Study abroad is about being afraid. The Paris attacks have forced me to confront an unexpected fear and allowed me to discover the beauty of France.
A shrine to victims of the Paris attacks, 30 November 2015. (EPA/Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt)
Friday the 13th. I had booked a hotel in Paris for the weekend but changed plans at the last minute to visit friends in Lille.
10 pm. Before calling it a night, I sign on to my laptop to send an email to my mom. Facebook tells me to “Pray for Paris”.
Confused, I check my phone and see it light up with frantic texts and missed calls; 130 dead, a café, a concert. We stay up in front of the television, shocked into silence.
On the morning news, the victim’s faces look like my friends, my host family and my teachers.
As a student in France during the worst attacks since World War Two, I do not want to be afraid — afraid of eating out, afraid of soccer matches, afraid of crowded places. A month later, I am still coming to terms with the attacks and how they have rewritten my experience abroad.
I faced a reality I had only heard of from skimming the news.
When I decided to study in France for a year, I was unaware of how the experience would become as much about understanding humanity as it was discovering France.
Travel is the desire to become lost. Lost in a culture, in a language, in ourselves. I’ve wanted to travel abroad since I can remember. My parents immigrated to the United States from Brazil and Uruguay, and I have always known there were other places to discover, foods to eat and music to hear.
As a traveler, I crave the adrenaline that releases me from social constraints and lets me see things as they are. But when terrorists targeted restaurants, bars and a concert in Paris, I faced a reality I had only heard of from skimming the news.
On the evening of the massacres, scrambling to phone classmates in the area of the attacks, I was horrified, shaken to the core. Even a week later, walking through the city of Rennes, west of Paris, I grieved for those who died a death that could have been mine.
My fellow American students and I underwent a collective loss of innocence, stunned by how our year of dreams and the glamour of studying abroad could be overshadowed by slaughter in the city of light.
The world became one nation.
I began to see differences between reactions to the attacks in the United States and in France. The United States focused on stopping future terrorism and contemplated the potential threat that refugees could pose. France secured its borders and compared the situation to its past war in Algeria.
One nation looked to the future, the other to the past. I glimpsed this in everyday life: the daily rush and coffee-to-go in the United States, versus three-hour meals, the café culture and time spent with family in France.
I thought of my South American relatives, passionate, their emotions readable like an open book, while the French are reserved and build relationships over time. After the attacks, my Brazilian family would have hugged and shed tears. My French host family, on the other hand, mentioned the attacks at dinner, discussed politics and then the conversation was over.
Brazil, Uruguay, France and the United States blended into a confusing, multicolored flag. And as I contemplated what separates our nations besides an ocean, I was struck also by similarities: how we united after the attacks, mourned and offered flowers and flickering candles.
The world became one nation, united in sadness and in love.
Study abroad is all about being afraid.
In France’s moment of vulnerability, I saw beyond the capital’s iconic beauty and learned to appreciate the strength and character of its people.
I saw this in the taxis that offered free rides on the night of the attacks, in the Parisians using the hashtag #PorteOuverte on Twitter to offer shelter to the stranded.
In the woman in Rennes who collapsed into the arms of students holding “Free Hugs” signs. In the drawings and notes to the victims left in center squares throughout France.
I learned that crisis gives rise to acts of kindness, solidarity and bravery.
Study abroad is all about being afraid — afraid of living away from home, of speaking a new language, of being in a new place. If I had not overcome that fear, I would not have discovered the beauty of France and its people.
Giuliana Nicolucci-Altman is a high school student from the U.S. city of Chicago. Currently she is attending the School Year Abroad program in Rennes, France. Passionate about writing, she hopes to become a published author. Her interests include international relations, the environment, new cultures and languages. She speaks English, Portuguese and Spanish, and is learning French.