I’m a 19-year-old Northwestern junior from the Midwestern suburbs spending fall in Paris.
I think the most unusual thing about that sentence is the fact that I’m 19, not 20. (I skipped first grade. This is Northwestern, it happens.) Either way, I don’t think the film companies are going to be knocking down my door to get the rights to my one-of-a-kind story.
Now obviously I realize that being here is a huge privilege, and I think part of me honestly believed I would never make it work. Sometimes, though, I wonder if I’m really making the most of this opportunity.
This is something that has plagued me off and on ever since someone left the comment “Could these students choose more vanilla locations?” on the study abroad blog introductory post.
Well, they were right. I’m in a large Western European city with all of the security and modern amenities I enjoy in America and I speak the language to boot (more or less). There was culture shock upon arrival, but it wasn’t terrible. They have really long dinners and pink toilet paper but it’s not like I was forced to confront a complete lifestyle upheaval. And on top of all that, I’m living in the same homestay as one of my best friends from Northwestern.
When I was applying for study abroad, I had a certain image in mind. I would go on an epic journey alone where I would meet people from all walks of life who would change the way I thought about the world. Immersed in a new culture, I would be find myself: young, unattached, free, whatever.
But when you idealize something that much, it can never really live up.
I found out Kathryn was going on the same program as me, and we decided to live together. And upon arriving here, I found out that a significant number of students on my program are from Northwestern. Not to mention all my friends here are American. On the plus side, I’m rarely lonely. On the downside, I’m comfortable.
I have a friend from Northwestern who is currently studying abroad in Bolivia. His program involves, among other things, a one-week stay in a remote Bolivian village and six weeks to work on a personal research project (he’s making a documentary). He says he is confronted every day with experiences that challenge his way of thinking.
Some days my most challenging experience is trying to spend less than 15 euros on dinner. It’s hard not to compare. So I had to really evaluate my reasons for being here.
I didn’t choose Paris because it would force me out of my comfort zone, or because I thought I would get to confront harsher truths of life. I chose to come here because my whole life I’ve thought that French is the most beautiful language in the world, and I wanted it to belong to me as much as English. I came here because as a little girl I used to stare at pictures of the Eiffel Tower and the Champs-Élysées and imagine the day I would get to see them in person. I wanted to fulfill a seemingly impossible dream from a time when even going to college in Chicago was an intangible improbability.
So I’m unoriginal. The “American in Paris” has been done to death, resurrected and reburied. But just because I’m “vanilla” doesn’t mean I should be complacent.
I came to Paris for myself, and only for myself. Maybe I’m not challenged every day, but that’s okay. Just by being here, I’ve proven to myself that I can have the things I want in life, and every day I spend here is one I could’ve scarcely imagined three months ago. For now, that’s enough. You can’t plan revelations. The challenges will come, and so will change.