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

“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.”

This article is part of COVID Conversations, a series of short features based on interviews with members of our community during the coronavirus pandemic in Western North Carolina. If you or someone you know has a unique story you think should be featured in a future issue of Xpress, please let us know at


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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