My host family and friends love explaining to me the cultural differences between different areas of France and what makes our area unique.
Just like the U.S. is divided into states and counties, France is divided into regions and departments. And just like the Copper Country has its own culture, so does my department and region of France: Gers, Midi-Pyrnes, which is located in mid-southern France.
The south of France is known for its beautiful weather, the variety and quality of its food and a lifestyle pace generally more relaxed than that of the north. Also like the U.S., there is an "accent du sud" (southern accent) in France, which is known as the "accent gascon" because it comes from Gascon, a language spoken in southwestern France in the Middle Ages. I had a hard time understanding those with the accent at first: it makes a word as simple as "pain" (bread) go from the pronunciation of "pahn" (nasal n) to "pang."
The flora and fauna of the area also quite surprised me; because of the lack of bodies of water, the landscape is reddish-brown and greenery is tough and prickly. There are many deer, a few wild boars (which are the cause of an alarming number of car accidents), and a handful of lizards, stray cats, and snails (which my host mother, Sandrine, collects and cooks in the spring), but otherwise, wildlife either remains well-hidden or is simply scarce.
What has shocked me the most is the complete absence of every Midwesterner's seemingly-immortal, blood-sucking enemy: The mosquito!
Another thing I'm still figuring out, even after three months of living here, are gestures; sometimes understanding body language can be just as mystical as conjugating the French imperfect subjunctive.
So far, I've mastered "scared" (rapidly tapping your thumb against the rest of your fingers, hands held as if talking to yourself with invisible sock puppets), "to have taken off, left" (forming "paper" from "rock, paper, scissors", then slamming one hand up into the palm of the other perpendicularly, often accompanied with a hearty oral "baf!"), and "that's rough" (what you do when you can't find a towel after washing your hands, but held toward your face).
In fact, the more time I spend with native French speakers, the more I realize that language is a living thing; the way they express themselves is often completely different from what I'm used to, and many of their expressions have no fitting English translation. As France has a very aesthetically focused culture, they use vivid descriptive words in everyday conversation (our equivalents of "beautiful," "agreeable" or "magnificent") to describe appearances and situations. They also tend to make better use of their verbs than we Anglophones, who like to tack on prepositions or conjunctions to create separate meanings (e.g., hurry up, calm down, put up with, take on, etc.). From what I've observed, it's these elements (combined with the "liaison" that connects words and gives the language its musicality) that have given French its reputation as "the language of love."
In terms of my own linguistic progress, I'm working on my accent, incorporating common expressions, and letting more complicated grammar come naturally. Luckily, I still have more than five months left in France! Joyeuses ftes tous (Happy Holidays to all) and au revoir!
Editor's note: Sierra Parker is spending a year in France as a Rotary Exchange Student through the Houghton Rotary Club.