The shaking started when I stepped off the train. I couldn’t tell whether it was from the cold or the wind or whether it was from the idea of being left in a foreign country for six months. Over and over on the way from Atlanta to Paris, I asked myself, “Who authorized this? Who thinks this is reasonable? Does anybody understand what’s happening? Are you really letting this happen?” Even as I walked the streets with my mom and my uncle who can’t seem to walk on the right side of anything, I wondered whether anyone really knew what was about to happen, because if they did, they wouldn’t let me go through with it.
But we got on the train to Lille with the tickets I bought from a French website. We packed the luggage with the things I chose to bring, with a backpack I bought for this purpose a year ago. We checked for the things I had worked so hard to get– the visa, my documents for school, all the emails and hours of meetings and tears and stress and money and here I was. On the platform in the place whose guide I had bought. I couldn’t even wonder if I had thought this through, because I had hours’ worth of spreadsheets in my many-tabbed folder. I had saved every email, every receipt, printed every piece of paper I could think of and then I printed and saved copies, and then I’d printed copies of the copies and gave those to my parents. There was no way I could say I hadn’t given this thought, because I had thought of little else for the past three months.
So I was here. Actually. I could walk on the streets and smell the dorm and talk to the kind ladies at the front desk and ask them to slow down and then ask them to repeat whatever they said. Few people spoke English but they loved to practice. They heard my American accent and began to reply in heavily-accented English. I considered these interactions failures on my part, but there were a few people that never even looked twice. So I could speak it. I really could, and not just theoretically.
It wasn’t until the morning of the second day in Lille, when I discovered peanut butter in the international food aisle, that I realized what had caused the shaking. It wasn’t that being here was ridiculous, because it was just like D.C., but with a less complicated metro and a different language. It was the idea of being alone. Without my mother, my family, everything I know. Without peanut butter in its rightful place. I realized I’d been worried about the wrong thing all this time. It wasn’t about the distance or the time difference or the fact that I have always thought I am an idiot. It was that I, alone, on my own, by myself, would surely drown.
My mother could sense this deep, aching dread in me because it was causing a heinous breakout of acne on my face. When my skin gets bad, my mother knows I’m stressed and my skin was worse than it had been in years when we sat down to our last meal together.
The waiter at the restaurant that my bumbling uncle had found was harried and overworked and thus there were long intervals between wine and food. After her second glass of chardonnay and the end of my first glass of Saint Joseph, my mother and I got nostalgic and laughing. We talked about how people experienced music in their day, and I explained the nuances of texting etiquette. But after the appetizers, entrées, and coffee had all been wiped off the face of the earth and my annoying uncle had excused himself in the middle of a conversation with my mother to go to the bathroom (much to her chagrin), my mother turned to me authoritatively and I knew another speech about how I was going to be fine was coming.
She looked me in the eye. And she said, “You were the only one who went to summer camp.”
I looked at her. And then I remembered, all at once, the summer camp that I had found online years and years ago, and had begged to go to because I had never been to a traditional summer camp before. I convinced my parents to let me go two hours away for a week or two. Camp Toccoa was a great camp, I remembered it well. Singing in the communal showers with my friends, rolling my eyes at the kid who was too good at archery, forming a canoeing powerhouse with my friends Imani and Xavier.
“Vinnie went to Boy Scout camp. Sofia and Sarah went to Girl Scout camp. But you were the only one who went to a camp where you didn’t know a single person,” said my mom. “When I went back to the car after I dropped you off, I turned to look and make sure you were okay, and you had already gone up to the first person you saw and said, ‘Hi, how are ya?’ And I thought to myself, ‘Yeah. She’s gonna be fine.'”
“I haven’t thought about Camp Toccoa in years,” I said.
“And when you went to D.C. the first time, it was the same,” my mom continued, on a roll. “I mean, you didn’t know anybody. You were two hours away by plane. Your dad and I were worried because we realized we had to get you from the metro to the school and from the dorm to the metro but when we asked, you had already figured it all out. And you made a ton of friends there.”
“That’s true,” I said.
“And when you went to D.C. this last time,” she said, as if this really proved her right, “you knew Mallika but you didn’t know what you were doing in the internship. And you got that internship all on your own! You figured out the housing, you got yourself around, you did everything just fine. You were just fine. And this is no different.”
She took a sip of chardonnay that said, so there.
“I guess I never thought of it like that.”
But I remembered the moment she was talking about. I remember turning away from her as she walked toward the car and thinking, It’s now or never. I steeled myself. I think I knew this would be important later, like if I did this now, I would do it forever. walked right up to the first person I saw and introduced myself. That was Imani, and she introduced me to Xavier. We’re friends on Facebook.
So tonight, when I heard voices coming from the kitchen, I knew I had a decision to make. I could take my new pan in and wash it as an excuse to meet whoever it was, or I could stay in my dorm room and watch The Good Place on Netflix until I called my dad and fell asleep. I put on mascara and filled in my eyebrows and put on some lotion and then I steeled myself. I remembered Toccoa. It’s the same, I told myself, except in a different language. I opened the door, went to the kitchen, and met ten people sitting at the table, eating cassava and drinking beer.
“Hi,” I said in French. “How are ya?”
And I knew I’d be fine.