Our French daughter — Mommy Daze

 French DaughterWAt the beginning of summer, our household grew with the addition of a foreign exchange student from France. By the end of summer, it felt as if it was our family that had grown, not just our household and saying goodbye was heart wrenching.

I was sobbing. I’m talking the ‘ugly cry’. My husband had his arm around me but was crying too, so he wasn’t much help. Our two boys were waving out the window of the BWI Observation Gallery to a plane below. As I stood there crying, I just couldn’t believe that a 15-year old girl from France who had been a complete stranger to us 8 weeks ago, was now like a dear part of our family. Ma fille Française, my French daughter, was flying back home to France and I was a mess.

This past summer, my family and I agreed to host a foreign exchange student through the CCI Greenheart organization’s “Individual Homestay Program”. I discovered this program when a close friend of mine told me she was hosting a 15-year old girl from France whose best friend also needed a host family. I was so excited about the idea! My husband and I both took French in high-school and when I was 16 I had travelled to France with my class and stayed with a host family in Paris. It was an amazing trip and I was ecstatic for the opportunity to provide a similar experience for someone else. We signed up right away, and after a brief home visit from the coordinator at CCI, we were accepted to host our foreign exchange student. I was totally freaking out!

We spent the next couple weeks watching kids DVDs on learning French, reading books about France, and getting our guest room ready. We wrote her emails and even did a live video call with her family one day. I spent hours on the computer planning trips to Washington DC, Baltimore, and other local places of interest. And a trip to New York City was a definite must! We even bought season passes to Six Flags. I wanted to make the most out of the 8 weeks she would be with us. I admit, I also had no idea how I was going to entertain a 15 year old girl and keep my 5 and 3 year old boys occupied all summer, so planning lots of activities seemed like a good idea. I was up for the challenge, though kind of nervous. What if she didn’t like us? What do teenagers do all day? Would she like our food? What if I lost her in New York City?!

With CCI, host families are asked to provide the student with room and board, daily meals, and a comforting family environment. Students are usually quite fluent in the English language, so the goal of the trip is to be completely immersed in the American culture and language. The host families are asked to include the students in everything we do and treat them as part of the family. They come with their own spending money for activities and the occasional dining out. I had put together an estimate of costs for our little trips and activities and sent to her parents.

We were literally counting down the days till her arrival. The boys made a ‘Welcome’ sign and we all excitedly met up with my friend, the other host family, outside the International Arrivals gate at BWI. When the girls finally arrived, I remember watching them walk through the security gate and thinking “oh my gosh, they look so mature, so cool, so French!” We all headed home and my boys had a blast dragging our new French daughter around the house showing her everything. I could tell she was exhausted, overwhelmed, and probably not understanding much of what my two little excited boys were saying, but she kept smiling and politely went along with everything. I was in love!

The next couple days were a blur as we all adjusted to having an extra person in the house. As the days went by I think the excitement and adrenaline started to wear off and she kept to herself more in her room. She didn’t talk much, unless she was asked a question. During those first few weeks, whenever we got together with the other host family, the two French girls would talk a hundred miles a minute in their native language, while my friend and I would sneak off to compare stories of how each-other’s student was adjusting.

I was starting to worry that she was home-sick and not enjoying her stay. I kept thinking, “she hates it here”. She was on her phone any time there was a WiFi connection, and some days I literally would only see her when she’d come out of her room to eat with us. I could tell she wasn’t used to being around kids much and would get bored at the parks and numerous kid activities we would do, but was a sport and always went wherever I invited her to go. In the evenings after kids were in bed we would invite her to watch movies with us, or play card games, which she would always reply with a smile, “why not?” But I always had this underlying feeling that she was just being polite.

Then we took a day trip to DC, just her and I. We started in Georgetown where we had brunch at a French-owned restaurant. She lit up as we walked inside and saw all the delicious items in their patisserie. We talked a lot during that day. I learned about her family, her friends, her school, and what she likes to do at home. It was an amazing day. After that I tried to do more things with just her. We had a ‘Girls Day’ where we saw Wonder Woman in the movie theatre and ate sushi at my favorite place. She taught me a French card game and I loved playing it with her. We took a few day trips, visiting places such as Annapolis, Baltimore, and Rehoboth Beach. We drove to Lancaster Pennsylvania where we toured an Amish village since she had been learning about the Amish in her English class at home. We would spend a day at Six Flags almost every week, and usually my friend would meet us there along with the other French student. The girls would run off together to ride roller-coasters and probably enjoy speaking their own language for a while. Every Sunday she would go to church with us, and quickly became part of our little church ‘family’ as everyone loved seeing her and talking to her.

During the last two weeks of her visit, we had family come to stay with us from California, which included my 15-year old niece and her best friend. I was so excited for them to arrive because I thought our French daughter would enjoy having other teenage girls to hang out with. I learned quickly though that teenagers are teenagers, and they like to do their own thing. They were all polite to each-other, but didn’t end up hanging out together very much, unless I sort of forced them. During my family’s visit, we all headed to New York City for three days. My husband stayed home with the kids which I was very grateful, as those three days in the city were a complete whirlwind. We literally walked miles and miles every day, taking the French girls and our California visitors to all the major tourist spots in Manhattan. At the end of those long, tiresome days, I can honestly say was the only time I ever saw the French girls act ‘teenager-ish’, rolling their eyes and having some attitude. My friend, the other host family ‘mom’, and I laughed realizing that some things are international.

The day after we got home from New York City was our French daughter’s last day. I went into her room that morning with some gifts I had wrapped; a photo album with all the pictures from our adventures, a deck of playing cards, and a French Bible that had been signed by most of the people at our church. I had hand-written a letter in French to her and her parents (thanks to my limited memory from high-school French class and Google Translate), thanking them for allowing us this amazing opportunity. I was surprised when she gave me a hug (which I don’t think is very popular in the French culture) and then handed me a letter she had written, along with my favorite candy bar which she had apparently purchased during our visit to Chocolate World in Hershey, Pennsylvania. She told me that even though she was excited to see her family and friends at home, she was very sad to be leaving. This made my heart happy. It was pretty evident how close we all had become when at the airport there wasn’t a dry eye.

I’ve thought of our French daughter often since she left, and I know I will never forget her. I hope to stay in touch through social media and letters, and maybe even visit her family in France one day. During her visit, I learned so much. I learned that sometimes the best way to express yourself is with very few words. Our culture is so quick to speak just to hear ourselves talk, but with her I chose my words carefully and with feeling. I learned to appreciate the little things that make our family ‘us’, and the big beautiful things that make our country so wonderful and sought-after. I learned that we eat way too much for dinner. I learned to ask questions and observe more closely to fully understand. I learned that the word “towel” is very hard to say if you’re from France. And I learned to love and appreciate a total stranger because we chose to open our homes, and our hearts, to her.

I highly recommend becoming a host family for a foreign exchange student. It’s an amazing experience for the entire family!

Watts FamilyClick here to read more Mommy Daze.

Mandy Watts is a stay-at-home mom who lives in Crownsville with her husband, Justin, who runs their family business, and their two sons, 5-year-old James and 3-year-old Luke.

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