ESSAY BY MATT WAGENIUS
lessons from a study abroad
In the modern language, chance has two culturally accepted ideas. We can either take a chance or something can happen by chance. I have found the most meaningful moments in my life occur when those two definitions overlap. I took a chance and spent the last semester abroad in the south of France and during my time there I met some amazing people and had some life-changing experiences.
I did a full immersion program, which means that for the length of a semester I was away from my friends, family, culture, language (most of the time), and everything I have ever known to be normal.
I found two things to be true: first, taking away everything else, I was left with who I truly am. For those of you who spend years and years soul searching, I’ll save you some time: channel your inner Eat, Pray, Love, move to a foreign country alone and your true self will come out in no time. Trust me, it is terrifying at first, but you just have to embrace it.
The second thing I found is that when I was vulnerable and opened myself up to new experiences, amazing things happened. The following is my attempt to take the three most significant people I met abroad and apply their lessons to my life.
Brigitte Bonnefoy, or Madame Bonnefoy as we would address her also using the formal vou form, was my language professor for twelve hours a week. She was very intimidating, but not in the sense that she was scary, I could tell she just had experienced a lot in life and knew confidently what she did and did not want. She was short, middle aged and always wore black, usually accompanied with a fur scarf and a matching hat. She was the typical chic south of France woman of that age and always looked at everything from people to objects questioningly as if she was trying to find its deep ulterior motive.
One day in October, we were going over a past tense that doesn’t exist in English and I was having trouble grasping the idea. She realized I was having trouble, so she stopped the whole class and went back over it with compassion and care, as she did for any students who were struggling.
Madame Bonnefoy was my supplementary language teacher, which in U.S. terms could be considered my main teacher. On top of that, I had alteiers or electives taught by other teachers. For the most part, I found French teachers prefer to teach with a stiff hand, which, as someone with a strong personality, didn’t sit particularly well with me. My French teachers were not very sympathetic to problems with the language and would talk condescendingly if I didn’t instantly understand what they were trying to say. My theater teacher called me a “catastrophe” and failed my first test. Madame Bonnefoy had heard about this after she saw the paper on my desk. She stopped our class, marched out, and yelled at the other teacher.
Madame and I grew very close over the semester. She was crying when we were saying goodbye and we used the informal tu form.
Anna Nazarova was a student in my language small group taught by Madame Bonnefoy. Anna has a major badass vibe and I think she is the coolest person I have ever met. Anna was born in St. Petersburg and moved to San Francisco when she was 10.
I always saw her in class but was too intimidated to talk to her. About half way through the semester, we sat next to each other for the first time and started talking. It didn’t take long to realize she had the same sarcastic dry sense of humor that I did, so obviously we became best friends.
I think we were still on our ‘friendship fence’ when she asked me about Mt. Sainte Victoire, a mountain just outside of Aix that I had climbed with some other friends earlier in the semester. I enjoyed doing it so much my first time that I suggested that we climb it together. We spent the entire time talking about the future and struggles back home. As with all good conversation, time melted together and we got to the top in what felt like only an hour.
She is stylish and insanely artistic, and has an attitude about life that I found intimidating while at the same time, envied. Anna provided me with a backboard for my thoughts. I could shoot ideas off of her and she would support me and together we would plan how to make our ideas possible. She was the first person in my life I felt like I could share anything with. No matter what, she was there to encourage me to be myself, despite how terrifying that might be.
Coming down from the mountain, we decided to go out to eat as a reward. We went to this little Italian place in Le Centre-Ville. They had divine homemade pasta and tiramisu. We continued to go there, at least twice a week, every single week. Our relationship truly blossomed over food. Slightly embarrassing, but what more could you want?
Jazz is a very talented and well-trained artist who has stared down the face of adversity almost her entire life. She lived all over Europe, speaks five languages, and is currently teaching herself Mandarin. Jazz ran a student bed and breakfast out of her 14th century Venetian house, just north of Piazza San Marco and that’s how I met her.
The following is a conversation I had with her one afternoon in Venice. My travel mates were exhausted; we had been traveling for a week across Italy so they were taking a nap in our suite while Jazz and I shared some of her favorite tea. We were able to speak mostly in French since it is her native language.
Before Venice, Jazz owned an art shop in Paris. She lived in Paris for a long time, but one day packed up her things, sold her art shop and moved to Venice. All the money she had was wrapped up in the art shop, which naturally sold very quickly in the fast moving Parisian arrondissement she was located in.
Jazz was in Venice, patiently waiting for her money to come. But it never did. Jazz is from the Central African Republic. As a minority immigrant, her buyer saw her as an easy target and scammed her for her money and property. But what could she do? She had no money to sue them with. Jazz moved on with her life. Trying not to harbor any hate.
Venice is known for its beads and jewelry, Jazz jumped through hoops and worked to pay for and get admitted to a renowned art school there. She practiced and practiced and was considered a star student in her class. Once she finished her training and earned her degree, she was approached by one of the jewelry companies and instead of being offered an artist position, she was offered a cleaning job.
After again being rolled over by racism, she moved on and tried to not let it bother her. She knew there were good people out there. She kept her upbeat and positive attitude and opened her bed and breakfast. She has since spent years welcoming hundreds of people into her home.
Close to the end of our conversation, she told me that we were the last guests she would ever have. She was packing up her things and moving back to Africa later that week. She is going there and opening an orphanage and school.
Like I stated at the beginning of the story, when I was abroad, all these experiences just seemed to blend in with all the other seemingly unreal things I was doing. But now that I am back and have had time to reflect on these experiences, these are the lessons that stood out.
Madame Bonnefoy showed me how little acts of kindness can go a long way.
Anna taught me that it is ok to love myself. She also showed me that I shouldn’t have to live my life in fear of being ridiculed for every thought and issue that comes across my mind. Just that little reassurance does wonders for a person.
Jazz cares so much for everyone, including people she hasn’t met, that she is willing to give up everything and risk her life to help. In just the few days I spent with her, I could feel love and compassion coming from her in everything she did.
I started this essay by talking about two types of chance. But the type of chance that I want to finish with is a third type and that is the chance of something happening in the cosmic sense. If one little thing had changed, I would have had a whole different experience and maybe never would have met any of these people. If I had chosen a different university, if I would have gotten a few more questions wrong on my placement exam, if I had chosen a different hostel, my experience could have been very different. Be happy with where you are right this moment, reading this, because if one little thing would have changed, you might not be, and you might not have met the greatest people or had the greatest experiences of your life.