I am currently writing to you from my bed in Williams hall, back at Holy Cross to spend the summer and I’m warning you from the beginning, this is a long post!
Though it has been almost a month since I said goodbye to the land of croissants and baguettes (tearing up) at Charles de Gaulle airport, the fact that my year abroad has officially come to a close seems yet to have fully dawned upon me. Over these last few weeks I’ve been relishing the simple pleasures that I’d missed during my time in France, not the least among these being Dunkin Donuts coffee (I’ve been averaging three a day…). The time I’ve been able to spend seeing my family and catching up with friends has also been invaluable and it felt surprisingly good to pull into the driveway in little West Hartford after such a whirlwind of a year (and–in some ways–even better to pull into the gates lining College Hill!).
I’m incredibly happy to be back on campus–summer is an idyllic season at Holy Cross and I truly have a newfound appreciation for having so many of my friends here with me, or at least not very far away!
However, I thought I’d share with you what I’m slowly beginning to realize as I readjust to life back in Worcester and in West Hartford. Essentially, it can be boiled down to one sentence. Four words, even.
Ce n’est qu’une expérience.
What I’ve learned is that my year abroad was nothing but an experience. It is something that had been repeated to me countless times–I’ve heard it while slicing into the pungent selection of cheeses offered by my host parents after every meal, and I’ve heard it from my own parents as they sipped their coffee and I watched them through a grainy image on my computer screen.
An experience, by definition, is not simply temporal. Though it does have a beginning and an end, an experience requires a growth of sorts. Often, a true experience is a catalyst for profound change.
Were you to ask my 16 year old self if he could ever envision leaving to spend a year in France by himself, I’m fairly certain he would have told you that he was far too busy worrying about his driver’s test and AP history exam to be concerned by such nonsense. Frankly, were you to ask my 19 year old self this same question, I doubt his answers would be more compelling. The truth is, I had no way of preparing myself for what a year alone in Dijon would be like. I was petrified before leaving, more so than I ever was before. Yet I was also exhilarated, ready to spread my wings and learn what was waiting for me in this foreign country that I had for so long dreamed of visiting.
Often, my expectations were disappointed. Life was hard, and adjusting to a new culture and a new language was more difficult than my Rick Steves guidebooks had suggested. I felt myself slowly sliding into a routine of counting down days and weeks, as if each moment were a challenge to be overcome. My agenda was marked with every holiday and birthday, giving me some important landmarks to which I could hold steady while navigating a school year vastly different to any that I had known before.
Talking to my friends back home or studying abroad elsewhere, I felt like I was doing something wrong and that I must be the reason for my own unhappiness. It seemed to me like everyone else was having a wonderful time without difficulties while I was floundering–unfortunately, this confusion quickly turned to jealousy.
Given the chance, I wish I could go back to October and tell myself that whether it be during my year abroad, my time at Holy Cross or in any other sphere, life is not a competition. It is not about who is winning and who is losing, though many often qualify their success by those who are “below” them. Everyone has a unique experience that is completely individual and filled with moments of strife and adversity despite the persona that they may project. In the same vein, it is useless to try to compare personal experiences–each person is unique and it is important to understand what their perspective is before dismissing them as impossible to understand. This has never been more evident to me than during my year in France.
On a side note, the artificiality of social media doesn’t help in deciphering the difficulties of an individual’s experience, but rather encourages us to make known the “highlight reel” of our lives. You will never see a picture on Instagram of a bleak and dreary campus with a caption explaining how horrible you felt that day. A perfectly staged latte or an over filtered landscape with a witty caption makes for a much more appealing picture. Everybody’s Instagram account makes their lives look awesome.
Coming back to my point, this year was not about showing anyone that I was capable to live alone in France for a year, nor was it about putting down others who have had experiences different than my own. This yearlong experience provided the opportunity for a lifelong lesson, and I recognize now things which would never have been apparent to me before leaving my closely knit community that I’ve fostered here in the US. This critical distance gave way to reflection, which eventually gave way to understanding. I am truly blessed to have so many people that made it so difficult to leave for a year. Yet,I am extremely grateful for the experience that was this past year in France–I truly do not believe I would be the same had I not taken this opportunity to explore something completely different. Not to mention, I was able to enjoy every gastronomic pleasure France has to offer (there are a lot, which is why I signed up for couch to 5k today…). Despite the fact that I cannot bring back some of that pungent cheese which I mentioned earlier (almost criminal that the TSA blocks French cheese from entering the country), I hope that I can bring some newfound perspective back to the Hill for my senior year–it’s shaping up to be the best yet!
For the last time,