At work this week, we were asked to describe ourselves using one word. This word could be anything that defines or describes us, something that explains who you are, how you are, what you value.
After careful deliberation, I threw out the losers like, clever, travel, artsy and settled on La France. (yes, technically, two words – I could have also chosen rule breaker defiant).
To explain why France is what defines me is difficult, complicated…but easy too. I’d taken French since middle school and had always been in love with France. I don’t ever remember deciding to study abroad. It was not a big decision in my life. I didn’t weigh the pros and cons. I didn’t wonder how I would get along overseas. I didn’t even think about where I would sleep, where I would study, how I would eat, how I would take out the trash….(most people probably don’t think about that one either – keep reading).
So, when I started my junior year at Central Michigan University, I went to the Study Abroad fair, picked up an application, was accepted a few weeks later and in February, I was at Detroit Metro Airport ready to fly to Paris. Alone.
It dawned on me at the airport that I was going abroad for five months. Alone. Holy Crap!
I was numb. My chin quivered, as it always does when I hold back tears. As I remember it now, it was foggy, hazy, blurry. I said goodbye to my parents and went through security in an almost dreamlike trance.
My first few weeks in Angers, ninety minutes southwest of Paris, were the hardest days of my life. My host family was nice but I was a business transaction; a tenant in one room of their home.
I was very shy. I walked on eggshells around the house. I didn’t eat meals with the family, I didn’t ask for anything. I didn’t understand anything. I was so homesick – even writing about it now, I remember the weight of that unbearable feeling – so far from anything familiar.
I cried myself to sleep every night for the first weeks. I would sneak to the kitchen after everyone was asleep and drink water out of the faucet in the tiny kitchen. I ate food out of the vending machines at school or would buy food from the grocery store and hide it in my room. Then I would take the trash with me to school and throw it away in the bathroom because I didn’t know where to put it at the house. It sounds silly now, but I was painfully shy and every moment felt awkward and uncomfortable.
After four weeks, I planned a visit to my friend who was studying in another town in France. We decided to meet in Lyon. I got on the train, by myself. I got to Lyon, alone. I had to ask where the metro was to get to the hotel. I had to ask someone where to buy a metro ticket. I had to ask directions to the hotel. I had to.
When I saw the hotel sign, I dropped my bag in the street and I cried. But these tears were different. I did it. A seemingly small and insignificant event: I made it from Angers to the train station, to the metro, to the hotel. I accomplished something. I did it. What else could I do, I wondered.
This was the turning point in my experience. After a weekend with a good friend who encouraged me to speak French without thinking too much, I was refreshed. She built me up and boosted my confidence. I felt more self-assured. I had a positive experience behind me that would propel me until the next one. And it did. I started to be a bit more outgoing; I started eating some meals with my host family, I forced myself to watch TV with them and I finally asked what to do with my trash.