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Trip to France proves eye-opening for Rankin

Except for a brief trip to Mexico, Annie Rankin hadn’t traveled much in her 23 years.

That changed when for four weeks beginning in mid-April she took part in a Rotary Group Study Exchange program. A team from District 6880, which includes the Demopolis club, exchanged places with a team from France as each visited the other’s home.

The trip for Rankin didn’t have an auspicious start. First, she wasn’t even sure she would be able to go when her family’s business, the dairy Cedarcrest Farms, came up shorthanded. She was needed to be in the lot working the cows since there was no one else. At the last minute, a hand was hired who could do the work.

Then the team’s leader had to back out, and the leader who went with last year’s group to Brazil, David Spivey, was drafted to take his place.

Because of the last-minute change, the team didn’t have a chance to meet several times before they left for instruction in customs and language. They were told to get language tapes and work on their own.

The four members plus the team leader finally met two days before they left for a cram course, but all of them already tired before they started.

The result was a team ill-prepared for France, but the experience of touring the area, living in homes and having close contact with the French citizens and exchanging ideas proved eye-opening to Rankin.

She first heard about the opportunity for the trip from Demopolis Rotarian Bill Mackey, who 10 years ago took part in an exchange program to India. A graduate of Marion Military Academy, Rankin holds a degree in Agricultural Economics from Auburn University with a specialty in rural sociology and a concentration in Spanish.

The knowledge of Spanish came in handy to help her read French, even if she could not speak or understand it well.

Each of the team members had to prepare a three-minute speech to present to the Rotary Clubs they visited. The speeches included information about themselves and their jobs.

Rankin called on retired Demopolis High School French teacher Beverly Youngblood to help her translate the speech, including looking up special words for the dairy industry.

In the end, however, Rankin didn’t talk very much,

Throughout her four-week visit, Rankin came to understand that good and bad people are everywhere, but the people she stayed with were as gracious as any back home.

That didn’t mean the French weren’t forthcoming about their opinions of the United States.

In France, people are much more conscious about conservation. They turn off lights when they leave the room even if they will return in just a few minutes. None drive large cars. They even commented on how big they thought her small traveling clock was.

Their comments even extended to the size of the members in the American team. They called Rankin "pudgy."

While her hosts commented on their concern about America’s foreign and domestic policies, they had their own political worries. While she was there, France held an election to choose its prime minister between incumbent Jacque Chirac and the rabid conservative Jean-Marie Le Pen. "They were very embarrassed about Le Pen" and kept apologizing to the team.

Throughout her travels, Rankin enjoyed the beautiful scenery. Parts, she said, reminded her of home. She would think to herself, "’This looks just like Alabama,’ and then I would see a castle in the distance."

Rankin had the chance to visit several French dairies, most of which had their own small cheese plants on the side. Since Cedarcrest Farms has its own cheese plant, Rankin was interested in seeing how the French ran their businesses.

Large farms in the area she visited had some 60 cows. When they heard her farm ran 1,100 cows, their first question was how Cedarcrest handled waste disposal.

A visit to France wouldn’t be complete without tours of wineries, and the team went to several where they learned how to taste wine. Wine also was served at every lunch and dinner, and meals often lasted three hours.

Rankin said the only problem with the whirlwind visit is that there was no free time to regroup and relax. Right on cue, culture shock hit about four days into the trip.

But she doesn’t regret the experience. "There’s no way I could have seen as much as we did" or met the "real" people of France any other way. She stayed in 11 homes in four weeks and got a "diverse picture of the culture."

Some of her visit to France is following her back home. The daughter of one of her host families, Delphin Nicolet, will be coming to work for Rankin for three weeks in August. A former exchange student to the United States, Nicolet is returning in part to visit former classmates.