Ever since I received my fist French book, literally called My First French Book, I’ve been inexplicably drawn to France. At the age of 16, I finally fulfilled a dream about ten years in the making and boarded the plane to France. I probably cried the whole flight. My parents saw the movie Taken (such bad timing) not too long after I left, so they had their share of tears as well.
After one broken suitcase, a duct tape catastrophe, an accidental two-hour nap in McDonalds, three train mishaps, and 72 hours later, I arrived in Bordeaux, ready for my foreign exchange experience.
In my slightly overactive imagination, I had already made fifteen best friends and my French was impeccable. Given the fact I had only met three French people, I’m not sure how my mind made that jump but there you go.
Once I finally settled in my new home, I remember falling asleep that first night feeling nervous yet content. I snuggled in the traditional French toile blanket, full from a fantastic French meal, reflecting on how open and kind my family seemed.
Three months later, that room became a sanctuary, the locked door guarding me from the rest of the house. Details aside, the relationship spiraled quickly and I found myself fearing for my safety on numerous occasions. Now, I’ve long since graduated from the blame game with these people. Honestly, they could be perfectly kind and wonderful to others. Rarely do you come across someone so one-sided as just plain mean; people are more complex than that. Nevertheless, as dramatic as it sounds now to reread my journal from that time, I felt isolated and cruelly treated. Although I found a second host family for the remaining two months in France, the first family left its mark, forever tainting my impression of France.
The loneliness, although frustrating, wasn’t devastating, as I’m extremely independent. And their treatment of me wasn’t devastating. I actually find some of their unkind remarks hilarious now. Like how I would get fat and die from eating peanut butter banana sandwiches, just like Elvis did? What?
But no, for the first time, I needed to grapple with devastatingly unmet expectations. It sounds rather childish but until that point, I had led a very privileged life. In many ways I still do, and I am extraordinarily grateful for what I have. But at sixteen, I couldn’t understand why an experience I had hoped for my whole life, complete with sketches and daydreams during class, could warp into something unrecognizable. I couldn’t understand how such kind-looking people could treat others with such contempt or put me in such an unsafe environment.
When I left France, I promised myself I’d never go back.
Over the years though, I couldn’t seem to shake the French. It cropped up in my dreams and I couldn’t quit the daily habit of translating from French to English and English to French in my head. “Well, I might as well keep taking classes so I don’t forget how to speak it,” I told myself. Then came, “Well, at this point I have so many French credits I might as well Minor in it,” which turned into, “I’m not sure what to do with my life. I just want to travel and write. Maybe I’ll teach English for a year.” And then finally, “Guess I’ll be living in France again!”
So now here I am, settled in my new apartment with a beautiful view of the Eiffel Tower, living in France yet again, and working in the quaint town of Herblay. All summer, I’ve felt like I’ve been wandering through a dream. Not the “follow your dreams” kind of dream, but rather, the disorienting one where the colors blur together, the pigeons bicker with you, and the oceans are made out of trees. Everything felt surreal.
Since arriving though, I finally feel like my feet are planted somewhere. My head is clearer than it has been in weeks, and most importantly, it feels pleasantly real. This time around, my dad flew over with me under the guise of helping me find an apartment. More importantly, he helped me return to France, a feat in it of itself.
For the first time in years, I feel like I’m in the right place doing what I’m meant to be doing. And now, I’m armed with the lessons from five years ago and the autonomy to travel and explore the world the way I’ve always wanted to.