Angolan Culture Night

Last Friday, November 9th, was Angolan Culture Night at Jim Thorpe Multicultural Center. One of my good friends is from Angola, and was helping set up and coordinate the event.  Pedro was busy, so I didn’t get to see or talk to him until the end of the night. But I am really glad that I went.

First, one of my friends who I haven’t seen since freshman year was there. He was a senior when I was a freshman, and he was also an RA in Walker Tower where I lived. He wasn’t my RA, but we were good friends. We sort of lost touch after he graduated, so I was really surprised and happy to see him.

Secondly, all of the acts were really great. The first performance was a love song by a student named Futura. And he had an amazing voice. The song was well suited to his range, but also, even though it was sung in a local language, it was beautiful to listen to. I found myself really wanting to sing along, but obviously I didn’t know the words. He also really knew how to work the room. He walked from the stage and through the aisles and tables like a singer on a cruise ship. It was really cool, and I think I’m going to try to find that song for my own playlists.

There was also a traditional/contemporary mashup dance, Portuguese song on the ukelele, a fashion show, and a trivia game about Angola’s history, geography and culture. Then the MC’s took some time to acknowledge that not all of the people who worked to put the night together were from Angola but that lots of African student came together to celebrate the upcoming anniversary of Angolan Independence. For instance, one of the MCs was from Mozambique.
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Angolan Independence was a multi-national affair in many ways. Not only did the US, Cuba, and Russia have skin in the game during the actual war and the political circus that followed, but after securing independence, Angolans went to South Africa and fought for their independence as well. As one of the dancers pointed out, the fallout is only just starting to settle, for while independence was achieved 44 years ago, the civil war stemming from different political ideologies/parties only ended 16 years ago.

The final act was a dance by the Angolan dance crew which won Eve of Nations last year, which I missed because I was studying abroad. But it was cool to see the dances, and afterward, everyone was invited to dance. It really was a cool night and a good time, and if I could improve on one thing, it would be that more people should have come out to experience it.

Día De Los Muertos

Last Sunday, I left work early to go to the Día de los Muertos street fair. It was in the Lloyd Noble parking lot, which is right by my apartment. So not only was it fun, but it was also convenient.

Día de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday, which actually is a multi-day holiday. It actually originated from an Aztec tradition, and it didn’t begin as a fall holiday, but after Mexico was colonized by catholic Spain, the holiday slowly migrated toward October 31 to coincide with All-Saint’s-Eve. The point of Día de los Muertos is to remember and honor loved ones and ancestors who have passed away. People build ofrendas, kind of like little alters, with candles, marigolds, crucifixes and photos of deceased family members.

A lot of traditional Día de los Muertos traditions have migrated to other parts of the world, brought along with Mexican emigrants. In the US, Día de los Muertos is not a national holiday, but it has become a cultural event–especially in states near the border like Texas and Oklahoma.

I’d never been to the festival. I was slightly surprised by how many people came to the Lloyd Noble event. I expected a big turn out, but I expected it to be mostly students. But there were so many people from Norman, Moore, and I even met a couple from OKC. It was also a lot bigger than I thought it would be. I expected food trucks and craft tables, like the events that we hold on the South Oval. But there was a huge stage where several bilingual performances took place, an eating area, and a few carnival rides.

I wandered around, got some street tacos and took photos. Unfortunately I was too poor to buy some of the art that caught my eye, like the handmade dreamcatchers. But I had a great time, and this kind of event is definitely something I’d seek out in the future.

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OU Cousins – S’more Night

This year is my last year as a member of OU Cousins. I have always liked participating in this group. I like meeting new people and helping other students feel welcome at OU. OU Cousins is a group where a lot of different people find themselves, even the OU students who participate are pretty diverse, from all different majors and backgrounds.

Because I’m doing an Honors research paper, and taking a full course load, and working, and preparing for the LSAT and applying for law schools, I haven’t had a lot of free time to devote to OU Cousins. Not like I want to anyway. But this week I invited a friend from work to go to the S’more Night event. He also likes meeting new people and learning about other cultures. Both of us studied abroad last semester so we know what it’s like to be in a new country for school.


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I think that my experience as an exchange student myself really gave me another perspective on OU Cousins. When I was in France, I would have been totally lost without my UCA “cousin” Carole. She spoke English and French, so she really helped me enroll and find out where my classes were. I think we don’t have as much language utility here, just because the majority of the American population is monolingual, so we might not be able to go back and forth and be a liaison for our cousins in the traditional sense, like Carole was for me. But I still was able to realize the impact that OU Cousins can have for international students.

My OU cousin for this year hasn’t really been in contact, but I still think that this organization does important work that doesn’t feel like work. Like with my OU Cousin last year, Céline, it just felt like friendship. That’s really what’s important.

Final Day and Return

After the other Leadership Scholars left, I was left with all the international friends I’ve made this semester. Laurin, Kirsten, Alena, Deborah, Francesco, Myrik…the beginning of the end for our group had already begun. People were moving on every two or three days. The day before Laurin left, who if I’m being honest was kind of the glue holding us together. We all met under a bridge, where we actually hung out a lot, and spent a few hours just talking. It was nice. I can’t understand how much I grew to like these people in such a short span of time, and I can’t believe how integral they were to my study abroad experience. I gained so much confidence just by being around them and I learned so much about so many different cultures. I can’t believe how much I’m going to miss not only them but all the experiences I never would have normally participated in, let alone enjoyed. I really do owe them so much, and I’m never going to forget what it was like to be a part of a group so alike in one way, and so different in all others.

Two days before my flight back to America, I convinced my parents to be cool for once and they dropped their policy of financial manipulation and allowed me to get a tattoo as a souvenir. I called Carole, my “godmother,” for our last outing together. She came with me to one of the highest rated salons de tatouage in Clermont, just to make sure that nothing was lost in translation. The tattoo artist was super nice, and incredibly attractive. He was very accommodating, and he resized it a few times to make sure I got it as small as I wanted. It was quick, painless, and surprisingly silent—he has a special gun that’s quiet. I got a fleur-de-lis behind my right ear. I like it a lot. My goodbye to Carole was just as nice, and again, I can’t believe how lucky I was to have her during this semester. She’s a friend that I know I will keep in contact with. That’s amazing.

Unfortunately, my return to the U.S. was not amazing, it was…hectic. I’d spent the week leading up to my departure packing up all non-essentials and throwing away things that I didn’t need: food, certain toiletries, old papers. Still, the morning that I was to head to the airport in Clermont, I had to carry several trash bags full of things that were still technically useful down to the dumpsters—which made me feel wasteful. The day before my father had asked me to take a cutting of a plant so that he could have “proof that he went to France, through me” (weird, and a little self-serving but I guess I could understand). The biggest problem was getting all my bags down in one fell swoop. Since I’d been in Clermont for 6-months, I had two large suitcases, a duffel bag, a backpack, and a purse—all of which were full to the brim. Somehow, I did it, and then I faced my second biggest challenge: making sure that the accueil knew to do my inspection so that I could get my £247/$320 deposit back. The woman was someone I’d never seen before, meaning she was new…which explains why over a month a later I still have yet to receive my deposit.

I was early to the airport, which meant I had time to have breakfast. That was the easiest part of the entire journey. I got to Charles De Gaul Airport in Paris and was cut in line by a group of large women from Georgia (the state, not the country) while waiting to board. I had my duffel bag, which weighed about 50 lbs., and my backpack, which weighed about 20 lbs. They pretended they didn’t see me and just pushed past me, which was rude but I wasn’t in the mood to cause a scene. The flight to the Atlanta airport was long, and exhausting—only because of my seatmates. I was in the middle seat, and the boy to my left was the son of the woman to my right. They constantly talked across me and the boy, who was at least 18 years old, went to the bathroom a minimum of 6 times in the span of 7 hours. The flight attendant fed us about 4 times, and each meal was worse than the last. When we landed, I knew I was still one flight away from my destination, but I was relieved to be on US soil again.

It wasn’t so much that I “missed” the United States. There are a lot of things that I found I liked better in Europe, but there was an entire layer of anxiety that evaporated when I landed, mostly the language thing. I knew that I wouldn’t be confused or tricked or anything by customs or other airport staff. I went through customs and it wasn’t as stressful as I thought it would be. It was just a relief to be able to go through a tedious, potentially complicated, bureaucratic situation without a language barrier—without that need to anticipate questions and practice responses in my head before getting to the desk. I lugged my wares to the other side of the airport and collapsed into a seat. With regards to tickets, boarding, and luggage, everything had gone relatively smoothly until my final flight from Atlanta to DFW. The flight was delayed on the ground by 1 hour, and then once we were in the air we were interrupted by the wordy flight attendant six or seven times to tell us that we’d be delayed an additional 45-minutes.

It was all worthwhile, though, once I got to baggage claim. My family was there, with a sign that said “(Welcome) Back by Popular Demand.” As bad as this sounds, my family was another thing that I didn’t know I missed so much. While I was gone, I was distracted by how foreign and new everything was. But once I saw my sister and my brother, my mom and my dad, I realized that they’d truly been on the other side of the world from me for over six months, and I realized how much I missed being able to call them without waking them up or vise-versa, how much I missed being able to hug the people who loved me most. I’m not ashamed to say I cried, my mom and sister cried (he would never admit it but so did he) and people all around us were watching our reunion.

I’m glad to be home, but now that I’ve been back a while I’m noticing that I’m missing things from France also. I’m living with my parents for the summer and going from the freedom of being treated like an adult in all ways in Europe to being restrained by US laws and my parents is a bit of a shock for me. I miss my friends, it seems like there was always something to do or someone to hang out with. Now, I’m back in Texas and really none of my friends live here anymore, so I’m alone most of the day—back to watching mindless television or playing videogames. I even miss being able to walk places to get things; for a while, in Clermont, it was a hassle. If I wanted anything I knew I’d have to expend a certain amount of energy (mentally, because of the language, and physically, because of the walking); now I don’t really have an excuse to leave the house or get any exercise.

I think I’d go back to France someday. I know I will, I might even move there some day. But for now, I think that I need to keep the spirit that I found in France and bring it to my life here in the United States. I need to be open to going out and spending time with people, and not be a solitary homebody like I was before; I need to be open to trying new things, eating new foods, going to new places instead of living in my comfort zone. I think that that’s the biggest lesson I learned from living in France—I’ve always been theoretically open-minded, but I’ve never put those theories into the simple things: having a drink with a group of friends, going to a new restaurant, purposely getting lost just to see what I find. I’m glad that I’ve had this experience. It sounds corny, because I always knew that there was more than one way to live life, but I really did have move to the other side the world to find out there are other ways for me to live.

Withow Leadership Scholars

One of the best times that I’ve had in France was—ironically—with a bunch of Americans. I belong to an on-campus group at OU called the Withrow Leadership Scholars, which is housed under the College of Arts and Sciences. Before I went to France, I knew that the group would be arriving in Clermont at the end of the semester. It seemed convenient when I applied, but I had forgotten to consider my final exams. It took forever for my professors to get the exam schedule to us, and unfortunately (but unsurprisingly), there was a conflict.

The LS group was scheduled to spend the first few days in France in Paris, and I was determined to go. Despite having spent nearly six months in France, I had only spent a total of six hours in Paris. And that was not enough time to truly enjoy the place. I’d seen the base of the Eiffel Tower, and Notre Dame’s façade, and that was all. The final day in Paris was also the first day of my exams, which meant I’d have to get back to Clermont overnight if I was going to have the best of both worlds. After a lot of back and forth between Rhonda Kyncl and my primary professor, Elodie, with me acting as the liaison, I was able to book my tickets and meet my group in Paris.

The very first day we met up, with everyone arriving at different times. It took the better part of the day for everyone to arrive. In the meantime, we spent some time in the plaza near Notre Dame. But once the entire group arrived, we were all checked into our hotels—I was staying at the historic Normandy Hotel with two other girls whom I’d never met before but who were actually very nice. Then we followed our guide, Christophe, who lives in Clermont but met with us in Paris because he was one of the first French students to come to OU in the 90’s under the university exchange program, to the subway. We disembarked in front of an unassuming restaurant, and I walked in, laughing and joking with my new friends. Little did I know that I was in for the best meal of my life.

Our donor had rented out “La Petite Chaise” and paid for a four-course dinner for our entire group of 26 people. It turned out that “La Petite Chaise” is the oldest restaurant in Paris, and it had been established in 1610. As I had a spirited political debate with the only member of our group who was a Trump supporter, one of our group members pointed out how amazing it was that we were having political debates in a place where hundreds of political debates must have occurred, in dozens of languages, over nearly 400 years. We all got quiet after that and just thought about it. I was also just so grateful to even be a part of this—I was only able to participate in something so great, so timeless and yet new, and so delicious because someone saw something worthwhile in me and chose me to be a part of this organization.

The other best parts of Paris for me were the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay—two historic art museums that house some of the most beautiful, most awe-inspiring, and most influential works in the world. I’m the kind of person who shamelessly cries at art. It’s just overwhelming to think that someone created something so aesthetically pleasing—or in some cases, so meaningful—that their own generation and generations thereafter just felt compelled to preserve it, to admire it, and to encourage others to admire it. Even though I was happy to have made new friends in my group, they weren’t really conducive to my having my transcendent experience in the Louvre. We all had certain works that we wanted to see, and we argued about the best way to get to most of everything that everyone wanted to see within the allotted time. Some people’s desired exhibits were closed, which was a little frustrating, because the Louvre is freaking huge. There’s no eloquent way to impart how big the Louvre is. You could probably spend a week in there and still not see everything.

It didn’t matter, though, because although I didn’t get to stand in one place contemplating the timeless aspect of beauty and poignancy for ten to twenty minutes, I did get to experience with my own eyes some of the most amazing works of art in history and the world, including the Mona Lisa (which was horribly crowded and a little frustrating to get to), and later, in the Musée d’Orsay various works of Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh is my favorite artist, even though I couldn’t truly enjoy Vincent’s Starry Night or self-portrait because my feet were hurting so badly from the trek in the Louvre.

After that, my new friends and I went for lunch in a little alley near Notre Dame, and found a Reggaeton/Latino club in the heart of Paris! —which was interesting to me and exciting for two of our group members, both of whom are of Latino heritage. We went back to the hotel for a quick nap, mostly because we were full but also because the sun was so draining, and then we went back to the Latin club with a few other members of our group. We were the loudest, most enthusiastic dancers in the place, and we had a lot of fans. “Grinding” is not a thing in Europe, so we were sort of the “naughty” Americans for dancing on each other. It was funny, and entertaining for us and for the others in the small bar/pub. Despite our need to wake up early in the morning for a hop-on/hop-off bus tour of Paris, we stayed out late. My feet were killing me again, so even though we were only twenty minutes from the hotel by foot, I hailed a cab and took whoever wanted to ride with me.

After another day in Paris, with great food and a good time with friends, I had to leave a day early because of my finals. In fact, for the next week I had to miss several activities with LS. They took a walking tour of Clermont, wherein the history of several areas that I’d been walking by for months was given by the tour guide—I had an exam. They hiked the Puy-de-Dome and went to a Renaissance fair—I had an exam. They got to go to this bouncing/climbing warehouse—I had yet another exam. Luckily, I didn’t really feel like doing most of that stuff anyway. By the time I had finished my finals, the fun had begun.

The day that I finished my final exam, I ran back to the dorm to meet my group. They’d stalled the bus for me, and I was grateful because that was the first of a series of once-in-a-lifetime experiences that would span over the rest of the time that the LS was in Clermont. We first went to the Michelin Museum, which I thought would be boring, but turned out to be interesting as well as informative. I was so pleasantly surprised that I bought a t-shirt to commemorate it. From there, we boarded the bus again and drove out of town. I hadn’t been privy to the conversations wherein our itinerary had been detailed the day before, on account of my tests, so I had no idea where we were going. But I was certainly not expecting to pull up to a castle.

A short man, who turned out be the owner of the castle, met us at the end of the long walkway. He bought the property back when it was practically a ruin but has since spent an unfathomable amount of money restoring it to its former glory. He invited us in, and I took a ton of pictures of us just walking up to the ancient structure. I was lucky enough to be seated at the table with both Rhonda and our host, and we were then served a delicious lunch by actual butlers, complete with coattails and gloves. He served us wine from his family’s winery and ensured that the Muslims in our group were served halal meat or no meat at all. He was incredibly accommodating as well as accomplished, and even though he could be long-winded at times I learned a lot. For example, during the tour of the castle—after coffee on the terrace—I learned that this castle was owned by Catherine de Medici, who married into the French royal family and whose son eventually wed Mary, Queen of Scots. It was honestly amazing to be able to actually walk around in such a place. As someone who loves history, it was honestly an experience that I can’t even begin to consider how to replicate.

The second once-in-a-lifetime experience that I owe to the Withrow Leadership Scholars was being able to have brunch with the mayor at the hôtel de ville, or townhall, of Clermont-Ferrand. The LS were not the only OU students to attend—Global French Global France was there as well, and I believe a group of engineering students also. We got flutes of champagne, little nibbles such as “roulettes,” and several photo ops. In what world would someone as ordinary as myself every get the opportunity to be able to do something like this again.

Thirdly, I was able to go to Lyon with my group and stay in a very nice hotel for about three days. This is not really a “one-in-a-lifetime” opportunity, since I could always take a trip to Lyon—eventually. But it was certainly the only way that I was going to be able to visit Lyon during my study abroad semester, since I spent much (well, more honestly, most) of my money on going to Porto for my last our-of-country side trip. To be honest, I’d never thought much about Lyon as a travel destination, but I’ll never make that mistake again. It was hands-down my favorite city in France. I could almost live there; I could definitely retire there. It had lots of shops, lots of activities, lots of historical sites—like Paris, without the anxiety; but it was relaxed without being boring, unlike Clermont, which is one of the sleepiest towns I’ve ever visited. It was amazing: I went shopping, climbed a hill to a basilica, ate delicious street food. Lyon was a dark horse, I didn’t think I’d fall in love with it, but I did, and I can’t wait to go back.

The final activity that the LS group engaged in with our tour guide, and with our entire group (many of us had made separate travel arrangements to other countries or back to the U.S.) was a tasting of the Auvergne region’s cheeses, breads, and most importantly, wines. We met on a Friday morning, took the bus to a banlieue, a suburb, of Clermont. It turns out that Christophe’s parents have a wine cellar, and his father was all too happy to share his collection of Auvergne wines with us. We had reds, whites, rosés—and because we were underground in a 13th century wine cellar, none of us even noticed the fact that we were getting hammered in the morning. Thanks to my studies, I got to participate in conversation with Christophe’s parents—who spoke little to no English and laugh with Rhonda—who is now allowed to drink wine thanks to her recent conversion to Catholicism and take selfies with my friends despite the horrible lighting.

We wandered back to the bus around noon, laughing and generally being a nuisance. Thankfully we were in France, so being wine-drunk in the morning is not terribly frowned upon.

The Withrow Leadership Scholars is a group that I applied to on a whim, with no expectation of actually getting in. But I think that it was the jewel in the crown of my study abroad experience. I was mildly concerned that I would lose all my new-found self-confidence once I was back on U.S. soil. But the “preview” of having two weeks with the other members of LS was enough to convince me that this wasn’t just a six-month fluke. That I really have grown into myself during my time away from home, and even though it’s nearly time to go home, I am more secure in who I am. It took a trip to the other side of the world, but I found myself.

Bordeaux (Again) and Porto, Portugal

I was really under-informed about how many vacation/holidays there are in France. Maybe I should have done more research, but if I had known that the French got so many “religious” holidays wherein we didn’t have class, I would have saved more money and taken way more side trips. As it was though, the final holidays of my Spring semester sort of snuck up on me. It wasn’t until Ariel tried to plan a trip with me (which I suspect she only did because Madison was going to Paris with her boyfriend) that I realized it was our last opportunity to go out of town. Since we had German friends, we planned to go to Munich. But that turned out to be insanely expensive. Then we planned to go to Budapest, or Prague, but the timing wouldn’t work out for lodging or air travel. Finally, we settled on Porto, Portugal. But Ariel had never been to Bordeaux. So we first planned to spend a day there, and fly to Porto from the Bordeaux Airport, which would be much cheaper than trying to fly out of the smaller Clermont Airport.

We took a Flixbus to Bordeaux, and I’d texted Leo and Isabelle to let them know that I was fulfilling my promise to visit one more time before going back to the U.S. Unfortunately, it was a little short notice for Leo, who was working outside the city and couldn’t get a day off in time to come see me. But Isabelle was all too happy to meet us and show us around the city.

Ariel and I arrived in Bordeaux right on schedule, and found our AirBnB, which was much cheaper than we expected it to be for such a great location. Our hosts were kind, showed us to our room and even pointed out a few good restaurants in the area. We put our bags down and set out to meet Isabelle. After a little confusion about a meeting place, we finally met up with her. She hugged me for a long time, and I felt grateful for how kind she was and how willing to treat me as her own. She also hugged Ariel and complemented her on her Canadian accent when Ariel introduced herself in French. Then she led us down the street, asking us how our studies in Clermont were going and about my family and how Ariel was liking France. We were supposed to meet up with her son Hugo, Leo’s little brother, because Isabelle was a little self-conscious about her English and she was always wanting to accommodate us—even though we were in France to learn French, as I tried to explain.

Hugo was late, but when he arrived they led us across the river to a part of Bordeaux that was once housing for the army, or training grounds (the scenario for the army being there was unclear, lost in translation) but was now a place for hipster restaurants, gyms and most interestingly, a graffitied skatepark. They led us in and out of the holes which once held doors and windows, and we climbed over ramps and leapt over puddles as we admired the colorful paintings in all their different styles. As we crawled around the wooden area behind the abandoned barracks, Hugo told us that they were tearing down the area to make room for new buildings and businesses. Even as we emerged, a security guard stopped us, yelling at us that “Ce lieu est interdit”—basically, we were not allowed to be there. Isabelle, our supposed adult supervision, laughed and told us to run. When we made it back to the main street, they asked if we were hungry.

Hugo had to leave, to meet with one of his friends, but Isabelle took us to her favorite kebab shop in the city. We ate, then she led us around some of the more famous parts of the city and gave us the history behind each building, statue, and area. Much of it, I had already heard from Leo the first time around, but it was all new to Ariel. We came to a glacier, an ice cream shop, which Isabelle said was Leo and Hugo’s favorite when they were kids. She bought us both two scoops, and we continued the tour. By the time we finished out ice cream we’d wandered far from our AirBnb, and far from where Isabelle had parked the car. She took us to the nearest tram stop, told us where to get off closest to our lodgings, and told me that she loved me and wanted me to visit her again soon. I told her that if she ever wanted to visit Texas or Oklahoma, I’d do my best to be as good a tour guide as she was.

The next day we wandered around the city, not really knowing where we were going or doing but having seemingly endless time to kill before our flight at 4pm. In the plaza closest to our AirBnb there was a flea market. I’ve noticed this all over France, that there are markets where people sell anything and everything, every Sunday. Fruits, vegetables, clothes, jewelry, bread, cheese even pets—chickens, rabbits, cats and dogs. We wandered around there for a while, Ariel was looking at teacups and saucers, and I was talking to a man from Cameroon. He had a set of 5 elephants carved from dark wood and in descending sizes on his table, and my mother collects elephants. They are literally all over our house, and I thought that it would be a great souvenir for her. The man said he’d carved the elephants himself, he could have been lying but he was willing to haggle. I got three—one to represent each of us: me, my brother, and sister—and we continued on our way.

We then went to the cathedral, to the old Roman theater, and to a community garden. We packed our things a little early, mostly because we were out of things to see and out of things to talk about. We had wandered around looking for a place for lunch before going back to the room, but we finally decided on a pizza place down the street from the AirBnb. It was run by two young guys, they had a great playlist going of new artists playing old styles like jazz and blues. It was literally the best pizza I have ever had. I know that the most annoying thing for friends and family of people who have traveled abroad is for them to always bring up some unattainable superlative form of food or drink they “discovered” on the other side of the world…but I will compare every pizza from now until the end of time to that pizza.

From there we walked to the bus station, which had a shuttle to the airport. We were early for our flight, by a lot, which turned out to be irrelevant. Isabelle texted me right at the time that our flight was meant to leave, wishing us safe travels. Unfortunately, the flight was delayed…by several hours. We waited around forever, and neither the airport nor the airline gave us any indication of when we were meant to be leaving. After a nearly 4-hour delay, we were able to board and take off. Our flight was to Lisbon, Portugal, and from there we had a flight to Porto. When we landed in Lisbon we had just enough time for a disappointing meal in the airport before our new connecting flight to Porto.

Originally, we were supposed to arrive around 8pm, enough time to find dinner in our vacation spot. After all the delays, we arrived around 12:30 am. We found our hostel with ease, and checked in. Which was frustrating, because the manager spoke no English and we didn’t speak any Portuguese. Finally, we got settled and had to sneak into the all-girls dorm while everyone was asleep. Of course, only top bunks were left so not only did we have to put our stuff in the lockers in the dark, but we also had to climb a bed whilst some other unfortunate girl was sleeping in the bottom bunk. I had trouble with the lock on the drawer, which was under the bottom bunk. Eventually, the girl in that bed helped me—which turned out to be a great thing.

Finally, after the worst travel experience to date, I was able to sleep.

The next morning, I met the girl in the bottom bunk who had helped me the night before. Her name was Cícera, she was Brazilian, and she spoke a little English. The hostel served breakfast, so Ariel and I met her downstairs. I apologized to her for waking her up and thanked her for helping me with the locked drawer. She asked me and Ariel where we were from, and why we were in Portugal. We told her that we were studying in France, and that we were on vacation. She told us that she was just on a tour of Europe, and that this was her last stop before returning to her job in Brazil. She told us that it was her last day and invited us to spend the day in the city with her. And I was grateful to meet her, because even though a lot of people speak English in Europe, it was nice to meet someone who spoke Portuguese. She was able to tell us a lot of the history of Portugal, and its long, checkered history with her home country, most of which I never knew.

Portugal in easily one of the mostly underrated countries of all time. The weather is perfect, the people are friendly, and the buildings are spectacular. Most spectacular in my opinion was the church that was not far from our hostel. It was situated on a precipice right in the middle of the city, so there was a balcony with a fantastic view of the rest of Porto right outside the church. We spent a fair amount of time right outside the church taking selfies and photos. Inside the church, the walls, floors, ceilings, paintings and statues were covered in gold—much of which was taken from South America and Africa during colonization. It gave me a strange feeling, admiring the beauty that came from an indubitably dark period for someone—obviously it was kind to the Portuguese. After the church, we wandered around downtown and eventually came to a street that is famous for its prolific graffiti. Some of the paintings were gorgeous of course, but some were just…odd. We had a little difficulty deciding what to do next, so we wandered around some more, telling each other about our home countries. Before we knew it, we had wandered to the river, and Cícera read the sign on the side of building advertising boat tours. The English sign was in the front, and it turned out that they offered much more than that.

The tour guide at the front desk told us that we could pay a little extra and get a tour of the port wine cellar on the other side of the river as well as a boat cruise. There was a tasting after the tour, so we decided to shell out the extra cash and then made our way across the bridge. The walkway was narrow but the sun glinting off the water was beautiful. When we got to the museum/wine cellar it turned out that the office from which we’d purchased our tickets had called to alert the museum of our arrival. They gave us an English tour guide, and we were accompanied by an older couple who were originally from the United States, but emigrated to Canada in the December 2016, for reasons “they didn’t want to get into.” I don’t know why they bothered to say that, since we all knew they moved to escape Trump but whatever. We had great conversation, for a group of people who didn’t know each other very well. Because it was so horribly hot that day, we decided not to get too drunk so that we wouldn’t be dehydrated. After the wine tour, we had a little time to kill before our boat tour, so we decided to get some lunch by the river.

There were all sorts of restaurants on the bank: simple ones, fancy ones, and very fancy ones—all right next to each other. We also passed several vendors selling shades, t-shirts, homemade jewelry, leatherworks, and textiles. We wandered through the pop-up market for a while, before heading into one of the less-fancy restaurants that was still nice enough to have “menu”—which is like several courses in one price—for about 11 euros. I had the best chocolate mousse for dessert, and since the restaurant was upstairs, we had a beautiful view of all the multi-colored buildings built in to the cliff on the other side of the river. During lunch, Cícera told us about her friends who had immigrated from Brazil to Portugal for college. They had planned a beach day and she invited us as well. We agreed, even though we hadn’t planned to go to the beach, so we didn’t have our swimsuits actually with us. I would come to half-heartedly regret this decision, as I ended up getting sand in my jeans, which remained for weeks.

We went on the boat tour, and it was by far my favorite experience up until that point. The speakers were playing Portuguese folk music, and there’s something comforting about listening a song in a language you don’t speak. You can just experience and enjoy the human voice, the instruments, and the feeling of just engaging you senses and being alive. The boat ride offered one of the rare experiences wherein you’re perfectly aware of your existence but not really thinking about it too hard—just hard enough to appreciate that you have the senses and capabilities to truly participate in the fabric of the world. I could see the water, and where it fed into the ocean and I thought about how incredible it is to be so small and partake in something as large as the earth and its oceans; and I saw the bridges built across the river (all from different time periods as they found better ways of engineering life around this force of nature) and the buildings built into the sides of cliffs, churches and mosques, homes and businesses, and the determination and fortitude of humanity just sort of overwhelmed me. All this plus the beautiful music coming through my headphones, I just remember thinking: “People worked incredibly hard to build these bridges, these walls to contain the river, these houses hundreds of feet up a cliffside. They worked hard to evolve and be able to accomplish something as mundane as a riverside civilization, just so they could exist next to all this beauty. And that makes humans the simplest and most sophisticated creature there is.” We’re an impressive species.

We disembarked from the boat on the other side of the river. And from there, Cícera said we’d have to walk nearly 3 miles to the beach. She said it like it was nothing, but to Ariel and me, it was unthinkable. During this semester, I’ve really learned how little we as North American walk. I mean, we really drive everywhere. And I also learned how even though most large European cities have much better public transportation systems than the U.S., people are really more willing to walk than use any other form of transport. Normally, I don’t mind so much, but there were two flaws in the plan: the sun was shining as though it had some vendetta against us, and the walkway the Cícera led us to was over the river.

There nothing to be done about the sun, but the walkway that she had chosen was not solid. It was a metal grate suspended over the river. There were no poles holding it up, it was bracketed to the road (which was on solid ground). We were at least 50 yards above the river, and while I normally don’t have a problem with heights, I did not like seeing the river flowing beneath my feet. I figured that it couldn’t go on too long, so I decided to suck it up and follow Cícera and Ariel. But by the time I realized that the suspended walkway was about 1 mile long and I was going to have to have anxiety the whole time, we were already halfway across. I had no choice but to stick it out and hold my breath. It was honestly horrible but clearly, I didn’t die, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

We waited in the heat for Cícera’s friends and then took the bus to the beach. It really was a beautiful day, and even though we weren’t dressed for the beach, we still made new friends and got to see the Atlantic from the other side of the world. And to me, that was well worth that infernal sand in my pants.





Dark Times

I know I was warned about this—“culture shock” that could manifest itself as depression, even though I know that I have a history of feeling “blue.” I think I’m depressed now, or maybe I’m just homesick. I mean I feel like doing what I’m supposed to be doing is draining me, and there’s no excitement in the day, even though I’m on the other side of the world. Everything just feels drab, and it’s not like I don’t know what I need to do. I just can’t really bring myself to do it. I just end up talking myself out of it.

I’ve already had a brief spell of depression, I didn’t go to class for about three days. No real reason, I wasn’t sick. I was just…tired. And I couldn’t sleep enough, even when I would first wake up, I just felt too tired to force myself to go through the motions of preparing for the day, let alone actually facing the day.

Maybe this is culture shock. I mean, when I get depressed in America, I just have to eventually find the willpower to make up an excuse to go outside. Even if it’s just to go to 7-Eleven for an ICEE, or to a fast-food restaurant for dinner—rather than ordering in. In fact, I’ve been known to just not eat, rather than going to buy groceries or even leaving my room to go to the kitchen, lest I run into one of my roommates. Once I do that, I can start to fix myself. But here, there’s the extra layer of language and cultural barriers that makes staying in my tiny room much more appealing than trying to go out for any reason.

I’m not a bad student, but I’ve always been prone to times like this. It’s just never seemed as dire, I guess. At OU, sometimes I take a mental health day. Professors are usually understanding, and I can always catch up. But here the system is different, so even though I’m trying but can’t force myself to care, missing one day could be a catastrophe. Especially because all my credits here have to survive the journey back to the University of Oklahoma.

Writing about it helps. I mean it doesn’t make me want to run off to class, but the mental shackles keeping me here in my little room are getting a little lighter.

The thing is I don’t want to be a disappointment. It’s one of my biggest fears. And missing class is disappointing. But I just can’t go there right now. I’m sitting here writing about how much I need to go and I simply can’t force myself to move. It’s like I tell my brain to tell my body to get ready for class, and my brain has decided to switch off its walkie-talkie and ignore me—the message just never gets to my limbs. Part of me is pissed off about it, and part of me is secretly relieved that there was a breakdown in communication because even though it’s something I need to do, I just can’t fathom doing it. Not today.

I wish depression came with a schedule. “You will feel like staying in bed from March 10th to the 15th, then you’ll feel a little better, please plan your week accordingly.” But no. I don’t know if later today I’ll be braver and be able to con myself into going to my afternoon class, or if tomorrow I’ll wake up ready to face to face the day instead of ignoring it. And that’s a little hard to plan for.

I think that part of the problem is that even when I’m not depressed class is a little tedious. I know it’s a new system in a new country, and I like some of it. I dislike the way the classes are taught (all group work), that the classes are chosen for you and that they last two hours at least. Sometimes it’s fun. But right now, the exhaustion of just being alive is making the part that should be the easiest—simply going to class—the most difficult. It’s like the cons (showering, getting dressed, brushing my teeth) weigh as much as a small elephant sitting on my feet, and the pros (enjoying France, seeing my friends in class, improving my French) are as light as feathers, floating in my peripheral vision.

I’ve never been one to harm myself, but I’m prone to self-neglect. I don’t even really have the energy to write this journal, but it’s helping. I know I’ll feel better, it’s just a matter of when.

Les Vacances, part 2

After leaving Leo and his lovely family behind in Bordeaux, I took a series of planes to Rome to meet Ariel and Madison, who had been traveling together in Italy while I was still in France. They’d gone to Venice, Milan, and Florence and finally had spent one-and-a-half days in Rome. My flight had been severely delayed, by hours in fact. In Rome, you have to take a train from the airport to the actual city. My friends were originally going to meet me at the station, but since my flight was so late, they went to the nearby mall to waste time in Victoria’s Secret.

I’ve never travelled abroad before, and so I didn’t understand the importance of light packing. There’s a reason people “backpack” through Europe, instead of “two-pieces of luggage-ing” through Europe. The whole continent is basically made for pedestrians, at least the high-traffic tourist-y areas which we were determined to see. So, carrying both a full duffel bag and a full backpack through the narrow, uneven, crowded streets of Rome at 9pm was a horrific struggle. Still, I huffed and puffed and kept up as best I could as they filled me in on the horrible bunk-mates they’d encountered at their previous hostels and led me to an authentic Italian restaurant. I was a little nervous because I still had all my luggage, but the owner was nice about it.

We had a four-course meal for a very reasonable price. Appetizers, an entrée, desert, and coffee—though there was a little mix up/translation issue with the entrée. It had been translated into English, but the translation said “scallops” but we were served chicken. Which was delicious, but I think they meant “escalloped” which is a method of slicing chicken. So, we were kind of shocked when we didn’t get any seafood. No matter, everything was still great.

After that, Ariel and Madison led me to the hostel, where I had to rent a towel for 2 euros because despite filling both my backpack and duffel bag, I had neglected to bring a towel. This was also my first time in a hostel, and I don’t know what I was expecting. It was like camp sort of—four bunk beds, eight girls, and one small bathroom. At the risk of sounding “other” I’ve never had to share a bathroom with white people before. I never realized how much stray hair they produced, especially since with was all over the walls and floor and shelves. It was super gross, to be honest, but I guess they can’t really help it. After a shower, I took a while getting dressed—mostly because I refused to try to dress in that damp, claustrophobic, hairy bathroom so I had to hide my nudity from the other girls by hunching over and turning my back. I don’t have a problem being naked in front of other women, since it’s not like there are any surprises, but I’ve learned that other women are sometimes super weird about it. This was honestly the worst twelve hours of my spring break, because not only did I not get to see Rome (besides the restaurant and train station, of course) but we had to catch a 3am flight to Greece the next day. Therefore, having arrived at the hostel and gotten ready for bed around 11:30pm, we had time for what basically amounted to a nap before we had to wake up and book it to the train station, so that we could catch a 6am flight to Athens.

I took forever to wake up, because I’d travelled all day, had a large dinner and only 3 hours of sleep. But we made it to the airport in time for our flight, early in fact, and our arrival in Athens went off without a hitch. I was stupidly shocked to see actual Greek letters, and hear people speaking Greek. It’s such a niche language—I’ve never heard anyone speaking Greek outside of Greece, and again, it’s one of those countries where most people have a pretty good handle on English (at least in Athens, one of the metropolises). I carried my heavy duffel bag through the city and vowed to never take more than a backpack anywhere in Europe again. We arrived at the hostel, and after the last hostel I was skeptical, mostly because I hadn’t known anything about our lodgings—Ariel and Madison just sent me links to the hostels and flights, and I booked it. But the Athens hostel was beautiful—huge windows, a giant bathroom for the floor, a balcony, plus free breakfast.

On our first afternoon, which thanks to the 6am flight was also the day we arrived, we explored markets and had lunch. Greece, despite its economic problems in recent years, is a country where a little money goes a long way. Or perhaps the cost-effective nature of the place is due to its recent fiscal struggles. Either way, the travel to Greece can be pricey, but once you’re there the prices are not only low, but everything’s negotiable. Then we went to a cooking class that we saw on a flyer at the hostel. We learned how to make dolmas, which is rice, meat, and herbs wrapped in grape leaves and steamed, roasted eggplant, tzatsiki sauce, and a chocolate-ice cream-graham cracker dessert made with masticha liquor (very strong, very sweet, guaranteed hangover if you drink it straight). We met a cute older Canadian couple who’d immigrated to the Netherlands, and a brother and sister on “holiday” from Manchester, England. It was very nice, and our chef even emailed us the recipes when we were done.

The next day, we went to all the historic sites of Greece, which was a huge treat for me. We went to the Arch of Hadrian, then the Acropolis Museum and then we climbed the Acropolis. I don’t generally enjoy climbing or physical activity of any sort, but it was so worth it to see the view, the Theater of Dionysus, and the Temple of Athena Nike. In addition to my International Studies major, I’m also a Letters major—mostly because I’m interested in history and its effects on the present. The Greek and Roman civilizations are not only iconic, but they’ve had an incredible impact on Western civilization, from philosophy to entertainment to government. It was amazing to just stand where hundreds of Greeks stood, making pilgrimage to the temple at the top of the hill—though I doubt they had to pay ten euros just to climb it. I don’t think that my friends were having the same reaction that I was, mostly because they don’t have as keen an interest in history as I do. Madison is an Engineering major, and Ariel is a French Lit major. I just stood there taking in the view and tried to imagine what it looked like back when it was first built. I nearly cried, just to be touched by so much history.

After that, we went out to lunch and somehow managed to find a restaurant that tourists know nothing about. We were commended on our choice of restaurant by three older women from Israel. Lunch costed 4 euros, and it was both filling and delicious. Unfortunately, it then began to rain, and we decided to try to wait it out in our hostel. Once the rain stopped, we went shopping. Silver is one mineral that is apparently plentiful in Greece, so we were able to get authentic silver jewelry for far cheaper than we could have bought it anywhere else. I bought a ring with the Greek “meander”—the iconic square-ish swirl pattern. Then I bought presents for my sister and my friends and I bought “friendship bracelets” with the evil eye. After dinner, we decided to have a calming girls night. We found a make-up store, bought masks and nail polish, then wandered around looking for a bottle of wine. That was one of my favorite nights, just laughing at stupid jokes and planning our next day in detail like it was a life and death scenario. We made fun of each others’ accents (I’m from Texas, so they pointed out that I say ‘y’all’ more often than I’d like to admit; Madison, despite living in Tulsa her whole life has a touch of a Valley girl accent; and Ariel, of course, is Canadian, so we laughed about her pronunciation of ‘about’ and ‘garage’).

The next day, we went to Hadrian’s Library, the Ancient Agora of Athens, the Roman Agora, the National Gardens and the Temple of Hephaestus. It sounds like a lot, but most of these sites were right next to each other. After lunch at the same hole-in-the-wall restaurant from the day before, we shopped some more then took a cab to a bus station. We were trying to go to the Temple of Poseidon, which is on a cliff far from Athens’ city center. We caught the bus on time, despite being very confused about where it would pick us up and wondering if we had time for a quick bathroom break.

The Temple of Poseidon was our last stop. We were taking a plane out the next morning, and I have to say: the gorgeous sunset, a centuries old temple at our back and the expanse of ocean before us—it was 100% worth it.


Les Vacances, part 1

Spring break in France was amazing. I was pleasantly surprised to find that we had two weeks off, rather than the standard one week in the United States. Frankly, I didn’t know what to do with so much free time. But I’ve always been something of a homebody, I prefer to amuse myself with reading, drawing, watching Netflix. I can be just as entertained in my pajamas as I can be dressed to the nines and out with a group. So, for the first week of my spring break, which were simply known as les vacances, I did absolutely nothing.

Of course, I did somethings—like catching up on commissions for my tattoo design business and watching American series’ that I’d fallen behind on since arriving in Europe. I finished Artemis, a sci-fi/futuristic novel about a colony on the moon. I actually Facetimed my parents, which I have been neglecting—partially because of the time difference, partially because either party is always busy, and partially because I just hate Facetime. I slept as late as I wanted, left my shutters closed all day and had a movie marathon of cult-classics that I’d always wanted to watch but never had time to, like Trainspotting and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I was sinfully relaxed, especially because there were a few minor projects that I was to complete during the break. But I figured I could simply leave them for the next week.

This would turn out to be a mistake because the second week of les vacances was to be dedicated to traveling.

Leo is my friend who spent a semester in Norman, right before I came to France for my semester abroad. He lives in Bordeaux and insisted that I come to see him once I arrived. I promised I would and booked travel accommodations both to spend time with he and his family, and to meet my friends Madison and Ariel in Athens, Greece for the second half of the week. I took a bus to Bordeaux, where Leo and his mother Isabelle met me. His mother took my bags in their car back to their apartment, and Leo showed me around Bordeaux. He was really excited to see me, and I was glad that he was. The last thing anyone wants is to go half-way around the world to see a friend and have nothing to say to them.

We walked around, crossed a bridge over the river that splits the city in half. He talked about a few pubs that he’d visited with his friends, told me stories of places he’d gone with his family. He insisted that we take the boat back to the main part of the city, where the old ports, theaters, and restaurants are. Even though the boat was nearly an hour late, we waited and talked. He insisted on speaking English, which was both a relief and a little frustrating for me. I think that coming to America to practice English is probably the same, but in a different way. In Europe enough people speak English that if you find yourself unable to speak French, German, Spanish, or whatever, you can still usually accomplish your goal. But in the United States, so few people speak a second language that you have no choice but to struggle through your English until an understanding is reached. But Leo said that he was losing his ability to speak English, and he wanted to practice.

We took the ferry back to town, and Leo showed me the old Roman theater, the opera house, the fountain that commemorates the end of World War II and Germany’s occupation in France. He showed me the three-story indoor-outdoor mall, Gordon Ramsey’s restaurant, and his favorite kebab shop, where we got dinner. We took the bus out to the suburbs, and I don’t know why I never thought of there being suburbs in France. Probably because no one ever talks about the ‘burbs in well-known cities like Paris or Bordeaux. We arrived at his apartment building around midnight, and everything worked out perfectly because Leo’s younger brother, Hugo, was spending the break in Amsterdam, so I was able to sleep in his room.

A quick sweep of Hugo’s room showed me that if I ever met him, he and I would be great friends—assuming I would be able to communicate with him. Fact is, I would live in Hugo’s room. He had posters of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, a record player with Nina Simone still under the needle, his ‘wallpaper’ were stills from American movie classics like ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘Thelma and Louise.’ His books, scattered all over the desk, were French translations of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Plato’s Republic, and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; there was a three-tiered chessboard on the bookshelf. I felt right at home.

The next morning, we woke up incredibly early because Leo and his mother wanted to show me the Basque country, or Le Pays-Basque. It was during the car ride that I realized Leo and his family are communist, as we sang lots of songs about ‘the people’ on the way. I tend toward more socialist political ideology myself, so I wasn’t concerned, just surprised that they didn’t have a hint of shame when telling me their political views. We drove to a hotel that Isabelle is able to stay in for free, thanks to her job in French government. They simply had to call ahead a few days in advance and schedule their stay. It was a nice hotel, with a view of the ocean. It occurred to me that it was the first time that I’d seen the Atlantic from the other side.

We explored Basque-country and it was beautiful. The ocean, the large ornate buildings on the waterfront, the little shops selling unique wines, artisan chocolates, and dainty porcelain souvenirs. We had crêpes for lunch, and then I bought a hand-painted thimble for my grandmother, who was seamstress. We then had dinner at the home of Pascal, who was a comrade of Isabelle and her husband. I learned that Leo’s parents, alongside Pascal, were communist protestors who fought against the French and Spanish government for the liberation of Basque country. Pascal had even gone to jail once in the name of independence. Now, though, he is a professor with a swanky home full of authentic African statues and masques, a living room (which is the only one I’ve seen in any of my friend’s French apartments), and reggae music in various languages pouring out of every window. He cooked dinner for us, which was delicious, and poured us glasses of champagne, which he kept full. I thought it was very generous of him, especially since champagne is such a luxurious item in the United States. Only later when Pascal popped the fifth bottle without hesitation that champagne might be much cheaper and more plentiful in France.

There were six other people there, who were also once soldiers for Basque independence, and they hadn’t seen Leo since he returned from the United States. They asked him lots of questions, and then they turned to me. They asked me about universities in the States, and when I told them that many students go into insurmountable debt in an attempt to better themselves and earn a fighting chance to find meaningful employment. They all looked so shocked and I was just insanely jealous of the incredulity. For us, it’s a harsh reality. For them, it’s unthinkable.

The next day, we drove to Spain. And there was no border checkpoint, and hardly any signage. They simply tuned down Jimi Hendrix’s Hey Joe and said: “We’re in Spain now.” It was a small town that we went to, with a big, beautiful, domed church. We went to a cave that doubled as both a natural formation and a burial place for las brujas, women who were burned alive for being “witches.” It was gorgeous, enough to override any lingering creepiness that you’d think would come from such a place. That night they found out that I’d neglected to eat several quintessential French foods, like rillettes du canard, which basically a duck that’s been condensed into a can. It was surprisingly good.

The next day we went back to Spain, this time to a beach-town. We had tapas and wrote our names in the sand; Isabelle bought me so many snacks, drinks, and trinkets that I felt like I belonged to her. I told her as much, and she gladly said that she would be my maman, my ‘French mother.’ Apparently, I’m the daughter she never had. When we drove back to Bordeaux that same afternoon, we found that Leo’s father had returned from a business trip to Paris and had cooked dinner for us. Roasted chicken, foie gras, and a good Bordeaux wine. Leo said that he and his father had been planning the dinner for me for the past week, and that they wanted to make sure that I had the best that Bordeaux had to offer. I was so touched at how welcome they made me, and I was so glad to have met Leo at OU.

He showed me around Bordeaux for my last night and took me to the roof of one of the colleges at the University of Bordeaux—which I don’t think was strictly legal, but I got a lovely photo out of it anyway. Then I met some of his friends, and we went for drinks throughout the city for my last night. Even Leo’s friends were kind and inviting, and even though I didn’t understand all the French slang that passed between them, they would see my confusion and try to slow down, or sometimes switch to English all together. I had to field a few questions about Trump, which always sucks, but in the end, I was so happy to have gone.

The next morning, Leo and Isabelle took me to the airport to catch the series of flights that would take me to Rome to reunite with my friends before going to Athens. Isabelle told me to come back and see her before I returned to America, and I agreed to try. She kissed my cheeks and gave me a pain au chocolat—which is apparently known as a chocolatine in certain regions of France—and Leo handed me my bags. He waved and promised to tell me if he ever came back to the U.S., and I promised to meet him (if he wasn’t too far from wherever I end up, since flights in the States are not like Europe, where you can fly to a totally different country for the same price it takes to fly over three states.)

I hefted my duffel bag and headed off toward my next adventure.

La Raclette et L’Appart

My French friends aren’t the only friends I’ve made.

It seems as though the international students here really stick together, and thus my main group of friends is made up of people from all sorts of different countries. The first and—as I have come to learn, most lasting—friendships I’ve forged began one night when Carole invited me to her house to try “la raclette.”

She invited me and my “American friends” over Friday night, at the end of January. She was, of course, referring to Madison, who I believe I’ve already mentioned, and Kylie. I’ve had some French classes with Kylie at OU in the past, but we didn’t talk much outside of the classroom, or at all really. As it happens we weren’t all friends at the time, just all coming from the same university. I think we all hid it from each other well, but I know that at that time, we were all a little confused and apprehensive about our study abroad adventure. We were like paper ships, sailing down a stream—individuals, cut from different cloths, but united by the current of what was sure to be a new experience—even for Kylie and Madison, who unlike me, had already been outside of the United States before. So we clung to each other in the beginning, if not for a friendly face, for the comfort of knowing there was someone who understood the things that confused, frightened, and excited us. And of course, for someone with whom we could speak English.

Carole’s friend Ibtissim, who is a young woman from Morocco, was also a marriane. She had invited her international students as well: Laurin, a tall boy from Cologne, Germany with dark blonde hair, and two students from Winnipeg, Canada: Ariel, a girl with long hair who was just a few months older than me, and Oscar, a young man of 25 who’s family was originally from Nicaragua. If you’ve ever been inside a French student’s affordable appartement, it is needless to say that the space was not very forgiving. Carole’s apartment did not have a living room. Only a kitchen, a bedroom and a bathroom. Thus, we were all eight of us settled into Carole’s small kitchen.

After the initial introductions, which were awkward, as they always are, we settled into an easy conversation about music, our studies, and our countries of origin. After learning more about each other, Carole declared it was time to show us what to do. La raclette is an interactive eating experience, kind of like fondu in that it is both meant to be shared with friends and that it involves a lot of cheese. There were various types of cheese and ham, as well as potatoes, all laid around one large electric appliance. It looked like a strange hybrid of a pancake griddle and an electric hand-dryer, but it worked like a broiler. There was a little metal tray beneath a heat source, like a toaster. Each of us got a tiny square pan, like the smallest, thinnest, squarest skillet you can picture. Carole explained that we were to put our meat on the pan first, then top it with the cheese of our choosing. Then we were to allow the cheese to melt under the heat of the apparatus, slide it off of the skillet onto the potatoes or bread, or just onto a plate.

Madison, Kylie, and I supplied the dessert, which is polite when one is going to a soirée—guests either bring dessert or drinks. We brought an assortment of chocolate pastries, from a patisserie not too far from our dorm. Laurin, Ariel, and Oscar brought wine. Which somehow turned into the drinking age in America, which of course brought to attention the fact that I am still technically too young to drink in America, since I’m only 20. Though Ariel was the same age as me, she joined in on the light-hearted teasing that inevitably began. Eventually, they let Laurin pour me a glass.

We did our best to speak only in French, but as Carole spoke some English, as did Laurin, after spending several summers in Australia, Greece, and Canada, we fell into broken English and eventually gave up the whole pretense after the second bottle of wine (split eight ways, of course) was gone. Unfortunately, Ibtissam spoke no English at all. This was unbeknownst to us, of course, at least at first. But when she angrily slammed into Carole’s room, it occurred to us that she hadn’t participated in the conversation once the conversation had slipped into decidedly English territory.
The night, however, was saved by Carole, who persuaded Ibtissam to return to the table, and the rest of us were more vigilant about speaking French, limited then though it was.

That was the first night I met Ariel and Laurin, two people who I would eventually grow closer too. It was also the first and last night that I would hang out with Oscar, Kylie, and Ibtissam. Not for any malicious reason, really—Ibtissam, I didn’t know how to contact or speak to (she uses a lot of French slang, and Ariel, who studied French in Canada since she was a child, is the only person I know who can understand her). Oscar and I don’t have anything in common, and if I’m being truthful, he rubs me the wrong way—always needing to be right, to explain, to know everything, even though he’s a student just like everyone else.

Kylie decided that she didn’t want to hang out with us, having decided that she didn’t have anything in common with us—she prefers to spend time with the students in her class. When I’ve seen her, she seems happy, but she also seems like she wants to avoid us. I’m not entirely surprised—even when she’d been in French classes with me, she never seemed keen to spend any time with me. I think that my personality is a little too boisterous for her, and initially, I thought she was too timid for me. But now I know that she’s a pretty strong individual, able to break away from something ‘uncomfortably comfortable,’ like a group of friends who are just as lost as you are but with whom you have nothing in common. As far as I know she’s enjoying her time though, and that’s all I can really wish for anyone.

And so, it was with Laurin, Ariel and Madison that I went to my first club just a few weeks later—on account of only being 20 years old and having lived most of my life in the U.S., where being 20 means little else beyond watching your friends have fun or sneaking around pretending to be older than you are. But I never felt such a weird kinship than at L’Appart, the club near the shopping center Jaude where all the other international students go to blow off steam.

Laurin knew lots of other international students because he goes to the actual university, like Ariel, as opposed to us at OU who have an agreement to learn French only at Centre FLEURA. He introduced us to Francesco and Matteo, who both come from Italy. They each only take one course at UCA and have basically decided that they would take an easy semester in France, even though neither of them speaks any French. But it wasn’t just who Laurin knew. Somehow, we were all there on the same night, and we were all too willing to make friends with the others who had come so far and, for reasons known only to others, had ended up in Clermont.

Deborah and Valencia, also Italian and practically joined at the hip. We met Maybrit, who I had known before from one of Carole’s marriane friends, Justine. She also comes from Cologne, Germany, but she and Laurin had never met before, which I thought was funny. Esteban, who is an architecture masters student from Mexico. Jimmy, from Cameroon, who spoke fluent German, much to the delight of Laurin, Maybrit, and Marie—another girl from Cologne. Yassin, a boy from Morocco; Ahmed, Samuel, and Muhammad, who came from Algeria; Henrietta from Finland; Hayley, Erica, Hannah, who all came from Scotland; Suzanna, from the Czech Republic.

We were all pilgrims in search of experience, adventure, knowledge, fun, and freedom. And I’d never had so much in common with so many people who couldn’t be more different from me. And I surprised myself, which I think is the point of studying abroad. You never know what you’re capable of until you end up somewhere where you don’t know if you can hack it. Usually, by 2am, I’d be far too socially exhausted to feel at ease in a strange place in a foreign country.

But I found myself content, cracking jokes with people I’d only met 20 minutes prior, dancing with my new friends, laughing so hard I couldn’t tell if I’d gone silent or if I’d just been drowned out by the music. Even as we left the club in the early hours of the morning, stumbling and giggling into the silent streets in search of a kebab shop, I was more than assured that come what may, this was one of the best decisions I could have made for myself. I’d made new friends, friends who would prove to be some of the best people I’ve ever met, and even though I knew that it couldn’t possibly be like this all the time—carefree, ludicrous, high on youth—I knew that whatever challenges I would face would be worth it, for all the times like this.