International exchange group visits Asheville on the cusp of COVID-19 

IN THE NICK OF TIME: Elise Guillemet spent nearly a year organizing her class's trip from Saumur, France, to Asheville. The group arrived in mid-February, just before COVID-19 restrictions began. Photo courtesy of Guillemet

In February, Elise Guillemet left Saumur, France, to visit Asheville as part of an exchange program co-organized by Asheville Sister Cities. She was joined by a colleague as well as 34 high school students from Lycée Duplessis Mornay. Local families hosted the visitors during their two-week stay; meanwhile, Franklin School of Innovation and a handful of other educational institutions welcomed the visitors to their classrooms.

Along with daily school courses, the group toured UNC Asheville, Biltmore Estate, French Broad Chocolate Factory and the Folk Art Center. (For more on the students’ perspectives about the recent trip, visit avl.mx/7bt.)

“Asheville was the perfect opposite of the USA cliché,” says Guillemet. Many of her fellow French citizens, she notes, do not care for President Donald Trump but understand that his words and actions do not reflect the United States as a whole. “We all felt really grateful to visit such a friendly and progressive community.”

Upon their return home, Guillemet and her pupils prepared for an April reunion, when 13 students from Franklin School of Innovation were scheduled to arrive in Saumur. COVID-19, however, placed those plans on hold indefinitely.

During France’s nationwide lockdown, which began in mid-March, “We were not allowed to leave our homes except for one hour per day,” Guillemet says. Those who disobeyed, she continues, received fines of 135 euros (roughly $151). Restrictions, she notes, ended in May.

“I think we’re famous for protesting,” she says of her fellow French citizens. “But strangely enough, we did not protest [the COVID-19 restrictions] much.”

However, opposition did break out in France following the May 25 death of George Floyd, an African American man killed by white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

“We currently see many debates in the news about the French police, about racial profiling and our judicial system’s [handling of] police officers’ ‘blunders,’” Guillemet writes Xpress in an email follow-up.

Guillemet continues that she was not surprised to learn about similar conversations and protests in Asheville. “Your community had really made an impression on us,” she writes. “People really seemed tolerant, welcoming and open-minded. I’m sure they felt the need to express themselves and I admire their support.”

What did surprise Guillemet, however, was news of the violence and destruction carried out by some protesters as well as members of the Asheville Police Department. “It is probably a sign that everyone is on edge,” she writes. “It makes me feel like what we had when we visited was precious and that even if we visited last February only, it seems like a long time ago — probably because of the pandemic and all the unfortunate consequences that have ensued, including this outrageous murder on top of everything else.”

SHARE

Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.