"What we call the beginning is often the end, And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from." T.S. Eliot

I. The End.

Within minutes of completing my final exam for art criticism in the Marchutz studio my family- in town for winter vacation- was at the door, come to see this place I'd been telling them about for so many months. Their presence left little time to process the transition that was taking place: the movement out of a semester of intense study and cultural immersion back to the people and life which had been my world prior to this great adventure. But I was glad to see them and glad to give them a glimpse into what had been my world: the rectangular room flooded with light, masterworks and student works on the walls and professors John and Alan. Finally, the stories I'd been telling them were given a context and to them could become a little bit more real.

In addition to the inevitable bickering and affectionate monkeying around (quality time) the family vacation- where we'd be in France until the new year-  offered me a chance to explore places in town I hadn't visited during the semester. My mom and I visited the Musee Granet and in a rental car my family explored new parts of the French countryside outside of the city. Being in Aix, I was also able to show them some of the places and people that I had been telling them about, like the Marchutz studio and professors John and Alan and the scenic Tholonet where we'd painted, as well as the exact spot where I'd set up roadside opposite Mount Saint Victoir to paint my favorite motif, the three trees above the cottage and in front of the winding road and distant mountains. We also had dinner at a local restaurant with my host parents Jean-Paul and Marion who spoke some English in between conversations in French with my dad. 

We left Aix the next morning for Paris, where we'd be spending the remaining vacation. On December 23 we dragged our obscene amount of luggage up to a friend's apartment in Montmartre (lucky!). The place was cozy and the living room window offered a view of the Basilica Sacre Coeur. Here, under the domed ceilings in the company of our aunt Sharon, my mom, dad and sister, anna, we would attend a long, beautiful Christmas eve service.

In the days that followed Christmas, I kept drawing as I had for the past few weeks and managed to fill up the large sketchbook I'd purchased on Halloween before beginning a new book that had been given to me for Christmas. I read and wrote and visited the Orangerie again, and the Louvre, and the Musee D'Orsay a couple of times and had the time to draw and explore, looking at paintings with the same openness, curiosity, and depth that I'd adopted with Marchutz. With my family and my sister's friend Amelia who came to visit from Germany, we explored the city, went to cafes and parks and the Christmas shops set up with hot mulled wine. 

New Year's Eve was cold and rainy and crowded, but on the hill of Montmartre it still felt magical. My mom had loved seeing the Eiffel Tower sparkle (as it does at night every 30 minutes) and so at midnight we ran from the restaurant where we'd been hiding from the rain to a spot we'd found down the cobblestone street. We squeezed our way through the crowd and as we came in view of the lights on the tower marking midnight, my mother screamed with delight. Happy New Year! And what a year it was, and how few words I have to sum up how intensely have I in these past 6 months been changed and inspired by the places, people, and the art (and so much else) that I've encountered.

II. The Beginning.

I left Paris at 7 am the next morning and have since been thinking about what I've learned and experienced. With my time at the Marchutz School in Aix-en-Provence over and done (at least for now) I think about how to find a sense of continuity through the change. That is to ask: how will the past several months affect my next semester in the States? How will what I learned and the habits I adopted find their way into the rest of my life, apart from that glorious time and place? Since I've been back in the U.S., these personal questions are naturally intertwined with my observations of the differences between American and French culture- differences that will largely decide the change in the habits I developed in my French life: from those of eating and walking to studying and having fun and sleeping. Here I have listed some differences I have observed, as well as some of the ways this semester has affected my life.

The Americans v. The French
 My departure from France and my arrival in the U.S. began as soon as I boarded the American Airlines flight to Chicago. Aside from the obvious fact of the airline name, I knew this because most people on the flight spoke English: loud, brash, informal English. This is where I noticed one of the first difference: that we can be very informal, sometimes disarmingly so, with strangers and figures of authority. I found this to be more friendly, in a way, but also a little rude. Even the flight attendants spoke to some of the passengers as if they'd known each other for years and with the offering of coffee did not ask "would you like..." but " 'you want" some coffee. French, on the other hand, have a pronoun, vous, with a distinct verb agreement  for the people with whom one would like to be polite, those who one doesn't know personally. I had been used to saying Bonjour Monsieur and Madame to shop owners, to saying Bonjour, pardon, with a friendly nod to strangers from whom I could use some directions. And merci, always. I liked the generally assumed politeness to strangers, even if at times it came off as coldness or reservedness. I'm glad to have become more conscious of politeness. 

The second but no less obvious difference I observed was the size of everything. Our country is bigger and so are our highways, our cars, our houses, our chain restaurants, our people and our wine glasses. Perhaps needless to say, bigger isn't necessarily better. As I gazed out the window of the car driving me home, I noticed the number of chain restaurants clustered together, populating wide highways where no pedestrian would dare go. This does not ring true for every part of the country by any means, but I've found our bigness offers more convenience and less charm. The excessiveness is unsettling, but perhaps this just means that living with less in Aix has encouraged me to live well within my means. Attending Marchutz and living in Aix-en-Provence has led me to realize that the "good life"- of constant learning (and drawing!), eating well from fresh ingredients, walking in the city, of staying close to nature, but most of all of spending with dear friends and extraordinary professors- is not something that requires much money. It just requires right choices and a right attitude and an openness to adventure, a joie de vivre. 

I feel different than I did when I left the States and I certainly see my at once strange and familiar surroundings in a new way. Perhaps it will take a dive into a new routine of the semester for me to really see how my change will manifest itself here at home. This end, I feel, is only the beginning.

One day in Paris, as we made our way downtown from the Palace Royale metro stop, Andi, Hilary and I came upon a strings ensemble of men and women seated in a round in one of those silvery street squares you find in front of a cafe with streets leading in and out of roads overlooked by the city's colossal limestone masterbuildings. A cello hum led into rapidly vibrating violins, striking up a magnificent, sublime dance of desire and disquiet. The three of us had already stopped in our tracks, dazzled, and we stood. L'Amour Sorcier it was called, I noticed looking over the shoulder of one player.

The light cast itself across the busy street between walls and onto the players, illuminating the bow of a violinist as he leaned into his instrument, this way and that. It was one of those moments when one revels in the rarity of the circumstances, finding it almost impossible to be alive in this time and place, here where symphonies play on sunny Paris avenues. But then it seemed to flee from my eyes and ears as soon as it began; barely graspable the way birds fly off when you try to chase them. A violinist slid his bow across one final note.

There was was applause. We nodded at each other and began to mosey down the sidewalk. Should we go find lunch? I noticed Hilary still held her sketchbook with paper handouts sticking out, reminding me of the poem that our professor John had read that morning after we'd looked at Monet's water lillies at the Marmottan. The Ninth Elegy by Rainer Maria Rilke: Hil had even read a section out loud when we were on the Metro, it so poignantly describing what we'd been experiencing at art school over the past few months, particularly during this five-day museum tour where we'd spent so much time just looking. And how much power there was in that, it had left me without words. Rembrandt's self-portraits, Cezanne's mountain and Monet's Camille still lingered in my consciousness, and though we'd discussed them for hours, the mysteries of their existence always moved me more than I could ever articulate.

Behind us the strings ensemble drew their bows in a slower, more measured tune. Wait a minute, would Hilary read Rilke's poem? I asked. Yes, she answered, absolutely loving the idea. We whipped back around and stood in a kind of reverence as she began. Words, cello and violin, light on the city noise and passing car. This and everything, all at once.

She read from the third verse:

"But because truly being here is so much; because everything here apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all. Once for each thing. Just once, no more. And we too, just once. And never again. But to have this once, completely, even if only once: to have been one with the earth, seems beyond undoing.

And so we keep pressing on, trying to achieve it, trying to hold it firmly in our simple hands, in our overcrowded gaze, in our speechless heart. Trying to become it. Whom can we give it to? We would hold on to it all, forever...Ah, but what can we take along into that other realm? Not the art of looking, which is learned so slowly, and nothing that happened here. Nothing. The sufferings, then. And above all, the heaviness, the long experience of love- just what is wholly unsayable. But later, among the stars, what good is it- they are better as they are- unsayable.

For when the traveler returns from the mountain-slopes into the valley, he brings, not a handful of earth, unsayable to others, but instead some word he has gained, some pure word, the yellow and blue gentian. Perhaps we are here in order to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window, at most: column, tower...But to say them, you must understand, oh to say them more intensely than the things themselves ever dreamed of existing. Isn't it the secret intent of this taciturn earth, when it forces lovers together, that inside their boundless emotion all things may shudder with joy? Threshold: what it means for two lovers to be wearing down, imperceptibly, the ancient threshold of their door- and they too, after the many who came before them and before those to come...lightly.

Here is the sayable, here is the homeland...

And the last verse:

"Look, I am living. On what? Neither childhood nor future grows any smaller...superabundant being wells up in my heart."

The music kept on and we stood. It was cold out, I could see my breath.

We exchanged that look of awe usually reserved for those moments in the museums when a work of art was more than words could calculatedly express. It crossed my mind how I wished I'd had my camera, but I shut the thought out, glad that I gave those glorious five minutes all my attention. We began to walk on toward the cheap cafes and I tried to put some words to qualify the experience. Hilary described it as a spiritual. I thought it was beautiful, sure, it was unbelievable. But what really could be said, after that, but silence?

A few months ago I posted a quote of Van Gogh, that "Il s'agit de saisir ce qui ne passe pas dans ce qui passe," "It comes down to seizing what does not pass away in what passes away," and I was reminded of those words as we continued down the sidewalk. There’s a magic to what passes minute to minute, in the concrete lives of people and cities and things,  somehow imparted with a spirit that remains through the flood of seconds and hours and days and years and through all the frightening change that occurs in the meantime. This could not be more true in the context of travel, when the novelties of culture come and go like lucky pennies on the sidewalk, disappearing into the pocketbook of memory. But the more I snap at life through the lens of my my digital camera, the more I try to take and own each passing experience, the more I ignore that which lasts, that absolute wonder that one may get a glimpse of in a greek sculpture or in Monet's Nympheas, or in a cathedral or in the face of a friend or in the song of a Paris orchestra.

"Just wait until we go to Paris," John had said before we left of the museum tour. "You're going to see things, I mean really see them."

What had I seen, after all?  I had seen in the museums how Art brings us closer to the deep holy mystery of life and here I could see it outside in Paris, in all the chaos of the city. I learned how one must look, and keep looking: to approach painting, like life, with a spirit of inquiry. I had seen in the museums how an 8-by-11 inch square could become a fully constituted being with the application of oily colored goo, and here I saw how this little earth, sans bellowing voices from the clouds, could bear the inspiration for masterworks.

Rilke refers to "the unsayable" as the only thing we can take with us "into that other realm" which I suspect has something to do with the need to seize "ce qui ne passe pas," or "that which does not pass." We find ourselves in the sayable, in words like these or in pictures and music notes. They shape, vivify and emphasize the "unsayable;" the white empty page, the light, the stillness that lasts.

Early on in the semester John said a phrase which I haven't been able to forget since. We were on a field trip in the Vaucluse mountains studying the "quality with out a name," and from a wooded path we found our way into an old shepherd's cottage built of stones circling upward to a center, which filled the room with light like a pin-hole camera.

"Listen. You can almost hear the silence."

I saw Monet’s violet in the Giverny sky. It was on a crisp mid-morning in late October and I had my fingers wrapped around a steaming cup and my head tilted upward, transfixed by the color that I’d seen mixed into the green of the grass, in the strokes of light or the trees or on the surface of the water and lilies in the artist’s paintings. No sky had I seen quite like this one; a vibrant bluish-purple glowing with a hint of fog against the golden leaves of autumn. It engulfed the space between our big old cottage and the sculpture studio where we, just a bunch of lucky art students, would attend a four-day workshop with Greg Wyatt.

Inside the studio, our sculptor-in-residence sat at the head of the long table where we’d be molding, bending, playing with plaster and applying wax. Today, day one, we would create some basic three-dimensional forms with clay: sphere, cube, column, pyramid, egg. From there, we would practice conceiving of line, form and color in three dimensions with an emphasis on the study of nature, Monet’s garden in particular, as a source of inspiration for our final sculptures. If it hadn’t been clear to us yet, we would discover in the next few days how Monet’s vision has everything to do with sculpture, with space, it becoming more evident with each lesson and drawing why one need not look at the sky to see the violet. Perhaps the Giverny air, blowing through willow trees and across the little vine-covered cottages in town, wasn’t so different from the clay we were molding in our hands.

It was a few days later when our 13-member Marchutz School family; eight students, one fellow, two professors, one mother and a precocious 6-year-old named James- went to visit to the garden, just down the road and through a brick alleyway. We entered in the company of a few tourists into the quiet where stalks of bamboo, water plants and flower bushes leaned into the ovular pond at the center. Arching over the reflective surface was the Japanese bridge and we followed it to the other side where the path split into patches of trees and across creeks. Here, we were given our task: to draw from four different perspectives from around the pond. With our sketchbooks in hand we set to work observing.

I walked a few yards and began my first drawing by the water. Inspired by Monet’s own paintings of the lilies I looked down and began to make strokes of the circular water plants across the reflective plane, where one could see the sky and willows in the ripples of color, of shadow and light. It was unlike anything I’d drawn before, the surface of water, as it demanded that that I not separate it from the sky above or the tree at the far end of the pond that was reflected in it. I could only draw the different values that I saw refracted in its ripples, with each stroke building into an image of the pond in its living, breathing environment.

Our professors had told us back when we were working out in Tholonet, one must “start with the sky” when painting landscapes, and as I looked at the little clouds overhead in the face of the water in the water I supposed the same could be said for drawing outdoors. To start with the sky meant to respond to one’s sensations of those color relationships that determine the appearance of the land, the trees, the haystacks, the lilies, the water. For Monet, it meant working rapidly in keeping with the changing light, sometimes for only seven or eight minutes at a time. He did more than 250 impressionist paintings of his water lilies alone in the last 30 years of his life.

A look at paintings of his lilies- much like his haystacks or series paintings in Venice- reveal a vision of how the color of the light of the day could envelop nature like a clear vapor, blowing through his garden and reacting with warm greens, the yellows, the oranges, the blues. Monet saw how the hues could change from minute to minute, enabling him to capture a vision of eternal truths in the most vibrant, most fleeting color harmonies in nature’s own temperament.

To find the eternal in the ephemeral, the fleeting- a notion held by both the Impressionists and Japanese in the Zen tradition, was something that had a special significance here in the garden where the presence of Monet’s vision lingered on. Here it wasn’t as if I was beholding a monument or relic to A Great Artist, or at least not entirely. In the process of drawing  I could relate to him, in a way. I certainly had often felt in this journey the desire to capture a moment to keep, forever, even as it passed again and again into the next.

It was something I couldn’t help but think of as I watched the morning’s violet transform ever so slightly into the cool blue of midday. I flipped the page of my sketchpad. At the other end of the garden I found another view of the lilies under the arch of the bridge. I began another drawing.

“As an artist you will experience tension…but in tension comes the possibility of success.” – Greg Wyatt, Sculptor‎

The best thing you can do is to keep an art journal; for notes, drawings…record everything because you never know how it will be of use as a source of insight now or when you come back to it in the future. -Greg Wyatt

Promise me you will not spend so much time treading water and trying to keep your head above the waves that you forget, truly forget, how much you have always loved to swim.” – Tyler Knott Gregson

The idea to keep a sketchbook/notebook/quotebook/do-anything book came from a long (amazing!) weekend in the painter Monet’s home of Giverny, where the Marchutz School attended a sculpture workshop with Greg Wyatt. I’ll save my comments about drawing in Monet’s home and Garden for another post, but in our discussions and work with Wyatt we learned some interesting things about what it means to live as an artist, for whom the terms “learner” and “beginner” are necessarily connected.  Wyatt is an incredibly successful sculptor- he is the only American sculptor to have work installed in Italy, has a collection of works in the Shakespeare garden in Stratford-Upon-Avon in England, and has one incredible work installed at CofC which I pass every day between classes. And still, much like our professors John and Alan, he assumes the position of a beginner, or rather of a learner, open to possibility, in his approach to his work and creative observation.

Summed up in the quote above he gave us the advice of keeping an art journal- to record in words or in drawings anything that we come across that is interesting or that inspires us. In doing so the objective would be to become absorbed in the process of watching, absorbing, learning, without feeling the need to create anything necessarily finished.

The desire to finish our one-session paintings to show off (rather than focusing on the process of developing my approach over time) has been a problem of mine while I’ve been at Marchutz, and so the idea of having a space to experiment, mess up, play, look, write, think about whatever scene or subject presented itself really appealed to me.

In the past three weeks or so I’ve filled a good portion of this thing with quotes, journal entries, ideas, and lots and lots of drawings. Take a look!

Morning walk to Marchutz
I came home today covered in bits of paint, dirt, and turpentine from an afternoon painting in a sun-lit field of the small town of Tholonade. It's a weird feeling, knowing that the detritus of art class had its origins by a little canvas in the shadow of Cezanne's mountain, but that's just another day at the Marchutz school. Epic paint sessions and discoveries happen every day, and it's all part of the routine...Speaking of which, is that the sweet smell of dinner from the kitchen? (my host family makes the best fig jam from the tree in their backyard).

What was strange one month ago has strangely become part of Regular Life. Speaking French at the market has become a no-brainer. Tomorrow I can expect to walk at least twice to downtown and back (without getting lost), to have at least three portions of bread and pastries (hello, pain au chocolat!) and to learn at least four new words or phrases with my French family at dinner (the term "yum" is universal). My designated painting clothes, having mocked me in my closet for the last few months, are finally getting their fair share of cadmium yellow splatters and it feels so right. 

Oui, it has been a month of French-speaking, market-wandering and fun with new friends, American and French, over dinner tables and late night drinks. It's the lifestyle I've dreamt of. And, for me, attending the Marchutz school has brought this life to another level; to the land of art where Rembrandt, Giacometti, Van Gogh and Cezanne send down their wisdom to us mortals via professors John Gasparach and Alan Roberts. What has amazed me about the study of painting and drawing is how much it lends itself to the study of any other creative discipline, meanwhile opening up big, existential questions about what it means to "see." I've been surprised to learn how much architecture has to do with philosophy, or drawing to fiction writing. 

While most of my "aha" moments have come through rapid fire drawing sessions or in copying masterworks, I found myself most inspired during our trip last week to the Vaucluse, a beautiful mountainous region 70 kilometers from Aix. In one word, we were studying architecture and, simply put, the nature of a harmonious, timeless building, its space, and is place in the landscape it inhabits. Our exploration of the Vaucluse was largely in response to a selection from a book called “Timeless Building” called “The Quality Without a Name” by Christopher Alexander. It is, to quote the author, is “a central quality which is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building or a wilderness. This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named.” That sentence alone may give you an idea of how deep the study of art (or just a building!) can get. He talks about architecture, but he goes where no blueprint or mathematical formula could. 

That morning on the bus everyone I talked to seemed just as impressed by what we read, since it pins down, as much as words can, that quality that makes a space or a person or a piece of art feel…right. This something that had crossed my mind in considering what I liked about Aix, or a certain painting, or a certain garden. But on what grounds could I justify my impression of it? What was it that made one space feel discordant and another comfortable? The answers depended on the presence or absence of that 'Quality Without A Name.'

Because there's no word in the English language to describe the Quality, Alexander takes a look at qualities of the Quality, like “alive,” “whole,” “comfortable,” “free,” “exact,” “eternal,” “egoless,” “natural.” We learned it is not self-imposing and respects the patterns of nature. Strikingly, this this quality is true for a person or a moment as much as for buildings, as Alexander observes: “This character will happen anywhere, where a part of the world is so well reconciled to its inner forces that it is true to its own nature.”

Our bus parked at the side of the road by a prairie and we began walking down the winding mountain road. We stopped for a moment at the top of a valley and looked across at a small town that was built around the face of a large hill. What about this town gave it that quality? We were asked. It was well-integrated into the landscape, with trees throughout it that It was made up of a pattern of little stucco buildings varied one to the next, each with windows the color of the sky, and trees in between like the landscape around it; it respected the pattern and variety of nature. 

Here's what Alexander said: 
When a building has this fire, then it becomes a part of nature. Like ocean waves, or blades of grass, its parts are governed by the endless play of repetition and variety, created in the presence of the fact that all things pass. This is the quality itself.”

We took a break for lunch and photos before departing for a short hike in the woods and a visit to a local monastery. There, we took 30 minutes of silence to observe the space of a limestone foyer room before wandering through a cathedral where light was streaming in from the windows at each end. It felt peaceful, comfortable, alive, egoless..It had that Quality to it. 

After settling back into the bus we were given yet another stack of papers to read (no matter, when it's reading hand-picked by John and Alan, you're better off with a pen for underlining than an eye for the trash can). My favorite quote came from the first passage we were given, which describes what gives the city of Nuremberg, oh, you know (the Quality):

“Whereas so many constructions of our epoch lack artistic unity, even though they may be the long meditated work of a single man, the town of Nuremberg, shaped successively by several centuries, offers the opposite impression, striking proof that beauty resides less in the unity of historical style than in the observations of the immutable laws which lie at the base of all artistic creation and which have the same value for us as for the masters of antiquity and the gothic period, even though our own mode of expression is necessarily different.

It has been days like these that excite me for what's left to be discovered between walks to class and dinner time. Which is, to say, a lot.   

‘Aix isn’t such a bad place to get lost in,’ I decided on more than one occasion this week when I found myself wandering the city’s winding pedestrian streets on what was supposed to be a direct route home from French class. On pavement marked with bronze stamps for the Route Cezanne, and past stucco buildings, fountains, statues, Romanesque facades and a couple Gothic cathedrals, past shops and a whiff of Lavender, past open air restaurants smelling of crepes and pizza, past the trinkets and fresh produce for sale in the city’s several market squares and across a few busy roads I found myself on a path one afternoon overlooking a lush neighborhood with a fantastic view of a Mount St. Victoire.

Despite the fact that I was, at this point, about a mile away from my home stay (oops!), Cezanne’s mountain became the highlight this unintentional tour of Aix-en-Provence. I’d seen its triangular stone faces in the artist’s paintings, framed by trees and buildings just as I saw it now in front of me. It was like seeing a celebrity pass on the street- only unlike Antonio Banderas I could look forward to getting to know it better at the Marchutz School, itself founded by Cezanne scholar and artist Leo Marchutz.

Realizing myself to be absolutely lost, I turned around and began to walk downhill toward the center of town to get my bearings. On the way I pass a few posters for the Atelier Cezanne and other museums, a few more maps of the Route Cezanne and a several art shops selling paintings of cityscapes and the mountain. As if I wasn’t excited already for a semester of painting, drawing and learning about art this would surely do it. I suspected these surprise explorations, which happened again several days in a row, were just the beginning of a semester of cultural and artistic novelties.

I passed modern art galleries and street painters, intricate Gothic cathedrals, Romanesque satuettes and shop fronts built who knows when in the past few decades. There is history of western art in the fabric of this city. Pretty cool, I thought, exhausted from walking in the hot Provencal sun and looking desperately for my street to turn on. I could use a little water, maybe a baguette. 

It was four days of circling this way through the western side until I discovered my rather direct route home cut though just a few blocks northeast of the Cours Mirabeau. Sure, I could have brought a map or maybe used a little more common sense. But had I not strayed from the sidewalk home I probably wouldn’t have realized how much in Aix there remains to be discovered, or even thought much about what I will.

I pull my monster of a suitcase up to the taxi stop in central Aix-en-Provence, scanning the cars and faces for a host family I have yet to meet. I exhale, lean against my luggage, wonder what the passers-by make of it. Was I a frequent shopper? No, though when packing I am prone to ‘just-in-case’ syndrome. Immigrant? No, though it would appear that I’m carrying everything I own. American? They could have guessed. Despite the ease with which I attempted to wheel it over, the thing is actually packed solid, far surpassing the 50-pound weight limit that would have applied had I come by plane to France.

I meet eyes with an elderly man at a café who raises his eyebrows as if to say, “vraiment?” -- “really?” The man laughs. Fair enough, I think, a good third of the objects I carry are not things I need, t-shirts and memorabilia whose time has past. Memories, expectations, shampoo and books. Between a great summer at Cambridge University and a semester at the Marchutz School of Art, my suitcase holds what I am not yet ready to let go of. Photos. Postcards. Cambridge sweatshirts, shot glasses, mugs once filled with coffee late nights writing papers. Vintage copies of E.M. Forster novels from Ye Olde Bookshoppe. They rub against unworn jackets and an empty journal, a French-English dictionary, dreams yet to be realized, fun yet to be had.

I scan the taxi stop. A woman opens a car door, looks at me, smiles and approaches. “Bonjour!” she says. “Bonjour!” I say. My host mother. She must have recognized me from my photo. “Je m’appelle Kate.” “Enchanter,” she says, “Nice to meet you.”

I drag my suitcase to her car a few meters away. The trunk is small and so she helps me load it into the back seat. Yes, it is ridiculously heavy, I try to say, smiling. With the bag resting beside me I exhale, feeling the weight released from my arms. My new home is just a drive away and I can’t wait to unpack.