August 17 Pre-Departure Journal
In high school, my world is so confined but I'd never know it. My world is the universe as far as I am concerned. Nothing seems impossible (nothing still seems impossible, just implausible). I have my friends, my non-plan, and my own life to lead. My ideas are naive but keep me going. However, just recently, the hemispheres have changed. The world, my world, is altering completely.
I leave for Montluçon, France in exactly one week. It’s cliché to say that I can’t describe what I’m feeling, but I really can’t. There’s too much to take in, and until now, I haven’t taken the initiative to acknowledge what’s really happening. My two massive, empty suitcases stare at me ominously as if they know I’m procrastinating. It’s hard for me to grasp the fact that my family and friends are going to continue their lives normally, while I embark on the biggest adventure of my life. How can I pack up my seventeen years of life into two suitcases that can only weigh 50 pounds each?
There have been countless questions. “When do you leave?” “Have you talked to your host families?” “Are you nervous?” It’s usually general answers of August 25ths, yeses, and most definitelys. I loved being with the other exchange students in my district because we could all empathize. We all knew how each other was feeling. The feeling is not as easy to convey with my friends from school and otherwise.
My life has no outline. I'm sure yours doesn't either. I was sure of everything. I embraced ache. I loved to feel like the others. And now, I can't feel what’s to come to save my life. What you need to know about me is I made a vow, not too long ago, to feel, embrace and fathom all that life has to offer. And now... now my life is the - the what? I can't even think of a word! I’m leaving so soon. There’s so much to do, but there is no possible way to prepare for something this life-changing. Dear friends of mine have recently left for college. In a way, I understood what they were dealing with; although, seeing as I’m only a junior this year, I’ll have to come back and deal with it again for my senior year.
There will soon be a gift from God where He takes the time to recognize my feats and surrenders me a time of leisure and civility when I settle down in France. God grants me life. And not only life but love. Love in the form of a person, friendship, and stability. What will change and be presented before me, I still can't completely tell. The situation at hand is still too confusing and boisterous and pricks like thorn to classify what is happening. But I am intrepid.
Oh my world, I have such a surprise for you. My life is declining and soon it'll build itself up again; this I know now. My life certainly works in patterns. So much can happen in a day. Just look around. It would be such a disgrace to resort on waiting for something to happen, because waiting never ends. I am glad I stepped out and found my current niche. I have reached the beginning of one of my wildest dreams, and I can only be grateful.
October 26 Journal
It hasn't quite hit me the inertia of my life. I've been in France for two months now. Is this the life of a teenager or is this just a ... different one? So many things have been happening that it causes me to just be tired and want to think. I don't know how I became whatever I am. It's just certainly different than what I've been. I can handle all thrown at me but ... I'm just wondering. Maybe our lives are different. I guess I just feel that there should be no waiting around for something to change. I can never be all the people I want, and I can never live all the lives I want. And why do I want? I have become acutely aware of all I've taken for granted.
I barely remember my first week here because school, family life, and socializing has stolen so much of my attention. I promised myself that I'd write a journal entry every day, but that lasted for four days. My host family (the Arthauds) is very family-oriented and protective. They do whatever they can to guide me and help me in the best way they can. I really appreciate what they do and how they live. I have four host siblings, which is a lot for a French family. Natacha is 19 and lives in Clermont-Ferrand for university, which is about an hour away. Marion is 17 and also lives in Clermont for school as an intern. They come home on the weekends. Solveig is 15 and goes to my school. Simon is 10 and studies about five minutes away from the house. Life with the Arthauds is very interesting. They are always lively and joking about something. I'm at the point where I understand everything that happens at home, because I'm used to hearing them articulate for me; however, school is a different story.
School started the following Wednesday that I got to Montluçon. I'm in the class 'seconde', which is like being a freshman again. My host family thought it would be more convenient for me, seeing as I don't know French very well, and I wouldn't have to take more difficult classes. I'm currently taking eight different classes. School starts at 8am and ends at 6pm. Classes can be from one hour to two hours long. We have an hour for lunch at noon every day. The food at school is like fine dining in America. My teachers understand that I don't speak French very well, so I'm not obligated to do the homework. I do try and take tests and participate, but with little avail. I ride the bus to and from school, and it takes about fifteen minutes to get back home. Everyone either walks, drives a scooter, is driven, or uses public transportation to get to school.
I like to take my time in coming home from school because I love looking around in Montluçon. It's not how I expected at all. I knew the overall architecture would be old, but I had no idea it would be so modernized. At centre-ville, there are lots of shops and cafes. There is a castle on top of a hill that chimes at 7am and 7pm. It's audible from anywhere in the town, and it makes me feel comforted. Like everyone is in the same spot and everything is right where it should be. It takes about an hour to walk across the whole town. Pretty much everyone knows each other, does the same things, and wears similar clothing. I fit in as far as style goes, thankfully. One could never go wrong with skinny jeans, gladiator sandals, a scarf, and a black jacket. There are some eccentricities that I wouldn't expect, though. I'd say one in every six or so people have at least one facial piercing. Some people are hippie-like and grunge. There aren't really any cliques. Everyone is very open with each other, except for me. Unfortunately, that was inevitable, but now it's okay. I'm still pointed out as the American girl, but it doesn't bother me to be singled out anymore. I've embraced it. I'm the American exchange student. I look like it (lost and confused during everyday conversation), I talk like it (with a strange, choppy accent with lots of pauses and uhhhs), and I eat like it (a large quantity, and there IS a certain way to hold your fork and knife).
French people are avid about saying hello but never goodbye. Kissing everyone's cheeks was difficult to grasp at first, because I'm not used to being so close to people's faces. In retrospect, I'm sure it would be strange for a French person to come to America and hug people. French people don't hug! Unless you're really good friends with that person. I guess you could say French people are friendly, but only to the people they've been formally introduced to. I'm very happy to say that I have a good group of friends. They are people that I trust and always have a fun time with. There is another exchange student from Australia in my school, and we're really good friends. He's been here for nine months already, so his life here is already laid out before him. It's a really nice feeling to know that someone has my back as far as translation goes. I was surprised to discover that very little of the French population speaks good English. I've found that people are intimidated to speak with me because they feel just as stupid speaking English as I do French. But as my French continues to ameliorate, so does my life here.
I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible while living my life here. This is now, and now, and now. I have to completely live it, feel it, and cling to it. "I think life is simpler than we tend to think. We look for answers and more answers. But there are no answers. Things happen in life, good things and bad. People say, 'Why did it happen to me?' Well, why not? Some people win the lottery, and others die in a car crash. It happens, and there is nothing we can do about it. The universe doesn't care what happens to you." I guess those who don't know Nando Parrado don't know how good intentioned this quote is. Since the earth does not shift according to us specifically, that should only mean we are more obligated in life to revel in it. The roots are underground, not above. We branch out, not in. You can either dig, use that strength, or keep moving forward. I opt to do both.
January 3 Journal
There are times when I still look back and think of how I got to be involved in Rotary. It was a Thursday in French class (ironically) at school. We were going to the auditorium to watch a presentation about exchange students; I thought the whole idea was far-fetched, but I took a brochure anyway. As I was reading through it, something told me this would be a good idea, perhaps for my college application, perhaps for my existence. I showed it to my mother, and all she said was, "You're doing this." I had no idea what I was getting myself into, to be honest. I had no idea of the amount of preparation, the amount of work, and the amount of self-discovery this would involve.
My main motivation was to get out of Vero Beach because all of my friends (including my sister) were graduating. I didn't want to be in my town, alone, a junior in high school. I guess it's human to want to leave everything. But now, after being an exchange student in France for over four months, I understand that being an exchange student takes a lot of heart, and I suggest that, to be able to do this, future exchange students, your main motivation to live in a new country for ten months should not be to just get away.
To experience this new life and culture is an underestimated concept. I would know. To me, it seemed simple. Just do what they do. But, it's not that easy.
To all of you soon-to-be-outbounds, consider this as what you will see in your future: forget what you know. This is a small statement, but it counts for everything. Everything you've taken in, everyone you've ever known, everything you've ever experienced in your lifetime will be behind you in your upcoming year. Yes, it will back you up, but you're taking a giant leap into unknown. It might seem a little harsh or maybe even scary, but it's real, your choice, and completely worth it. Hold on to what you know, but be willing to let it go. Temporarily, of course.
Starting out with the orientations and meetings and everything, I thought I was ready to experience this. Now I see, to be frank, the few ways to really prepare for ten months abroad, away from your family, friends, and life, are:
1. Be there for your loved ones and make sure they know how much you care about them.
2. Do the things you love the most with them.
3. And, of course, practice your target language for the life of you. I cannot emphasize this enough. You will see why.
I have noted in my mind countless things I've taken for granted. Especially with my family, now that I'm experiencing a new family life that is not my own. You will find that only exchange students can empathize with your excitements and doubts. I understand that now you only see the rather than's, the otherwise's, the instead of's, and the dreaded what if's. Talk to the other outbounds and Rotexes. You will gain perspective and maybe even a little clarity. Everyone's experiences are different but beautiful and wonderful all the same.
Also, there is an idea I found to be absolutely false: the idea of culture shock. When I saw the graphs and stages of this "disorder," I will admit, I mocked it. (So many more things are clear to me now.) After reading the exchange student handbook and learning more about culture shock, it can arrive in many forms, inevitably. My exchange has followed the culture shock graph perfectly accurately.
Now I see, every single one of you will do the same with your highs, medians, and lows. Personally, I thought something was wrong with me when I started to experience my lows. This was my mindset. "There are worse things, I suppose. Worse than forgetting how to feel. And perhaps, in my naive attempt to feel everything, I've stumped myself in the position of one who feels very little, or nothing at all. This transition is difficult because not only are there the drafts where I feel nothing, but the ones where I feel nothing entirely my own. There's certainly no use in hiding my feelings. Exploiting them would be the very essence of why I'm here. Why is loneliness so repellent, when it's the only thing we all have in common?" Maybe you will feel the same at the start.
One of my flaws is that I have too much hope and faith. Yes, it's steered me in the darkest of directions, but it has never steered me wrong. My world has crumbled and is now building itself a new pair; the one I'll know and the one I'll remember.
May 21 Journal
It's comforting to look at a calendar in these times. Most exchange students would say that looking at a calendar would make you more stressed, but it's not that way for me. Time immediately stops playing tricks on me. I can think clearly. I look at my calendar today and I tell myself, "Is this really it ?" I leave France in exactly 7 Tuesdays, or 39 days (I continued writing this after at least five minutes of staring at the screen). What an overwhelmingly small number.
Within the time span of 38 weeks, or 269 days, I have switched host families four times and met some of the people I will respect most in life. I have made friends with people from all over the globe, my closest friends living five houses down from me. I have travelled across France to see one of the most beautiful sights anyone could ever see – the Alps Mountains (I got to ski on them too). I went on a life-changing voyage across six different countries in Europe all in a matter of twelve days. I have struggled more than I would have liked to, but it was inevitable (unfortunately) and necessary. I have learned countless things about myself and what I am capable of. I have made endless mistakes (and still embarrass myself almost on a daily basis), but hey, it will all be a good story to tell later. I have become infinitely grateful for my own family, my own friends, and my own life (I prefer my six hours to your ten hours of school, France, thank you). I have become fluent in another language (I think), and overall, I've discovered a new lifestyle. One that is completely and entirely my own.
In one of my oh-my-god-my-exchange-is-almost-over shocks, I was talking with another exchange student, and she said something that really hit me. "Rotary gives us so many things to lose." And that's just it. Rotary does give us so much, but it doesn't have the physical capability to keep us from our memories, our friendships, and our experiences. Sure, people move on and time passes, but the impression you've made on the people around you, the message you've expressed as a foreign individual, will be permanent. My families and friends here have helped me see that.
For now, I've got my giant suitcases staring at me waiting to be packed (again), my blazer crowded with pins, my Rotary smile, and my soul filled to the brim. AND. I can proudly say to the French people around me, "Yes, I'm an exchange student, but I understand you perfectly."
See you soon where the Florida sun is shining,