Over the intercom, the train conductor announced that we would soon be arriving in Grenoble, France. It was the middle of June and through the windows of the compartment, I could see snow-capped mountains peering through thin clouds. My heart quickened and I suddenly became extremely anxious. What if my host family didn’t like me? What would they do upon discovering that I actually didn’t speak any French?
Ever since I was a child, I had always dreamt of going to a place called “Europe” that my parents constantly talked about, reminiscing over the days before their immigration to the United States. To me, it was a magical land where my relatives lived and spoke handfuls of languages, which I (semi-seriously) referred to as a superpower. I wanted nothing more than to share this superpower of being able to speak a foreign language.
Looking back on the train memory makes me smile every time because the next five weeks were a beautiful whirlwind of exploring the French Alps, eating, attempting to speak to locals, (more) eating, and meeting the most impactful and patient people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. With the help of my host mother, I not only honed my French language skills, but I also grew into a more confident individual. I will never forget the exhilaration of timidly telling a joke in French for the first time and making a crowd erupt in laughter. My host family and I formed such a fierce bond that at the end of the summer when it was time to leave, my heart felt like it was breaking in two. I knew deep down that I would be back again soon.
And I was right. I ended up visiting my host family a few months later to spend the winter holidays with them at their mountain home in the Alps. Fast forward several months later and I have just arrived at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris with far too many suitcases in tow. Just like the year before, I could feel my heart pulsating with anxiety; I was about to spend nine months studying in Paris to perfect my French. This time however, I didn’t have a host family to hold my hand and guide me through the whole process. I was a college student living alone in a foreign country, and I never fathomed how a nine-month program could ricochet between feeling so dreadfully slow one week to feeling lightning fast the next.
To be completely honest, I felt pretty lonely at the beginning of that school year and experienced culture shock like never before. Sure, I had my former host family in Grenoble for support, but they were a three-hour train ride away and I didn’t know anyone in Paris. Did I make the right choice? Why was this experience so different than the last? After a few weeks, I got sick of sitting alone in my apartment and FaceTiming my friends back home. I felt like I needed to do something. I needed to take control and turn this experience around. I joined a volleyball class at the university and after a few weeks, I surprised myself! I started making friends with my neighbors, classmates, and volleyball teammates and I quickly forgot about the slump from the beginning of the year. I was ordering food for myself at fancy restaurants, going to the doctor, asking old ladies at the supermarket for advice on household cleaning supplies… all in French. Gradually, this huge scary city transformed into my comfort zone—my home.
People ask me all the time which experience I enjoyed more but to tell you the truth, I couldn’t answer that question without repeatedly saying, ”Well, it depends.” I enjoyed all the different facets of my two study abroad programs for different reasons. For example, I needed more handholding during the stage of my life when I lived in Grenoble, and I needed to be thrown in the deep-end to become more independent during the stage in Paris. Everything depends on your abilities, your needs, and your goals. I like to think of my experience in Grenoble as a stepping-stone to my experience in Paris, and I know that I am extremely fortunate to have both study abroad experiences to look back on and know without a doubt that they both shaped me into the person I am today.
— Isabelle Kallenberg
API in Grenoble, France and AU Liberal Arts – Exchange Program at Paris Ouest