A crisp new start in the northern French city of Rennes

Across the pond in Rennes, France, winter is no longer simply coming – it is here with a vengeance. Temperatures in the mid-40s at the beginning of October spell trouble, especially for this School Year Abroad (SYA) student walking 15 minutes to school every day. Gone are the short-lived glory days when I drove to school in Hotlanta.

Despite the cold weather, life in France is simply marvelous. There’s nothing quite like watching swirling leaves from the steps of an ancient cathedral, crêpe in hand. So far, life has been a series of fulfilled clichés: cafés are truly everywhere and crêpes are at least a weekly occurrence and intermittent culture shocks exist – try drinking orange juice out of a cereal bowl every morning. Having gone to Westminster since pre-first, moving to a different country in my junior year has truly given me a taste of what it feels like to be the “new kid.”

For those unfamiliar with the program, SYA is a year-long language immersion study abroad experience for American juniors and seniors, with campuses in four countries—France, Italy, Spain, and China. The SYA France Class of 2014 consists of 66 students (56 girls and 10 boys) from all over the good ol’ USA. I attend classes with said motley crew of Americans at a school located a little off-center from the heart of Rennes. This city, where I’m spending nine months, is the capital of the region of Brittany and a college town located two hours due west from Paris by train.

Aside from the location, my junior year is progressing a little differently than it would back home. School goes from 8:10 to anywhere between 2:30 to 5:50 every day except for Wednesday. On Wednesdays, I start an hour later and all classes are over by 11:20. Having classes end before noon on Wednesdays is standard practice throughout France and provides a well-needed respite from the seemingly endless school days.

The French are very conscious about not getting too burned out, whether it’s on a daily basis or in the grand scheme of things. They have two-week breaks scattered throughout the school year, instead of the slew of three-day weekends back in America. Additionally, lunch each day is a glorious 75-minute taste of freedom and French cuisine.

The classes themselves are also rather different from those at Westminster. Here, I take seven classes, five of which are taught entirely in French. In some cases, my teachers don’t even speak English. It’s times like those where I thank my stars for having had a language requirement since seventh grade. My brain is only slightly kept from exploding thanks in part to my only classes taught in English – English Literature and Math. I don’t even want to imagine taking math in French. Explaining basic algebra to my host family is hard enough, because French math has its own unique set of vocabulary.

On the first day back in school, we did what everyone dreams of doing and took a test which determined our placement within the classes taught in French. In a few of these, drinking water or going to the bathroom is expressly forbidden, something that my host family informed me is the norm in French schools. In contrast, there appears to be a complete absence of any dress code, apart from an unspoken agreement not to wear any color brighter than olive green. The French also grade on a 20-point scale that does not, to the chagrin of my math-oriented peers, translate literally into the American percentage system. An A (90+) can be anything from a 15 to a 20, though A+’s (19 and 20) are rarely given out. Most teachers consider anything above a 13 to be a good grade, earning you a Très Bien on your papers.

Despite their rather laid back attitude in other cases, the French are pretty strict about schoolwork. As a result of the large amounts of homework assigned every night and the late dismissal times, after-school athletics are quite uncommon. Coming from Westminster, where the majority of the student body participates in some school-related extracurricular at least once a week, I have found myself with an unusual amount of free time compared in what I anticipated would be a jam-packed junior year.

To fill all this free time, I have started making rounds at a few of the many cafés and crêperies near school and downtown. The trifecta of chocolate, cheese, and carbs has generously helped balance out the trickier aspects of studying abroad, such as a very real longing for a chicken biscuit. You can take the girl out of Atlanta, but you can’t take Atlanta out of the girl.