The Ultimate Game of Make Believe

I ask you this: if you were tasked with the duty of creating a camp for European children to learn about American culture, what exactly would you teach them? What would be the key elements of our culture that they simply must know about? How would you present them? I ask, not because I was charged with the task, per say, but because I often asked myself the same question during the four months I spent working at a language immersion camp in France. This camp was called American Village and its chief aim was to teach French children the basics of the English language and American life.

This was where I found myself three months after returning from Venezuela. I said my good-byes to Carla, Trevor, Matt, Nicole, Marissa, and Cara. I got to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas with my family, saved some money by waiting tables at the Claim Jumper in Roseville, and then applied to be a camp counselor/English teacher in a petite little village in the Pyrenees Mountains of France. The village I lived and worked in was called Thèbe. It was an hour train ride from the city of Toulouse and it was worlds away from Caracas.

The winding country back roads cut through rolling green pastures filled with sheep and cows. Every weekend, I would go jogging along these roads and pass a tiny stream that flowed next to the village post office and the one hotel that contained the only real restaurant in town. The Pyrenees Mountains stood majestically in the distance at all times—visible from every angle.

Back at camp, I would prop myself in the window seat on the second floor of the main building and stare out at the snow-capped peaks while I wrote in my journal. Most of the windows in France don’t have screens. They consist of heavy wooden shutters that you unlatch from the inside and then push outward with your hands, just as the characters do in the opening scene of Disney’s Beauty and the Best. From the moment I saw that movie, I wanted to be one of those cute little French women who woke up every morning, walked to her bedroom window, and then pushed open her wooden shutters to let the sunlight in. Then, just as the characters did in Beauty and the Beast, I wanted to stick my head out the window and shout “Bonjour!” to all the village people who were scurrying about, buying their morning baguettes.

I actually did this a few times at camp—it was an inside joke with myself—only my “village people” usually consisted of sleepy 12-year-olds making their way to the dining hall (where, yes, they did serve baguettes).

The whole philosophy behind American Village was that people learn a foreign language best when they are fully immersed in it and forced to speak it. This generally only occurs by getting on an airplane and flying to whatever country it is whose language they would like to learn. College students do this every semester in droves, and it is an excellent idea, except that the price tag of such an excursion inevitably makes it a rather exclusionary activity. Therefore, rather than making kids find the money and the resources to travel all the way to America to learn English, we bring America to them.

The other counselors and I—a ragamuffin group of expatriates from New Zealand, Canada, Oregon, Virginia, and North Carolina—set up fake “immigration” stations where we checked the kids’ “passports” the moment they got off the bus, and made them feel as though they were entering a brand new world. Kids in France start learning English at a very young age, so they would come with their English classes for one whole week. “Welcome to America!” we would say, and they would grin and say, “thank you” in very poised and practiced English. They loved every bit of it. It was like the ultimate game of make believe.

Next, we would have them pick out American names that we would call them by for the week. These were chosen from a list we had compiled based on popular names at the time, plus ones the kids would surely recognize, such as Hannah (as in Montana) and Zac (as in Efron).

Just as most American camps consist of themed days, ours was no exception. Tuesday was Earth Day where we taught them how to say: “mountain,” “grass,” “rock,” “sun.” We taught them the verb “to hike” and led them on various trails to waterfalls and crumbling old castles that just happened to be in the neighborhood.

Earth Day always ended with a bonfire where we made an improvised version of smores—something French kids have never heard of and absolutely loved—then sang songs and told stories enhanced with props and many gestures so that they could actually understand what we were saying. Everything was conducted in English, and all the counselors were required to tell the children that we didn’t speak a lick of French. This was often frustrating because I did speak basic French, but my camp director was adamant that if the campers knew we could understand them, they would get lazy and default to speaking French with us, rather than trying to express themselves in English. Now that I’ve been teaching for quite some time, I can most certainly attest that this is true. Students need to be pushed like crazy to learn anything. Otherwise, they simply won’t do it.

Our other themed days were based upon all your standard stereotypes of America, and this brings me back to my original question: how would you format a camp on American culture? Would you include, by chance, a Wild, Wild West Day?

We sure did.

On Wild, Wild, West Day the camp chef, Jean Charles, made chili and guacamole for lunch, and the daily vocabulary list was chalked full of words the French kids would surely use when they came to America, like “cactus,” “cowboy,” and “sheriff.”

Us counselors would write ridiculous skits and act them out for the kids. We dressed up like barmaids and outlaws and heroes; we showed them maps of the United States and told them stories of the great migration west in covered wagons. We stopped short of reenacting a battle between the cowboys and Indians because our consciences simply wouldn’t allow for it. The group of us who had grown up in the U.S. came from a generation who was extremely jaded because our own teachers had told us that the Pilgrims were “friends” with the Indians—that the Indians taught them how to plant corn and that they celebrated the first Thanksgiving together in harmony. When the Pilgrims did fight with the Indians it was all portrayed as self-defense against the “bad” Indians who liked to scalp people. Then we grew up and found out that those battles were actually a glorified genocide.

We collectively decided not to disillusion the French kids in the same manner.

In addition to Earth Day and Wild, Wild West Day, the one themed day at American Village that topped all others was of course, Hollywood Day. No camp about American culture would be complete without it.

I would wake up extra early that day and plaster my classroom walls with glossy 8 x 11 magazine clippings of Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and Britney Spears. Thankfully, I had thought to bring an ample supply of Us Weekly and Tiger Beat when I packed for France because they had advised us to bring as much American paraphernalia as we could fit into our suitcases.

The second my students walked into the classroom and saw the celebrity-covered walls, I would watch as their faces lit up with recognition and delight. They would gasp and point and shout out the names of each celebrity’s movies and songs from memory. The rest of class would be dedicated to allowing them to become their own movie stars, so to speak. All of the English teachers would section their students off into groups, and each group was responsible for writing a short skit in English that they later performed in the Evening Program.

Every group of kids approached this assignment differently. The shier ones were terrified and needed lots of coaxing, while the rowdy young boys relished the opportunity. The plot of the boys’ skits often differed, but the one common denominator amongst them was that they tended to end in as many fight scenes or violent “shoot outs” as we would permit. The girls, on the other hand, liked to choreograph dances, do Pop Idol parodies (the European version of American Idol), or imitate us counselors. The counselor skits were my absolute favorites because we got to see their goofy impressions of us. Whatever girl decided to play me would smile all the time and was constantly giving the kids two thumbs up, and asking, “Is everyone okay? Is everyone good? Do you understand?”

It made me pause for a moment and reflect upon the fact that I actually was that cheesy and that I did have a tendency to give them two thumbs up as a means of signifying that they were “good” and that they “understood.” The kids also did their best to copy our ways of dressing and styling our hair. They picked up on all of our habits and idiosyncrasies, and would even create fictional love stories between the male and female counselors that they apparently thought were engaging in elicit romances behind the scenes.

The co-ed groups of boys and girls would reenact plots of reality TV shows or movies that were popular at the time. I was there in 2006, but something tells me that if I were to spend the summer of 2010 at American Village, I would inevitably find many a Twilight reenactment, or at least multiple vampire narratives. It is truly fascinating how much American culture is able to cross over oceans and continents and permeate cultures in distant parts of the world. Week after week, as new groups of French kids arrived, it never ceased to amaze me how similar they were to American kids. Sure, they dressed slightly different, ate baguettes all day long, and cussed like little sailors (in French, not in English), but they still listened to the Black Eyed Peas and loved High School Musical.

The weeks and months in France sailed by, like pages of a calendar being flipped by speedy fingers. When the week of Easter rolled around, all the schools went on spring break, which meant that the counselors and I got time off to travel. I was still having Barcelona withdrawals and took it as an opportunity to go back and visit my old roommates, Julia and Alyssa, and to pay homage to the city that I loved.

The weather was gorgeous that week in Barcelona, and I laid out on the beach, drank sangria, visited all my favorite restaurants, shops, and landmarks, and felt my heart pitter patter in contentment. Yes, it really did feel like home. I still loved Barcelona every bit as much as when I had left.

A few days into my visit, Julia asked me to come to work with her so that I could see the school where she taught English. I was her designated teacher’s aid that day, helping the kids play games and conjugate verbs. After sitting in on a few of her classes, I got to chatting with her supervisor, who promptly offered me a teaching position the moment I told her that I was working in France and would be finished in June.

“We could use someone in late June/early July to teach our summer program,” she told me.

“That sounds wonderful,” I said.

“Of course, we would also prefer that you stayed on and continued teaching in the fall.”

Julia looked at me excitedly. “My friend Flora needs a roommate!” she said. “You could live with her, and she has an awesome apartment in the Gracia area.”

The Gracia area was one of my favorite parts of Barcelona, just in case you were wondering.

This was more than I really knew how to digest at one time. There I was, randomly presented with a job offer and a place to live. It was exactly what I had been dreaming about since I had left Barcelona over seven months earlier, and it was nicely wrapped in nothing short of a big red bow. It was presented to me on a silver platter, if you will. It had fallen directly into my lap.

I asked the school director if I could mull it all over for a few days and get back to her by the end of the week. She said that would be just fine. It only took me a few short hours before I sent her an email saying that I would love the job, and started mentally planning the logistics of my move from France to Spain.

Only days later, I got a call from my mother: “You got accepted to the Masters program at Cal State Long Beach!” she exclaimed. “And, they’re offering you university grants,” she continued. “You’ll be able to go practically for free!”

This has to be a joke, I thought to myself. I held the phone in my hand, stunned at how life could possibly throw me two amazing opportunities all at one time. I had applied to CSULB before I left for France, and had been waiting and waiting to hear back from them. When I accepted the job in Barcelona, I had essentially chosen to postpone my MA degree even if I did get accepted. It never even occurred to me that they might give me university grants.

This was going to be harder than I thought.

American Village campgrounds


The Pyrenees Mountains

mountain goats on the hikes

hiking to the waterfall

the village post office

the restaurant/hotel

neighborhood friends

My English class