In retrospect, I set myself up for a world of frustration in France. I entered a small town, Moulins, to stay for two months without even basic French. I had come from countries where everything was cheap, and even so, I had burned through most of my travel savings before arrival. Perhaps most damning, I had planned to spend my time working towards a career that I would later realize I did not want to pursue. Awkward interactions and personal anxiety arose from these miscalculations, but my emotional well-being was held intact by the reason I went to France in the first place. Iryna had secured a teaching assistantship with a French national government program, and we planned to enjoy a modest, transitory life together as expats. Our time in France, intended to be something of a retreat from our hectic lives as American college students, turned into an unexpected growing experience.
What I first noticed as I rode the train through rolling green hills to meet Iryna was herds of off-white cattle. I had never seen animals quite like these, and they began to embody a symbol of the locals’ connection with the land to me. We found both the consumers and vendors of food products to be hyper-regional. Even the large supermarket chain, Carrefoure, carried almost exclusively French products, and advertised if a product was made in the local Auvergne region. When we asked a friend where to get seafood, he laughed and told us that we’d have to go to the coast.
The locals’ effortless sustainability practices were easy and rewarding to assimilate to, but other parts of French culture were more challenging for me personally. I quickly realized just how small Moulins was, and that to get by with any shred of independence, I would have to repeatedly force neighbors and store-owners to speak my language. I felt disrespectful for not having prepared for such a long stay with any basis in the French language. Despite my insecurity, most of the locals were happy to speak English, and as interested in my story as I was in theirs.
As I learned to adapt to a foreign community, Iryna and I found a rhythm to our daily life as expats. She went to teach at a handful of schools while I wrote my PhD applications, and we would return home in the evening to eat dinner, plan our adventures, and play with Rudy the cat. On the weekends, we would stock up at the farmer’s markets and then meet with some friends to explore the town. One night, we stopped in a dive bar after dinner, and the bartender gave us free pours for hours while we talked to her and the guests that came and went. With Iryna translating, we chipped away at an understanding of regular life in Moulins.
We travelled around the region regularly. Geneva was one of our first destinations, where we not only toured the city, but also got an introductory fencing lesson from Iryna’s cousin and took an excursion to Gruyères to learn about (and eat) their famed cheese and chocolate. Later, our friends took us to hike a green volcanic range called Puy de Dôme in the nearby city of Clermont-Ferrand. In keeping with the hyper-regionality I had observed prior in markets, our friend told us that the iconic black church in the center of the city was built with igneous rock from the volcanoes.
As the holiday season drew closer and my time in France was coming to a close, we took the compulsory trip to Paris. After a harrowing hotel-booking debacle, we arrived in the eleventh arrondissement for a three day weekend. We spent the days straying wildly from a loose schedule, discovering little gems such as a restaurant called “Balls” which served only spherical food. On our second night, we were stopped by a well-tipsy couple who needed a playful argument resolved. We went to the nearest bar to discuss the matter, and ended up spending the rest of the night with Geraldine, Jovanni, and their kitten, Cookie.
It’s well documented that tourist traps are all but impossible to escape in Paris, and we didn’t. However, by letting the City of Light guide our whims, we were able to find some more unique experiences in addition to the not-invalid “you just have to see it in person” attractions.
After Paris, the homesickness that had been subconsciously building up over my five months of travelling hit me like a brick wall. I was ready to return stateside, but I also had to face the fact that I would be leaving Iryna, who had four more months of teaching in France. Simultaneously, I had finished my PhD applications and felt unsure of whether I would want to matriculate if I were accepted. On one of my last nights, I worked up the courage to tell Iryna that I was unhappy enough with the direction of my career that I was considering a drastic change. At the time of this post, that change has come to fruition.
These emotional upheavals make it hard to look back on my time in France as purely joyful, but the tough times may be just as valuable as the highlights in the long run. I learned that I feel a significant obligation to respect others’ cultures when I enter their space. The relative isolation forced me to look inward and confront the fact that I had to exit the career path that I was on. I enjoyed the privilege of exploring a foreign land with Iryna, and found that despite my self-imposed language barrier, strangers would always lend an ear. We spent our last night together in Lyon, sharing stories over a bottle of wine with our lovely AirBnB host and walking in the rain. Clouds of anxiety temporarily lifted, only to return as I thought about waking before sunrise to say goodbye. C’est la vie.