Bonjour, Quimper: Andrea Gonzalez studies in France

Maddie Browne, Spotlight Editor

“I felt like I was living two lives. I had my friends in the US calling and texting me all the time to see if everything was going well, but for me, it wasn’t the best situation. I needed to adapt and make new friends here rather than try to medicate my loneliness with friends that are thousands of miles away.”
However horrifying cutting ties with friends may sound, this is the real-life experience of junior Andrea Gonzalez. Eight months ago, she moved to a small village near Quimper in northwestern France. She’ll be returning to Washington in just a few months; since September, though, Gonzalez has discovered that life as an exchange student is vastly different from the United States.
“The culture was different, the customs were different, and the routines as well. The attitudes, the ways of communicating—it’s all very difficult to adapt to,” Gonzalez said. “I’m really well-adapted and integrated into my host family now, so I’m grateful.”
As an exchange student, she lives in a normal house with her hosts as if she were really a part of the family.
“I have three ‘sisters’ who are all younger than me,” Gonzalez said. “Here, families are a lot more interconnected, and there’s a lot more time spent together. The dynamic was definitely different to get used to because it just wasn’t the same compared to my household.”
France, Gonzalez says, is a lot more community-based. The students at her new school are a tight-knit group, and at first, she struggled to fit in.

“Americans are ten million times more open than French people. If an exchange student comes to Liberty, everyone wants to be friends. But here in France, it took me a long time to actually make friends—like real friends that I knew would last me throughout the year,” she said.
Although her friendships are solid now, Gonzalez sees distinct differences from what she experienced at Liberty.
“There’s almost a barrier of politeness. If you go towards anybody you can have a polite conversation, but only if you know them,” Gonzalez said. “If you don’t, they’ll just look at you funny if you try to talk to them.”
For her close friends, however, there’s almost no barrier now. In order to fully integrate herself into the community of her school and host family, she had to make an enormous sacrifice.
“In the beginning, I think I talked to my American friends too much. I wasn’t able to create my own life here in France,” Gonzalez said. “When I started talking to them less and less, I started making more and more friends here. I still contact them, we still text every once in a while or FaceTime, but it’s pretty limited.”

Going through her own challenging times as an exchange student helped her to understand both her brother’s experience and the flip side of being a host family.
“I decided it was my turn to go. My brother actually went on an exchange trip to Switzerland about three years ago, and then my family hosted an exchange student recently, so I just went for it,” Gonzalez said.
Although she knew some of what to suspect, some things surprised her.
“Every day after school for the first few weeks I would just go to my bed and sleep because my brain was overloaded with French and making a conscious effort to understand and speak,” she said.
Finally, as her time in France draws to a close, Gonzalez looks back on the year with fond memories.
“My favorite thing has been learning about this culture. I’ve taken the most interesting and useful, just the best parts of the culture, and integrated them into my normal life,” she said. “I do the same thing with American culture and my Mexican culture. I use these cultures to better define myself, figure out what I like, and integrate parts of each culture into my life, my way of thinking, and my way of being.”