I work in retail. I am no longer afraid of people. I suppose it’s impressive, then that the people at the French Consulate of New York have almost made me cry twice. The first time, I was sadly misinformed about the consulate’s security policies, and instead begged the security guard outside to let me into the building so I could speak to someone about my appointment. Eventually we got so frustrated with each other that he began to insult me in French and I teetered on the verge of tears. Finally, I had the sense to actually explain my situation – I wasn’t able to get a visa appointment any earlier than one week before I was supposed to be on a plane to Marseilles – and he suddenly became very kind and explained to me the best methods for stalking the consulate’s open appointment page. He apologized and said that that was really, really all he could do for me and wished me luck. I pulled myself together and thanked him profusely, then immediately contacted one of Connecticut’s congressmen who, by some sort of witchcraft, scored me an appointment a full month before my departure date. 

Round Two: My actual appointment. The woman behind the glass window stared at me as I cheerfully shouted “BONJOUR!” into the microphone that served as our quiet and crackly means of communication. “Fingerprints,” she instructed, gesturing toward a small machine sitting by my right hand. I examined the extremely confusing diagram on the face of the machine for several seconds and looked back up at the woman, who was still staring at me.
“Um…how do I use this?” I ventured. No answer. I pressed on the machine with about seven different finger combinations, eliciting a series of red lights and loud beeps. Finally she snapped, “If you don’t do this right, I can’t take your fingerprints and you won’t be getting a visa.” I mumbled a flustered apology and started handing her my documents as she asked for them, getting every third one thrown back at me, as she stated that it was “NOT what she was looking for.” Her loud sighs of frustration finally flustered me to the point that I found myself back on that familiar brink between cool composition and quite simply, an overreaction. I was being weak and helpless and tears were not necessary; I had prevent them from surfacing.
“I’m…I’m really sorry, I’m just finding it really hard to hear you,” I stammered, and instantly her face softened and she leaned into her microphone, speaking a little louder.
“That’s all the documents I need. You’re welcome to come back any time next Friday and pick up your visa. Have a wonderful day!” I smiled at her, a bit taken aback as she beamed at me with nothing but kindness.
What’s remarkable is that the French Consulate, nestled in the heart of a city that screams “AMERICA!” is a tiny microcosm of French culture. Walk in helpless, expecting someone to hold your hand throughout the entire process, and the people will certainly be cold and treat you in a manner that here in America, we would classify as nothing short of “rude.” Apologize for your misunderstandings and make a real effort to do things right, however, and you’ll gain a small measure of respect, and the people you speak to will try their best to help you.

A week later, I bounced from my seat as my name echoed through the waiting room (after only a fifteen minute wait!) and breathed a sigh of relief as a young man handed me my passport and wished me luck on my semester abroad. Thrilled that I was actually receiving my visa without a single problem, I berated the man with a flurry of “thank yous” and “mercis.” I flipped past my (for once) awesome passport photo eagerly, and gazed down adoringly at the new sticker adorning the pages.

I gagged reflexively, and released a strange gargle that was half laugh, half bleat of despair. I honestly will not be a bit surprised if the Marseilles Airport security detains me to inquire about my use of what appears to be a mug shot as my visa photo. Even my grandmother –my grandmother! – refused to comment on it, trained from years spent teaching her grandchildren that if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. I guess it’s true that no good passport photo goes unpunished.

I have 15 concerningly short days left in America. All that stands between me and Aix is less than 40 hours of employment, a last huzzah with friends at school, and a toiletry binge in Target. Quite honestly, I can’t say how I feel about leaving. A wave of terror washes up on me when I practice my French in the car and forget basic vocabulary. A sting of sadness hits when my dog curls up in my bed with me during a morning thunderstorm. A flash of giddiness when I think about being independent in foreign cities, a dip into a pit of despair when I check my bank account. The past month, when I really began to realize that my semester abroad is real and quite imminent, has been a flurry of emotions. Above everything I am feeling, however, I am too excited to properly put into words.

            I had my first glimpse of French culture on a family vacation to Normandy and Paris when I was 14, and not even halfway through the week, decided that I needed to return, and for a much, much longer amount of time. (Luckily, this decision coincided with my high school’s decision to deny my request for enrollment in French courses. Instead I was forced to take Latin for three years past my language requirement and do really well on my SATs).  Finally, after a long 4-year wait, I was able to start French with Franklin & Marshall; I declared on the first day that I would be spending a semester in France and now, here I am and I couldn’t be more thrilled about it.

            I haven’t yet wrapped my mind around the idea that I will actually be living in France in 2 weeks, and I’m looking forward to the moment that that fact really, really hits me. Even at college, and although I am, by nature, an extremely independent person, I can’t say for sure that I’ve ever been totally, completely on my own, and I am excited for the enormous leap I’ll be making in self-reliance. I have friends studying all over Europe, and for once it is entirely up to me to make travel plans. As scary as this prospect seems, I’m positive that I will reap nothing but rewards. My ultimate goal after college is travel journalism, and just thinking of the number of amazing and interesting people I’ll meet and places I’ll see is nothing short of thrilling. The world is more enormous than I can even imagine, and I am so, so ready to see it.

À bientôt, America. I’m on my way to the biggest adventure of my life. 

 


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