This week’s edition of the Freshmen Chronicles comes from my good friend, Beca Baca who is studying abroad this quarter in Paris.
People tell me I’m brave. They tell me I’m courageous. Wow, they say. Paris Study Abroad as a first year. Wow.
But, I don’t think I’m brave. When I received the e-mail the Study Abroad office sent out in mid-October saying there were openings in the Paris program for first years, I responded, “Yes, I will apply to study abroad,” and when I responded to the e-mail in November, saying, “Yes, I will go to Paris,” I did not feel brave. Study abroad was not a battle to be fought valiantly and ravenously. It was not something I wanted to conquer to demonstrate my courage or my wanderlust. I came to Paris because I got an e-mail; I came to Paris because it was an out: an outlet from Chicago and its bubble. I didn’t know when I sent in my confirmation e-mail, or my deposit, that I would have a tumultuous winter quarter. The grey skies ensnared me and the winter was long. So then, I arrived in Paris after desperately wanting to be away from Chicago. Away from the cold and the grey, away from fading light and dismal grades and social situations. Everything, it seemed, had lined up. Neat and clean. It was a respite; a breath. I liked to travel and I liked the idea of being in a new place. So, I came to Paris. And here I am, no more courageous than I was before.
I had been awake for over 24 hours. Maybe 30. It was the day I arrived in Paris. I landed in Paris, sweated my way out of the airport and onto the train into the city. I thought I lost my big checked bag and I had two jackets on, got to my dorm and wanted to fall asleep on top of my laptop. I bought exorbitantly expensive train tickets, wondered at people who immediately slapped cigarettes into their mouths and sunglasses over their eyes as soon as we got outside, experienced strange first day group dynamics, walked several blocks, sat in a cafe and drank an espresso with one pack of sugar and one glass of water, bough a pain au chocolat in a quiet voice and ate it in the street, found out I should enjoy my meals and not eat them in the street, watched people, talked in a park with long grass, ate delicious, simple fish and drank good white wine.
It was two weeks into my trip. I went to Le Marais, the part gay, and part Jewish district on a Sunday afternoon. It was solitary, walking around the city alone and seeing couples and tour groups and parents and children streaming past. I went down alleyways and took panorama pictures of wrought iron balconies. I walked amidst many people. Tourists with big, black cameras; smirking men with tousled hair, leather shoes and plush, corduroy jackets; grandparents. I stopped to look at a busy intersection; I stopped to look at a map of the streets like veins. I mispronounced my way into buying a five euro falafel and walked down a side street to eat it. I still hadn’t finished so I walked back up the same street. I walked to Notre Dame and accidentally got in people’s pictures. I wanted someone to walk with. I ate lime sorbet on a bridge over the Seine. It was getting dark; I walked home. I walked into a bakery. I walked home with a baguette. I felt a little silly and a little French and a little lonely. Then, I realized that I was free being alone, freer than being with someone incompatible.
Occasionally, I do miss home. But I am happy to be here. After coming here, I am more content with who I am. And it was hard for me to learn that as a first year in Chicago. I wished for something else, something better. And wishing wouldn’t get me anywhere. Pushing myself would. So I pushed myself, and I ended up in Paris. I did not love the city before I came here. I had no ideas of grandeur, or magical, sun-dusted views of the Eiffel tower, or rain-soaked strolls down rues with a black umbrella. All I wanted was a new experience—something different from Chicago. And I got different. I got thick slices of brioche and crammed into pushy subway cars and views of a glittering city at night. I have had so many new experiences. I have learned new ways of thinking about myself and the people around me. But I never have gotten served enough water at a restaurant.