People in France often switched to English when they realized a metro-east school group was American, but Erik McMillan wouldn't have it.
The 16-year-old O'Fallon Township High School student just kept speaking in French, forcing them to switch back. He didn't want to lose an opportunity for practice.
"When we went to Trocadero (a section of Paris near the Eiffel Tower), there were a bunch of vendors bothering us, trying to sell us stuff," he said. "And I kept telling them in French, 'Hey, we don't have any money. Leave us alone.'"
Erik is one of nine students from O'Fallon and Lebanon who traveled to France and Spain this summer, along with seven chaperones and friends.
The trip was organized by Ann Pilackas, French and Spanish teacher at OTHS. She has been taking students to Europe every two years since 2002, following in the footsteps of her predecessor, Cheryl Matzker.
"It exposes students to a culture that they're learning about," said Ann, 49, of Lebanon. "It's not so much about practicing the language, because they're with all their friends. It's more to broaden their horizons."
But Ann applauds students such as Erik, who has taken three years of French and can carry on a conversation (sort of) in the language.
O'Fallon student Emma McClure has French I and II under her belt. On the trip, she could order food at restaurants and ask basic questions.
"Every time you order something, the phrase that you use is, 'Je voudrais ...' and that means 'I would like ...'" said Emma, 17. "And then 'Bonjour' is 'Hello.'
"And then there's 'Merci,' which is 'Thank you.' 'Yes' and 'No" are 'Oui' and 'Non.' And I learned to say, 'I don't speak a lot of French.' That's 'Je ne parle pas beaucoup de Francais.'"
Students found some Parisians to be unfriendly, bordering on rude, but they attributed it to cultural differences.
Ann thinks the French are sometimes irritated by 'ugly Americans,' those who arrogantly expect them to speak English.
"My students know that they should at least try to say 'Hello' in French," she said. "If you just make a small effort, you get a much better reception."
The metro-east group left June 25 and returned July 3, spending three nights in Paris, one night in Nimes, a city in southern France; and three nights in Barcelona, Spain.
They traveled by bus and train, with help from a French tour guide.
"I was surprised at how similar (France was to the United States), just walking down the street," Emma said.
She noticed that many American chains have made their way to Europe, including Starbucks, McDonald's, H&M, The Gap and Claire's. People wear the same fashions and use the same electronic devices.
Students were impressed by France's historic architecture but surprised by the tiny rooms in a nice Paris hotel.
"At the foot of the bed, there was about two feet of walking space," Emma said. "The shower didn't have a door on it. Well, it was like half a door. And the toilets were smaller."
All the metro-east travelers paid their own way for transportation, lodging, sightseeing and other activities, which cost $4,000.
The trip has become a family affair for the Cornells of Lebanon. Olivia went in 2006, followed by sisters Daisy in 2012 and Melody this year.
"It definitely made me want to move out of my small town for college," said Daisy, 18, a recent Lebanon High School graduate. "And it kind of opened the idea of living in a foreign county. It could be a reality."
Daisy, who took four years of Spanish in high school, is heading to University of Illinois at Chicago this fall.
Ann plans to lead her next European adventure in 2016. In the meantime, she encourages all high school students to take a foreign language.
"Students who take foreign languages score higher on their ACTs," she said. "If they take all four years in high school, many universities exempt them from foreign languages, and sometimes they can get college credit.
"It looks good on a resume if you can speak a foreign language, and it improves your English."