After spending nine months in France, my first week back in the United States was a rush of relief. I was finally reunited with my family and friends, back in my hometown and completely comfortable in a familiar environment. I knew I would miss the physical bits and pieces of my Parisian life — the food, the city life and the people — but I had been gone for so long that I was more than ready to come home. I was ready to dive headfirst back into my life and for everything to return back to normal.
And yet, my first moments back stateside didn’t feel quite right. It felt almost too easy, and deep down there was a longing for something more challenging.
Before this year, moving to a completely new country was one of the scariest things I had to deal with in my life. I spent months away from family, friends and familiarity. From altering my entire way of functioning and thinking to coming to terms with my own growth as a person, I’ve never changed this much in such a short time.
Quite frankly, it was one of the roughest nine months of my life. I found myself becoming frustrated with simple day-to-day tasks like opening a bank account and going to the store simply because it was in a different language and a new environment. As any fairly independent person knows, this was a bit discouraging to deal with. It was a whole different way of thinking that I wasn’t used to, and I was too proud to take the easy way out and ask the magic sentence: “Do you speak English?”
I found myself struggling with not just the independence of being a young adult, but also with the speed and demand that living in a foreign country requires. Back in the states, I wasn’t forced under any time restriction, so I could take as long as I needed to master the subtleties of adulthood. In France, weeks would slip through my fingertips as I scrambled to take care of responsibilities in another language. I was forced to grow up a whole lot faster than I was comfortable with, and that sometimes took a toll on my physical and mental well-being despite being necessary at certain times.
And so my first three months in France passed — through a lot of confusion, discomfort and frustration for something that I thought should have been so easy. A large percentage of students around the world study abroad every year, so why was I having such a hard time with this?
The answer slowly emerged over time as I grew accustomed to living in France. I had been focusing so much of my time trying to mold my environment to better fit myself, when I should have been adapting myself to better fit my new environment. It was the classic example of trying to fit a square peg in the circular hole.
I stopped struggling the moment I was able to pinpoint this subtle difference, and found it much easier to function and even flourish in my new home. I embraced speaking French with my French parents, no matter how many mistakes I made. I fell in love with the French versions of my preferred foods — small shots of espresso instead of cups of hot coffee, buttery chocolate croissants instead of sticky sweet donuts and piping hot kebab sandwiches instead of deliciously oily cheeseburgers. I took advantage of my free weekends and traveled to 10 other European countries, a pleasant change from rarely leaving my home state in years past.
In addition, this gradual shift became sort of a game to me, by observing the mannerisms of other people and trying them for myself. As I slowly became fluent in a third language and adapted to a new set of cultural norms, I could sense a change happening. Living in a different country was a sink or swim situation, which pushed me to confront my old habits — stay the same and exist, or change and thrive. Naturally, I didn’t come to terms with how much I had changed until I finally came home and felt how bizarre being home was as my new self.
I’ll miss Paris for the invaluable life lessons and push of independence I had to learn to adapt to. Fortunately, the good thing about leaving a city is that you can always come back. In the meantime, while I plot my return trip to France, I’ll be tiding myself over with plenty of croissants, red wine and cheese plates.