Although I still bear the impermanent marks of our voyage (a tan that could kill, inexplicable bruises and bug bites, and a jet lag that could put someone in a coma), I can write with great certainty that I will remember the experiences, people, and culture that this invaluable experience has provided.
We began our time in France with host families in Arras, a medium-sized town in the north of France. There, I stayed with a wonderful family who I had not yet met, unlike the other New Zealand Young Ambassadors who stayed with our French counterparts as there were simply too many of us, where I was immediately thrown into the French culture: not only did I want to speak French, but I literally had to as the mother of the Family, Caroline, couldn’t speak English. Aside from this, I also ate French food (to such a high standard that even the memory of it has me daydreaming), such as crêpes au chèvre et miel (a particular type of cheese and honey), existed in the French daily routine, and learned some of the hand gestures that invariably accompany the speaking of the French language. A notable gesture is what I have called the “hand wag,” a phrase in the vocabulary of body language which I have interpreted to mean that danger is coming, such as 35 degree weather with no foreseeable breeze. To do the “hand wag,” one simply has to pretend that something has burnt them and look down towards the floor as if the perpetrator of the burn is on the floor.
We next moved on to Peronne, where I stayed with Inès, the French Young Ambassador who stayed ‘chez moi’ during her time in New Zealand. My time with Inès was particularly remarkable, as I managed to do everything I wanted during my séjour with her, such as visit a castle (this being the Château de Pierrefonds, where the film series Merlin was filmed). I even got to go to a house party with some French people and practice some of my conversational French with new people. Indeed, the openness, patience, and relaxed atmosphere of Inès’ family and home removed all the worries that one might have being in a foreign country with a foreign family.
Following our stays with the French families, we began a tiring week of filming which eventually took us to Ieper, Belgium. Many hours of filming and pages of script learning kept us awake until 12pm most nights, with days beginning around 7:30am. Despite the arduous week, morale remained high, and some of the closest bonding between the New Zealand Young Ambassadors happened during this week, especially when we all sheltered from Belgium’s cold winds in our van.
Indeed, this week confirmed my theory that the largest amount of bonding and the deepest connection are set when a group faces a common challenge, and the depths of our energy and endurance are tapped into. What’s more, I had some of the most satisfying naps of my life during our van rides.
Our last week in France was spent in one of the most famous cities in the world, and a personal favourite of mine: Paris! On our first day alone, we had the opportunity to visit the Musée d'Orsay, where I finally had the unfathomable pleasure of seeing firsthand work by Monet, Van Gogh, Rodin and many others. Among the other tourist attractions, we also were able to see the Sacré-Cœur, the Notre Dame cathedral, and the Arc de Triomphe. The other Young Ambassadors also visited the Eiffel Tower while I visited the Père Lachaise cemetery, where I saw the final resting places of Chopin and Imre Nagy (the man who started the Hungarian Revolution of 1956), and managed to get myself very lost at one point.
Among our official duties, we had the inexplicable honor of attending the Bastille Day Parade (attended by current French President Emmanuel Macron, among other dignitaries), went to the New Zealand Embassy in France, where we meet Her Excellency Jane Coombs, the current New Zealand Ambassador to France, and attended the ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier beneath the Arc de Triomphe.
Indeed, our 4 days in Paris were very charged for the French people: on the second day, it was Bastille Day, so national spirit and patriotism was already high. We were even allowed to go and watch the fireworks at the Eiffel Tower, however, we couldn’t manage to find a view in the crowd of approximately 500,000 people, so we only managed to see the corner of the fireworks.
On the third day, France won the football world cup, and the energy and nationalistic enthusiasm was so high, they were actual riots in the streets of Paris. On the fourth day, the French football team returned home. By this point, I was very worried people would have fainting fits in the streets from being overwhelmed with so much celebration of France. However, one event during this week really takes the cake: we got to have a completely uninhibited view of the bus carrying the football team as we were allowed to stay under the cordoned-off Arc de Triomphe after the ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Even I, a person who doesn’t really understand the vague notion that is ball sports and is not French by nationality was completely entranced by the magic of the moment. Allez les Bleus!
Finally, after 24 hours on a plane, 2 days and nights of traveling (including a day of shopping in Hong Kong), I have made it back to New Zealand tanned and jetlagged, with an innumerable amount of experiences, memories, friendships, and Snapchat add-requests.
This trip has not only helped me gain practical benefits, such as more fluent French, but also personal, highly-valued but rare connections to people that I will remain friends with for a very long time indeed, as well as a greater understanding of a lost part of my family’s history.
Thank you to everyone who made this trip what it was: my teachers, the organisers, the families and dignitaries that allowed some sweaty, random New Zealand teenagers to interrupt their daily routines, and especially the other New Zealand Ambassadors for making the trip relaxing, refreshing, and fun. To you, I raise a glass of apricot juice, in true French style. Although our journey in France has ended, our experiences in France will form our journey moving into the next stages of our lives - Here’s to even more fantastic memories in the next chapters of our lives.