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An American Student in France

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American student Joel Freeman spent a year in Pau, on the edge of the Pyrénées in Aquitaine on a USAC (University Studies Abroad Consortium) study programme. France is one of the most popular study abroad options and for many students it is a life-changing experience. Going back to the US was tough to start with for Joel as he realised that his life and attitudes had changed forever in a way that for a while he felt only he could really appreciate or understand…

american student in france

The stage of happiness to be home can range from one day to months after the return.  I have friends who got off the plane, returned to their homes and were unwilling to unpack, hoping that they could just somehow return.  I have friends who months after returning home felt weird, like something was missing.  And of course, I have friends who are more than happy to hold that experience abroad in their past and don’t think about it 24/7 like many people do.  It didn’t affect me personally until about a month after I returned home.

The first day I returned home was thoroughly great.  I was able to see my family and friends.  The simple sight of my parents’ home was a relief.  It was almost reassuring to see that everything remained the same; nothing and no one looked different.  My family made sausages for dinner like typical Midwesterners, and I had a domestic American beer.  What’s funny about coming home is realizing the most random things that you missed, I never once thought in my life I would miss American beer but, I will assure you that that unmistakable crisp flavor is something to cherish, even if it takes an 8 month separation.  Frankly, I didn’t do much during my first week home; I caught up with my family and friends, revisited my favorite restaurants, rekindled with my bike and watched a ton of Sports Center.  It was perhaps the most relaxed I ever felt, damn it felt good to be home.

student experience in france The second week I started working again.  I worked at the same restaurants that I did every summer since I finished High School.  The problem was that there wasn’t a transition.  I remembered all of the table numbers, the menu and how to do my job.  I wanted some sort of challenge, I wanted to be put out of my comfort zone and in that sense, I wasn’t.  I expected some sort of change, especially since everything I did during my time abroad was a change, not only the fact that I was in France, speaking a different language, but everything was a change from what I was used to.  I woke up at a different time, I brushed my teeth with French toothpaste, I ate French foods, I spent time with different people, and I watched shows that I didn’t even know existed before arriving.  Everything was different then, and at home, it wasn’t—I was the one that was different.

Everything else seemed to follow the trend of normality.  My friends seemed to be doing the same thing; they were hanging out with the same people and they were still involved in the same drama.  Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with that, the problem was that I had grown and matured so drastically during the time that I was abroad that I was beyond shocked to see that people who didn’t go abroad seemed to stay the same.  It was that same happiness caused by normality I experienced the first day I was back that made me agitated, confused and frankly, fed up just a few weeks later.  I felt like everyone was wasting their time.  What do you mean you don’t want to know everything I did?  Do you really not want to hear about how much I grew to love French grammar?  How can you say that you don’t care about the personal and professional transformation I experienced?  I was annoyed at anyone who didn’t give me their undivided attention.

I don’t want to tell you not to go abroad for these reasons, I loved my family and friends just as much, if not more after I returned, I just had very little tolerance.  The only friend I ever wanted to spend time with was my friend who was born in Bosnia and has been to Europe multiple time, he understood what I was going through, he’s seen the Eiffel tower, he knows what Europe is like, I could trust him.  And if I didn’t spend time with him, I wanted to be alone.  I wanted to look at Google Maps Street View at the places I used to walk around; I would read the French news thinking that for some reason the French President’s affair was of more importance than anything in the US.  I did anything to isolate myself and let my thoughts recycle themselves in my head.

Work became difficult.  I was still a good and efficient worker but, I wasn’t as happy as I used to be at work.  Old customers would ask how my time was and would ask trivial, uninterested questions like “oh, did you eat a lot of baguettes?” or they would tell me:  “I know French: Voulez-Vous Coucher Avec Moi ce Soir? Haha”– I hated those people.  I wanted to yell at them.  I wanted to scream and tell everyone that not going abroad was a crime, a crime against humanity.  Why wouldn’t anyone understand how I felt and maybe more importantly, why did it feel like nobody seemed to care at all?

I realized as the French say “A chaqu’un son truc.”  I couldn’t continue to let these negative thoughts affect me.  So what if people didn’t care to hear my stories.  They are after all, my stories and my experiences.  Just because someone didn’t care to talk about my time abroad did not in any way make them a bad person.  Truthfully, I still struggle with this at times and I think I will never fully be relinquished of these feelings.  Yet, after those two months or so of wondering and pondering everything, I was able to truly reflect on my time abroad and fully appreciate what it did for me, even if few others did.

Joel Freeman is a Midwesterner who studied abroad in Pau, France and has a passion for international exchange, politics, language and everything French.  He spends most of his time daydreaming of the Pyrenees and one day perfecting le subjonctif.

Original article on the USAC website

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