An American in Rennes: Georgia Norton Reflects on Her SYA in France

Camille Summers

I had to pass fields of cows to get home everyday...There was a beautiful canal and open fields next to my house. 

Georgia Norton and I sat, 6 feet apart of course, in the College Counseling office to discuss her adventures in France. Georgia is the only student of the Class of 2021 who spent an entire year abroad. She spent a full junior year in France until COVID-19 forced her to come home two months earlier than originally planned.  a great discussion about how SYA (Study Year Abroad) compares to Lovett, what it’s like to live with a host family, and what to do when you spill yogurt in front of French teens who are dressed much better than you are. 

Q: How did you hear about SYA? 

A: My sister had studied abroad when she was in 10th grade, so I knew I wanted to study abroad. There wasn't a ton that Lovett sponsored, but SYA was one of the few that was abroad. SYA was a full term, so I applied to SYA and CityTerm. I totally expected that I wouldn't end up going to SYA; a whole year in French seemed so abstract in my mind. I ended up getting in and impulsively accepted and was on a plane 5 months later. 

Q: What were your preconceived notions about SYA?

A: I was definitely nervous about the language barrier. I wasn’t very strong in French, but I really liked the language itself. I figured this was the only way I would learn without having to sit in a classroom for a year. I was nervous about how small the city would be and not knowing a single person on the program. I was nervous about being out of Lovett’s academic environment. I had gotten so comfortable knowing how I stood here and knowing what I needed to do to succeed in Lovett. It was weird being in a new environment and having to figure out the new expectations while figuring out my role in the new school. As for France as a whole, it’s true they don't shower as much. Lots of [job] strikes. Burning trash can outside of our public school. The anarchists broke a lot of windows in the cities. A passionate group of people.

Q: How was the academic environment at SYA different from the academic environment at Lovett?

A: It was really different because a lot of the learning was experiential based. The type of work that I had was a lot different. They gave a lot of grace too. Because I had to turn in essays written in French, I didn’t have to have a beautiful essay that’s perfectly written because French is my second language. You can’t expect it to be perfect. The amount of work was also less since a lot of work was experiential. Trying to make the most of our time in France was the main priority and that translated to every aspect of the school. It was hard, but I think junior year at Lovett would’ve been much more difficult. You have to be really self-motivated at SYA to get your work done, but once you find your rhythm, it gets easy.  
Q: What did you miss about Lovett?

A: I missed my teachers and staff. I missed the academic environment. It really is a great school with really nice facilities. SYA was like a small house with 10 rooms with wall to wall carpet everywhere and bad chairs. The garden-room that used to be a shed was converted into our math class. It was nice, but it got really cold in the winter. I missed being able to express myself using English. Academically, speaking French was a challenge, but it was harder on a day-to-day basis. Just trying to converse and have some meaningful conversation was hard without second guessing everything I was going to say. It’s hard when you feel insecure in another language and try to sound out whatever you’re trying to say. I didn’t realize the value before it. Even when you’re good at French, you still second guess yourself. 

Q: What do you miss about SYA?

A: I miss the people a lot. I miss my French-lit teacher. The community was amazing. So lucky to know them. They changed my perspective on how good people can be. I’m still in touch with all of them. I really really appreciate our friendships and the experiences we had. Extraordinarily grateful. It was so nice to feel so separate from the life here in Atlanta and to be removed from the Buckhead world. I had room to breathe and exist. You’re moving at 100mph all the time here (at Lovett), and over there, I felt as if I could just breathe. 

Q: Any funny memories that happened at SYA?

A: This has got to be one of the worst moments of my life, and I will never stop telling this story. French people are scary. They are intimidating. My friend David and I were really sick of not having any French friends. I wanted to integrate with the French community. We ate lunch at a public school everyday, so my friend David said, “Hey, let’s go talk to some,” so after some consideration, I decided to go with him to talk to some French students. We walked over to the lunch table, and David says, “Salut” (hello in French), and they turned their heads to look at us awkwardly. I go to say “Salut” too, I trip, and my open yogurt falls all over the table and splatters all over them. I am dying laughing; I mean on the floor. No one thought it was funny. Everyone thought it was weird. I was dying though, and then I just walked off. I did come back later, but I said nothing and just started cleaning the yogurt off the floor. I thought I hit rock bottom. But I made it. I didn’t try to talk to any more French people after that though.
Q: What was it like having a host family for a year?

A: The host family was definitely the scariest and most rewarding part. They were exceptional and sweet and kind. We have so many great memories. When you are in a place that every aspect of your life is foreign, having a support system that checks up on you and making sure everything is going smoothly or watching a movie with me is really assuring. It took some of the stress off. I’m so lucky to have had such a great host family. Sometimes people have to switch, but my family was awesome. As for the house itself, I had to pass fields of cows to get home everyday, which was such a different experience than life in Atlanta. There was a beautiful canal and open fields next to my house. 

Q: How was France different culturally from America in your experience?

A: I tried a lot of food. Unfortunately, the food there is not great. Very average meals, but made with love...that’s what counts. I joined an Art class at the local art college. That was scary. I didn’t know any of the terminology. Don’t know where I would’ve learned “screen-printing” in French, but it was cool. The girl students all use purses instead of backpacks. Explain that to me. It’s insane. They all look so nice for school. Not even business casual. Just business. Blouses, nice pants, and high heels. I couldn’t imagine. I elevated my style though, and started out trying some bold fashion statements. I got really into patterned tights and unique earrings. My shopaholism did take a hit though. I wasn’t expecting it, but online shopping in France is not fun. There were 3 awesome consignment stores that I hit up weekly, but as for actual shopping, there was nothing. 

Q: What’d you do on the weekends?

A: I went to the three consignment stores that I mentioned. It was really fun to look for some new clothes. I hung out with my host family a lot and some friends that I had made through SYA. As for food, there was one restaurant called Chop Shop. It was average Thai food, but we went every single weekend. It was a cute town though. In a little spot of France. Cobblestone streets. The architecture was cool and old. I went to Nice and Paris a bunch, and the coast a couple times. I was supposed to go to Prague and Berlin for Spring Break, but we all know what got in the way of that.

The Lovett School is an independent, coeducational day school where children from Kindergarten through Grade 12 find the courage to explore and the drive to discover.

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