<I>Tour de town</I>: French students explore <I>la difference</I>

Like many Europeans, 17 French students visiting our town knew American culture only through music, movies, and media masters like Dr. Dre and Michael Moore. Now, the 17 high schoolers from Charlottesville's sister city, Besaçon, France, know the names and faces of 26 very different Americans: the students of the Renaissance School.

The school, located above a shop on the Downtown Mall, hosted the French travelers for a week-long visit beginning Thursday, April 21.

Although their relationship with the U.S. had just begun, the young French observers say they found America to be "just like the films." And they weren't quite ready to give two thumbs up.

Charlottesville was the students' second stop in the States. They arrived here from New York City, where, shortly after stepping off their transatlantic flight, they toured the Guggenheim Museum, the Empire State Building, and Greenwich Village.

"Magical," exclaimed 17-year-old Etienne of his first few hours in New York. To convey the impact of the towering Manhattan skyline, another student stretched his arm above his head.

By day two in Hookville, it was evident that the city was having an effect on les étudiants. Never mind that the Rotunda is dwarfed by the Empire State Building– SUVs and suburbia were beginning to make an impression

"Big cars, big homes," said 17-year-old Wilfried. Although all the visitors agreed that the hospitality of their American hosts­ local families affiliated with the school– had been great, they found local fashions less than appealing.

Asked to describe the average Charlottesvillian's fashion sense, 18-year-old Charlotte tried to be polite. "It's strange," she said, mimicking what she imagined to be a typical American getting dressed. "You take that, that, that," she said, her haphazard gestures indicating the creation of a mismatched ensemble.

Many of the French students sported urban looks: a gray knit scarf, large headphones dangled loosely around a neck, black lace-up boots, and a t-shirt scrawled with graphic lettering.

Jeremi, an 18-year-old studying communications, said candidly, "I prefer [the clothing style] in France."

"Baggy jeans and hip hop" with "a cap like this," Charlotte added, indicating a baseball chapeau worn backwards.

Renaissance student Holly seemed at ease with her new French friends, perhaps because she and some classmates had visited their historic hometown and their school, Le Lycee Saint Jean, just a few weeks ago.

Holly says she's excited to take her turn as tour guide and show the Saint Jean students the American versions of things they did with her in France, like ice-skating.

It might not be easy, however, for Holly and the other Renaissance students to provide the American equivalent of all their French experiences. One activity in particular would be difficult, and illegal, to duplicate: French nightlife.

As Holly put it, the French "know how to party." Having the drinking age below the driving age– 16 to booze, 18 to cruise– reveals a cultural attitude favorable to youthful imbibing in Besaçon.

"We drink on the weekend when we get together," Etienne said with a casual air. He indicated that in France, alcohol is considered part of a healthy social life rather than a crucial element of rebellion for French eleves.

The students also noted that their community is much more tolerant about lighting up. The four students who smoke said they found restrictions on public puffing in the States quite a shock.

"Things are very strict in America," Wilfried noted. "In France, you can smoke anywhere."

When talk turned from partying to politics, the mood shifted from light-hearted to livid. Juilliete, 18, minced no words in describing what she thought of President Bush. "In France, President Bush is hated," she said. Another called Michael Moore, auteur of the documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, "a very good man."

Other objects of French ire include the death penalty and the Constitutionally enshrined right to own firearms.

Genevieve Truchetet, a Saint Jean professor traveling with the students, explained the students' strong reaction: "They can't imagine the idea of putting to death someone who might be innocent."

Finishing their lunchtime pizza, the French and American students reluctantly headed back to the classroom. With a mischievous grin, Holly pointed out that French students often cut class. Political and fashion differences aside, there seem to be some activities all teenagers enjoy.

French teens learn about
la vie Americaine from their counterparts at the Renaissance School