Katie Batchelder's Semester in France
Oct. 12, 2009
Hello again from France!
Here is a quick update from Salon de Provence, France...
We left Montpellier by train on August 23rd and arrived in Miramas, where we were welcomed by some aspirants (French Cadets) and French officers. We then drove to Salon de Provence where the Ecole de l'Air is located. The French academy is significantly smaller than USAFA, and the terrain here is predominantly flat and barren, although the French Alps can be seen off in the distance. The aspirants distributed our dormitory room keys, and we proceeded to drop off our luggage and acquire the necessary documents that allow us to stay on base for the duration of our time here. We received one blue and one yellow badge with our photo on each. I am allowed to have my blue card only when I leave the base and the yellow card when I remain here. The blue cards are locked up during the weekdays until the evenings when classes are finished, given that we don't have military training events after class.
The following morning we packed our backpacks for survival training in the Pyrenees Mountains. After a four-hour bus ride, we arrived and were promptly instructed to put our bags down and empty them for inspection. The officers/instructors checked each of our bags to ensure that we did not sneak any food or items that were not allowed, and that very same evening we had our first outing. We used GPS and maps to search for hidden food during night marches. Sometimes we would find a box... however most of the time that box would be empty. While running on an empty stomach, I learned to traverse across a river on ropes: one above and one below tied between two trees, shimmying across and hoping to not fall in. I completed numerous obstacle courses and learned how to scale a wall. I also repelled down the side of a mountain, and on one occasion at the half-way point an officer pointed out a small cave, informing me that a bear was inside... very funny. However, eventually I made it to the bottom safely, after slipping and sliding a few times. The last event of the week was a night march; however, before beginning the final phase of our training, we stumbled upon an enormous foggy grass field, accompanied by thousands of bugs. We were in the middle of nowhere, but the stars were as brilliant as ever. I could not sleep because I was certain that the officers would return that night and wake us up to start the march. They came back and woke everyone up, but surprisingly not to march. Instead they had a "gift" for us, a tasty "treat" that they knew we'd been "craving" since the beginning of our training. In due time, the surprise was revealed, and turned out to be a bag full of fresh sardines. We lined up group by group and side by side, while flashlights shined shamelessly on our faces. Individually, we had to reach into the bag and retrieve a sardine. When the officer came to me, I reluctantly reached into the slimy bag, although the smell alone made me sick. Nonetheless, I grabbed a sardine and pulled it out, and then turned to the French officer, and said (in French of course) "nope, this one is too big." He laughed, and I gladly put it back and grabbed a smaller one. We were forced to stand in the spotlight and eat the sardine... oh yes, the entire sardine... eyes, gills, head, scales, etc. I still cannot stomach seafood just yet. The officers also told us that if we spit it out or get sick, we have to eat it again... the same one. So, I plugged my nose and chewed the crunchy bones until it was finished, and fish scales were stuck in my throat and teeth for a week. Sound appetizing? I think not.
After we `survived,' we returned to school and helped work basic training for the newest students. The training here, however, is much different from that of USAFA. They have many more traditions and far less training restrictions; some nights we even trained until three o'clock in the morning. The aspirants sing and whistle in formation, and the first thing we did to welcome the basics into the Ecole de l'Air was sing them a sacred song that is only to be sung in their central building for ceremonies. We marched down two separate staircases in-step to the beat of loud, reverberating drums, and afterwards, a false ceremony began, tricking the basics into believing that training was over. We attached their respective rank to their uniforms, and at the end, the yelling commenced; we hurriedly changed into our BDU's, ripped their rank off, and began. The Americans are notorious for one exercise in particular, and we did hundreds, or maybe even thousands of flutterkicks, fondly referred to as "1, 2, 3's," or "one, two, free's," rather, as they are pronounced by the French here. They also had other traditional events like a war reenactment, complete with flyovers and night marches, where the basics had to wear every article of clothing they had; they looked like plump marshmallows marching through the night. The final event of training was the killing of the "Zeff," who are the 2nd year aspirants in charge of the basics. Each Zeff had a colored arm band distinguishing which group they were in charge of. They went back into the ceremony building, and the Zeff repelled down from the ceilings on ropes. Sounds of gun shots went off, and the Zeff were "killed" and played dead. Finally, the reign of the "Zeff" had ended, signifying the end of training. The last special ceremony for the basics was the pinning-on of their rank (for real this time). An aircraft was parked in front of the basics as they lined up, and there were a few aspirants behind it down on one knee, with a bottle of champagne behind them. In the middle of the ceremony, the plane was turned on, and the propellers started to spin, and then the aspirants behind the plane began to shake their bottles of champagne. They popped the corks and let the wind from the propellers help spray champagne all over the ground in front of the basics. The 2nd year aspirants (and the Americans) then marched in lines in-between the basics, did a swift right-face, and pinned on their rank. The tradition goes that when pinning the rank on the basics' chests, the aspirants punch them and say something like welcome to Ecole de l'Air, good luck and so on. So, I pinned on my basic's rank, punched him in the chest, said good luck, and marched away with the other aspirants. At USAFA, there is a simple parade and a pinning-on of shoulder boards; however, killing, punching, and singing seem much more exciting.
Classes started shortly after basic. They begin at 8am, and the last class ends at 6pm. I am currently taking human factors, economics, physical education, French, Italian (which hasn't started yet) and a research class to write a thesis before I leave. My p.e. class consists of running, obstacle courses, weight lifting, swimming, more running, and a little more running after a warm-up run. I'm thinking about joining the cross-country team when I return to USAFA. ;)
All of the military mannerisms here differ significantly from USAFA. They salute inside, salute with a head-nod when wearing athletic gear, they sing A LOT, and their Brigade meetings are not exactly planned... if you are meandering in the hallways and happen to miss a meeting that you were not informed about, you will receive punishment nonetheless.
I am going to play on the volleyball team here. There are only about 10 girls in the school, so for obvious reasons, the team is not extremely competitive. Still, I miss playing and hope to travel with the team if given the opportunity.
All of the American cadets had a scheduled dinner with the International Rotary Foundation, and the commander of Ecole de l'Air also attended the event. We had previously sent in individual biographies to the foundation, and using information from these biographies, they assigned us each to our own titled tables. Mine was entitled the "table aventure," and there was a large picture of me on the table, along with nametags for the guests at my table. There were three older couples sitting with me, and throughout the evening we discussed the military, politics, food, Michael Jackson, and my travels, of which they were very interested.
A few weeks ago, I took a weekend trip to Paris. We took the TGV train and used the metro to get around from place to place. I saw the Eiffel Tower, Versailles with the amazing fountain shows and beautiful gardens, Champs Elysees, l'Arc de Triomphe, and the Louvre museum. I sat in the park next to the Eiffel Tower with a friend from Chico, California (my hometown) who happened to be there at the same time, and watched the tower light up, taking in the beautiful scenery. The flowers were still in-bloom at Versailles, with every fountain turned on at the beginning of the show, and although this was my second visit to Versailles, the architecture and ambiance still amazed me. After a weekend of touring Paris, we returned to school and spent the following weekend in Luxeuil, located in the Franche-Comté region of north-eastern France. We met the mayor of Luxeuil, marched in a parade through the streets of Luxeuil, and participated in the re-naming of one of their streets which was re-named in honor of the American Army, in gratitude for aiding the French during the 1st World War. Additionally, we visited the Lafayette squadron, and also got to sit in the cockpit of the Mirage 2000 French fighter jet, and even attended a concert in the abbey put on by the American Army Band, stationed in Ramstein, and this past weekend, we went to Munich, Germany.
Parachute training starts next week, and I hope I will be able to understand all of the instructions in French so I don't make a mistake in mid-air. ;) Last week, I had a full day of soaring. I went up in a glider twice with an instructor. The first route lasted for over an hour, and the second for just under an hour. Prior to take-off, the instructor quickly taught me how to eject if need-be; I paid extra attention to that, of course. We soared over the school, and I saw some fantastic views of the mountains that I am unable to see from my dorm room window.
So far I have had a fabulous experience. My French improves every day, yet I have learned how much I DON'T know, and I have quite a long way to go. Someone told me that speaking the French language is an art. According to that standard, I've ALMOST mastered finger-painting in the three years I've been speaking. ;)
... à la prochaine!