It’s a Saturday morning in Paris. The sunlight hits early here; I’m usually awakened by it at 7:00 am at the latest. This morning I covered my face with pillows and made it until 8:15 before caving in to the day and getting up. I watch some TV and finish up writing an abstract I didn’t get done yesterday, then throw some clothes in to wash at the laundromat and settle in to my favorite coffee shop for a ristrettto and some writing.
(I’ve got 45 minutes until my clothes are done: a good amount of time to ponder life.)
It’s beginning to hit me how few weekends I have left in Paris, right as I’m starting to feel like my life here is just life, and not a prolonged vacation. I’ve been waiting to feel this way since I got here, without knowing or having any idea of how to know how long it might take. Unlike any other move I’ve made in my life, this one didn’t come with a built-in cohort of immediate friends, like marching band did for me in college and my graduate program did when I moved to Pittsburgh. For the first time, it was up to me to figure out how I could make the most of my time.
I can summarize my time in Paris so far in 4 stages. One, the excited phase: I’m in Paris! This has been a dream of mine for 12 years, and it’s finally happening! Two, the settling in phase: I’m not on vacation, but everything is great, and I need to enjoy every minute because I realize it’ll go by too fast, anyway. Three, the homesick phase: crap, I’m missing out on a lot at home, and things are moving along without me. Should I really be here instead of there? Did I make the right decision? (Lots of crying and existential crises.) Four, the life is life phase: 5 months in, realizing that it doesn’t make sense to regret choosing one path over another, that life is full of decisions to be made and there are pros and cons to every situation. Taking more initiative to be a part of things and meet people, leading to some really supportive and enlightening conversations with new and old connections. Realizing that even on a highly anticipated adventure like this is for me, it is reasonable – and okay – to have highs and lows, because life is life no matter where in the world you are. (Special shout out to the friend who I talked this out with, after we both had people challenge us on feeling this way.)
If anything, I’m learning here to take every new experience first as a learning experience, and to not judge things because of their differences. I read a quote somewhere once that said that just because things are different doesn’t mean they are weird. This runs through my head here every day, whenever I encounter a new situation, or a discussion among friends on a topic I hadn’t considered from their perspective. These scenarios are not exclusive to living abroad, but being completely separated from everything you’re familiar with has a way of teaching you lessons in a blatant way that’s much harder to experience when you have your comfort zone to fall back onto.
I’m also learning to accept that there will be things I don’t get to do or see in Paris, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t done and seen a lot. My threshold has become that as long as I’m doing something I enjoy, I shouldn’t regret not doing something else that I also might enjoy. That’s also given me permission to stop doing things I’m not having fun with, whether that be leaving a museum without seeing the entire exhibit or not cooking because I’d rather try the plethora of restaurants near my apartment. Life is about choices, and moment-to-moment I’d rather choose the one that will make me the most satisfied with how I’m spending all of my time.
Surprisingly to some, this also means that I likely won’t travel to as many different countries around Europe as I initially thought; I decided early on that I want to get the most out of Paris while I’m living here, even if that means spending from my travel fund to be able to do more. It’s a decision I continue to be happy with for two reasons: one, because living somewhere and visiting somewhere are two very different experiences, and I don’t want to feel the need to come back to Paris as a tourist to do “life” things that I skipped out on while living here; and two, anywhere else I travel to will be as a tourist, whether I go this year or in the future; I know this won’t be the last time I am in Europe.
With a bit under two months left to go on my time here, I’ve finally been able to make peace with the multitude of emotions that I’ve felt at various times over the past 4.5 months in Paris. It’s been just recently that I’ve begun to wonder if I should have applied for a longer fellowship (would I feel more integrated into French daily life if I had more time to get accustomed to it?). At the same time, I wonder if now I’d feel as content with the life I do have here if I didn’t know that I’d get to see my friends back home by the fall. If I’d miss them for longer, would I still want to be here? The truth is, I don’t know. I like adventure and novelty, but I also like to share it with the people who know me, and even with all the technology that permits that from afar, it’s not quite the same experience as face-to-face communication.
What I do know for sure is that this experience has opened my eyes to so many new paths for what the future can hold; it’s only from talking with people – especially scientists – who have done things differently from people I know back home that I even could have conceived of some of the possibilities. It’s exciting and hard at once to have challenged time and time again things you thought were certain about life and your future.
So I think this experience abroad is meant to be just as it is. There are things I’ll be happy to settle back into back in Pittsburgh just as there are things I know I’ll miss from Paris when I go. But such is life: beginnings and ends; middles that change you.
My laundry is done now – more musings to follow on another morning, I’m sure.