A Special Kind of Love

This weekend was all that I wanted my last weekend in France to be.

My friend Dana has friends who live in a small town an hour from Toulouse, and they invited me to eat, swim, and explore the Midi-Pyrénées with them for two days and a night.

Here’s their backyard:

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As Philippe, the father of the family, was driving me toward his house on the first night, we stopped off along the way for some picture-worthy (obviously, since I took some) views:

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And, here’s one from our walk in the morning:

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In between the arrival and the walk, we ate two big meals on the terrace, made with the barbecue and the plancha, a Spanish appliance made for their method of grilling meat and vegetables. On the dinner menu was an entire jar of foie gras and champagne as an apéro, and then three varieties of saucisses de Toulouse. Although I’ve lived in France twice now and made a valiant effort, I’ve not yet acquired the taste of some of their stinkier cheeses. However, I can now proudly say that I have acquired the heck out of foie gras. It’s amazing. The sausages were also spicy, meaty, and especially tasty with semolina and grilled zucchini. And of course in the unbearable heat, Haagen-Dazs was the only possible dessert! For Sunday lunch we had a Spanish specialty, lomo a la plancha, which is marinated pork (in a special curry-cumin mix) grilled on la plancha. Needless to say I ate sooooo much. The customary coffee or tea after dinner became my only hope, digestion-wise.

Carbonne is, by U.S. standards, a village…and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Philippe put it well when he said that you feel like you’re in the countryside, but it’s actually a town which has all of life’s necessities. And it’s on the banks of the river Garonne, which means it sufficiently meets all of the charmingly breathtaking French village criteria.

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And, through all that I did and talked about with the family and their friends, I noticed some special kinds of love.

The first and most present was Family Love. Being around this family made me realize what I forgot: there is a special atmosphere of love when I’m at home with my family. The bickering of siblings, the hushed parental conversations about their children’s success, the meals where everyone knows each other’s favorite foods — that taking-care-of-each-other spirit is one of the things I miss most.

I got to experience this new family thanks to another special kind of love — Hospitality. It takes an extended stint far away from home to be truly aware and appreciative of how hospitable people can be. I was invited for this weekend into their home only because I knew someone they knew. They fed me, they gave me a nice cozy bed, they took me to and from their place, and they showed me other parts of the Southwest, and all this, they assured me, was avec plaisir! It makes me want to write them a heartfelt thank-you note, send a lifetime supply of wine (who am I kidding, they have that, they’re in France…) and, when the time comes, to welcome them into my own home and return the favor. We’ll see if they make it to Seattle one day.

And there’s a third kind that I remembered. I think it’s in some places everywhere, but in France I think it’s in nearly every small town which has one church and one family-owned butcher: Community Love. France is truly the land of traditions, and most of these traditions celebrate the intense community of village life. Philippe showed me a series of photos of the yearly Fête de Carbonne, where the whole village gathers over a three-day weekend. There is orchestra music, a marching band, dancing, singing, and a huge meal in the town square. He showed me pictures of the table that he and his neighbors all get together, around which they talk, laugh, eat, and celebrate life until the early hours.

I wish I knew my neighbors. I wish there were a Fête de Redmond during which we all gathered at the Old Schoolhouse Community Center and ate our traditional dish and listened to a marching band until 4 AM with all of our neighbors, friends, and local shopkeepers. Even the scenario sounds absurd.

But if Redmond were just like small-town France, it wouldn’t be so interesting being here, would it?

And while we’re on the subject…confession:

I have a special kind of love for this place, this life, and these experiences. I’ll be back.

A Special Kind of Love

In the Pink City

7 AM wakeup. Breakfast. Coffee. Walk to school. Learn things. Get lunch. Sit in park. Plan things. Teach things. Walk home. Make dinner. Watch a show. Go to sleep. Repeat once per weekday.

Thus is the life of a TEFL student: 9 AM-7 PM school days, and very little me-time. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

On the weekends, I explored the Pink City for myself.

First, here’s my fantastic flat! Probably the best lodging I ever had in France in terms of privacy, location, price, size, and facilities. Plus, my landlord was a gem. He would often throw parties in our courtyard/garden, so I met people.

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When I wasn’t in my flat, I was probably either in the TEFL center or in a park. There were several options.

The green space in front of La Garonne, the major river that runs through Toulouse:

IMG_4170 The Jardin des Plantes, right across the street from the TEFL centre: IMG_4153

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And the Grand Rond, which I walked through every day on my way to training:

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It made for a beautiful morning. I started meeting my new friend Imi on a bench in the Grand Rond in the mornings for a pre-work chat (and sometimes a croissant and coffee as well).

As you can see from the pictures, Toulouse was more often than not a sunny paradise. For the first two weeks, it rained a lot, and I experienced the mistral wind, famous in Toulouse for making people crazy. Then, it got really hot (like, in the 90s F/30s C) on our last week. It was even 28-30 C at 10 PM! Luckily, my apartment was in a basement, so I stayed cool while sleeping.

The weekends were a mix of routine and adventure. Each weekend, I spent Sunday at the Marché de St. Aubin, where I bought my produce and eye-feasted on all the pretty handmade jewelry & the cool Toulousain people.

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I sometimes went for drinks with people from the course, making new friends as well! And I usually spent the day walking around exploring.

The Canal du Midi trail reminds me of the Sammamish River Trail, which is right by my house!

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La Garonne, the river! Here’s Toulouse’s Pont Neuf (every city has one):

IMG_4166 And La Garonne in the almost-rain:

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I also managed to find my BFF Cara‘s old haunt (and Ashley‘s, of course!), from when she was a TAPIF assistant near Toulouse and came into the city with her friends. It used to have a flirtatious waiter, but he seems to have disappeared, much to my chagrin. I had a delicious curry crêpe in honor of good memories.

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Toulouse is a “big city” compared to Valenciennes (even though it’s actually pretty small), and the atmosphere is totally different. There’s Spanish essence permeating the air of the pink city. People are out on the streets until midnight every night, dining from 8 PM on the many places filled with outdoor seating. The Southern accent is twangy, and I still have trouble catching everything people say down here. There are also Spanish speakers everywhere. I’ve met Cubans, Ecuadorans, Spaniards, and French people who are half Spanish or spend all their time in Spain.

There is an expat community, just like everywhere else in France that I’ve been, which could’ve been fun had I been in Toulouse for longer! I was talking with friends last night about why we internationals tend to mostly meet each other. Do we attract other internationals because we all have things in common? Do we put off the locals with our transitional nature? Or is who we meet where really just random chance?

I guess we’ll never know. In any case, Toulouse treated me so, so well. I’ve graduated TEFL with a teaching certificate and renewed confidence and teaching energy, and I’m leaving Toulouse with the intention of returning someday!

In a couple of days it’s off to Barcelona, then….HOME. More to come.

I’ll leave you with a cute photo:

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In the Pink City

Opening Up

Knowing I have only a month in a beautiful place has infected me with carpe-diem-itis.

I am by nature a gradual person. I dip a toe in the water, watching the ripples to make sure nothing creepy lurks at the bottom before I dive in. It extends back to my preschool years (as do nearly all psychological things, says Freud) : I watch before I leap. Apparently, when I was three and four years old, I’d sit and watch the other kids doing all the activities for ages. Then, I’d get the confidence up to go in and try it myself — and I knew how to do it.

My osmotic observation techniques have served me well since then. I’ve stayed out of trouble, I’ve avoided unnecessary risks. But, as I began my whirlwind life in Toulouse, I found myself adopting an attitude of Reckless Abandon.

This doesn’t mean I’m suddenly jumping off cliffs, crossing the street when oncoming traffic is racing toward me, or taking all the dark back alleys to get home at 3 in the morning (like I did once in Paris, oops). It means I am qualm-less about Opening Up.

Here’s what I’ve learned from numerous moments of alone-ness : strangers are only strangers until you say something to them.

That’s all it takes. You just have to say something.

After this saying of the something, I instantly know :

— if they’re interested in saying something back

That’s all it takes to make a friend. It shatters the illusion of aloneness instantaneously, in a burst of “interaction.” It pulls me out of the reality of Anne’s Head and into the reality of this other person, this new universe of human, this stranger who is suddenly less strange. There’s a constellation of life experiences and perspectives and feelings, of thoughts and opinions and fears and dreams and countless quirky weird things, just there to be discovered.

And, even more importantly: if I show them mine, they show me theirs.

Aren’t my best friends only best because they’ve seen all the weirds in my universe and not run away? Didn’t I have to show them my weirds as a test, to see whether or not they would run away? Aren’t they most comfortable around me when I’ve been weird, because it means they can be weird too?

In less interrogative language: If I open up to the world, I find the worlds who open up back. I find the worlds who appreciate my own constellation of life experiences and perspectives and feelings, of thoughts and opinions and fears and dreams and countless quirky weird things, and who want to discover me back.

Through this friend-making, opening up, and discovering new worlds… I’ve learned the secret to a happy life. That’s right, I discovered it.

It is thus:

Only let people into your world who think the world of you.

My new rule for continuing to be friends with someone is based entirely on how they make me feel. If they make me feel like I’m not a world worth discovering, goodbye. If they make me feel like my world is flat and uncomplicated, wrong, or inferior to theirs, they’re out. Basically, if they don’t respect me as a super cool other universe, then, even if I think they’re a super cool other universe, I should run away. Friendship needs to be reciprocal.

Opening Up takes a lot of courage. Once you show someone some part of your personal constellation, it’s out there, entirely at the mercy of their response. When they don’t respond with interest or respect, it hurts. But, if I don’t show it to them, I never know how they’d respond.

I’m learning: friendship should be selfish. I listened to a podcast the other day in which they talked about friendship, and how friendship is the only relationship in our lives which is entirely voluntary. There is no contract, there is no hidden agenda of sex or marriage, there is no legal obligation to terminate if all goes wrong. There is only what we choose to put in, and what we want to get out. I want to get out as much as I put in, and from here on out, I’m striving for balance in all of my friendships.

This means being as open and honest as possible. Right from the very beginning. If I’m not the real me, how will they get to know the real me? How will I get to know the real them?

So, for this month in Toulouse, I have one goal: BE ME, with reckless abandon. And see how many new friends I make.

Opening Up

19 Days.

My hiatus from blogging has been due to my Intensive TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Course actually being quite intense.

I’m currently in Toulouse, France, where I signed myself up for school again — teacher school! I’m learning methods for teaching English to those who don’t (yet) speak English. We’re in class from 9-7 every day, learning pedagogical methods and grammar in the morning and practicing teaching in the afternoon.

It is SO nice to have a lot of work to do. It’s not just any work, either — I love planning lessons, and I love teaching them. My creative energies feel focused and my workaholism is coming back. I keep kicking myself, thinking about how much more smoothly my year would’ve gone (in my head) if I’d had all of this planning practice and all of these teaching and classroom management tools. I think it went fine as it was, but now that I know what was missing I can’t quash my urge to go back and do it all over again.

Luckily, I’ll get even more teaching experience next year, as an assistant teacher at the French-American School of Puget Sound! I’m so excited that I get to remain in (bilingual) education and use my French… and be back in the Pacific Northwest!! Though it still doesn’t feel entirely real that I’ve got a job…I keep imagining them taking it away from me due to some mistake in the hiring process.

I only have 19 days left in France. When that hit me, I felt…torn. Really, it’s my heart that’s torn. There are a lot of people in Europe who I love and who I’ll miss, and there are a lot of people at home who I can’t wait to come back to. There are a lot of things I love about France, and there are a lot of things I miss about the states.

But above all else, I think I’ve reached my traveling limits. One of my new Toulouse friends said, wisely, that we all have limits. Reaching a limit doesn’t mean that we can’t push ourselves past it: sometimes we want to push ourselves past limits… and sometimes we don’t want to. There’s nothing wrong with not wanting to. I’m a lover of challenging oneself, but if I’m pushing myself in a way that doesn’t feel right, I’m no longer loving myself, or trusting my own gut.

It feels bizarre to admit this, but I’ve reached a limit with Being Abroad — one which, for now, I don’t feel the need to push myself past. I feel more isolated from my fellow expats, I more often feel depleted of energy, and all this makes me less willing to engage deeply with an environment that I know I’m going to leave. They’re all feelings I can compartmentalize, but they aren’t feelings I can ignore.

One of my least favorite things that people do when they’re “travelers” is when they judge people who “aren’t.” Traveling (and living abroad) is something you do, it’s not something you are. Some people don’t travel, and it doesn’t make their life experiences less cool or important. Knowing the judgment that exists makes me afraid to admit:

I don’t want to travel anymore. 

I might get back to the U.S. and decide that next year I want to jet off again. I definitely will be driving all over to see my friends and family in different states when I’m home. Basically, it’s not because I’m incapable of starting over somewhere new, where I know no one and their language is not my first language. I’ve done that, and loved it. Twice. Three times, if I count this move to Toulouse. I would never trade away any of my Being Abroad experiences.

But at the moment, there’s something I love and miss about the familiar.

When it’s as easy as breathing to smile at people in the street, when you have to order food and know exactly what to say, when you’ve got old friends around to remind you of things you forget about yourself. When you walk into a place you’ve been a million times before, and the known-ness of it makes you feel at home….all of these are the things I miss when I say I miss the “States.” I want to swim in the lake and hike mountains and wine taste in Walla Walla with my very best friends. I want to cuddle with my cat, and hear about my mom’s work day, and get ice cream at Mallard’s with my sister, and sail in the Sound with Dad.

I know I’ll miss France. But, I can miss France and appreciate home at the same time. I can miss home and appreciate France at the same time. And I feel beyond lucky to have all of these things to love.

19 Days.

The City of Brighton & Hove

Most of my anglophone best friends from this year happen to be British. I was surprised, upon arrival, to find that they nearly outnumbered the Americans, as I’d been unaware that they had a similar program to TAPIF in Britain (and they can even do it as their year abroad, during their studies). Although we technically all speak English, having British friends was a linguistic adventure. Especially in the beginning, there were lessons to be learned about common words and phrases that either don’t exist or don’t have the same meaning in American English. For instance, “put the trash in the trash can,” becomes “put the rubbish in the bin.” Trucks are lorries, “pissed” refers to drunkenness rather than anger, and I am routinely asked to “come round for tea” instead of to come hang out over dinner. My best friend Laura, from Scotland, gave out tea towels with some fun Scottish words, like “numpty,” and “crabbit,” as a going away present. Even though language lumps us together, the similarities only go so far…and the UK and the US do have very different cultures.

Dana and I finally got to experience some UK culture during our Spring Break kickoff weekend by the sea, in Brighton, England. Officially, it’s, “the City of Brighton and Hove,” and it was originally designed as a “healthy” getaway for British socialites and aristocrats. It has since become a student city, with a lively nighttime scene and an arcade-and-amusement-park pier for families wanting a day or a weekend away from London (it’s only about an hour from there by train). There were freshly made churros and donuts (really, they made them before our very eyes), candy floss (cotton candy in British), crêpes, ice cream, burgers, and fish and chips aplenty!

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After a really long bus ride, Dana and I made our first stop the pier, for a game of DDR (Dance Dance Revolution, for those of you who weren’t 90s babes). I am sorely out of practice, so while Dana beasted “Difficult” I tripped over my feet next to her. We walked down by the ocean, the cries of seagulls and the smell of frying dough contributing to the vacationy ambiance.

This was, quite sadly, our last hurrah with our English friends. They were chaperoning a U of Valenciennes trip to England, so with students in tow we went out for a drink on the first night. It was a Saturday, and the streets were crazy! The bar we ended up in had a DJ but no dance floor…so we danced in our chairs. I discovered my new favorite cider, which is Swedish and comes in many fruity flavors.

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The next day, our only full day in the city, Dana and I wandered the “Lanes,” Brighton’s hipstery shopping streets. It was a European Portland — every road had at least one cute independent coffee shop advertising cold brew, stores full of vintage treasures and colorful Asian-inspired garment shops leaking incense into the street. I touched pretty much every beautiful leather handbag that crossed my path. It was an afternoon of longing gazes and angry exclamations about the pound to dollar conversion rate. And of course we had to stop at Starbucks for our midday beverage, as we’ve been deprived of it in France for so long.

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When in the UK, eat Indian food! So we heard, and so we did. Our curry dinner at the Curry Leaf Café was “quite spicy” and super delicious (with a little serving of yogurt for us spice wimps, that is). We later went with our friends to another Indian restaurant, The Chilli Pickle, where I got some honey-drizzled naan for an after dinner treat.

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And of course, our final meal had to be fish and chips — true English cuisine. We ate it on the beach, taking extra care to protect it from the doggedly nose-diving seagulls. It was battered to perfection, golden brown and crispy and best when drizzled in ketchup and vinegar, a perfect last meal of the weekend.

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The saddest part was saying au revoir to my dear lecteur friends, who I’ll only see one more time before I leave for my next adventure in Toulouse. It was a lovely last hurrah. I’m writing this post from the plane on the way to Athens, Greece, where we’ll be when I post my next post! Stay tuned for more Spring Break adventures.

The City of Brighton & Hove

“Why the life?”

I like TV Shows, especially on Netflix, because they’re like a movie that never ends. I can climb into bed and slip into a world of familiar characters and places. I know their inside jokes and I know what’s going on in their lives right now, and that is comforting for me — especially when I’m far away from my familiar places and friends. Gilmore Girls and Dexter have provided innumerable (well, 8 seasons x 22 episodes + 8 seasons x 12 episodes) hours of comfort and entertainment for me overseas.

Unfortunately, I exaggerate: TV Shows do end. All things eventually end, especially when you’re a young person finding your way in the world (aka the Era of Temporary Jobs). What’s different is that in real life, endings get personal.

It’s all well and good to finish a TV show. It is, after all, a carefully constructed universe in which all resolves itself. The good guys come out on top and the bad guys get what’s coming to them. Even if you don’t like the ending, there is no alternative. Maybe there were some shocking moments, but if they were too much to handle you could always turn it off and watch Parks and Rec for a while instead. It’s also a nice, clean break. I can finish Dexter and never think of it again. It doesn’t particularly influence my self-concept or personal narrative or future. It’s someone else’s life, accelerated through all the important parts.

But an experience like this one…all escapes are temporary. No pause or refresh or replay buttons exist. And more importantly, everything affects my self-concept, my personal narrative, and my future. It’s MY life, and it shapes who I am in the most profound ways. And I feel gutted by it sometimes. 

If I had a choice, I’d keep things as they are right now, April 2015: endless laughter-filled picnics entr’amis, cute little “‘ello Anne!” shouts in the hallways, lunch in the cantine with my favorite teachers. But this feeling of desperate longing for sameness is familiar. Every time things are good, there’s some desire for them to stay the same, or to live them over and over again. If I could replay Whitman, for example, I might have done it then — but I wouldn’t do it now. I’ve laid it to rest in my memory, and there it stays forever.

It’s time to do the work of laying this experience to rest forever. As I wrote to myself the other day, “I CAN’TTTT! But I must.” I must remember that even though some good times are past, others are yet to come. Who knows where I’ll be a year from now? (If you do, give me a hint plz? thanks). Who knew where I’d be last year at this time, when I was finishing up my thesis and getting ready to graduate?

The title of this post is one of the questions I got on my second to last day of class this week, carefully constructed by a particularly philosophical 12 year old. Why the life? Indeed. As my friends and I joked on our last night together in Val, we wish we hadn’t made friends, we wish we’d stayed holed up in our separate apartments and never interacted and been miserable…then, we might be happy to go home. I still reflect on the beginning of the year, when I arrived and knew nobody, prepared to go it alone for as long as necessary. Then people materialized, and those people became some of my closest friends.

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I am not happy to be leaving Val. I am excited for my next adventure. My situation is going to change. The contract for my job in France is officially almost terminated. My lease is up. This post is almost complete. I’ll soon be leaving France. I feel like someone has reached inside me and twisted my guts, permanently, at the thought of all my new friends scattering. I’m saying some goodbyes without knowing when I’ll see a friend again. They might be the hardest goodbyes ever.

And yet, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I only have trouble saying goodbye to people who have really wormed their way into my heart. And whether they reappear in my life in person or not, they’ll still be in that heart and in my mind, warming me up from the inside out.

Why the life? Because it’s full of love and surprises…and even when it’s sad, it’s the bomb.

“Why the life?”

Epic Cliffs, Stinky Cheese, and Mont-St-Michel

What do you get when you put four Americans in a car heading west with a flag tied to the roof, eating Jif To Go with Ritz Crackers and drinking A&W rootbeer?

A good old US Road Trip, of course! But in France.

We rented a car and headed out on a sunny Friday morning, blasting pop tunes and full of energy. Our first stop was Etrétat, a city known for its stunning falaises (cliffs) which attract painters from all over.

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As a bonus, it was full of Normande charm, with the characteristic architecture and signs for cidre and calvados in every restaurant.

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We spent two hours clambering up onto the cliffs and taking epic photos. It was a sunny day (a rarity in the North at the moment) and a combination of that and the fresh sea breeze put us in a stellar mood. Hikes and laughter are my jam.

Back in the car, we had an afternoon snack as we headed for Caen, to my friend Dana’s host family’s house from her study abroad in Normandy. Her host family welcomed us weary travelers with an apéro of champagne and snacks and a beautiful 2-room setup to sleep in (which can also be rented via Air BnB, if anyone is interested). After drinks, we dashed out to meet Dana’s expat friend for dinner at a cow-themed fondue restaurant and ate and talked until we had to sleep.

Day two was dedicated to Mont-St-Michel, one of the most famous sites in France. My mom had been telling me to go for ages, and this was the perfect time. We arrived the weekend after the grandes marées, the highest tides in ten years, which means that we beat the crowds; there had been roughly 30,000 people descending on the Mont the weekend before. Our day was spent wandering the quaint winding streets and the hidden corners of the Abbey, complete with a picnic lunch in the garden.

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On the way home, we stopped in St Malo. I am always stoked to return to Brittany, my regional true love, and this town didn’t dampen (despite the rain…hehe) my feelings for Western France. It is a walled city, with some of the most intact walls I’ve seen. We entered through a stone gate and climbed up to the top of the ramparts (N.B. Cities in America do not have ramparts). We were able to walk halfway around the city and were rewarded with stunning views of the west coast on one side and the Breton city on the other. It was a great stop despite the adverse weather change, although the misty rain reminded me of home.

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Saturday night was spent with Dana’s family, eating and chatting. There was a spirit of warmth and hospitality, even though we were nearly complete strangers, which reminded me of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais community where I’ve made my home this year. The only downside was the cheese choice — Camembert and Livarot, two varieties whose tastes I have yet to acquire. I can’t handle the stench…

On Sunday we made our way home, tired and discouraged by the weather, but we all agreed that it was a great trip. What surprised me most was how it felt to be among Americans again, and on the road. It’s gotten to the point where I feel like a natural version of myself in Europe, which is a huge accomplishment. And yet, something felt especially nice about being able to joke and laugh and be outrageously patriotic in “American.” It’s our cultural language that is lacking here, as is everyone else’s cultural language if they aren’t from France.

But I was also more than happy to return home to my lovely house in Val and my international friends. As a group, we have created our own subculture, with an international smorgasbord of influences. I know that when I’m back in America, I will miss that subculture more than I can express in any language. I’ll have to go on plenty of road trips (and eat jars and jars of peanut butter) to cope 😉

Epic Cliffs, Stinky Cheese, and Mont-St-Michel