Maybe We Still Have Some Growing Up To Do: Life in France

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By Emily VanMeter

This post originally appeared in the University of Kentucky’s online international newspaper: The World Report

Courage is grace under pressure. –Ernest Hemingway

A tried and true Kentuckian, my family on my mother’s side branches back several generations in the same small town in rural western Kentucky. So, my blood is about as blue as it gets. However, I’ve known my entire life that there was more out there. For longer than I’ve been alive, my dad has worked on a vessel abroad—six weeks in Kentucky with me, and six weeks away. I grew up with a globe in my living room, and I could probably have won several competitions with the number of countries I could spell, name the capitals of, and locate on a map at a very young age.

However, because my dad worked abroad, he wanted to protect me from the dangers of life in a new country. So, I had never been abroad until September 1, 2014. This is the day that I moved to France for four months. Looking back, I really had no idea what to expect or what that entailed—I had only figured out that you have to take your laptop out of your backpack for TSA screenings by trial and error in June. I was green. It was probably very obvious as I nervously fidgeted with my backpack and double-checked for the 75th time that I hadn’t forgotten the passport containing my very exciting, very new student visa.

I was becoming the person that I had always wanted to be. I wanted to be the kind of person that went on adventures—the kind of person that was at once independent and fascinating. I had a serious case of Walter Mitty syndrome, I suppose. This is about to get a little personal, and I was a little hesitant to write this article in the newspaper that I edited last year, but now I cannot imagine choosing anywhere else to share what I’ve gained.

Transplanting yourself to somewhere completely new has the ability to dramatically change you as a person. In my time here, I’ve seen it eat more rigid people alive—flexibility is key to survival. Not to say that I have always been flexible— I still have my fair share of expectations and false assumptions. I am human, after all. However, I have still seen the dramatic changes that have occurred within myself. Yes, study abroad allows you to gain a wider cultural perspective, but my perspective was never really very narrow. The biggest transformation in my personality has been the change in my values, or rather, the discovery of what I truly value. Because of my time here, I have a much better idea of what I want and do not want from my time on this planet. No matter where that is. No, not all of this adventure has been exciting and fun— that’s not an adventure, that’s not even a fairy tale really. To be honest, sometimes it’s been so difficult I have wanted to just call it quits. Why am I even here?

From where I stand currently, I do not really have a firm grasp on what my expectations of France were or what other people expected of my time here. I imagine that it involved a lot of cafés and French literature and the plotline of an Audrey Hepburn movie (Can you say Sabrina?). I did not expect the lessons that I have learned from my time here, or the pleasant surprises. Or the instant coffee.

I had no idea that I would be sacrificing WiFi and coffee larger than 12 ounces and pumpkin-flavored pastries and the 12 hour clock and celebrating the engagements of my close friends, I had no idea that the first weeks would be so difficult and immersive and lonely that I would desperately ask my friends for any and all news of my Old Kentucky Home just so that I could speak English and imagine that I was back in my little brick house right off of campus. I didn’t know that adventures could be so miserable. That’s right, I said miserable. I wanted my dog. And a blanket. I had neither.

However, if you know me at all, I have quite the reputation for my silent resiliency. Or hard-headedness, but I prefer to think of it as resilience. That sounds so much more courageous, does it not? I knew that I had made a commitment to immerse myself in this place that I had studied for three years of my undergraduate education. Just because what I got when I arrived was not at all what I was expecting, it did not mean that I was going to back down. I knew that this would be a brief four months of my life, and that I would regret it for the rest of my life if I did not use this time to get to know the continent that I had long dreamed of.

While I do not know what I expected of my time here anymore, I do know the stereotype of the French. Snobbish, arrogant, well-dressed, and obsessed with bread and cigarettes. And while there is quite a lot of smoking here (not to mention more varieties of cheese than should be possible) I’m happy to say that the rest is probably just a cultural misinterpretation over the Atlantic. They do make great bread. However, the French culture is simply much more reserved than its American counterpart. There are still raging extroverts and some downright friendly and welcoming people here that have been very patient with both my French and my lack of cultural knowledge; I’ve been humbled by the fact that I communicate like a fifth grader in a 21 year old body.

I’m far from miserable here. Little by little, all of the “Bonjour! Ça va?” And “Bon journée!” greetings and goodbyes have grown on me. Where else do you have people wish you good day literally every time you go anywhere? And they mean it. And then there’s the whole meal thing. Those are a big deal, to be spent with other people, preferably for hours. If you don’t make it from scratch, or almost from scratch, then it didn’t really happen. There should also be wine involved, or here in Basse-Normandie, cider is the regional beverage. To say that it has been unreal is an understatement coming from the States, where work is almost always the first priority. Here, friends and family are much more important. There’s always time for work later.

Which brings me to my next note, how much validation my time here has brought to the cliché that Kentuckians are always thinking about coming home. I realize now that the University of Kentucky— alongside all of the amazing people that I’ve spent every day with since I arrived there in the autumn of 2011— has brought me some of the best times of my life. Thank you.

See the original post from October 26, 2014 here.