French and American high school students celebrated Bastille Day, a national French holiday to commemorate the country's liberation and independence, Tuesday evening.
But, instead of acknowledging French cultural traditions, the students feasted on famous Lexington dishes, because the French students were here learning about American culture.
Through the Lexington Sister Cities Commission exchange program, 14 Fayette County high school students were paired with 14 students from Deauville, France, for three weeks of immersive language and cultural learning in each country.
The Lexington students have already spent time in France so now they are hosting their French counterparts.
The Sister Cities organization provides a host family and activities for the students, said Betty Mills, chair of the Lexington-Deauville Sister Cities Committee. It also matches students based on gender, age and similar interests.
A native of France, Aurore Dary participated in the high school exchange program seven years ago and remains friends with a Lexington student. Last year Dary studied two semesters at the University of Kentucky through another Sister Cities exchange program. Her Lexington host family from seven years ago helped her move into her dorm and adjust to living in America.
Dary now serves as a Sister Cities intern in Lexington in the multicultural office of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government.
Although the Sister Cities exchange serves primarily as a language-learning program, the lasting friendships with those from a foreign country and culture are an added benefit of the experience, Mills said.
Sarah Bowen, who'll be a senior at Lafayette High School this fall, studied French three years before the exchange, one more than the requirement to apply. She found the trip to France greatly improved her comprehension and fluency of French, and she learned many colloquialisms.
"I learned new words and vocab," she said. "After a while, I'd start thinking in French, too."
Bowen's favorite experiences abroad included visiting Paris, which she perceived as just as magical as the photos in her textbooks, and visiting the D-day beach in Normandy where she placed flowers on the graves of American soldiers.
"It was really eye-opening to see all the graves lined up like that and to see that many people died," she said.
The exchange experience broadens the Lexington students' horizons and creates a worldly appreciation of French culture as well as their own culture, said Mills.
"They come back appreciative of the U.S. and appreciative of what they have," she said.
Grayson Ward, a 2015 graduate of Lafayette High School who went on the exchange, said he noticed that the French take their time and enjoy daily life, while Americans tend to rush through each day without finding time for a sit-down meal with family, a priority in France, he said.
The program provides a great way to promote the city of Lexington on an international level, said Sarah Martin, assistant director of Sister Cities. The program was initially developed to advance the ideal of world peace. President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched the concept for a massive exchange between Americans and people of foreign countries in 1956.
Among the first to respond, Lexington launched its partnership with Deauville in 1957, and since the program's revision in 1976 paired more than 300 high school students from the two cities for French-American exchanges.
In addition to exchanges in France, Sister Cities also partners with cities in England, Ireland and Japan.
Barton Lynch, who'll be a senior at Transylvania University, participated in two internship exchanges with Sister Cities after enjoying the high school program. Lynch gave tours in French at William the Conqueror's Falaise Castle in Calvados, Normandy, last summer and now he works in Lexington to facilitate activities for the high school French exchange students.
Lynch entered the high school exchange with only two years of French language study and as the self-proclaimed worst in his class. However, he found the experience not only improved his French, but also inspired him to further his learning of the language and culture.
"It changed the entire direction of my life," he said. "It's such a strong program I'm thankful I've been able to take advantage of."