Thursday, July 16, 2009

La Transformation

When I read about ModCloth's Terrific Transformations Contest, I inevitably thought about the months I spent in France. Now that it's been over five years since I returned from my extended stay in 2004, I've had the time to really reflect on what I learned during that time and how it changed me forever.

I think the main trait that my stay in Touraine changed about me was my level of maturity. Until then, I had never truly lived on my own. Though I had my own dorm room for a few years, I had never been really responsible for preparing all my own meals and figuring out how to live.

The first few weeks were difficult. I had gone to live with a family who had experienced true tragedy: the father had just lost his beloved wife to a chronic illness followed by a lengthy coma. He was struggling to learn all of the household skills that his wife had taken care of for so many years. He was re-learning how to be a father to his 12-year-old son, who himself was learning how to cope with life as a motherless child amidst the awkwardness of burgeoning adolescence.

Enter me, a somewhat naive 21-year-old college student with big ideas about deconstructing every stereotype that ever existed between the French and the Americans. I truly could not begin to understand what these two men were going through, but I was suddenly thrust into their lives and had to figure out how to make it all work.

The father's expectations didn't quite match the traditional role of an au-pair (he let his cleaning lady go a week before I arrived) and combined with the fact that he was a neophyte at household management and was also emotionally crippled, things did not go well. I had dreamt of coming to France to discover new places and nuances in the language, not to scrub toilets and iron dress shirts.

In short, I couldn't make it work. It was a big lesson in listening to myself and understanding when I couldn't make a difference, or at least not make the difference these people were expecting. I felt like a failure when I informed my host father that I would be moving into an apartment after about six weeks in the house. He seemed almost relieved. I think it had been a strain on him to pretend to be a normally-functioning man for my benefit when he was actually so bereaved and confused about his own life.

But the experience did have its advantages: for the first time, I realized that I was the only one who could direct my own life. I did not have to allow one of the best experiences of my life to be so severely influenced by the misery of an unfortunately tragic situation. Though that sounds selfish, I think it was for the best.

The experience transformed me from a naive girl into a self-sufficient woman. I had to cook and clean for myself; navigate the transportation system; master lingusitic and cultural obstacles and maintain my schoolwork at the same time.

Part of it were successful; parts of it weren't. But I think of that experience as my transformation from a girl into a woman; from a person who'd never left her hometown into a citizen of the world.

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