Studying abroad in Paris, France this semester has taught me more than I could adequately communicate in a single blog post, but the most prominent lesson I have learned is one of distance. To be exact, I am currently 3,637 miles away from my home and 3,435 miles away from Tufts University, where I spent the last two years building a new home. That's a lot of miles.
During a recent conversation with one of my best friends, I told her, in a moment of exhaustion and anxiety, that all of the newness in my life was over-stimulating and causing me to lose sight of what is important, which is, naturally, what I came abroad to find in the first place. I told her that I felt far away from everything, which, considering the aforementioned mileage is an accurate sentiment. However, her three-word response silenced me. She asked, "What is important?"
It has now been three days since that conversation and I still have no answer to her question. How can I not know what is important, but I can know that, whatever it is, is escaping me? Like many psychological sensations, this one lacks a certain degree of logic. If I have learned anything in my life as an aspiring writer, it is that logic and reasoning are overrated. Some things cannot be explained or rationalized, but they can still be valid and true. Drawing on personal experience and the accounts of others, I conclude that the human experience is largely about finding what is "important" in our lives, but we can rarely identify it and we seem to be constantly losing sight of it. What is the cause of this phenomenon and how can it be?
Distance. Distance, by its very definition, is a force of disconnection. In my case, it is a disconnection from the familiar and, in a way, from myself. I would be lying if I said that pieces of myself are not still at home with my parents or at Tufts with my friends and professors. I feel disconnected from so many things that are important to me, but are they the only important things? Had the question, "What is important?" been posed to me last semester, the simple answer would have been as follows: What is important is the ten-page paper due next week that I haven't started; it's helping my friends work out problems in their personal lives; it's making a "Songs That Drunk Girls Like" playlist for that frat party next weekend; It's waking up early to deliver the Tufts Observer on Monday mornings; it's reserving my corner table at the Rez, Tuft's student-run coffee shop, where I can get bottomless chai tea lattés, but cannot seem to get a job.
These are but a few things I considered important before I came to Paris, and a few of them remain important, but not many. Of course, our perceptions of what is important in life will be ever changing, but it feels like the greatest flux takes place during the formative years, when we are in constant motion and when distance is at its most relative. Over the last three years, I have not spent more than six months in a single location. That degree of transience cannot last forever, and neither can this feeling of disconnection from myself, I am sure of it.
Studying abroad is one of the hardest things I have ever done. No amount of advice or warnings could have prepared me to feel like a complete outsider in a city where my language skills are mediocre at best and my knowledge of French pop culture is nonexistent. These handicaps have all but completely ruled out my potential to befriend French locals, so the bulk of my friends are from my study abroad program, which happens to be a non-Tufts program. This means that most of my peers come from the same American university, which I neither attend nor know much about. Though I have made a few wonderful friends who share my interests in exploration and travel, I am still an outsider to them. I am as disconnected from their university experience as I am from the French university experience. I have never felt as far away from my life--and, transitively, from myself--as I feel now, which is likely why I feel like I am losing sight of what is "important," or, at least, what was important. But maybe this feeling is simply that of getting older, of outgrowing our trivial concerns and, ultimately, outgrowing ourselves.
Studying abroad is like shedding a skin. That skin is a protective layer comprised of memories, personality traits, and ideals that we have accumulated and surrounded ourselves with, so that we may never forget what is important in our lives. In shedding that skin, we expose ourselves to the big, bad world that lies outside our bubble--if you are between the ages of 18 and 23 and fortunate enough to study abroad, you likely live in a glorious, microcosmic bubble that, with luck, may never pop. But studying abroad is an exception; you remove yourself from the bubble, if only for a few months, and have to face a world of things that you do not know and cannot do, and you face it alone. If at all possible, embrace this loneliness because, without it, we can never know its opposite.
Distance is a powerful force and it will control us if we let it. Studying abroad feels like being in a long-distance relationship with myself. Half of my heart is at home, where it will always be, and the other half is here, in Paris, trying to figure out where the hell I fit in a world without microcosmic bubbles and politically correct class discussions. Studying abroad is the toughest love that you can give yourself because it forces you to reevaluate everything you thought was important and realize that feelings of disconnection are natural byproducts of new experience and are fodder for new connections, which we will spend the rest of our lives creating and relying on. Moreover, studying abroad has reminded me that the truly important things can never be lost. They may be just out of reach, or they may be thousands of miles away, but they are there. If they are not there, then they were never important in the first place, and that's okay too.