Five years ago I was about to turn 20. I had just finished my sophomore year at Whitman where I had recently declared my French major. I was about to start blogging. And I was about to move to France for the first time.
My frist séjour in France was eye-opening and disillusioning. Until that point, I’d thought of France as a kind of socialist fairytale land replete with cathedrals and châteaux, fromage and foie gras. And I naively believed that having a solid academic mastery of the French language; a basic understanding of European history; and an enthusiasm for French art, architecture, and cuisine meant that I’d have an easy time adjusting to life in France’s 6th largest city.
I arrived in Nantes and soon learned that convoluted bureaucratic channels, grèves, and aggressive opinions are as French as the baguette. That the French spoken among friends autour d’un verre is quite different from la langue de Molière. That real French people do eat crêpes and coq au vin but that they also eat breakfast cereal and pasta and microwaveable meals. That France is a real, modern country with a rich, imperfect history and stubborn traditions, all of which inform its complex political and social climate.
And I learned that life abroad, like life at home, if full of highs as well as lows; periods of adventure as well as boredom; moments of independence and confidence and pride as well as confusion and insecurity and embarrassment.
Now almost five years later, I went back to Nantes for a visit. Earlier this spring, my old host mom, Michèle, looked me up on Facebook and invited me to come stay with her for a weekend. It wasn’t the first time I’d been back to Nantes since my semester abroad (I visited my friend Lise there on my way to Auch and again for Christmas that same year), but it was the first time I’d been back in exactly the same surroundings.
The atrium of Michèle’s apartment building smelled the same—like damp, slightly musty stone. The elevator up to her fourth-floor apartment was just as tiny as I’d remembered (and even tinier with my weekend bag). The view from the window on the landing over rooftops and down to the river was unchanged. And I stayed in my same old room, hung my clothes on the same portmanteau, and slept on the same bed on the same sheets.
The crêperie around the corner where we had lunch was the same—as was the anecdote Michèle told me about its owner. The napkins, glasses, plates, and silverware we used at dinner were the same. And while my old host cat, Violette, was older, slower, and heavier, she looked at me with the same yellow eyes and still rewarded my gentle pets with lots of purring and affectionate snuggles.
When I set out in the afternoons to (re)explore Nantes, my feet took me down the same familiar streets to the Place Graslin, to the Place Royale, to Commerce, to Bouffay, to the cathedral, to the château, and even past IES where I had most of my classes and spent lots of time between them.
Surrounded by so much familiarity, what struck me most were the differences—specifically, the ways in which I am different.
Nantes, while largely the same, seems so much smaller and less daunting. Because it’s a city I’ve already discovered. And also because since discovering it I’ve gone on to explore and also to live in so many others. I’m more self-reliant, adventurous, and street-smart than I was five years ago.
Michèle was her same old self: chatty, welcoming, inquisitive, eccentric. But I felt exponentially more comfortable as her friend and guest that weekend than I did for most of my time as her boarder. The conversations we had this time were richer and any silences were comfortable instead of awkward. Because my French skills and my people skills have undoubtedly improved in five years. And mostly because I’m more comfortable in my own skin. I care less about making grammar mistakes and more about simply communicating or connecting with someone.
Unlike with my child self or my high school self, I usually don’t think of my college self as being too different from my current self: college was the time when my interests and close friendships and identity really started to solidify. But it was nice to be reminded that there are positive differences, that the naive 20-year-old has grown up into a more worldly (almost) 25-year-old. It was affirming to feel so at ease and content in a place that had once so intimidated and overwhelmed me—and to thus be confronted by all the things I’ve gained and the ways in which I’ve grown since the first time I moved to France.