Was it all just a dream ?  Being home feels as if I never left ; never packed up my bags and embarked on the crazy adventure that lay before me.  Now that it is all over, I can attest to the fact that it was even more life-changing than I could have ever imagined it would be.  I am a changed person.  That being said, I also cannot deny that it has been a bit of a struggle settling back into the flow of things, since life is so much different here in the U.S.  What once used to be familiar to me now seems so strange, out-of-place, and new.  Getting behind the wheel for the first time in four months, I got lost driving somewhere I have gone a million times before.  My brain is still imprinted with the map of Aix’s beautiful narrow streets.  I do not want that image to ever go away, even though I know that it eventually will. 

All the tangibility of Aix has now dissipated into vague memories and photographs; all that remains to touch are the souvenirs that I brought back, and even some of those have been eaten.  I think that the most difficult part about adjusting is that I was just so adapted to living in France.  Aix became a second home to me ; it is a city that will always hold my heart.  I have no negative thought or thing to say about my experience abroad.  Every second was spent to the absolute fullest and I have no regrets.  Well, maybe the only regret is that I wish I never had to leave.  Every fiber of my being did not want to get on that plane.  These feelings of mine, also shared among many of us near the end, bear testament to the inexplicable experiences one can have abroad.  I would share them all on here, but the terminology does not exist for what I would try to put into words.  All I can say is that it was the best four months of my life.   

Fromage.  You can’t escape it here.  As such, it seems fitting to use a cheese metaphor to explain the progress of my fluency over the course of this semester.  At the beginning, I was Swiss cheese.  Holes all over the place, in every facet of learning a language.  Then after about two or three months, those holes started to fill and now, after four full months of living in France...I finally feel like I'm a Mozzarella.

Honestly, things fell into place without my realizing it.  I would say that what helped the most were the French people that I met, be it professors, ma mère française, or friends my own age, all of whom I grew to trust and be comfortable speaking to without fear and without a filter.  I think back to 6 months ago when I was not even able to express myself on the simplest of subjects and I cannot even recognize myself.  Now, I speak French without thinking, without second-guessing, without pausing to flip through my mental dictionary of terminology or verb conjugations. It just flows out from the area of my brain in which this new language has built itself a permanent space. I am eternally thankful for the patient people who I've been lucky to meet, who opened their ears to listen to me.   

Listening to native speakers has also proved valuable to this process of fluency.  Just by paying attention very closely, I’ve learned the correct complex structures of sentences that before I came to France would come out of my mouth like a jumbled mess.  I still make mistakes, but the difference is now, I realize the error much more quickly and oftentimes I’m able to re-say it in the correct way (or, if there’s not an opportunity to, kick myself for messing up something that I knew...).  Everything is a lot more natural now, especially in conversations, as there is no longer the need to first process what the French person said, then translate it into English in my mind, and then finally understand and respond orally.  I understand immediately and respond within seconds. Then I reflect on what just happened and I can’t believe it !  In fact, everything I have learned this semester has come as such a surprise !  I think it’s safe to say I chose the right school, the perfect program for me, in the most lovely city in France that will always hold my heart.  I will come back someday in the near future ; mainly for visiting people, but of course the cheese will be calling my name as well. : ) 

What does it really mean to delve into a culture ?  True immersion, for me, began when I started my internship at a café at the beginning of March.  Day in and day out since then, I have been smack dab in the middle of the action of how a lot of Aixois start out their morning.  Getting an internship for school credit was what my French academic advisor insisted that I do before I came here to Aix. I decided to do it (entrusting that it would be for my own benefit) and now I see exactly why she encouraged it : while there is undoubtedly a wide spectrum of things to be learned in the classroom, the amount I have learned with the experiences I have had at Coffee To Go is not comparable.  

My responsibilities are numerous ; I wash the dishes, do general clean-up, complete accounting duties, converse in French with my boss Adrien and the customers, run errands to buy items for the café...but probably the most extensive work I have put my time into throughout the past two months has been a compilation of coffee drink and dessert recipes that I translated from English into French.  The recipes will be sent off to the bakery that makes the desserts to be sold in Coffee To Go.  Now that it is officially completed, I must say that I am proud of it, 24 pages, 8 thousand words in all.  I feel so much more knowledgeable about desserts now, which is an extremely important life skill for anyone to have.  And the funny thing is, you do not realize how much you are learning until you reflect on how it was at the beginning of the process. 

Au début, I remember looking up words very frequently...so, with the need to pause every so often to do that, in addition to the slow internet connection, I was not moving along very quickly.  Adrien would come over to check on my progess on a regular basis.  Then maybe about a couple weeks into my translating, something clicked and everything just became faster.  Adrien came over and was, for once, surprised at how many recipes I had translated that day.  To be honest, I surprised myself as well.  Everything I have learned this semester as a whole has just been incalculable.  I love learning ; which is good because learning throughout life is a continuous, never-ending process. Let it continue...

It’s funny how when I decided to take on two completely non-overlapping majors, I never thought that the two would merge into one discipline. But in my French Honors class, our current topics of lecture are contemporary dance, important choreographers, and how their utilization of the space around them is relevant. I guess I should have prefaced this entry by mentioning that I really have been missing dance lately! Reconnecting with something that used to be my utmost passion in life and my raison d’être by watching videos of amazing feats of dance without actually being able to participate myself (of course, we are only talking about dance, not exploring it with our own bodies...dommage!) just seems all a bit unfair. Granted, I still dance in my bedroom occasionally, but I want to feel the freedom of that wide open studio again...jump as high as I possibly can, run and leap as far as possible. The feeling is unlike any other. I can’t even put it into words.

So, since clearly la danse me manque, I’ve looked into dropping in on a few dance classes at l’école de danse d’Aix that one of the other dance majors here is taking. She told me that the first class is always free, so I figure, « pourquoi pas ? ».  Honestly, any opportunity I can grasp onto to become more involved in the culture here and break the bubble of just being an American at a school for American students, I welcome it with openness because it will allow me to get that much more out of this semester. In truth, I already feel like a changed person and with only one month left, il faut profiter de tout! I am realizing now that I never want this semester to come to an end...someone slow down time...     

Before I came to France, I always knew the importance of listening.  Be it listening in conversations with others, listening in class, or even listening to what is going on the world. But now that I am in the country whose language I am attempting to master, I have discovered that the sheer value of listening has turned from bronze to gold.  At a basic level, sure it is always necessary to listen carefully to the French person you are interacting with, so that you know how to respond and do not end up ordering mustard on your sandwich when you really actually hate mustard. (Not speaking from experience or anything...). But what I’ve found to essentially cement the building blocks of learning a language together is an “all-ears” type of listening, so I’m challenging myself to do just that.

 I’ve always been tempted to bop in my headphones and listen to my music while walking to school, but then I thought, “well, I only have this limited-edition soundtrack of the South of France for a short period of time, so I better take advantage of it.” As it turns out, I don’t miss the music on my iPod when I can hear the sounds of birds chirping and just really take in the atmosphere that surrounds me. Looking like you are open to the world and not in your own little world also presents opportunities for interactions with French people (which by the way I’ve gotten asked for directions at least three times now – proof that I don’t look as lost anymore – go me !). The result ? When I first arrived in Aix, I felt discouraged because the world was very blurry – I couldn’t understand side conversations as I passed people on the street, there were many mustard sandwiches in my life, etc. – but now everything is coming more into focus, which I couldn’t be more happy about ! And hooray for no more mustard !

The next step in challenging myself to be  “all-ears” all the time, is to continue listening to the radio. My host mom has this ancient radio that she listens to in the morning when she eats her breakfast, and I’ve started doing the same. With how fast they talk on the radio, I must admit that it is extremely hard to catch anything that is going on – hopefully there isn’t a world crisis getting announced that directly affects me or a recall of the cereal that I eat every morning – but I am optimistic that eventually more of what is said on the radio will “click “. It’s just a matter of time and consistent listening. More news on that later in the semester, now on to the weather forecast...

             I'm writing this from the train on my way back to Aix after our nine-day winter break trip to Brussels, Amsterdam, and Cologne, Germany. As a related (I promise it is related) side note, I just got my head stuck in between those “automatic” doors that separate the train cars and I cannot help but see it as a metaphor for life and perhaps more specifically, a metaphor for the challenges of this trip.  Don’t get me wrong, the past nine days could not have been better spent.  I could literally write a novel on everything that was so wonderful.  But apart from the fun (of which much was had), I learned a thing or two from the times when not everything went smoothly. 

           For one, language is such a valuable skill.  Pointing, nodding and shaking of the head can get you food, but it may not be anything remotely close to what you wanted/can even swallow.  In Brussels, we got by with our French.  In Amsterdam, we got by because most people speak English alongside Dutch.  In Germany, we were so far from getting by.  The distance between us and “getting by” can be approximated to be the same distance between Earth and Outer Space, which is suitable considering the fact that we were looked at as if we were aliens any time we asked for an English menu.  Luckily, out of all of the jumbled up words that seem impossible to pronounce but I’m sure are what make German such a beautiful language, “tofu” is the same word in English as it is in German so life is not all that bad for this tofu-eating alien.    

            So, back to the head-squeezed-in-between-doors metaphor. Sometimes, life tests you. We couldn't communicate in Germany, we missed our train in Paris, but right as my life flashed before my eyes when the doors were closing in on one of my most vital organs, they opened again as if to say, “just kidding, you're fine!”.  The truth is, I believe that things go wrong to teach us something.  No matter how small the lesson may be, it is never insignificant.  And if that makes me an optimistic, tofu-eating alien then so be it. I wouldn't have it any other way.  

                 While there are some major – and inevitable – cultural differences that I have become aware of since moving here, I’m noticing more often that not all of the stereotypes are true. We have been told that French people may come off as being unfriendly and perhaps even cold. However, when looking at it from the standpoint that they just are not interested in pursuing relationships that are on the surface, it makes a lot more sense that people do not smile back at you on the street.  Armed with this information, I honestly was not ever expecting my sphere of interaction with people to expand beyond the other American students, my French professors, and my host family.  Until recently, I accepted this fact with a grain of disappointment that my study abroad experience would not feel as “abroad” as I was hoping.

            But then, my perspective changed.  A group of us were engaged in a deep discussion about how life leads us to meet certain people and to have experiences that end up changing us (and in a small way, our fate) as a result.  We were just sitting at a table in this hybrid between a café and a library, enclosed in shelves of books in all different languages while sipping our delicious hot drinks when a French man came up to us and asked us if he could practice his English with us.  We really had no concrete plans to do anything soon, so of course we welcomed him to sit with us. It was as refreshing as my warm coffee to think that “I look approachable”, but more so the conversation that ensued.  He was interested in talking to us not solely for the reason that he wanted to practice his English, but to learn about the United States, what jobs are there for bi-linguists like himself who want to teach, and whether we had connections to help him get his start.             

             What continued to amaze me through the rest of the night (after talking until the café closed, during dinner, and several hours afterwards) was that he trusted us and we trusted him.  There was not ever a feeling of “we are different”, which is how it should always be.  It is this understanding of differences that should prevent all prejudice and stereotypes in our world.  Although some inevitable cultural barriers exist, we are all still human; we all have goals and dreams and who is to say we cannot achieve them?   

Le week-end dernier, nous avons voyagé à Nice et Monaco pour explorer la côte d’azur.  En quelques mots, mes expériences là ont dépassé mes attentes.  C’était un lieu tout neuf où tant de découvertes sont possibles ! J’avais le même sentiment quand je suis arrivée à Aix pour la première fois : tout semblait si grand pour la raison que tout était nouveau.  Mais maintenant, je saisis le concept qu’Aix n’est pas vraiment une très grande ville.  Alors, quand je me suis trouvée à Nice, mes yeux ne pouvaient pas croire que ce qu’ils voyaient était la réalité.  Même en ce moment, ce n’est pas totalement assimilé dans ma tête ce que j’ai vu.  En plus, je pense que mes photos me fera toujours haleter, n’importe quel espace ou quel endroit où je serai quand je les regarde.

La notion qu’il y’en a assez d’espace dans le monde pour tous les lieux qui sont impeccablement beaus comme ceux de Nice et de Monaco est incroyable à mon avis.  Mon esprit a été ouvert avec une infinité des possibilités pour explorer et pour voyager et pour avoir plusieurs aventures ! La mappemonde que je voyais dans la salle de classe quand j’avais dix ans a crû d’une dimension énorme ! Le monde est vraiment à moi.

Il y a quelque chose de très spécial à propos de la Méditerranée.  En la regardant, on peut facilement perdre soi-même dans ses pensées.  Pendant le week-end, nous avons pris le temps de simplement manger et envisager près d’une telle belle vue.  Mais oui, bien sûr, nous nous sommes amusés un peu aussi : en se promenant dans les vieux rues, en grimpant à une cascade, en faisant du shopping, et en misant dans le grand casino qui s’appelle Monte Carlo .  Mais ce que j’aimerais me souvenir le plus sont des moments où je me suis perdue ; soit au sens figuré, soit litteralement.  Ce n’est que lorsque nous nous sommes perdus, que nous pouvons vraiment trouvons nous-mêmes.  

Last weekend, we voyaged to Nice and Monaco to explore the French Riviera. In a few words, my experiences there exceeded my expectations. It was a brand new place where so many discoveries were possible! I had a similar feeling when I arrived in Aix for the first time: everything seemed so big for the reason that everything was completely new territory. But now, I understand better the concept that Aix isn’t a very large city. When I found myself in Nice, my eyes could not believe that what they were seeing was actually real. Even in this moment, I have not grasped the totality of everything that I saw. Also, I think that my pictures will always make me gasp no matter where I am when I look at them. 

The notion that there is enough space in the world for all these places that are so impeccably beautiful as those in Nice and Monaco is unbelievable to me.  My mind has been opened with an infinity of possibilities to explore and travel and to have so many adventures! The small classroom globe that I know from my youth has grown to an enormous dimension! The world truly is my oyster.   

There is something uniquely special about the Mediterranean. In simply looking at it, one can easily lose oneself in thought. Over the weekend, we took the time to simply eat in contemplation while absorbing such a beautiful view. But of course, we did a few fun things as well: walking through ancient parts of the city, climbing up to a waterfall, a little bit of shopping, and some gambling in the grand casino Monte Carlo. But what I would like to remember the most from this weekend are the moments where I found myself lost, either figuratively or literally. For, it’s only when we are lost that we can truly begin to find ourselves. 

I'm digging a deep grave in the ground, throwing all of my insecurities inside, piling on fresh soil and a layer of new seeds. This is the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. It's the first day of my journey and I'm already reaping the benefits of being immersed! My biggest fear coming into this was that I'd understand everything my host mom said but not know how to respond to anything. Imagine a cold, dark world with no ability to use your voice; where every conversation is full of awkward silences and misunderstandings and "je ne comprends pas"...or worse, "je ne comprends rien". That was the plot of my nightmares. In truth, taking two years off of studying French after four straight years of it in high school was really damaging to my confidence in the oral facet of the language. (Side note: I've struggled a bit in that area the past two years of picking up the language again, whereas everything came back to me from high school in terms of reading, listening comprehension, and writing...anywho, I digress...). I have been unsure up until today whether I would ever regain what was lost, but I have seen a new glimmer of hope. 

Insecurity crept in when I met my host mom for the first time (is she going to punish me if I make a subject-verb agreement/ conjugation/gender/pronunciation/wrong word choice/sentence structure error?...sad, I know. But your thoughts run amok when what you want to do for the rest of your life is put to the test of whether it's actually a real skill). I felt relieved when she said yes when I asked her if she spoke English. Then, as we're talking I'm realizing that English is not NEARLY as fun, nor is it why I'm here. 

So we get home, eat a great déjeuner, then she gives me some time to nap. Afterwards, she wanted to show me around town so we walked and talked (in French now). I made the realization that I'm in love with the architecture and just about everything here. Then I had a revelation that I'm speaking French without really thinking about what to say. Words are just pouring out of my mouth and once I'm in the flow of conversation, my brain doesn't let me over-think or over-analyze anything and the dialogue between Sylvie (my host mom) and I just becomes natural! This continues into dinner time. We ate chicken in a creamy sauce and what tasted to me like green-tea flavored mashed potatoes. (I know they probably were not green-tea flavored, but I was digging it, so I stayed content with my unlikely theory). I didn't ask what vegetables she made them with because by now we were in a deep conversation en français about how languages are formed out of a country's specific culture. That's why there are terms in certain languages that do not exist in others. She gave me the example of how the Russians have a word that defines a specific emotion. Other languages can explain the emotion in a convoluted way, but they don't have a precise word for it. It was at this point that I threw the soil on top of the grave of my insecurities! I jumped into the discussion, giving the example of how the French have a word for the soft, white, inside part of the baguette (called la mie), and that is due to the full-force bread culture here. I think Sylvie was impressed with my input, because she then told me that I have a really strong foundation of conversational French, advanced vocabulary, knowledge of when to use different verb tenses, and that I'm at a level where what I write wouldn't have too many errors (like students she has hosted in the past) and that she'd love to look over my work! I. could. not. believe. it. One point: me. Zero points: insecurities. Now the world isn't a cold, dark place! Well, still extremely cold...but not dark because everything is wonderful and sunny in the South of France. :)

The idea of being in France in less than two short weeks seems unreal to me! To think that, eight years ago, I was daydreaming in beginning French class of one day being able to live in the South of France…and now my time has finally come.  I cannot wait to relish in this opportunity that I am certain will be life-changing!  Specifically, one thing that I am looking forward to is meeting new people from all around the country who share my passion for learning.  I am excited to just be fully immersed and drenched in French culture, history, food, art, and of course, language.  I’m expecting each and every day to be such a journey in itself that, by the end of it, I will have an endless amount of stories to tell!  In truth, I am so over-the-moon excited from what I have read and from pictures I have seen of Aix-en-Provence that I don’t think that I will be able to/want to blink my eyes to miss out on one second of the beauty this area of France will offer me.

Having said that, I am hoping that my upcoming busy semester will still give me some time for exploration to discover other parts of France and possibly Europe.  I guess you could say that I get a little bit nervous when my thoughts meander into a world where my academic experience takes up all time for adventure.  Overall, though, my worries aren't numerous and I am optimistic that the semester will be a perfect, positive balance of academic challenges as well as freedom to wander. I have confidence that, along with having openness to whatever comes my way, that equilibrium will constitute the ingredients for a successful time abroad! I have never been more ready for this experience of a lifetime to begin!