In Kayhi we have nutrition break; in France, they have smoke break.
This is one of the many differences French exchange student Bertille Gautron is experiencing during her time at Kayhi.
“There’s a smoke area in every high school because so many people smoke,” said Gautron. “I’m in a group of 15 people and of those people, 12 of them smoke every day. That sucks.”
Gautron is enjoying her temporary stay in Ketchikan and is adapting to the Alaskan lifestyle quickly. Standing across from me wearing a raincoat and extra tuffs, she looks like any other student at Kayhi.
“My first choice was Canada because I was afraid to go in the South of the USA, like Florida or places like that,” said Gautron. “But Alaska is really really perfect.”
She arrived here as one of two exchange students, along with Max Gonzalez. The Mexican exchange student came from a city not far from Mexico City, a place with around 8.8 million inhabitants — while Ketchikan has a population of only 8,200.
“It was pretty shocking – the lack of people – because I’m from a big city, but people in big cities are not usually as polite as they are in small cities like Ketchikan,” said Gonzalez. “The first day of school is when I realized how nice people are here. There were a bunch of people greeting me and I didn’t expect that.”
The two have made big changes in order to adapt to life here. France and Mexico tend to have temperatures over 60 degrees on average with very little rain.
“It’s way colder than my city in Mexico,” said Gonzalez. “I already brought a million coats and ended up buying more here. I’ve also bought a pair of extra tuffs, but I’m going to leave them here.”
Their first encounter with Alaska was different than what they assumed. Not having done much research on where they were going, the two expected to be knee deep in snow and secluded on a mountain.
“I was excited, but my mom was like ‘you’re going to Alaska, there’s nothing there,’” said Gonzalez. “I actually did think you guys lived in igloos.”
Despite the rainy and windy weather, the exchange students have been able to experience a huge part of the Alaskan lifestyle. The two combined have gone zip lining, fishing, and crabbing. They’ve also hiked Deer Mountain and took a ride on the Aleutian Ballad.
“Everything is different, like the size of the cars, the school, the food, the time when you eat, the food that you eat,” said Gautron. “For example, we eat dinner with family at around 8 p.m. and every day at school we have one hour to eat a real meal, like appetizer and dessert and stuff like that – we don’t snack.”
Like any other exchange students, Gonzalez and Gautron have had to make adjustments. They’ve both noticed more modifications in their social and daily situations than geographical.
“Here you get to wear whatever you want, but in Mexico you have to wear uniforms,” said Gonzalez. “Here you move from class to class and change students, but in Mexico the teachers come to you. We don’t change groups and we don’t get to pick classes.”
Gautron believes that there are more rules in France, as many extracurricular activities happen outside the school. There, school starts at 8 a.m. and ends at 6 p.m. and allows an hour or more to eat lunch.
With the first quarter ending recently, Gonzalez and Gautron have gotten a taste of the Ketchikan and U.S. norm.
“First quarter has been good I think,” said Gonzalez. “My grades were good, but it was hard. I’m taking PE, drawing and painting, and chemistry. And I really don’t like chemistry but I have to take it.”
Gautron and Gonzalez fit in so well that the only thing setting them apart from the rest of the students as Kayhi is their accents. Their ability to change and adapt to their new life is what makes them so special.
“I really like being his host family. He’s really nice to have around,” said Phillip Smith, Gonzalez’s host family. “He’s like the brother I never had.”
Being able to experience and embrace the different culture in Alaska has made the exchange well worth it for Gonzalez and Gautron.
“She has a big personality,” said Cameo McRoberts, Gautron’s Culinary Arts teacher. “It’s fun having someone that has a different perspective on different kinds of food and pronunciations and things like that, plus she’s really nice. She’s super sweet and has a lot of energy. She comes to class with great stories and she’s really just a cool kid.”
So, does Gautron like her new and temporary lifestyle?
“I’m living an American life I guess, not the French life. In a way, I like it better.”