"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.

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