September 2015. I’m sitting at the airport with my headphones on, waiting for a flight all alone, conscious of the weird stares I keep getting from those sitting around me. My hands are trembling, questioning my life choices, yet I am trying to keep calm reminding myself why I made them. I decided to go abroad to France as an exchange student for a year. Maybe it was a rather impulsive decision from a teenage crisis that comes from the frustrations of an ordinary life, but at that point, I was pretty certain about it. After all, the world had not fell apart yet… at that point, no one would have (yet) imagined Brexit or such imminent rise of far-right nationalist parties, or maybe one could have, but the world was certainly different from what it is today. My head is a frenzy as I board the flight, I am subconsciously conscious that I am venturing into the unknown. A country I barely knew, a language I barely speak, living with strangers.
I spent 3 consecutive days in a seminar learning about cultural shock, adjustments, assimilation etc. 72 hours of the major cultural concepts to prepare what was ahead, and how to overcome it. Yet, nothing could have made me anticipate the way I felt as I walked into this new country, crossing the physical boundaries but also the cultural ones.
Day 1. 350 teenagers from 70 countries. Chaos ensures. And so does intimidation and apprehension. But as that initial shyness goes away, comes the curiosity and delight of finding people so diverse and different yet in the same shoes as you. Another kind of family. One that starts with a timid hello and finishes with lifelong bonds.
Day 2. First day of school. As the only non francophone, checking the dictionary every five minutes and answering randomly stereotypical questions about my country, I wonder if I’m more alien to them or they are more alien to me. This isn’t easy to accept; there are days when it’s more frustrating than the others to not “fit in”. And it is this frustration that teaches you to integrate, to be accepting of others opinions no matter how different, to be tolerant. Eventually, you realize that, francophone or not, we’re all just teenagers trying to manage life and high school.
Day 265. As I take the train to Lyon, I realize that I’ve forgotten my young discount card at home and bought a discounted ticket anyways. As the ticket checker arrives, I explain to him in every way possible that I do have the card. He is not convinced. He asks me for an identity card to address the fine. As I hand him my passport, he has a weird expression on his face. Flabbergasted. He realizes my passport isn’t french. He compliments my faint southern accent and bids goodbye. As guilty as I feel for not having bought my card, I feel just as proud for not being mistaken for a foreigner.
All these experiences, and all these people taught me a lot of things, but the most important lesson of all was to look beyond what I see. It’s funny how we are conditioned to categorise like sex,nationality or religion, separating ourselves as per different ideologies, when we all bonded by same essence of being human beings, all of us. And when you experience this foreignness, you learn to remove those imaginative boundaries in your head, and see what is really important is humanity.
Some time later I moved to Italy. Ventured into the unknown yet again. I immediately felt at home, because I realize at this point, what causes these differences, and this alienness is our own apprehension in our own minds. Not the physical boundaries between countries, but our intellectual ones. Experience being foreign once in your life, you’ll end up feeling at home no matter where you are. And maybe the world wouldn’t be such a conflict ridden place after all.