I'm back in America. This incredible journey has come to an end, back to the beginning on American soil. I don't really know where I should begin... first of all, I hate endings. I never liked goodbyes. I never liked leaving places. I never liked the end of stories. It's like there's a Peter Pan inside of me. I never want to let things move on. I just have a constant desire for things to stay the way they are; to never grow up; to never let things go... And yet things would never be the way there are if there wasn't an element of change. I can't express it enough about how my year in France has changed me. Sometimes there are things too beautiful and true and genuine to be tainted by explaining them all. It's something inside of me. It's sort of like a metamorphosis (not to sound all Gothic and psychological now)... but being back home is like living in a dream– one of those Inception kind of dreams. I don't feel like I'm a part of myself. I don't feel like being here is right. A part of me is still in France. A part of me was left behind in the Paris airport with some of my best friends who had come to say goodbye to me. The sad part is that I don't know if I can get that part back because it's not just left in France... it's left in my year. Maybe I'll go back to France someday. Maybe I'll see my friends again. But it will never be the same experience as being with them this year. My exchange year. But such is life. Peter Pan doesn't exist. It's impossible to freeze time and pretend like new change doesn't have to come and take over the previous. I guess I should say that it's a good thing. I should smile that this year happened, that I made some of the best friends in the world, that I can see the world a little clearer now. I should smile at all the good that this year has given me... but it's hard when I'm so far away from the source of this goodness. This "goodness"... that was my home. That was my life. For ten months I lived in this bubble, this tiny utopia of mine (things weren't always perfect, but in a way that just made all the good balance out and mean more). It's just hard to realize that it was always a bubble. It was never going to be permanent. I knew I had to come home eventually, but I just didn't imagine what it would feel like.
So what do I feel like?
I don't know. I don't know how to explain myself nowadays. At first I was happy to see my family and friends again. But that passed like lightning. I cried myself to sleep my first night home because I knew I wouldn't wake up and have my host sister there downstairs in the morning. I wouldn't get to see my friends at school. I wouldn't have my best friend to start texting immediately. All the communication is there online, but a cyber relationship doesn't even start to compare to having real relationships with everyone. It's hard with all my summer activities that I have lined up to fit in all the set hours that correspond with the other side of the world to speak with people. I heard that the first month home is the hardest to adjust to. I've heard a lot of things about these exchanges. I had soaked up all the advice that I could before I left and now I can say that I wish I hadn't gotten any of it... because it doesn't mean the same thing for everyone. I asked people how it's going to feel returning home. I asked people to prepare me, to tell me answers, to create a mental image of my future. Well, that was pointless. Because what I'm feeling isn't the same as everyone else. It has pieces of this person's experience, pieces of that person's experience, but as a whole it can't be compared to. Everyone has their own life back in their home country. We all shared a year together abroad. But now it's time to touch back home to reality. It's like Dorothy returning back from Oz. I saw the world in color and now everything is in black and white. I'm not saying that I don't like home. I love home. But home has a different meaning for me now. It just feels wrong, misplaced, a little empty without my home in France. I have realized that home isn't a place. It's a feeling inside of you. It's the place where you feel happy and safe. It's the place that you can always return to and run into open arms. My home used to be in a small town in the state of Washington. But now I have homes all over the world, and especially one big home in France. I'm feeling homesick to be honest. It'll pass, like all things, but for the meantime I'm still trying to keep my head above the water. My family and friends and American places that I've missed are helping me get along, but I still drown every night when I get lost in memories. I think about France and my friends all the time. I am printing out hundreds of pictures to put on my walls. I don't want the memories to go away. I don't want to push them away. But at the same time I need to make them hide for the time being. If I let myself get lost in nostalgia, I'll never move on... I'll never make the transition. I have college coming up. I am going to be an adult soon. These are things that I'm really looking forward to. I'm excited for this new chapter coming up. But in this moment, I'm in a ditch. I was on a high and now I'm in the ditch and I need some time before I can climb out and resume life. I can't stay here forever. My list of priorities is screaming at me everyday, it is banging on the walls of my skull begging for some attention. I know. I know what I have to do. I know that I am home. I know the facts, but I can't feel the reality. Everything is so familiar. I know how to live my life here in America, in my house, with my family, with my friends. And at the same time... I don't know how to live life here as who I used to be. I feel like things that I do and say just don't fit in with the daily life pattern here like they used to. The expectations of everyone are so different. I feel so different. It's like living in a parallel universe. It's like looking at myself and my life through a looking glass. Things are the same, but backwards and a little distorted. I know my way around in the dark. I know the inside jokes between my friends. I know the sounds of my parents walking up and down the stairs... So why do I feel so completely comfortable here and yet not at all in place. I'm still torn, but this world here is forcing me to move on. It's just ripping me farther and farther away from that "goodness" that I left behind. All I have are the pieces spilled out in pictures, in letters, in faces, in words, in memories. One day the pieces will come back together and again I will change and find a new me. One day things will make sense again and one day I'll go back home... home to you all who have changed my life.
All right. Enough moping and sad stories. It's not at all fluff that I was obligated to put in there to make my exchange sound "incredible" and "aaaamazing" because it was genuinely the best thing that has ever happened to me. But now that I'm home, I'm a little freer in terms of what I publish. Yeah, I had some little issues in France that created a loooong pause in my flow of writing. I don't know if any of you have been following this blog since the beginning but at one moment I stopped telling you everything. I stopped all the weird, quirky details. I stopped spilling out all the anecdotes of my life. I was sort of forced to stop. But now the days of censorship are over and hiding the truth seems irrelevant.
Honestly. Not only was this year the best of my life, it was probably one of my hardest.
I've had some really tough times. I've broken down, shattered, melted, cried my heart out, and then had to force on a smile and keep on living. I didn't write about any of that. I didn't even write about the good stuff. I told you the surface things. I told you things that every eye could look over and not be offended or hurt or happy or scared or sad about. Why did I do that? Because not everyone in France liked what they were reading before. I wasn't mean. I wasn't exaggerating. I was perhaps... just exposing too much about people that didn't want anyone to know anything about them. I like to tell the truth. I like to be honest, but I don't like to just be half-way honest. When I tell the truth, I want to tell everything– from every wondrous thing to every brutal harsh fact. And now I'm going to tell you all some pieces of the truth that I left out.
I had some issues with my host families. I am still very sensitive about what I write because I don't want to offend certain persons that may be concerned. I do not write to be mean or to be hurtful. I write only because I love it and because I think that leaving certain details out would hurt the story. Excuse me to anyone who feels like I am criticizing or offending you, I am not making a deliberate effort. This is my story and my journey. There were some bumps along the road but in the end I got the most beautiful reward of pride and joy that I lived through everything and became a stronger, happier person because of it.
So the main cause of the shadow cast over my utopia were my host families. I can't say that we have the best relationship right now. It's not because I was the crazy, insane, uncontrollable foreign child destined to wreck the family and the town. No. I was never that child and will never be like that. I'm just not like that. If I do hurt people, it's quite unintentional. I think I was just so excited at being in France, I wanted to do everything at once. I wanted to see everything. I wanted to go everywhere. I was like a little child in a new playground. And I didn't really respect the rules of the big kids running the place. I have this little issue in knowing where limits are. I tend to argue for my cause more than I should. I can't take the word "no" lightly. I sort of pushed over the limits multiple times... but it was all for simple things, really. I didn't ask to take a plane to Italy by myself. I didn't ask to stay out all night. I didn't ask to do anything above and beyond. I asked for little things like to see my friends, to see a movie, to go into town. But I simply asked too much. I asked too much of my families... and yet, they were very restrictive.
I'm having a hard time writing this out without being bias or too polite. The truth is hard to get out sometimes.
Well, first of all Cambrai is a small town. I was the first exchange student that had ever lived there. It was my first time living abroad. It was all three of my host families first time hosting an exchange student. We all had our expectations, our doubts, our fears, and our hopes. But reality was nothing of the likes. There were good moments and horrible moments. There were moments that I will treasure forever and there are moments that I am eager to forget. But I don't have regrets. Regrets are futile. In the end I really believe that things worked out just the way that the stars had destined them to be. You fall to get stronger. After the rain, the sky clears. After the pain, you heal. Honestly, I am happy that I was the only exchange student in my city. I made so many friends. But honestly, I was a bit miserable for awhile that I was the only exchange student in the city and that my Rotary was extremely new to the whole exchange process. They were very concerned about my safety. They wanted me very protected and within very strict guidelines. I was inside a frame. I was inside their organization. They gave me the best of experiences so I needed to be in their boundaries. And later I found that seeing my friends wasn't the simplest request. It was hard to see them..
I liked my families. I didn't want to get out of the house just to get away from them. The problem, I think, was that they didn't understood the importance of my friendships that year. Seeing them once or twice wasn't enough, especially for the exchange student kids who I didn't get to see that much. In their eyes it was "yeah it was enough, I needed to spend time with the family in the house." But in a teenage girl's eyes, out on her own in the world surrounded by new friends and new discoveries to be made, staying in the house just seemed ridiculous. Especially when the whole family seemed busy with their own affairs. I know they wanted me to be involved in their lives and their family culture... but I also wanted to be involved in the world and with my friends. I lived with the family. I spent most of my exchange with them. I made a ton of effort to get close to them. But when I kept asking to see my friends, they took those requests like stabs in our relationship. They got angry. They got upset. We all got upset. So as a result for awhile, I didn't have anything. I didn't have friends that I could see. I didn't have families that I could love. I didn't have a sense of self that I could rely on. I didn't know who I was. I thought I was a monster at times after listening to my host families' side of things... and then I thought I was doing what anyone else in my position would do. To be bref it was tough. But I got through it, not without a lot of scars and dented relationships, but I'm here still smiling and appreciating life.
Things got better after Annecy. Things were better with my third host family. Those were two hectic months with them, but they were the best. There were messes but mostly because I started freaking about the end coming near. My last couple weeks in France were extremely messy, complicated, and extremely intense. And yet, a ton of fun. I cried every single day and night. Maybe it was because of the stress or maybe it was because my built-up dam of emotion that just had to flood over. My last few days were... how to say this... INSANE. I had to manage packing up my whole life into two suitcases. I had to manage a million goodbyes to people that I would maybe never see again. I had to manage my host family that was going crazy under the stress. I had to manage schoolwork that was coming in just until the last minute. And most of all I had to manage my tears and stress every second because I had been scared of everything ending. I didn't know where things would go from then.
I had some awful moments in those last hours before France. I had to say goodbye to my host sister (of my last family) who I love with all my heart. She had been there for me since my very first week in France. I told her everything. It's not everyday that I open up my soul to someone. But she wasn't just a normal friend to me. She was genuinely my sister. We laughed, we cried. We lived through everything together. I just never imagined that a day would come where she wouldn't be with me... Now we're on opposite sides of the planet but she will always be my sister. Saying goodbye was like ripping the moon away from the tides. It was painful. We cried for an eternity together, both of us not realizing that this was the end. We will see each other again, that's certain. I won't live to never see my sister again. But it was horrible because I had to spend my last night with my first host family that had to drive me to the Paris airport the next morning at five. I wasn't comforted by the family. They told me to calm down, take a shower, and get some sleep. Yeah that's just one of the many examples that show how our relationship went a little downhill... another example happened ten minutes later. My old neighbor, one of my best French friends, wanted to come and say goodbye. Just for five minutes. But my host mom wouldn't allow it. She wouldn't allow us to say one last final goodbye for five minutes. She had wanted me to go to bed to get some sleep before the long flight (12 hours, which notably is a perfect time to sleep.) I get angry when I think about things like that. I get angry at the family and at myself for getting this as punishment. It was horrible. But my neighbor came to the house anyways and we said goodbye through the bathroom window. It was sort of funny, but rather horrible that we had to sneak around like that. Plus I didn't get to give her a hug :( I was leaving the country and all those people in less that 24 hours. All I had wanted was a proper goodbye. I guess that some people just don't understand the importance of a goodbye. It means so much. It isn't just seeing them one more time, it's having the chance to seal a friendship, to seal a moment. It means au revoir. It means that I'll see you again. My families said that I had already spent so much time with my friends at school and everything that it wasn't necessary to make a mess with plans and organization and everything just to say goodbye.
I'm sorry for any hassle that I may have caused. But I like to figure things out on my own. I like to be independent and find my own direction. I like to figure things out on my own. I need to be free in my life. It was just hard in my circumstances. It was a little bit impossible. But still I succeeded in saying goodbye to mostly everyone in a proper fashion. I would have liked to have seen all my exchange buddies that were in my district in Paris at an amusement park but my host mom made a bank appointment on that day. I know these details seem stupid and redundant to ramble on about, but they really left an impression on me. It just showed me that one really can't have it all. There are consequences to everything. My host mom could have changed the appointment to a different day. It only lasted five minutes anyways. But she wouldn't. She refused to do that because it was something that would make me really happy and make her life a little more inconvenient. She had had enough. And such is life. Sometimes things just don't turn out the way that we want or expect. This life lesson, along with many others, came to me this year like meteorites. It was like an asteroid shower of realizations and hard core truths about this world that we live in.
But despite the pain and hardships, I still cried the whole flight to Amsterdam. Not because I was frustrated and stressed like I had been for the last few weeks, but because I was genuinely depressed to leave. The tears started falling the minute after I said goodbye to Angie (my best friend) and Peter and Kirana in the airport. Security gave me an easier time. I don't think terrorists with bombs are bawling like babies while putting their 500 pounds of carry on luggage through the scanner. I had been wearing all the clothes and coats that couldn't fit into my suitcase. I looked like a hobo, especially with my puffy red eyes. When the plane started to pull away I broke down. I was shattered in pieces. Physically I was leaving, but my heart and soul were still in the airport. The lady next to me was probably worried for my state of mind. I just cried and cried and cried in a wild fit of hysteria for two hours. I couldn't take it. I was leaving. The goodbye was real. No more in between dreams. No more false realities. No more "see you tomorrows." It was done. I had still been angry at my first host family but all of that melted when I had to leave. I would have done anything to stop the plane and run back to them. I was just a mess.
I guess my waterfalls of tears were a good sign. It was a sign that my year was something really extraordinary. Through the ups and downs, through all the extremes and craziness, through every smile and teardrop– I really changed. Someone once said that you don't find yourself, you create yourself. Well this year, I started to truly create myself as a person. I started to build up my ideas and my personality. I started the beginning of my future. This was the end of something amazing, but it's really just the start of something incredible. Thank you everyone who has been with me since the very start. An enormous thank you to Rotary because without them none of this would have been possible. Another enormous thank you to all my host families (despite everything). Thank you to my real family. And the biggest thank you of them all to my friends– the people who I truly love and care about more than this entire world. You are brilliant. (I'm having a hard time not repeating all my praising adjectives) And of course, you reading this blog. You are brilliant and I love you for reading and following me. This isn't the end of my journey. It's just the beginning of a brand new chapter. A bientôt. Je vous aime fort.
"Ce n'est qu'un au revoir... ce n'est pas un adieu."
One day I'll see you all again. One day we will reunite our family of friendship.
I promise that one day I'll see you again.
An exchange isn't a year in a life. It's a life in a year.