This past week, my husband and I hosted a French foreign student from the small northeastern town of Saint-Die.
Emilien is 16, a student in the lycee (France’s college preparatory public high school system), and in every way a typical teenager.
He was one of a larger group of 13 — I think — teenagers from the same town, all of them staying with families in Merced.
This was Emilien’s first trip to the United States, and although his adventure would last only 10 days, he told me that this trip was the dream of a lifetime. With the group, he took two day-trips to San Francisco, one afternoon trip to the Modesto Vintage Faire Mall, one day trip to Sacramento, and one afternoon trip to Yosemite.
In between, he completed service work at the Merced County Food Bank, participated in an activity at the Merced Multicultural Arts Center, and visited the UC and Golden Valley High School campuses.
Every night, he was exhausted, which was good because my husband and I are old, and our sons are busy with their lives, and I hate to say it, but I think a couple of 60-year-olds are probably not all that interesting to a teenager.
A San Francisco Bay cruise and, a few days later, a trip to downtown San Francisco were, naturally, Emilien’s favorite experiences, but I was surprised to learn that he was also equally excited about the prospect of visiting an American high school.
“This has always been a dream of mine,” Emilien told me one evening when we were reviewing the week’s schedule.
“Really?” I asked, remembering that at no time in my own teenage years did I anticipate with such passion a day spent at high school. “How come?”
It turns out that Emilien had spent his childhood viewing television series in which American high schools figured prominently.
He wanted to live, if only for a day, the life he had imagined as he sat in a French classroom, pondering the latest episode of Veronica Mars or Glee.
I remember my mother, who grew up in Le Havre, describing the similar effects Hollywood films and actors had on her eight decades ago.
America, even for a kid from a wealthy and stable country like France, is still glamorous, still gleams with the promise of things newer, bigger, and brighter.
Once, in the early 1990s, my cousin Didier, who lives in Caudebec-en-Caux in Normandy, visited us during a whirlwind tour of California. Everything he saw, he described as Super! San Francisco was Super! Yosemite was Super! Every person he met was Super! The United States was Super! The food, not so much.
Emilien, though, ate with gusto a chili dog, apple fritter, pancakes and bacon, and an In ‘n’ Out burger, though not all in one sitting, of course. It was all very, very good, and everything else was beautiful.
The UC Merced campus was beautiful, and so were the neighborhoods. “It is all so open,” Emilien said on the third day. “In France, the houses all have walls around them. Here, it is just foof! You have open in front and green and trees. Everything is big. Very beautiful.”
Big, I knew. I could understand Merced as big from a European perspective. But beautiful? “You think Merced is beautiful?” I asked, not quite sure I had heard him correctly. “Of course,” he answered, as though I must be missing an obvious point.
“But not green,” I said, thinking maybe I should correct him on this impression, at least. “Merced is not very green. Not a lot of grass and trees.” “Yes, compared to St. Die,” he said.
Then we talked about rain, and I tried to convince Emilien that Merced was actually in the middle of a desert, but I don’t think I succeeded.
In the end, he convinced me that Merced holds a beauty that I have long failed to appreciate. For the rest of the week, I noticed how Super! Merced was every time I ventured out of my house.
And I also thought a lot about the long-standing influence of American culture on places overseas.
The fact that the U.S. exports dreams isn’t news, but I was surprised to see them manifest in someone of Emilien’s worldly generation and comfortable background. He comes from a country that has much to be proud of, and yet he still thinks of the U.S. as the place where dreams are fulfilled.
He did not mention politics once during his visit, did not ask me how I felt about Trump or if I thought my country was going to hell in a handbasket. He just told me what he saw while he was here, and then he made me see those things, too.