At SciencesPo, my university here in France, we’ve just finished our orientation week; a week filled with non-stop socialization from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. After each long day, I’ve taken the elevator up to my floor and walked inside my room to find the deafening silence of my apartment.
The gentle hum of my mini fridge coupled with the rhythmic chugging of the fast train outside my window are the only sounds here. I live in an 18-square meter flat in a student residency about a minute’s walk from the central train station and a three minutes’ walk to the closet bar.
But surprisingly, human voices are few and far in between.
“I found myself questioning my place here. Is this change of lifestyle something I was running toward or was America and its choices something I was running away from?”
Back in San Diego, I lived on campus right by Viejas Arena and was used to loud party goers returning home and musicians’ performances lulling me to sleep. Even in the day, my three roommates would be bustling around and the sounds of a busy kitchen left no room for silence.
This is the first time in my life I am living alone. Nobody to tell me to do my dishes, nobody to ask to turn their music down, nobody to go out and chat with when I need a study break. The night I arrived in France I unpacked my suitcase and personalized my space. About 10 minutes in, I felt this urge, this need, to have some noise other than just my thoughts. So, I turned on my NPR app and drowned my thinking with my favorite reporters’ voices.
In all this alone time, I’ve had a chance to think about the age-old question, “why am I studying abroad?” It’s always different answers when a parent asks you, or friends back home, or new friends here. To explore, to find my passion, to grow and become more self-aware: these are the normal responses. But as I ask myself the question, and you do too, it’s important to be honest about motivations.
Studying abroad for me stemmed from wanting a change. I wanted to get out of America and go to la belle France, or the country I’ve dreamed about since my first visit in 2015. I so desperately wanted to experience something other than America, with its modern cities and fast-paced lifestyle.
I’ll always remember discussing with a French exchange student, who my family hosted, the attraction of America. I was so confused as to why someone would want to come to the U.S., where there isn’t much history, but he said that was the point. He explained to me that living in Europe was liked being trapped in a museum as everywhere you looked there was precedent; there was an inescapable past that Europeans had to live up to and improve upon. In contrast, America was so new that anything was possible.
While I understood his argument, I retorted that this profound freedom in America is exactly what makes me feel trapped. In a land where you can be and do anything, it’s impossible to choose one thing. America the free is the paradox of choice.
So, when I came here with that discussion in my back pocket and my passport in my front, I found myself questioning my place here. Is this change of lifestyle something I was running toward or was America and its choices something I was running away from?
While I have been writing this, the mini fridge hum has subsided and the trains aren’t running, so the only sound is the tapping of my fingers across my laptop keyboard. As I pause to gather my thoughts, that silence invades again and asks me “why are you here?” During my time abroad, I plan to ask myself this question every day and reflect on it as much as possible. I’m not sure I have a good answer yet, but I don’t think I should.
The most important point is to ask the question.
Sarah Karver is a comparative international studies sophomore with a minor in French. She is studying spring semester in Reims, France.