“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?”

My (Shattered?) French Dream

Once upon a time, I had a grand and beautiful dream. It probably was planted in high school French class as I sat at the back and lovingly caressed the colorful, cartoon-filled pages of my textbook, falling in love with le Français for the first time. I said to myself: Someday, I will be in a café. I will have to order a pain au chocolat and a limonade and I will have to ask for l’addition, s’il vous plaît.

I chased the dream to college French classes, and it evolved with my language proficiency. Someday, I then said, I will not only go to a café, but it will be the one where my authorial and artistic predecessors sat and thought their great thoughts, spoke and wrote their great words. I will live in the birthplace of this fabulous literature, and by osmosis I will become equally as world-wise and articulate as they were.

So, I went to Paris for my studies. I studied literature inside my classes and pilgrimed it up outside my classes. I visited my favorite author’s graves, journaled beneath La Tour Eiffel, and ate plenty of pain au chocolat, although I paired it with café. I got lost, and sought, and found inspiration in the labyrinthian streets and time-worn gothic churches. And when I left it, it left me wanting more.

The dream became: Someday, I will live in France for longer. This time, I’ll insert myself into a community. I’ll start a book club. I’ll make best French friends who I can have 5-hour dinner parties with, and I’ll have French housemates. I will acquire the taste of even the stinkiest of cheeses, and I will finally be able to eschew peanut butter in favor of Nutella. I will speak French with a perfect accent, no trace of twangy vowels and every liaison in its precise place. I’ll find a sexy French boyfriend and seduce him with my linguistic capabilities and intimate knowledge of his country’s artistic canon. Eventually, I’ll figure out the secret to “being French,” and be it.

That was the dream for this year. Instead of a mid-life crisis (I’m hoping to live past my forties, after all), I had a mid-January crisis: I realized that my dream would not come true. I had visited my French friends over break and seen their lives. I’d partied with their friends and eaten traditional meals with their families. I’d seen a new region of France, which reminded me of home in all the best ways and France in all the best ways. And then I came back, and realized that it wasn’t my reality, and maybe it never would be. That type of crash was totally new to me. I haven’t had my dreams collapse around me very often, and if one did I’d been able to see around the obstacle and get it back again. This time, the obstacle was circumstance. I can’t make friends just based on nationality, I realized. I can’t control where I am (aka, not in a place where it’s particularly easy to “make french friends”), I can’t control how much time I have (because work), and, ultimately, I can never be French anyway.

It was then that I realized that my dream was to have grown up here, to have been a native speaker, to have family and friends and roots around me because it was their place too. I wanted both a past and a future in this foreign place. Basically, I had been setting myself up for Personal Disaster. An Identity Crisis. I had also been grossly undervaluing my own origins and upbringing and my own present and future, which was the most shameful of shames.

And then I asked myself as I sat there, raw and naked, stripped of this absurdist dream:

…then what the heck am I doing here?

This is a crisis of the highest order. I realized I just “was” somewhere: completely without purpose. It became a waste of time, I was a waste of space.

What the #$!* is the point of it all?

I figured it out again. I did it right this time: I thought about my experiences, I thought about my feelings, I thought about how much I’d already changed and grown in 4 months (plus the 5 ones in the past), and I thought about the relationships and community I’d cultivated, at home and abroad. I decided, once and for all, that I’ll never give up peanut butter (you literally could not pay me to do so). I laid out all that I had lived.

And I decided:

I may not be living my specific, absurd dream of the past…but I sometimes feel like I’m living “the dream,” even with all the ups and downs of rootless expat life.

So I reshaped my dream to match reality, and I discovered that my reality this year has been mostly a dream come true.

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Valenciennes: where dreams come true. 😉

My (Shattered?) French Dream

Saving the Best for Last

Although experiences abroad are emotional roller coasters the whole way through, each of my experiences has had this overall trajectory:

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It’s always super exciting when you first arrive (also the peak point of stress), then there’s an adjustment period followed by a period of down-ness and stagnation, and after you’ve hit rock bottom there’s nothing but an uphill slope!

It happened in Paris and it happened again here, though over a longer period of time: September – December were crazy but great, January and February were rough and bluesy. My rock bottom hit after my trip to Paris, when I was struggling with what to do next year and then got sick for two weeks.

Last week, I think, was the commencement of the uphill climb. I spent the weekend with friends in Lille and hosted a Monday night party for another friend’s birthday. This weekend, I went to Paris again for a concert with two of my best friends here. Next weekend, it’s an “Americans on Tour” road trip with three friends (all American, duh) to see Mont St. Michel and Normandy, and the weekend after that I’ll be in Aix-en-Provence celebrating Easter with two of my friends from home (who are also assistants) and their assistant crew. And in the in-between times, I’ve gotten more accustomed to getting up and going to work, and more settled in to the daily dinner parties, teatimes with friends, walks, chats, etc.

When you’re in a foreign country and have certainly jumped through the hoops and hurdles of the first half/two thirds of it, it brings on a natural high. All I want to do is adventure and experience things and do all the “one last times” and spend time with people that I soon won’t see for who knows how long. The entire month of May was like this in Paris: all we did was picnic. At some point this weekend, I thought the sad thought: “I’m saving the best for last.” But as I write about it, I think that there were “bests” all over the place, all throughout the experience. I think it will take finishing the experience to realize which memories stuck. But I think what changes most is the mentality, which becomes very suddenly: “oh, I have hardly any time left here, better not waste it!” and I’m grateful for that kick in the pants.

And as the end approaches, It’s hitting me how sad I’ll be to leave. My house, my friends, my school community here — all of these will never be in my life in the same way again, and it will be sad to move on. But really, I’m lucky to be sad, because it means that my time here with all the people I’ve met was meaningful, worthwhile, and incredibly fun.

In the meantime, it’s not the end yet!! Here’s to more than a month of adventures to come 🙂

Saving the Best for Last