Report From My Two Kids Who are Studying Abroad In France

As promised, here is a little report about Olive and Ralph and their experience in France this semester.

Olive has been in France since September 1st. She’s young (she turned 13 the week before she moved), and we knew this might not work for her, so we were prepared to fly her back home if she wasn’t thriving. But so far, she seems to LOVE it. She’s staying with our dear friend, Caroline, and Olive says she’s amazed how fast dinner clean up goes with fewer people in the house. Hah! I love that she’s getting to see how another house is run. It’s important to me that my kids understand there are lots of right ways to do most things.

She really seems to be developing a sense of independence — helped by the fact that she lives in town and isn’t waiting on a car and parent to get her around. During her first week, she needed to change her money from dollars to euros, and instead of waiting for a grownup, she decided to take care of the task herself. She walked herself to the bank and inquired about the exchange. The bankers sent her to the post office and she was able to take care of it there. No big deal. And just to remind you, this is all taking place in French.

Speaking of French, she said she’s doing well with the language and can speak mostly accent free. She’s enrolled in the same school she attended when we lived there and it’s been wonderful for her to instantly know people and be in a familiar place.

Argentan Mural

Olive has also been acting as translator. There is an American family living in La Cressonière and they have kids attending the same school as Olive. One of them is in her class, and as he learns French, Olive is helping translate as needed. Several years ago, when our kids first started at that school, there was an Irish family attending, and they kindly acted as translators for my kids, so I like the idea that Olive can pay the kindness forward.

When we lived there, Olive’s extra-curricular activities were horseback riding and piano. We wondered if she would want to sign up for those again this semester. But instead, she’s taking a drama class and really enjoying it.

Caroline has also taken Olive to visit our Cottage (which reminds me, I still haven’t properly introduced the cottage. It’s on my list!)

Normandy Field

Now on to Ralph. You may remember, Ralph spent the last week of August and most of September in England. He’s been in France since September 27th.

This whole study abroad concept has really grabbed Ralph’s imagination. Like Olive, he’s thriving too, and can see the possibilities. He’s even started talking to friends in Japan and Australia about doing exchanges. Who knows if it will happen, but either way, he clearly loves this!

England was wonderful for him. He found that getting to experience a taste of the school there was really satisfying. He loved meeting new people and being able to determine his own schedule. He was able to explore the town of Abingdon and he and his friend could take the train to London to explore there as well. (Ralph loves London!)

And then, when he arrived in France, he couldn’t stop telling us how awesome our little town of Argentan is. He said he didn’t understand how awesome it was until he moved back, and that we should move the family back asap. : ) He said he loves walking around town because he sees so many people he knows and loves — like the clockmaker — as he goes about his day.

His language is excellent, but he talks often about wanting to get it perfect. His goal is complete fluency and he studies the nuances to figure out where he’s still getting it wrong.

He also attends the same school as Olive, but only sort of. He’s auditing classes so he can attend as much as he likes, but his coursework is through K12. This seems to be working well. He is able to get his school work done in a few hours, which leaves him time for writing screen plays and working on films, which is for sure his first love.

His latest movie is the one at the top and I feel like it’s his best so far. And maybe his best by far! It’s only two minutes, I hope you’ll watch it because I think you’ll really enjoy it. (And if you do, I hope you’ll share it. It’s a good one!)

One interesting thing is that doing his school work independently has reminded him of how much of a typical school day is just sort of busy work or wasted time moving between classes, and he’s wondering what it would take to graduate early and be completely done with high school. So we’re looking into that to see what it would take. Ralph seems to do well in a school setting — he’s super social — so of course it’s interesting for us to see that he’s find to be done with that and move on.

As expected, both love the food!

I can’t believe they’ve been gone for almost 2 months! We miss them like crazy and the house always feels a little empty without them. One unexpected result that has come with their absence: We thought Maude might get lonely, but she really seems to be thriving. Sometimes I forget that Maude is an introvert and really needs alone time to recharge. With Ralph and Olive gone, she seems to be getting more of that precious alone time and is enjoying life more than ever! Ben Blair and I are already talking about how we’ll help her preserve that time once they return.

To stay connected, every Sunday morning we have a family Google Chat, where we can share 3 screens and get to have time together. Of course, we also get to talk with Ralph and Olive throughout the week as needed. Hallelujah for technology! And I continue to be comforted knowing Olive and Ralph can connect in person if they’re homesick.

I think that’s it for a report today. Anything I missed? If you have questions, leave them in the comments and I’ll do my best to respond. I’d love to hear more about your experiences with international exchanges, or study abroad semesters, or kids far from home. And what do you think about Ralph’s video? I always love reading your words!


Images from Olive’s Instagram. Video by Ralph.

79 thoughts on “Report From My Two Kids Who are Studying Abroad In France”

  1. What an awesome experience for both of your kids. While I didn’t get to study abroad in high school I did live in Berlin for 4 years in my twenties and it was without a doubt the best experience of my life thus far. Plus knowing a second or third language never hurts! Hooray for Ralph and Olive! And kudos to you and your husband as parents for encouraging them and allowing them to experience the world at such a young age.

  2. Ralph’s film is so cute! It really has the feel of a French film with a bit of the same quirkiness as films like Amelie. Loved it!

  3. Ralph’s film is really good! Like, really good! So glad Charles doesn’t objectify women, that made me laugh. :) Well done.

    Thanks for sharing – so happy everyone’s doing well (but not surprised – they have a good foundation to begin with :) ). I especially loved this part: “It’s important to me that my kids understand there are lots of right ways to do most things.”

  4. What a brilliant video! So clever. I laughed about poor Charles and his library books. I hope there’s a part two. I wonder how he and Lisa will get on?

  5. This made me smile! I’m so happy for your family. “There are lots of right ways to do most things” – how true. I’d love to hear more during the year and how the dynamic has changed at home.

    1. Regarding how the dynamic has changed at home, it’s interesting, because I feel like Ben and I are getting so much more time with the younger three, and getting to know them even better. I suppose it would have happened when the older kids went off to college, but now it’s happening a little earlier.

      And I would also say that mornings are less hectic. Four kids is simply less than six kids. : )

      1. That in itself is an interesting topic. Being a mom of 2, 12 years apart, I have a very deep relationship with my children with lots of 1 on 1. What do you find to be the challenges of having 6 kids? I think you family is lovely and always thought I would have a big family, it just didn’t happen.

  6. Ralph’s film was great – so smart and funny. I’m glad, though not surprised, to hear they’re both doing well. Any chance they would stay on through the end of the school year or will they definitely come back to the US at Christmas?

    1. Olive will come home for sure, but Ralph has talked about extending till February. Our hesitation is not wanting to impose on the host family for more time than we agreed on at the beginning of the exchange. We’ll have to see what makes sense.

  7. So when the Ralph and Olive are together in France, what’s their language of choice with each other? Does English still come as the easiest or do they take their cue from their surroundings?

    1. Good question, Angie! From what I can gather, if there is a French person with them, Ralph and Olive speak French. It’s the courteous thing to do. But I’m guessing if it’s just the two of them that they speak English. It’s definitely their native tongue and the one they’re most comfortable in.

  8. Hi Gabrielle!

    So brave of you and Ben to let your kids go on adventures like that! I moved from the Netherlands to a small town in the South of Texas when I turned 17 to spend my senior year of high school with a host family. My mom dreaded my leaving but she let me because of my incessant pleas and I am grateful to this day! No doubt the year wasn’t all easy, but immersing myself so fully in another culture is one of the most valuable life experiences I’ve had. One of the first things I learned is that most things aren’t done better or worse in another country, just differently, and that’s perfectly fine! I still keep in touch with my host family and other dear ones seventeen years later and Texas has a special place in my heart :-) So good for you for allowing your kids, young as they are, such enriching experiences! I hope they have the best of times.
    Love, Lotte

  9. I love that your kids get to be on this adventure. It must be so hard and so awesome at the same time. I love that you’ve shared this experience – it’s very inspiring. I need to meet some french people so that my children can live with them when they’re older!

    Ralph’s video is fun! I like the style. I love how it ended. The world needs more of that.

  10. Great video, we can clearly see his voice and style coming through. I was also glad that Charles does not objectify women :-) Looking forward to Part II.
    What a wonderful opportunity you are giving Ralph and Olive. You must burst with pride when you hear their stories. Tell Ralph that my husband learned French in college (he spent his year abroad in France and then came back later for a year of law school) and even though it was harder than learning it as a kid, he speaks it fluently, like a native. It did take a lot of studying and practice (he had a French girlfriend that helped a lot!), but it can be done.

  11. How wonderful for both Olive and Ralph! Especially at age 13, it’s great that Olive can have this experience in a place that’s already familiar to her. You’re a brave mama for letting them head out the door like this. :-) I hope that when my kids become teens (my oldest is 5), we can give them some opportunities like this.
    And Ralph’s film made me laugh. He has an excellent sense of ironic humor… the part about the anguish of adolescence was priceless! Well done. :-)

  12. “but Charles doesn’t objectify women…” Love that. How very Bergman of him in tone and style. Having done the film school thing myself, I have an affinity for short films and appreciate how much work goes into being succinct and clever in such a short time. I love seeing young auteurs in the making – and he is definitively an auteur. I can’t wait to see what he does over the next few years!

    1. Oh my gosh! That ending was so good. He nailed it (he, I suppose = all of them). So inspiring to watch your children flourish in lives you have designed to be both beautiful and unconventional. What good citizens of the world they are, and how lucky we are to share in the joy as they do great things.

  13. I believe he meant to use the word “complement” (with an “e” not an “i”) in his subtitle, n’est-ce pas? After the line about not objectifying women, the word compliment seems ironic! Unintentional humor, I’m sure. ;)

    com·ple·ment noun \ˈkäm-plə-mənt\
    : something that completes something else or makes it better

    com·pli·ment noun \ˈkäm-plə-mənt\
    : a remark that says something good about someone or something

  14. Technology is such a blessing! I’d be lost without it, there’s nothing like being able to shoot off texts and make calls (thank you Viber!) like you are right there and not living around the world.

  15. Love Ralph’s video! So glad your kids are doing well over there–I really hope our kids turn out as well adjusted and cultured as yours! I would love for Miles to be able to have that independence that young! Brad and I really do look up to you and Ben as parents and how we want our family to be! :)

  16. Ralph’s video is the work of a professional film-maker.
    I love everything about it: light, music, story, acting, settings, cameramovement. Everything!
    These stories about the openness of your family make me very happy :)
    I love how you see life.

  17. So happy your kids are back in France! We miss Switzerland daily! So much pressure and stress on kids here (US) with little independence or time for creativity. I love that your daughter went to the bank by herself and Ralph is making movies…which, by the way, is fantastic!

  18. What an amazing opportunity for both Ralph and Olive. I was fortunate to spend a year abroad in México and to this day my heart yearns to go back (it’s been many years). One can only truly learn the language and culture by fully immersing one’s self. I’m positive that a piece of France will forever live in their hearts. And that is a gift that is truly priceless.

  19. le film, j’a-dore!!!
    I have to say it, but Ralph actually has a bit of the famous “French Touch” there!! There’s a bit of Truffeau in this film!Well done!

    As always, I loved this post, it shows us how great it is for our kids to go live with other people and experience the difficulty and pleasure of learning a foreign language. My 12-year-old son has just returned from a 9 day exchange in Germany, and although it was only 9 days, it had a huge impact on him! Let’s all learn from one another!

  20. Bravo Ralph! such an eye — the visual vocabulary, acting, and pacing of classic silent film — and a lovely modern twist.
    My sons love Ralph’s London video and they are going to go crazy over this. ( They are currently obsessed with Charlie Chaplin and tried to make a video last weekend but did not get far.) What a cool model of a teenage boy. If he spends time in Paris he will love going to the cinema screenings of classic films. It’s too bad that the University of California closed its “Critical Studies” in Paris program. They still run two excellent programs, but that one in particular would have been a perfect match for his interests. On the other hand, he can probably direct enroll in French university for a year at some point, and go to classic movies every day..
    Wonderful to hear about everyone’s adventures. I love your sensitivity to your children’s (and your own) individualities — how each moving part in a family reveals something new about the people you know and love best. How especially sweet that even as everyone misses your two adventurers Maude gets to flourish with a little extra ‘space.’

  21. I feel the need to commend you for continuing to make decisions about the education of your children that falls outside of the accepted norms of America. I am a high school teacher, and I see so many families fall into the trap of believing that there is only one path to success or even college acceptance. Believe me, it does not include inner city schools or exchanges in England or France! My husband and I work for an American school system in Italy, but we have our 5th grader enrolled in the local Italian schools; I get a lot of flack from colleagues about that, mostly related to her “future.” She is getting an excellent education & experiencing this global, dynamic world we so often hear about. A win, a win! Not to mention the lunch is soooooo much better ;)

  22. Our son Sam spent his sophomore year of high school as a Youth for Understanding (YFU) exchange student in Switzerland. We also hosted 2 Swiss students through YFU in our home. Our entire family was enriched by this experience and the kindness that was extended by our son’s host family. As Americans, its so easy to get caught up in the “routine” of the typical four years of high school. We found 10th grade was a perfect year to be abroad as it allows the student a chance to get involved in some high school activites (which is great when they return) and be back in the country for the ever important junior year busy with SAT testing and AP classes. Sam’s experience lead him to take a gap year after college (he first applied to colleges, selected a school, asked for a deferral, and made a deposit to reserve his spot) and work as an au pair in Austria to further work on his German that he learned while living in Switzerland. He has had a wonderful transition to college (and is now planning his junior year abroad). There are many wonderful exchange organizations such as YFU and I always encourage families to consider hosting or involving their children.

  23. Bravo to Ralph! The video is just brilliant, it has some “nouvelle vague” in it,! It reminded me of the Jean Luc Godard/Francois Truffaut film “A bout de souffle” (“Breathless”)? What a reference! Well done!

  24. Have you written a post about your experience living in France while not speaking fluent French yourself? I ask because my husband are considering moving to a Spanish speaking country, and even though I’m trying to learn and know immersion is the best teaching tool, I’m nervous! Thoughts?

  25. LOVE reading about Ralph and Olive’s time in England and France. They are doing so well – it’s just fantastic. And I loved Ralph’s new film.

    Also I love how your family at home is adapting without Olive and Ralph being home. You guys are the best!

  26. I am so impressed by Ralph’s video! How does he have such a fabulously objective perspective on adolescence when he is in the throes of it himself?! Charming, funny, and sweet (especially the anti-female-objectification plug).

    What a rich and unique experience for Ralph and Olive!

  27. I love this so much! Both the adventures they’re having and the film. We currently live abroad, and giving our kids the chance to learn a second language so naturally and fluently was one of our major motivations. I love that yours have so thoroughly embraced it. It’s such a gift to feel at home is many places in this world.

  28. What a wonderful experience!

    I think my favorite parts of the movie are “usually when this phrase is said, there is rain. There is no rain.” And the little smile at the end. So good!

  29. Hi Gabby,

    Ralph’s movie is so great! I remember him as a toddler reciting How the Grinch Stole Christmas verbatim. How cool to see his interest in film has continued. You and Ben are great parents.

    Heather Wells

  30. Thanks for the update! It’s great to hear how they’re doing. Ralph’s film is great! I loved it! Is that him narrating? If so, his French sounds great!

  31. Get that boy on the road to making films!!!! He is brilliant. You are such thoughtful and helpful parents. I wish I could be you (well my kids sure do).

  32. Hello Gabrielle,

    Our family is looking to spend next school year in France, and on our most recent trip there (couple of weeks ago) Denise gave us a tour of La Cressonnière. We got to meet your two children, Olive and Ralph, and they were absolutely delightful.

    Your blog is so helpful! I’m sure I’ll be coming back to it many times over for information, advice and tips. Thank you for taking the time to write it all.


  33. Ralph’s video is the work of a professional film-maker.
    I love everything about it: light, music, story, acting, settings, cameramovement. Everything!
    These stories about the openness of your family make me very happy :)
    I love how you see life.

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