The moment I stepped out of the terminal of the Charles-de Gaulle airport, a great wave — no, a tsunami – of unfamiliar words crashed upon me. It scattered my senses and left me floundering, my confidence dampened. I had stood contented on my little rock of knowledge of the French language. I thought back to the past year, my freshman year of high school, to the hours spent carefully gathering concepts like a squirrel collecting nuts, swelling with self-assurance each time I formulated a basic sentence… But now I saw that my quivering little pile amounted to nothing.
Seizing this opportunity was a leap of faith. My family had hosted French exchange students for many summers, but this was the first time that I had been invited to complete the exchange; my sister and I would spend two weeks there. It was both a chance for us to be together before she made the transition to college and a chance to be briefly submerged in French culture.
And submerged I was. As the waves crashed, I scrambled frantically to remember and grasp hold of the fragments of knowledge that remained. I could construct a laborious sentence in the time that an entire conversation had taken place — “Passe-moi l’eau, si tu plait” — I would stammer after a furious internal debate over whether to use the formal “vous” or informal “tu” form. Perhaps the pointing, grunting, monosyllabic approach was best; this way, I could avoid speaking in my faltering accent.
This experience helped me to empathize strongly with foreigners in our own country; their thoughts and emotions are as advanced and complex as ours and yet they are often isolated and defined by their modes of expression. But of course I experienced this frustration on such a micro-level that it was all in good fun. Such as when our nine year old host “brother,” Clement, would ask us to take turns reading from his chapter book and very precisely correct our pronunciation — or else just grin gleefully in silence.
My memory is rich with images of that time. I recall the first day that we went to Paris. At breakfast, as I sank into the doughy folds of a croissant, I wondered what it would be like: busy and cozy like Boston with bookshops and street-side singers? Fast-paced and intimidating like New York? Every city is its own creature.
When we finally did come up blinking from the metro station, I got my first glimpse of Paris. It was bustling with activity but paced, not hectic. Intricately designed structures towered in stark contrast to the clear blue sky. Just as the city was composed of historic and modern forms, the whole nation was a unique blending of country and city; France was dense, like rich pudding — or yogurt, full of live active culture and a variety of flavors.
This impression could be encapsulated in something that my host brother said while we were all on a bike ride… I can still smell the hot, fragrant air, hear the pleasant whirring of wheels, see the red tiles roofs and enclosed gardens thinning into open fields. But,after hours of arduous peddling, it all began to grow less enchanting. Suddenly, we came to a fork in the trail. He said: “If you take this road, you get ice cream tonight.” I peered into the wooded path, winding through gnarled roots and rocks. My muscles screamed in mutiny as we proceeded, but the cool shadows of the wood and the wind rushing past gave me my second wind. It was breathtaking: much better than the flat, efficient road. It looked as though we would have ice cream that night.
There it was: take the unknown road even with the bumps and taste the sweetness on the other end (whether it’s “ice cream” or “pudding”). I had not known what that bicycle trail would reveal, and I had not known what France would reveal. At first, I was hit by a great salty splash, but once the initial shock was over, there was deep joy in immersion. I will always remember the sights and sounds, and most of all, the people. And now I hold in my mind a reservoir of memories, a fountain from which new thoughts flow. If I had stayed on my comfortable little rock, I would never have known the richness that I was missing by opening that new door and embracing the wave.
Rachel Ravina of Rochdale, Massachusetts won Honorable Mention for this essay.
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