Leaving my family and friends to study in France for 6 months was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I tried to make that sound as believable as possible – did it work? Studying abroad meant traveling as much as possible, living in a country that considers food a form of art, and basking in the Mediterranean sun on a daily basis. Since I knew I would be coming home at the end of my séjour, leaving the good ole’ US of A wasn’t the hard part.
However, stepping on that plane in Marseille headed for Detroit after a life changing semester was a completely different story. This was evident in my full-fledged panic attack that ensued as soon as the plane landed – don’t worry, the stares from fellow passengers stopped after a few minutes. Don’t get me wrong, I was overjoyed to see those whose faces, hugs, and laughs I had missed in the previous months (not to mention beyond thrilled at the prospect of sleeping on a real mattress instead of the glorified piece of foam provided by my dorm). More than that, however, I was devastated at the thought of leaving all of the incredible friends I made during my time abroad.
When I first arrived in Aix-en-Provence, I thought it would be a matter of days before I was hob-nobbing with French students over wine and cheese. It took only a few minutes before reality slapped me in the face and I realized that my French skills were nowhere near that level of sophistication. It was much more difficult to make friends than I had thought. I was stumbling over my words and unable to express myself in a foreign language. Answering their questions was difficult enough, let alone trying to show any sort of humor that really reflected my personality.
Within time, however, I stopped worrying so much about my pronunciation or incorrect grammar and focused on something much more basic and exponentially more important – communication. I quickly realized that if I tried to resist speaking until I mastered the French accent or figured out how to properly use the subjunctive verb tense (neither of which I still do correctly), I would never make any friends. I also learned that these imperfections in my speaking actually spurred conversations with others. Where are you from? What inspired you to take French? Is this your first time in Europe? The occasional “you speak excellent French!” never ceased to put a smile on my face, no matter how big of a lie it was. Additionally, I encouraged people to correct me when I made an error. While slightly uncomfortable for them at first, this is what helped me the most and put me the most at ease in speaking with my peers. While they corrected my French, I provided the same service with their English.
Because nearly 1/3 of Aix-en-Provence is populated by students, most of my friends there were, in fact, not even French, but rather students studying abroad from all over the world. My best friends were from Romania, Slovakia, Algeria, and Scotland, amongst many other places I never even dreamed of visiting. Though we all spoke different native languages, French was the common factor. If not for this passion for foreign language, I would have missed out on getting to know this group of people that changed my life forever.
When you are thousands of miles away from everyone and everything you know, your friends play a different role in your life. They become your family as well. Together we cooked dinner every night, traveled, hung out in the park, studied (who am I kidding?), hung out and, most importantly, learned from each other. These friends truly became ma familleaixoise. Because of them, my experience in France was truly a cultural exchange. Through our conversations in French, I learned about traditional marriage practices in Algeria as my friend Youcef’s sister planned her wedding and from my friend Tomas, I discovered that it is common practice in Slovakia to recognize your “name day” with celebrations similar to that of a birthday (mine is May 6, in case anyone wants to send a gift).
Living so far away has made it difficult to stay in as close of contact as I would like, but thanks to the advent of programs like Skype and Facebook, we are still able to keep tabs on each other’s lives, see each other’s faces and most importantly, speak to one another (en français, biensûr)! As a French major and avid lover of foreign languages, I always recognized the benefits of language learning, but it wasn’t until I lived in France that I truly understood the importance. I could have easily surrounded myself with the other American students and stayed within my English comfort zone, but I chose to put myself out there. Was it easy? No. Did I humiliate myself? Endlessly. But do I regret it? Not for one second.