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.

“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?”

Picnicking à la “Aixoise”

You know life is good when you can eat every meal for three days outside.

This past weekend, I chased the sunshine to the Académie of Aix-Marseille for a visit with two great friends, their friends, and some new Southern cities!

Friday was spent with Caro, who was my guide around Aix. Although she lives in an Alpine (but actually, in the Alps) village, she spends nearly every weekend with friends in the beautiful nearby city of Aix-en-Provence! Our first stop was the daily (or nearly daily) marché, which was full of special Aixois products, like herbs de provence and lavender, and even some lavender cheese (it’s that blue thing behind the saucissons).

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We went to the English bookstore for some coffee and book buying and had a delicious (and cheap) Greek lunch. Any menu where you can have two of everything is my kind of menu…

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We got a little dessert (une Tropézienne which is like a cream puff) and sat in the park. It was the zennest (note my sleevelessness; it was WARM!).

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That evening was picnic number one, where we met up with Leah and Caro’s friends and their visitors. About 20 bottles of Heineken, juice, wine, and some sticks of buttery bread were involved in this apéro picnic, as were “Head’s Up!” and B.S. (the card game).

We picnicked for brunch and dinner the next morning, once in Aix and once in Marseille. In Aix it was Crepes a-go-go, the local takeout crêpe stand. In Marseille, we chose a spot next to the Mediterranean.

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Pretty sweet, huh? This was my first-ever glimpse of the Southern coast. Thank goodness I’ll be back in a few weeks for a trip to the islands of Greece!

The last day was Easter Sunday, and our original plan had been to hike up Mt St Victoire, but as it was a holiday AND a Sunday (in France, this means ALL IS CLOSED), the buses were too infrequent. We opted instead for a luxurious picnic in a slightly-farther-away park followed by a gym workout. Even the gym in Aix made me feel like I was on vacation. They have special rooms where you can choose a workout instructor video and do a fun step-aerobics class or elliptical training session. Leah and I had fun tripping all over ourselves as we tried so hard to master the routines. After a shower, Leah made us ramen and we headed out to meet the others for a PSG-Marseille football (soccer) game viewing session. The Marseillais were out in full force, so the disappointment was palpable when PSG won…a last night well spent, nonetheless. No casualties.

Southerners have a reputation for being extra relaxed, more superficial, and less warm and welcoming than their Northern counterparts. I didn’t meet enough French people to really confirm or deny that stereotype, but the city itself seemed like a beautiful, shallow, flirtatious girl. It was attractive, but all we really did was eat! Picnicking is the best representation of the culture of Southern France: slow, laid-back, sunny, a perfect activity to do with friends, and gourmand (depending on your alimentation, of course — we opted for rotisserie chicken sandwiches). And when this is your chosen spot…it really can’t go wrong.

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Picnicking à la “Aixoise”

In American Soil

Two weekends ago, I went back to America.

Don’t get too excited, it was not the America where all my friends and family live – it was the American soil in France, where soldiers died in the final battles of World War II on the D-Day beaches.

I used to dislike studying WWII. It was boring and seemed irrelevant to high school (read: self-centered adolescent) Anne. Coming to Europe changed it all for me: here, I can see the conflict in the dilapidated buildings of bombed-out Northern cities, in the ubiquitous remembrance plaques and war memorials that stand on street corners. It became harshly real when I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau in Poland. I recently met a French person who had worked in fields as a lookout for buried land mines. Everybody here has ancestors, relatives, friends, and favorite places that were impacted by the nearness of the world war battlegrounds. Being American in the war was a privilege, simply because – at least at a national level – we could choose whether or not to get involved, when, and for how long. Europe did not have that choice.

The day dawned appropriately: somber gray rainclouds hid the sun and an icy wind whipped around us as we strolled through the American Cemetery, searching for connection with the dead bodies by finding people from our home states. We stumbled upon some anonymous graves. I wondered if there were families that never found their loved ones. 

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After the cemetery, we hiked down the hills and through the dunes to the beach. We touched the sand where hundreds of American, British, and Canadian soldiers had fought to stay alive as they were fired on by waiting German troops. We took windblown pictures with the flag.

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And, on the way home to Lille, we stopped by Arromanches – the Canadian beach – for a 360 degree film about the Allies’ role in the conflict. We didn’t spend very long here due to the icy wind and rain (the “Normandy goodbye”)…but there were nice views nonetheless.

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It was important to be reminded of the USA’s place and participation in the world. In the grand scheme of the war, we played a small part, but that part was essential. In the world, we play a small part — but that part is likewise essential. I felt humble and necessary. Global events can overwhelm even the most powerful countries, and if I’ve learned anything from all my meanderings in the former war zones, it’s that we must learn about how they happened before so they will happen differently, and never “again.”

In American Soil

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

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