Even those of us living without a snowflake in sight are kept busy during the holiday season. Between my host family's relatives coming to visit and preparing for our trip to Germany, things have been lively in this corner of France.
Just before school got out for the holidays, I was more than excited to see another one of my expectations for France finally come true; there was a student manifestation (protest) at my school. They had posters, a police escort, and marched and chanted about town. As protests are rather commonplace here, the school administration had been warned ahead of time and seemed largely unfazed. Unfortunately, I was in class at the time and didn't get a close look, so now I'm just waiting for the teachers to go on strike (I've been told a year without a teacher strike would be exceptional).
As it is, I've been experiencing the French phnomne of teachers simply not showing up to class. This happens an average of once a week, and my classmates and I either go home, study or hang out until our next class.
To add to the excitement, I've recently performed in three holiday concerts, one at Auch's Ecole de Musique (Music School) and two accompanying a choir led by one of Auch's Rotary members. One of the latter took place in a centuries-old church on a December night. Needless to say, it was quite cold, and the usual heat lamps hadn't been set up for the concert. Because of this, the singers spent the entire concert shivering, and my saxophone wouldn't stay warmed up for more than two minutes to play. Just another difference between playing in an ancient European church and the modern Rozsa Center!
After school finally got out for the holidays, my host family and I spent the following weekend preparing for guests. Saturday, we went to the Christmas Market in Toulouse to stock up on quality holiday food. My host mother Sandrine's two sisters and their husbands arrived Christmas Eve, and we enjoyed what is considered in France as the most important meal of the year. Ours consisted of olives, peanuts, foie gras and champagne as "l'apritif" (the appetizer), followed by oysters and other seafood specialities, a salad, a cheese-and-grape platter, and chocolate mousse for dessert. Unlike in the U.S., many families here open presents Christmas Eve during "l'apritif." I was pleased to receive my favorite perfume (a common gift item in France) and J.K. Rowling's new book, "The Casual Vacancy," in French from my host parents, as well as a book about the Gascogne region from my host Rotary club.
In France, the vacation period is very much a time of family togetherness and travel, but overall of rest and relaxation. Here, work and play are considered separate worlds that should not be mixed. As a result, my extended host family and I have spent our break so far preparing and eating meals (with family present, meals can easily last four to five hours), going on walks, playing board games, watching movies, and chatting. Another common American aspect of the holiday season that is absent here in France is volunteer work. In fact, I have spent all four months seeking out some sort of community service club or activity without any success. From what I've gathered, the fact that France is currently under a Socialist government essentially removes the need for service organizations. However, I'll keep looking for ways to give back to Auch's community. Joyeux Nouvel An (Happy New Year) and until next time!
Editor's note: Sierra Parker is spending a year in France as a Rotary Exchange Student through the Houghton Rotary Club.