Thursday, August 25, 2011

Then Versus Now

Thirty-three years ago this month, I left for Europe to study in France’s Loire Valley. I was a 22-year-old recent college graduate and I was terrified. My parents drove me from our home on Long Island to the sleek, futuristic, TWA terminal at JFK and waved goodbye as I boarded. I was keenly aware at that moment of departure how very alone I was, heading for a year in a foreign country where I knew not a soul. This time, I’ll be leaving from Dulles (another winged, Saarinen-designed terminal), will have Joe at my side and terror will not be an issue. Anticipating our impending departure has me thinking about the differences between the young adult me and my 55-year-old persona. An interesting exercise...

On the epicurean side, when I arrived in Tours, France, wine was of no consequence to me. But little did I know that where I chose to study would inevitably lead to my fervent French palate for wine. Crisp, citrusy Sauvignon Blancs from the Loire quickly became my wine of choice and they remain my favorites today. Living in the Loire Valley, “the Garden of France” according to the French, also turned me into quite the foodie. It opened my eyes (and alerted my taste buds) to French cheeses, pâtés and savory galettes, all of which I could afford on my grad student budget. I first arrived in France a food and wine neophyte and I now return an aficionado.

Sticking with the superficial aspects, I probably need a few more creature comforts now than I did at 22, although I can still rough it when I need to. While I’m looking forward to the hostel stays on our itinerary, if only for nostalgia and the funds they’ll free up for fine dining, I doubt we’ll be camping out in railway stations or on the floors of trains overnight, as I often did as a student. The aches and pains that come with being 55 and the time it would take to recover from sleeping on a park bench will hold us hostage to having a proper mattress beneath us every night.

On a deeper level, I’m going back to Europe with a more fully developed personal core. I know what’s important to me and what I want from our year abroad and for the most part, I know how to get it. Understanding my own needs, how I’ll react in a variety of situations and to different stimuli, and being able to tune in and listen to my inner voices, are gifts that have come with the years. Such understanding certainly wasn’t apparent in my twenties.  When I left for France the first time, I was unaware of what would await me when I returned home, a source of great anxiety, especially during the last few months of my year abroad. I was like so many other liberal arts graduates: clueless about what to do professionally and desperate to rescue my self-confidence from a ditch. How do you enthusiastically pursue a career when you have no idea what you’re looking for? This time when I return, my goal will be clear: get myself a teaching position and become the best damned French teacher I can. There's great comfort in knowing what you want and having a goal, neither of which I had in 1978.

Finally, the biggest difference between leaving then and leaving now is that after this departure, I’ll miss Chris and Caroline more than words can say. Thirty-three years ago I had no idea of the unyielding heartstrings that would bind me to my children. And even though I will ache for them physically at times, having them to anchor me to this world is such a blessing. At 22, I had no such tethers and I will be thankful every day that I have them to miss while we’re away.

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