My hand raised straight into the air without the slightest hesitation. To my 16 year-old brain, “a year abroad” in France would be just like sleep-away summer camp, with plenty of new people to get to know and unknown-yet-exciting experiences to discover.
Mrs. E., a petite, round French woman in her 50’s had just announced to my high school French II class that the school’s successful year-abroad program would be reinstated the following year, and upcoming juniors, like me, were invited to join the program traditionally reserved for sophomores. A pose of boys from my class also pushed their hands into the air, eager for a year of respite from the very strict atmosphere at our private prep school.
Six months later, there we were at the airport with five sophomore girls, all ten of us waving goodbye to our families, setting off on what would be one of the most transformative experiences of our lives.
A born adventurer, I was determined to learn the French language and culture, but summer camp, France was not. The French host family I stayed with offered a surprisingly tepid welcome, resulting in a rather lonely home-life. Having only finished French II, I could barely discuss the weather, let alone any other topic, which made making friends nearly impossible. My “silent period” of language learning lasted three months, as I sat bewildered among my peers at school listening intently, yet unable to understand the fast-paced conversations around me. Incapable of communicating with anyone, I turned inward, shedding my extroverted, exuberant disposition for an introspective one. Thus I became a prolific letter writer, maintaining dozens of English-speaking pen pals back in the US, and tracking our progress on a chart so I knew whose turn it was to write next.
In spite of these challenges, and with a determined spirit and an anthropological mind, I absorbed and learned as much as I could about the French people and their mores. I took hundreds of photos with my Pentax k1000, drew the nearby mountains, and wrote and wrote. Jewel’s very depressing album, Sprit, played on repeat in my bedroom: her lyrics resonated intensely with my emotions at the time. “You realize your standard of living somehow got stuck on survive… When you’re standing in deep water, you’re bailing yourself out with a straw […] Well it’s these little times, it’s helpful to remind, it’s nothing without love…” Hearing her words, I somehow knew I could persevere.
At school I eventually became friends with a girl named Caroline who had studied in the US, a few hippie kids in my class, and the Arab boys who rode the same bus to school. Those friendships buoyed me through the winter as I looked forward to seeing them every school day. Still quite language deficient and lonely at home, I stayed relatively quiet and introspective. On the weekends I focused my energy on grasping the French cultural patterns, and felt grateful to my host family for bringing me along on their trips to visit historic villages and to shop at local flea markets. I delighted in observing the people around me and letting the beauty of the southern French architecture wash over me.
Due to an unforeseeable problem, I was unable to live with my host family for the last three months of my year in France, and it looked like I would need to return home early, as no other families were prepared to host me. There were many trans-Atlantic phone calls and meetings between my parents and the staff at my school in the US. It was a very tenuous time for me, and I felt very anxious about what my future would be. I wanted very much to finish the year and have the full experience I had signed up for, but no solution seemed to fit. My friends at school were very supportive, and in the end Caroline’s family, who had previously hosted an Australian exchange student, agreed to adopt me.
And adopt me they did!
Within a short time with this new family, I felt like I was “home.” Caroline’s two younger brothers welcomed me into the fold, and before I knew it I was laughing to Alexandre’s antics and conspiring with Nicolas about who-knows-what. My new French parents were filled with warmth and I settled in easily with the five of them. The following three months were filled with laughter and a restorative sense of family that had been thus far lacking during my time abroad.
My fanatical letter writing came to a screeching halt, as I became less withdrawn and started to engage fully with the people around me. Although I remained relatively quiet, my old self started to reveal itself again, and I often felt a pure sense of joy.It was a wonderful period of my life, and I have fond memories of my French father explaining to me that I lived at “the most beautiful house” with “the most beautiful garden” in “the most beautiful country.” It didn’t seem far from the truth, as rolling hills of perfectly manicured grape vines, occasionally dotted with lovingly protected and timeworn farms, surrounded our typically provincial farmhouse. The landscapes were nothing short of gorgeous!
I returned to the United States at the end of the year abroad with extraordinary memories of the people and places of France. I had visited chateaus and cathedrals, and walked the streets of Paris, Lyon, Nice, Marseille, Avignon and countless tiny towns and villages. I had tasted more cheeses than I thought could possibly exist, and I could speak French well, though with terrible grammar and the sometimes-vulgar vocabulary typical of high school students.
I had a sense that I now knew more about the world than both of my parents, and I firmly believed that the young country I had been born in had something to learn from the enlightened and mature French culture. I had mixed feelings about my own heritage and the life I lived in the United States, and I was deeply perplexed by my own sense of identity. I was in love with certain French ways of living, yet I tried unremittingly to fit myself back into the American mold. In so rejecting the Frenchness I had absorbed, I seemed to no longer belong anywhere.
My parents and American friends welcomed me back to the United States, though the extroverted girl they had known had been replaced by a reserved and introspective young woman, challenged by her own sense of self. We each did our best to get to know each other again, to varying degrees of success. As much as we felt happy to be together again, we all silently wished that our relationships could be as easy as they had been before I had taken this European voyage.
The readjustment period was long and arduous, and it took me many years – and another year in France – to begin to sort out my complicated feelings about the two countries and the two cultures. Looking back, I still wish my trip and subsequent reentry had gone more smoothly; certainly wishing I had never lost that exuberant spirit and extroverted nature I appreciate about myself. But I regret nothing: that jovial temperament eventually returned, and through the years I have slowly come to accept that my identity includes a certain Frenchness that will never disappear, regardless of how much Americanness I try to espouse. It is only now, at the precipice of a permanent life in France, that I can see this so clearly, and feel ready to claim that Frenchness as my own.
As it has been in the past, moving to France will change me. It will not be easy for my friendships or my relationships with my family, and there will be daunting challenges to face. This time, however, I will arrive with a stable sense of self, and a resourcefulness that will enable me to both make new friends, and to maintain fluid connections with those far away. With a calm peace of mind, I know my immanent departure to France is absolutely the best next step for this young American woman.