On Saturday, I watched the French countryside fly by on the train that took me from Nantes to Paris, from where I will fly to the United States on Monday. On the tray table in front of me sat my journal, the (French) Harry Potter book I’m currently reading, some tissues, and a packet of cookies which my host mother had given me as we prepared to leave for the train station.
That morning, we loaded up the van with my luggage. Mysteriously, I had almost twice as much after my four months in Nantes. My possessions and gifts accumulated along with the experiences and changes which I myself accumulated. As we drove through Nantes, I said goodbye to places as we drove past them.
I have fallen in love with Nantes. Nantes is an industrial city, and a historic center of trade. It has a chateau which I find beautiful, but it is not like Versailles or the Louvre, shining and gilded. It is a fortified chateau, with strong high walls. But the wonder of Nantes is not in sparkling things. Instead, it is in the way the city has embraced and its history. One of my favorite bars, the Lieu Unique (literally the Unique Place), is housed in the old factory of the LU biscuit company.
It was LU cookies that my host mom had handed to me before heading out the door. When we got to the train station, my host dad had to stay with the car. I gave him a hug, before I walked with my host mom into the station. Looking back at him, I felt the first real wave of reality hit. I knew I was about to leave.
Somehow, we got all of my luggage onto the train. Then, I went back onto the platform with my host mom. She told me how they were proud of me, and what a great semester it had been. She reminded me that this is not the end, and that I will be coming back. When I do, they will be there to welcome me back.
Sitting on that train, I have rarely felt so empty and so full at the same time. Not long after the train pulled out of the station, I took out the cookies. The package was the last thing my host parents had given me. In that box was what felt like the most tangible link between me and them as I was ripped out of Nantes by one of the fastest trains in the world. That box had been picked up off the shelf by her hands, and then given to me. Opening it and taking out a cookie, I sprinkled crumbs on the journal page where I couldn’t seem to pour out my feelings.
My host mom and dad had told me what progress I’ve made in French. They’ve noticed I search for words less, speak more fluidly, and ask fewer questions (though as our program director Mme Heinry can tell you, that certainly doesn’t mean I no longer ask questions). As affirming as it is for them to notice my progress in French, perhaps more important is that I feel it. I feel closer to and more at ease with the language. For the first time in my life I have been able to read Harry Potter in French and actually immerse myself in the world. All the other times I tried, the language made it more of a chore than a pleasure. I have also had several delightful moments where I realize I’m reading something in French without realizing it. I’m not fluent. But I’ve gotten much closer.
But on the train, the Harry Potter book just sat on the tray table. It was too soon. Reading is an escape and a comfort, but it wasn’t time to detach from the sadness of leaving. My train seat was facing backwards, towards Nantes, and I didn’t yet feel the need to look forward. Instead, I went between unsuccessfully trying to express myself in my journal and eating more cookies.
I irrationally wanted to preserve them as long as possible—this last gift from my second family. But at the same time, I couldn’t stop eating them. Not after having walked away from my host father and into the train station; not after having watched the distance between my host mother and myself increase through the windows of the train. And so, I ate the whole package within a half hour of my departure.
Once finished, the package was empty, but there were crumbs everywhere. And those crumbs are not going anywhere. Not when I get to Paris. Not when I get to the hostel. Not when I get to the United States. They will always be with me.