Tell me “Rent,” how DO you measure a year in the life? A school year is such a long time, that try as I might nothing seems strong or evocative enough to capture the raw sense of what it means to be a high schooler studying abroad in France, what it feels like to be an outsider and an insider, to have feet on either side of the Atlantic and be pulled in so many directions it feels your heart may snap. But it doesn’t. Instead it’s pumped full of love, greasy, salted-buttery love by the local French, those elusively great, maddeningly curious creatures.
Fitting in with them is a game of chance, a series of trial and error. One shockingly non-rainy day, I’m wearing what my mom considers to be my sister’s uniform: plain long sleeve tshirt and black leggings. Simple enough, it’s camoflage back home in the bubble. But on the streets of Rennes, I feel naked, stripped bare by the sly glances of the chic adolescents also waiting for the bus that can’t seem to get here fast enough. Three minutes have never dragged by so slowly. It’s enough time for me to feel absolutely certain that the entire country hasn’t heard of dressing for comfort. As time goes on my wardrobe is drained of color, bit by by, painstakingly culled to conform to the firm French belief that black is the new black. Looking like you belong is the easy part. Nestle the leathery strap of a Longchamp in the crook of your right arm and you’re practically halfway there. Better yet, snag a coveted sparkly tote without a clasp whose impracticality is overlooked by the French school girl masses, redeemed by a wider range of color options, adding shades of grey to the arsenal of black and navy staples. These colors are your golden ticket: like the pens obligatory to suive the lectures upon which French courses lean so heavily and the only colors acceptable in the traditional striped Marinière.
The modern French man or woman still dons this classic, one of the only remnants of the stereotypical Frenchman that has enraptured the western conscious for years, appearing throughout the media, the darling of old Hollywood and the eternally bright muse of the pre-second world war literary cavalry. Gone are the effortless smokers à la Audrey Hepburn, elegant in their self-harm. In their place are the swarms of sagging, Nike-wearing adolescents who roll their own cigarettes like they were born doing so. The hipsters have gone totally digital, preferring their smoke in artificially flavored shiny e-cig format. Mastering their look of disdain, superiority and carelessness is an art. Walking down the streets with your eyes focused on absolutely nothing requires a level of godlike self awareness. Add to that the struggle of preventing your one functioning earbud from falling out of your ear and you’ve got a one woman circus, a juggling semi-pro.
After a year abroad, I’d say send in the lions, my life is a juggling act- reconciling or rather tactfully suppressing the American-ness, while retaining the essence of yourself (which given my youth is rather unformed and fuzzy) and absorbing as much of the French as possible. The outward gestures come easy, by now my blood is probably 50% cheese and the weather in Britanny is predictably unpredictable but could never be considered warm, at least by my southern standards so the all black becomes the unofficial uniform of the deplaced Americans trying desperately I blend. It’s the inner heart and spirit of the French people that I’ve been earnestly seeking these past nine months. Striving to perfect my breathy “ouai”, the seemingly required moniker of French mothers. Avoiding the goth-look while clothed head to toe in black. Looking flawless despite the weather, time of day, or day of the week. And how do they avoid what I have dubbed the france 50, like the mythical freshman 15 but brought on by decadence rather than ramen? What’s their secret?
A whole school year and yet I fear I leave with more questions than answers, so I turn to my ratchet jar of speculoos for comfort (thus making me the opposite of rachitique) to drown out the sorrows at having to part from this magical world which has so much still to be discovered. Au revoir. And in the words of my obvious twin, Arnold Schwartzeneger, I’ll be back.