I woke up this morning and, for some reason, thought about my time as a student in France, when I was 20. Maybe it’s the weather- chilly and gray and damp, it reminds me of the winter I spent in Toulouse, where I would wake up and open the large shutters of my bedroom window and peer out onto the black morning. I’d eat breakfast with various members of my host family- hot chocolate and toast (hard to believe that there were ever days when I didn’t drink coffee in the morning)- and then I’d hitch a ride with Etienne, my 13-year old host brother and another neighborhood kid. The father would drive us in his van to the center of town where I’d hop off at the metro stop, Etienne always calling out, “Bonne journée Nadine!” as I clambered out of the van into the gray, misty morning.
I both miss those mornings and I don’t. I love my memories of that year in France, I love that I studied abroad when I was 20, but would I go back, if I could? To some moments and places and people, of course. But it was also a very challenging year, of uncertainty and confusion. Feeling like, in a life immersed in all things French, that I was always missing something. I wasn’t sure who I was supposed to be; my program strongly emphasized complete French immersion. ‘Becoming French’, I called it. Speak no English, live with a host family, make French friends. Shed your old life, discover a new one.
That year was a coming of age experience for me, and some of my most frustrating and gratifying moments were as a student. In addition to classes I took at our American college’s satellite campus, I took 3rd year Art History courses at the French University, Le Mirail. I still think it was a mistake to put me into this level- most students in my program were in 1st or 2nd year courses- but I was serious about studying art history and the program was good. My level of French, however, was not so good, and many compared 3rd year courses to graduate courses.
It was a comedy of errors, at least I can say that now. I remember showing up for my very first class (we studied nothing but stained glass windows), and waiting in a hallway outside the classroom with two other girls. We were early, but the longer we waited the more we realized that something was wrong. I tried to ask them about the class and they stared at me like I had three heads. Suddenly one of them shouted something (probably, “Mon Dieu, we have the wrong building!”) and they shot up and bolted down the hallway. I ran after them, not knowing what else to do. We weaved through the campus, in and out of buildings, down walkways and across grassy fields, then finally into a large room where a class- my class- was already in session. At least 100 heads turned to look at us as the door banged shut and when the professor saw that we were trying to sneak into a back row, she shook her head and pointed to the front. It was a walk of shame: paraded through the room, the class put entirely on hold as we found three open seats. My face burned and I sank into my chair, wanting to disappear out of that room, out of that campus. Out of France, maybe.
The only class I could remotely understand was Surrealism, which is maybe a bit ironic. But I loved it- we’d often begin class with the lights dimmed and classical music piped through the room, while we sketched for 10 minutes. The French hated this. “We’re not artists!” they complained, furiously scrubbing their papers with large squares of rubber eraser. But those 10 minutes were an equalizer for me, and sometimes, the only chance I ever had to excel in class. Language, culture, it didn’t matter when we sketched. I felt like I fit in. And it helped give me confidence for the rest of class. I learned how to take notes like my French peers- in graph paper notebooks with different colored pens, a ruler to underscore the important parts and white out to conceal mistakes. I didn’t understand all of the lectures but I understood enough, and when I didn’t know a word I would make tiny sketches of the paintings in the margin of my notebook, to jog my memory.
My other classes were nothing like this. History of Architecture lectures might as well have been delivered in Greek, for all I understood. Many mornings I would sit in the middle of a darkened room as slide after slide was projected on the screen and tears would fill my eyes. Students around me filled pages of notes and I could barely follow the professor and his complex lecture.
Some mornings I never made it to this class. I’d hitch a ride with Etienne and the neighbors, squeeze onto an impossibly crowded metro, walk to campus in a daze and stand with other students in the cold as we waited for the library to open. And I’d sit there from 8-10am, in a soft chair in a corner next to the photography books, ditching class. I remember begging the director of my study abroad program to let me drop the class, but he thought I was exaggerating my difficulties. My final grade didn’t prove him wrong, either, somehow I managed to get an 18 in the class (French grading is on a scale from 0-20, and an 18 is unheard of, even for the brightest French student). I suspect that the professor had a soft spot for me; in the beginning of the year he told me that he had a niece studying in the states. Maybe he imagined that he was giving his niece an A+, rather than me, the girl who didn’t understand a thing.
These are my memories: the chilly gray campus, my graph paper notebooks filled with fragmented French. The automatic coffee machines, strong and bitter espresso pouring into small plastic cups. I would drink this espresso like a shot- down in one gulp, hoping the caffeine would fortify me for the day ahead. When it was over, I met my American friends as we took the metro back to the center of Toulouse, where we’d stop for an “I survived Mirail” pastry before heading home for dinner.
Travel forces us out of our comfort zone, and as I’ve been doing more traveling in these past few years, I’m reminded often of that time in Toulouse. I’ve thrown away most of the notes I took in those art history classes, but I still have a few of my Surrealism sketches. They remind me of trying to become French.