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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.
If you’ve explored any number of posts on this blog, you’ll quickly realize that a gap year is time to dream big: travel the world, learn a new language, get an awesome internship, and try things you never imagined you would do.
But what can go unspoken, is the satisfaction from doing the little things. Those things you always told yourself you would do when you had extra time. Those things you never got around to doing in the shuffle and chaos of school, college applications, extracurriculars, and daily life.
Mine, in particular, was reading. Yes, I read a lot in high school, but I rarely read *just for fun*. My childhood habit of reading entire books in a night was gone. By the time I finished everything I needed to do in a day, I’d be longing to climb into bed, incapable of reading more than a few pages before being swept to sleep.
Since I finished my Outward Bound trip, I’ve been reading at least a book per week—a pace that would have been unfathomable a year ago. I’ve devoured 7 book series, hoards of nonfiction, and lately, I’ve been delving into some classics.
About a year ago, I was given a ton of vintage books by my grandpa. Think William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Emily Bronte type classics. The kind of books that require more interpretation and deciphering than your average modern bestseller, at least for those of us who balk at the formality of 1700s English. The yellowed pages, creased spines, and worn covers made the books all that more attractive, drawing me in. What better way to read some of the most recognized literary works than in true vintage form? But I put them off, waiting out literary burnout from years of forced reading in English classes.
My point is that among the other interesting things I’ve accomplished this year, I’ve had time in my gap year to check some of these off my to-do list. I’m getting the chance to read masterpieces that my classes didn’t cover, and to genuinely enjoy them, instead of working my way through out of sheer obligation.
I’ve said before that I signed up for my Outward Bound course looking for adventure—for something to do. Thankfully, I got more than I expected out of it. My greatest takeaways were a sense of perspective and an understanding of what I can endure, what I can overcome.
Stripped of almost every comfort I’ve relied on in my lifetime—a hot shower after a freezing day, a plush bed to snuggle into, a familiar support system, a stocked pantry—I came to realize the aspects, and people, I found essential in my life. The things I don’t want to live without. I came away with a greater confidence in the relationships I value most, and a desire to express to those people how much they have impacted me. Other comforts, even ones I once deemed absolutely essential, faded into irrelevance.
It was difficult to discern what aspects of my daily routine bring meaning to my life and which detract from my ability to live thoughtfully and purposefully. These realizations center me. My intention now is to act upon these conclusions—to express more honestly and frequently my appreciation for others and to require myself to give up some unproductive comforts.
Having left the desert, I’m trying to remind myself of the healthy habits I began on course. I’m far from perfect, but I’m already seeing the benefits of this conscious effort. I’m being more conscientious about prioritizing the relationships I value (including my relationships with the amazing people I met on course) and I’m so far managing to stray from old bad habits (like scrolling endlessly through social media explore pages).
I’d love to sit here and tell you that I’m 100% zen and productive all the time, but that’d be a lie. I purposefully allowed a “break” in my gap year activities between Outward Bound and whatever lies in my future so that I could relax for the holidays and prioritize family time. Much to my chagrin, this break clashes with my newly invigorated desire for a purpose (see my last blog post) and I’m looking for something to do. I don’t have the slightest idea of what that could be, but if COVID has taught me anything, it’s to be flexible and seek alternatives.
How I’m spending some of my free time now:
- Reading a lot (and actually finishing books)! I used to have a very bad problem of reading 95% of a book and accidentally starting my next great read before finishing the one before—oops.
- Cooking, of course. I’ve turned to the science of pie-making in preparation for Thanksgiving, so far I’m about two hours into a series on the theory of crust making. Plus, it’s an excuse to invite my best friends over for (socially distanced) taste tests!
- Practicing my language skills. I’ve started taking online classes in French, desperately hoping that my gap year will still end up taking me there. Also, I’ve started learning Portuguese on Duolingo simply for the added fun of being able to read a language but not understand a single spoken word—the complications of knowing a romance language and a half?
- Shamelessly fueling my coffee addiction with my old barista skills.
With all that said, the question that I’m struggling with is one that every gap year student has to answer: how busy is too busy? Whether you’re on one, planning one, or reading this blog for fun, my advice is to be ready to admit when things aren’t going as expected. For me, I didn’t plan enough things to do—well, COVID made them not pan out—so here I am, adapting.
Before you begin, let me explain. I just finished a 50 day Outward Bound course. 50 showerless, uncomfortable, incredible, challenging, absurdly fun days. In retrospect, this was the most fulfilling experience of my life, but a challenge like this is one that cannot be overcome without reaching immense highs and lows, without pointed self-reflection. Purposefully designed for this kind of reflection was our solos—two days camping completely alone, with no source of entertainment except a pen and paper and absolutely no tasks or expectations.
With that, I give you a solo reflection, transcribed (and gently edited) from the pocket-sized journal I carried with me every day.
I haven’t yet been able to express why I’m here on this trip—what makes it worthwhile for me. When I found this Outward Bound trip many months ago, I had two priorities: plan a gap year, and make it interesting. I knew I loved the outdoors and I desperately wanted an adventure, so this course seemed perfect.
174 river miles and hours of brutal desert hiking later, that isn’t enough anymore. I’m aware of the fact that there’s a greater lesson to be learned here—that one thing that I will look back on as my greatest growth—and I’m thinking that it may simply be a sense of purpose, a drive to set and achieve goals.
I’ve come to the conclusion that all throughout high school I lived my life adhering to my two main goals: try hard in school, get into a good college. Though it is a gross oversimplification of events, this meant that I focused almost exclusively on my immediate tasks and workload, striving towards unquantifiable goals with the persistent question: How good is good enough? For years, that purpose sufficed in keeping me motivated, thanks to an ever expanding workload and rather lofty standards for my own success. I’d be hypocritical to say that these are unworthy goals, I have a similar set of expectations for my college years, but I’ve come to the realization that exclusively setting broad, long term goals for myself was extremely stressful and unfulfilling. Benchmarks, and any accompanying sense of achievement, were subjective and few and far between.
Six months ago, when quarantine hit and I graduated high school, my goals timed out. I woke up every day lacking a purpose. The future was—and very much still is—entirely uncertain. My ability to set new long term goals for myself was non-existent.
Waking up on my first day of solo today, without anything to do for the first time in 32 days, I despise my desire to pass time as quickly as possible. It’s a feeling that I know well, a reminder of the days I spent isolating at home, frustrated and bored out of my mind with nothing “productive” to do. I don’t want to live without fulfillment, without short-term, achievable goals. I thrive on learning, achievement, and personal growth.
I realize that this change must come from an internal shift. It is more mentally and physically draining to be constantly striving towards something than it is to be unburdened by commitment, no matter how much more fulfilling it is. The way to inject purpose into my life, especially during unstructured time like a gap year, is to consistently set and work towards goals instead of allowing myself to be aimless. That is my big take-away, that I can make room for personal achievement without relying on the structures that have traditionally defined success in my life.
Today I embark on the first leg of my gap year—a 50 day excursion in the Southwest with Outward Bound. I woke up this morning, got a little misty-eyed saying goodbye to my family, pretty much cried saying goodbye to my puppy, and got in the car with my mom.
Our first stop was urgent care. Don’t worry—nothing terrible happened—I just needed to get some stitches removed after a little accident in the kitchen last week. (Very amateur) Chef’s tip: watch where your fingers are when using sharp knives, or maybe any knife.
From there, the trip was a go. My mom and I settled in and began the trip from the San Francisco Bay Area to the middle of Colorado. It’s a lot of miles. We did the first half today, a solid twelve hours on the road.
In my house, road trips mean podcasts and in true fashion, my mom and I began listening to our favorite show—RadioLab. We stumbled upon “Octomom,” detailing an awe-inspiring discovery of maternal love. As I learned today, almost every species of octopus dies shortly after mating and reproducing. Usually, octopus mothers starve themselves to death vigilantly watching over and protecting their eggs until they hatch—a process that usually takes a few months. This particular mother, however, endured far more than the typical months-long process. Almost a mile underwater, the first deep-sea octopus brooding ever recorded was ostensibly the longest brooding period on earth. For four and a half years, this octopus stayed in a state of semi-consciousness as her body decayed, surviving only to protect her unborn young from attack.
Mixed in with the emotions of leaving home for so long and going on an adventure that is still so unknown to me, I became overwhelmed with gratitude. The reminder of the extents that parents will go to for their young undoubtedly reminded me of my own parents, and the sacrifices (though very different from Octomom’s) that they have made for me.
My mother drove next to me while we were listening, graciously driving with me the twelve hundred or so miles across five states to get me to my Outward Bound trip. This week-long trip is the latest of many efforts, and genuinely, I’m not sure I thank them enough. With the complications of planning and executing a gap year plan (especially during COVID), it’s easy to get caught in the small stuff—disagreements, different expectations and ideas—but I recognize that without them, I couldn’t do any of this. Undoubtedly my gap year has been encouraged, enabled, and supported by my parents. Thanks to them, I have enriching things to fill my time, safe places in which to do them, and the guidance to navigate important decisions.
Hi there! I start my first blog post with relatively little to reflect on, as it feels that my gap year hasn’t really begun. I’m floating in transition between child and adult, the end of high school and the beginning of my gap year, COVID-19 lockdown, and whatever the “new normal” looks like.
My summer began like most everyone’s: sheltered in place. While the initial adjustment was difficult to say the least, I’ve found that I genuinely enjoy spending this much time with my family of six (seven with the dog).
The kitchen has become my refuge. Cooking has allowed me to connect with my family without feeling suffocated by their constant presence. The endless supply of breads, muffins, tarts, and other foods, are my love language.
Best of all, this passion of mine has become a bridge between me and my grandmother—she’s teaching me to make paella. It’s both intimidating and incredibly comforting to make such a classic Spanish dish. Her lectures on the traditions of making paella remind me that while much of my heritage is still rather unfamiliar to me, I can still deepen my Spanish roots from across the world. While my lack of bomba rice and Valencian water (many swear by these two as the most essential ingredients) has been a bit frustrating, so far, I’ve been successful.
Cooking lessons I’ve learned so far:
- Never EVER take your eyes off the paella (not even for a second). And don’t forget things in the oven.
- A little bit of socarrat, the charred rice at the bottom of a paella, is a delicious accident, not a mistake.
- The taste test is key… In every recipe.
- Eyeballing quantities is okay (for most dishes), it’ll probably still turn out well!*
- Throwing spices that smell good in a pan is a bold move, but a good one. Know the risks.*
- Don’t forget the salt!
*these don’t apply to paellas!
As I learn to somewhat follow recipes (I’m an impulsive cook—I make adjustments on the fly), I’m beginning to view the gap year I had planned as a recipe, one that can be modified to my future tastes. I have no idea how much of it will pan out, but for now I’m planning, awaiting my first adventure (Outward Bound), and enjoying my family, my job, and my friends (from six feet away!).