There aren’t many moose in wine country.
But there’s plenty in Eagle River, where 24 students and their four teachers arrived from Libourne, France last week for an immersion in all things Alaska.
“Everything is huge,” said Odile DaSilva, who teaches English in the wine-growing town near Bourdeaux in southwestern France.
DaSilva’s colleague, Isabelle Gobinaud, said she and her students have been blown away by Alaska’s vast expanses of wilderness and abundant wildlife, after spotting numerous moose and bald eagles within their first few days in the state.
“We are so surprised with the wildlife,” she said, noting that some members of the group had been serenaded by coyotes the night before. “Everything is magic. It’s so different.”
Julie Wohrle’s daughter is a French language student at Eagle River High, and the family volunteered to serve as a host family for one of the French exchange students. Wohrle said her new guest was enthralled by Alaska’s heavy blanket of white stuff.
“She just loved the snow,” Wohrle said. “She was out there rolling around in it.”
While there are many differences between the two far-flung regions of the world, the students from both countries were actually well acquainted with each other before the visit began. That’s because 10 of the Eagle River students were part of a group that traveled with French teacher Anne Adasiak-Andrew to France last year, where they stayed with some of the very same students who made the trip north this time around.
“Half of the group already knew each other,” Adasiak-Andrew said during a special welcome lunch buffet (complete with homemade smoked salmon dip) hosted at Eagle River High on Monday, April 9.
ERHS senior Andrea Hackley was one of the students who participated in last year’s trip to France. Hackely’s family is hosting Victoria Bureau, who Hackley stayed with in France.
“It’s like a friend visiting you,” Hackley said.
In addition to spending time working on their English at Eagle River High, the exchange students and their teachers are also planning several day trips around the area, including trips to Portage Glacier and the Alaska Native Heritage Center.
Bureau said the trip to Alaska has been a whirlwind, and the students try to take in as much as possible as quickly as they can.
“We’ve been really busy,” Bureau said. “But I like it.”
Hackley said she was excited when she found out her friend from France would be visiting.
“When you get closer to someone, you want them to be able to see your home,” she said.
Very few of the American students are fluent French speakers, and most of the French exchange students speak broken English. But as the two girls chatted and giggled in both languages and translated for each other, it was apparent that communication is no barrier for the students.
“It helps me to hear her accent and understand how she speaks,” Hackley said.
At the welcome lunch, the teachers from France were presented with an Alaska flag to bring back to their school, along with several other mementos from the Last Frontier. ERHS principal Marty Lang said when Adasiak-Andrew brought up the idea of bringing students from France to his school, he was thrilled.
“I said, ‘Excellent! What a great opportunity,’” Lang said.
Lang said the best part of the program is that the students are building bonds that will last a lifetime while also gaining a deeper appreciation for another culture.
“I just am so excited about seeing the deepening of those relationships,” he said.