I studied French in college with the sole purpose to study abroad in France. I declared French as my minor, took one or two classes each semester, and finally in my last semester in college I had my chance. The program that I joined was more abbreviated than traditional study abroad programs, which usually last for several months. Mine lasted only six weeks during the summer of 2007. Leading up to my departure, I was elated and I could hardly contain myself. Any anxiety I felt beforehand had to do with not having my passport until three days prior to leaving. When my passport finally did arrive, my sister and I took a last-minute train to Chicago in order to obtain my student visa. That trip was also quite the adventure, after she and I had to spend the night in Union Station.
The participants of my program included eleven students from my university, a professor from the French department, and his eleven-year-old son with autism, who spoke better French than I did. We arrived in Paris on June 26th and spent one week seeing and doing as much as possible. The Eiffel Tower… the Louvre… Muse D’Orsay… Notre Dame… the catacombs and countless other destinations. After my years of studying, the novelty of being in France was strong. I had entered another world, and the city was exactly how I had imagined. In fact, Paris was so aligned with my preconception that I truly felt as if I had dreamt the city into being. Paris is the only city that I have ever fallen in love with. The week ended as we boarded a train and headed across the Alps to our true destination, Lyon, France.
Lyon is what I to refer to as “real France.” The second largest city in the country, there isn’t the forced glamour and ardor of Paris. The people are kind, are not annoyed by tourists, and generally speak only French (unlike Paris, where English was spoken quite frequently).
To become completely immersed in French culture, I lived in a charming three-story villa on the outside of town with a host family consisting of a mother who didn’t speak any English, except for a few choice expletives, and her two daughters who spoke minimal English. I never did find out what became of the father, and I didn’t have the linguistic finesse to ask without seeming insensitive. I also took classes and went on various excursions. Being in Lyon was everything that I had worked for, everything that I had longed for. I had dreamt about this trip for years and I was finally there… and I wanted nothing more than to hop on the next plane and fly home.
If I could go back, I would tell myself to buck up, get over my issues, and just have fun, though with a heart of compassion for my former self, I realize that I did indeed have issues. I was painfully introverted, insecure, and felt unable to articulate my thoughts and ideas clearly. Though I had studied French for years, I spoke the language like a four-year-old. Instead of working to build my linguistic skills, I retreated deep within myself. I stayed mostly hidden from my host family, spoke only in English to my classmates from the States, wrote blogs and stories, and read a lot.
In my longing to return to the familiar, I reached out via email to my yoga teacher and mentor back in Michigan. At that point, I had been practicing and studying yoga and meditation for a year and a half. The idea of practicing being grounded, calm, and peaceful was still new to me, and this trip was an early test, a test that I was failing. Karina, my yoga teacher, replied that I should do my practice and remember that “home” would be found there. I practiced yoga as regularly as I could, but I still didn’t feel better.
Toward the end of my trip I was mostly a recluse. When I was at my host home, I stayed to my bedroom and when I went out exploring, I went alone instead of with the group. After six weeks abroad, the trip finally ended, and I returned to Michigan.
I was depressed in France. Finally living my dream, I ended up wanting nothing more than for it to end. This truth drove me deeper within myself. To confuse myself more, upon returning to the States, I found that I only wanted to go back. The culture shock of returning to Michigan was too much. My mind was a maelstrom.
The core lessons that I learned in France became apparent upon my return, some lessons revealing themselves years later. I learned that I am an introvert and there is nothing wrong with that. My need to go inward was more of an energetic response than me shying away from the experience. Talking, thinking, and even dreaming in a second language is mentally exhausting, and my system needed to restore.
However, the most important lesson that I learned, as my yoga teacher mentioned, was to do my practice. The issue was that in France I didn’t understand what my practice was. I could do a million downward-facing dogs and still not feel at home. I did, however, find some solace in those last couple of weeks in Lyon, though I didn’t understand it for what it was. Upon reflection, I felt better when I was writing. In my stuffy room in that villa on the outside of town, I completed the outline for my first novel, which I had been working on for three years. In those moments of writing, I felt as grounded, calm, and peaceful as I ever had back in the States. I would momentarily transcend my depression and go to a place that was so familiar. I learned that writing is my practice and to this day, when I write, I am home.
Copyright Jerry Givens 2015 | All rights reserved