I have known for my whole life that I wanted to spend time abroad. The spring of my sophomore year I was fortunate enough to participate in Putney’s travel abroad program. It is hard to fully put into words the impact that this experience had on my education and me as a person. Through the program, I spent a trimester in France. It was a dream come true and an experience that has changed me forever.
I left the U.S as someone who had only taken a foreign language for two years and had never really traveled before, especially not internationally. I was prepared for an amazing trip, but I don’t think I was quite prepared for how life-changing it would be. Miles away from home, I found this new land that wrapped me up and gave me a new place to call home.
Don’t get me wrong, it was not always sunshine and unicorns. Half the time, due to the language barrier, I couldn’t understand what was happening. I remember the first night, my host mom drove us to her house telling us bits about herself and the town and all I could respond with was a tentative, “Oui.” As a result of my novice language skills, my nerves, and my exhaustion I barely understood a word she said!
A few weeks later I had my first day of French high school. In my first class, the teacher asked me a question. First, I couldn’t understand, then I didn’t know the answer to her question, and I was left stuttering in front of the whole class. I was mortified. Another day on a group outing, some sketchy man said something to me as I was hurrying to meet up with the rest of the group. I didn’t know what he was saying, but I couldn’t extract myself from the exchange which left him talking at me for close to twenty minutes and included an attempt to ask for my phone number before I was finally rescued by other students on the trip.
But, funnily enough, even these scary, awkward, uncomfortable moments filled me up with a sense of accomplishment and wonder.
And of course, there are all the magical moments I will never forget, like sitting by the ocean and sketching, feeling the droplets of seawater tickle my face as a sense of absolute belonging and joy bubbled out of me. I remember the days spent eating Nutella filled beignets, fancy macaroons, crêpes, or pain au chocolat, a warmth in my stomach and my heart. I remember the week when we visited Paris and I stood on top of the Eiffel Tower (even though I was scared half to death) and surveyed the sprawling city below, or the night I stood looking up, simply awed by the grandeur of Notre Dame, feeling as if I had just met my childhood idol. I remember after school ramblings, when I would take the bus to centre ville and eat pizza and chi-chis (churros) in the town square, feeling like a classy, independent, French teenager. I remember the night we went to a Breton rap concert and listened to two men drop beats in a Celtic language, an experience I will most definitely never have again. I remember the afternoon spent basking in the Brittany sun at a goat farm, happiness rampant through the air. I remember the mini adventures with my host mom where half the time we didn’t know where she was taking us, but we were always happy wherever we landed. I remember the walks to and from home or all around the tiny French town, Pont-Aven, where I felt like I fit just right. The list goes on and on.
And through the good, bad, and in between, through the not understanding while completely understanding, I was changed. I was grounded. I came back to the U.S, not ready to return and not wanting to leave my new home. I came back stronger in who I am and who I am becoming.
It has now been almost three years now since I spent this time in France. I constantly wonder how it could be that the years have gone by so fast, and despite this fact, I still think about or long for my time in France weekly. I hold dear to my heart the connections I made, the places I visited, the people who I shared laughs with. I close my eyes and see fields of yellow flowers, taste flaky baguette and buttery brie on my tongue, and feel the clear sunlight dance off my arms. When I open my eyes, my body warm with the memories, I stride out into the world, constantly searching for more of this tantalizing sparkle that I first found on the steep streets of a little town in France.