I think it’s fair to say that going on and coming back from vacation involves some pretty complicated feelings. You want to be excited and thrilled to be in a new place, doing new things. And you are. But after a couple days, you’re also excited to go home and sleep in your bed and cook your own food.
Last week I told you about my adventures over our fall break. And I loved them, there’s no denying it. But I found that after we’d explored Oslo a little bit, I had hit that 7-day wall where your internal compass points towards familiarity again. You’re in a new place, but you’re homeward bound.
Which makes me ask myself: do I think of Lyon as home? My answer is complicated.
I definitely live here, and I don’t even think of Lyon as a temporary phase (because I’m staying here for the year, I don’t have as pressing a sense of time passing). I have my grocery stores and my routines, and I’m pretty comfortable just doing my thing here.
Yet as I go about my days, I still often find myself feeling like a solitary unit. On the sidewalk, there are French people, and then there’s me. In my classes, there are French students, and then there’s me. I function within this society, and I function well, but there are times that I feel that I’m really not a part of it.
People talk about culture shock all the time, but I thought that since I was going to go to France, the shock to my system would be pretty tame. I have a friend in Vietnam right now, and when I read about her adventures on her blog, I feel almost guilty for even having bad days at all. Compared to her experiences, my days look perfectly normal. Nondescript, even, what with my grocery stores and routines.
A pretty place to call home, n'est-ce que pas?
But you can’t compare yourself to other people like that. All you end up doing is dismissing your emotions, which is not a productive thing to do. We are in different situations, with different stressors.
The stress that I have experienced coming to France has been mainly attributable to two facets of my situation: I’m the only person from my university currently studying in my program, and I’m not fluent in French. Fairly obvious, but I have been grappling emotionally with these from the moment I landed here.
Basically, any transition is stressful. When you go abroad, you deal with stresses and emotions that you might not have anticipated (which get neatly labeled as culture shock), and you need to let those things off your chest. Ideally, you will have someone on the ground with you that you feel close to, so you can talk it out. At first, I didn’t have that kind of friend in France, so I talked to my parents about my experiences. Unfortunately, some days I felt really alone until 4 pm, when my parents would turn on their computer first thing in the morning (7 am their time) and I would unload my pent-up emotions via Skype.
Even though I have since made friends here that I absolutely trust enough to turn to, I can still count the hugs I have had in the last two months on one hand. So my tip is this: find a friend you trust. Talk about what you feel, verbally work through your stress, and then hug it out.
Being in France has been an exquisite lesson in humility and patience for me, as daily I’m working on expressing my thoughts in a foreign language. For a perfectionist like me, this means not expecting fluency to come at the drop of a hat (my ideal of fluency would realistically take years achieve).
In the context that I studied French from 6-9th grade, and then in college for three semesters and a summer, the fact that I’m putting sentences together is my own little miracle. And I’m putting loads of sentences together. Heck, I just read Une Vie by Maupassant and wrote a six-page paper about it. Hello, I am awesome. I already speak French, and I am getting so much better. I just need to emotionally remind myself of that sometimes.
So every day as I learn more French words, I’m learning to take better care of myself and to cut myself some slack. Coming back from vacation, I have been handling living abroad so much better. And I know that I will just keep getting better at it, the longer I am here.
You don’t reinvent yourself by going abroad. You uproot yourself and plant yourself in a new environment. You figure out how to live, and how being yourself figures into your experience.
So I am continuing to figure out how to be Kylie in France. Which means, as soon as it turned November, I bought myself a new CD of Christmas music and a string of Christmas lights, and I'm enjoying both while I write French papers in my French apartment. I love Christmas, and I’m going to keep on loving it in France. It sounds like a small way of being myself, but it brings an enormous sense of peace, and the sense that home is wherever I find myself.