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There’s nothing quite as sobering as moving to a new city and realizing that you don’t know anyone. And in that moment, you begin to question where you are, what you’re doing, and whether or not you even know yourself.

It’s a quarter till one in the morning and I’m walking back to my dorm from the Escargot, rubbing my hands along the sleeves of my sweater, trying to fight the brisk night air breeze that was biting at my skin. The pathway is dimly lit except for the lamp posts illuminating the cement road between buildings C and B, which would soon be blocked off for the start of a years worth of renovations. My phone buzzed in my hand, and I quickly looked down at the screen only to find a notification from Facebook.

So-and-so and 21 other friends will be attending Tacos and Tequila tonight in Austin. Let them know if you’re attending!

I clicked the home button and shoved my phone deep in my purse, picking up my pace as I noticed the darkness dissolve with every step I took. In the distance I heard male voices howl, whistling and slurring some words in French before being interrupted by the sharp shattering of a beer bottle. It was as if you could slice the air with a knife, the silence being the loudest noise around me.

Moments later I arrived at building B, running up the four flights of stairs to get to the third floor (oh yeah, in Europe the ground floor is level zero and I lived on the European third floor, which is equivalent to the American fourth floor). I knocked on my apartment door and was greeted by my parents. My dad began by quickly briefing me on all of the organizing he did in my room: where he installed my tea kettle, how he moved my bed to face alongside the window, and how he hid some emergency cash along the inner lining of my desk drawer.

My mom enthusiastically handed me a brown, glossy gift bag, which I reached in to and found two beautiful diamond earrings along with a certificate of authenticity, entirely in French. “This is your early birthday present, since we won’t be here to give it to you then,” she would say. I swallowed back my nervousness and indulged in the luxury of my present, paying no attention to the reality of the situation– that my parents were about to say goodbye to me as I moved to a new city, in a new country, in a different continent. Realizing the time, two hours past midnight, we exchanged kisses on the cheek and my dad prayed in a hush tone as he embraced me for one last time (a tradition of his every time I leave to travel).

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Game day in Austin, my new apartment, and my Dallas normal.

This was it. A rush of excitement reverberated through my bones, amplified by the hoots and howls which slipped through the cracks beneath the balcony door. While I was high on the adrenaline of being in a new country, a numbness sat idly in the back of my mind as I realized that I was on my own. That’s when the sobering silence began to seep in and I recognized the reality of the situation. I sat down on my bed and looked up at the moon through the large panel of windows along the wall. While I harbored a fear of losing myself in the commotion I felt relief knowing that that we all look up to the same moon. Swallowing my doubt, in that moment I knew that everything I would do was solely dependent on me. All that I was so certain of and with all other drivers aside, I’d control the reigns of my life and it would be up to me to make the most of all that would greet me in the new year.

All the sudden change and movement around me transformed into a state of constancy. My forever in the moment would soon deviate into a fond memory. As every day would pass, I would overwrite the uncertainty I’d face and discover my normal with the people I’d spend all of my hours with.

In the past year, my life turned into finding my new normal in a new city for an X-amount of time before having to move on to the next. The immediacy of every new setting sunk into my life, making that very moment in my life become my default, my new normal– square one. In France, waking up and walking down the street to Building T for class was my new normal. Waiting outside the Catacombs in the slicing, Paris night air for the 1:30 am shuttle from the city back to campus. In my home away from home I had found my new normal and in those fleeting moment, it felt as if nothing would ever change again.

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My 21st birthday in Paris.

A milestone of my life was turning 21 while I was living in France. At dinner at Paris’ Le Georges, to my surprise the waiters poured in to our private room with trays of sparkler shooters and velvety chocolate cake alongside a scoop of a ice cream and cannoli. As my friends sang happy birthday, I burst into tears and then to laughter. It only takes an instant to know something, and as my being trembled with emotion, I was overcome with the reality that I had found my new normal with the people I’d call my best friends.

As months passed, the excitement funneled into an anxiety obsessed over how the streets I’d walk and the people who I would talk to every day were only to exist in my life for a short amount of time before I’d have to move on to the next chapter. The honesty of being on my own rushed over me like a gradual intoxication. I thought my new normal was the definition of who I was, and when it came time to leave, I would have to leave behind who I became during that that part of my life.

It only took me 21 years and four months to realize that I was wrong.

Two thousand sixteen has been the year that I’ve lived mostly out of a suitcase and a carry-on. I’d start my year by leaving behind my second home, Austin, in hopes of finding myself eight thousand one hundred and ninety three kilometers away in the outskirts of Paris. Fast forward five months and traveling through 19% of Europe to when I arrived back in Houston, my hometown in Texas. Four days later, I’d make Uptown Dallas my new home and where I’d spend the entirety of my summer as an intern. After 9 months away, in the middle of August, I’d move to my new apartment in Austin.

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Wine on the Champ de Mars, Dallas skyline, and DKR Stadium at UT Austin.

I didn’t fully understand the concept of finding myself in my normal until this past summer. It’s a June, Saturday morning in Dallas and I lay in my bed, facing the large windows which overlooked Turtle Creek Boulevard, exposed to the beaming sunlight and white noise from outside. The silence rang in my ears as I wished so dearly to assimilate into my new city and clutched to the remnants of my old normal. Just a few days ago I was taking the RER into the city and drinking wine until the early hours of the morning. An hour passed of scrolling through my Instagram feed before I became cognizant of how my new normal wouldn’t come on its own. It would come when I dared to find myself in my new surroundings and in those individuals around me. I would look to spending time with others, not to mask a fear of being alone, but to discover pieces of myself through the relationships I’d form. Soon after, I quickly found my new normal in Dallas. I made the strongest friendships with some people I want by my side for the rest of my life. They made made me realize my worth, my purpose, and where I am in my life. As a young woman living outside of my comfort zone, I found that my perception of finding my “normal” was entirely skewed. I was so caught up in the momentary aspect of uncovering my normal that I overlooked how every experience and every exchange would form my person. The things you find in yourself stay with you even after you transition between your current routine of ordinary. You invent yourself in the different cities you travel to and the different people you meet. Your life should be spent finding yourself, and there’s never an end to who you are. It’s a puzzle. Everywhere you go and everyone you meet uncovers a sliver of who you are. The image of who you are in any given moment doesn’t prescribe all that you have yet to discover about yourself as you move on to the next part of your life. It stays with you and mends you in ways which may not be obvious in the present.

As my senior year begins at the best university in Texas, I reflect on the decisions I have to make that will contribute to forming my new normal picking a full time job, potentially moving to a new city, making new friends and leaving the shell of my comfort zone. Every time I leave for somewhere new, I find my routine in that new place and call it my normal. I’ve been using the word normal throughout the duration of my post, though this past year, my impression of normal has changed. There is no such thing as normal, it’s the extraordinary that we align ourselves with to challenge our journey. The excitement that comes along with our lives lies within finding yourself in the various opportunities around you and not confining yourself to your current idea of normal.

Episode 7: Paris, Je T’aime

To quote Charles Dickens, “what an immense impression Paris made upon me.”

I left the states unsure of what I’d find in Europe. I hadn’t ruled out the possibility of living my very own Lizzie McGuire moment, nor had I expectations to become fluent in French in just five months. Well, the latter isn’t entirely true. In retrospect, I’m shaking my head at how easily I was able to navigate the city using the limited French vocabulary that I learned in elementary school. My novaturient wishes were to find myself in the places I would explore, the scents I would inhale, and the people whose words and energies would stimulate my thoughts.

Packing my life into four suitcases, I bookmarked the states in my past and set off to see the grand trouvailles that would decorate my life for the next five months. Let me tell you this in all honesty– I was not disappointed.

I could write you a  novel with all of the tales of this semester, detailed with every inside joke and conversation that made me love the people I spent my travels with. Like that one time, rather every time, when I over-packed my carry-on past the 10kg limit allowed and had to give some of my things to my friend to keep so I could board the plane inconspicuously. When we celebrated the beginning of our study abroad and my 21st birthday on the first floor of the Eiffel Tower (and when Justin Bieber was having dinner at the table across from us during my birthday dinner). Those long, Tuesday night dinners at Napolitain and passing notes in 3-hour classes. And the countless amount of times my friends picked on me for trying to capture the perfect candid photo in front of national monuments and world heritage sites. Oh, how could I forget that time we went to an FC Barcelona match and spent the night on the cold floor of the airport waiting for our 7am flight?

The people I met on this trip, and the memories we shared, will stay with me forever. Words fail to express and detail all that happened in the course of five months. I’ve filmed several vlogs on this trip, and my final of this series will be around my home in Paris. I easily took the city for granted, not filming most of my adventures in the city. However, I filmed my last two days in the city of lights and some of my dear friends sharing their favorite things about the city. Because this project was the born in the midst of late night study session at so last minute, I was unable to film everyone that I wanted to (you know who you are)! But nonetheless, they made this trip what it came to be.

This is the final chapter and concludes concludes my study abroad episodes as I’ve written and filmed for you. Now, almost the middle of June, I’m in my new home in a new city, looking forward to spending my summer interning, meeting a whole new ocean of people, taking daring opportunities, and making more unforgettable memories.

I brought y’all to Paris, now come with me to Dallas.

Episode 5: Not Homesick

The final weeks prior to my exchange, I felt a hunch forming in the back of my mind about the complexities involved with living in a foreign country for five months. I thought about a lot of things. My Type-A, over-analytical self thought about having a hard time assimilating in country with a primary language I don’t speak, where “s’il vous plait” and “merci beacoup” could only get me so far. Then I thought about transportation: I’d have to take the Metro everywhere. Growing up in big-city Houston, where the city is so spread apart, everything is just a ten minute car ride away. I even thought about making new friends while keeping in touch with those from home. But the heaviest thought I harbored was that of homesickness.

Let me tell you a secret. I’m a family gal. I have an older sister who I look up to every day, I have a selfless mother who time after time puts my wants and needs before her own, and I have a loving and supportive father who gives me the world. But that’s not the secret.

Growing up I was in Girl Scouts, you know, camping in the wilderness, “do a good turn daily,” PTA-moms turned troop leaders, and the beginning of being your own businesswoman by going door to door and selling cookies. Well rewind to the first part, camping in the wild in the middle of nowhere, Texas. For the longest time I was horrified to go to a sleep-away camp because I thought if I wasn’t under the same roof as my parents, I couldn’t sleep. I know, logic, right? For one or two camping trips I went all-in with that strategy, staying up all night and begging the sun to rise again so that I could go home. For several years in elementary school this continued. I wanted nothing to do with sleepovers at my friends houses, Girl Scouts became a daytime hobby, and my bed was the only place I’d feel comfortable sleeping.

Fast forward to college where I go to school in a different city, travel on my own to different states, and do things like sign up to live in France for a semester. I didn’t think that I’d get homesick, but because I had heard horror stories of culture shock and homesickness, the idea festered in the depth of my thoughts.

More than half way through the semester, I find that I haven’t been homesick quite yet. I think it’s because I’ve found a home here in Paris, even though I’m just over 5,000 miles away from Texas. I love my white room with wooden paneling, twin bed and white comforter, twinkly lights at the rim of my wall-length window, and PSG flag at the door of my balcony. I’ve found a home in the way that I wake up thirty minutes before class and mosey down to T-building, where I more often than not run into friends along the walk over. I’ve most importantly found a home in the incredible people I call my friends, those who I most likely wouldn’t have met in my lifetime otherwise. It’s hard to be homesick when I know that I’m blessed to be in the position I am. I’m living in France for five months, where traveling across Europe is one cheap-plane ticket away. I’ve quickly realized that it would be selfish to be homesick.

I’m not homesick, but I’m sick. Like actually cough-cough, “where’s my medicine?”, sick. Who would’ve thought that before I became homesick, I’d just get sick. It’s kind of ironic actually, and kind of lame at the same time. It’s times like this where I realize that I took for granted the fact that the doctors office is two exits down the highway. Just prescribe me some meds doc, I’m over this. But it’s France, and the doctor is most likely away on the weekend, and maybe even on Monday because they feel like it. It’s Saturday night, my friends are out clubbing, and I’m laying in bed being sick. Until I get my medicine I’ll be resting and drinking lots of fluids. But at least I’m not homesick, right?

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When you’re sick in Paris. Courtesy of the MacBook Pro Photo Booth image backgrounds. Nailed it.

Episode 1: Not In Texas

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Overlooking Istanbul, Turkey

Upon my departure from the states, the very first thing I noticed was the diversity of language that chattered around me. My initial reaction was utter amazement yet recognition: I had committed to a four month exchange program in a country whose language I’m all but familiar with, so naturally I would be forced to continually interact with the language barrier. While I travel quite often, I have never felt so estranged until the reality of it all hit me. What I was experiencing was just a side effect of culture shock, having left the familiar comfort of Texas and onto a four-month experience across Europe.

On the first leg of my flight from Houston, I sat next to a kind German lady who was traveling back home with her eldest son. Though we didn’t share a common language, we were able to connect through facial expressions and hand gestures. Every so often she would sprinkle a few words in English to the conversation, to which I would respond with excitement while registering how little I knew of her native tongue. Having crossed the Atlantic Ocean, I was now in Frankfurt and said my farewells to the lady as she wished me luck on my journey. Despite traveling alone and having abandoned my native tongue in the last few hours, I felt at ease in the foreign land, having known that her wishes for me were a part of a universal language. That is, the universal language where love predominates and there is supreme value in caring for your neighbor no matter your differences.

After a 3-hour layover and a 3-hour flight, I was finally in Istanbul: where I would meet my parents for a day and a half stay in the beautiful city. Not to my surprise, I was greeted by the same language barrier, this time in a country I had never been to before. Rolling along a black carry-on, I navigated my way through the Istanbul-Ataturk airport, relying on pictograms of arrows and suitcase symbols to find my way. Fast-forward two hours, I was reunited with my parents and we set for the hotel. While I could recount my story of exploring Istanbul with my lovely parents, the majestic Blue Mosque, the many friendly dogs wandering Sultan Ahmed Square, and seeing snow for the first time in 2016, that’s not why I’m writing to you today.

What I experienced was more than sightseeing. While I was far away from home and out of the loop on social media (the means in which I communicate with my friends), I was able to see what I normally would take for granted. Let me explain what I mean. In the states, the comfort of being able to communicate to anyone and everyone comes as second-nature. Whatever I need, I can express with mere words, not much stress would resonate on expressing myself through facial cues and hand gestures. Admittedly I am one to talk heavily with my hands, waving them out and about to express with enthusiasm what I’m trying to say. While this comes naturally to me, I could still express myself just as easily without using my hands. Therefore, it’s natural to take for granted the ease of communicating using a single-tool: words. In France, I lack the luxury of talking my way through a situation, as I don’t really speak all that much French. These past few days I’ve been relying on other tools to communicate: hand gestures, facial expressions, and the occasional sprinkle of French in my English sentences.

I’m now sitting in my room and reflecting on my day. At the Massy-Palaiseau metro station I lost my day-pass ticket and found myself stranded at the other end of the “sortie” turnstiles. I looked through my purse, unzipping and double-checking every pocket for the tiny piece of paper that would permit my exit of the station. Two men on the opposite side of the turnstiles watched me as I nervously shuffled through my belongings. Moments later, one of the men handed me his Metro card, motioning for me to scan it in order to exit the turnstiles. I took it from him and immediately thanked him in French, as a massive grin formed on my face. This little act of kindness echoed in my thoughts for the rest of the evening.

I was reminded of the kind lady on the plane who wished me luck; though we didn’t share a language we shared a feeling, rather, a moment in time where human nature reigned and complete kindness was the universal language. I thought to myself how underneath the different social orders, cultural contexts, and actual language differences, we all share a common ground in the way that we look out for each other. This sliver in time made me reflect on how beyond our physical differences, human nature is a cycle of shared common experiences, and the language barriers we come across are just the translations of that experience. The many different languages on this planet merely translate the underlying actions and desires we harvest. There’s love, hate, kindness, jealousy, envy, hope, compassion, fear, sympathy, and empathy to name a few. Though those are just words, the feelings and actions attached to the words are shared among the billions of people on this earth.

I’ve been in this beautiful country for just over a week and my fear of the language barrier has dissolved into appreciation. I’ve become friends with Americans across the states, Argentinians, an Australian (whose accent I could listen to all day), Brazilians, Canadians, two lovely Irish ladies, Italians (“maaaaa dona”), and Spaniards. I can honestly tell you that at all times I’m surrounded by people whose stories, languages, and experiences are extremely different than mine, and I am so completely thankful for that. The richness of all that surrounds me reminds me of how grand our world is and how there’s so much left for me to discover.

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My bottom line is this: don’t let the language barrier scare you. Sure, it’s a little overwhelming at first. But look beyond it, look beyond the words and look at the actions beneath them. Words are just translations of actions and actions are universal. We all share the same language, and that’s the language that will open your mind and feed you experiences.

I decided to combine yesterday and today’s adventures into one as it marked my last day in Paris and my first day in Rome. On Sunday morning, we started our day with breakfast at Angelina’s (right down the street from the Louvre) where I ordered the Angelina breakfast, complete with French croissants, pastries, sunny side up eggs, and rich Angelina hot chocolate. I could barely drink a quarter of the hot chocolate because it was so rich and velvety, but it was definitely something worth trying!

An hour later we walked over to the Louvre where, of course, we spent the next 30 minutes trying to get a good picture with the building and the massive triangle. Around the Louvre there was an abundance of French troops stationed to ensure the safety of the region as the Je Suis Charlie peaceful rally was occuring nearby.

Outside the pyramid at the Louvre!

Once we took our photos, we headed into the Louvre. I broke off from my friend and my sister and I set off to find Mona and check out some Islamic traditional art. I had seen the Louvre once before and after seeing D’Orsay’s collection, believe it or not, I honestly prefer D’Orsay to the Louvre. The Louvre had more Medieval and Neoclassical art and artifacts, where as Impressionism and Post-Impressionism were prominent at D’Orsay. Additionally, D’Orsay was far easier to navigate!

At sunset, we visited the beautiful Eiffel Tower. The tower was closed for tourists as the rally was occuring and the troops that would normally guard the tower were required elsewhere. For dinner we went to the adorable French cafe near our hotel and then set sail for the Seine river tour. Aboard the tour we saw all of Paris’ great sights and learned a bit of history in the meantime. Though unfortunately, Sunday night was the coldest night yet, and being on the Seine made it that much colder!

Today we said goodbye to Paris by doing as the Parisians do and we went to Ladurée for breakfast. I’m speechless as to how amazing my omelette was and how beautiful the interiors of the boutique and tea room were.

Enjoying pistachio macarons from Laduree on the way to the airport!

After breakfast we left for Orly airport and took off for the true city of love, Roma! We enjoyed a lovely Italian dinner complete with champagne and pasta. Now its 1 am and I’m hurrying to type this as I’ve a long and fun day ahead of me tomorrow, ciao!

The beautiful sunset on the plane ride to Rome, leaving Paris.
The beautiful sunset on the plane ride to Rome, leaving Paris.

My third day in Paris began with the standard sunny side up egg and necessary cappuccino. Fifteen euros later, we left for Notre Dame. After waiting in a long line, I was able to step foot in the church (for the second time in my life) and be completely taken away by the beautiful stained glass and ongoing mass. I was fortunate enough to write a little prayer and add it to the massive box full of prayers from people of around the world. We took a couple pictures (no flash, of course) and headed for Montmartre, particularly Sacre Coeur.

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Before we climbed the many steps to the top of the church, we stopped for Nutella crepes. I made use of my limited French knowledge and ordered, “Je voudrais une crêpe Nutella s’il vous plaît.”

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Hundreds of steps later I emerged at the top of Sacre Coeur, where I saw a beautiful 180° view of the metropolitan city of Paris. Inside the chapel pictures were prohibited, but you can simply imagine how beautiful the architecture is.

Click the image for a detailed view of Paris.
Click the image for a detailed view of Paris.

We walked around Montmartre where my friend had his portrait drawn while I sat in a French café, sipping on vervaine tea. Shortly after we visited the Nespresso and Lindt stores at Operá where we sampled chocolate. We concluded our evening by walking in the brisk French night air and enjoyed drinks at two French pubs, Le Pub de Saint-Germain and Le Pre.

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Subway station in Montmartre, just outside of the Notre Dame.

I woke up this morning at 8am and hurried to get ready because of what awaited me just 30 minutes out of Paris: Château Versailles! But first, of course, we had to stop for breakfast crepes and cappuccinos at the Café down the block from our hotel.

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My delicious Parisian breakfast on my first day in Paris.

To begin to explain how decorative and overwhelming the Château is would take hours. But envision this, everything that you’ve seen in your history textbooks is propped right in front of you, as every inch of it as elaborate you could imagine. Walking up the cobblestone pathway, I felt the history seeping from the walls of the château. Every room served a unique purpose (oft seeming repetitive, rather symmetrical) and was orchestrated by one of the many reigning kings of France. But to walk within the château and hear the history behind it all was truly such a valuable experience.

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Louis XIV’s statue outside the gates of Versailles Palace.

In all of my history classes, I’ve always had a fascination with the French Revolution, and Versailles is home to its beginning, with the storming of the château. While walking through Marie Antoinette’s bed chamber, I learned of her timely flee from the château as it was stormed by angry mobs.  Here, Marie escaped through a secret door in the chamber.

I also greatly admired the delicate and elaborate panneling in all of the rooms, each bearing the image of the sun, King Louis XIV’s emblem. Completing my tour of the Palace, I walked down through the jardins, breathing in the smell of the juniper trees and crisp winter wind. As I imagined how it was during the time of the French monarchy, I felt history come alive all around me. I would highly recommend visiting the Palace, as it’s something I will cherish forever.

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Inside the majestic hall of mirrors in the Palace.

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As I was leaving Versailles, my friend noticed a Tex-Mex restaurant at the corner of the street. Not even a Mexican restaurant, but TEX-Mex. In the middle of VERSAILLES, of all places.

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I spent the evening enjoying the company of my friend’s family’s home in Northern Paris for traditional fondue and champagne. Now it’s 2 am and I’m laying on my bed as I type this out, only dreaming of what tomorrow will bring.

Bon soir! #JeSuisCharlie