As I sit down to try to put my thoughts regarding this year on this blank page, it seems near impossible. So I'll just start somewhere, and that somewhere is here.
I'm so thrilled that I'm going home to all of these things and, more importantly, to all of my people tomorrow. I have loved my time in France (and all over the place) and have made it a point to make the most of it all. But here's the thing: at the end of this... (Can we call it a trip at this point? It's not a voyage, it's a séjour. So what's that in English, like a stay? Sure.) stay, it's no longer just a question of returning home, but also of leaving home. In order to get back my to my enchiladas, I'm leaving galettes. I have to trade in wine on terrasses to get back to margaritas on patios. I'm headed back to queso, but I'm leaving fromage, wonderful, delicious, varied, real fromage, of which the US knows nothing. To get back to singing in my car with the windows down, I have to leave the convenience of being able to buy a train ticket to one of hundreds of possible destinations. To return to the warm comfort of southern drawls, I have to leave the opportunities to conduct my daily life in the language I chose and to easily travel somewhere I can challenge myself by encountering languages completely unfamiliar to me. I have to leave the Meditteranean, cobblestone streets, inescapable history, and pastries. Oh, the pastries. Pain au chocolat, croissants, brioche... Je peux pas.
And so I wonder: Will I ever truly be home again? Not "Will I be happy to be in Texas again?," because the answer to that question is a definitive yes. But now the questions are "Will I ever not miss something halfway across the world?" "Will I ever not be missing a part of myself?" "Will I never not be missing someone whom I don't know when I'll see again?" I've felt this way before, after my time spent in both Germany and in Quebec. But now, it's even more intense. I have truly left my heart in so many places.
Another question that was originally posed to me not by myself but by many others: "Are you going to go back?" or "Are you going to do it another year?" Well, the immediate answer is no. I am actually very much looking forward to being home, (hopefully) returning to teaching in a full-time position (please God), and perhaps being able to resume paying my student loans and other "grown up" things. But will I leave again someday? It's possible. And that's the thing: I don't know how my life is gonna turn out. When I try to picture myself moving abroad again, for another year or even longer, I can imagine myself being happy. But when I picture myself living in Fort Worth, even perhaps eventually (not anytime soon, thank you very much) making some kind of commitment (to a house, to a man, or even both... maybe... sometime...), I can see myself being happy that way, too. I'm not closed off to either possibility. I honestly have no idea how it's gonna shake out. The good news is that both paths are paved with the possibility of happiness and that I don't have to decide today at this café in Montmartre.
Today, my job is to sip wine, eat crêpes, and soak up this beautiful city. Tomorrow, my job is to get home to Texas, hug the ones I love, and eat enchiladas. Regardless of how anything beyond that turns out, these things are certain: I will carry the memories of this year for the rest of my life, and I will never be the same girl I was before. The year and a half prior to my departure for France were characterized by uncertainty, loneliness, and even depression. (Added 2016: All centered around my work-related struggles, referenced here.) I was broken and calloused and cold. I rightly sought a change. This year has undone the damage and validated the journey. I spent time with beautiful people in beautiful places. Perhaps even more importantly, I spent time with myself. I thought and I thought and I thought. I learned more about who I am. I now feel whole and softened and warm. And ready. I regret nothing. My world is bigger now, and my heart is, too.
It has been such a joy to walk down memory lane this past month or so in order to finish this blog. I do regret not finishing it earlier, but life was crazy, y'all. And, in a way, it's been kind of nice to do it now, because it's given me the chance to really think about what I experienced and what we had. For that, I'm thankful.
Not only that, but concluding this blog this far out gives me distance enough to reflect on how this year truly changed me. There are many ways in which that year etched itself into my mind and my heart: some big, some small, some expected and some not so much. I'm going to try to share them with you here.
1) I think differently about possessions and spending. I lived for eight months with the contents of one suitcase. And I was fine. I did eventually tire a bit of wearing the same things over and over, but really, I was fine. I look around now and I just have so much stuff. My "things" were in storage from November 2011 to January 2014. That's 27 months, y'all. When I finally got my things out of storage two years ago (wow), I was hit by how much stuff I have. So much stuff! Lots of which I had completely forgotten about. (It was like Christmas and my birthday in one, opening all of those boxes! And I still remember sleeping in my own bed for the first time in 27 months on January 11, 2014. HEART EYES EMOJI.)
So, here's the thing: I'll admit to you that stuff is nice. It's convenient and comfortable. It can be fun, both to have and to buy. But truly, how important can it be if I lived happily for over eight months with only one suitcase worth of things? How important can it be if I forgot that a lot of it even existed while it was in storage all those months?
This isn't to say that I don't buy stuff. I do buy stuff, both by intention and, also, sometimes just on impulse. Because it kind of feels good. But not all the time. Because when it comes down to it, I personally value experiences over things. We all have x amount of money, and we can't have everything we want, so we have to make choices. I'd rather spend what little disposable income I have doing fun things rather than buying nice things. I would rather spend money on a girl's trip than on new clothes. Also, when spending money on myself, I think about permanence, necessity, and convenience. This is why I chose LASIK over spending lots of money decorating my apartment in the way I'd love. (Last year, I actually used LASIK to get a free flight to Germany.) It's also why I would rather get laser hair removal than pedicures. (Y'all, shaving regularly is the worst. Shaving in a hostel shower? Even worse than the worst.) How do any of these seemingly inconsequential facts have anything to do with having lived abroad? Well, I just generally choose to spend any selfish money on things that will benefit me regardless of what I decide to do with my life. I prefer to spend money on things that can't be taken away and won't have to be left behind if I move, which (circling back) also includes experiences and their accompanying memories.
2) I think differently about my own abilities. I was never really lacking in self-confidence or faith in my capabilities, but I just feel a bit fearless now. Okay, so, not truly fearless, but I am just able to push myself further than before. I pushed my limits that year and was successful, which propels me forward to do so again.
For instance, I traveled by myself for the first time that year. It was only a few days at a time (some time in the Riviera, and certain legs (Stockholm, Edinburgh) of my end of the year trip), but I did it, and I enjoyed it. I got to use all modes of public transportation in many different countries. I got linguistically adventurous and for the first time I went places where I didn't speak the language (and wasn't with someone who did). Through all of these firsts, I paved the way for many others. I learned that I can pretty much travel wherever.
Two years after moving back home to Texas, I returned to Europe in summer 2015 and spent two weeks traveling solo through Croatia, Hungary, and Czech Republic. I didn't speak any of the languages and I had never been any of these places. It was incredible. I met amazing people and had a wonderful time. I wouldn't have had the confidence to do that if I hadn't spent time living in Europe familiarizing myself with so many places. Not only that, but after those two weeks on my own in Central Europe, I can imagine myself going to even less familiar and more exotic places, and for longer, either with others or on my own.
Honestly, at this point, I feel a bit (not completely, but somewhat) at home wherever I go. To continue this question or notion of what home is, exactly, here is another interesting point: I now feel like the world is my home. Like I could show up anywhere and experience some sense of belonging. There is something beautiful to be found everywhere. I'm going to explore this idea in my new blog (coming soon), but I feel like through that exploratory year, I started to think of the world not as a collection of unfamiliar places, but as a collection of versions or shades of home.
3) I think differently about gratitude and not taking things for granted. I remember a time when I made €780 (the equivalent of $959) a month. There was a time when I couldn't text my friends or family. There was a time when I couldn't see their faces except on Skype. There was a time when I couldn't hug them. There was a time when I had no private space in which to sing at the top of my lungs like I enjoy so much. There was a time when I couldn't get anything at the store on Sundays or past 8:00 pm. Some of these things are a big deal, and some really aren't, but either way, I know what it's like to do without them, and it makes me more grateful for them. Living a life very different from my normal one gave me perspective I wouldn't have otherwise, and I appreciate that. I know that I may always be here in Fort Worth with all of these things, and I may not. So I should enjoy all of these things for what they are and acknowledge them with gratitude.
4) I think differently about opportunity and possibility. I am currently in my third year teaching at the same campus. Next year, when it's four years, that will be the longest I've stayed put in any one place or doing any one thing since high school. I have no certain immediate plans, other than to return back to work next year. In the years following, I could stay here in Fort Worth, maybe actually invest in a house (commitment!), and do grown-up things like start seriously saving for retirement (about that... oops). Or, I could move abroad again. I entertain the idea. I get whims and I do research. Not all the time, but it does happen.
My life has looked so completely different than what I thought it would when I was 18 years old. Every time something happens that isn't "supposed" to happen, I've rolled with it. I've been open to possibilities, which generally take me down some life path which isn't what it's "supposed" to be. My layoff from my first teaching job (again, explained here) and my subsequent decisions, the culmination of which was my moving to France, are the most impactful example of this philosophy in my life. I have learned to be open to anything, even if it's not typical or expected. Truthfully, I have always had this innate inclination to do so, but it's only been further confirmed through this, my most beautiful story. If I had to articulate how I feel about this idea of rolling with the unexpected, I'd say this: Let life hit you hard and take you far. Or near, for that matter. That is to say, when life throws something unexpected at you, be open. To any of many possibilities, not just what society might lead you to consider.
I look around at pretty much all of my friends and peers and see them doing what is expected: getting married, buying houses, having babies. And their stories, their own adventures, are all beautiful. And I'm happy for them, and if my path takes me to a similar place, I'll be happy for me, too. But, contrary to what many people fear, I am truly happy without those things. I do not walk through life with a sense of lacking, but of completeness. I feel whole. Even full, to be honest. Full of life and love and adventure. I think this is completely beyond some people's realm of reality, but it's true. I know good and well that my life doesn't conform to all of society's expectations, and I'm way more okay with that than some others are, I think. (Some people seem pretty concerned for me, like, for instance, my taxi driver in New Orleans earlier this month.) As I've mentioned before: I am not closed to any possibilities. I do not see one path to happiness. I will not force my life to be any certain way. I will let it unfold before me and continue to surprise me.
Will I eventually settle down? Or will I keep exploring? I am rarely envious, but there is a very small part of me that sometimes envies those who know what they want. I know so many who unwaveringly want to spend the rest of their days right here, in Fort Worth, Texas. I also know some who have made the jump and choose to live their lives permanently in their adopted language and culture. But for me, I am not all Texas nor all France. My language of choice is neither English nor French. In truth, the language of my heart is franglais, which puts me in a bit of a predicament. There is a duality in me. I see beauty in both the extraordinary and the ordinary, in both the risk and the comfort, in both the adventuring and the being home.
For now, and perhaps for good, I am home. Texas home. What will happen in the future? Anything. Anything at all, and I love that. Even though there is that small part of me that envies those who know, for the most part, I kind of love the not knowing. There are times when it scares me a bit, but mostly it thrills me. It's not set in stone. I don't know what adventures are in store. But I know that the adventures I had during that magical year give me courage and motivate me to pursue others.
Why not take one last look at those adventures before I go?
interactive (seriously, touch it) Google map charting my stops that year; click here to open it full screen. Each stop contains links to the accompanying log post(s). For full functionality, must use a computer or Android phone; links don't work on iPhones.
and I don't regret a thing.