"If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you..."
I took French in high school for several years (I'm proud of my C+ average given my memory) and enjoyed learning of a country that seemed substantially different yet oddly similar all at the same time.
My teacher teased these discrepancies out using home videos of her personal trips to France, as well as those by television travel hosts (Perhaps that's why I can't pass up a Rick Steves episode).
While some major points of cultural uniqueness did become clear, my experience could never have compared with the total immersion facilitated by an actual trip overseas as these Saline students and their French counterparts get to take part in.
It wasn't until many years later when my wife and I went to Paris on our honeymoon that I realized just how decontextualizing experiencing a foreign culture first hand really can be.
Many aspects of life seem so obviously different that you can't help but question them. Just by being there you are forced to consider aesthetic choices like clothing and architecture, the food is strange and you wonder about that. People carry themselves differently and have different values.
This intrinsic deconstruction is important for kids who have grown up in the advertising generation and can easily understand the American status quo as simply 'how things are.'
I had always considered myself a student of culture, but nothing could have prepared me for the true sense of culture shock when I got off the subway and walked up on to those ancient Parisian streets.
My first impression was that everything seemed much older than in the U.S., which is funny because many of the Parisian students said "everything is so new" when telling me of arriving in Saline.
When my wife and I got to our Latin Quarter hotel and we had to go up on the elevator one person at a time because the space could only accommodate one bag and one body, I thought "Wow, everything is so small." Again, this is antithetical to the Parisian students' reactions to Saline, which generally were, "Everything is so big."
Of course these are just surface observations, but they're the beginning of a development of a cultural lens that can help facilitate a better understanding of people outside the U.S. and, reciprocally, ourselves.
Yet in spite of all the differences, the students at the exchange party all just seemed like normal teenagers (The kids wearing Abercrombie and American Eagle were not all American).
We could just chalk this up to competent brand marketing, but really if you think of young people as metaphoric 'clean slates' their similarities to one another seem to suggest that, in essence, people are just people.
As we grow, we participate in diverse social, religious, political and economic activities which individualize us, but at some point we were the same before all of that was written into our lives.
Anyway, similarities and differences aside, I hope all of the Parisians are able to enjoy Saline for all it is worth and go home with a more finely-tuned cultural lens.