I returned to Denver from Milan about 5 days ago and the question I have heard the most from people is, “Aren’t you so glad to be home?” Honestly? No. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy to see my friends and family and the mountains, but living in Italy was the experience of a lifetime and I am not ready for it to be over.
The last four months have been the wildest of my life. The amount of change and growth I experienced is unlike any other and I could not be more grateful for the blessing and experience to study abroad. I learned so much about myself and about the world around me, and I want to continue exploring those things.
When you move to a new country alone, you are forced to become an independent human being. You figure out how to survive like everyone else, and you figure out how to do it well. You learn, grow, change, make mistakes, fall down, and stand up again. I feel as though I changed and grew more in the last four months than I did in all of 2014 and 2015 combined. Looking back now, I would say I learned more from experiences than I did at my actual university- and to me, that’s okay. The lessons you learn abroad really can’t be taught in a classroom and they are invaluable.
A dear friend asked me to share a story about my experience abroad which explains my learning and growth, but the truth is I don’t have one specific story which explains such. There was no “Ah hah” moment, and there was no one specific time where I thought to myself, “Wow I just learned an invaluable life lesson which I can later apply in the real world”. No. The real truth: it is something which happens over time, and one day you wake up and realize you are a whole new person. It’s the experience as a whole which shapes and molds you for the rest of your life.
My growth has been for the better, and I am excited to start a new chapter of my life as a better, more confident and independent version of my old self. I see myself taking these new traits with me everywhere I go in life. From an interview, to a new job, to just being around the people that make me happy, I am a new me and that will never change.
So, to Milano, to the people I met abroad, and to the big, small, crazy, and not-so-crazy experiences I say thank you. Thank you for changing me forever and equipping me with the skills, independence, and confidence to face every new experience and challenge head-on, and to conquer the world, because as I have learned the world is my oyster.
It’s the end of an era, and the beginning of a new one.
So you know how approximately half of “studying abroad” includes the word “studying” right? Yes, family and friends, I am in a different country and it’s not a vacation. When you study abroad, you do actually have to learn things, maybe even attend class (read: go to class).
I love school. I always have loved school, and some of my favorite moments have been in the classroom with amazing professors studying something that I found absolutely riveting. Therefore, I was so excited for September 8 to arrive in France, because that’s when I started my classes. I imagined sitting in a European classroom (whatever that means) speaking eloquent French with other students from exotic locales, sharing our insights into historical events and current affairs.
Flash forward into reality, and I am sitting in a European classroom (which has a striking similarity to my American ones), speaking elementary French with other students from around the world, sharing my valiant attempt at completing my grammar exercises. Hardly the dream that I had built up in my head.
While I am learning a lot about the French language in my classes, and I have met some really smart and interesting people, it is certainly not the picture I had painted in my head. Most of my classes are about learning the French language and learning about France, which means grammar, phonetics, communication (oral and written), geography, and literature. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have different types of classes too, as I get to take a gastronomy class where my “homework” was to find and eat three different types of pastries. Needless to say, I finished that assignment and passed with flying colors.
There are a lot of differences between school in the United States, and school around the world. Some of these differences I have found to be overwhelming and frustrating, while some of these differences seem to make a lot of sense. After the first three weeks, I have compiled a list of the things that I have found to be different about school in France.
1. Time is not a definitive entity.
I’m the type of person that thinks that if you don’t show up 15 minutes early… you’re late. So when I thought I was going to be late for my 8:30 am literature class, I was panicking. When I arrived exactly at 8:31, the door to the classroom wasn’t even open yet. Most of my professors may roll into class 10 to 15 minutes later than the time printed on our schedules, and sometimes they let us out early.
I also tend to rely heavily on my syllabi throughout my quarter at DU, but when I tried to ask one of my professors for a syllabus, she just kind of laughed and asked me what it was. The closest thing to a syllabus that I have received in Caen is the dates for my exams… written on the whiteboard.
2. University is not “school,” nor is it “college.”
In French, “l’école” translates to school, but is used to refer to elementary school. “College” is middle school, and “lycée” is high school. While in the US, I use the words “school” and “college” interchangeably to refer to my studies at the university, but whenever I say “l’école” or “college” to my host parents, they give me a quizzical look and clarify that I mean “université” or university.
3. Backpacks are for tourists.
Most of the students at the university use tote bags or messenger bags for class. For the most part, only men or international students use backpacks. This isn’t just for style (although according to one of my French friends… backpacks are not very stylish) it’s actually practical. Women typically use tote bags that have zippers on them because pickpockets target those who have open bags or backpacks, especially on the crowded public transportation, and it’s easier to hold a totebag in your lap on the tram or hold it close to your body.
4. I’m wrong. A lot.
I spend all day thinking, reading, writing, and speaking in French. All of my classes are in French, and all of my interactions with my host family are in French. It’s only natural that when I’m spending approximately 90% of my day doing everything in a different language that I say something wrong a few times. In my phonetics class, my professor has taken to calling the little things I have trouble with “les peculiarités de Zoé.” While at first this bothered me, and I would actively stop myself from answering questions in class out of fear of being wrong, I’ve realized that it’s actually okay and helpful, so now I can really work on those things I struggle with.
5. Who needs to be hydrated?
I cannot find a reusable water bottle for the life of me. I have been to basically every grocery store, sporting goods store, and a few random home goods stores, and I cannot find a reusable water bottle. I have yet to find a definitive answer as to why that is… but for the most part I think it just because you don’t really eat or drink anything unless you are at a meal. Students don’t eat in class, and you only drink water in class, or coffee in the morning. We get an hour for lunch every day, and it is actually used for lunch. In the US, when I have lunch with my friends we consider it a date, but in France eating lunch with my friends is just something that we do, and it’s a sacred time. You will not find people finishing homework at the lunch table when they are with their friends and a baguette sandwich.
6. I’ve learned the most outside the classroom.
I have loved learning the language in class, and I have met some seriously awesome people from all over the world. However, I feel like a lot of the things I’ve learned about life and living in a different country haven’t been from my grammar class or trying to figure out the different ways to pronounce the letter “e.” I’ve learned about WWII from visiting museums and going to the actual beaches where the Invasion of Normandy actually happened. I’ve learned about William the Conquerer from walking through the castle that’s older than the United States of America (I just can’t get over that) and I’ve learned about different types of French cuisine from talking to vendors at the market. Instead of reading about all of these things in books, I am living them. To me, that is the most amazing difference, as well as the most overwhelming difference, of them all.
Adjusting to college life in a different country has been an adventure in its own right. I have definitely had my moments of sheer panic, where I didn’t understand anything that was being explained to me, and moments of extreme frustration, where it didn’t seem like anything was going to come together for me, but also moments of excitement, when I finally understood a concept that I had been struggling with (I literally gave myself a high-five in my grammar class the other day). However, I have adjusted and have found that learning in French, while more challenging, is also extremely rewarding.