Paradoxically, the most stressful part of studying abroad was the part that I endured with the most stoicism.
One of the best things I did before leaving was to have a small going-away party with family and friends. It was not my idea. In fact, I was very against doing this, but I was not about to be rude and tell my father that he could not give me a sending-off. My parents are divorced, so the situation is a little shaky when trying to do stuff like this. My solution is usually to just not do anything. I made sure to see as many people as I could before departing, having had dinner with my grandparents, mother, stepfather, and sister, so I figured I was covered and did not really need a party. I grumbled inwardly at having to spend time away from what I felt was more important (packing instead of saying goodbye to people I would not see for 5 months) as my anxiety for the trip grew. I was upset, but zipped my mouth shut because it was something really nice that my dad was doing for me. I felt ungrateful for hating the attention. Most people want these kinds of things.
It was not anything big or complicated, just a few friends and some family. We had pizza, beer, and cheesecake. We sat outside and talked for a few hours. Honestly, it was the most fun I had had in a long time. For a while, I forgot that I was leaving, and I even stopped worrying. Even though I did not initially want to have a party, I was very grateful that my dad organized it. It was important to see everyone and to remove myself from the stress for a while. That, and it was fun. This is a necessary part of any long-term trip abroad.
After everyone went home, I returned to my packing. It did not take me long to put the finishing touches on my luggage. I tied brightly colored ribbons to the handles for easy identification at the airport (which works very well). I knew I was not going to be able to sleep. I stayed up later than I probably should have. At some point, I was talking to a professor online who mentioned that I would probably sleep on the plane, anyway. Up to that point, I had managed not to think about the actual plane rides. I had never been on a plane. Suddenly, I was terrified. I had no idea that Schrödinger’s cat and the accompanying dead cat stories could be so calming to talk about, but that was ultimately what made me feel better. Realizing how strange my life is, I decided to at least try to get some sleep. I did not sleep incredibly well, but I caught a few hours before getting up to start my travels.
I do not remember eating breakfast, so I will say that I probably did not. I do remember, however, my father forcing biscotti on me at the airport. You know I am nervous if you have to force biscotti on me. But, I was prepared. I had the essentials. Aside from my computer, without which I would be unable to live (I am sure), I had my passport with visa attached, my boarding passes, my baggage claim slips, all of my school documents (from home and host), a change of clothes, and money. The airport was fairly empty, as the small ones often are. The hardest part was walking out the other end of the security check point and looking back to see my dad. I was okay to give him a hug and say goodbye. I was fine to go through the security procedures. But when I got to the other side where he could not come, it became very hard to smile back at him. I smiled and waved, anyway. I started to walk away, and when I looked back again, he was gone.
Planes are not all that bad. I had a short flight to Chicago to get me started. There is a lot of white noise created by the sheer amount of air rushing out of the way as the plane bolts through the clouds. It is very soothing in a terrifying way. I took a book with me, but I did not read it very much because I could not focus on it. I listened to music and stared out of the window in stead. And then we landed in Chicago.
The Chicago O’Hare airport is huge. I wandered around for a while, and then went to find something to eat. I ended up chatting with a random person over chinese food. Question. Why do I always end up talking about philosophy or religion with strangers? The random person with whom I shared lunch was a Jehovah’s Witness. It was all I could do not to laugh. But, there was not much time for that since I had to change my money and to catch my next flight.
The next stop was Madrid, Spain. Everything on that flight was said first in Spanish and then repeated in English. This made perfect sense because we were going to Spain. We were given dinner and breakfast on the flight because it was 9 hours long. Airline food is not all that bad. Everything comes in its own separate container, so it is very easy to ignore the meat (did I mention that I am a vegetarian?). I ended up being seated next to a Spanish woman (go figure). The two of us assumed that we did not understand one another and proceeded to communicate through facial expressions, gestures, and the occasional ineffective English or Spanish word. We both ended up sleeping for a good portion of the trip. I cannot for the life of me remember her name because I did not understand it when she told me. I felt very much like a stereotypical dumb American. Anyway, she and I realized about a half hour before landing that we both spoke French. I had not occurred to me to ask if she spoke French. We laughed for a while about that and then chatted for the remainder of the flight.
This is Grant. He would not shut up. He suggested that I tell you all this.
If I thought that the Chicago airport was big, I was even more surprised by the one in Madrid. It had its own underground tramway for connecting from arrivals to departures. It took at least a half hour to get from my arrival gate all the way to my departure gate. That does not include the security checkpoints I had to go through. And then I had 4 hours to spend in the airport. That was probably the worst part about the trip. While I was wandering around the airport, I found a small internet kiosk and decided to update my Facebook status. The keyboard at this kiosk was made of metal, and the buttons were extremely hard to push. Typing sentences was a slow process. I had paid for 30 minutes of connection, but I needed five minutes to complete each task, so it felt pointless to even try. While I was struggling with and swearing under my breath at the keyboard, a young man walked up to use the kiosk next to me. His name was Grant. He was traveling in Rome. His visa had expired, and he was couch surfing in Spain for a vacation. Or something like that. I was very sleep disoriented by this point.
Traveling was starting to wear on me heavily by the time I hit my last flight from Madrid to Lyon, France. I felt physically sick for a while. It was not terrible, just nagging. I encountered a teenage girl returning to France after spending time with some family in the US. The flight was short, and I napped for the duration of it. And then we landed, and I walked through customs into France. The only thing I really remember about the Lyon airport, St. Exupery, is how dirty it was.
From here, I needed to take a bus from Lyon to Grenoble. I headed for the ticket counter. As I was buying my ticket (my first transaction in French) I met a middle-aged man from Dublin. He was terribly kind, helping me find where the bus was and loading my luggage for me. We shared the ride to the Grenoble train station where he helped me to unload my luggage and to find a map of the city. I was very grateful for his help. By that point, I had been traveling for almost a full 24 hours. It was very draining, but I did not complain. We parted ways, and I went in search of my hotel. The office for my student residence had already closed by the time I arrived in Grenoble, so I planned on heading over the next day. The hotel I wanted to stay at, which was recommended by my student guide, did not exist. The address was 25 Félix Viallet, but the numbers went from 24 to 26, and there was no 25 on the other side of the street. So, I found a different hotel. So far, I was getting by with my French fairly well. I had not died yet. That was a plus.
I was doing fine, really. I drug my luggage up to my room, closed the door, and started to cry. I was exhausted. I was in a foreign country. I was so grateful for the help I had found. And I wanted to go home. I did not want to admit it. I took a shower. Then, I set up my computer and called my dad on Skype. Managing to keep a smile was hard. In fact, I do not think that I smiled much at all. I got very quiet for a few seconds and then asked, “I can come home if I want to, right?” He did not say anything for a long moment, but eventually replied, “Well. Yes. But …” I did not really want to come home. I just felt so tired. And hungry. I had not eaten anything since breakfast, and all I had with me were a few granola bars. However, I was too tired to go anywhere to find something to eat. I decided to get some sleep and figure it out in the morning. When I could not really sleep, I called my mom on Skype. She could tell I was tired and upset. I almost had her crying, too. Almost.
The next morning, I did not get around to finding anything for breakfast other than another granola bar and some Airborne vitamins (click here for some concerning information). It felt hard to eat for some reason. I checked out of my hotel and went in search of a taxi to take me to my residence. I had the address handy, so I figured it would not be too hard. The taxi driver told me that the road to my residence was closed. He would not be able to take me all the way to it, but he could drop me off as close as possible and direct me on how to get to the building. What else was I going to do? I got in the cab, and we drove through town, across the river Isère, and up to an archway between two buildings.
The archway leads to a road up the mountain-hill, but there happened to be construction taking place on the road immediately in front of the archway. I could walk through, but the taxi certainly could not drive through. “Okay. This should not be too bad,” I thought. The taxi driver showed me on a map where I needed to go. One, two, three, four turns in the winding road and continuing straight on after that would take me up to my residence. He helped me get my luggage out of the back. I gave him a few euros, attached my luggage to itself, and began to pull it up the hill. It was at least a kilometer to my residence from the bottom of the mountain-hill. I drug my luggage all the way to the top. I was very grateful for the wheels. At some point as I was trying to find the right building at the top of the hill, I stopped and asked another student if he knew where the office was. He did not, but he offered to help me find it. We were shortly joined by his friend. They took my luggage for me for a while. It turns out I had overshot, and had to walk back down the hill a short way. We eventually found the office, and I was able to check in. I gave them my sincerest thanks for their help before getting my key.
This never gets old.
As I was heading out of the office, a young woman offered to help me carry my things up to my room, which is on the third floor (the fourth floor by American standards). Her name is Sara. I have seen her a few more times since meeting her when I moved in. She tells me that I need to go skiing with her. And then, I unlocked my door and stepped into what will be my room for the entirety of my stay in Grenoble. The first thing I did after setting down my luggage was open the window and stare in amazement at the beautiful view.
My next mission was to find something to eat. I was starving by this point, and I knew that there was more walking in store for me. I grabbed my wallet, locked my door, and headed out. I stopped and asked someone if they knew somewhere good to get some lunch. This is how I met Daniel. He said he was heading out to his university cafeteria and invited me to join him. Sure. Why not? We walked back down the mountain via a long set of stairs. Then, we headed across town. Daniel is from Argentina. He is studying engineering in France. We shared lunch that afternoon. He had errands to do, but he walked me back to the base of the stairs so I could find my way back to the residence. I was exhausted again, so I decided to take a nap. Later that evening, Daniel made me dinner. I thanked him profusely for all of his help. He told me that he was glad to do it because someone else had been kind to him in the same manner when he first arrived.
The first days were very hard, but I learned a lot. I learned to deal with a lot of things without complaining. Walking up the hill was difficult and discouraging. I had to stop a lot. A lot of people would have given up if they had been faced with something like this. A lot of people would complain. I did not complain. All I could think was that my circumstances could not get much worse. If it could not get much worse, and if I was able to do it with some energy and fortitude of mind to spare, then I would be able to handle almost anything. These were not the most spectacular of days. I felt discouraged a lot, but at many points, I could not keep myself from thinking how excited I was to finally be in France even if I felt disconnected.
The two most important things I learned in those two days were gratitude and openness. I learned to ask for and accept help from strangers and to be both outwardly and inwardly grateful for it. I learned the value of extending a hand to others and made myself a promise to help someone like Daniel helped me. I learned to be open to new and challenging experiences and to refrain from complaining about them because they are not what I am used to. If I could impart any knowledge to those who are thinking about traveling or studying abroad, it would be those two things. I would advise trusting yourself to know from whom you can accept help because it is easy to tell and almost always worth it. And I would further advise holding your tongue when you most want to let loose a complaint.