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Studying abroad provides interesting, awkward experiences

October 1, 2015

Hello, my name is Lauren, and I am perpetually awkward. I stammer, trip, and fumble my way through daily life. And for my fist column I had a plethora of experiences that I could, regrettably, draw from.

To look for more specific inspiration for my first column though, I drew from one aspect of college—and of life—that I hope everyone is able to participate in: traveling abroad. In fact, for a class just last week I was prompted with a writing assignment that asked me to talk about just one example of a time when I violated someone else’s space. In all honesty, I had a pretty difficult time just selecting one instance.

One of my most vivid examples was when I travelled to France for the very first time and met my host family for the start of what was thankfully only a week’s stay. For an early disclaimer: I really have no excuse for my awkward actions, because months prior I had faithfully attended monthly meetings to ward off any potential missteps an American tourist might make, but like I said above, it is just in my nature and I can’t help it.

Keeping all these lessons in mind, when the time came to use what I had learned, I completely chickened out. And made a complete fool of myself. So, after a week of being immersed in “French life” with my all-American group members, it came time to finally stop speaking ‘Franglish” and separate into our individual host family homes and into real French life. During the moments leading up to this separation, I would have much rather touched a spider than to separate with my new best friends.

The Americans and the French families came together in an open expanse of white concrete just outside of a large train station. Our two groups converged in a cluster of over-packed suitcases, and, in their case, impossibly skinny and fashionable pants. While our new host families wore bright smiles full of perfect teeth, myself and my American group members were visibly anxious. An important step in our travel abroad experience was just moments away.

In France, it is traditional and the cultural norm to perform the “bisou,” which is just a fancy term for the half-hug and kiss on both cheeks (or only on one cheek, depending on which French region you are in) upon greeting anyone hello or saying goodbye. Even knowing ahead of time of what I was being expected to carry out, I don’t think I really realized what I was about to get into, until it was much too late.

I’m from the Midwest, and never get that close to strangers or really people in general. As I saw my host mom and sister, who are more than a head shorter than me and wearing what I am pretty sure were just large children’s clothes, I approached with quiet and timid French to try and minimize how American-sized I am. Then came the moment when my host mother and I simultaneously began to preform the opening notes of the “bisou”.

Halfway through the first step of this ritual—the hug—I lost my nerve and as she began to draw back to let air-kisses fall on my cheeks, I panicked and just kept hugging her; in fact, I remember tightening my grip, my long arms enveloping her tiny frame as if making her immobile would stall this greeting from happening. My host mom, Florence, eventually drew back (or forced her way) out of my vice-grip stammering in poor, heavily accented English, “What? I’m sorry?” and looking concernedly at her daughter who was trying to, inexpertly, hide her laughter, while my face radiated palpable, red-hot heat. It was a very quiet, jerky, and long way to my new home.

Lauren Simenson is a student at UW-River Falls.