REFLECTIONS ON MY EXCHANGE
HOW I TOOK ON THE WORLD
DECEMBER 21 2014
My study-abroad-exchange is at an end. Exams are over, friends have left, and goodbyes have been said. Today I fly away from Edinburgh, with two overweight suitcases and a billion memories.
I remember when I arrived in France, for the first half of my exchange. I had arrived into a country where I could not speak more than five words of the native language, and I was pretty scared. To be perfectly honest, I was shitting myself. Excuse my French. On the first day or two I contracted a bout of agoraphobia, and decided not to leave the house. When I did finally leave the apartment, I planned for it as if I was going to the moon. Compass: check. Map: check. Phone fully charged: check. Moon-boots: ?.
So much has happened since then. Actually, it would be a bit ridiculous if nothing had happened since then... But basically my world has turned itself up and around and inside out and back again. I have gone through the ins and outs of culture shock (not so much fun), and I have also seen and done more than I could have dreamed of fitting into a year. But the best thing has to be the people I have met along the way! Now, I am going to tell you a small ironic tale...
Before I left, I had stubbornly decided that I was NOT going to make friends this year. I already had enough friends, thank you very much! Besides, people who go on exchange are party animals, and they simply want to drink and have a good time. I didn't want to drink and have a good time, nope nope nope. In all seriousness, I wanted to come over to Europe to sketch the art and the cathedrals, and that was it. I told my mum this, and she told me in the nicest possible manner that I was being silly, and even slightly hoity toity. Of course she was right, mothers always are.
Skip back to the present moment... I am sitting here thinking of all the wonderful people I have met, and how lucky I am to have met them! Rita, Nicole, Penny, Maylena, Fer and Fer, Liz, Alejandra, Cynthia, Jinyi, and every other person in my crazy French classes, I miss you all so much! Katy, Elisabeth, Jackie, Michaela, Leonara and Rachel - my Plum Village buddies - you made that week so much more special! To my help X family - Mariken, Ron, and Igor, I had the best time with you all, and I miss our late night painting sessions. And finally, Claire, Rebekah, Alicia and Yana, man you guys are awesome! I hope you all have the most merriest of Christmases, and I send you all my best wishes for the new year ahead of us. Who knows how it will unfold.
On top of making so many new friends, I feel like this year has pushed me to open up a little more: to take in every opportunity and to greet life with a great big smile! I have more incredible memories than I can count, and many of the best ones are the result of taking a leap of faith. I want to recount some of my memories here. Be warned, it may be a long list!!!
Let me think back...
...REMEMBER THAT TIME...
When I first arrived and found Dominique - my new flatmate and landlady - in the airport, only to realise she did not speak a word of English. Luckily she had brought her friends with her. One of them, a cuddly lady who smelled nice, made me feel a whole lot calmer.
Not knowing for the first week whether Lou was a boy or a girl dog...
How I braved the French visa system and won. Me: one. System: zero.
That guy in the petit supermarche across the road who was always hungover. One day he decided to give me (force upon me) a journal with pictures of bread on it, for free - as a gift. People always thought I was carrying around a recipe book.
The million bazillion times I got lost in that first month. Trying to find the metro, trying to find my university, trying to find a shop that sells stationary, trying to find the right metro platform (thrice).
The small spot up on the Croix Rousse, where I could eat macarons, legs dangling over the side, while looking out at Fourviere and thinking philosophical thoughts. That was easily one of my favourite places in the whole city.
That friendly lady at Le Pain Boulanger, who would always chat with me and sneakily put a free croissant in the bag with my usual muffin framboise.
That one time I went to that bakery that is actually open on Sundays. Bread has never been more stale.
Those days where I would stay in my pajamas alllll daaaayy.
The time(s) when I would eat the other flatmates food. The one time I got caught and pretended not to understand what they were saying.
How I always ate Dominique's chocolate. Then replaced it. Then ate the replacement. How she would always just laugh.
How the teachers never learnt to use the crap electronic whiteboards, and how we would fool them into spending the first half hour trying to turn them on.
Accidentally breaking the easter eggs with Rita in Carrefour and laughing so hard we could not stand up.
That time I ate too many prunes.
Skyping my family and having them bust out into song - the Addam's family theme tune. I almost cried.
Dancing to music in the kitchen with my socks on, and having Lou try to chase me as I slid across the floor.
That time I listened to Pink Floyd in the shower with the lights off. Pitch dark. It was a revelation.
Going to a Hammam in Paris and baring it all, then making friends with a Parisian lady and her elderly mother. Man I would give anything to look that great when I am 80!
Always eating at Resto U with my friends. The terrible meals - soggy fish nuggets and string beans, were made better by the great conversations.
That time I walked into French Culture Class and I got my own standing ovation from over a hundred people. The teacher did not quite understand, but I knew why - I had personally written out all my notes for that class, to make sure nobody failed for skipping Fridays.
How we would all end up on the steps of the Rhône after class, and everyone would bring food.
That time I went to Montserrat, talked to the nice African guy on the train in French, got off on the wrong stop, danced around in the middle-of-nowhere-Spain, got tipsy at the restaurant up the mountain, ended up skipping around and singing The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music. Meeting two great guys from America on the train back, and having us all jump the barriers to make my flight home.
When Penny and I taught Nicole the Haka, and we all performed it in front of Notre Dame while Rita fell in love with the fire dancer.
How we would always go to Redhouse, drink too much cause of the 8 euro card limit, then head over to 'Macdo' to eat fries and talk shit.
Watching the first 6 seasons of Friends... In three months.
Those 50-euro-cent hot chocolates from the vending machine at Uni. They saved my life during our three hour classes!
Dancing to strobe lights in Penny's flat | making pikelets in Penny's flat | making pizza in Penny's flat | sleeping over at Penny's flat.
Ballet dancing in the wide avenues of Lyon at 5am, waiting for Rita. Just me and the moon and the purple dawn.
Rita and I narrowly missing bed bugs, then sleeping at the only 24/7 MacDonalds in Paris, taking turns to watch the bags and draw in a notebook.
Our ingenuity reaching new highs - Rita trying to dry her wet socks with an iron on the bed at our hostel. Me pinching a few baguettes from the breakfast spread for our lunch.
That time I finally stood up to the sleazy French guys. He poked me one too many times, I yelled at him on the steps of the Rhône in front of everyone.
Racing Nicole through a fountain in the rain, and Rita calling us 'Hobbitses,' with our bare feet and all.
That time I walked all the way from Oullins to Bellecour, because the metro was closed, the buses were stopped, and I had to say goodbye to Rita.
That time I tried to find a print shop in Lyon, and on the third attempt I found a guy in his converted bedroom surrounded by electronic junk. He couldn't even scan things for me!
My first ever hangover: we all got drunk on cheap wine, and then two of the girls had a fight (in Spanish), and I ended up walking Liz home while she puked flourescent pink into rubbish bins, and into her mouth on the bus. She held it in the whole time.
How the wind in Lyon would always blow small leafy bits into my eyes.
That one time I played a terrible version of Can You Feel the Love Tonight, which echoed over the lake in the Parc de la Tete d'Or.
How I learnt to always bring a plastic fork with me everywhere.
Always hearing Terri play his weird music, which reverberated throughout the apartment block in the middle of the day.
That time I was listening to a group of improvisational singers at the Roman amphitheatre, and I got up and joined in.
Laughing with Katy and Rachel over the prickly lettuce, when we were supposed to be silently contemplating our food. Katy had the best laugh in the world.
Watching the nuns at Plum village pull cherries off a tree with a pronged stick.
Hearing Thich Nhat Hanh speak, in person, about happiness. The feeling of his words was like being lost in an ocean...
The times Mariken and I would spend painting together. How she would always show me great videos on Youtube. How Igor would try and teach me stuff. And the feeling of achievement when I finished weeding the two veggie gardens!
Meeting Gemma on the train back to Lyon, drinking absinthe, and ending my night with some random group of Irish people. Yup. That happened.
That wonderful yet hilarious moment when I picked up Oliver from the airport and saw the size of the backpacks he had brought. 75 liters worth of stuff. Each.
When Oliver and I skinny-dipped in a pool in a campground under a lightning storm on the outskirts of Fontainebleau.
That time we got engaged, and went to Tiffanys to pick out the ring while still wearing our backpacks.
Staying in a convent in Rome, and pretending to be 'just friends.'
Listening to the Pope in St Peter's square and almost dying from the sun. And from itchy bites on my legs! Sneaking off to find the Vatican almost empty.
Wandering through Trastevere and watching kids play soccer while dangling our bare feet from over a concrete wall.
Jumping from cliffs into the super salty sea on the island of Capri, until the local kids spotted some jellyfish.
Getting lost and thirsty in the middle-of-nowhere-Tuscany. Avoiding tics. Trying to use a map and failing. Paddling in a bright blue lake instead. Watching the lightning roll in over the Tuscan countryside.
Giving Oliver a few traveler's haircuts. Doing an OK job.
Having our flight to Barcelona canceled, and instead, taking four trains over nineteen hours to get there. Sleeping on a grotty train station floor.
That time I drank waaaaaaaay too many coconut drinks at La Boqueria market, and had to find a toilet pronto!!! Only toilet in sight: a tiny kiddies toilet. Oliver thought it was hilarious. It was more like a bad movie.
Driving again after five months of public transport. Oh, and on the other side of the road! Becoming a boss at European highways, and even driving for twelve hours in one day.
Walking through a blizzard on a Swiss mountain in our summer clothes, then reviving ourselves with soup, chips, and warm baths. Actually eating the chips in the bath.
Driving up a one way road, into heaven - aka Tirol in Austria, and spending our time there getting lost, trekking around waterfalls, and among the cows.
Eating food in pitch black, in a dark restaurant, served by blind waiters.
Moving to Edinburgh and then moving house five times.
That time I met a stranger at a Medieval Reenactment Society meeting, and asked to stay on his couch for the night cause I had nowhere to go and no money till mum woke up. That was probably one of the most awkward nights of the year.
That time when it was so windy, up on top of Arthur's Seat, that I could lean right over and not fall.
Eating Indian food again!
That time I decided to eat only bananas for a week, bought 30 bananas, and then realised I cannot eat more than five at a time. Blurgh.
That time I met a random Estonian guy at my favourite cafe, and he told me to "choose life." It was totally worth missing the first ten minutes of my class for!
That one month where all I did was research on Norman Castles. I learnt everything.
The Harry Potter Society. 'Nuff said.
Watching movies and eating junk food at Rebekah's place, and getting a full rendition of the musical Rent from my new friends!
Oh and that first time I accompanied Rebekah to the Murder Mystery Society, played a gay male character, then played Russian card games with a few other people till 3 am or so.
Staying up all night to study or write essays. I probably did that about six times this last semester, with three nights of no sleep in the last week of exams.
The feeling of waking up in the afternoon and realising it is already dark outside. I missed the sun.
Hanging out with Claire and exploring Scotland by bus together. She is just the funniest and sweetest person!
That time I spent my birthday talking to a homeless Irish lady called Sarah. I bought us both some food and we had a lovely chat.
That time I studied for the archaeology test for seventeen hours straight, then fell asleep in class. I hope I didn't snore.
And finally, the fact that I survived without a towel for the last six months. I just used my clothes. Why you ask? Why not!
As I noted above, many of these memories are the result of a courage - that moment where you take a leap of faith and just roll with it. But really, this whole exchange was the biggest leap of faith. It was a leap into the void of the unknown. And it worked! If anybody out there is considering going on exchange, or traveling in general, or starting a new life on a clean page, I urge you to jump!!!