I spent June of 2023 in Paris, France, and it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The weeks leading up to my departure were anxiety-ridden, filled with packing lists and appointments and open suitcases and a sensation that my life was about to change. I had left the country twice before, the first time in high school as part of a choir trip and the second time in my sophomore year of college with my friends. Both trips were amazing, and I am constantly in awe of the opportunities I have been given to travel.
Leaving for France felt completely different than my previous experiences. First, it was a study abroad trip meaning that I would be going to school in Paris, doing homework assignments, speaking French with my classmates, and most nerve-wracking, living in a homestay. Second, it would be the longest time that I had spent out of the country (and out of my comfort zone). Indeed, this trip was so far out of my comfort zone that the very thought of applying for it had a tinge of unreality. I am so glad that I did. I think that we are all capable of doing something that shocks us, that challenges us, and that proves that we are far more powerful than we may believe. As I waved goodbye to my mom at the airport, I knew that I was about to have an amazing adventure. What I could not predict was how profoundly this experience would change me. Here are some things I learned during my study abroad!
The destination is important but enjoy the journey too.
Traveling is not without its stressors: plane delays, running through the airport, long lines at security, missing bags, and scary TSA agents. My trip was an adventure before we landed in Paris—on the long flight to Paris from Atlanta there was a slight hiccup and we had to make an emergency landing in Washington, DC. Alas, everyone on the flight was in great spirits and I had a lovely chat with the couple sitting next to me. While I was excited to land in Paris, I was also partially terrified because of one interesting component of this study abroad—as a language immersion program, we were required to speak in French as often as possible. That meant the moment we landed in the Charles De Gaulle airport we were to assume the stoic and chic identity of French citizens.
What I learned (rather abruptly) was that I was incredibly unprepared for this linguistic challenge. There was a certain comfort in the nervous, bubbling energy of everyone in my study abroad group as we walked through customs. Hours-old friendships were about to undergo a dramatic test—could we have meaningful conversations, could we get to know each other beyond airport greetings and small talk? To do this in English can be nerve-wracking and ackward, to do it in French is close to impossible. However, in that impossibility there is so much reward.
So many of my favorite moments of the trip involve the little moments of travel—the confident swagger of Americans on the sidewalk, walking along the Seine and hiding from the rain, watching the deep green forest race past us from our window on the train to Fontainebleau, running down the steps to the sound of the metro arriving on the platform, walking to the bus stop under gray skies in the morning, and watching the long, white wings of the wind turbines turning in the blue, Normandy sky. Yes, this trip was about Paris. We spent a month vising museums and researching cultural sites. And yet, some of my favorite moments were those quiet moments of travel and of movement. For as long as I live, I will remember, in some small part, the walk back from the bouche of the metro to my homestay on Arago Street. The stretch of road of Les Gobelins street, with its laundromats and boulangeries and pigeons.
Living in a homestay is rewarding but a little bit terrifying.
When I was originally looking into study abroad programs, this was one element that made me hesitant—the thought of knocking on the door of a stranger’s home in a foreign country, dragging my suitcase into their living room, and then living there for four weeks was not something I was particularly keen to experience. I knew that it would be rewarding (there is nothing quite as authentic as living with a host family), and I also knew that this was probably the only time in my life that I would have an opportunity to do something like this. Living with a host family felt like such a quintessential part of studying abroad, and so it was with dread and gut-wrenching fear that I found myself walking towards an unknown apartment building with my suitcase dragging solemnly behind me. As with most exaggerated fears, living with a host family was a very fulfilling experience. However, it was not without its difficulties.
I struggled to understand my host family when I first arrived. Paralyzed with fear, my French skills completely abandoned me, and I became a quiet shell of myself, a person prone to physical over-exaggerations of expression and gesture to convey simple meaning. Hearing someone speak a language you have been studying is so different from reading the textbook. A fluid, expressive conversation with someone in a foreign language is something you will never experience in the classroom—it requires that you leave your comfort zone and be bold. This boldness was not easy to learn, and it was something that took me weeks.
That was one of my favorite aspects of this program—I was able to measure my progress in dinners, in conversation, in morning greetings. My final dinner with my host family is one that I will never forget. Earlier in my visit, I had mentioned to them how much I enjoyed music. For my final dinner, they asked me to put some music on for everyone (it was the most terrifying, “pass me the aux cord” moment I have ever experienced). I chose instrumental Beatles music (it felt like a safe choice for a relaxing dinner). Through this I discovered that my French family also loved music, and I conversed with them about folk music, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones. For dessert we ate strawberries grown in their garden with fresh cream, and their six-year-old daughter danced in the kitchen to flamenco music. After a quick ballet lesson in the kitchen, we sat down at the table and looked at the pictures in a book about Kansas that I had brought with me. The little girl and I had a long debate about whether a picture of a bald eagle was cute or not (I had jokingly said that the bird was very cute, to which she replied “Il n’est pas mignon!”).
A month-long study abroad is not long enough to form a deep and lasting relationship with a host family; however, it is enough time to learn how amazing the experience can be. It is equal parts terrifying, ackward, bizarre, special, and ultimately fulfilling. If you get the chance to study abroad and live with a host family, go for it!
The outside world is big.
Living in Midwest America can be a relatively homogenous experience. The pace of life is as steady and unrelenting as a ticking clock, and we interact with the world with familiar confidence. Spontaneity is confined to daydreams and most plans here are the result of group-chat negotiations. Leaving my comfort zone and going to a multicultural city like Paris was like a window opening to the world, showing me how big and wide and expansive cultures and languages can be. In my French class (conducted entirely in French by a sweet Parisian women) there were students from across the world—a girl from Vietnam, several students from Korea, a man from China, a woman from Brazil, a girl from Hong Kong, a girl from Peru, a man from Los Angeles, and a girl from New York.
Having the opportunity to interact with people from so many cultures was an incredible experience—I was able to share stories of life in America and hear stories of life all over the world. It is such an interesting experience to feel both a part of a cultural hodgepodge and a cultural outsider (something we don’t often get to experience in the relatively homogenized midwestern landscape). Traveling abroad and meeting fellow Americans is also a wild experience as you realize just how big the scope of American life is and that to connect with someone based on a national identity is relatively weak when the country is as big of a land mass as America. For example, my life in Kansas is vastly different from someone’s life in New York, but on the streets of Paris I felt a deep connection to my fellow (East Coast) Americans.
Living in a multicultural city was so rewarding, from the snippets of language you would hear walking down the street to the fashion and music playing from the street corners. Living in Paris helped to immensely expand my world view.
Life is so beautiful, especially when it is unexpected.
“Guys, we are in Paris right now,” was probably the most pervasive motto of the trip. The shock of the realization never quite wore off, and it was always fun to remind ourselves of the bizarre reality we were living. Going on this trip was such a serendipitous decision—I had wanted to study abroad but I wasn’t sure where I would go or how I would pay for it. I saw a brochure and read the information about scholarships and decided I would give it a shot and apply. I went in for the interview, the study abroad orientation, and then suddenly before I could really come to terms with it all I was on an airplane heading to Paris with a group of strangers and a potent mixture of worry and unbridled excitement.
It was so beautiful to have this experience with that group of people—we all became close over the weeks, and I realized how beautiful life is for bringing us all together, for bringing us safely there and back again, and for bringing us this amazing adventure. I remember stepping off the plane and into the MCI airport in Kansas City and knowing that I had just experienced a profound change. I remember saying goodbye to new friends (after spending four weeks together) and feeling this profound sense of gratitude and happiness. None of us could articulate at that moment what the trip had meant to us, but we all knew just how special it had been. If you get the chance to study abroad, go for it! It really will be one of the most life-changing experiences you will have in college.
Little moments from the trip I want to remember forever:
- The bumpy bus ride throughout Normandy, yellow flowers blooming like fire outside and the nervous French chatter in the bus. The hotel breakfasts and apricot croissants and soft-boiled eggs and pain au chocolats. The view of cyclists passing outside the window in gray-skied Caen. Black birds circling the towers of the cathedrals. Chilly wind, shivering, and seeking shelter, laughing, at Pointe du Hoc.
- Seeing the Eiffel tower sparkle for the first time, the lights twinkling up and down like a shimmering wave of stars. Karaoke and laughter in the dark. Biscuit wrappers and little bottles of merlot. Taking the metro after dark.
- Flea markets materializing magically before my eyes—tables full of little gold and silver treasures and jewels and funny wooden animals. Dusty books and Edith Piaf records and a beautiful illustration of a man picking flowers. The Bouquinistes and their green stalls along the Seine—books lined up in rows and tourists counting euros in their hands.
- St. Paul’s church with its glimmering votive candles and dizzying ceiling with a golden sunburst at the top. Diamond chandeliers in perfect baroque style. The Vivaldi concert and Ava Maria bouncing off the walls as the soprano sang, her voice stretching higher towards the ceiling. Crying and laughing at myself for crying.
- Fanning the sweltering air of our Airbnb with coffee-table books, and when this didn’t work, throwing mattresses over the stairs to sleep in the kitchen.
- The fête de la musique and the way the city became a symphony, from the crooning old choir to the men playing jazz outside of a café and a man singing Pink Floyd songs outside of the Pantheon as the sun cast golden shadows.
- Trying to catch a pigeon on our last day in the city—spreading breadcrumbs from freshly-bought baguettes on the ground and watching the birds swarm around us, the utter silliness of it all and the birds scattering once they became wise to our intentions.
- Watching the sun set in Luxembourg gardens and the final walk back to my homestay.