Saturday, May 13, 2017

Oh, the things they endure

(by Stephanie) 

We’ve said right from the get go that France has been harder for our kids than it has been for us. After all, the language school we attend has been teaching missionaries French for 50 years. They understand our lack of comprehension, they speak French to us slowly and at the start of the year they even translated things into English for those of us who spoke no French. Our kids did not have that luxury. I’ve heard their teachers speak. They speak fast, very fast, and at first they did not understand how very little French our kids understood.In addition to all the language woes, there have been instances where we, as parents, have messed things up, or misunderstood, and made difficult French school even more difficult.
  • Like the time this fall when I sent Biniyam to school in shorts and a t-shirt and he came home at lunch wearing pants… hum… He told me they went ice skating for PE and all the other kids had coats and gloves (and pants). Thankfully his teacher had pants for him to put on over his shorts. When we told Greg his eyes brightened “Oh, that must have been the word I couldn’t figure out in his agenda yesterday.” 

  • Or, the first day of school for our girls (they are both in middle school although Mekdes should be in 5th, the age cut off is different here). They had received a very long supply list and we had visited multiple stores, multiple times, to figure out what they needed and get it all. However, we thought that the 1st day of school was an orientation and that they didn’t need to bring anything. I sent them to school with one small bag containing 2 pens and 2 small notebooks. Then, at drop off, we saw all the other students arriving with backpacks, the girls did not want me to humiliate them by returning with theirs. But, once in their classroom and seated apart, the teacher YELLED at Ella for not having the right stuff. (Can you imagine anyone yelling at Ella?) It was so hard to have Ella, who’s always loved school, beg us not to send her back. 

  • Or on Tuesday, when I sent Biniyam to school in a speedo, a hand-me-down speedo. But alas, he’s swimming for PE and that is what the boys are required to wear. 



  • But, the one incident we will be talking about for years to come is the day we meticulously translated the note in Biniyam’s agenda at 9:00 at night. The note was about a field trip for the next day where the kids were going to walk about 2 miles to a park and then back to the school. The note said to put a reflector vest on your child. We were not sure what they were talking about, and all the stores were closed, so I took the only thing we had, the florescent yellow vest with reflectors that is part of our required car safety kit. It was way too big for him and looked ridiculous, but, the next morning off he went to school as pictured below. As we walked towards the building I noted that no other child was wearing a reflector vest. I told Biniyam I thought we should take his off, but he wouldn’t “I don’t want to make my teacher mad, I don’t want to get yelled at, I think I should keep it on.” So off to school he went. About an hour later Greg received a call from the father of one of Biniyam’s classmates, a fellow missionary. He said he was chaperoning the field trip and asked if he could take Biniyam’s reflector vest off as he was the only student wearing one. He also told us that yes, the note said to put a reflector vest on our child, be no one actually does it. We’re grateful that this dad intervened to save Biniyam from a full day of being super safe and absolutely ridiculous.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Another Top 10

(by Greg)

While we were in Burundi two years ago, I wrote a blog post about the top 10 things I missed about life in the U.S.  As we have now been living in France for 7 months, I wanted to write a similar post, given a different perspective.  However, it occurred to me that life in France is not really comparable to life in Burundi.  It is true that language learning has been extremely challenging (and sometimes humiliating).  However, overall France is a pretty comfortable place to live for a year.  In fact, aside from our family and friends back home, the only thing I could think of that I really miss is nachos.  Yes, nachos.  As rich as France is in history, culture and cuisine, when it comes to Mexican food, it remains deeply impoverished.  So, instead I decided to compile a list of the top 10 things I have found most surprising about France.


  1. This is a beautiful country.  Granted, the US is a beautiful country as well, and we have similar landscapes back home.  The difference is, you cannot drive across the U.S. in a single day, as you can in France.  In France, within 4 hours you can go from skiing in the Alps, to sitting on a beach on the French Riviera.  But what also makes France so beautiful is the buildings.  Rather than demolishing old buildings, the French preserve them.  And it seems that in every city or village you pass through, there is a church or cathedral, often hundreds of years old which hovers overhead.  The doors of these churches are almost always open.  It often feels like being transported back in time.
  2. It is really hard to find a full "American" sized cup of coffee in France.  When you order a “coffee” you get a tiny cup, filled with a tiny amount of coffee.  In fact, the only place in Albertville where I have found I can get a “normal” sized cup of coffee is McDonalds.  Sadly, there is no Starbucks in Albertville.  In fact, I think the closest Starbucks is in Lyon or Geneva, both 2 hours away.  
  3. The French do NOT drink liquids on the go.  If you see someone walking down the street carrying a coffee mug, it is a pretty safe bet that they are not French.  
  4. Despite having been the host of the 1992 Olympics, Albertville is not a tourist destination.  Many people pass THROUGH Albertville on their way to nearby ski resorts, but it is rare to run into another American in town who is not a student at our language school.  
  5. Before our arrival, many people warned us about the exorbitant cost of living in France.  We have not found this to be true.  Granted, there are some things that are more expensive here (such as gas), but overall, food and rent are pretty comparable to what we paid in Bellingham.  
  6. The French word for foosball is “le baby-foot”.  How cute is that?  Because they have little tiny baby feet!
  7. Highway rest stops in France are amazing!  Given our frequent weekend road trips, I like to think I have become a connaisseur of rest stops (classy, I know).  They are always immaculate, with clean bathrooms and often a general store where you can find just about anything you can imagine.  And the food is outstanding.
  8. While many Americans have trouble adjusting to “La bise”, the custom of kissing on each cheek when greeting someone, the French find hugging to be WAY to intimate.  They can’t seem to understand why Americans always want to be so close to someone so quickly.  
  9. The French are not, in general, an easily excitable people.  But if you want to shock a French person who is curious about life in America, tell them how much you pay for health insurance.  
  10. French culture is more influenced by American culture than I thought it would be.  American music is played everywhere here, American films are shown in the theaters (usually overdubbed in French).  While I think most Americans would be hard pressed to name even 1 French actor or musician, the French are very familiar with many of ours.  Yes, they even dig Justin Bieber.  

I drive down this street 4 times each day, as our girls school is right behind the church at the end.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Bisous Anxiety

I would like to share with you a new condition which I have diagnosed myself with.  I believe this may be a unique case, so for those of you interested in the field of psychiatry and mental health, this could in fact be a publishable case report.  My name is Greg, and I have bisous anxiety.

We are almost halfway through our 10 months of language school in Albertville France.  For those of you who are unaware, the French have a greeting which involves a kiss on each cheek.  This is not something you do in formal or professional settings, but rather takes place on a regular basis among friends and family.  It is a beautiful custom, and the French do it with complete ease.  Sadly, I have been here for 5 months, and I am still struggling with knowing exactly how and when to use this greeting.

I am not a germaphobe, so please don’t confuse my malady with that (you can’t really be a germaphobe and function in a place like Kibuye).  My anxiety revolves more around my fear of kissing someone I am not supposed to kiss, or not kissing someone I should kiss. Or doing it all wrong.  I am awkward.  I am an American.  

The problem starts with who to kiss.  “La bise” is not just between men and women.  After two men become friends, it is common for them to kiss as well.  But how well do you have to get to know a dude before you go in for a smooch?  And even with women, I just don’t know how well I am supposed to be acquainted with someone before we “faire la bise”.  Often I just stand there like a deer in headlights, like a frightened turtle … just waiting, trying to anticipate their next move.  

I also can’t seem to remember which cheek I am supposed to kiss first.  This has led to a few especially awkward moments with certain men at our church who I ALMOST ended up kissing right on the lips.  I am awkward.  I am an American.

In addition, I still don’t know exactly what I am supposed to do with my hands.  Do I wrap them around the other person, do I keep them at my sides?  For the love of God … what do I do with my hands!  

To make matters more complicated, I was recently informed that the number of kisses changes depending on which region of France you are in.  Which means, I can never leave Albertville again.  

Unfortunately, although greetings in Burundi are different, they are no less complicated.  After several months in Burundi, someone explained to me that when two men greet each other, it is common for them to grab their arm.  The level at which you grab their arm (eg. wrist, forearm, elbow) conveys to the other person your understanding of their social status and your respect for them.  Pretty sure I was doing this backwards for several months after our arrival, thus offending those I met in the highest positions of authority. It would probably be best if the team keeps me away from visiting dignitaries.  

It became clear to me a few years ago that one of the keys to thriving as a cross-cultural missionary is being willing to embrace those awkward moments, and even to laugh at yourself afterwards.  If not, you are apt to become paralyzed with fear and insecurity.

And so, I will leave our house today, and I may even kiss someone I am not supposed to kiss.  And if the next time you see me awkwardly looking at your cheeks or drawing near to you and then pulling back or if I seem paralyzed with confusion and indecision, please give me some grace. My name is Greg Sund.  I am awkward.  I am American, and I am a recovering bisous anxiety victim.