Story by Karen Paton-Evans
Photography by Beth and Rachel Pitre
“Mom, I need to learn to speak a foreign language and can do that best on a student exchange trip abroad. This, of course, is for my education.” How many generations of teenagers have said that to their parents?
It worked for Rachel Pitre. Perhaps her pitch succeeded where other kids have failed because she is in earnest about improving her fluency in French. Now in grade nine at General Amherst High School, the girl plans on becoming a teacher and believes being able to speak French will be an advantage.
And so to France she went for three weeks this past summer, living with her French exchange student and host family. While improving her vocabulary, Rachel took in sights that leave most visitors speechless, including viewing Paris spread before her from the top of the Eiffel Tower – “which was kind of awesome.” Admiring da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and other masterpieces in the Louvre. Catching her own smiling reflection in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles. Spotting Tom Cruise – was that really him? - in a Monte-Carlo hotel.
Before this whirlwind of travel could begin for the girl who had never been away from home, her mother, Beth, required answers.
Soon, Mom developed confidence in International Student Exchange (ISE) Ontario, a not-for-profit corporation that works in cooperation with Ontario school boards to offer local students ages 13 to 17 the opportunity to engage in reciprocal exchange programs with students in Quebec, France, Switzerland, Spain, Italy and Germany. ISE’s aim is to help young people develop and improve their language skills, discover exciting cultures and places, and make friendships abroad.
Upon hearing ISE had an exchange program with French-speaking Quebec students, Beth figured that would be perfect for her kid.
Although Quebec is great, Rachel says, “I wanted to go outside of Canada and explore the world.”
After filling out ISE’s application, Rachel was pleased to learn her match was Caliste, a girl soon turning 14, like herself. Caliste lives in a rural community near Montpellier in southern France. By way of introduction, the teens sent each other videos of themselves, including one from Rachel and her classmates, welcoming Caliste to Canada.
Rachel landed in France in July. She and her partner struck up a friendship, learning more about one another daily. “I’m not athletic at all and Caliste is very athletic,” Rachel says. “We had in common being teens and wanting to learn a different language. And we both love to shop!”
“My host family was very welcoming and understanding, especially when I got a little homesick,” Rachel says. They shrugged off her reluctance to try French cuisine. “I’m a picky eater. Most of the time I just ate chicken and pizza. Caliste’s grandmother made the best garlic bread ever.”
Finding Paris “very historical and old-timey,” Monaco “modern, wealthy and luxurious” and Nice “beautiful,” Rachel says her host family “brought me everywhere. It was better to be immersed than just be a tourist.”
Barely aware of professional sports in Canada, Rachel was astounded by France’s fervour for the FIFA World Cup, playing during her time abroad. Twenty guests came to her host family’s home to watch the games. On July 15, France beat Croatia 4-2 in Russia to score the championship. “Everyone was screaming, hugging and high-fiving. We all jumped in the pool,” Rachel says. “Then we jumped into Jeeps and went around the town beeping and singing, “On Sont les Champions – We Are the Champions.”
Shortly afterward, vacationing in Monaco, Rachel knew enough about the sport to appreciate posing for a photo with French football star Olivier Giroud.
Before departing with Caliste for Toronto, Rachel enjoyed a relaxing day at the family home, playing video games and watching a movie. “It’s surprising how much in France is the same as in Canada and the U.S.,” she notes.
Back in Amherstburg, Beth planned excursions to entertain Caliste. Since Canada is approximately 16 times larger than France, Beth explained to the French family that sightseeing would be closer to home; otherwise, Caliste would spend much of her three-week stay traveling in a car.
Proud residents of Amherstburg, the Pitres took their guest to Fort Malden National Historic Site. The history of the old British military base interested Caliste, but it was the mention of resident ghosts that grabbed her full attention.
No visit to Ontario is complete without seeing the majesty of Niagara Falls. On board the Maid of the Mist, Caliste was “grinning ear to ear” when the Horseshoe Falls misted the visitor, Rachel recalls. Point Pelee National Park and other attractions also won her approval.
Outdoorsy Caliste beamed as she ziplined through trees on a London course, while Beth zipped doggedly after her teens.
When a bilingual friend visited Caliste in Amherstburg, “it was fulfilling to know I could now understand everything they said,” Rachel states.
Expanding language skills was mutual. Rachel taught Caliste the phrase “bad hair day,” while the French girl shared the universal teenager’s observation, “la mère est folle – your mother is crazy.”
Deeming the experience an all-round success, Beth says, “Now Caliste’s mother wants to come for a visit.”