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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.

Les Problèmes avec L’administration

It’s late March now, and I think I’ve been so preoccupied with making friends and deciphering the French collegiate system that writing my journals simply slipped my mind all together. So, to recount my scholastic adventures here at UCA, I’ll have to go back about three months.

There were some administrative mistakes that I could easily blame for the disaster that was my first week of school here, but maybe I could find some blame for myself if I simply retrace my steps. I am a Letters-International Studies double major at OU, and I originally planned to use this semester to catch up with my International Studies degree, since I added it after my Letters degree was nearly finished. Why would I do such a thing? If I’m being honest, the prospect of graduating with a bachelor’s degree at the age of twenty scared me a little. I mean, what am I supposed to do after that? I’ve been in school my entire life, and suddenly I’m supposed to get a job, learn how to do my taxes? Obviously, I plan to learn those things, but I wasn’t quite prepared to do it so quickly. And, I’ve always had an interest in the interconnectedness of the global community, so I felt it would help shape my focus when I do begin searching for a career.

But I digress. The problem is that I chose classes that I believed would transfer over to the College of International Studies. As it would turn out, that was never even an option.

The Université de Clermont Auvergne gave me a “marriane,” which means “godmother.” Her name is Carole, and she is basically my partner, in a program similar to OU Cousins. She reached out via Facebook and told me that she would show me around to find where my advisors and classes were. We met at my dorm, and once again, the le bis took me by surprise. She is short and curvy, with curly brown hair, light brown skin, and bright red glasses. She told me that she was born in Madagascar, and I felt like an idiot for forgetting that people live in Madagascar. That stupid movie is all I could think of, and I mentioned it to her. She laughed and told me that the lemurs there are like the squirrels everywhere else, just kind of part of the landscape. We found my advisor’s office, but not the actual advisor, as apparently, she didn’t come to work on Thursday afternoons. I took a picture of her office hours, and then Carole asked to see my learning agreement—a list of the classes that I had chosen to take.

Because the university is spread out over the city, we hiked back to the building Gergovia, which wasn’t actually that far from my advisor’s office or the dorms, but I suppose I’m used to considering a university to be one cohesive location. Then we took the stairs to the fourth floor, where the secretaries to some of my classes resided. If you’ve never been to Europe, it will come as an underwhelming shock that the fourth floor actually means the fifth floor, since apparently ground-level is “zero.” After we huffed and puffed to the fourth floor, we found a bulletin board with a schedule for classes. I’d never seen anything like it. It was color-coded and grid-like, and even Carole was a bit confused by it, since she is a psychologie majeur and Gergovia is home to les Classiques, Littérature, et Histoire. But we worked out that my first class should take place on Monday at 8:15 am.

I hung out with Carole for a bit longer before I headed out to do some shopping, not just for food but also for school supplies. I found out that there is no such thing as plain lined paper, just grid paper. I decided that it would have to do. The next day, Carole took me shopping for the last few things I needed for my dorm. It turns out that the huge, Walmart-esque stores are too far to reach on foot or by tram, so Carole asked her father to use the car. They drove me out of the city center and asked polite questions about what music I preferred and how hot it gets in Texas and if I ever drive when I’m in the United States. I informed them that I liked all music, that the hottest it ever got in Texas in my lifetime was 113 degrees (which shocked them, on account my using Fahrenheit. In Celsius, 113 equals 45 degrees, which I am assured, is still scorching) and that you could really only get around by driving in the States. We bought a rug and a laundry basket, food, and shower supplies. I thanked them and felt more prepared for my first class on Monday.

The other thing about France is the people. Even though I’m not in a place as notoriously glamourous as Paris, everyone still makes quite the effort to look fashionable. I know that if I had an 8 am class in America, I would have no shame about arriving in my pajamas. But here, no matter how early or late, people are impeccably dressed. So, I woke up an entire hour earlier than I needed to so that I could prepare for my classes. I walked across the street and up all the stairs and I was surrounded by a sea of people, engulfed in a cacophony of French. I felt small in the crowd, and I felt like I was noticeably out of place, even though no one paid any attention to me. We all stood in front of the doors to the auditorium, some people chatting with their friends and others, like me, simply listening to their headphones and observing.

Ten minutes went by, and the professor didn’t show. Some people began to leave. Alarmed, I went to speak to the secretary to ask if I was in the right place at the right time. I stumbled through my question, and she seemed kind but busy. She hustled through her response but was nice enough to repeat herself more slowly after seeing my puzzled face. She also answered a few of my other questions concerning the times and whereabouts of my other classes. I went back outside to wait with the others. Twenty minutes had gone by and now only half of the original crowd remained. After thirty minutes, I was the only one who remained, and feeling a bit silly, I made my way down the stairs and back to my dormitory. Turns out, the professor simply didn’t feel like coming to class on the first day of school, so he didn’t. And while I can certainly understand that impulse, I wish he’d had the decency to tell someone before I woke up at 7 am and ruined my morning.

Later that day, I went to speak with my advisor—Madame Marie France-Yang. She asked me if I preferred French or English, and when I hesitated she used both. The system was so unfamiliar to me that I didn’t know what she was talking about half of the time. She went on about Learning Agreements and student cards and signing up for exams—which apparently you have to do, you don’t just get an exam for being in the class. She gave me several instructions, which included somehow getting a 2 inch photo of myself for the student card as well as a five euro fee for processing my application and student dossier.

It took the rest of the week to do all that she’d asked, and it required a fair amount of running around Clermont. Madison, another student from OU went with me more often than not, since she had roughly the same laundry list of tasks. Three different offices passed us around to each other so often we wondered if we’d ever get fully enrolled. Meanwhile, I was taking history classes and literature classes at Gergovia, struggling to keep up with one my professors but the others were rather easily understood and their subject matter quite interesting. The classes had days in between, so for Tuesday and Thursday I had nowhere to be but at someone’s office, asking for help to officially enroll in classes. Finally, we returned to Madame Yang and she informed me that I wasn’t even permitted to take history and literature classes under the bilateral agreement that they had with OU. I was to take a French placement test and would only be allowed to take French foreign language classes.

I couldn’t tell if I was upset or relieved. I was having difficulties in some of my classes—one of which required an oral presentation that I was in no way mentally or physically prepared for; but I had planned out all my credits that would still need to be satisfied when I returned to the States, and I’m not a fan of changing plans once I’m already knee-deep. But I figured that I could at least finish my French minor, and that way I could take the Letters and International Studies classes that truly interested me in English, thus eliminating the need to translate before brandishing my critical thinking skills.

The very next week I took the placement tests with Madison and Kylie—another OU student, who was actually in my French classes but who I fear never liked me that much, as well as other international students that I’d met: Maybrit and Laurin, both German, and Fernando, who was born in Haiti but came from a university in New Jersey. I was placed in Niveau B2 (Level B2), which means that I can express myself clearly (sometimes) and understand when someone is speaking to me (mostly). It could’ve been better, but also certainly could’ve been much worse—and regardless, I like B2.

We take General French, three times a week, each class is at least two hours long. I also take Civilisation—which is a class about French society, government, culture, etc., and Histoire Culturelle—which is a class about French history and its effect on French culture. There is a writing class called Argumentation, where we learn to formulate constructive arguments about various issues. If you’ve ever seen or participated in a Lincoln-Douglas debate, that’s basically the gist of it, except it’s written down instead of spoken. Finally, there is a class called MVU. It’s been two and half months, and I’m still not entirely sure what MVU stands for, but I believe it’s Module pour la Vie Universitaire, which means they teach us how to participate meaningfully in the French collegiate system, how it’s organized, and how to use it to procure jobs in the future. It basically teaches you how to be a student in France. Lots of my new Chinese friends are very studious about that class. I’m not really enthused about it, it requires a lot of group work even though we don’t have a clear project to work on, and none of the things we learn really apply to me. Despite the fact I’m going right back to America this summer, it’s still required that I take the class.

Another class that was required was FOS. I definitely couldn’t tell you what that stands for, but it’s a class where you learn vocabulary for various fields. We were given a choice between Commerce, Letters, and Sciences. Madison and I chose to drop this class from our 18-hour per week course load. Instead, we signed up for a class called UE Star, wherein we learn about the history and culture of Auvergne, the region we’re in. It was another uphill battle and a game of pass the buck, but we finally were able to forgo the FOS classes, which were Friday morning, for the Star class, which is Tuesday evening. If it were up to me, I’d probably drop MVU as well, if the credits wouldn’t be lost when I transferred them back to the University of Oklahoma. But I need it to be fully enrolled, I’ve made new friends in the class, and it’s much better to have a three-day weekend when you’re travelling abroad.

In summation, I don’t believe I deserve any of the blame for the original mix up of classes. But I can admit that, while worth it, the rigmarole that plagued me once I tried to switch FOS for Star was entirely initiated by yours truly. But that doesn’t matter, because I’ve found a way to make my study abroad experience work for me in every way that matters and if that’s not a qualified success, I don’t know what is. I can honestly say that I know my French has improved since my time here, and so even if not all of my credits transfer back or I have to take a class that in no way applies to me, my cup runneth over.

La Première Semaine, et Les Premières Amies

My first week in Clermont went about as well as could be expected. Well, not at first.

I got here on a Sunday evening. The woman who checked me in to my dorm room spoke incredibly fast, and once again I was reminded that I was a stranger in a strange land. She asked me a question several times, and I was only able to pick out three or four relevant words—not enough to answer the question, just enough to feel horribly incompetent and hope that she wasn’t getting too frustrated with me as I asked her to repeat herself several times. As it turns out, she was just asking me if I’d had a pleasant trip.

We arrived at my dorm room, on the fifth floor of Building C. She unlocked the door and showed me what was basically a hallway with a bed in it. The woman kept rambling, showing me all the features. I basically just nodded and said “oui, oui, d’accord” (Yes, yes, okay) over and over until she left. Then I was alone, able to inspect my surroundings.

It’s a nice room, recently renovated, according to one of the phrases I was able to pull from the endless stream of rapid-fire words my dorm manager hurled at me. Everything is light-colored, pale wooden floors with dark wooden accents, white textured walls and lime-green cabinet doors. The smallest mini-fridge I’ve ever seen sits on the floor by the door, underneath a few shelves and a cabinet. The bathroom? A closet. I have enough room to turn around, and not much else. If you’ve ever been in a bathroom on a train or an airplane, picture that, except with a shower wedged into one corner. If I was any bigger, I genuinely don’t think I’d be able to fit. And yet, there is a surprising amount of storage. I’d taken the advice of the study abroad advisors and brought a single, enormous suitcase. All of my clothes could probably fit in the shallow built-in chest of drawers opposite the twin bed. A desk is also built-in, against the far wall between the little dresser and the bed, underneath a window. There are still more shelves and cabinets screwed into the wall above the bed. I unpacked what I had and sat down on the thin mattress.

I just sat there, for at least ten minutes, thinking “This is home for the next six months.” I think I was too tired to be excited or thrilled. I forced myself up and began to make the bed with the sheets I’d brought in my duffel bag, desperate for a nap. Then I realized I didn’t have a pillow, or a heavy enough blanket for someone who gets as cold as I do at night. In the end, I curled up with my travel pillow and my little travel blanket and closed my eyes.

When I woke up, it was night, and my stomach was growling. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that practically everything in France is closed on Sunday (including the restaurant in the dormitory), and that there is no such thing as “Open 24-hours,” either. I didn’t have the WiFi passcode or anything, so I send a text to my parents to apologize for the phone bill and turned on my data, looking for something that was open. As soon as I found a restaurant, I got cold feet. How could I go wandering around, at night, in this strange city? I just sort of looked around my room until my eyes fell on a little cake that the flight attendant on my last flight had given to me, but that I didn’t eat because I was half-asleep and also because I didn’t recognize the brand. I figured something is better than nothing, so I ate it, and turns out, it was pretty good.

With no internet and no means of getting anything more substantial, I put on my thickest pajamas, some fuzzy socks, and a long-sleeved shirt, and laid back down on my travel pillow to sleep my hunger away.

After shivering through the night, I woke up with a crick in my neck and hunger pangs. A friend of a friend, named Salomé, was going to show me around the city. My friend Leo, who is an exchange student from Bordeaux that I met last semester, gave her my information. She was coming at 1 pm (or 13 h, since people use the 24-hour timescale here). Despite how cold I was and how my back ached, I was drawn to the window in my room, and took a photo of the view—my first morning in Clermont. Then I took the worst shower of my life in the little bathroom.

It’s currently my sixth day in Clermont, so now I know better, but the first time I could not understand for the life of me why the shower kept going off. Now I know the water only stays on for about 30 seconds—something about water conservation. I’m all for the environment, but it’s easier to be that way when I can choose to conserve water, instead of it being forced upon me by some unfamiliar plumbing system.

I got dressed, went downstairs to meet Salomé and her friend, but not before poorly communicating at which entrance I was waiting. Salomé had told me that her English wasn’t very good, but her friend Amé (spelling is questionable) spoke very good English. They introduced themselves, and tried to perform le bis, the well-known French greeting of kissing each cheek, which I had forgotten about until they tried and I panicked, wondering what the hell they thought they were doing. They laughed, because apparently, we Americans are known for not being very tactile, and I felt embarrassed. Then they asked if I was hungry.

I’m a proud person, and I would literally rather die than embarrass myself or be seen as incompetent, so had they not asked I probably would have starved another day. I told them I hadn’t eaten the day before and they took me to a kebab. I learned that a kebab does not, in fact, have to sell kebabs at all. Kebabs are what we call “greasy spoons,” little shops that sell whatever kind of food the owner knows how to make. I had the best sandwich of my life at this particular kebab, though perhaps it was because I was so hungry. I told them that I desperately needed a pillow and a blanket, and they took me to the Centre au Jaude, which is basically a plaza between two big malls that share a name. They’d bought me some tickets for the tram, though the locals usually don’t pay to ride, money is kind of loose around here.

They ended up taking me all around town before we made it back to the mall to buy my pillow and blanket. I saw the church, called Notre Dame—big, Gothic, and black from years of car fumes and cigarette smoke. They showed the different university buildings, scattered around town, as is a necessity for a university in an urban setting I guess. Then we waited for Amé’s boyfriend to get out of class at the local high school, or lycée. As it turns out, both girls are eighteen, younger than me by two years. Then they took me to a brasserie, or bar. Even though it was 2 pm, there were lots of people there. They ordered a Monaco for me, which is a beer with strawberry syrup. Naturally, I was a little apprehensive, because I’m for the US, where you have to wait till you’re twenty-one to drink and even then, you get carded. But the waiter just took our order and walked away. I was honestly shocked at how simple it was. After that, Amé’s boyfriend Victor left, and they took me back to the mall. We bought a pillow and a duvet from a pushy saleswoman who spoke far too quickly for me, and I was suddenly grateful for Salomé and Amé being there. Knowing myself, had I gone alone, I’d have been so flustered that I would have left without buying anything and simply froze another night.

Then we went grocery shopping, because I needed cleaning supplies for my dorm (thanks, Mom, for teaching me to be neurotic about cleaning living spaces that aren’t my own home), and because Salomé and Amé were going to make dinner for me that night and she needed food. The grocery store, it turns out, isn’t far from my dorm at all, and I bought some bleach wipes, toilet paper, and trash bags. Despite having called my bank before I left, my card still didn’t work, probably because I was using overseas, so I had to pay for a four-euro purchase with a 50-euro bill. The cashier was not amused.

They took me back to my dorm, marveled at how tiny my room was and gave me the time and address for dinner. I slipped my new pillow into the pillow case, wrestled my duvet into the duvet cover I’d bought, and wiped down everything in the bathroom with the bleach wipes. Then I realized I still needed hand soap, some dishes, a rug, school supplies, and food. Deciding that I would deal with that another day, I went downstairs and waited ages at the office for the Wi-Fi passcode. Despite the fact that there were three secretaries, they were all helping one boy at the same time—he apparently was looking for a job. When he left, one of the secretaries waved me over and I tripped over my words as I tried to spell my own name with the French alphabet and ask for the Wi-Fi code. Successful, I went back to my room and connected all my devices. I was determined not to fall asleep so that I could get on the right time zone, so I watched Netflix until it was time for dinner.

I found my way to Salomé’s apartment all by myself, a feat which I was irrationally proud of, and had a diner of crêpes full of potatoes and cheese. It was pretty good. Then we listened to music, which was shockingly, mostly in English. In fact, Amé, who was controlling the music, is a big fan of Motown artists and old Black funk groups—which I thought was hilarious. All the songs were familiar to me, I just never thought I’d hear Earth, Wind, and Fire in a millennial’s apartment on the other side of the world. We traded stories about our family’s and hometowns as best we could, and I honestly had a great time. After a while though, I couldn’t ignore how tired I was.

I bid them good night, and they told me to text them if I had any questions or if I wanted to go somewhere and needed some company. I promised I would, and made my way into the night, feeling a little more confident—and not just about wandering around at night.

Going to Clermont-Ferrand

I didn’t feel anything before I left. Everyone kept asking me if I was excited or nervous, and I knew that I was. But I didn’t feel it.

My parents woke me up on January 13, and I just opened my eyes and looked at them. I’d gone home for Christmas break, and they had been nearly insufferable about me leaving. My mom kept saying “One last hug,” nearly a month before I even started packing. My dad was full of advice that was either intuitive or repetitive. My sister was playfully angry at me for leaving her for six months, even though I’ve lived an entire state away for nearly three years now. My brother seemed indifferent, though not so indifferent that he wouldn’t make jokes about mimes and baguettes.

Right from the beginning this trip seemed both inauspicious and promising. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t believe things will go wrong, even when all evidence should lead me to the opposite conclusion. Sometimes this gets me into trouble. Sometimes it’s the only thing that gets me through something so monumental. To escape my parents’ wailing and lecturing, I checked my phone and saw that my original flight had been delayed, then cancelled. My mom was convinced that this was going to be a huge stumbling block; my dad was full of extreme backup plans. I told them to just take me to the airport at the original time and it would all work out.

And it all worked out. I got a new flight and it actually went much quicker than my original flight plan, not that this would actually help me out or ruin me, as it turns out. But I’ll get to that.

Originally, I was supposed to fly from DFW airport to JFK in New York, then to Charles de Gaulle, in Paris, then to Clermont-Ferrand. Instead, I ended up on a flight from DFW to ATL—Atlanta. But the rest of my trip was unchanged. The flight from Dallas to Atlanta was uneventful, and I just kept contemplating why I felt so neutral about something that’s so important to me. Even though this is normal for me, not getting nervous until after the big event—whatever it might be. I still thought that something as big as my first trip out of the country, with four different flights and all the potential for sabotage that came with them, would elicit some sort of response equal to the size of the adventure I was on. But it didn’t matter. I got to ATL with more than an hour to spare, and so I had a terrific lunch and took my neutral emotion onto the flight.

The flight to Paris was long, about seven hours, and I’ve never had to sit in such a cramped space for so long. My mom gave me some special socks to keep my legs from going to sleep, but once I was on the plane, I was too self-conscious to put them on.

I kept looking around and listening to the other passengers, some of who were Americans going to Europe, and some of who were Europeans leaving America. Not just French people—though they were certainly the majority of the non-Americans. I heard Italian, Spanish, something that sounded vaguely Eastern European from a crotchety couple near the lavatory. That’s when it hit me—well, it didn’t hit me. More like a thought that you’re aware of in the back of your mind, but for some reason you can’t bring yourself to focus on it too hard. The fact is: I am going to a foreign country, I don’t speak nearly enough of the language to feel totally competent, and that’s something that I’m not used to at all. One of the few skills I know I have is clear and precise communication, and suddenly I felt truly aware of just how narrow the purview of that skill really is. After all, I’m only a competent communicator in English. But now I’m about to go to France and probably sound like a child, or an idiot. And it’s too late and too impossible to simply pick up a language.

All this was a whisper in my head, not a shout or even an alarm. I don’t even think my expression changed when it occurred to me. It’s just a fact, not even really a hurdle I have to jump. More like a condition I will have to cope with, until exposure to the very thing causing this underwhelming anxiety cures it.

My seat mate came at that very moment; he was an older guy, tall and gangly and tan. I knew he was French, by his accent and the fact that when he came upon me he said, “Pardonez-moi,” and indicated that his eat was next to mine. I got up to let him in—I had an aisle seat—and I was immediately struck with a bad smell. The very first thing that I thought was: “Way to confirm that stereotype about French people smelling weird,” and then I immediately felt guilty. The last thing I want is to encourage negative generalizations, especially since as a woman of color, I encounter them often. But the smell was seriously heinous, like old pond water and mold and rust.

I had a conversation with him, partially in French and partially in English. We were equally matched—his English was as bad as my French. But I learned that he’s literally been travelling all over the world for nearly a month now. Anyone would be a little rank by then, after all, how often can you really launder your clothes if you only spend a few days in a country before moving on? He was kind and encouraging, and it only made me feel worse about judging him for the smell (right up until he took off his shoes midflight and it literally made my eyes water). I told him that I get nervous speaking French to people who are actually French, and he laughed. He told me that I would speak excellent French by the time I came home. I hope he’s right.

I read The Secret Life of Bees for the majority of the flight, great book. It’s quite sad though, and uplifting too, in that way that makes you cry the whole way through it. My seatmate kept looking at me worriedly until I showed him my Kindle and told him “Cet livre est triste.”

They turned off all the lights halfway through the flight, and I guess I was supposed to go to sleep like everyone else. I had my travel pillow and my blanket all ready, too, but I was so cramped and could neither lean toward the aisle (because of the lack of support) nor toward my temporary travel companion (for reasons I think I’ve well covered). Instead I sat up and got a twinge in my back and read until my Kindle died, then gave in and paid for the in-flight WiFi (which was irritatingly spotty for something so expensive) and fiddled around with my phone until the battery got uncomfortably low. It was only then that I felt like I had nothing else to do, so I pulled my beanie over my eyes and tried to sleep. I only got to that weird no man’s land where you’re not quite asleep but you might as well be, for all the thinking and moving you’re doing, before they turned on the lights and served me breakfast.

We landed shortly after, and even though the giant “Bienvenue! Paris vous aime!” sign told me that I had, in fact, arrived on the other side of the world, I still felt no immediate excitement or nervous jitters. For me, getting to Clermont-Ferrand seems like a mission; I don’t have the ability to focus on anything else but getting there.

In the airport, I had to put all my things into the bins and through the scanners, which was fine. The French-version-of-the-TSA agent spoke English and was kind, but efficient.  I had to throw out a full water bottle and take off all my jewelry, which was a hassle (everyone knows how frustrating it is to try to put on a lobster-claw bracelet on with no help), but I made it through the first security check and caught the shuttle to my gate just in time. My bag did get “randomly” searched, though, and I tried to ignore the irritation that threatened to break through my single-minded neutrality.

It turns out that Charles de Gaulle is a huge airport, it took nearly 15 minutes to get to the correct boarding area by shuttle—which still has about 20 gates. It then took another 25 to 30 minutes to go through customs. My dad promised that it would take at least 2 hours, but all they did was stamp my visa and wave me through. It was actually in the “Border Patrol” line that I inevitably made my first international faux-pas. A Chinese man behind me in line must have a cold or something, because he sneezed about 12 times. I turned and said, “Bless you,” mostly out of habit, and he just stared at me like I’d grown three heads. It occurred to me that he might not speak English, or maybe he just wasn’t used to being blessed for sneezing. Either way, the look on his face made me turn back around in embarrassment and resolutely stare straight ahead as he sneezed another 5 times. Some half-hearted vengeful malice in me made me think “He better not have gotten me sick.”

I got through the line and went to yet another waiting area, glad to see “Clermont-Ferrand” on the switchboard, as it made me confident that I was in the right place. But, since my flight was switched, I arrived here in Paris nearly five hours before my flight to Clermont. I used the restroom and looked around for a way to kill time. I finished The Secret Life of Bees and decided I might as well write a journal entry while everything is fresh.

This airport is almost more a mall than an airport. There’s a bar (which, even though I know I’m of age here, I’m still too nervous to go near—plus it’s 5 am), a newsstand selling books, coffee, and cigarettes, and a giant store named “BUY PARIS DUTY FREE.” Oh, yes, it’s in all caps. I did go in and look around. There’s lots of American candy, but some from other places too. You can apparently buy anything you could want there: perfume (Chanel, Dior, and the like), makeup (lots of L’oreal Paris, obviously), candy and snacks, liquor, cheese, wine to go with the cheese, and fancy tobacco (I have witnessed at least four people roll their own cigarettes). There’s a coffee kiosk also selling baguettes, funny enough, though their coffees look so small it can’t be worth the bother. There’s a little smoking room full of business men. There’s even a clothing store—with negligées you can buy.

If I were to be stranded in Paris—which I am, for the next hour and a half—this is where I’d want to be. Only thing is these chairs are rough on my already creaking back.

My flight to Clermont doesn’t leave until 9:25, and they don’t tell me the gate to go to until 30 minutes before the flight, for some reason, so at 9 o’clock, I have to just be ready to sprint in one of these directions. The sun is starting to rise now—it hasn’t quite broken over the horizon, but the sky is fading from the midnight blue it was when I arrived to hazy cerulean. More and more people are starting to arrive, and they all look so awake that I’m realizing how tired I really am—still with a flight and a cab to catch before I can collapse in my dorm. Maybe it would be worth it to buy a cup of coffee, not matter how tiny it is.