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I think the best place to start this post is a summary of the last two months. On February 25th, I made the long flight from San Francisco to Toulouse, France. Though I was undeniably nervous about the trip, I’m becoming more and more used to picking up my life every 3-4 months and completely changing scenery. I really only lost it saying goodbye to my puppy (my family never sends enough photos of him), and I think that’s a fair concession.
Life here in Toulouse is great. I’m going to make a bit of a bizarre admission: I came to France thinking I hated language classes, just hoping I could suffer through them and still enjoy this incredible country. That is no longer the case! I am LOVING learning French. There has been a tangible progression of my skills, and I can literally feel my brain rewiring to start thinking in French.
Most days consist of me going to my French language class from 9:15 to 1, and then grabbing lunch with friends or going on a walk! With numerous COVID restrictions in place, almost every day ends up with me in one of the gorgeous parks here in the city. I’m very much an outdoors person, if you couldn’t tell by my 7 week backpacking trip, so getting to be among trees and flowers feels like a daily recharge. Honestly, there’s magic to living anonymously in a foreign city—it’s even picturesque when I run out to grab groceries.
Going on these adventures during COVID has made me increasingly aware of my responsibility to society—not in a global, philanthropic sense, but in a safety precautions/not spread COVID sense. I recognize the privilege of being able to travel right now, and to the best of my abilities try to make sure that I’m taking the necessary precautions to ensure my safety and the safety of those around me.
Unfortunately, because of this very point, my time in France is being cut short. As if it weren’t already obvious, the theme of my gap year is “adapt on the fly.” Since Easter weekend, France has increased its COVID restrictions as the healthcare system is overwhelmed by a third wave. I will be leaving France sooner than expected and continuing my gap year plans in Spain; taking MORE language classes, visiting my family and enjoying a chance to reconnect with my culture! Its a bittersweet end to an incredible time in France.
I’m halfway through my semester in Paris (a sentence I can’t believe I’m typing–I feel like I just got here), and feeling more comfortable with my daily routine. I thought it would be interesting to walk you through an average week in my life.
Monday through Friday, I go to French class from 10-12 AM at the Sorbonne, one of the oldest universities in France. I wake up around 8:30AM, eat a quick breakfast if I’m not still half asleep, and walk to the nearest metro stop. I live in the Marais, an amazing historic and cultural hub of Paris, and I’m lucky to have 3 major metro lines right outside my door. I hop on to line 4, ride that for three stops, switch to line 1, ride that for eight stops, and walk to my classroom. The commute takes me around twenty minutes every morning, but with the infamous, relentless French strikes, sometimes it can be tricky to get from point A to point B.
In my 10AM class, I study French literature and grammar alongside 15 other students. I am one of the youngest in my class, and the only American. It’s been really interesting to learn a foreign language without having the ability to fall back on a shared dominant one. Since most people do not speak English in my class, when there is confusion about a French word or phrase, my teacher does not resort to simply translating said word/phrase into a different language. Instead, we get to work our way to understanding the problem at hand using our French, which has deepened my understanding of the language in an interesting new way. I am in a C1 level class (we took a placement test to determine our level), so most of the students are hoping to pass this class to obtain a certificate which will allow them to study in a French university for graduate school.
After class, I grab lunch with friends and then head to an afternoon activity organized by my gap program. Tuesdays and Thursdays we explore Paris in a group. The activities range from baking traditional French pastries, visiting the first street art museum housed on a boat, touring the Catacombs, and facilitating discussions on important cultural differences between France and the United States. One of my favorite activities so far has been going to a Drouot art auction, a multi-story building open to the public to attend the auction and bid on pieces of art.
After the hour long excursion, I typically grab another snack with friends and venture off with them to do our own exploring. I’ve gone to countless museums, thrift stores, canals, monuments, plays, etc. in my afternoons in Paris. One of my favorite parts of French culture is how culturally engaged French people are. It’s not abnormal to find a group of teenagers excitedly gathering in line to be the first at the opening night of an art exhibition, or to see bookstores brimming with people buying new books and chatting. It seems to me that learning is an integral part of the French way of life–particularly learning outside of the classroom–and that’s something I’ve strived to incorporate in my own life here.
I return home to my host mom’s apartment around 8PM. We’ll have dinner together, or I’ll cook for myself, or, more often than not, my host mom will spontaneously have an idea to go to a photography exhibition or comedy show and bring me along for the night. My host mom, Dominique, is amazing. She’s a TV producer and is very involved in the arts in Paris, which has been fascinating for me to learn more about.
On weekends, I’ll have long, delicious dinners with friends. We explore the city some more (Paris will never, ever get boring to walk around), and go to more museums/thrift store, etc. At nights, I’ve had so much fun connecting with other students through Erasmus, which is a European student exchange program that hosts events to help international students connect with locals ones. I’ve met people from all over the world, all walks of life, and find myself speaking French in the most unexpected places.
My weeks here have been busy and full of adventure, each one different from the next. It’s been exciting to develop a sort of routine–my metro commute, my go-to pastry shop, memorizing my French phone number–but equally exciting to be unrestrained by a tight schedule. I’m excited to see what the next few weeks hold!
It’s been nearly three weeks on the Chemin de Saint Jacques (as the trail is called here in France) and about 250 miles. I’ve decided to take the day off in a little village called Auvillar, giving my body much needed rest and my mind some time to reflect. Auvillar is famous for its 17th century clock tower, and it is this clock tower that warns me that I’ve sat staring at my screen too long. As the bell suddenly dings twice instead of once, I realize that I’ve been trying to think of a good way to write my experience for nearly an hour. But still, I can’t. When I look back I just see a jumble of places and people and thoughts and food and magic — like a carousel moving too fast.
Snapshots, in no particular order:
Walked 250 miles with nothing but myself and a backpack (go me!)
I will be leaving home in 30 days. I will be out of the country, away from family, friends, and everything familiar, for approximately 261 days after that.
I can already picture myself strolling down cobblestone streets, ordering in French without waiters trying to stifle their laughter, and sitting by the river Seine nibbling a slice of brie cheese. No, my 3-month stop in Paris won’t be an idyllic, chic montage, but I’m excited to immerse myself in a new culture, refine my French, and feel like I’ve made a home for myself in a beautiful new place. I can’t wait to get to know my host family, gap cohort, and classmates at the Sorbonne, where I will be taking French language and literature. I’m equally looking forward to the delicious food, cool museums, and vibrant art scene.
My goals for the upcoming year include, but are not limited to: learning Italian, cooking a decent dinner, becoming a public transportation expert, bettering my French and Spanish, traveling for 30 days straight, making friends from different cultures, not speaking English for at least 24 hour periods, going on a spontaneous trip, and learning to paint. Hopefully I can accomplish these, and add on many more skills that I pick up along the way.
I’m excited to find out what those are.
I’m one month out from my departure — a one-way ticket to Paris. I’ve never been to France, yet here I go alone with nothing but a backpack and camera. I’ve arranged to stay in a hostel in the Montmartre neighborhood for three nights. I had to call the hostel and ask how to book my room, which has probably been the most nerve racking thing so far. Nerve racking because it revealed just how much I didn’t know how to say in French. I know how to debrouiller (a french word that is always hard to translate but basically means to get around), but I’m not going to just be debrouiller-ing. I’m going to be hiking nearly 1,000 miles across the French and Spanish countryside, following an ancient pilgrimage route known as the Camino de Santiago. And so what happens if the roof is leaking in a hostel and I need to ask for a bucket? I don’t know the word for bucket in either French or Spanish — okay now I do because I just looked them up in google translate. But still, I don’t know how to say chapstick, or room-service, or blister, or walking stick, or quantitative biostatistics. Anyway, I suppose that’s a large part of why I’m going: to learn all those words.
Another thing that worries me is the physical difficulty of this journey. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t hiked 1,000 miles before, and my feet don’t seem that excited about the prospect. I know I can do it — I am just trying to not think of the blisters (apparently cloque in French, God knows how I’m going to remember that). I’ve been going hiking about three times a week, and I am starting to understand how to pace myself and such, but closer to my departure I should be hiking every morning to prepare. We’ll see if that actually happens. Anyway, I’ve spent way too much time at REI and online researching the best gear, so hopefully I am as comfortable as I can be on the trail. I’m trying not to think of this as a get-fit-quick scheme, but hopefully I at least come out with some really nice calves when I return.
I think more importantly too, I have to consider the mental challenges of this journey. For most people my age there is college to buffer a transition into adulthood. And while I will still have four years at Duke, I will have to embark on this year independently. I’ll have to navigate living in a foreign country, speaking a new language, and taking responsibility over myself. I am ready, but I am not going to have the same support system that exists at a university, nor is there going to be the camaraderie that exists between freshman students as they figure out this new chapter in life. I am going to be in charge of myself — that’s both exciting and daunting. Anyway, see you in a year, Duke!