Google Translate, The Idea of Home, & Being Content: Study Abroad, 6 Months Out

Just a few days from now will mark six months since I returned from studying abroad in the south of France for a semester.  I learned so much during that time away but have also been learning a lot since I crossed back over onto American soil.  These are some of those lessons.

Communicating in another language is a thrill.

Even before I left for my semester abroad, but particularly since I’ve been home, I’ve noticed that I often lose my train of thought when I’m speaking English.  I’ll start a sentence, get halfway through it, and then get stuck because I can’t remember where the thought was going.  This was in no way caused by studying abroad, but when I reflected on my communication in French while I was abroad, I realized that losing my train of thought was a rare occurrence.When I’m speaking English–my native language–I think I lose my train of thought because I get lazy.  I don’t have to think as I speak, and consequently, sometimes I don’t think enough.  When I’m speaking in French or any other foreign language, though, it feels like every corner of my brain is engaged.  I’m working through subject-verb conjugation, intonation, new vocabulary, whether to use the familiar or formal “you,” and gendered nouns *shudders* in real time.  When you’re busy being your own Google Translate, there’s no time for laziness.At first, that mental demand is exhausting and embarassing because the people on the other end of the conversation will only wait for your language to catch up with your thoughts about half the time.  Using language as a method to know and be known is part of what makes us human, and when the ability to communicate is stripped from you, it is easy to feel like you’re not fully human.  Experiencing that crippling frustration gave me a small glimpse into what life for an immigrant or refugee must be like, and my perspective has never been the same.Once you start to make progress in the language, though, there’s no feeling quite like it.  It’s like getting a piece of yourself back.  The word-to-word translation comes increasingly faster, and all of a sudden, you’re thinking in French phrases instead of word-by-English-word.  Native speakers are understanding you better, and your confidence grows.  Perhaps the most incredible feeling, though, is when you realize you are both producing and comprehending your second language more passively.  It’s not taking as much work to communicate with the people around you, but you didn’t even realize it at first because your brain is just adapting and doing its thing.  It’s a thrill, as evidenced by my very excited post on the day that it happened to me.

Prime example of me being overly excited on the interwebs… classic.

You’ll never feel exactly at home in the same way again.

One of my professors (who has spent a significant amount of time living abroad) said this sentence to me in an email just a few weeks after I had returned to school here in the states.  I had emailed her to set up a time where we could get a meal and talk about my time abroad, and even before we had sat down to talk about anything, she had summarized so succinctly what I had been feeling and trying desperately to articulate.  That sentence has stuck with me ever since.I have lived in Detroit all my life, and a large portion of my extended family also resides in the Detroit area.  The city has always meant family for me–it is the wonderful home that I was born into.For a long time, Detroit was all I really knew, so deciding to attend college near Chicago was a new and exciting step.  Now that I have spent three formative years living and learning at Wheaton, I find myself unconsciously calling it home when I’m back in Detroit–the home that sweet friends I made there helped me build.And now, a recipe for success: start with a new city across the ocean, 1 very welcoming host mom, 20+ high school juniors that you spend 3 hours with every week, and a heaping handful of good food, great memories, and tremendous growth.  Mix that all together and, all of a sudden, you’re looking at a city, language, and culture that feel more like home with every passing day–Aix-en-Provence was a home that I was invited into.At one point this past semester (my first one back on campus after my time abroad), I had just received an email from my sweet host mom, I had been sifting through my photos from the semester for a presentation, and I hadn’t spoken French in far too long.  That lethal combination hit me like someone had plopped a heavy sack of flour on my chest, and I couldn’t deny it.I was homesick for France.Ever since then, every two weeks or so, I get hit with intense waves of missing France that feel nearly physical in their intensity.  When my semester abroad was ending, I was longing to go home to Detroit.  Even as I sit in Detroit writing this, I am feeling increasingly ready to go home to Chicagoland.  Once I’m back at school in Wheaton, I often find my mind wandering to my golden home in the south of France.  Maybe a never-ending cycle of homesickness is in the fine print when you sign off on spending your life in more than one place.

Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.

I’m not sure when I’ll stop feeling those pangs of homesickness, or if I ever will.  There are wonderful things about each place that I call home, and with the hope of traveling more in the not-so-distant future, perhaps I just have to get accustomed to never feeling exactly at home again, like my prof said.  I often find myself wishing that I could jet back to France, and I’d be lying to you if I said I’m not consistently on the hunt for cheap plane tickets to somewhere new (y’all just wait until I get a full-time job).  In this “season of life,” though, I’m trying to learn to be content wherever my feet are and to look back fondly but not longingly on my other homes.  It doesn’t work 100% of the time–I still tend to get restless pretty quickly–but it keeps the tears at bay and makes it easier to smile because it happened.Feeling at home in many different places is a blessing that I never want to take for granted; it’s just crazy how the more places I come to call home, the more homes I hope to make.

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