Our ecstatic group left Detroit Metro Airport at around 9:25 on New Year’s Day and faced a long puddle hop over the Atlantic Ocean to arrive at Charles de Gaule Airport in Paris at around 11 am the following day. The flight itself was unlike any that I’ve ever had before. While on board, we all sat in the same row and shared the experience of unlimited in-flight movies and an excellent dinner served with a mini bottle of wine. Oh, and we were just sitting in coach (American airlines, take note).

As we walked through the terminal, I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that I was actually in Paris. I looked out the bay windows and saw an entire city behind me, waiting to be explored and unfolded. Looking out the window of the shuttle bus, I gazed at apartment buildings and businesses that have stood for over 300 years, still standing and put to good use (we’ll get back to Paris in a couple of days–more on that soon). We met our drivers not far from the terminal, who took us into Noisy-Le-Roi and met up with our host families. Sabine, the mother, and her daughter, Marie (20 yrs), picked me up and took me into their tastefully decorated bungalow located not far from the heart of the city. I was greeted by the man of the house, Pierre, and their three other children, Anne-Sophie (23 yrs), Remi (25 yrs), and Lucie (17 yrs). Being a typical first-time tourist, I forgot that the French do the “shake and kiss” concept whenever they greet someone; imagine an awkward American lerch, who forgot this social cue and wanted to pull the typical “handshake and hello.” That’s me.

So, I have that going. Which is nice.

The Gauthes served me a small lunch of holiday goose liver (never again), assorted cheese (better) and a 2001 red wine (don’t mind if I do) and sat around the table to ask me questions about life at Albion and what I typically do for the holidays. Strangely enough, I can picture my own family doing the same thing, that is, being curious of another culture and welcoming a stranger into their home; needless to say, the French hospitality made it seem as if I wasn’t half a world away from Detroit after all. After showing me to my room and giving me a walking tour of the city, I knew that this was a trip that was going to stick with me for all of my years as a teacher and as a transnational traveler.

The city of Noisy-Le-Roi itself is full of rich history and tradition that make it a landmark in the suburbs of Paris. Some of its history dates as far back as the days of Louis XIV, whereas some documents have records as far back as 1127. The homes are very practical in size, and not every single family owns a vehicle. Many live right next to, above, or below a neighbor–either way, you have a direct connection to another person. This sort of redefines the term “blue collar” to me, especially coming from another culture, whose typical working-class family may still own a large house with three cars in the driveway.

Dinner, on the other hand, is a whole other ball game.

When it comes to eating–that is, eating to a point where I feel overindulgent–the French don’t mess around. Back home in Detroit, family dinners often revolve a main course with sides and perhaps even a salad. We pour it all on one plate, picking at different things here and there until we’re filled to the very top. In France, it’s all about the courses; the first is a main course, then followed by bread and cheese, followed by a side dish(es), followed by dessert. Sabine made two different types of quiches as the main course, and when I thought we were finished I took my plate to the sink when Anne-Sophie said, “Ohhh we’re not done yet. Don’t worry.” So I sat back down and twiddled my fingers as Sabine freshly prepared the next course.

The cheese platter was simply gargantuan. There was of course the traditional slabs of Swiss, Gouda, Feta and Brie, however, there were other choices I had never heard of and would never dare to try to pronounce. We skipped the side dish and went straight for dessert, which ranged from yogurt with honey, fresh fruit, and little sugar cookies. After we finished up, everyone had a role to ensuring that the kitchen was clean for the morning (I loaded the dishwasher and helped wipe down the table). Even as a guest in a foreign land, I’ve come to learn that the entire experience of being with others is an experience on its own. The cooking, eating, cleaning, and the conversation are all done for the same purpose–for the sake of doing it together.

My own little bungalow.