Wednesday, July 3, 2013

When Worlds Collide

I'm back in Oregon!
But before I even begin to write about how I feel, let me talk about my last two days in France.

Evening of Thursday, 27 June: 3 days left

Like I had predicted, I did cry the previous evening after leaving my school friends. We dined at The Sultan, our favorite kebab restaurant, and then spent some time in the bar called Le Theatre. After they left, I tried to regain composure as I walked over to my first host family's house. They noticed that I wasn't feeling a hundred percent, but they understood after I told them I had just said good-bye to my school friends. I was fine talking to them, but found it a little difficult to repress tears. Shortly before 10 pm, I bade them good-bye for the last time. I cried for a bit, but knew that I wouldn't lose contact with them and will see them next time.

Friday, 28 June: 2 days left

Wow, the ten month anniversary of my arrival in France!
François stopped by to pick me up at around 8:30, accompanied by David, a Taiwanese boy set to leave on June 30 as well. After saying good-bye to my room, my host parents, my grandma, Soleman the dog, my bike, and finally Marie, I was ready to leave. There were no tears this time. Not even as the car drove past the sign that indicated we were leaving Parthenay. I could only think of the exciting two days I had ahead.
So what were the plans anyway?
Well, François had some work to do up in Beauvais, so he was to take us up with him to spend the afternoon. Just after leaving Parthenay, we passed by Matthieu the outbound's house. François said, "Say bye to Matthieu!" then proceeded to explain to David how Matthieu would be going to my district in the USA. In his usual humor, he added, "Yeah, he'll be in Amanda's district... he's brave!"
The country roads morphed into highways, and all of a sudden, we came to a crossroads where several highways merged together, and up ahead I saw tall buildings indicative of a modern big city. For some inexplicable reason, I was convinced I was about to enter Portland. I felt at home. Then I looked northeast of where I was sitting, and I saw the top of the Eiffel Tower. If possible, I felt even more at home as this huge smile stretched across my face.
Before going off to work, François dropped David and me off in Beauvais. There, I was able to meet up with a Rotary friend from Brazil, a girl named Marcela who was on my two bus trips with me.

I was extremely happy to see her again. She and I have so much in common, and I really enjoy her company. She wants to be a doctor too, and was also a city girl placed in the country (though for her, Paris was only a 30-minute train ride away). We could talk forever! What's pretty amazing is that we speak in French, and if passerby heard us, I doubt they would think we were foreign. One day I'm certain we'll see each other again, as our similar dreams become realities unfolding before us in the course of our lives. She's already invited me to Brazil ;)
After she had to catch her train back, David and I spent some time waiting for François in this pretty park.

After he picked us up, our next destination was
(Yeah, again, for the 7th time on exchange. Nope, that was never gonna get old.)
We ended up staying at his sister's studio in the 12th arrondissement. There were no real beds, and I had to sleep on the floor with a couch cushion serving as a mattress in the work room, but I had no complaints at all. Not with a view like this from the balcony.

Taken sometime past 10 pm. The sun sets late in France in the summer!
We had pizza for dinner sitting on the balcony, and I gazed over the rooftops of Paris while doing so, unable to believe that when I would wake up the next day, it would be my last day in France. Understandably, I had a hard time sleeping that night. But it was also because I had something amazing planned for the next day and I was just super excited...

Saturday, 29 June: the last full day, 1 day left

Just to put it bluntly, I was to spend my last day of exchange, the supposedly saddest day, in the happiest place on Earth, otherwise known as Disneyland. 
I'm not going to go through how I got this to happen for myself (if you really want to know, go ahead and ask me), but to cut a long story short my friend Lucien (an outbound) had invited me to go, and it ended up working out!
Before the day started, I told myself that no way was I allowed to cry or feel sad throughout the day. I was to live my last day beyond the fullest I could, so that my memories of it would only be great ones; in no way would I tell stories of my last day in France consisting of, "I cried so much." A day in Disneyland made that task too simple!
The adventure began right away, in the morning. There was a light showering of rain as I walked towards the Gare de Lyon, the very train station I first met Sari in on Eurotour. I had some time to roam around the train station before I descended down into the metro. I looked for the platform of RER A, the train that would take me directly to Disneyland. Through text correspondences, Lucien and I tried to organize ourselves so we'd sit together on the same train. But that was a daunting task, considering how quickly the doors open and close at each stop, and how long the train is. All I knew was that he was somewhere towards the end, so when the train arrived, I randomly boarded one of the last trains.
And he was there!
No, I'm just kidding, my luck isn't that good.
Not really knowing what to do, I took a seat, then received a call from Lucien telling me he was in the last car and that I should find him there. 
Unlike the TGVs, the metro trains don't permit their passengers to go from one car to the other...unless they leave the train entirely.
Well, the thought of going down from the train car and running all the way to the end was a bit disconcerting. I could easily not make it and have the doors close before I reached the last car, depleting any chance of spending the ride to Disney with Lucien and delaying my arrival. But once it stopped again, I told myself now or never, and hightailed it down the platform alongside the RER. I didn't know where to get on, and I couldn't differentiate one car from another, but then just up ahead Lucien leaned outside one of the doors and signaled to me. So scared the doors would close, I picked up speed then jumped into his car, laughing in disbelief that I pulled it off and that we were reunited. 
His cousin Olivia was with him too, and I took my seat across from them.

At around 9:40 am, the train arrived in PARIS DISNEYLAND!!
After running out of the train in elation and validating our tickets, we first entered Walt Disney Studios, one of the two parks of attractions. 

Lucien and me at the entrance
Since Lucien and Olivia had already been to Disneyland several times prior, they knew where they wanted to go. I was happy to tag along wherever they wished. Our first stop was the Tower of Terror.

I had never done that attraction before, so I had no idea what to expect other than it was some kind of freaky elevator. That and it related to the Twilight Zone. 
We strapped ourselves in airplane seat style into the large elevator. First, the doors would open in front of us to some haunting and very believable scenes such us this one.

(credits to Google Images)
Then the hallway would fade into the classic Twilight Zone scene with the stars in pitch blackness. The voice of the narrator in the background would bid, "Au revoir, le monde réel!" (Good-bye, real world!) and conclude his story of the unfortunate people who disappeared to the twilight zone in a similar elevator by saying, "Cette fois, c'est vous" (This time, it's you).
An instant afterwards, the elevator plummeted at unimaginable speeds.
The first time that happened, I had not been expecting it, and consequently screamed for dear life. 
Well, I screamed for dear life every other time it happened, too. I was genuinely terrified. There were moments when everyone would be suspended in mid-air slightly above their seat, and were it not for the seatbelts, everyone would have shot straight up. 
Needless to say, I had a whoppingly good time. 
I walked out and was giddy with excitement, ready for more. Our next attraction was Aerosmith's Rockin' Roller Coaster, an indoor roller coaster.

While in the queue, I saw people in the roller coaster cars being sucked into a void, and I got really nervous all of a sudden. Nothing prevented me from getting in, however. That day, I was game for anything.
As this was my favorite ride (we ended up doing it three times that day), I did a bit of research on it.

The ride's blueprint 
The launch (the cars getting sucked into a void) would propel the passengers forward over a distance of 25 meters at a speed of 0 from 90 km/h in 2.8 seconds. Throughout the ride, there are two inversions and one spin.
What makes indoor roller coasters so sweet is how surreal they feel. When it's not darkness all around you as you careen in impossible directions on the tracks, there's all sorts of colorful lights that don't really light the way so you know what to expect next, but rather, illuminate the sensations of being jolted left and right, while being continually blasted forward. In an indoor roller coaster, no one else can see you; not other passerby in the park, not even the person next to you, not being able to turn their head. It had been a while since the last time I rode a roller coaster, and I remembered how much I love them. I loved the feeling of not being able to control the speed at which I moved forward in the roller coaster car, but at the same time feeling so to scream, free to laugh, free to let it all out, all without inhibitions.
As its name connotes, certain songs (like this one) by the rock band Aerosmith played in the background throughout the ride, which I feel only made it even more exhilarating, a practically perfect experience. After having done that, rock music serves no better purpose to me than the background of such a ride as the Rockin' Roller Coaster.  
Well I'm not going to detail everything we did in Disneyland in order, but I will just post more pictures from the day!

Olivia and me at the entrance to the park

Disneyland Paris is 20 years old!

Lucien and me at the gazebo entering Main Street USA

Main Street USA

Main Street USA

Bon appétit!

Lucien and his Mr. Potato Head creation

They say exchange changes people...
(This is a reference to one of my nights in Poland:)

Us in front of the castle

Who's happy to be in Disneyland?? I AM!

We rode two more roller coasters that day: Space Mountain in Discoveryland, and Thunder Mountain in Frontierland.

Me with Wall-E and Eve!

A cool picture of Space Mountain's interior that I found
Space Mountain is a rather special roller coaster to me because it was the one main ride I did my first time to Disneyland, in Hong Kong in 2005. After the ride, we bought the photo, so I decided to do the same thing this time. (It doesn't show in the photo, but I was in the very front my second time!)
Here's a comparison of the two photos...

Coincidentally, I'm in the same spot in the two photos. 

The entrance to Frontierland, credits to Google Images :P

Thunder Mountain, as seen from the porch of the haunted mansion

Who doesn't like cannons? ;D

It seems cliche now to write about how roller coasters, which I really enjoy, are analogous to an exchange year, but I am rather fond of cliches, so here you go.
Roller coasters, like exchange, are experiences that are completely out of the ordinary. The idea of them is scary; not everyone can do them. As you strap yourself in, or go to the airport to leave, you may think you are completely out of your mind. You may even think of turning back. But you have no choice but to continue. 
The ride starts. There are ups and downs. Instants where we feel like we can't breathe, where we feel like we've hopelessly lost control of our lives. And then there are times when we feel like we never want it to end because we're having so much fun.
However, the one thing I feel like connects a roller coaster ride to an exchange the most is the fact that both go by incredibly fast. 

We left Disneyland at around 7:00 pm. We boarded the RER together, but I was to get off one stop before Lucien and Olivia. Although I had succeeded in maintaining my cheerful demeanor throughout the entire day, now that it was over and my final day in France was drawing to a close, I couldn't help but become a bit sad.  My eyes became teary however hard I tried to prevent them from becoming so. And when Lucien asked, "The next stop's yours, isn't it?" the state my face was in was probably evident, because then he said "Aww, don't cry!" (at this point it was all in French) 
That probably only aggravated it. Ten months in France, ten months in the country I had dreamed of living in,  and there I was on the last day of it all, about to leave a good friend again, about to officially end the wonderful day I spent with him, the day that signified the end of my exchange. Of course I couldn't prevent myself from crying. Lucien proceeded to hug me and say, "Ne pleure pas. Tu retrouveras tes amis. Tu vas voir San Francisco! Et tu reviendras." I held on to his words comforting me at the nadir of the day and tried to let them lift my spirits, but all I could do was smile sadly at him and say, "C'est fini."
"It's over."
As the train pulled in at my stop I got up and made my way through the crowd, and just before I descended, I looked at Olivia and Lucien, a few tears still streaming down my face, and flashed them the brightest smile I could muster as I waved them farewell.

The day wasn't completely over just yet, though. I decided I wanted to see the Eiffel Tower one last time. 
So once again, I found myself at the Trocadéro, standing in front of the symbol of the country I hold so dearly. It was a view I had seen many times, except that time would be the last for a while. 

Photo credits to meeee!
I stood gazing at it for a few minutes, reflecting on my exchange. I thought of how far I had come, literally and figuratively, to eventually find myself there at that point, in front of what is one of the most renowned and recognized monuments in the world. I thought of everything I had been through, and how much I've grown as a person. It was a poignant moment. Finally, I whispered under my breath, "Je reviendrai. Je te promets." And I turned around and left without looking back.

My life is pretty dramatic, isn't it? It should be made into a movie one day ;)

Anyway, I would say I made it through the day in Disneyland and the hectic metro unscathed, except just as I was about to enter the apartment building I was staying in before the automatic-locking door closed, I ran to try to catch it but ended up tripping on the disabled persons ramp, falling flat on my face and scraping my knee in the process.
(This would happen to me...)

Sunday, 30 June: The day of departure.

I didn't get very much sleep my last night in France. I slept at about 11:30 pm and had to get up about 4 hours later. Extremely tired, I got ready like normal, and François and I left the apartment for Charles de Gaulle airport. Getting through check-in as usual was a drag, and after that François and I looked for somewhere we could get a bite to eat. He ordered a croissant and asked what I wanted, and I took a mango passionfruit smoothie. He asked if I wanted anything to eat; I said no, and he asked, "You don't have the heart to eat?" and I just shook my head. We took our seat in a waiting area, and he handed me a piece of croissant. I took it, realizing I wouldn't know when I'd have a real French croissant like that again. And then I started crying freely. François got up and sat beside me and talked to me to console me. He said things like, "Yes, it's very difficult. But this is growing up. It's a page that's turning, it's all a part of life. And the fact that you're really sad only means that you've had an amazing year and that you have succeeded your exchange. Think of what's waiting for you on the other side, you have your family. It's true that this year, you've made a new family, a family scattered around the world, whose doors are open for you whenever you wish. And to see them again, it's really simple. All you have to say is, 'I'm coming.'" However simple the end of his statement was, it was true.
Shortly before 6:30 am, I went through one more tearful good-bye, but made sure that as I entered the security gate, François' final image of me would be of a happy, determined girl. And so like I had done the night before, I waved at him smiling broadly, hoping that it would convey how grateful I was to him for the extraordinary year that, at that moment, had finally ended.
From that point on, I was no longer a Rotary inbound in France.

The traveling time (Paris - Amsterdam, Amsterdam - Portland) wasn't too long. It was really quite pleasant. I spent most of the plane ride writing in my journal about my final day in France, sleeping, and speaking with my seatmate, a college professor.

Now it's time to talk about...

Sunday, 30 June: The day of arrival. 

I could barely contain my excitement as the flight tracker in the airplane counted down less than an hour until touchdown. The sky outside was a clear blue, a great improvement from the overcast, abnormally cold French weather, and they had announced a beautiful day in Portland. That was what would be welcoming me home, and I couldn't wait!

Finally, at around 11:45 Pacific Standard Time, I disembarked.

I went through immigration without incident, other than the officer at the end of the line telling me, "Welcome home!" After that, I had to collect my luggage. They weren't out right away, so I had to wait a bit, but eventually I found my two pieces of luggage. I then walked over to the customs officer and handed him my form. Just then, I randomly turned around, and behind me stood a nice-looking, cute boy who looked about my age.
Ooh la la.
He and I smiled at each other, and the customs officer directed me to the right. The boy was directed in the same direction as me, so considering we both had Portland as our final destination, I turned around and asked, "Where are you coming from?"
His answer was the best possible answer I could have imagined.
I don't know why I instantly thought he was French when he could have easily been an American in France, but I asked, astounded, "T'es français!?" (You're French!?) and he perked up and answered, "Oui! Et toi aussi?" (Yes! And you too?)
That answer made me giddy. I told him I was practically French, and explained how I was just coming home from my exchange year. I found out that it was his third time in the Portland area for an extended period in the summer. We boarded the airplane shuttle together, and we kept talking. He's here for three weeks, staying with a host family, before he returns to his home in a suburb of Paris. I gushed about how happy I was to be speaking French with somebody, and he seemed equally happy to talk to me.
What an unlikely encounter. Right as I was about to continue my normal life in Oregon, right when I thought my French-speaking days were over and would be over for an indefinite amount of time! It just goes to show, exchange never truly ends.
After he left the shuttle, he waited for me and helped me with my luggage, which I found super sweet. We walked side by side to the greeting area, where I saw my friends gathered on the edge of the barrier with signs for me. They waved at me, and I waved at them back and ran to join them, and unfortunately, this is where the story ends with the cute Parisian boy.
(Unless I find him somehow, of course.)
I later found out they were confused as to who was walking with me, since they expected me to be arriving alone. Hah. Leave it to me to be full of surprises all the way till the end.
(Well, joke's on them, because one of the signs did say, "So where's your French boyfriend? ;)")
Anyway, more importantly, here are some pictures of my arrival!

My friends and sister holding up the signs, on their way to the arrivals quay

Even my friends who said they couldn't make it were there... :P


A family pic.
Take a look at this one taken from the day of my departure for France...

27 August, 2012. 

I was VERY happy to see everyone again.
My first day back was a day I had been planning for months, and I knew that for lunch, I wanted to eat at Five Guys Burgers and Fries, one of my favorite restaurants ever. (My French friends would make fun of me when I told them that the first thing I'd eat once back in the States would be a hamburger.)

Stuffing my face

I'm the one savoring her drink

Back at my house, I was reunited with my lovely lizard, Quigley!

He's so fat and cute.

All in all, it was a very satisfying day. It is the evening of Wednesday the 3rd of July as I write this (yeah, I've put off this entry), and so far I'm content to be back in Oregon. :)
I won't end this blog entry here, though. There's more to write. (Like if I meet that cute French boy again!! hahaha as if.) Until then!

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