Friday, June 3, 2011

Final post: a reflection on the last 6 months

I’ve been home in Michigan for almost 2 weeks now, and I’m already getting to leave to Boston for the summer. My parents, brother, and I flew back after our week of family vacation in Paris. Being in one place for more than one week has been very refreshing. It’s also allowed me to reflect on the last six months. I don’t expect to digest everything this fast, but here’s a start.

Surface level things

I think about the experiences I had in France from January thru March, during my time at Polytechnique. I remember…

  • When I first arrived at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris, I tried asking for directions in French. It took me half an hour before I managed to find the exit; and that was after asking for directions in English!
  • Arriving at Polytechnique, being so nervous because I was late to the semiconductor physics class, and finally not understanding a thing during the class.
  • At my first Catholic group dinner, a sketchy looking student with a beard came up to me, and said, “tu es Steven?”. I said yes, and we soon became friends. This student was Alexandre and he became one of my best friends at Polytechnique. And of course, you can find him on my blog anytime there is a picture with food in it.
  • When I got to my first French class too early, I listened to half an hour of jokes, presented by a diversity of English accents- Romanian, Brazilian, French, German…
  • Standing at the organ console besides world-famous organist Daniel Roth, while he played an after mass concert at St. Sulpice Church
  • At the RNCGE : un plateau et un plat chaud et la reste sont en bas ! 
  • When I asked “I’m feeling very sick, do you think I should stay here over the winter break?”, the school doctor told me: “if you cancel your trip to England, you’ll get even sicker!”
  • Going to England, and starting every conversation with “Bonjour monsieur/dadame…”
  • Learning (at least trying) to dance rock
  • Playing violin in a quartet, a school orchestra, and with a professional orchestra, and realizing what a common bond music provided, no matter the level of play
  • Attempting to learn solfege in said musical groups

And of my 1.5 months of travelling afterwards, from April thru mid-May:….
  • 21 cities: La Rochelle, Loctudy, Madrid, Lisbon, Barcelona, Montpellier, Nice, Rome, Venice, Vienna, Fussen, Munich, Berlin, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Delft, Leuven, Brussels, Brugges, Gent, and Paris
  • 20 Trains, plus several more that went accidentally unreported when the conductor failed to check the pass (sh…)
  • Around 11,000km (7000 miles) of rail travel

The best souvenirs

I struggled for few days, trying to figure out what the best keepsakes from Polytechnique, Paris, France and Europe were, so I could pack them for Olin. Then I started realizing that I was already carrying the best souvenirs from my studies and travels: myself. My changed self.

First, it was the little things:
  • I realized it when I went to the local Meijer and couldn’t find comté cheese.
  • I realized it when I sat in a car for more than an hour.
  • I realized it when I met a stranger, and didn’t feel like trying to find mutual friends, interests, or cities inhabited.
  • I realized it when I found saw a public drinking fountain for the first time in months!
  • I realized it when I still had half a bowl of rice while the rest of my family had finished their meals

With my new lens into the world, I also saw more clearly the negatives of American culture:
  • I found myself at a buffet, disgusted with the idea that people can eat a plate of food in 5 minutes, and then get up and get another plate
  • I started noticing how empty the phrases “How are you?”. “Good, and you?” are often asked. In France, these phrases are used less often, but they mean more when asked.

But it also gave me a new appreciation for the positives of American culture:
  • I arrived in O’Hare airport, and found friendly customs officers who smiled at me.
  • Despite the potential emptiness of the phrase “How are you?”, I still like it when minor acquaintances greet me every time I see them.
  • I read Dreams from my Father by Barack Obama, and while my reaction wasn’t “only in America”, I did say to myself, “much more likely in America”.

These are all generalizations of course. Each of culture has positives, and negatives. And many of these negatives and positives are personal preferences. But these keepsakes come up every day, especially during mealtime.

Au revoir!

How can I distill 6 months of classes, sports, music, language, cheese, travel, and above all, friendships into a few pages? I can’t.
Still, I would like to remember and thank the friends who welcomed me throughout my travels:
  • The Golhens in Paris and Bretagne; Jeremy in La Rochelle; Eduardo  and Alexandre (in spirit) in Lisbon; Oliners Ariel, Miguel, Rich in Madrid; Robert in Vienna; Emmanuel in Munich; and Jacques in Delft.

…my fellow travellers
  • Rebecca, who enforced my doctor’s orders and travelled with me to London. Jeff and Xy, who helped me explore Paris. Jeff, for being my cultural and linguistic interpreter through Italy. Xy, in Leuven and Amsterdam. And of course, my parents and brother, in Paris.

...all the quirky, funny, and great people at Polytechnique:
  • Alexandre, Ali, Anne-Charlotte, Camille, Catalina, Chris, Dominic, Guillaume, Helene, Jean-Mathieu, Laurent, Sébastien, M. Pernot, and many others

And you, readers of my blog. You’ve forced me to reflect on and express my experiences at regular intervals, helping me to deal with my culture shock, honeymoon period, and adaptation in France these 6 months. Merci beaucoup
This is my last post for Steven in France, but you’re always welcome to talk to me about these experiences. Perhaps when another adventure comes, I will revive my blog in another form.
A bientôt!


  1. I have really enjoyed reading your blog, Steven. Thank you for sharing your travels and insights!

    We will miss you in Midland this summer!

  2. Steven:
    It is amazing how a study abroad program can totally change your perspective on just about EVERYTHING!! I enjoyed reading your wisdom.

    Cindy Goldbach, French teacher