Last week, Danielle at Sometimes Sweet posted about starting a Journal Day. One of my New Years resolutions is to journal more so I think this project sounds like a lot of fun! You can read more about it in her entry over on her blog as well as her first post. Here’s this week’s prompt, followed by my entry.

Everyone has a time in their life they view as a crossroad. Sometimes you can see it as it’s happening, and you’re able to choose one way or another. Other times you may not realize you’re there until you look back, and see what a turning point it really was. This week, write about a time you view as a marker in your life; a distinct place where things changed, for better or worse. 

I stepped off the train in Rennes, France in 2005 exhausted, excited, & completely unprepared for everything that would come that semester. I was entering my third year of University still very much a child & found myself an ocean away from everything & everyone I knew. Everyone says travel changes you; I just had no idea how much it would change me or that it would begin that very moment.

I’d decided in my final year of high school that I would do an exchange to France. I’d been in French Immersion since grade one, but it was on a field trip for my spanish class that I discovered the French, Italian, & Spanish Department at the University of Calgary & made the decision that it was the place for me. I’d actually already applied to the U of C, & been accepted, as an English Major. As soon as I saw the exchange options & thought about taking French instead, I knew it was what I wanted to do. I switched my major & began dreaming of living abroad.

Since French is a rather important prerequisite for living in France, I had to complete two full years of University-level French before I could go on exchange. It would have been easy to give up on that dream. Three years is a long time for a teenager & there were a lot of obstacles standing between me & a semester in Rennes. I couldn’t, & wouldn’t, shake it though & in the winter of 2005 I was accepted to the Université de Haute Bretagne in Rennes, Brittany.

I’m not sure if there was ever truly a crossroad for me. Of course, there were always two options – to go to France or not to go to France – but I don’t think I ever wavered in my decision to go. Sure, there were setbacks along the way – the French are notorious for their bureaucracy. I often wondered if my dossier would ever be considered complete. But one day it was. One day I was saying goodbye to my parents at the airport, my passport with a French visa in one hand & all my important possessions in the other.

I knew that trip would change me, but it’s hard to fully prepare for that type of change even when you are anticipating it. There were lots of things I could never have prepared for (like having my room broken into my first week) as well as many I never thought to.

I’d been warned by my exchange advisor that my exchange experience would be different than anyone else’s that year. Almost every other school in the program would send representatives to welcome its exchange students. There would be no one to welcome me in Rennes. The Université de Haute Bretagne wouldn’t begin classes officially until a couple weeks after I arrived so I’d be all on my own to figure it out.

I knew this going in, but I didn’t really take it seriously. Sure, it’d be a challenge, but I knew French. I could figure it out. Silly teenagers think they know everything. I didn’t consider the fact that I’d be jet lagged. I didn’t know that the school would literally be completely locked down. Google maps wasn’t a thing yet so I didn’t even know what my residence building looked like & wifi wasn’t everywhere yet so I couldn’t double check my email for hints. What did we do before the luxury of constant internet access? (We got lost, that’s what.)

I talked to a lot of people that day trying to find my way, but no one was overly helpful. Here I was carting 50 lbs worth of luggage around a city I’d never been to, by myself, & I had no idea where to go. I was exhausted & feeling sorry for myself.

I finally gave in to how I was feeling. I sat down on my gigantic suitcase in the middle of a sidewalk & let the tears spill over. It was the first time I doubted my decision to go to France. I cried because I felt stupid that I couldn’t find my residence. I cried because I was mad at myself for not preparing for this moment. I cried out of sheer exhaustion. & I cried because I missed my parents.

Thankfully, it didn’t last long & the fog lifted enough for me to come up with a game plan. I picked myself up, hopped back on the metro downtown, & found a hotel for the night. I knew there was no hope of finding my residence that day. I need to regroup, talk to my parents, & go back the next day with a map & an address. (It’s embarrassing to admit this now, but my residence was literally across the street from the metro stop. I’d been staring at it the whole time. You live, you learn.)

There were ups & downs throughout that semester abroad. This was just the first of many not so great moments in Europe. There were also lots of amazing moments too though. I met amazing people from all over the world & made friends I’ll never forget. I also spent a lot of time alone & learned a lot about myself. I often travelled alone. Sure, it was lonely. I sometimes wished I had someone else to share my adventures with, but I also loved the freedom. I had the ability to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted to do it. I never had to compromise. I’ve since encouraged many other people to do the same. I learned so much about myself & saw Europe on my own terms.

I owe a lot to that first trip to France. I learned a lot – about myself, about the country, & about the world. I grew up a lot. & I awakened the need to travel. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I’d stayed in Calgary.

If you ever have the opportunity, be it to travel or live abroad, take it. Take it & run with it. It will definitely change you, & I personally believe it will be for the better.

You can find Danielle’s journal entry over on her blog.