Four Thousand Miles Across the Sea

Meghan McCallum

My host family often calls our household “L’auberge espagnole”. This comparison emerged one night around the dinner table, when Florens, the German exchange student, and I were telling the rest of the family English and German translations of French phrases.Though as a group we aren’t a whole lot like the film’s characters, it’s true that there is rarely a dull moment in the house, especially around the dinner table. Every night we each bring our separate cultural backgrounds to the table — literally — as we sit down around a delicious meal. And I mean it when I say “delicious”; my host mom is amazing in the kitchen.

For me, the most important lessons I bring away from the dinner table are those relating to plays on words or certain expressions that I didn’t know beforehand. For example, during my first week I learned that “bien fait,” which literally means “well done,” is only used sarcastically.

For example, if a mother tells her little kid not to run on the sidewalk, and then he trips and hurts himself, she could say, “Bien fait!” to give him sh*t for not listening to her.

I had assumed that the phrase’s meaning was the same as in English; that you can say it sincerely and sarcastically. It turns out that the phrases are not the same. unfortunately, I had already said “Bien fait!” a few times to the people I play Ultimate with.

Dinnertime enlightenment doesn’t stop there. Florens will every so often ask how to say certain words that he has forgotten, and sometime last week he bought a little pocket notebook to write it all down. It’s not uncommon for us to spend a minute or two writing or drawing things out.

When I first met him I felt a serious, quiet vibe from Florens, but he is often the person that brings the jokes and general laughter to the table. One day, after asking our host family for the French word for “spanking” (“fessee (accent over first ‘e'”), he got up from our dinner table bench to make room for our host father to open the dishwasher. This is a regular routine; most every night Olivier clears the plates and then puts them in the dishwasher. Florens and I have to stand up and move our bench slightly down to make room for the dishwasher to open. I hadn’t been paying attention to the dishes, and I saw Florens standing up, looking at me expectantly. After a moment of trying to figure out what he was doing, I asked, confused, “Fesse(accent)e?” This word now remains an inside joke in our house.

The sharing of information goes to our host family, too. They like to hear about American TV shows and movies that they may recognize, and it’s safe to say that my host brother, Cassien, is a Prison Break fanatic.

I hadn’t ever seen the show before I came here, and I have to say I find it less interesting dubbed in French, but nonetheless I like to know which American TV shows are popular here.
I was not surprised that neither Florens nor Cassien had ever heard of Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Of course, within a couple weeks of being here I sat them down, put on the French subtitles, and watched them become hooked.

The three of us live on our own floor in the house, and we often gather in the common area between our rooms to watch TV shows on my computer. I’ve also learned that YouTube is the universal homework — procrastination tool among Americans, French, and Germans.

I really appreciate the cultural exchanges that I gain from living with a host family. I am lucky in particular to be with a family that is also hosting a German student, because all of our opinions and ideas mix together in an interesting way.

Being outside of the Lawrence Bubble has in general led to a variety of cultural exchanges. In the house I benefit from French and German insight, but there are also tons of other cultures represented in Nantes.

A few examples: a few weeks ago I befriended a New Zealander while watching the publicly-screened rugby matches; I have introduced myself to a few Senegalese men who have a stand near the main tram station; last night I went bowling and met a British exchange student, and today I found myself exploring an Irish shop. Being here, I often think about how small our world really is. We just have to step outside of the Bubble to get a little taste of it.

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