I stepped off the plane and walked through the long tunnel to ORD. When I stepped foot inside the airport, I was taken aback. It was noisy. Words in what sounded like a foreign language, but was actually my first language, were being tossed around nonstop.English surrounded me. There weren’t even any accents that turned “How can I help you,” into “Ow kin I ep you.” My language switch short-circuited a bit before unwillingly slipping out of French mode.
I felt off balance. But what really shocked me was the smiling man wearing a Led Zeppelin T-shirt. I walked by him and he was grinning at me from ear to ear. I eyed him suspiciously. How do I respond? Why is he smiling at me? What does he want?
Then I reminded myself that I was in the United States. People smile at each other for no reason. In France, a strange man smiling at me was loaded with connotation. But here, it was a gesture of amiability. I breathed a sigh of relief as I awkwardly passed the man with a delayed smile.
For a second I felt as though I was walking on eggshells. Everything was familiar and yet nothing was. I hadn’t slept well on any of my 15 hours of flights and ran between customs, luggage checkpoints, and security in a mad dash to make all my connecting flights (which were never more than 1 hour between for some absurd reason). At one point, I tripped on the escalator and peeled a good chunk of skin off my knee.
So far, being back in the USA was less than great. Until I started asking around for help finding gates and what not. Everyone was so nice. I realized I missed that. Plus, the Starbucks in the airport sold cold brew, and I quickly downed my first one in three months. And the best part? No one was smoking! (France really needs to jump on the “Smoking Kills” campaign).
When I finally made it to San Antonio, I saw my parents’ truck in the airport pick-up line and nearly collapsed inside of it. My back was fatigued from my two-ton backpack and cheap duffel I’d picked up in France to store all the souvenirs I’d bought during my study abroad. My body was tired and numb from being cramped on flights all day. My knee was throbbing. But once I made it to the truck, I realized I could breathe a little. I felt as though I had finished a race and had finally crossed the finish line.
I hadn’t realized how, mostly unconsciously, sometimes consciously, I’d been on edge abroad. I’d always needed to be a little more alert than I needed to be in my hometown. I’d needed to be mentally sharp to catch all the French syllables thrown at me that sometimes sounded like alphabet soup. I’d needed to make sure my passport and important documents were accounted for at all times, that I didn’t drink too much of the wine I was offered, that I didn’t walk home too late at night, that I paid attention to the last possible trains and buses to avoid getting stranded. But plopping my stuff into the back of the truck and being embraced by my parents, all the travel-day tension and unconscious stress drained from me. I was home.
But that was just the beginning of an emotional roller coaster and reverse culture shock that was soon to unfold. When I got home, at 7 pm, I crashed. It was 2 am in France. And I was definitely still on French time. The next day, I woke up at 3 a.m. (10 a.m. French time). I started making coffee and breakfast because I couldn’t sleep. My family didn’t wake up until around 8 in the morning, so I watched TV until they got out of bed. I turned off all the fans and extra AC they had in the living room (my bedroom for the time being) because I was so used to living without AC. Southern France was hot, and AC was a rare commodity. My Texas home felt like an icebox.
First thing after coffee, I searched the counter for fresh bread and realized I was back to good old sliced and processed sandwich bread. No boulangerie here. No view of the beautiful medieval streets of Aix outside my window, either. Just a brown grassy lawn overlooking more of the same bland houses.
But I hugged my dog and tried to erase the melancholy feel of homelessness, in-betweenness. I enjoyed everything American that I missed while abroad: peanut butter, cold brew, supermarkets with everything a person could need in one building, American gyms, numerous shopping malls. And yet, I didn’t completely feel at home. Something was different.
I remembered days in France, where I would be studying for class or out with friends. And I’d think about home and I’d be filled with homesickness. I missed my friends and family and American conveniences. And yet, returning didn’t fill me with a warm and fuzzy feeling. It didn’t feel like some long-last reunion. I looked around at my family, my home, my friends. I felt like everything had stayed the same. But I had changed so much.
I missed the friends I made abroad
In fact, giving out and explaining all the souvenirs I brought back for friends and family made my heart sore. I remembered every place so vividly. I longed to be able to take the bus back to the Mediterranean. To take a train on the weekend to visit Switzerland. Maybe a short flight to Morocco. I missed having the mountains on one side and the ocean on the other. I missed being able to buy alcohol (I’m not 21 yet) and meet my friends at bars. I missed all the people I got to know abroad.
So as I sit here at 5 in the morning, knowing I should try to sleep to switch back to Texas time, I can’t make myself get back in bed. The sun is starting to rise and I wonder what the sky looks like over the French Riviera. I wonder if my host mom is waking up and slicing fresh bread for breakfast, coating it with confiture. I wonder if the Mediterranean sea is still as clear and still as it was only two days ago. I wonder if the rest of my friends made it to their destinations and feel the same strange vacuum in their lives as they sit in bed in a familiar but also unfamiliar home.
The opportunity to study abroad is a blessing and a curse. You are blessed for the opportunity to see the world. But you are cursed because you eventually have to return to your small corner of existence, with a heart and mind that has expanded beyond the limits of your hometown.
I ponder these things as I sit at the kitchen table at 5 in the morning. I should really try to sleep. A part of me is happy to be home. But a part of me also wants to stay on French time. Because I left that part of me in France. And I wasn’t ready to leave.