By Guianna Henriquez, 17, Marlborough School
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After she got a scholarship to go to Paris, Guianna Henriquez enjoyed visiting the famous water gardens which were painted by French impressionist Claude Monet.

The city was gray and wet, and I couldn’t see anything that resembled the Paris I had seen in countless ads and TV shows. I couldn’t see the Eiffel Tower, or any of the famous cafés I had heard so much about. All that could be seen from the tinted bus windows as we drove away from Charles de Gaulle airport were miles of lonely farmland, and, occasionally, a cow.

As we sped closer to the city we encountered the first signs of city life: litter, graffiti and large, gloomy-looking apartment complexes. Nothing was that different from what could be seen in Los Angeles, except that the signs were all in French and there were no SUVs in sight. My dream of Paris was not being fulfilled. Where were the meticulously organized gardens, the palaces, the outdoor cafés, and most importantly, where was the food?

Finally, after an hour of driving, the bus pulled up in front of the Luxembourg Gardens and I saw the large, gray cement building that would be my school and home for the next month. The boarding school was situated at the end of a short impasse next to Rue Vavin, which is a long street full of nice shops and great places to eat. Though I had expected the school to be a pretty, red brick building with French windows and flower pots hanging from the balconies, I found myself in a plain modern one instead. But I loved the neighborhood; it was clean and peaceful by day, but vibrant by night.

I had gotten this opportunity by being persistent. Since I couldn’t afford to go to Paris on my own, I had applied for a scholarship to Oxbridge’s Académie de Paris. I filled out an application, wrote an essay, submitted work in French and English, and provided proof of financial need. I didn’t get the scholarship the first year I applied, but the second year, I was accepted.

I was there to take some summer classes, but I didn’t actually spend much time studying from books. We all had a basic knowledge of the French language, so we didn’t spend a lot of time reviewing grammar. Instead, we studied the avant-garde movement by going all around the city to learn about art, food, fashion and architecture. Our basic definition of avant-garde was any work that radically breaks from the traditional style of the time and explores new ways of expression. That meant we studied everything from Claude Monet’s water lilies from the 1880s to the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who is known for his innovative and startling pictures of people doing everyday things. For homework, we wrote about what we thought and what we had seen, not what we memorized from the art history book. At the Picasso museum, we sketched our favorite pieces and explained why we liked them.

At Cordon Bleu, the prestigious culinary school, a chef cooked us an amazing lunch: lettuce heart with crab and grapefruit, and pastry-wrapped lamb with mint and vegetables. He made one of the best desserts I have ever tasted, moelleux d’amande et mures tièdes, sabayon pistache (warm blackberries and soft almond cream with pistachio sabayon sauce). Our homework that night was to invent our own modern menu, which did not seem nearly as good as what we had at Cordon Bleu. I made a funny menu that started with dessert, which has always been my favorite part of a meal.

We visited a real artist

The best part of my avant-garde class was definitely visiting a painter’s studio to see how an artist’s mind actually works. American-born Stephen Roederfer works with "lettrisme," which basically means that he takes words or phrases and paints them on a canvas. So if you gave him the word "Paris" he might paint some of the letters backwards and upside down, or add different colors to the letters. I’ve never really liked this kind of art since it looks like a 6-year-old’s attempt at writing a sentence. But seeing Stephen go through the process of painting, I realized he was actually trying to send a message. He was the kind of guy who would take words and letters in everyday conversations and twist them upside down to make us question how we normally think about words.

His studio was fun to visit because the man is crazy—he hung up vintage dresses in his studio (he does use them, supposedly), and he handed out some cheese that smelled like vomit. He recommended we use the nicotine patch because he said that it’s better than regular cigarettes, and in the same breath warned us not to tell our parents about that piece of advice. I think he was joking when he said that but I’m not completely sure …

After class, the best part of the day was when I was free to do whatever I wanted. At lunch, I would often go to the local panini places (which serve flat Italian sandwiches) or I would go to a boulangerie and get the special of a baguette, a drink and a free dessert. The French desserts were the best part—I could choose from a nice croissant, a piece of cake or my favorite tarte citron, which has a lemon custard in a little tart shell.

The school organized walking tours, but sometimes more than 50 students would go at a time. I didn’t want to be in such a big group, so my friends and I often went to the same places by ourselves. With Parisians, the less conspicuous you are, the better. You’re going to be stared at if you walk around with a bunch of American teenagers who are loud, speak English and often don’t know anything about French etiquette.

My friends and I went to a carnival where we went on some rides that looked like they had been around since the 70s. I loved the ferris wheel, which offered an incredible view of Paris that rivaled the one from the Eiffel Tower. There were a lot of tourists, but it was also the first time I got to see Parisian teens hang out on their own. While we wore jeans, T-shirts and tennis shoes, they wore skirts or jeans, a nice shirt and flats. We were all doing the same things and having fun with friends, but we looked sloppy while all their clothes were meticulously chosen, even if they were at a dusty carnival. I wanted to be like them—they were so cool.

French fashions were cool

When I wasn’t eating, seeing famous monuments or visiting museums, I shopped. I saw a lot less jeans and T-shirts and the clothes seemed more stylish and put-together. I found that most clothes were in pastels and off-the-shoulder or had lots of straps.
It seemed like every place I went I would meet a new French person willing to talk to me. It was really fun to try out my French with them. The local boys would come and sit in front of the school all afternoon, just waiting for someone to go over and start a conversation with them. At the Sephora makeup store, the cashière (cashier) asked me questions about my life back home, and gave me some tips about where to go in Paris. At a wonderful crêpe restaurant, I met the owner, a Moroccan woman who makes all the crepes herself and who told us about her life: moving to Paris and learning "proper French," setting up her restaurant and learning how to run the little place on her own.

I was only one and a half weeks into the program and I was forced to do laundry at a local lavomatique, having made the all too common mistake of not bringing enough underwear. The washing machines in French laundromats are small and expensive (4 euros each, roughly $5), but I ended up talking the whole time with a nice petite lady who had just moved into the neighborhood. She grew up in Algeria, a former French colony in northern Africa, and had moved to Paris two years before knowing Arabic, some English and absolutely no French. In those two years, she got a job, learned French and married a Parisian. In an hour I knew her whole life story and felt like we had known each other for years.

Guianna says that if you go to Paris make sure you do more than visit the Eiffel Tower.
Photo by Guianna Henriquez, 17, Marlborough School

Though being in Paris was exciting and different, a lot of its charm seemed to stem from the people, not the places I visited. And to think that some people only go to see the Eiffel Tower! It’s a nice place to visit, but that’s all it is—a symbol for tourists to look at.

Going to Paris was more than being able to reach the top of the Eiffel Tower or see the Mona Lisa. It was about meeting new people and getting a new, truer perspective on French culture. For me, it was also about being more comfortable with being on my own. My teacher would take us to the museums, but once there we were expected to find our way home. She would tell us which metro to take, but if I couldn’t find the group it was up to me and my trusty metro map to find a way home. I was usually with at least one other friend, but when I wanted to go to a special place I would have to figure out how to get there. A month without cars or TV sure can teach you to be patient and inventive, especially when you’re walking in pouring rain or when the person standing next to you in the crowded metro car didn’t care to wear any deodorant that day.

When I came home after that unbelievable month in Paris, I was sad. I missed my roommate and the friends I had made. But the more time I spent at home the more I felt like the experience wasn’t gone from me forever. It hadn’t been a dream. Though the sun sets at 10:30 p.m. over there and the people are different, I felt like I carried a piece of the city with me to remember until next time.

For more information on the Oxbridge Académie de Paris, see

If you want to learn about programs to travel abroad, start by looking at the
Transitions Abroad Web site or the Study Abroad Web site. There are summer programs, year-long programs in which you attend high school in another country, and intensive programs to learn a foreign language. Here are a few good programs:


American Field Service (AFS) is one of the world’s largest community-based volunteer organizations dedicated to building a more just and peaceful world through international student exchange. More than 10,000 students, young adults and teachers participate in AFS exchange programs each year. Financial assistance is available.

Amigos de las Americas

In this program, teams of two to three volunteers live and work in rural Latin American communities for up to eight weeks. Countries include Brazil, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Nicaragua and Paraguay. Volunteers have leadership roles in carrying out health, education and environmental programs, ranging from toilet construction to formation of youth groups to teaching HIV prevention and dental hygiene. Teens must pay for or do fundraising to earn their airfare and other costs.

AYUSA Global Youth Exchange

AYUSA is a non-profit high school exchange organization dedicated to promoting world peace and understanding by enabling students to study outside their own country. Since 1980, AYUSA has assisted more than 25,000 high school students from around the world to live and study for an academic year, semester or summer overseas or in the United States. Scholarships are available.

Rotary Youth Exchange

Rotary Youth Exchange has long-term and short-term programs in 85 countries.
With Rotary, you and your parents or guardians are responsible for airfare, health insurance, travel documents, clothing and spending money. Room and board while you are away will be provided by your host families, and your host Rotary club will finance the tuition for required academic programs. Also, on long-term exchanges, your host Rotary club will provide you with a modest monthly allowance. Some Rotary clubs have established scholarships for disadvantaged students to help fund the cost of plane tickets and other expenses. Check with your local Rotary club to see if they offer such assistance.