Four weeks ago today, I was walking onto a plane in the United States to walk off at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, France, a world both literally and figuratively foreign. I remember looking out the window during the flight and realizing in that moment, as I looked down at all the lights of the city, that I was inevitably going to land, walk off this plane, and become a part of those lights. I was going to be one speck among the French millions making up this picture that other passengers would look down and see. It would be a lie for me to say that, upon this realization, I was unfazed. In fact, I’m pretty sure my heart skipped more than one beat as we began the 184 mile per hour descent into the next fifty-seven days of my future. For my whole life I longed to travel, experience, and adventure, but now that it was an irreversible reality, I knew what everyone meant when they asked, “Are you scared?”No matter how you put it - 2 months, eight weeks or fifty-seven days - it all seemed too big to be real.
I remember waking around 1 pm, after landing a mere five hours earlier at 6 am, and staring at the interior of my white door in slight disbelief that I would open it and be in France. How was I, not even a day before, in my house all the way across the Atlantic Ocean? While the exhaustion from thirteen hours of travel made the day before an indistinct blur, one thing was clear: opening my bedroom door meant taking the leap into the absolute unknown. I know that sounds dramatic, but I realized that I had little to no idea what I would encounter when I opened that door and let the next eight weeks come flying in. Nevertheless, I gathered up the courage, grabbed the handle and, with Chariots of Fire playing heroically in my head, I opened the door . . . and walked right into my French family speaking rapid French. *Insert record scratch sound here* as I realized, “We aren’t in French IV anymore, Toto.”
Since it was fall break for St. Dominique, my French family and I spent the first two weeks sightseeing. I loved the French people, the food and the whole historical atmosphere. I always looked forward to our nightly, post-adventure stop at the bakery to pick up bread and seeing it steam as it contacted the autumn air as we ripped off pieces for the pre-dinner French “gouter”, a small snack eaten an hour or two before dinner. I loved exploring everyday and adding more new words and phrases to my conversation toolbox as my French began to rapidly progress. I could talk and understand more and faster; that feeling of success was unparalleled.
But all good things must come to an end, and it was time for school. Having attended five schools in sixteen years, I thought I was pretty good at being ‘the new kid,’ but this whole foreign language thing made the first day harder than I thought. People and rapid French slang were bouncing off the walls as I flew through the hallways from class to class. Despite every molecule within me screaming “RUN AND HIDE”, I stood my ground. I spoke and interacted, and by the end of the 9-hour school day, with my brain absolutely fried but moving about a million miles per hour, I flopped down on the couch like a marathon runner: proud but exhausted. Each day was full of new opportunities in different classes, meeting new people, trying new things. What used to be blank faces have lit up in recognition with smiles and waves from my classmates as I descend the stairs and everytime I walked into sixth grade to help with their English classes, the room’s filling with excited chatter and shouts of my name instantly puts a smile on my face. When the Australian exchange students arrived and were asking us questions and advice, I realized that the newness had become normal, and I wasn’t lost anymore.
I look at the calendar hanging on the refrigerator and realize that today I am exactly halfway through this exchange, and it has been one of the richest, most fun and adventurous times of my life, not in spite of the challenges, but because of them and the lessons they have taught me which, so far, have been plentiful. I learned that French dogs never walk on a leash, and that French people don’t understand American-style sarcasm. I realized the feeling of walking through the air of the bright Paris night, my French sister and I, with stomachs sore from laughing, unable to keep smiles off our faces, is impossible to capture on the pages of a journal. I now know feelings like that can make the dictionary feel inadequate; like no one has quite yet discovered how to combine sounds to describe the freedom and pure happiness you’re feeling. I can now open the complicated French deadbolt and get into the apartment without the help of the neighbors and have learned that French people don’t say anything after someones sneeze. But, most of all, I learned to always take the leap. At first the jump is inevitably scary and full of firsts but then firsts become seconds, and seconds become normal, and you find that, when you finally do get the apartment door open, the place you walk into is home.