“Everybody has a backstory. For example, though I am currently living in France and adapting myself to the ways of the French, I still like listening to alt-j and watching Parks and Rec while I get ready to walk the half a mile to school each morning.
Everyone I am encountering here also has a backstory. I only know them in the context of this country and these strange new habits, but I occasionally see pieces of their former selves fuse with the new. A small piece of identity worms its way into our conversations and suddenly its like a light bulb has gone off somewhere far away, reminding them of the self they left on the other side of the Atlantic. I see them watching it happen to me too, as I point out a store that reminds me of someone back home and provide a lighthearted anecdote as context. It gets a bit jumbled sometimes, but that’s generally what happens when you hold two pieces of your life together and hope they become one.
Much in the same way, Lille (and, consequently, France) has a backstory too. You can see it in the cracks snaking between the cobblestones and the paint chips flaking from buildings. I have been here for a long time, the city seems to whisper as you drift through its worn streets. I have been here, and here I will continue to be.
Today, though, the city didn’t need to whisper because its inhabitants did all the talking.
When we arrived downtown, we stumbled right out of the metro and into a crowd of people. They were all dressed in black and many of them held signs reading the same thing: Je suis Charlie.
It’s not often that you see a group of people who both share a common goal and carry identical signs. But here they were marching before us—sometimes silent, sometimes clapping in unison, always united. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and I both felt privileged to be witnessing such an event and like a child trying to sit at the adult table during a family holiday.
In this tumultuous and tragic time for French history, I feel it is very important for me to remember where my place is. I am just a visitor to this country. I, shamefully, do not know nearly enough about its history or politics to truly understand what’s going on. I can only take my experiences and hypothesize about that which I do not know. But I can also be respectful.
I am attending classes with both other exchange students and French students. I navigate the metro with a tinge of green in my cheeks as I try to act like I know what I’m doing. I eat at creperies and try new foods and learn to recognize food labels at the grocery store. I drop whole loaves of fresh bread into puddles after walking half a mile home from a poorly timed and very rainy grocery run. I go to the discothèques and bop around cluelessly as those around me belt out a song I don’t know and wonder why it’s followed by an American pop song from the 80’s. I sleep through the night or I don’t sleep at all and I come in each day and feel more at ease when I see the fifty-five photos I’ve plastered to my walls. And even just one week later I couldn’t be more different from the person I started as on the other side of the security gate.
But in the end, I am still just a guest in this city, treading carefully over eggshells that have already been broken. And I know that some of those pieces have already worked their way through my shoes and flesh and stumbled into my soul. But I think that’s the beauty of this whole adventure. Because isn’t that kind of what I wanted in the first place?”
When I first wrote this blog post on January 10th, I only had an inkling of an idea just how much going abroad would impact me. But the sentiments I expressed here do, I think, a good job of summarizing what study abroad was like for me. It was simultaneously the most difficult and thrilling adventure I have ever been privileged enough to experience, and this is in large part because of the people and places I encountered along the way. But it is also because of the parts of myself that I uncovered through my travels, and how those parts of myself fused with the new things I was discovering to create an irreplaceable experience and, ultimately, a new version of me (pictured below).