Back to School & Back to France

Eiffel Tower View2

By Gabrielle. Photos taken April 2012 — Ralph and Olive on the Eiffel Tower.

Oh my goodness. Ben and I arrived home from Sweden yesterday afternoon, just in time for a remarkable week for our family. We have two birthdays this week — Olive and Ralph. We have the first day of school (it’s today!). And we’ll be traveling to Utah as a family this coming Friday to celebrate my mom’s 70th birthday.

But more impactful than any of that: two of our kids will be exchange students this fall, and they are flying off this week! I find myself crying elephant tears while I type this because the reality of them leaving feels so big. I can honestly say, I’m over the top happy that they’ll get this experience, and at the same time my heart tightens and I catch my breath trying to imagine the house without them.

Eiffel Tower View1

Ralph is turning 17 this week and he is headed off to England and France. He’s staying at the homes of boys that lived with us this past Spring/Summer. He’ll spend one month in England with Chris, and 3 months in France with Charles. Then he’ll come home for Christmas.

Olive is turning 13 this week and is also heading out. After her school trip to France in the spring, she asked us if there was any way she could attend school in France this fall. So we started making phone calls and tentatively reaching out about possible options. Our dear friend, Caroline, graciously offered to host, and now, it’s actually happening! She’ll come home at Christmas as well.

Ralph’s exchange has been on the calendar for ages. He and his friends started making these arrangements before we left France. But Olive’s France plans are still new and my brain is still adjusting. When I’m feeling nervous about having both of them so far away, this is what I remind myself of: They both speak French and they both know the families they will be staying with — I know a semester away would be a thousand times harder if they were showing up somewhere unfamiliar and staying with people they’d never met or speaking a new-to-them language.

Also, once Ralph arrives in France from England at the end of September, he and Olive will get to see each other almost daily, because they will both attend the same school. I’m so comforted by that! The school they’ll be attending is actually the same school they went to when we lived there — they’ve only been gone for one year, so I’m hoping the transition back to French school won’t be too jarring. And of course, if any of this turns out to be a mistake, they can always come home.

Mostly, we’re all super excited for their upcoming adventures! We’re talking about the amazing food they’ll eat. What it will be like to live with another family. Ways they can help out at their host family’s home. Where they might go during school breaks. How often we’ll facetime. That sort of thing.

Tell me, Friends, have you or your kids ever been exchange students? Or maybe lived for awhile with an Aunt or Grandparents or family friends in another state? What are your thoughts on exchanges like these?

P.S. — Curious about French schools? I’ve written several posts about our experience with them. Post about our life in France are here.

55 thoughts on “Back to School & Back to France”

  1. What a fantastic experience for both of them! I actually was a foreign exchange student a number of times, but most significantly a year in France which was one of my favorite experiences. The kids probably already know the drill from your previous time, but French high school is a unique place. One of the things we always tell ourselves upon leaving somewhere is that “we can always come back” yet it somehow is always different when we do, and we go back under circumstances we didn’t always expect. I’m so curious to hear their perspectives once they’re settled into their new take on old routines – good luck to them both and have a wonderful time!

  2. You are a brave mama! Safe travels to both of them. Will you be doing your “what to wear to __ grade” series this year? I always love that!

    1. We were just talking about the What to Wear series tonight! I’m not sure how we’ll handle it this year. It would be fantastic if we can fit in a photo shoot before Ralph and Olive leave.

      1. Please do! I’ve been a lurker on your blog for a few years now (I don’t think I’ve ever commented before) and the What to Wear series is one of my favourites! I remember from previous posts that kids dress up a little more in French schools, so I would be interested to see how the outfits of the two going to school in France will differ from those who are staying home!

        I never did a school exchange but I did spent 15 months in England as an au pair before I started university. I had always been rather shy but suddenly I was living with strangers in a place where I had no friends! It taught me to put myself out there much more and my confidence grew in leaps and bounds. I wish I had done an exchange when I was younger so that I could have been a more confident teenager!

  3. How wonderful for both of them! Such confident children you are raising. I am interested in particular in why Olive has chosen to return to France. I feel as though exchanges at 17 are a more common course. Perhaps this is too personal of an issue (to her) for you to share on your blog, but suspect her observations of school/life in France v. school/life in N. America would be quite thoughtful and interesting.

    Best of luck to all you!

  4. Wow! I’m amazed that Olive is just turning 13 this week and will be going abroad! So proud of her! (Is that weird to say as just a blog reader? :)

    1. I had an international experience in Japan at that age and it was super formative for me, so I’m hoping it will be awesome for her. But of course, it seems so young!

      I suppose if she wasn’t headed to my dear friend’s home, I might not be so excited. : )

      1. We just had our 13 year old niece spend 5 months with us . ( she is from Austria and we are in Canada). At times it was hard for her, but she really became a stronger and more resilient young woman through this experience. I think that it was an excellent experience for her. I’m sure that it will be the same for Olive.

  5. What a great experience for both of them. When I was Olive’s age I spent my whole summer in France (La Rochelle) with a host family. I went with my best friend so I had a familiar face around which made it easier.
    At age 15 I went to high school in Miami for a year, staying with my grandparents. This was a great experience coming from my home country of Switzerland. Things were different, but I had some family to lean on. I also went to university in Paris and feel that all of my experiences abroad have shaped me and given me a broader view of the world.

  6. Such an amazing opportunity! I’d love it if my girls could do some sort of exchange after we return to the US, but farther down the road since they’re still little (currently 6 and 3). Any ideas on how to maintain their French level once we return? My oldest will have had two full years of French school, and the younger will have a year and a half.

    1. Oh man. I wish I had a foolproof solution. I think an ideal option would be to find a French immersion school. I should write a post on the different things we’ve tried so far.

      1. Please do! I’d be so interested in what has worked for you all – I hope to raise my (future) children with a knowledge of another language.

        Thanks for sharing your story with us all!

  7. I’m so excited for you, reading this! As a mother, I feel that strain in my heart and a drop in the pit of my stomach just imagining my own little girl going to live abroad without me. But these kids of yours could not be in a more ideal situation, like you say, they speak the language, have already attended the school (so will have friends there), know the family they are staying with… what an amazing opportunity. They are just getting to that age where they need to be apart for a little while, and to find their own way. The children of this generation are truly global, aren’t they?

    1. “The children of this generation are truly global”

      I fully agree. Ralph essentially set up the whole exchange with his friends in England and France via facebook. Amazing!

  8. That’s fantastic that Olive and Ralph are getting the chance to return to France! I’m so excited for them! And it’s wonderful that they are already familiar with French schools and speak the language. They won’t feel that sense of isolation that can be common with exchange students who have a language barrier.

  9. What an amazing adventure for your kids, that’s wonderful! I’m french and i m living in the Bay Area with my family, even if we speak french at home it s not easy for the kids to keep a good level of french so the exchange student seems a pretty good idea. I was wondering how it works for the american school when your kids will come back? Do they keep a spot for your kids and does the school accept the grades they have in France?

  10. Good for them! You must be so proud! I am sure all will go well and there will be no regrets. We are German and our son (16) is in Colorado since three weeks, he is due to stay till February. He switched families after ten days, as it became clear quickly, that he would not be happy where he first was. Now everything seems good and he starts school next week. My daughter also did an exchange year in America (North Carolina) and she also had a hard time adjusting and grew happier after changing families. That was three years ago and she has been back to visit her host family twice and they have been over to meet us. Great! As a young person I only did a 14day school trip to France, but never spent longer than that outside Germany. Its so nice that kids have these opportunities these days.

    Talking about France: How far has your vacation house come along? When will you visit?

    This is by the way my first comment here ever. I love your blog.

    1. Meike45 – I went to uni in Freiburg and love and adore Germany but find myself overwhelmed by choices for our upcoming two year posting to Hamburg. My daughter will be starting school and it is very important that she be able to come back to Canada and start French. And I have no idea which neighborhood we should pick! If you would be so kind, maybe I can email you to get info about starting and picking a school for a five year old?? Danke sehr!

  11. So exciting for you and for them! And how different it will feel to have only 4 kids at home – I imagine they will all miss one another. I wish I had done an exchange or did a semester abroad as a college student. We are making up for it now, but those who traveled more while young have such neat experiences!

  12. Hello Gabby! What a wonderful experience they will have. I live a semester in England between 13 and 14 yo, i stayed with my uncle and was a truly great experience to star feeling a little independent, to sink in some responsibilities… I’m curious how you handle this with their school here in USA? curriculum wise how does the exchange works?

  13. Wow! What an amazing experience for them. It says A LOT about you and Ben and the job you’ve done as parents that your children have the self-awareness and self-confidence to recognize that this is something that they want to do, and then are brave and independent enough to actually DO it! Nice job, Mama!

  14. What a great experience! I am curious- do you support your kids while they are there? Is there an amount that you share with the exchange family for meals/stuff?
    Also, how do you deal with curriculum stateside? Are they expected to keep up? Take an exit exam?

  15. I am soooo impressed! You’re such a great mom letting your birds fly, even though I know it’s sad for you. They’ll do great! Can’t wait to hear updates!

  16. So glad you and Ben are safely home from your wonderful Sweden Adventure.
    Really excited for Olive and Ralph! I can imagine how difficult their leaving is for you. They are brave and amazing teens. And their being abroad will be marvelous for everyone. I do feel like weeping when I think how you will miss these two precious kids, but you’ll stay in touch and that’s great!

  17. I think this is simply fantastic! I was an exchange student in Finland during the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. That experience (including travel to the USSR) changed my life! I am amazed that at her age Olive was able to express her desire to spend the semester in France. I suppose that France must really feel comfortable to her. I think you are such a caring mom to allow both Olive and Ralph to have these opportunities. I am proud of you :-).

    1. I say that I am proud because I have experienced a little of this as a mom. My 16-year old is in here third year of boarding school. She is only four hours away, but even so, it isn’t easy! There are ups and downs, but she mostly loves it, and she has grown to be such a mature young lady. My daughter expressed at a young ago (10?) that she wanted to go to boarding school. Her determination, faith, and hard work made it happen! It is still incredibly hard for me, though. Even though she is close to home, she doesn’t get to come home that much (she has Saturday classes). We miss each other, talk on the phone almost every day, and are closer than ever, however. With Skype, Facetime, email etc, it is so much easier to stay in touch than when I travelled as a kid!

  18. Just when I think you’ve had all the excitement & adventure one girl can handle for the summer you out do yourself the next week. Didn’t see how you could top roadtrip AND then Sweden, girl, but wow, this week is BIG! Love this big adventure next. What a great experience for the kids and hooray for the good friends who are helping out on the other end. What a comfort for you! — Schedule in some self-care, you. ;) <3

  19. I was an exchange student for a school year during my sr. year of high school. It was difficult but wonderful and has shaped who I am

  20. I did my senior year in France when I was 17. One of the best things about being abroad was that I became even closer with my parents. We always got along when we were living together in the states, but being so far apart really made me appreciate them in a new way. I bet you will become even closer with your kids over the next 6 months.

    I ended up staying in France for college after my exchange year – which was free! With your kids’ language skills and francophilia, free college is always an option!

  21. I find this to be just plain amazing. I believe that living there as long as you did opens up so many wonderful things for your kids. I have an almost 13 year old though and I wonder how she’d do so far away for so long. With friends and her big brother near her, I’m sure Olive will have a great adventure.

  22. My heart broke when my 16 year old son left for Germany this summer on an exchange trip. But seeing him come back home and off that plane so confident and with a new set of life experiences reframed my entire view. He was already a great world traveler, but this was without me. Without his younger siblings. Without his dad.

    ….. and I am forever grateful that he went. You will be too!

  23. I lived with family friends in Brazil for 10 months during my sophomore year in high school. It was challenging, but so wonderful. It helped living with a family I already knew (their sister had lived with us and my sister had already lived with them and our moms knew each other from the 60s when my mom was an exchange student with her family). I remember feeling like my entire perspective on the world and people shifted dramatically after that experience. I’m grateful my mom valued these kinds of experiences and allowed us the freedom to experience them. I went on to do a junior peace core program the following summer in Paraguay!

  24. How wonderful and hard! I think it is great that Ralph and Olive are getting to do this! And what a comfort that they will be with people they know in a culture and with a language with which they are familiar. I can’t imagine how hard it will be to see them go…brave mama! :)

  25. I think its just fantastic! And nowadays there are so many opportunities to keep in touch. And at least they will have surroundings they know around them. I did several exchanges, but only short ones in my teens, and loved (nearly) every moment (even though some were pretty hairraising in the times pre-mobile, internet etc.). Like going to Belgium alone by train etc. aged just 15 to a family I had never met, had no idea how they looked like, but I still managed to get there…..
    One of the dearest wishes of my 13 year old daughter is to go to her cousin’s school in England (we live in Germany), and I really hope that can work out in a year or so.

  26. I wish I’d had an opportunity to have been an exchange student, but alas I did not. But my family did host a wonderful Swedish girl for a year, and what a great experience that was for us! It refreshed the dynamic of our family as well as opened our eyes to a new culture. I’m so excited for Ralph and Olive, but I feel for you and the idea of not having your loves under your roof.

  27. I was an exchange student and spent one year in the US when I was 17 (I’m German). At times it was really hard, so my first thought was that 13 is VERY young indeed. BUT since I’d say that the culture shock is the hardest part and both of them know the surroundings, the language, even the family already (plus 4 months are quite manageable — don’t be too surprised if they want to prolong!), I’m certain that this will be a great experience. Anyway, KUDOS to Olive (and to you!)!

  28. Exchange is such an incredible thing for someone to experience, I was a high school and a university exchange student, and I cannot wait for the future when my own children can have this opportunity. The only hard part is that now I have two homes, New Zealand and Sweden and I adore both of them so deciding where to live with my Swedish man is hard decision.

  29. What a great experience! I so wished to be able to do something like this when I was a kid. My wanderlust was so strong it hurt. I would like to get my kids to do it when they’re of age. I’m not sure where I would want to send them, but finding international friends seems like a good way to go! I’m excited to learn about how it goes for you missing them and for them being away from their parents. Thanks!

  30. I love hearing about your kids studying abroad!

    I was lucky enough to do a very short exchange in 8th grade with a school in Lyon—it was transformative and eye opening. (I was remembering the other day how I processed the fact that my host was allowed to sleep in the same room as her boyfriend every night.) Then, in college I was able to do a year abroad, first in Paris, then in London. I really believe those experiences made me who I am today—confident and slightly more wise about the world. Plus, I get to work at a creative job I absolutely love.

    Speaking completely anecdotally, I’ve noticed that French schooling tends to produce kids who follow the rules…sometimes to a fault. Your kids’ insights and opinions about the differences between the cultures and schools will be so interesting.

  31. One of my few regrets is that I didn’t do a longer exchange or semester abroad. And, like others have posted neither Ralph nor Olive are going into this blind – so much of the initial cultural shock won’t happen because they’ve lived there before. More importantly, I think this speaks to the job you and Ben are doing as parents: BRAVO!

  32. I am french and I was an exchange student in the US (Missouri) for my “Terminale”… I was in Senior year in the high school (I had a Prom !!!! Hourra !! and a graduation hat :-) ! Today I am a mother, and I realised how great were my parents to let me go so far (at this time internet was not in each home !!) They sent me recorded tapes with their voices I loved it! Today, almost 20 years after it, I can still say it was one of the best experience in my life. To find myself, to find others…. to discover another way of life, to really live with people, and not only be there in holiday. I am still in contact with my american family, they came to my wedding, and I plan to go there once again… This trip made me fall in love with US and americans. It made me growing up. I found truly friends, that now I found back on facebook, and I can’t wait to go to our 20 year reunion !
    Bravo to let your children go ! It is a beautiful gift you are giving to them !

    Ethymologiquement, “Eduquer” c’est “amener un enfant hors de soi”… Je pense que vous avez réussi :-)

  33. oh, my, what a week!! Wishing you strength and focus and I do believe the “if you love someone set them free!” … to be true! I’m so close, yet, to my family that every day I’m on the phone with one or all as they wake up every day. I could literally tell you what they’ve eaten for breakfast and choose them, over destination vacations because they are the best things I know! — so, I’m sure this will only be an enriching and amazing journey for you all! (but, still I feel those tears!!!) Happy birthday to your mother!! Hip Hip Hurray! My Mom turned 70 this Summer, too! – I so enjoyed following you through my adopted country! I hope the trip was wonderful — it looked like it! Big warm hugs from Sweden!

  34. Wow! I’m sure your kids will have a wonderful experience! I did an exchange for one month, when I was 15. I went to the french Alps (I’m spanish) to the house of a penpal. It was something I will always remember. I can still feel my heart beating like the first time I opened the window in that room and saw the Mont Blanc. And I still call my host “my french mom”. We did the exchange again the next year, and I visited them again for my friend’s wedding…
    The second year while I was there my friend and I decided that I shouldstay there for the whole course. We even talked with the high school director,to know if it was possible and what classes should I attend.. but alas, my family didn’t have much money and were afraid of possible expenses like medical insurqmce and like, so I came back to Spain after a month.
    I will do whatever is needed to provide my own children with that experience!

  35. such a FUN thing for the two of them! reading about it all got my wheels spinning for our own kids…the possibilities are endless. also, my mother’s heart goes out to you.

  36. WOW! What exciting news….and yes, I’m sure bittersweet as a mama to let them both go. I can’t believe what an action-packed life you guys lead. I saw Ben Blair today outside of Betty’s class, and you’d never know he just jetted in from Sweden a few days ago! I’m always amazed by your awesome family.

    As for exchange programs, I too spent 3 months in Japan when I was 16 (I truly loved it, it was an incredible experience! I was in Hiroshima, where were you??). So bravo to the kids for being such bold adventurers! I can’t wait to hear about the experience they have. I’d also be intrigued for a High School update. Your stories about Ralph and Maude’s HS were so fascinating. Are you sticking with that school for Maude? Did Ralph feel inspired/challenged enough? (will he attend it again when he comes back mid year etc) Thanks for always sharing your stories. I love them! xoxo

  37. Good for them (and you)! When I was 16 I was an exchange student for 6 months in South America. I went with only the most basic knowledge of Spanish and moved in with a host family who I knew next to nothing about. It was the most important thing I ever did. It changed my life in so many ways. I had a terrific time and it was full of ups and downs as is to be expected. But the hard times shaped my character just as much as the good times. It was in the pre-email and pre-social media era so I was really on my own (I talked to my parents in the USA about once every couple weeks by phone and wrote letters home each week, and some people considered that to be too often!)

    The time will absolutely fly and when they come home they’ll fit right back in (albeit maybe with a bit of appropriate emotional turmoil for a while). It’s the best, best, best experience. I’m thrilled for your kids!

  38. I am so glad to hear that you are being brave enough to let them have this experience. It’s so good for them, and will go such a long way to prepare them for adulthood. I started attending boarding school on another island when I was 13, and did so until I finished high school. I flew home four times a year, and it was a really positive experience overall.

  39. I did an exchange with a family in Germany when I was 15/16. Their daughter joined my family in the winter and I joined theirs in late spring/summer. I did not speak the language (I was studying French!) and I had never met my host’s parents but it was a fabulous trip. Hard at times, but even the hard times were valuable. And I came home feeling confident and ready to take on anything, both of which were a gift to a shy, introverted farm-girl teen. I know it was hard for my parents to let me go, but it was one of the best things they’ve ever done for me.

  40. When I was in high school in suburban Portland Oregon I was fascinated by this program called the network of complimentary schools
    There are about 25 or so high schools in the country, most are private/prep schools/boarding schools but my school was just a regular old public high school. Each school had a specialty program (music/art/political science/forestry/etc) I applied to 3 programs and went to the Emma Willard school in Troy, NY. (I think scent of a woman was shot on this campus?) it was a huge change for me, when though it was a domestic exchange, not foreign. My program was in political science so I was able to intern in an office of a NY state assembly member. *random fact: I was delivering documents to be copied at the legislative copy center when I found out that Kurt Cobain had died. I went back to the office and read the AP and reuters newsfeed on Lexus Nexus. I had the most amazing time. I went down to NYC and stayed with a high school
    Friend who was in college for a weekend. (THAT was an education). I found an lds ward and a family that picked me up to go to church every Sunday. (I still remember the brother leading the congregation music and he looked like colonel sanders). I lived in a dormitory with girls from all over the world -Asia/Europe/middle east. Nearly Everyone was extremely wealthy – interesting to get to know people from all over. I participated in a country club fundraiser, a fashion show, wearing a 50’s wedding dress from a collection of vintage dresses. A day trip through Vermont/mass/conn blew my mind since I grew up in the west and traveling to another state meant hours of driving.

    I’ll say this – I’m
    Grasping at memories here. I was 18. Old enough to remember. But I think I have a rosier memory now than I did then. I was a bit homesick, missed a boyfriend, struggled a bit. But writing about it how takes me back. What I wouldn’t give for a better documentation of that experience 20 years ago. I wish I still had the sweatshirt for the school too. What was I thinking??

  41. Hi! I don’t have experience with being an exchange student but wanted to drop in to say that I loved your posts about school in France. If you aphave more to share, I’d be curious to hear about your thoughts a year out, with a year of US schooling under your belt. Perhaps something about school in England would be possible?

  42. I was an exchange student from Scotland to the USA when I was 17 and I truly believe that it was one of the best and most defining experiences of my life. I learnt so much about myself, how to handle myself in a positive and constructive way and it gave me life experience that to this day (almost 20 years later) I still draw on. I won’t lie it was tough at time and not a holiday but I wouldn’t change it for a world. Good for you and your kids.

  43. Going on a 10-month foreign exchange to Germany as a 16-year-old was the most empowering, challenging, and wonderful year of my life. That tiny village with that tiny pub and tiny flower shop is my second home. I’m in college now and since then I’ve been back to Germany on a political internship and married a fabulous guy who also speaks German and loves the country as much as I do.

    I recently wrote a post on my blog about tips for foreign exchange students:

    Some advice from my program that was helpful for me/my parents: On those hard days, students tend to call home and tell their parents about all of “the horrible things.” To students, don’t call home on those days. Calm yourself down first. To parents, don’t freak out. It’s heartbreaking to see your child hurting, but things feel amplified when you’re far away. It’s just a bad day. Just wait it out.

    I’m always inspired by your blog and I’m so excited for Ralph and Olive. It’s worth it. Every part.

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