La Raclette et L’Appart

My French friends aren’t the only friends I’ve made.

It seems as though the international students here really stick together, and thus my main group of friends is made up of people from all sorts of different countries. The first and—as I have come to learn, most lasting—friendships I’ve forged began one night when Carole invited me to her house to try “la raclette.”

She invited me and my “American friends” over Friday night, at the end of January. She was, of course, referring to Madison, who I believe I’ve already mentioned, and Kylie. I’ve had some French classes with Kylie at OU in the past, but we didn’t talk much outside of the classroom, or at all really. As it happens we weren’t all friends at the time, just all coming from the same university. I think we all hid it from each other well, but I know that at that time, we were all a little confused and apprehensive about our study abroad adventure. We were like paper ships, sailing down a stream—individuals, cut from different cloths, but united by the current of what was sure to be a new experience—even for Kylie and Madison, who unlike me, had already been outside of the United States before. So we clung to each other in the beginning, if not for a friendly face, for the comfort of knowing there was someone who understood the things that confused, frightened, and excited us. And of course, for someone with whom we could speak English.

Carole’s friend Ibtissim, who is a young woman from Morocco, was also a marriane. She had invited her international students as well: Laurin, a tall boy from Cologne, Germany with dark blonde hair, and two students from Winnipeg, Canada: Ariel, a girl with long hair who was just a few months older than me, and Oscar, a young man of 25 who’s family was originally from Nicaragua. If you’ve ever been inside a French student’s affordable appartement, it is needless to say that the space was not very forgiving. Carole’s apartment did not have a living room. Only a kitchen, a bedroom and a bathroom. Thus, we were all eight of us settled into Carole’s small kitchen.

After the initial introductions, which were awkward, as they always are, we settled into an easy conversation about music, our studies, and our countries of origin. After learning more about each other, Carole declared it was time to show us what to do. La raclette is an interactive eating experience, kind of like fondu in that it is both meant to be shared with friends and that it involves a lot of cheese. There were various types of cheese and ham, as well as potatoes, all laid around one large electric appliance. It looked like a strange hybrid of a pancake griddle and an electric hand-dryer, but it worked like a broiler. There was a little metal tray beneath a heat source, like a toaster. Each of us got a tiny square pan, like the smallest, thinnest, squarest skillet you can picture. Carole explained that we were to put our meat on the pan first, then top it with the cheese of our choosing. Then we were to allow the cheese to melt under the heat of the apparatus, slide it off of the skillet onto the potatoes or bread, or just onto a plate.

Madison, Kylie, and I supplied the dessert, which is polite when one is going to a soirée—guests either bring dessert or drinks. We brought an assortment of chocolate pastries, from a patisserie not too far from our dorm. Laurin, Ariel, and Oscar brought wine. Which somehow turned into the drinking age in America, which of course brought to attention the fact that I am still technically too young to drink in America, since I’m only 20. Though Ariel was the same age as me, she joined in on the light-hearted teasing that inevitably began. Eventually, they let Laurin pour me a glass.

We did our best to speak only in French, but as Carole spoke some English, as did Laurin, after spending several summers in Australia, Greece, and Canada, we fell into broken English and eventually gave up the whole pretense after the second bottle of wine (split eight ways, of course) was gone. Unfortunately, Ibtissam spoke no English at all. This was unbeknownst to us, of course, at least at first. But when she angrily slammed into Carole’s room, it occurred to us that she hadn’t participated in the conversation once the conversation had slipped into decidedly English territory.
The night, however, was saved by Carole, who persuaded Ibtissam to return to the table, and the rest of us were more vigilant about speaking French, limited then though it was.

That was the first night I met Ariel and Laurin, two people who I would eventually grow closer too. It was also the first and last night that I would hang out with Oscar, Kylie, and Ibtissam. Not for any malicious reason, really—Ibtissam, I didn’t know how to contact or speak to (she uses a lot of French slang, and Ariel, who studied French in Canada since she was a child, is the only person I know who can understand her). Oscar and I don’t have anything in common, and if I’m being truthful, he rubs me the wrong way—always needing to be right, to explain, to know everything, even though he’s a student just like everyone else.

Kylie decided that she didn’t want to hang out with us, having decided that she didn’t have anything in common with us—she prefers to spend time with the students in her class. When I’ve seen her, she seems happy, but she also seems like she wants to avoid us. I’m not entirely surprised—even when she’d been in French classes with me, she never seemed keen to spend any time with me. I think that my personality is a little too boisterous for her, and initially, I thought she was too timid for me. But now I know that she’s a pretty strong individual, able to break away from something ‘uncomfortably comfortable,’ like a group of friends who are just as lost as you are but with whom you have nothing in common. As far as I know she’s enjoying her time though, and that’s all I can really wish for anyone.

And so, it was with Laurin, Ariel and Madison that I went to my first club just a few weeks later—on account of only being 20 years old and having lived most of my life in the U.S., where being 20 means little else beyond watching your friends have fun or sneaking around pretending to be older than you are. But I never felt such a weird kinship than at L’Appart, the club near the shopping center Jaude where all the other international students go to blow off steam.

Laurin knew lots of other international students because he goes to the actual university, like Ariel, as opposed to us at OU who have an agreement to learn French only at Centre FLEURA. He introduced us to Francesco and Matteo, who both come from Italy. They each only take one course at UCA and have basically decided that they would take an easy semester in France, even though neither of them speaks any French. But it wasn’t just who Laurin knew. Somehow, we were all there on the same night, and we were all too willing to make friends with the others who had come so far and, for reasons known only to others, had ended up in Clermont.

Deborah and Valencia, also Italian and practically joined at the hip. We met Maybrit, who I had known before from one of Carole’s marriane friends, Justine. She also comes from Cologne, Germany, but she and Laurin had never met before, which I thought was funny. Esteban, who is an architecture masters student from Mexico. Jimmy, from Cameroon, who spoke fluent German, much to the delight of Laurin, Maybrit, and Marie—another girl from Cologne. Yassin, a boy from Morocco; Ahmed, Samuel, and Muhammad, who came from Algeria; Henrietta from Finland; Hayley, Erica, Hannah, who all came from Scotland; Suzanna, from the Czech Republic.

We were all pilgrims in search of experience, adventure, knowledge, fun, and freedom. And I’d never had so much in common with so many people who couldn’t be more different from me. And I surprised myself, which I think is the point of studying abroad. You never know what you’re capable of until you end up somewhere where you don’t know if you can hack it. Usually, by 2am, I’d be far too socially exhausted to feel at ease in a strange place in a foreign country.

But I found myself content, cracking jokes with people I’d only met 20 minutes prior, dancing with my new friends, laughing so hard I couldn’t tell if I’d gone silent or if I’d just been drowned out by the music. Even as we left the club in the early hours of the morning, stumbling and giggling into the silent streets in search of a kebab shop, I was more than assured that come what may, this was one of the best decisions I could have made for myself. I’d made new friends, friends who would prove to be some of the best people I’ve ever met, and even though I knew that it couldn’t possibly be like this all the time—carefree, ludicrous, high on youth—I knew that whatever challenges I would face would be worth it, for all the times like this.

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