Thursday June 14, 2018
Perigueux, the capital of the Dordogne region of France, where you can time-travel through 17 centuries of history in a day, is a distant 3,500 miles from Vermont. Such far-reaching miles might seem daunting to cross, but to do so brings opportunity, a better understanding of cultural diversity, and lasting friendships.
Elsa Cotte, a 19-year-old, who admits to being “a little shy,” crossed the sea to explore the other side, our side. She is a world-connected and eager-to-learn young woman, who has visited Japan, Spain, Finland, and the Czech Republic. As a second year business student in France, she’s required to spend time abroad to expand her language knowledge. So, she traveled from Perigueux to Vermont in March on a three-month visiting visa. While she considered going to Scotland, she says, “I had this dream of what life is like in the U.S.”
Elsa is staying with South Burlington residents Pam and Bruce MacPherson. When they learned that Elsa was interested in coming to Vermont, they couldn’t refuse. It gave them the opportunity to continue nurturing life-long connections - connections they planted 30 years ago, when their daughter traveled to Perigueux as part of South Burlington High School’s (SBHS) international exchange program, TIE. In return, students from France came to South Burlington. One of them happened to be Cotte’s father, Jean Pascal, who was the same age Elsa Cotte is now. A few years later, the Cotte family hosted the MacPhersons when they visited their daughter, who had returned to France to study at The University of Grenoble. Pam MacPherson recalls the visit leaving her with this thought, “enduring family connections rising above language differences.”
30 years later, Elsa is keenly aware of this time-travel legacy. “Yes,” she beams. “It’s my turn.”
Elsa assists students in French at both the Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School and the high school. The relationships she has with her students are very much reciprocal. Barbara Gill, a middle school French teacher, notes how rewarding it is for the students to have the chance to help Elsa improve her English, and in return they know they can rely on Elsa to help them with their French. “They love to have a real French speaker,” Elsa agrees. “I can teach them the accent.”
The high school students love having her in the classroom. They all nod when one of them adds, “We do fun things.” Elsa teaches them tongue twisters in French, then they teach her ones in English. The students also actively engage in conversations around more serious and globally resonant topics, like racism and religious bias. They find the discussions on the cultural differences between French and American schools interesting too. Believe it or not, in France, they have a two-hour lunch break, though the school day is much longer. There are typically fewer student activities, such as sports, and WIFI is not as accessible as it is in the U.S. When asked about her overall culinary experiences here, Elsa’s eyes grow wide, “Everything here is bigger, the milk, the jam, the juice. It’s funny.”
The high school faculty have also benefited from Elsa’s reliable presence. “She’s our resident French expert,” says Polly Vanderputten, a SBHS French and German teacher.
To keep track of all the new words she’s learning each day, Elsa has a journal. In it she logs words such as “camp,” as in going to the MacPherson’s “camp” on the lake; and “prom,” a word Cotte thought only existed in musicals like Greece, until one of her new friends asked her if she was going to the high school prom. She can also now pronounce “squirrel,” “neighborhood,” and the well-known test for New England pronunciation, “Harvard.” While English speakers may take it for granted, Elsa says, “I like the way it sounds. Harvard.”
Over the course of her stay in Vermont, Elsa has had to work hard to absorb so much new information. But her efforts have paid off, and she feels “100 percent, my English has improved.”
Along with her focus on the English language, Elsa is attentive to all things American. She listens to music, watches television, and reads newspapers – including the Sunday New York Times. “I read slowly,” she says, but “I’m really proud I can read English.” Elsa should be proud; after all, how many of us could read the French daily newspaper La Monde? Elsa pushes her learning boundaries even further by taking high school physics and math classes, impressive for a business major specializing in literature.
The MacPhersons have also taken Elsa to Montreal, Boston, and Greenfield, Massachusetts, where they celebrated Easter with the MacPherson’s extended family, a gathering Elsa describes as a “convivial party.” New friends have taken her to Church Street Marketplace and Ben and Jerry’s, “my favorite for sure,” she smiles.
In an email exchange with Elsa’s father, he says the friends he made 30 years ago in Vermont “are in my heart.” Elsa too treasures the friendships she has made. She acknowledges how fortunate she is to be here at all, to be welcomed into the MacPherson’s home.
During the MacPherson’s trip to France nearly 30 years ago, Elsa’s great-grandfather presented them with a wood box he handcrafted himself. All these years later, the MacPhersons now gift that same box to Elsa. With ecstatic surprise, she responds, “Oh, I know this box. Wow!” Her grandmother has a similar one made by her great-grandfather, who died when Elsa was only a year old. In that forever time capsule, one she can open each day and time-travel back to Vermont, Elsa carries the gift of discovery - a discovery that began with a willingness to embrace opportunity, to deepen an appreciation for life on the other side of the sea. As she presses the box to her chest, she promises, “I’m going to keep it forever.”
SOURCE: Melissa Cronin, Contributor