My Year in Belle France/Sierra Parker

Though Auch hasn’t seen more than a dusting of white all winter, just an hour’s drive south, the Pyrenees mountains are covered with the stuff. This past weekend was one of the seasonal rendezvous with my host Rotary Youth Exchange district here in France.

In other words, all the Inbounds (students currently on exchange) in my region met up for a weekend of Rotary-organized fun. Our diverse group, including students from Mexico, Austria, Taiwan, Australia, South Korea, and more, was happy to finally meet the Outbounds, or the French future exchange students from the local district who will be in our shoes next year.

This time, our trip started off with a museum on historical life and professions in the Pyrenees, followed by a tour of a medieval forge. We then headed even deeper into the mountain chain by bus, dividing into several small vans when the road became too treacherous. We finally arrived at our destination that evening: a mountain lodge in a small, snow-covered village nestled in amongst the peaks. That night, we drank vin chaud (literally “hot wine,” typical of the mountain regions, though ours was sans alcohol, of course), put on a talent show in which I led a comedy skit, and took advantage of the snow for several snowball fights.

The following morning, we left for a snowshoe hike in the mountains. We blazed a trail all the way to the tree line, where we stopped for a picnic lunch. From there, we had a breathtaking view of the pine-dotted mountains, each rising up taller than the next, and converging in the valley below. We finally headed back down, as much on our derrires as on our snowshoes.

After this fantastic weekend, I had to get back into my studious mode with the arrival of the bac blanc, literally “white bac.” The bac, short for baccalaurat, is the the French version of our SAT or ACT, only scarier.

The bac poses a series of essay questions on specific, predetermined notions that the students study throughout the school year, unlike the SAT/ACT, which tend to size up a person’s general knowledge and intelligence.

Also unlike the SAT/ACT, the bac is often the sole factor that will determine a student’s college admission; grades, jobs, extra-curricular activities, or personal essays are not requested. In fact, grades are just a way of letting students know how they’re doing; the only colleges that will look at them are France’s grandes coles, or top private schools.

The bac blanc is simply a practice version of the bac that allows the students to find out where they are in their preparation and what they need to work on. The real bac is much more stressful, as it is the only thing your college admission is riding on, and there are no re-dos, just the possibility of repeating your final year if you don’t “get” your bac.

What surprised me about the bac blanc (and thus the real bac) was the enormous amount of memorization involved. In class, teachers write or dictate pages upon pages of notes (I’ve already filled one and a half notebooks from philosophy class), from which students extract the important points and commit as much to memory as possible. They then draw upon this information to answer the bac blanc’s questions.

For example, one of the questions this past week depended on having memorized a complex map of Russia (city names and all) and reproducing it exactly on the exam. I’ll get my results when school starts up again; for now I’m getting ready for my ski trip to the Alps. A la prochaine (until next time)!