I am now halfway through my stay in France, as it has been three weeks since my arrival and the start of this program. I am now in Arles, a very charming town in the beautiful, lovable region of Provence. For me, Arles is the perfect mix between young and old, modern and ancient, and big and small. As you may have guessed, a lot has happened and has been happening. In this blog, I could just right about how amazing my life is here and how everything is perfect and fun abroad. But I would be lying. All I can say is that, honestly, my time in Arles has been a rollercoaster. It has had its ups and downs, as life does.
One question I usually get by friends from the United States or my family is if I have been “settling in well” here? In all honesty, I am still settling in. On top of that, this program is only six weeks long, so I feel like I will feel “settled in” by the end. It is interesting being in a homestay. I love my host family. They take me places and want me to soak in the South of France to its fullest. They take me to discover places that they think not many Americans get to discover, like the Camargue region, with all the wild bulls, horses, and beaches. I have never seen anything like it. All that to say, I appreciate having a family that cares for me and wants me to have an enriching time here. This has helped me feel more settled during my trip.
I will also say that the other American students with me in this program have all become great friends of mine. They are a fun group and we are all more or less in the same situation: in a foreign country, having to take classes, and discovering the beauties of Provence. I knew none of them before coming here. We will frequently go out for dinner during the week and take advantage of other events and festivals that may be occurring in Arles (as there are a lot of them here). What I love about this group is that everyone really looks out for each other. We always make sure to say, “text in the group chat when you get home” or “get home safely”. This comraderie has helped me feel more settled in too.
As life does to people, there are times I can get bogged down in worries and problems to the point where I feel like I am not having a good time. One example was when my host family and I had to leave our house for a few days because of repeated nights of gunshots being heard outside our house. This was due to isolated gang fights in the neighborhood next to us. Eventually, my host family had enough and said that we would leave to my host mom’s parents’ house for a few days to get some tranquility and to wait for things to calm down. Even after going to college in Washington D.C. for so many years, I never experienced gun violence so close to me. And who would have known it would have happened in the quiet city of Arles? It was quite scary and unsettling.
We left for St. Etienne-du-Grès, a small town in the countryside. It was peaceful, and my host mom’s parents were very generous. I felt very comfortable there, especially in that crisis. All the program staff were very responsive to us as well, and they always showed, through words and actions, that they were there for me if I ever needed anything. The generosity I have been receiving from my host family and the program staff has helped me feel more welcomed and comfortable during my stay. Even my American friends here would check in on me to make sure I was okay, and it meant a lot. I will be forever thankful for the presence and kindness of all the people I met on this trip.
Since then, the city has been more serene, save for the current photography festival that is attracting thousands of tourists from everywhere. But in the midst of any crisis or problems I face here, there’s an annoying voice inside of me that says, “You’re abroad! You’re not supposed to be sad or scared or worried! Are you even having a good time?”. But I realized this week that this voice is wrong. Part of the experience of being abroad is to experience everything. Not just the good things, but the challenges as well. It is normal to be excited and enthusiastic about traveling and new experiences, and it is totally healthy. It is also normal to be sad when things may go wrong or when we may not be feeling our absolute best.
I have many of those moments here, where I feel down, homesick, tired, or worried. But then breathe, and tell myself, “I’m here, and I will be fine”. Just because you’re abroad does not mean everything has to feel right and perfect. It won’t, because life is not perfect. But imperfections and challenges can be beautiful too, because they make us stronger. We also have the hand of friends and family to hold onto when we might feel exhausted from life’s tribulations. What I know is that, at the end of this trip, I will NOT look back thinking this was a bad experience. I will look back at this trip thinking that it was life, in many different shapes and forms, with new challenges, beautiful sights, great people, and lively memories.
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<p>My name is James Dolley. I am soon to be a senior at The Catholic University of America in Washington DC. I am studying history and French, and also pursuing a Master's degree in Secondary Education. In my free time, I enjoy spending time with friends and family, reading, working out, and exploring the city, especially new restaurants, cafés, and bookstores.</p>