I bought a one-way plane ticket to Paris from Washington, D.C. in the middle of January 2023. I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew it was time to change. This January day decision feels like a wondrous lifetime ago.
If you can change your physical environment, you provide yourself with the opportunity to change how you function in the world.
I’m from the United States, born and conditioned in the mid-American South (Virginia). I speak two languages fluently—English and German—and I’m slowly working on building a relationship with French. One of my best friends for the last decade of my life is French and has lived and worked in Paris, now residing outside of Bordeaux. It is because of her that I have several connections to people I simply love in France, which was tantamount to building this experience.
I sit outside of the Shakespeare and Co. bookstore as I write this piece; it’s somehow my last day in France before I fly back home. I have a skein of grey yarn, a pencil, a notebook, coffee, and a slice of vegan apple pie in hand.
I’ve been here since the beginning of May using a traveller’s visa, meaning I got 90 days (roughly three months) to live and travel in France without having to file any official paperwork. I spent the winter and spring saving for this trip, alongside the gracious aid of my parents and friends. I wasn’t totally sure what I came here to do, but I read and wrote every step of the journey. This trip is essentially the first step in my inevitable early-20s move to Europe that I’d been planning since age 16.
As corny as it sounds, I wanted to find myself in an unfamiliar place and I did. I wasn’t waiting to be perfect, either: I was just ready to start.
This is the first trip I’ve taken in my life that I have felt completely at peace returning home. No existential dread, no sense of being rushed, no fear of returning to a place I wanted to get away from so badly. I came to France with an abundance of anxiety but somehow more excitement. Paris has been my home for several months and I’ve shifted alongside her.
My French was downright bad when I first arrived. I had no idea what was going on, I was overcome with frustration and embarrassment, and I felt as if I’d made a mistake coming here. With only a year of beginner French at university under my belt, I traveled here prepared to face my mounting insecurities. Even as a grown woman, I was terrified of change and making a giant leap forward even if it was positive.
My friendships here are ultimately what carried me through a chaotic first few weeks in a new city. My friends here both linguistically and emotionally encouraged me and eased any abrupt cultural shifts.
I think the best way to figure things out and adapt to change is to plunge head-first into it. To feel, acknowledge, and pursue the ‘uncomfortable’. I felt constrained in my environment back home, so I expanded.
My first Paris epiphany came about a week after I arrived. I was still jetlagged and feeling out of the loop, not helped by the utter lack of smiling from strangers tearing away at my feelings. I took everything extra personally and perhaps selfishly centered my understanding of comfort around what I knew to be familiar.
The epiphany occurred in a moment when I felt my displacement in Paris was especially glaring. I had been there a week and was crying on a stone stoop. Everything I did seemed to be incorrect. Because I live with a chronic anxiety condition and am a fully sentient human being, I was overcome by these feelings of vulnerability and insignificance.
But then, between the tears, I had a few thoughts:
What else is there for me to do than adapt to my new surroundings?
What if I can make changes in my behavior and my attitude for the betterment of myself and the community I’m trying to build here?
What if it’s okay to be wrong about things, and what if it’s even greater to have the awareness to change when change is most necessary?
I was speechless. I wasn’t sure where they came from exactly, but my best guess is a combination of therapy, Black feminist literature, and my guiding inner child.
The only person standing in the way of a peaceful transition to my future was me. If I removed my own resistance then, I could immediately begin to experience what was happening in front of me.
This was one of many moments of clarity that struck me during my time here, and these connections are mine forever. So much of my life has consisted of theorizing and catastrophizing—by doing and inserting myself into the bigger world, I stepped into the role of performance alongside observation.
I ultimately learned how to trust myself, too. I realized that my younger self was wiser than I ever imagined. How some change is irreversible and beautiful; how decisions are portals, not ends; how you must adjust as you move along and travel lightly.
People and places cannot take away what you’ve learned about yourself in times when you had to cast your discomfort to the side and stand up for yourself repeatedly. The process of improvement restarts every single morning.
The next time I return to France in 2024, I intend to have the language skills necessary to really assimilate and connect with strangers. I’ve learned so much about myself and my abilities while I’ve been here. I will fly home with an overpacked suitcase but an eased sense of self.