Friends From France: A Homestay with a Pen Pal

Natalie Ho

Even two months later, the smell of warm baguette still transports me back to my summer trip to France, where I spent two weeks climbing mountainous rocks, listening to a mix of fifteen French rap and Post Malone songs, awkwardly cheek kissing many strangers, not improving my horrendous American accent and having the adventure of a lifetime.

My adventure started two years ago in the summer of 2016 when my pen pal, Clémence, came to America to stay with me. I remember being nervous to meet her, but being the same age and bonding over our love of American pop culture, we instantly became close friends. She visited once again in 2017, and this past summer, I finally went to her house in France. Or, rather, her three houses.

I had a fellow American travel companion, Nora, a Palo Alto High School sophomore. Clémence’s brother Jean had stayed with Nora this past summer, so she went to live with their family as well. Together, we embarked on a cramped eleven-hour flight to Paris, navigated the foreign lands of the CDG airport, and finally found Clémence and her mother awaiting us. Clémence and I picked up where we left off the year before, as if we were longtime friends rather than pen pals who saw each other once a year. We immediately left Paris and drove six hours to their first house in Brittany, France to stay for four days.

It is common to see walls in Roscoff, Brittany lined with beautiful Hydrangea bushes. Brittany takes immense pride in their luscious Hydrangea bushes, and many families grow them in their gardens. Photo by Clémence Lenail

Brittany is the most northwest region of France. Rural and true to its rich history and culture, it’s a stark contrast to Paris’s Americanized, tourist-infested atmosphere. Though Brittany’s weather is normally windy and rainy even in the middle of July, it seemed as though the Americans brought California sunshine with them. Within Brittany, the Lenail family’s house was in Plougasnou, a small village bordering the English Channel.

On the first day, we woke up early to visit the Tuesday farmers market in the downtown area. Lively French chatter surrounded me as I weaved through stands with fragrant flowers picked from locals’ gardens, tiny handmade toys and keychains, and fresh meats and fruit spreads. Upon returning to the house, we made crêpes from scratch for lunch and dinner and played cards. Finally, we walked to the Windsurfing club where all the Lenail siblings (Jean and Clémence had two older sisters) windsurfed.

The rest of the days in Brittany blended together in a whirlwind of card games, eating crêpes, small boutique shopping, meeting their windsurf friends (a.k.a. lots of awkward cheek kisses) and my personal favorite—rock climbing. The Lenail’s backyard consisted of beautiful cliffs of rocks overlooking the glittering sea. We traveled up the rocks frequently, humming along to their playlist of American and French songs, reveling in the pleasant sun, taking pictures and watching the sun slip under the horizon.

Fresh fruit stands line the streets of Plougasnou, Brittany. Every Tuesday it seems as if the whole town convenes in the downtown area to pick up fruits and vegetables for the week. Photo by Natalie Ho

As our adventure in Brittany came to a close, we packed up the van with all of our luggage to prepare for our twelve-hour drive across France to the Lenail’s house in Chambery, France, a Southeast city. Upon arriving in Chambery, we had a lavish, three-course French dinner of McDonald’s. Much to my disappointment, McDonald’s in France is no fancier than in America.

The next day was Sunday, which meant all the shops were closed. As we ambled through the empty, cobbled streets of Chambery, I felt suspended between an ancient and modern world: AT&T, H&M and flashy souvenir stores stood among grand, ancient churches and 16th century architecture. Throughout the day, we explored desolate alleyways in unbearable humidity and went on paddle boats with built-in slides to escape the scorching heat. I felt at home 3,000 miles away from Palo Alto.

After spending two nights in Chambery, we once again packed our luggage and drove to the Nice port, where we took an overnight boat ride to Corsica, a small island between France and Italy.

Every day in Corsica followed the same structure: wake up at 10 a.m., eat breakfast and walk five minutes to the beach. Swim in the Mediterranean and jump of rocks until the sun travels directly overhead at 12:30 p.m. Seek refuge from the blazing sunlight at home, or in the restaurant on the beach. Lounge until 4 p.m., and go back to the beach until 7. Eat dinner at home, and then play cards late into the night. I had never been on a vacation so relaxed, casual and not packed with constant tours and sightseeing.

Bordered by a combination of 16th century architecture and 20th century cafés.
the alleyways of the quaint downtown Morlaix, Brittany were very narrow as to only let pedestrians pass through. Photo by Natalie Ho

Highlights of Corsica included shopping at Ajaccio, tubing in the Mediterranean, an 11 p.m. outdoor movie theater and midnight beach parties with Jean and Clémence’s friends.

Traveling back to America, and watching France shrink into a tiny dot in the distance, a wave of sadness and gratitude washed over me. Clémence and I had spent the last three summers together, laughing, growing close and showing each other our vastly different lifestyles. The image of Clémence’s first moments in America is engraved in my memory—her eyes wide in awe as she gazed out the car window at the urban, fast-paced, constant bustle and movement of San Francisco, and as I recall leisurely climbing up the Brittany rocks, I can still feel the wind on my face, my mind empty but my heart full. As Clémence and I hugged goodbye in the Corsica airport, we both understood this was the last time we’d be seeing each other, at least for a while. I cannot thank her enough for having a companion to walk alongside me in this adventure. I am happy to have shown her my little corner of California, and I am eternally grateful to have shared her pocket of France.

Crossing Mediterranean Sea towards Corsica, mainland France shrinks into the horizon. Photo by Natalie Ho