By Lauren Gentile*
Moving my two giant suitcases into my new apartment was the first challenge of this adventure.
Each morning when I wake up in my French apartment, I feel a tiny flicker of panic. Where am I? What am I doing? How could I possibly have packed up and left my entire life behind in the States? Each morning, I make myself a cup of chocolate-pear tea (weird, I know, but I’m making my way through the entire tea section of Carrefour), look out the window at my new city, and reacquaint myself with my new life. Each morning, it gets a little easier.
When I was younger, I used to daydream about living in France, about the feel of cobblestone streets under my shoes, about walking to a bakery, the air crisp and alive around me. About living freely and with intention, whatever that means. I used to dream about growing up and living on my own, but the dreams were always vague and childish, as if I thought once I turned 18, I would suddenly know how to handle every new situation calmly and with grace. I’m 19 now and I’ve had a lot of new experiences here in France, but I can safely say that I have handled exactly zero of them with grace.
On my first day in Chambéry, I needed to print a document for my university orientation. I remembered that the verb “to print” was “imprimer,” so I confidently typed “imprimerie” into google.fr on my phone and set off for what I thought would be a copy center. I walked in, found several old men clustered around a table, and asked them to print a document for me. They exchanged amused looks with each other and explained, not unkindly, that the building was actually a publishing company. I was mortified. They politely directed me to the nearest Allo-Copy and were nice enough to only laugh at me once I was out the door. This was the first of many embarrassing yet educational mistakes I’ve made so far. I try to remind myself that the reason I’m here is to make mistakes. Each day in Chambéry presents new delights and, more importantly, new challenges.
In my first week, I experienced more emotions than seemed convenient or humanly possible. I felt ready yet terrified, excited beyond belief yet so nervous that I didn’t want to leave my apartment. My mom joked, “It’s like you’re experiencing all the phases of culture shock at once,” which was probably accurate. I had expected the first week to be exhilarating- and it was- but it was also uncomfortable. It took several days to adjust to the time zone and several more days to get over a general sense of unease that I carried around with me at all times. I was fearful of every interaction that forced me to use French, even though I’ve been studying the language for over five years. As I was walking to the grocery store or to class, I would notice that my shoulders were extra tense or that my chest felt a little tighter than usual, and I would have to remind myself to get rid of any unproductive stress, anything that didn’t have a real cause or a real solution.
Winters in Chambéry are beautiful! I go to this town square nearly every day just to walk around and enjoy the weather.
Every morning, I tell myself that this adjustment period and the occasional bouts of stress are completely worth it. I chose to study abroad through ISEP Exchange because I wanted to completely immerse myself in the French language and culture; in short, I wanted a program that allowed me to be independent. I take regular university classes at Université Savoie Mont Blanc with French students and live in a furnished apartment off-campus. My program gives me the freedom to live like a typical French student, which I absolutely love! What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was just how lonely this independence can feel at first. I was surprised by how much I missed the United States. Some things I expected to miss, like my family or speaking English, and some were more random, like Target stores or being able to watch NHL games at a time that isn’t 2 AM. I found myself missing my old life even as I was excited to start my new one.
I don’t say all of this to scare students away from studying abroad; there are so many amazing reasons why studying abroad is completely worth it! I do think it’s important, however, to point out that study abroad isn’t a vacation. A lot of people tell me that studying abroad will be the best experience of my life, and I completely agree with them! I also think it’s going to be the hardest experience of my life. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve been given so far is to manage my expectations, which means letting go of any preconceived notion of what life in France “should” look like. There’s something entirely new and freeing about that, even if it means letting go of my childhood ideas of adulthood and freedom. I don’t know what my life will look like for the next six months, but I’m excited to find out.
*Lauren Gentile is a sophomore at the University of Iowa studying French with minors in Arabic and Latin. A native of Ames, IA, she will be spending her semester in Chambéry, France on the ISEP Exchange Program at l’Université Savoie Mont Blanc.