The opportunities that are provided through the program, such as the homestay and the day trips, will impact participants' lives and outlooks on life. The language classes will improve any ability level, the homestay will give participants a second, foreign family, and the independence that is fostered through the program will stay with participants well past their time abroad. The friends that are made will be friends for life, and the memories made will be ones recalled even in old age. I highly recommend this for anyone who wants any of those things.
Isabella is a high school junior at Verona High School in Verona, New Jersey. She had never been to France before studying abroad there for a month in the summer of 2016, but she loved every minute she was there.