Classes started with a bang, a small bang. It’s as if you were sitting by the fire engrossed in a new book that you just received for Christmas and your little cousin was playing with an old, wooden, western, cork gun–barely noticeable. But the gun keeps firing at random until you stop, a mental jerk, on every third or fifth word, and suddenly your cute little cousin is popping you in the cheek, forcing you to fold over the corner of the page and leap out of your chair, chasing him around the room and giving him the attention that he desires.
Starting classes was maybe something like that.
Up until this past Monday, school has been the last thing on my mind since I arrived over a month ago today, but it has finally started, and I am not sure how I feel at the moment taking classes.
I am sure that my parents will find their way to this blog post, and I would just like to say for their sake that this trip will not have been an academic, nor financial, waste. Rest-assured knowing that classes are going to go well, as always.
What I want to talk about, though, are the other, perhaps more valuable aspects of studying abroad, and why taking classes is not the focal point around which these experiences pivot.
My feet. Walking in Pays Basque with a 40lbs pack on my back and a 15lbs backpack on my front. It’s extremely hot in the long sleeve shirt that I’m wearing, and I can feel the pack sliding with each step and every slight adjustment that follows with each footfall, with every arm swing. I don’t know exactly where the hostel is. I’m hungry, and I’m mentally-fatigued, but I ask anyways:
“Excusez-moi monsieur/madame, mais òu se trouve…” (Excuse me, but where do you find…)
Sometimes the response I would receive was unkind, but 95% of the time, I have been met with a very thorough response conveyed through slow speech, plenty of gestures, and once, when I was looking for a coiffure (barber shop), someone drew me a map. Something that I recently read in a culture book is that, if you ask politely, acknowledging the fact that even though you may be a lost tourist, you are still interrupting someone’s day, the French will appreciate that and go the extra mile to help you out.
And I would always make it to where I needed to go, exhausted perhaps, tired, hungry, etc. , and every time that I have gotten to where I wanted to go, I look back and see that it wasn’t a direct, air-conditioned, plush-seated, taxi ride. If I were to map it out, the trail would zig-zag and loop. There would be signs of frustrated erasure marks, peanut butter stains, and I imagine that the paper’s surface might resemble something like the surface of a naked brain from having been stuffed too quickly, in too many pockets, too many times.
I went to La Tranche Sur Mer, located on the west coast of France, as a field trip through the sports/recreation program at my school. We went surfing, skim boarding, and body boarding. I refused for the longest time to go body boarding because I wanted to use the time to learn to surf. After the first day of swallowing saltwater and getting tossed around like your dad’s old work shirt in the laundry machine, I decided the second day that I would give it a chance. I flippered-up, donned my wet suit, and kicked out hard past the breaking waves to where it was calmer. I waited with my friend, Valentin, and some others from the group for a gros vague to come in, and when it finally did, we all caught it, and before I knew it, there was this massive, breaking wave, pushing me towards the shoreline at what felt like 60mph, and it was such a huge rush. Furthermore, all of my friends were surfing parallel to me on my right and left, and I felt like I was 5 again, swinging with a friend, and suddenly, both of us were going at the same pace.
“We’re married!”–We would exclaim, and it was that same, goofy surge of joy from locking eyes with someone else while both of you are having the time of your life, moving at fast speeds without having to do anything.
And at the end of the day, sun-kissed and sandy-haired, we retreated back to our lodging to share a meal, a French meal, and I mean fish soup, ratatouille, noodles, pork on the grill, dessert, bread, cheese, and beer. The French take their food seriously, and the fact that it’s a student field trip doesn’t mean that they’re going to settle for anything less than outstanding. The food, the surf, the people… incomparable joy.
This is difficult to describe in words, but what I have noticed, have grown to love and attempted to adopt, has been the way the French pursue something. They invest themselves fully, committing themselves entirely to do a good job. I see it in the way that they dress themselves, through the thoroughness of their responses to a question, to how vigorously and efficiently they clean and stay organized, and in the way they carefully write in cursive. My host family has been the basis for a lot of this.
I watch their nine-year-old, “Boubou,” spend his free time inventing things, like the car that he made out of wood, two skateboards, and a razor scooter roped and nailed together that he takes down the sloped driveway at breakneck speeds, slamming into the garage door with his feet outstretched. A family friend brought a simple toy over, and Boubou ingested the entire manual, commenting to his parents all the cool things that you could do with the cards that were included.
I see quality in the way that “Dadin,” the oldest, plays piano and recorder, and how helpful he is to Miranda, Ella, and I in explaining things. I taught him a simple chord progression that someone else had taught me. In the key of C, it’s C major, G, A, and F. Hopping from one chord to the next, and staying on the white keys, one can come up with an unlimited combination of songs. I taught Dadin the progression, just once for a 15 minute session, and a week later, he played it back to me, having practiced it the entire week.
I see quality in the efforts that my host parents make to make the three of us feel welcome, from the traditional meals that my mom cooks and the commentary that follows, to asking us if we need anymore blankets, towels, etc. The whole family is really great.