Final frontier: Student considers leaving France

I have arrived at the final week of my study abroad program in Nantes. Courses are finished, half my final exams are behind me and it’s time to start asking myself if I can really fit all of my possessions back into the suitcase and carry-on that I used to bring them here (while also making sure my condensed brick of a suitcase weighs less than 50 pounds.)

A lot of my classmates are leaving things behind, but I think my acquisitions this semester have been too small to pose any packing problems: a couple books, two bowls, three or four items of clothing, a pair of shoes. Surely I can find room in my carry-on for those. On a less tangible level, of course, there are many things which can’t be put into a suitcase that I will be leaving behind in France — some more regretfully than others — and many non-transportable things in the U.S. to which I will happily be returning.

Regarding the things I will miss from France, I suppose I should cite the two most obvious. Firstly, I will miss having plenty of opportunities to practice my language skills. The ongoing French lesson can be frustrating, but it is also very rewarding. My life is full of secret pats on the back for every use of my ever-expanding vocabulary: “Yeah, that’s right, I just used ‘parvenir’ in a sentence — and I conjugated it correctly!” [commence mini mental dance party.] Secondly (and rather predictably), I will regret the little joys of traditional French fare. Okay, I definitely won’t miss “lardons” (tiny pieces of suspiciously-chewy pork that my host family likes to add to many of their dishes), but I might become sentimental for fresh bread, homemade crêpes and mini-desserts that can be bought with pocket change. Grocery store “French bread” is just not the same.

Nevertheless, there are a few things that I’ll be content to leave behind. Take the dirty sidewalks, for example. Nantes is a lovely city as far as architecture is concerned, containing street after street of 18th-century townhouse buildings originally designed to display the wealth of their owners. However, a pedestrian can’t be too engrossed by the elaborate detail adorning the eaves or the wrought-iron railings on the balconies above him; if he doesn’t keep his eye on the path ahead, he’s liable to tread in the pungent evidence of the city’s abundant canine residents. (An experience that is “vraiment chiante,” as the French might say.)

There’s also that unique dynamic of living with a host family. I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity and my family has been wonderful, but my position in the home as more than a guest but less than a family member makes it difficult sometimes to actually feel “at home.” I eat dinner with the family, but I take just what I’m offered and, if it’s not enough, can’t go searching for snacks later. I’ve ended up keeping a secret stash of peanuts and sandwich cookies in order to supplement my diet when necessary (in quantity, obviously, not quality).

Really, it seems pretty normal to have my own collection of snacks, but because I don’t have much furniture in my bedroom, I’ve been storing them on the bottom shelf of my armoire. In dorm rooms, the bedroom and pantry are rolled into one and nobody thinks anything of it. In family homes, food is communal: stored in kitchen cupboards or on pantry shelves. As a study abroad student, though, I live in a home where everybody else shares their food, but my own stash is kept on the shelf beside my shoes and just below my socks and underwear. Somehow, I feel like the rebel, resting just outside the ranks of the real family with my hidden stock of illicit snacks. Ah, those Americans!

More than regretting what I’m leaving or complaining about what I’ve had, though, I like to look forward to all the things I’m returning to that I have been missing this semester. For starters, I will have substantial breakfasts again (bagels and cream cheese) accompanied by big mugs of good coffee that wasn’t made from a dehydrated powder. Also, I won’t have to worry so much about locking myself in the bathroom again (which has happened to me twice now and been threatened several other times). There will be the incredibly practical invention of the window screen (I found a spider in my bed tonight after leaving my window open this afternoon) along with the preventative measures of shower curtains and bathroom fans (no more puddle-mopping after every shower and having towels that smell like mildew). Slightly more important is the fact of being in a country where people are quick to give hugs, but what’s most significant of all is returning to the friends and family that I left behind. After all my francophone adventures, my Nescafé endeavors and my new connections, I’m looking forward to English conversations over mugs of good coffee sitting across from a very dear friend.

Lauren Styczynski

Tags:  food France French host family language nantes study abroad

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