Nutella, chocolate macaroons and café au lait. I tasted ’em all during my summer in Toulouse, France. But beyond the good eats and stunning sights, I took in many lessons from this time abroad, ones I’ll hold close to my heart for years to come. Here are nine things I learned from my summer abroad:
1. Routine is the essence of security.
I met with a university friend at Chipotle several weeks before my departure for France and knew bigger and better cuisine would be headed my way. I’m eating fast-food “Mexican,” but soon I’ll be sipping on café au lait and eating crêpes, I thought. And yes, France’s food is incredibly rich and enjoyable, but I can’t tell you how much I wanted to scarf down a chicken burrito bowl with white rice and pinto.
My groans and eye rolls over busy work and never-ending meetings in America remain fresh in my memory, but somehow I still miss those assignments and meetings. I even crave the hole of my forever-messy room back in America and all the Netflix binges my roommate and I laughed through in that room. France may be “living the dream,” but it’s the silly dance parties and late night cookie runs that create a reality of intense nostalgia. Things that once annoyed me or seemed less exciting to me are some of the first things I craved.
While my local coffeeshop is thousands of miles away, I chose to create routine for myself in France.
“Bonjour, Kristin! Comment-allez vous?” All of the Starbucks baristas in Toulouse knew me. The moment I entered the door, the barista would grab a cup and write in my order before I could even get in line.
“Comme d’habitude?” Yes, like always.
They may have just been baristas at the one and only Toulouse Starbucks, but I had a routine and was known. Starbucks may get grief for its prices and lofty status, but the familiarity is priceless to me.
2. Live day by day.
This is my adopted motto for life. Truly. Thinking about having enough energy to grocery shop or to make small talk with a store employee in a foreign language is draining. But what’s important is now. I really don’t have energy to accomplish all life will throw at me, but dwelling on tomorrow makes it much more difficult.
I need to renew my metro pass, I need to pick up pasta at the store, why is this store closed now, I need to do laundry, I should do the dishes, can I put off taking out the trash one more day? Living abroad can be exhausting, but choosing to live day by day, moment by moment. Assess your energy each day, and celebrate the seemingly little accomplishments.
3. Your dream life doesn’t exist.
Taking the metro on the daily, ordering my café au lait in French, living downtown. I’d always dreamed of this life, and I had it. But my life in France honestly was harder than my life in America. The culture shock overwhelmed me because why are stores closed all the time? Why must I say hello every time I enter a store or pass a welcome desk? The few new friends I’d made were oh-so sweet, but I still felt lonely. Expressing your deep feelings in your own language is difficult—let alone in a foreign language.
4. Your problems travel with you.
And they kind of inflate in your face too. Your apartment, schedule and lifestyle may look completely different abroad, but at the end of the day, you’re still you. My life certainly wasn’t perfect in the months leading up to my departure to France, but I knew I’d be in freakin’ France soon! They’d all fade away amidst the medieval castles and rolling hills, right?
Wrong. When you live abroad, you choose humility; you don’t know the ropes or customs yet. And you’re separated from many, if not all, of your family and friends. Vulnerability is the name of your game, believe me. You dress slightly differently and speak with an accent; you don’t quite blend in.
Given these newfound insecurities, it’s no wonder that your desire to fit in, to be accepted, to be successful intensifies. These desires and problems regarding these wants don’t disappear; they just take on a new form while abroad.
5. You discover the people who will stick around for many years more.
Out of sight, out of mind? For many, this is true; it’s natural and not necessarily bad. Moving abroad is to step away from the comfortable, which includes your innermost circle. Many of these friends may fade while you’re abroad, but the ones who reach out genuinely are ones who will stick with you for years to come. It’s the friends who bend their schedule to squeeze in a FaceTime date despite the seven-hour time difference. It’s the friends who make it a point to call you weekly, who send you pictures of things that remind them of you. It’s in these moments of vulnerability and distance that you find your sincere, loyal friends. Long distance friendship can be hard, but its rewards are profound and immense.
6. I have no idea what I’m doing.
I had my life planned to the hour before I left for France. But what’s that saying about life not going how you planned? Because it’s completely true. I had all these grand plans to live abroad again, to be fluent in French, to work here, to travel there. Not that these are obsolete now, but because of #3, I’ve learned expectations often don’t meet reality. Once I began to understand this hard truth, I realized it’s better to be flexible and to take life as it comes. It may not be what I’d planned, but who knows if that even would turn out to be as wonderful as I imagined?
7. Confidence is relative.
In America, I’m a well-spoken, confident gal with a blog and plenty to say. In France, this girl still exists, but she’s hiding behind language and cultural barriers. I used to lead the conversation in America; in France I avoided eye contact and hoped to heavens that no one would ask me a question.
You have to start over because no one knows you; you can’t express yourself in the way you have forever. The first several weeks were difficult due to the communication barrier and the fact that I felt horribly awkward. But when I took #2 to heart and gave myself the grace to learn, my confidence began to increase even though that didn’t mean error-free French or awkward culture moments.
8. A country’s history inevitably plays a role in its culture today.
I’d never realized how individualistic America was until I left. We speak our minds, question the norms and do what we want. We work till we accomplish what we set out to do; convenience and comfort are some of our most important values. I didn’t realize that these were characteristics specifically tied to American culture, but the more I started thinking, the more I saw a connection with my country’s history. We told Britain that we were done with their authority and that we were peacing out. Capitalism played a huge role in our country’s beginnings, and individualism is at the root of many decisions of America.
Sharing a room with a German, I found this idea also to be true. Swantje and I had so many healthy, thought-provoking discussions about World War II. She was in disbelief that something so atrocious as the Holocaust could’ve happened; she told me concentration camp field trips as schoolchildren were obligatory and common. Another day she mentioned that joining the military wasn’t particularly honorable. It certainly wasn’t frowned upon, but it wasn’t a noble calling, which is a far cry from American ideals. I have to believe that Germany’s World War II military memories play a part in this societal norm.
9. Expectations can make or break experiences.
You will come back a stronger, wiser, more cultured individual, but you’re still you. If you expect to have the best, most life-changing summer of your life, there’s a good chance you’ll end up disappointed. Come in with an open mind; you may not love living abroad as much as you’d anticipated. Watering your expectations down allows you to truly savor moments as they come because you don’t have a checklist of expectations to cross off.
My summer in France included some good things and some not-so good things. My French is farther along than I could’ve hoped for. I met some incredible people from all over the world, from places I’d only ever seen on a map. I tasted some incredible things and learned so much about myself. My summer in France didn’t look the way I’d expected, but that’s okay. I will have these lessons with me for the rest of my life, and I had a good view all while learning these bits of truth.