Part I: Farewell France
I woke up after an uneasy night of sleep. Is it morning already? Time is relative. My first day in France was so long…and my last day was so short. I started to clean my room, which was a major undertaking. I was always taught to leave things in a better state than when I found them. And my dorm room really needed some intense cleaning. There are brown stains on the floors of all of the rooms and the floors smell quite unpleasant. I tried to clean the stains with all-purpose mint-smelling cleaner, but it didn’t work. From what I heard from other students, those stains are permanent. I dusted every corner of that tiny room and I scrubbed until the little bathroom shined. I must admit. That room was pretty clean.
The inspecting woman thought so too and she signed my paper, declaring that my room was in a good state. She handed the paper to me and told me to go to the secretary of our dorm. I went and turned in the form, expecting to get my security deposit back. Before going, I joked with Kerry that, knowing my luck with France, I wouldn’t get the security deposit back. Unfortunately, this was not a joke and I wasn’t laughing when the secretary told me that there was a problem and she couldn’t give it back to me.
“Can you wire it to me in the United States?”
“It’s impossible,” she said.
“Can you send me a check?”
“Can you send the money?”
“It’s not possible.”
In France, there are a lot of things that are impossible. She called in two of her associates where they referred to me as the “girl” with the “problem.” The funny thing was that I could understand perfectly what they were saying, but they acted like I wasn’t even in the room. Eventually, a man looked at me and started to explain the situation in English.
I looked at him and said, “Je comprends.” I understand.
They all stopped talking and looked at me. Yes, I am an international student, but I heard every word. “Well…I just don’t know what we’re going to do,” the woman said.
“Can you come back later today?” the man asked.
My flight left on Friday morning and here it was, Thursday morning. I had to check out of my dorm early because of this complicated procedure. I had to get the inspector to inspect my room and then I had to go to the secretary to get the security deposit. I was able to use my French negotiation skills to get the inspector to agree to check my room early on Friday morning, but I couldn’t convince the secretary to leave the security deposit at the front desk. So…this left me with no option but to check out early on Thursday (the latest you can check out is at 11 AM), spend the rest of the day in limbo, then head to the Nantes airport to spend the night.
So, yeah, I could come back later today.
“Great. See you this afternoon,” they said.
I went to lunch, my last lunch in the dining hall. Then I went to see my ISEP coordinator to give her the things I couldn’t bring with me (my only cooking utensils that nourished me the entire semester: a cup and a spoon that I got from my coordinator at the beginning of the semester; a stack of post-it notes that kept me sane during the semester; a beach towel for the days I spent in the sun; an Ethernet cable that kept me connected to all of you). I told her about the end of my days and laughed about the entire situation. It’s rather comical really. Every problem that I’ve run into has been like a giant game. You either win…or the system crushes you. You’ve got to strategize and fight for what should already be yours…you can’t give up just because they say it’s “impossible.” It rarely is truly impossible.
I returned to the secretary’s office and got my money, fair and square.
Kerry and I then went on an unusual mission. She had a ton of one cent euro pieces. What to do with all of them? We tried to exchange them. We tried the bank (important fact: banks in France DO NOT have money in them, true story), we tried a money exchange place, we tried the front desk at the secretary’s office, we tried tobacco stores…then we realized we had only one option. To buy something with all of the pennies. In total, there was 1.52 euro in pennies. So, we went to the bakery on our street and bought a cookie. The poor lady had to count all of the coins just to get her 1.50 for the cookie. Well, at least she has lots of pennies now!
Kerry had to print something at the library so I went with her, then she went to her room to start her cleaning and I stayed at the library, looking at some books and I found one that was pretty interesting. I’ll have to look into it when I get back stateside. I left the library and found Jean-Claude, the grey tabby cat who lives by the library, sitting in his usual spot. I pet Jean-Claude every time I go to the library…and I go to the library a lot. So, Jean-Claude and I have grown particularly close. I sat next to him to say goodbye and he crawled into my lap. He is a rather fat cat for being a stray. He’s well taken care of by the staff and the students passing by always give him their scraps of food. After about fifteen minutes of pure pampering, I had to leave him. “I’m sorry, but this is goodbye.”
I was trying to remove Jean-Claude from my lap and he cried. He looked at me with his dull green eyes. I swear, if I could put him in my suitcase, I would do it. He needs a home where he can get the love he deserves and I felt awful for leaving him there. He watched me take a step away and then followed me. He followed me to the door of the university and he seemed to understand that this was where we parted ways. He sat down and watched me go.
I went down to Commerce to meet with members of the Quidditch team. Quidditch practice had been cancelled the night before and I didn’t want to leave Nantes without saying goodbye to them. When I first arrived in Nantes, I sought to be active in the university community and I sent out many e-mails to university clubs. Only two organizations replied: Autour du Monde (the international student organization) and the Quidditch club. To be perfectly honest? I couldn’t be happier that only these two organizations replied: these two clubs are the best clubs on campus, without a doubt.
Quidditch is a relatively simple game to understand, if you know the rules. After playing for two and a half years at West Virginia University, I knew the rules. But…did I know the rules in French? Unfortunately, I was recovering from some health problems from last semester, so I wasn’t able to play for a few months, but I did get the opportunity to watch. I attended the practices and learned the game all over again…in French! They have French names for the different positions and balls and, while I wasn’t able to play for a few months, I was able to get to know the players themselves. Have you ever heard that the stereotype that the French people are cold? Well, this simply isn’t true with the Quidditch team. They were quite warm and welcoming. In fact, as the semester went on, and when I was able to play again, I started to know them much better and I really looked forward to the weekly practices. They were a caring group, volunteering their time to play Quidditch with kids on Easter. And they knew how to speak to me…they were willing to speak slowly and to repeat phrases (sometimes many times). They were patient and quite forgiving when I said something strange (they were also quite good at figuring out what I was trying to say when all I was saying was a random string of words in an attempt to communicate). I could never thank them enough for their company this semester. They made life in France a lot nicer.
So, when I met them for a final meeting at a café, I was pretty sad. In that moment, I realized how much I was going to miss them. I had so much fun and I was thankful that I got that moment to say goodbye. To the Quidditch club: it was a pleasure flying with you! May the wind always be in your favor. Brooms up!
I ate dinner with Kerry, our last dinner in France. It was a good dinner, but also a little sad too. I got to know the staff at the dining hall. They were always so helpful. They help to correct my French, increased my vocabulary of food (often saying all of the food for dinner and then having me repeat it), reprimanded me for getting a sunburn (which really wasn’t my fault – I wore lots of sunscreen)…they made me feel a little bit more at home. And so I said goodbye to them.
Kerry and I returned to the dorm where we enacted Operation Vending Machine. I had money left on my student card…but I didn’t want to let the university have it. It seemed like a waste of money, but then Kerry reminded me that we could use the money on our card to buy food from the vending machine. I got Kerry a candy bar, then was going to get a pack of M&M’s for me and a can of juice…but then the M&M’s got stuck. I rattled the machine and everything moved…except those darn M&M’s. I had to buy another pack and then my perfect math plan failed. I had to get a hot drink instead of a can of juice (which I planned to take with me to the airport). Ah well. The university only got ten cents from me. And I got two packs of M&M’s.
Kerry was super nice and helped me carry my stuff to the tram stop. She sent me on the tram and waved goodbye to me. She reminded me how we became friends and that seemed like a million years ago. A million years ago, after the ISEP orientation, I saw her walking to the front desk and she asked me, “How are your French skills?” She had blown out the electricity on her floor and needed to inform the front desk. I remember going with her and asking the front desk to fix it. We were friends ever since. It seems so long ago, but it was only five months ago. She was the last person that I had to say goodbye to.
Then I took the tram to Commerce, changed tram lines and then took that tram to the end of the line. Then, I took the airport shuttle. Here’s a secret that you won’t find written anywhere. I feel super awesome for figuring it out because I’ve mastered the French system (you have to search for answers, they don’t come to you). If you take tram line 3 to the end of the line (Neustrie), you can get on the airport shuttle for free with your monthly transportation pass (compared to the seven euros that you would have to pay if you got on the shuttle at any other stop). I’m not kidding. You can only get on free at this one stop and they don’t write it anywhere. I only found out about it because I went to the transportation office, handed them my monthly pass and then the brochure on the airport shuttle. I asked, “How can I use this pass to get on this shuttle for free?”
At first, the lady didn’t want to tell me. “You can’t.”
“At all?” I pressed.
“Well…there is one condition,” she said.
And that’s how I got to the airport for free. Once at the airport, I tried going to the front desk to see if they would check my baggage in the day before my flight, but they wouldn’t. I figured that they wouldn’t, since I’ve spent a few nights in an airport before, but it’s always worth a try. You never know until you ask, right? I found a brightly lit spot with lots of people and a security camera. I hunkered down for the night.
In the morning, I went to go check in. My flight plan was to go from Nantes, France to Brussels, Belgium to Philadelphia to Bangor, Maine. The man working asked, “So Philadelphia is your final destination?”
“No. Bangor, Maine,” I said, starting to get a little worried.
“What? What is this Bangor?” he asked in English, very confused.
“Bangor, Maine,” I said again, showing him my itinerary.
He began to click away on his keyboard. He asked his associates. He was quite confused because he said my flight didn’t exist. Finally, he found it and then checked my baggage through to Bangor, which is good. But then he called his manager and told me that he could only check the baggage in through Brussels, that I’d have to pick it up there and then check into the other airline. “I only have an hour between flights,” I said.
“You’ll have to be quick. I’ll put a priority on your bags.”
Then, I couldn’t just pay for my baggage there. I had to through the airport again and pay at another desk. What is it with French bureaucracy? All I wanted to do was leave. At last, I went through security and then waited for boarding.
I got up to the flight attendant and she passed my ticket through the scanner. It beeped and turned red. “Oh no. It says this isn’t valid,” she said, turning to the man that did my baggage and gave me my ticket.
He looked at the ticket, then at me. “Just let her go. It’s fine,” he said.
I had a feeling in my stomach that it wasn’t fine. My last text was to Kerry who was still in France. I explained the situation about the baggage and I told her that I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it between flights. But, then again, I worry about everything. I got on the flight and was asleep before the plane even left French soil.
When I first started learning French, the first word I learned was “bonjour.” Since then, I have learned many greetings and partings. There are ways to say “see you later” and “see you soon,” but one of my favorite greetings is also a parting. When you meet with a friend, you can say, “Salut!” as you give them kisses. Hi. And, then, when you go to leave, you say “Salut!” as you kiss them again. Bye. It’s the same word. Between friends, what’s the difference between hi and bye? There’s not a difference at all because the only thing that is important is the acknowledgement of friendship, the acknowledgement that they are there. So, France…is this au revoir? Is this adieu? Is this bonne soirée for a never-ending night? Or is this salut, between us friends? Maybe it isn’t farewell after all.
I know that life isn’t certain. I know that it can never be guaranteed that I will return, but I have a feeling that my feet with touch the soil of France once again, whether it be a year from now, ten years or a lifetime from now. I’ll find a way back, if only in my dreams and in my heart.
Part 1.5: The Problem in Belgium
I arrived in Brussels exactly on time. It was almost like a game show. You have one hour to navigate a foreign airport that you’ve never been in before. You must collect your baggage, exit security, find the connecting airline, check-in, get your plane ticket, check and pay for your baggage, go through security again, find the correct terminal and gate. One mistake and you are eliminated, cast off into the island of la-la land and you may never get back to America. So…ready, set, go!
I was the first one off the plane and into the terminal. I had to walk through several terminals just to get to baggage claim, where I made my only mistake. I looked at the first carrousel for baggage from Nantes, then the second. I quickly realized that there were too many baggage carrousels to check individually. I needed to find that board with the flight number and corresponding carrousel. I found it, but lost thirty seconds. Thirty seconds isn’t a lot, but it may have cost me.
I found the baggage claim and didn’t wait for the bags to come around. I ran around the entire carrousel snagging my bags the second I saw them. I ran through the security barrier, stopping only to ask a woman where US Airways was. She told me up the escalator and when I was through there, I saw the escalator. I took it up.
And felt my heart drop. There was no map and there were a million airlines. It was a huge international airport and the airlines aren’t organized by destination. I saw one American airline and I knew I had to leave my bags behind and just run to ask where US Airways was. I left my bags by an Israeli airline and went I returned, two tall Mossed-looking security officers were standing by the bags. “Are these yours?” they asked crossing their arms.
I didn’t need a confrontation. Not now. “Yep,” I said, grabbing them and running away.
I might have looked like a terrorist, but I didn’t have time to play nice. I got to the US Airways desk, set my bag down…and was cut off by some woman who came out of nowhere! She was French and had the same problem as me. Unfortunately, our airline didn’t check our bags all the way through to our destination so we had to pick them up. And, also unfortunately, there was only one woman working the desk. And, super unfortunately, the French woman couldn’t get checked in…she was having problems.
Eventually, she was checked in and then it was my turn. Everything was working, working, working. My tickets were printed. All I needed was to pay for my bags and I went to pay for them and… “The system locked me out. It’s too late,” the woman said quietly.
“What?” I asked.
“I’m trying. Let me see if I can override it…” she said, calling in her manager.
But there was nothing she could do. “It’s too late.”
I knew not to panic. There’s always a solution. “Maybe we can change your ticket. If Air France delayed the flight, then maybe they can reimburse your ticket…” she began.
My flight was delayed at take-off, but still arrived on-time, which US Airways said was enough time for someone to collect their bags and then check-in again. I agree with that. I made it through the airport in about fifteen minutes…and I went pretty far in those fifteen minutes. It’s totally possible. But it’s not possible if some lady cuts you off in line, then there’s only one woman working the desk and no one helps her. That’s just not fair.
US Airways turned me over to Air France. The representative there told me that she needed to get her manager. She looked at me and I was still sweating and panting from my epic sprint through this giant airport. “It’ll be fifteen or twenty minutes. Why don’t you go get a water? Or…a café?” she suggested.
A café? Really Air France? You think that’ll make things better? I started to get the sinking feeling in my stomach that this was not going to end well for me. I needed to call my parents. I changed out my French SIM card for my American SIM card, but it wasn’t working. Amazingly, I found a payphone that was made for international calls. You just had to buy this card and then slide it into the machine. It was fantastic because I called, told my parents that I definitely wouldn’t be getting into Bangor today and then cried. I made me feel better knowing that at least they wouldn’t drive all the way to Bangor (which is three and a half hours south of Caribou) to pick me up when I wasn’t even there!
I returned to Air France where the woman said her manager told her to call the Nantes airport to see what happened. But then she couldn’t find the phone number for Nantes. She had to call someone else and was finally able to call Nantes. Since leaving France, I’ve been using English so I don’t think she knew that I spoke French. I heard her end of the phone call to France and I knew what she was going to say before she even said it.
“Well. Bad news. Air France owns the airline that you took over here, but we don’t operate it. Since we don’t operate it, we couldn’t check your bags through to Bangor. Since we don’t operate it, we can’t reimburse your ticket. Sorry.”
She walked with me over to US Airways, handing me back to the original woman who dealt with me the first time. She explained the situation to the US Airways woman and both of them genuinely seemed apologetic. This was a new game: the blame game. They both agreed that the system screwed me over (although they disagreed as to whose fault it was), but there was nothing they could do.
The only thing to do was change my flight ticket for the next day (which included a fee) and pay the difference between tickets. “You were with the Air France representative for such a long time. I really thought they would be able to help you,” the US Airways woman said, “Ms. O’Hara, I am so sorry.”
That wasn’t a company apology. That was a personal apology. If she had worked a little faster, if she had help…then I wouldn’t be in this situation. I arrived in a timely manner, but sometimes that’s not enough.
In times like these, you can get angry at the system for messing you up…or you can realize that the humans of the system tried to help. This woman already felt quite guilty about the whole situation and it wasn’t her fault. It was just a series of unfortunate events. “It’s fine,” I said with a smile.
“I won’t be working here tomorrow morning, but I wish you the best. What are you going to be doing tonight? Is there anything I can do for you?”
“No, I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it. Thank you for all of your help. I do have one question though. Is there any part of the airport that’s safe?”
She looked at me. “Honey, there’s no good part of this airport. However, you can try over there.”
Great. A sketchy airport. Just where I want to spend my second night. It’s too bad I didn’t have some place where I could leave my luggage. I’ve always wanted to visit Belgium. I think it’s a pretty cool country. It’s so small, but it’s so culturally diverse. In the airport, there are so many languages posted everywhere. Even if I could put my luggage somewhere, I wouldn’t. I was too exhausted to go anywhere. Oh well. I’ll come back to Brussels one day!
I called my parents with that handy international phone booth. In all honesty, I think that this might be the first phone booth I’ve ever used in my life. BC (Before Cellular), I was in Caribou and I never needed to use a phone booth. If I was at school, I used the school’s phone. If I was at a friend’s house, I used their home phone. When I got my cell phone, I didn’t a phone booth. So, I may have just used the first phone booth of my life. That’s exciting.
After that, I knew I had a long day ahead. I ate lunch because I realized that I forgot to eat breakfast. I wandered aimlessly through the airport. I found a baggage trolley so I could just drop all of my stuff on there. In the afternoon, I found a quiet corner and slept on top of my bags. I hadn’t realized how exhausted I was until then.
Neither airport had free Wi-Fi, but both had free bathrooms which made me happy. In addition, Belgium uses the same outlets as France…thank goodness! I was able to plug my laptop in to write this blog up to this point.
At exactly seven in the morning, I returned to the check-in desk. A security officer checked my passport and receipt before I could check-in. “You bought this ticket yesterday?” he asked.
“Why did you buy it yesterday?”
I guess it looks suspicious to buy an international ticket the day before. I explained my situation and told him how I spent the night in the airport. “It’s been lots of fun,” I said with a smile.
“Expensive fun,” he added, letting me through to finish the check-in process.
I got through the passport check, adding a nice new stamp from Belgium to my passport’s pages. Now, when I look at my passport, I can always remember this fun night in the Brussels airport.
I boarded the plane with no problems and found myself on a nearly nine hour flight across the Atlantic. I watched a movie, I slept, I listened to music, I slept. Fortunately, I was next to a cute Belgian boy. To make things better? He was a smart, cute Belgian boy, working on his Ph.D, and coming to the US to attend a computer neuroscience conference in California. And, even though I hadn’t showered in two days and I probably looked like a tired, paranoid woman, he actually talked to me. He definitely helped pass the time and calmed me down a bit. I was scared about missing my second flight because I was NOT going to spend another night in the airport. “You will make your flight. I know,” he said with a smile.
Part II: Howdy America
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have just reached the coast of the United States. Welcome to America.”
“Ah! I see it. America,” the Belgian boy said. Although he’d been in the US before for other conferences, he was quite excited to return.
But, from up above, the states looked like any other country. Mountains, trees…tiny, tiny roads filled with even smaller cars and even smaller people.
We landed in Philadelphia on time and, as I stepped out of the plane, I was hit with a wave of heat and humidity, something I had not experienced in France. America. Landing in Philadelphia was pretty exciting too because Philly played a big part in American history and is the city with the Liberty Bell.
I passed through passport security, then through customs, then through security. Somewhere along the way, cute Belgian boy said goodbye to me and wished me luck. I never saw the boy again, but was certainly grateful for his company. I’m usually sitting next to old ladies on the plane (which isn’t a bad thing – old ladies are great), but it’s nice to talk to someone my age about the differences between our universities in different countries and about young people stuff…whatever that might be.
Once in the Philly airport, my problems stopped. I’d been in the airport a few times before and I knew how to navigate my way around. I made my way to the shuttle to the other terminal and then sat down at the gate going to Bangor, Maine. As soon as I sat down, I realized that I wasn’t in France anymore. First sign? Water fountains! Free water…it tasted like freedom, if anyone wanted to know. Not like that bottle of water at the airport in Belgium that was 2.50 euro (I got thirsty around midnight and, unfortunately, there are no water fountains in the Brussels Airport – I had to buy an expensive bottle of water from the vending machine).
There’s definitely a difference in culture between France and the US in terms of greeting people. In France, people are more reserved and tend to wait to initiate contact. In America? We’ll go up to anyone, anywhere. We’ll ask them their story. We’ll swap our own. I was very surprised when I was standing in line at customs and people started asking me where I was coming, where I was going… They told me about their travels to Spain, travels to across the world and back again. And, of course, by the gate of Bangor, Maine, those people shared an even greater connection. “Why do you look familiar to me? Do you teach at the University of Maine at Orono? Oh, you do! Wait, do you know Jim? Yes, I know Jim too! Of course, we met at that event last year…”
Yes. That was a real conversation. Everyone is bound to have some connection with someone else on that plane going up north. And we’re all friendly about it, all wanting to make that connection.
But, at the end of the day, all I wanted to go was go home. It had been a long journey to get Maine. As soon as we landed, I hopped up and walked off of that little plane. I’ve flown many, many times out of the Bangor Airport. It’s an extremely small airport, but bigger than the airport in Presque Isle, Maine (which is closer to where I live). I know it like the back of my hand and I was out of the exit within minutes.
Waiting for me on the other side was my father. I was so happy to see him…because now he could carry my bags for me! Oh and I hadn’t seen him for five months and all of that stuff, but mostly it was because he carried my stuff for me.
Since it was dinner time in the USA, we went to Denny’s. What was my first meal back in the states? Well, I’ve really wanted chocolate chip pancakes and chocolate milk for five months now. I don’t know if it’s a very American meal, but I really wanted chocolate chip pancakes. After eating the chocolate chip pancakes, we had to drive three and half hours north to Caribou, Maine, where I live.
By the time we got home, it was dark and raining. After spending two nights in an airport, I was eager to shower, brush my teeth and then sleep in a real bed!
Today, I woke up at eight and went with my father to Wal-Mart to get food for the week. In France, all of the stores are closed on Sunday. In America, you can get food every day of the week. It’s fantastic.
As for reverse culture shock, I haven’t really experienced it (although, who knows, I may in the coming days). The nice thing about Northern Maine is that it never changes. I leave for months and then return home to find that, for the most part, everything is the same. It’s nice because I know exactly what to expect when I return home. I’m never surprised by anything new because everything is exactly how I remember it. It’s comforting to have that consistency. It’s also comforting to know that when I go to Wal-Mart, I will inevitably run into someone that I know. The world in Northern Maine is somehow smaller and, as always, home will never feel foreign.
I haven’t done much today, other than take a nap because my throat hurts (I’m a little worried that I picked something up at the airport) and bug my parents. My father made me dinner tonight, my first American home cooked meal in five months – honey barbecue chicken, green bean casserole and baked potatoes – yum!
So, I came from France the way I left America. Tired, confused, but ready for the next adventure. It’s funny how I had a problem with the airline getting to France and then had a problem with the airline coming home from France. France didn’t want me to come, but then, when I did, France didn’t want me to leave!
What’s next for me? Well, I’ll be in Maine for the next week, preparing for the next thing. I have an internship in Washington D.C. this summer so I’ll be headed there for the remainder of my summer. Then, I start my fall semester at West Virginia University. It will be my senior year. It’s amazing (and scary) to think that I will be graduating this upcoming year!
Well, thank you everyone for reading this blog. If you’ve read every entry on this blog, congratulations. You’ve read over 123 single spaced Word pages. You’ve read nearly 70,000 words…and that’s before I add things before publishing it online. You’ve seen hundreds of pictures. You must be either really bored or care a lot about me. Thanks for coming along the journey with me. I’m so glad that I could share all of these moments with you. Now, my stories have become part of your story.
For my final Honors project, I was supposed to write a ten page reflective paper. But I wanted something I could share with all of you. While I know many of you would read that paper, haven’t you done enough reading already? I’ve decided to make a video to show you what my semester abroad was like and to allow others to share their voices on stereotypes in France and about French people. My fellow international students and French students were kind enough to share broad stereotypes about France and French people as well as their own personal observations in France. In my upcoming film, What is France?, I’ll be exploring this country, culture…and my interaction with the hexagonal country. I’ll be posting it on YouTube, with a link featured on this blog, in one month. Stay tuned!
As always, the best adventures are yet to come. So, buckle up partner! Yee-haw!