The Exchange


Published: August 28, 2008

Talking about being an exchange student makes me cry. Not always, but usually. Most people assume that it’s because I miss it, and usually that’s exactly it. Sometimes they are tears of frustration.

It’s an incredible thing to leave your home, your country, family, friends, food… essentially all that you are. I feel like shouting out at the top of my lungs how hard it really is. But my grandparents immigrated from Ukraine. My mother grew up as the daughter of immigrants, the whole lot of them trying to find identity in a world of chaos and struggle. Their generation has survived wars, so when I think I’ve done something great, comparatively I think that it’s really only semi-great. There’s a complex.

Then there is the frustration of not having people understand. They haven’t been there, and at some point you realize that it has to be a secret that you keep to yourself. You share photos and stories, anecdotes about your favorite café or your fabulous adventures. In the end, however, you realize you did it without this world, and only the people of that other world can bring you back.

When you work very hard, as I feel that I did, you use effort to create a new life. Temporary, but a new life all the same. To have it taken away is very psychologically confusing. I overcame massive obstacles, including living situations that should not have taken place. I never gave up, I never came home. I threw myself into it, striving to make huge efforts to never use English and to taste and see everything and anything. Becoming successfully integrated into a new community meant that I had to integrate back. I remember driving the summer I got back, crying in the car to my mix of music. I think the songs were “On s’attache,” “Frozen Man” and “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” French to bring me back, then James Taylor’s “Frozen Man,” because being gone for eleven months is obviously as dramatic as waking up after falling into frozen water and finding your whole family gone. Obviously. And “Total Eclipse of the Heart” because… well honestly, I can’t justify that.

My host family was indeed a blessing. They were so kind and generous, and they went out of their way to do everything possible to ensure that I was becoming French. My host mother, Chantal, would often cook dishes from different parts of the country, and make it into a lesson about a region. She would take the time to explain the dish and why a particular area would eat it.

Once in a great while, the fact that they were French (or that I was not, take your pick), would cause a small hiccup. It was only after living there for months on end, only two days before leaving, that I asked why they never asked if I had a boyfriend. When I looked back, any information had been happily volunteered. I was only asked how many days it would take to drive across America, and how our systems worked, life in New York… I obviously was not hurt, but more curious than anything.

Their reply as to why they never asked was “we’re French.” Not in a haughty or arrogant tone, but with a typical shoulder shrug, as if it were almost something limiting.  It was not in their French-y nature to ask, so they went on wondering. I’m sure that as much as I endeavor to be French that will be a trait that I will never learn. Chantal said, “We asked ourselves, we just never asked out loud.” I laughed, thinking of them behind their bedroom door (a room I never saw), her putting on a fresh pillowcase, while asking Francois what he thought. Him shrugging because it was a trivial question when there were crops to be gathered.

It was an answer that I had come to hear often, and that I had to learn to deal with. Such an ambiguous answer as “because I’m French,” or “that’s just how it is,” left me confused, and I pretended that I understood or that I was satisfied. Even my young friends at school would answer me like that. I would insist that there were easier ways of doing things in the States, that something really made sense that they weren’t seeing, but they would always maintain that things stayed the way they were for a reason. “We’re French, C’est tout. That’s it.”

In the end, I just miss France. I miss my French family. I miss getting off the train in the Gare du Nord, knowing that I could do anything in Paris because for that day it was my playground. I read a quote by Voltaire once, in which he said that Paris is the one place that people go looking for something that they never find. It’s so completely true. I went once, and decided that I must move back. I did, for a year, and I still never found it. Since I like quotes, and because it’s relevant, I’ll tell you that Gertrude Stein once said, “America is my country, and Paris is my hometown.” It’s looking like that’s how it’s shaping up to be. It’s so hard to explain the feeling, I don’t know the words in any language. It’s like wanting to be wrapped up in it, but I could never hug enough air.

Every night before I went to sleep at 19 rue Jean Racine, I would lean out my window and look up and down the street. As the season changed, so did the light and the amount of people out and about. Before I closed my shutters I always took a huge, deep breath of air, keeping the smell of my small paradise in my mind. I can still remember it, the scent of bread, and old and calm.