Like many Alaskan families, my family loves fish, especially the ones that we can catch, cook, and eat with no outside help. To fill the freezer for the coming year, we dipnet for red salmon at the mouth of the Kenai River. Ever since we first moved here in 2001, it's been a family tradition to drive down on the 14th of July and, coincidentally, its always been a tradition for the reds to come in full force on the 15th. (Besides one time a few years ago when the run was so late that Fish and Game thought they would never come, so they shut down dipnetting on the Kenai).
I remember when I was in elementary school, my dad and I had a deal. If I caught a king salmon, I could order a king crab from Louie’s, a restaurant that we go to every time we’re in the area. I was obsessed with the king crab there, and my dad liked it because he would’ve liked to have a king salmon to eat and a story to tell. So, as a true elementary schooler, I used my logic skills to come to the conclusion that if I were to go farther out from the shore than the others, I would get the big one. I proceeded to go out into the water until it was right at my chest, about an inch below my waders. As I was bouncing along with the current and after a few hours of flirting with disaster - THUD! - I had the hit! My net started shaking like I was playing tug of war with a shark. As I struggled towards shore, I heard calls from the other dipnetters. “He’s got a king!” Hearing that pushed me even harder to land this fish.
I ran up onto the beach, and looked at my net. There was the big one, still in the water... but not in my net. As I turned around, all I saw was a silvery-red flash of the fish, darting back into safer waters. I was disappointed, but not too much so because I knew we’d be going to Louie’s that night anyway, and their clam chowder is just as good as their king crab.
This year, our family tradition slightly changed. We fished on the 13th-15th, but apparently the fish didn't get the memo. It was the slowest I have ever seen it: in over three days of fishing (around 18 hours), we caught 11 fish. That might seem like a decent amount, but to put it in perspective, last year we fished for 2 days, and caught over 50.
So, we did the typical fisherman thing which is: when the fish aren't there, wait until they are. After a weekend of recuperation, we headed down early in the morning for our redemption. And by early I mean 2:30 A.M. But the loss of 6 hours of sleep paid off. We fished for 3 hours, and caught about 35 fish. Our freezers would be full once again. This year the fish were late to the party, but all's well the ends well - fish that have been out of the water for less than 24 hours is the best dinner I've ever had and and ever will.
Will this change next year? Nah, I don't think so. Next summer I’ll be going off to college but I’ll be back for the summers - at least for these few days to help the family out. Of course, my parents won’t need to catch as much because they won’t have to feed me for the winter, and I know I’ll miss having my dad's grilled salmon (simple but perfect, cooked until dark pink in the middle) throughout the year, but when I come back in the summer it’ll be a great treat.
THE SUMMER BEFORE your senior year is the last summer before the responsibility for your actions rests entirely on you and not somewhat on your parents, too. When most kids (and kids at heart) think about these glorious three months, a picture-perfect montage runs through their heads: playing volleyball on the beach (Top Gun-style) while music blares, sharing a refreshing drink with a friend while watching the sun set, and really, doing whatever they please with a carefree attitude that they will soon disappear forever, in not too long.
What most dreaming kids don't realize (or reminiscing adults forget), is that a kid's transition to adulthood starts long before the final bell of their Junior Year. They get their driver's license at age 16, can see R rated movies at 17, so when the time for senior year comes, they are already well versed in some of things that our younger-selves associated with being a grown-up.
The other edge of the sword with this gradual transition to maturity is that the picturesque summer cannot exist for most - if not all - kids. The summer before your last year as a kid is filled with pressure. Pressure from your parents to get a job and learn how to become financially responsible in later life. Pressure from yourself (and your parents) to do well in school and to score high on standardized tests so you can get accepted by better schools. And, the most pressure comes from colleges (and parents), who send you pound after pound of literature about how their school is more diverse, more fun to attend, and offers more opportunities than ALL the other college in the country. While sifting through the piles of mail, you realize that this whole summer thing isn't all its supposed to be.
Sure, there's plenty of fun to had during the summer, especially in Alaska where the sun's everlasting light makes you want to stay up as long as it does. But behind the façade of carefree fun, every soon-to-be senior knows that soon this will all be over, that soon they won't be kids anymore.
I WISH THE BEATLES had written a song Back in the US of A instead of Back in the USSR because now I can be singing that. These were my thoughts as I was shuffling in the customs line with 200 other Americans radiating their Red, White and Blue glow (not bleu, blanc, et rouge).
I listened to the customs agent yelling out into the crowd, "No phone use, no texting, no headphones, earplugs, iPhones, Blackberrys, iPods, i-whatevers. Your thumbs will not be used on a keypad or touchscreen while you are in this line. Welcome to the United States."
And at that last, curt, sentence, the realization washed over me with a soothing warmth I hadn't felt in too long: I was finally back home in the United States.
Not that I didn't like France, quite the contrary. France is a beautiful place full of beautiful countryside, beautiful works of art, and of course, beautiful women. They have great, fine food, and even better cheap wine (so I've heard). But, they don't have the thing that I now know is the most important thing. More important than the food, the people, or the land - it's the language. While I can butcher my way through most French novels (with the help of Le Petit Robert Dictionnaire and an enormous grant of patience), French is not English and so I'm not at ease.
Until you have lived - truly lived - in a foreign country, you will never know two things: 1) You won't know how big of a part language plays in everyday life until it's gone, and 2) You won't know how many every day things you take for granted until you're stuck without them.
When I stayed in Marsielle for ten days with a French family, I became French. I ate French, I drank French, I spoke French, I thought French, and I even dreamt French. In short - I was French. And during this Frenchification, I realized just how big of a part language plays in day-to-day life. Want to go to the beach? Go in French. Want to make a snack? Make it in French. Want to know what this weird green stuff on your plate is? Find out in French. It's amazing to me that anyone in the U.S. can live here and not speak English (unless they live incredibly sheltered lives) because at every turn they'll be confronted by something that they cannot even begin to understand.
When I originally boarded Condor Airlines' flight bound for Europe, I guess I didn't know how good I had it up to this point in my life. I live in a nice house, have my own room, eat food I like, and have a spacious bathroom at my disposal. When I flew over the Atlantic Ocean, all of that changed. I was thrust into a country with different language, food, living style, and personality. I felt like the Fresh Prince when he says "my life got flipped turned upside down." Except I wasn't a prince. It was great to see how another culture lives, but even better to realize everyday, that there's something that you would have at home, but not here. It's interesting and humbing at the same time.
This trip was one of a lifetime. As I thought to myself throughout, 'When else will I be in France?' and so I tried to sieze every opportunity I had to do something new. I cliffdove into the Med, ate all types of baffling food, and tried to get as much culture as I could. All the while, though, I was thinking about what sort of stuff I was missing back home in Alaska. I missed the mountains, the all-day sun, and even the inescapable damp that was our summer last year. Of all the new things that I learned or realized while abroad, one thing towers above all the rest: There's no place like home.
Since it's "The American Kid" week, I thought I'd take a look at the French Kid - how are they different or the same? The average French teen isn`t too different than that French kid stereotype that you`re bound to have in the back of your mind. The French youth are somewhat like if you took a stereotypical American teen (Quarterback/Cheerleader, depending on the gender) and the stereotypical European Teen (Very modern fashion sense, thinks football should actually be played with feet), and shoved them into a blender. The transatlantic smoothie-teen that comes spilling out is very close to the French teen nowadays. They share some elements with both their homeland’s supposed youth and the Land of the Free’s supposed youth. Of course, they still call soccer football and are just… weird, but they’re getting more and more like our youth with every passing day.
Take, for instance, popular trends in France. Yes, you have the things you’d expect for the French: Manpurses, Scarves, and Men’s jeans that are tighter than their female counterparts. But in the past few years, new Abercrombie-style brands have found success in Europe. They prey on the youth’s desire to emulate American teens, by making branded varsity letter jackets and creating sports teams supposedly located in America. (Have you heard of the New York Sharks Baseball Team? I haven’t, but the French sure have.) It’s kind of sad to see that bizarre, sometimes creepy, Euro style start to be diluted by American style.
The biggest difference that I have noticed while here wasn’t the style, though, it was the cigarettes. Unlike in the U.S., it’s not a faux pas to smoke in France. If you sit outside in a café consider yourself lucky if you don’t get a facefull of tobacco smoke. This continues with the kids. It’s common to see teenagers standing right in front of their school, with school officials watching nearby. And the kids smoke because it’s cool, because ever since they were born they had a smoker in the family.
On my trip, I learned that kids will be kids no matter what continent they live on. Aside from cultural differences (Fist-bumping as opposed to Cheek-kissing), at the core kids are the same. Teenage boys will talk girls, and teenage girls will talk about boys. Everywhere you go you’ll find kids who like video games, and those who like to be actually in the game. No matter if they come from France or Fairbanks, a kid is a kid.
WHEN YOU WERE 14 YEARS OLD, what if you had to take a test to determine whether you were going to high school (and maybe beyond) or to a technical school so by the time you were 17, you would be fully prepared to become a fireman, construction worker, or some other trade? If this was the case, would you be in the same line of work that you are in now? Did you have a clear idea of what you were going to do with the rest of your life when you weren't even in high school yet?
If you could answer yes to these questions you were most likely one of three things: a very precocious child, very lucky, or delusional. But, if you answered no, congratulations! You're not alone. You're like the rest of us, who don't have a clue of what we're doing in later life when were just passing through puberty.
Now, this isn't one of these bad things to be like the majority, or that conforming is bad, etc. I think it's simply human nature nowadays for people, especially in America, to not know what they are going to do for the rest of their lives. But, if you were French, you'd be practically locked into your career choice. This is because their school system is built with many different tracks for students of different intellectual potential. Of course, everyone gets the same base education. They start at L'Ecole Maternelle (Elementary School), then move on to Collège around the same age as the American system's Middle School. By now the students have had at least 8 years of formal schooling. That's enough time in a classroom to determine how smart someone is, right?
After completing Collège, the students must take a placement test to determine if they should go to a Technical Lycée (High School) and learn a trade, an Academic Lyceé to maybe go on to University, or a Military Lyceé so by the time that their former classmates are graduating they have already been fully trained to be in the Armed Forces.
Because only the most intellectually gifted kids attend an Academic Lyceé, it's much more serious than American High School (or looked upon as such). Not that they offer higher level classes than U.S. schools, but they take it much more seriously than we do in the states. For example, it's too formal for the students to wear shorts to some Lyceés. In my opinion, that's torture, especially on hot days (everyday in the south).
This school system has its obvious benefits. If you separate the kids by intelligence, you won't have a class that's weighed down by one or two kids who are simply not as quick-minded as the rest. This way the students will all be in classes with like minded kids (theoretically). But this isn't perfect because there are plenty of smart kids, who deserve to be considered smart, that don't work as hard as the rest. Because of this they don't get star-studded grades, and would be passed over in the French system. You might be thinking, that serves them right because they're not working, so they obviously don't want or deserve higher education. Well I think that any mind that's allowed to lay fallow and unused (not continuing education) that has just as much potential as the "smart kids" is terrible. If a student is like that, it's because of something that happened to them before, and that something can be reversed. If you ferry an underachiever off to where he is smarter than the rest of his peers in his sleep, that does nothing to make him want to work any harder. You need to convince him that he has potential, and that he should use it.
Another fault is the placement test. How do you measure intelligence? How do you let one number or ranking determine a child's future and life? Also, imagine the psychological toll it inflicts on a child, who learns that they are just not smart enough to go to the same school as their friends. Would they ever truly apply themselves again or just leave thinking to the "smart kids?" Lastly, if you were to look back at your middle-school self, would you trust them to seek the right future? In the U.S, more than half of college freshman change their major before graduating. And that's in College, where students are at least 4 years older than their French Collège counterparts. It's crazy, and a little short-sighted to put someone's future in the hands of a test score and their 14-year-old self.
I am currently spending 6 weeks of my summer in France with my family. I spent a few days in Paris - going to the French Open, walking everywhere, and dining out for lunch and dinner. After that, we went to Brittany for around a week, again living the tourist life. Right now I am currently in Damgan, which is still in Brittany, and there are so many palm trees here that it looks like California, although it has England's weather. What I have found remarkable at all these places is the French's, and maybe Europe's, ability to meld old traditions and culture with modern technology.
A prime example of this are their houses. It's not uncommon to see houses that were built before the United States even existed. There are many new homes, mostly because World War II’s dreadful toll on the French, but there is at least one old relic on each street. New or old, these houses have modern appliances and utilities. From the inside you would not be able to tell the difference between a house built in 1854 and one built in 1994 - they both would have fully functioning plumbing, heating, and cooking. It astounds me because there are houses that have seen the better part of three centuries, but instead of being backwards technologically, they are on the cutting edge, with kitchens that wouldn't look out of place on the set of Star Trek (per today's culinary trend).
Another example of the synthesis is the way many people start their day. They wake up, and promptly set out for the local boulangerie. These bakeries are usually family-run and the source of some of the French stereotype. On any given morning, you can see a man with a mustache, in a horizontally striped shirt, carrying a baguette. (Once in a while, you'll have the good fortune of spying a beret too!) It's so French you expect some accordion music to be his stroll's soundtrack.
But, the main point of the boulangerie is that it has existed since the town first was built, and while the technology around and inside it has changed, one thing stays the same - they still make same delicious bread and pastries that are enough to get you up in the morning. The baguette is, and has been, practically the only breakfast food for so many French people ever since before the French Revolution. It has seen its way through two world wars and countless strikes, and still it is the French's breakfast, lunch, and snack of choice.
I think that this blend of old and new transfers over into society as well. Instead of having inter-generational unrest (i.e. the 70's in the U.S.), the French embrace their traditions and pass them on to their offspring. Now, I'm not saying France is a land full of sunshine and daisies, where at every crosswalk you can find a teenager helping an old lady across the road - by no means does every old French person agree with their younger counterparts. But, with each coming year the traditions are passed down and carried on.
This old/new meshing affects me because I saw something that I could apply to my life. I'm a born and raised Alaskan and I’m always going to keep the little nuances of the Alaskan culture I know, stuff like: scoffing at the Lower 48's "mountains" (well, besides the Rockies), telling fish stories that you can’t find anywhere else in the world, and practically melting in all weather warmer than 70°. Just as the French keep their baguettes and boulangeries, I'll keep my fish and thick-blood, no matter how far I get from home or how much things change over time.
Kids These Days! is pleased to introduce the newest addition to our line-up of blogging stars. Today meet Patrick Walgren. He's about to be a senior in high school and he'll take us with him on that exciting ride starting this summer. Below we asked him to write a little intro about himself. Welcome, Patrick!
I am currently writing this while sitting on a beach in Damgan, France, where I'll be spending 6 weeks of my summer practicing my international suave. At home in Anchorage, I am captain of the Service High Tennis Team, as well one of the goalies for the Hockey Team. Also, I am in National Honor Society and an avid Frolfer (that’s Frisbee + golf) and Volleyballer.
I want to write this blog because I think I have a unique view on life as an Alaskan teenager, as well as a partially accurate view of the world. I think Senior year in high school is important because it is when most people grow up into fully-fledged adults (getting jobs, moving out, etc.) and it is when they start to think like adults as well. Right now, I'm on the edge of getting to college and then... the rest of my life.