5 years ago, 5 years later

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 channelsgrèves, 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.

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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.

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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.

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Surrounded by so much familiarity, what struck me most were the differences—specifically, the ways in which 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.

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16 comments

  1. Ashley · · Reply

    Superbly written, as always! I’m happy to hear you went back to Nantes and saw positive changes from the person you were when you first went there!

    1. Thanks! Yeah, it was a really surreal experience to be back in my old room and everything, but it was a really nice visit.

  2. Jamie · · Reply

    I love this… beautiful and insightful. And the photos are tres magnifique. (I particularly like the one of you and little Violette!)

    1. Thanks mom! Michèle’s granddaughter took that one with my iPad 🙂

  3. Great pictures! What a great opportunity for you to get to go back and visit again. I also like how you mentioned that no matter where you are, life still has its ups and downs. So many of us are filled with wanderlust and high expectations when it comes to travel or living in new cities. And while I definitely think that where you are (living or visiting) can have an huge influence on overall happiness, life is not meant to be all candy and roses all the time.

    1. Exactly! I think that’s one of the most important things living in a variety of places (some of them abroad) has taught me. Daily life–the good and the bad of it–always catches up with us, no matter where you happen to be living.

  4. This post hit so very close to home and basically summed up a lot of how I feel about my former “France fairy tale.” Has France changed, or have I?”

    Bisous bisou 🙂

    1. The myth of the “French fairy tale” is definitely one of the hardest ones I’ve had to overcome. The other main one being the idea that I could one day pass as a French person. Of course we’ve changed, but France has also revealed more of its true self the longer we’ve spent here. In the end, I think it’s good that we’ve had (are still having) these disillusioning experiences because the picture we’re getting of France is the real one: imperfect, sometimes frustrating, but still kind of magical.

      1. I think it’s the idea I had after study abroad that France is just the best place on earth and the USA is the worst. France is great but it has a lot of baggage, as does the USA. I’m starting to realize that life in the U.S. Vs France may not be as better or worse as I once thought (except for the vacations!) 🙂

      2. I definitely had that same idea, too. But it got rooted in me during a trip I took to France in high school. I think part of it settling in so strongly had to do with the fact that we were at the end of the GW Bush years, and my consciousness of the real world was starting to come into focus. It was really easy to feel dissatisfied with the US then and so France got cast as the opposite—as you said, “the best place on earth.”

        Life in both places definitely has its advantages and disadvantages and like you said, each country has a lot of baggage. I think I’ll always be caught living between the two. There are so many things about each country that I’d never want to give up.

  5. Thank you for this beautiful article. I hope to travel to France one day ( still saving)

    1. Thank you for reading! I hope you make it here!

  6. I like this concept of before and after, I hope you write more entries like this!

    1. Thanks!

  7. Wow, had to google many french words! And I love varying cultures.

    1. Thanks for reading, glad you enjoyed the post and learned some new French vocab!

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