SYA France: Destinations and Self Definition

         It has been said that you can arrive in a place, but never truly arrive, that mentally you have remained in the comfort of your bedroom. Thousands of miles away in almost any given country one can find their own little corner of America, whether that be in the Hilton Hotel designed to be identical to every other you ever have stayed in or in the popular burger joint you can find right beside the crêperie. This school year I’m trying my hand at something different and living in Rennes, France as a student of School Year Abroad. All but two of my classes are in French, I’m staying with a different family, and I’m trading in the closeness of Atlanta for the sprawl of the countryside.

         My arrival in France in some ways began far before the airplane wheels touched down on the concrete of the runway. My arrival was preannounced, as little pieces of the world I would soon enter began to seep through the cracks of the life I call normalcy and gel over what I know. Myself and the other students, all of them new to me at the time, sat crowded together in groups of two and three and four, probing one another almost. In the reflection of one another we would find ourselves. The girl from California or who flew six hours to meet us would also be the girl sitting beside us in English class, the one to lend a helping hand when we couldn’t quite place the conjugation of a particularly stubborn verb. These other students would be the only living piece of America coming with us for the next nine months, and as we changed so would they. Our flight was delayed, perhaps fended off by the wild desperation it sensed coalescing among our group.

         Though we all knew this world was coming, had been waiting for four months even, it was only now that the reality of the circumstance set in; not when my mother followed me through the security check out line in tears, curling her fingers to form the shape of a heart, not when our new head of school gave a speech on his expectations of the group, switching between English and French. It was now, in the waiting moments, with rows of suitcases leaning against the chairs none of us bothered to sit in, that it felt real. English had become the secondary language. I had left. My primary language perhaps would hinder me in the months to come more than help me, betraying my Americanness, my ignorance, perhaps sending a message about me before I could myself.

        Yes, I couldn’t understand the flight attendant, but I felt certain through some sort of visceral intuition that I would be fine. There could only be kindness and good fortune waiting for me on the other side of the Atlantic. There could only be love and happiness and firsts worth forever remembering. There would only be all that I have hoped for.

        I passed the time altering between wakefulness and sleep, not because of time difference- back home seemed to already have in some ways began to fade-but because of the first I was encountering in the moment, my first time overseas. Sitting upright in my chair, I felt torn between watching Avatar (blue people version) and giving in to the fogginess that creeped from the edges of my consciousness, steadily progressing and weighing my thoughts, demanding that I close my eyes, that I honor my routine, that I sleep. And I did.

        Fast forward to the waking moments, spent finishing the movie I’d fallen asleep on and then pondering the landing, sneaking peaks at the screen of my neighbor that charted the plane’s advances. I watched as two hours turned to one and one and half and turned to 20 minutes. I watched as the world that would become mine passed by me on either side in the windows, as the sky grew brighter, and the monitor informed me of the temperature’s growing warmer, as we descended, as we touched Earth. I had no bags on the plane other than the green backpack slid underneath the seat in front of me. The time being right, I stepped from my metallic patron, the airplane that had granted me passage and into the umbilical, seeing still nothing, still not knowing whether I had truly arrived. During the descent I had been able to ascertain only that their trees were green like ours, that the buildings seemed no different, though this seemed to refute logic. I felt certain though that my encounters with the rest of the country would shatter that vague impression of familiarity. Perhaps I would see protestors as I stepped from the airports’ front doors or every building would be double the size of those you find in Atlanta. This was untrue.   

         What now most vividly rests in my memory of the airport is the advertisement for the Samsung Galaxy 6 strung across the rafters. Driving away from Paris and into the city that would be my home, I saw an Ikea, but also rolling farm land, seeming to distinctly separate itself with every patch, one green being deliberately brighter than the next for the sake of the viewer’s pleasure. My awe of France came not in the arrival, not in the initial impressions, but in the little things that collectively constructed France’s narrative. It was in the stylish girls boarding the bus for school in high heeled boots and with tote bags, the boys’ chins cut so angularly they seemed to defy the rules of human physiology, in the school age kids smoking cigarettes in the middle of Republique. The awe came in all the little ways that this place, deviated from my home, forcing me to pay attention, to look, to ask, to notice. It sharpened my vision, or perhaps France was just brighter, suddenly everything being in 12 megapixels rather than 8, the graffiti having a life of its own, the buildings being castles, welcoming and begging almost to be used, defined. The wonder came in the invitation to contribute to this place’s definition and then in the curiosity of how it would contribute to my own.