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O Fim duma Viagem

For all the things you're losing, you might as well resign yourself to trying to make a change

USA | Saturday, 22 August 2015 | Views [165]

It seems like every trip I take comes with its own set of challenges and concerns. As the departure day draws nearer, those start to seem more important, or even insurmountable. Until it's almost time to go, and there's a large part of me that wants to turn to my parents or academic advisor or anyone else who I told about my plans early on and say “You could have stopped me. Why didn't you stop me?” (In a not entirely coincidental move, I don't listen to the one person who consistently tells me “I'm not sure that's a good idea. Maybe you should reconsider?”)

Those feelings hit full force on Monday. Because up to that point, there had always been some other event that was standing between me and my departure. Final exams. SUMSRI. My brother's wedding. And then the last of those fell away, and suddenly I was leaving at the end of the week. And I fell into the weird state of not feeling even remotely ready and just wanting to be gone. Now, with under twenty-four hours to go, I can't say which feels more true.

It feels like I should be better prepared for this. At least mentally. But the challenges and questions that my impending departure bring with it are new and different from everything I've done up to this point. So it doesn't matter that when I was 17, I got onto a plane to go to Japan without knowing anyone else on the program. It doesn't matter that last summer I did the same thing with Morocco, including taking courses in French and speaking exclusively in Arabic to my host parents, because that's all they understood. The flight that I'm about to get on still feels like the beginning of a scary and unfamiliar adventure.

There are two main things that are bothering me about next semester. Paradoxically, these are the same two things that drew me in the first place.

The first one is that it's a direct exchange, not a traditional study abroad. I won't be taking classes with other American students and professors who are prepared to switch into English if the class isn't understanding them. I'll be taking classes with French studnets and French professors at one of the best schools for mathematics in France. And yes, that is exactly what I wanted. But still...

It doesn't help that I don't yet know for sure what classes I'm going to be taking. It does help slightly that, from Morocco, I have experience taking content courses taught in French. It doesn't help that the website is confusing and changed several times while I wsas trying to figure out what courses I'd want to take. It does help that an alumnus of both Brown in Paris and Carthage was able to give me a concrete idea of what class difficulty was like. (Besides the obvious challenge of them being in French, the level of rigor was comparable to Real Analysis.)

I know that, like any other semester, things will get better once I get into the swing of classes. I'd rather have a crazy class schedule than a boring one, and this semester will certainly not be boring. So although I'm a little nervous about the strictly academic side of things, it's nothing unexpected or unmanageable.

The other new thing bothering me is the length of time. I'm used to spending a month or two gone over the summer. That's not the same as leaving for an entire semester (or two).

The longest I've ever gone without seeing my parents was the 7 weeks I spent in Africa. I will more than double that time. I'm used to seeing my siblings a couple of times each year. I don't think I've ever spent more than four months apart from either of them. I'd barely said “hello, welcome to the family” to my new sister-in-law before I had to tell her “have a great year.”

Once I get major things, like the people who I won't be seeing, and start really thinking through the next year, it's amazing how the small things start adding up. I've essentially spent my life a train ride from Chicago. It seems insane to miss it when I know I'll be a train ride from half a dozen European capitals, but they're not Chicago. Walking along the Seine to get to classes might be lovely, but it's not Lake Michigan. I can't say anything against French food, but I know that I will never walk into my mother's house and have her inform me that artichokes aren't in season.

The books that I need to leave behind. The Complete Works of Shakespeare that have followed me year after year, summer after summer, every time I was in the country. The abridged and misprinted Don Quixote that was the first book I won in a quiz bowl competition. The Tanach that I got for my Bat Mitzvah. All the books that had helped me in high school, or that I'd intended to read in college. They couldn't all come with me. Very few of them could, in fact.

The plant that somehow survived a year with me as it's only caretaker. (Me after an hour or two home during each major break from school: “Shoot! I meant to water it before I left!”) The new science center that was still being built/remodeled when I left school in the spring. The libraries that have killed hours and saved me a smal fortune over the years. The Seattle's Best Coffee in the Student Union that was totally not a deciding factor in where I went to college. Even the painting that's across from my favorite spot to sit in the house that I hate and try and talk my parents into getting rid of.

There's a lot that I'm leaving behind. And the part that stings is that those things might change while I'm gone. That doesn't really happen when I leave in the summer. Attending a boarding school, and then college, it doesn't make much of a difference if I'm in Europe or Warrenville: we're not at school, and we're not expected to stay there. But a semester is different. A semester means I'm gone while other people aren't. Doubly so for a full year.

Most of the people I knew and talked to last year were juniors. Meaning this year they're seniors. They'll have graduated by the time I return. I'll miss their senior theses and grad school application process.

I only know one other math major from my year. I'm pretty sure I know every French major, though, so that kind of makes up for it? On the other hand, there are some studnets who were freshmen last year who I might not see again, because they'll be studying abroad my senior year. Life moves on, and it's hard to say how different things will be the next time I see my classmates again.

When I leave for summers, or J-terms, I'm not leaving much behind, other than the fun of painting the house. But with this trip...

Near the end of last semester, all of my friends were registering for classes and housing. And I was writing a personal statement in French. Tomorrow, I get on a plane, and I still can't tell you where I'll be staying, or what classes I'll be taking. If I weren't studying abroad, I'd be able to tell you those things. But, despite a higher degree of certainty on what the semester holds, it wouldn't be a boring semester. It's just not the semester I'm choosing to have.

Rigtht now, I can't imagine what my life after next week will look like. There are too many unknwons. But I can imagine what my life at Carthage would look like. I can imagine moving in and the first day of classes. I can imagine group projects and videos and speeches. I can imagine bluffing my way through tutoring Calc 2 and hoping the sophomore who had a high opinion of my mathematical ability last semester never realizes I have no clue how solids of revolution work. I can imagine playing games with classmates because it seems like a better idea than studying (it's certainly more fun) and trying to convince people to come to French club before remembering that's not my job any more. I can imagine returning home to a week of curling up in my favroite spot and reading, followed by a Thanskgiving with a family that's grown and a day of playing games with them and trying to forget how much work I have to do before the end of the semester. I can imagine the end of the semester, with all work and procrastination. Starting a conversation which I expect to be over in five minutes, and not leaving it for over an hour. I can imagine final exams and checkout (evena fter two years, I'm still delighted that checkout for winter break consists only of a quick room clean, unplugging the appliances, and turning in a card, not cleaning the room and your part of the building extremely thoroughly, turning the heat to “low,” which will make the room suffocatingly hot when your return, and giving up your keys.)

I can imagine all of that, but, for the most part, I'm trying not to. Whatever waits for me in Paris is going to be new and different and challenging and exciting. It's going to be good, and I'm glad I have that opportunity. And, although it makes leaving that much worse, I'm glad that there's so much here for me to miss. The harder it is to say “goodbye,” the sweeter it will be when I can say “hello again.”

Tags: goodbyes, pre-departure

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