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La Beaute

Catherine Davidson

I slid down between two plastic cushions that made up the little blue chairs that were neatly set up around the waiting areas at the Chicago International Airport. One of the hundreds of pins that covered my dark blue blazer, which identified me as an American Exchange student, poked me in the back and I shifted myself to a more comfortable sitting position. The other American exchange students bustled about around me as we all waited anxiously for our boarding call that would lead to our year long adventure, I observed the people around me. I examined every detail, every crevice of the airport as I tried with great effort not to think about my family. I closed my eyes and tried to memorize that exact moment. This was the moment I had waited for since the third grade. Our call to board resonated over the loudspeaker and an instantaneous rollercoaster of emotions forced tears to my eyes. Before I entered the hallway that would bring me into the plane, I turned around and said goodbye to the Chicago International Airport that would be the last contact I would have with America for a year.
On the airplane I thought about how much work had led up to this moment. How I had dreamed and begged for this opportunity and my intense excitement quickly turned into anxiety. I was on my way to a place I found to be a completely different world from home: France. I had been to France once before with my family. The experience had been pleasant, but we had been tourists and I yearned to be a traveler, a real one, like the guys on the travel channel. I loved France since the third grade after an extracurricular Spanish class failed to intrigue me. I wanted to be graceful, sexy, and sophisticated like French women were rumored to be. I wanted to explore the exquisite food and the picturesque countryside. I wanted to roll French "r"s off my tongue and shop! At nine years old I wanted all of this so I started teaching myself French, and at 16, at the end of August, I was going to put all the words and rumors to a reality check. Did I have expectation? Yes. To me, France was beautiful and that is what I hoped I would find. It was a place I had studied that seemed to encompass everything I wanted to be and everywhere I wanted to be. I understood it on paper. Would the real thing live up to my expectations? I was afraid... of disappointment.

For awhile I was very American, with a thick accent, weird fashion sense, and a different concept of time. I was awkward but loved my host country. There were not as many shopping trips into Paris and I had hoped there would be; the French in general, spend pennies compared to Americans, especially on clothes. I will admit, there were French men trying to seduce me, waiting around every corner it seemed. That stereotype holds true, but they were not the hunky romantic ones from the movies that every girl dreams about. School was in French and quite hard to follow. The students were a bit cold and never really approached me the first semester. The sisters in my host families brought me tears on occasion. Was I disappointed? Had France suddenly become an ugly nightmare out of a beautiful dream? No. Every day I chose to walk to school instead of taking the bus so I could observe the rolling green countryside and breathe in the fresh air. I would take bike rides with my host parents on Saturday mornings, and the little villages we passed by looked like they had been taken from the books I had studied from back home. We would pass by ancient castles that had either been abandoned and were under the care, but sometimes not at all cared for, of the government, or they had been renovated by private owners. Either way I found these sights to be very magical, like out of a story book, a dream. I made amazing friends at school over the second semester, and have continued to keep in contact with them today. I asked for more help in the classes I had trouble following and to be realistic in the expectations I held for myself, and others. I learned to appreciate the perpetual tardiness of every French person to every place, meeting, appointment, or dinner. I learned that in come cultures, building relationships with anyone takes a long time. Above all, I learned that experience is the most important knowledge to understanding. I fully appreciate the beauty in something, one must first understand. I shed more tears on my way home from France than I did on my way there. France had become the most beautiful thing in my life. I had built solid relationship that made me feel happy. I learned to communicate with the French people, in their language, with their accent. I enjoyed French cuisine every day, three times a day or more, although I think it is nearly impossible to go to France, as a traveler or a tourist, and not appreciate the French cuisine. By the last few months of my exchange, I was able to climb out of my type A, rush, rush, rush, American mentality, and relax. This was beautiful. For once I could look at my surroundings and use all of my senses to appreciate the life around me. It was beautiful...timeless.
I developed a very dear friendship with a woman in France named Henriette. She was a bit older. In fact, she may have been forty years older than I. Her husband was a member of the exchange program that sponsored my visit. She lived in my village and I would go visit her occasionally. She was Italian of origin and had come to France during the Second World War, where she met her husband, who is French, and married. We would drink espresso in her gardens, she taught me how to make tiramisu and we would spend hours chatting about our lives. One thing I noticed about Henriette was how she still had an Italian accent when she spoke French. Her accent was an indicator of her background, which made her unique and I found this intriguing. Some of the adults involved with the exchange program I was visiting through had been giving me trouble about my American accent. They thought I should have lost it pretty quickly and when I hadn't, they couldn't understand. I had been a little upset that I did not pick up the French accent more quickly and was frustrated that I did not live up to the expectations of my hosts. Henriette didn't care what anyone else thought of her. She had been in France for forty years and still had her accent, and was proud. She was of Italian origin and people could tell, so what? I loved the coolness about her and realized that I did not have to fit into the "French mold" in order to be French, more or less. It was the things that made me different that made me special, and I know that might sound cliché and unoriginal, but when you're in a foreign country for an extended period of time, you want to fit in. It is not always in your best interest to carry an accent, but even though I continued to try and improve my accent, I did not force it. As much as I was a Francophile, I accepted the fact that I am American and didn't try to change that any more.

Beauty is not only skin deep. Beauty is everything; it is what surrounds us that makes us feel great. Beauty is individual. It is not what someone tells you it is. It is the way you feel, and how you make others feel. Don't get me wrong, beauty is also skin deep. I think beauty should be both aesthetically, mentally, and emotional pleasing. My experience in France taught me that the sadness in leaving my home country, and the joy in experiencing my new one, as well as the deep sadness I felt in leaving my new country were all beautiful. My experience moved me in ways that are really difficult to describe. I had grown, and had become the traveler I had wanted to be. I interacted with the pictures of the book. I developed relationships, I tasted, I saw, I immersed myself in what I loved and I found beauty. Henriette was beautiful. We keep in touch. Her talent and individualism and uniqueness are untouchable. The experience in France forever changed my outlook on life, who I am as an individual, and has taught me to slow down, appreciate, wrap your surrounds around you and enjoy, experience, live, find beauty.

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