"I always compare France to America. [America] is just bigger, bigger space," says foreign exchange student Iréne Collignon, 16, from Paris who is living with the Cooper family of Clifton for 2 1/2 weeks this summer.
Iréne traveled here with 20 other high school-aged students from France — all of whom are staying in the Northern Virginia area, including her 17-year-old brother, Edouard.
"I think that in America they are very open. They go to see their neighbors. In France it is more closed. The relationship is more than in France," said Iréne.
Already she's toured Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Aberchrombie & Fitch and King's Dominion.
"Philadelphia is just like London. The little houses, with little porches," said Iréne. On a normal day though Iréne simply does what the family is doing. In the mornings she goes with Sidney to theater arts camp at Liberty Middle School.
"Right now we are planning a two-minute talent show and running auditions," said Sidney." Iréne went to her first swim meet and the movie "Dodgeball." "She had a little trouble understanding Ben Stiller," said Kim Cooper, 37, a mother of three girls — Phoebe, 6, Dylan, 10 and Sidney, 15.
The sheer size of an American cineplex impressed Iréne greatly as did the size of the rest of America. "When I came everything was very big. The houses in France, we do not have houses this big," said Iréne, referring to the Coopers' 1/3-acre plot in Clifton.
"IT'S FUN to experience things with Iréne for her first time, but it's our everyday," said host Kim Cooper, an artist who designs surface patterns.
Husband Kirk Cooper, 43, says inviting Iréne to live with the family was a great idea. "I was an exchange student [in France] when I was younger," said Kirk Cooper, who works for Verizon. "It's actually more fun to show Iréne how we live here."
Dylan and Kim Cooper saw a letter to the editor in Centre View about the World Exchange Program needing host families for French high school students.
"It was a family idea," said Sidney," though Dylan found out about it."
Being away from home is not a new experience for Iréne. Last year she spent time in London working on her English, but she says that America is very different. "I think when I went to England it was just to improve my English. But here it was so different from in France that it is a different experience," she said.
"It's funny to go to America because in France, America is like a dream," said Iréne as the family sat around the dinner table.
The style of eating is another difference that Iréne notices. "We just cook the meal from raw ingredients. Here it is sandwiches and hot dogs. We eat more vegetables," she said as a pizza was brought in by Kirk Cooper, "Not so much pizza."
The Coopers say the World Exchange Program was well organized. "Her interests are paired up with the family," said Kim Cooper.
"I like art and the mother is an artist. I'm really happy to be with the family," said Iréne.
"We are always laughing at some difference or something," Kim Cooper said. "We are planning for both daughters, Sidney and Dylan, to go and stay with Iréne next year."
So what has impressed Iréne the most? Smoothies, she says: "If there is something in America I love, I love the smoothies."