If you had asked me a year ago where I’d be and what I’d be doing right now, I would have brushed you off and said, “Whatever happens happens! I can’t predict the future!” and then I would have continued on, fooling myself into thinking I could ignore the fact that I’d soon have to make important decisions about my future, about college, about my gap year.
If you had asked me six months ago where I’d be and I’d be doing right now, I would have groaned and said, “I just decided where I’m going to college! Give me a moment to breathe!”
Planning ahead has never really been my thing. I’m always afraid that by making definite plans I’ll eliminate all my other possibilities, trapping myself into a corner. What if I change my mind, and I’m stuck, forced to do something I thought I would have wanted days, weeks, or months before but now doesn’t appeal to me? What if, after I solidify my plans, better options come along? And worst of all, I usually just ignore the fact that I even have to make the plans whatsoever until the last possible minute, trying to convince myself that everything will work itself out as it should. Maybe you can imagine what planning for my gap year was like, and how frustrating it must have been to my parents, to whom I’d constantly tell, “Don’t worry, I’m figuring it out.”
Initially, I just wanted to travel. I wanted to see all of Europe. I dreamed of camping under the Northern Lights, drinking a beer at Oktoberfest, and eating a pizza in Naples. I thought I could backpack from city to city, hopping on a train and seeing where it took me. And in between travels, I’d stay for a few weeks at a time with people I’d found through Workaway, a program that enables volunteers to work in exchange for room and board. Not only would Workaway drop me into the lives of people from all different cultures, but it was a way to travel and see the world without spending any money. Are you also laughing at how ridiculously naïve I was!? It wasn’t until I realized that since I am 100% American and don’t have a passport from the European Union, or more specifically the Schengen countries, I couldn’t stay in Europe for more than 3 months without a visa, and the visa I wanted (long-stay visitor’s visa) was too difficult to acquire, that my first dream was crushed.
That blow came in July, but I quickly figured out another solution. I would be an au pair in Paris! It seemed perfect: I would be immersed into a family and forced to speak French, I could get the au pair visa much easier, and the costs were minimal. And yet…I entered the last week of September with nothing on my horizon. None of the au pair companies I’d applied to could find a family for me, which is absolutely ridiculous if you ask me; I’ll admit applying in the summer may have been a bit too late, but I don’t know what those people were spending their days doing because it could not have been searching for a family for me.
I was more stressed in those months than I’d been in high school, because at least in high school I had been productive and working toward a goal…now I was completely blind to the future in front of me, and every time I would attempt to start making plans, I’d have a panic attack.
However, there was never a moment that I questioned my decision to take a gap year; even when I wanted to rip my hair out from anxiety, I knew that once I figured my plans out, this gap year was necessary.
So after all of that…what am I actually doing? In fact, I’m going to school here in Paris. This school is so completely and drastically different than what I’ve grown up to understand as the definition of “school” that I shouldn’t even use that word, but that’s what it is.
My school is called Education First, or simply EF. My dad found this program at the end of September, and one month later here I am in Paris. EF has bases in most of the major cities in the world with the sole purpose of language immersion. It wasn’t even a question for me to choose Paris, as I’d always felt the city calling me. I can’t place my finger on what exactly it is, or maybe it’s every small detail combined, but to me this city is magic, and part of me always knew I’d come to live here, even if only for a few months.
EF offers a residence for students just down the block from school, but I chose to live with a host family since most of the people in the residence speak English with each other and I wanted to ensure I’d be forced to speak French. Also, I love the idea of becoming a part of someone else’s family and seeing how they live their daily lives. My host parents have four children (16-25 years old) of their own, three who live at home, and house seven other EF students. We live in Saint-Gratien, a suburb of Paris, and my commute to school is about 45 minutes – when the trains decide they want to run on time. Although I’d prefer to be living closer to the center of the city, it’s worth it to be in a homestay where I share a warm dinner with other students from around the world.
My school is right by Galeries Lafayette in the 9th Arrondissement, and it is a place where I immediately felt comfortable. All the students are here with the same intent, purely because they love Paris and purely because they want to learn the French language. Most of the students are between the ages of 18 and 25, and the length of time people stay at the school varies from one week to a year. Many of the students are taking gap years like me, and no one here finds that at all strange. I love not having to justify why I decided to take a year off between high school and college to move to Paris and study French, because everyone here understands exactly why I’d want to do just that. Plus, it’s easy to make friends with people who have the same mentality as I do. Above all, the best part about going to school every day is that I know I’m entering a world where everyone who is there wants to be there, from the students to the teachers; this is a place where people are learning solely for the purpose of learning and teachers are teaching solely for the joy it brings to their students.