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The nation of France has a lot to offer visitors: one of the finest historical traditions in Europe, amazing architecture, the majesty of the Louvre, and the unparalleled beauty of the countryside. But Somerset’s own Tiffany Bourne wouldn’t be the first to come away with one vivid impression of the Realm of the Franks:

“The French love to eat!”

Pork and apples in Camembert cheese and cream sauce. French bread. Crème brûlée. Puff pastry with cheese and pâté. The assortment of delectables recalled by Bourne is enough to make one’s mouth water simply reading the words on a page.

“Every day, we enjoyed at least two-hour, four-course lunches and dinners,” said Bourne. “I feel like we were always eating.”

Of course, the world-class cuisine of a country known for its influence on countless chefs isn’t the only thing on which Bourne was able to feast. The Community Development Director for Pulaski County government received plenty of food for thought in her ongoing quest for ways to make her old Kentucky home a better place in which to live and raise a family.

Bourne, administrative assistant to Pulaski’s judge-executive Barty Bullock, was afforded the opportunity to travel to France for 28 days, leaving at the end of May and arriving back in the U.S. late last week.

The trip was provided through a Rotary International program called Group Study Exchange, which Bourne called “a unique cultural and vocational exchange opportunity for businesspeople and professionals between the ages of 25-40 who are in the early stages of their careers.” She was  sponsored by the local Rotary Clubs and joined three other non-Rotarian up-and-comers to live in five different cities in the Normandy region of France.

“Our schedule was very structured, for the most part starting around 8 a.m. and ending close to midnight,” said Bourne. “We gave countless presentations about our regions and state, met with people in our comparable professions, developed personal and professional (connections) and visited industry, small businesses, tourism, schools, museums, historical sites — and of course enjoyed plenty of French cuisine.”

Though Bourne ended up visiting about 15 different cities in all, the basic plan was to spend a week with each sponsoring local Rotary Club in the cities of Le Havre, Cherbourg, Argentan, Deauville and Arvanches. One day a week, she would drop in on individuals in professions comparable to her own.

“I visited and sometimes even lived with the mayor of the city we were in,” said Bourne. “I met with their version of a community development director and spent days visiting their various road, parks, public facilities and beautification projects.”

Among the most interesting visits, she noted, were a nuclear power facility — France is among the most nuclear-reliant nations on the planet —  the Camembert cheese factories and a bell foundry, where the resounding ringers are crafted.

Bourne’s mission, in general, is to seek out new and innovative ways to help better her own community. She found some inspiration in France, to be sure — sometimes in unlikely places.

“They take a lot of pride in their parks and their history,” said Bourne of the French. “I looked at cost-saving measures that we could potentially do with our own parks. For instance, the road departments there made their own garbage cans and they’re beautiful. Instead of buying expensive metal ones, they go back to basics, build wood ones from two-by-fours, put metal rings around them, and stain the wood themselves. Then they put the can down in it.”

Bourne may have been impressed with the way the park-going French dispose of their trash, but she was even more affected by some of the landmarks she saw and meaningful places she visited. Case in point: The Normandy American Cemetery, where nearly 10,000 U.S. soldiers who fought and died in that area during World War II are laid to rest.

“From the moment we walked into the museum, something came over me that was a mix of humbleness, sorrow and pride,” she said. “We visited the cemetery a few days after (the yearly June 6 anniversary of) D-Day and it was so peaceful, beautiful and serene: It was hard to believe that such a tragedy happened there 67 years ago.”

Bourne was able to show her respect by placing a bouquet of flowers and an American flag on a  soldier’s grave. She found one from Kentucky, and is currently in the process of tracking down the family members of that brave warrior — Elmer H. Bracken of Warren County — to send them the pictures she took.

“I am sure that most family members will never have the chance to visit their loved ones in Normandy,” she said, “but I can tell you that (the cemetery) is very well cared-for and is something we can all be very proud of.”

Recreation was mostly eating, walking on the beach and a little shopping, she said, with sightseeing at the famed Mont St.-Michel island community, the World War II memorial at the Omaha and Utah beaches, and Normandy’s breathtaking coastline.

Bourne said that being a newlywed, it was difficult to leave her husband Adam for such a long period of time, as well as her other family members and friends. Occasionally, even the exquisite French food got to be a bit much — “For the most part it was wonderful, but there were a couple of days that I just wanted a bowl of Lucky Charms, a piece of pizza or a burrito,” she said — but she set her focus on the experience itself and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity afforded her.

“I kept reminding myself that I was in France — home would be there when I got back,” she said. “I also had my work projects and the upcoming Master Musicians Festival (for which Bourne is the president) in the back of my mind as well, but was able to keep in touch and take care of business through e-mail and Facebook.” 

There was some culture shock, to be sure. Among the impressions that Bourne took away is that the French have “a more relaxed attitude about bacteria prevention. For example, in a lot of the food factories and even hospitals, the staff were not wearing gloves.

“On the other hand, they are a lot less wasteful and their eating habits are better than ours,” she continued. “I never saw one to-go cup or box the whole time I was there, I never saw a plate that wasn’t finished completely and I think I went through a processed food detox while I was there.”

And then there were the unisex public bathrooms, another quirk Bourne had a hard time getting used to, providing a few red-faced moments for her when she’d find herself sharing a sink with a male — practically unheard of in the U.S. outside of certain nightclubs and old “Ally McBeal” reruns.

Still, “I was surprised about how welcoming and nice everyone was,” she said. “You hear that the French don’t like Americans, but I tell you that the Normans love Americans and were perfect hosts. They actually told me that they are very aware that their younger generations are starting to get a reputation of not appreciating Americans like the older generations did after World War II, but there has recently been an initiative to education the children about what the Allies did for France.”

Bourne has been to Europe once before, when she was 15 on a high school trip, but didn’t remember much about it; this time, she took away many more memories — and a new vision about her role in both the local community and the world itself.

“I definitely feel that I accomplished the purpose of the exchange (trip),” said Bourne. “I feel like I understand the world more and I have brought back lots of inspiration to utilize in my own profession.”

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