3 Lessons I Learned from My Gap Year in France


This post was contributed by Mikel Jones. 

After high school, I knew I wasn’t ready to go straight to college, but with my adventuresome spirit, I had to do *something*. I searched for gap year programs for months until someone came up with the crazy idea that I should go to France and study at a language school for a year. Me? Mikel? The insanely awkward 18-year old who’s never taken a French class before? I was petrified but also ready for the challenge (and the croissants). So, in October of 2017, I was off to Lyon, France, for 9 months. Hoping to come back knowing more than “bonjour” and “excusez-moi.“Although it was initially difficult, frustrating, and occasionally tiresome, it turned out to be one of the best years of my life. Here are some things I learned along the way:

No experience is truly a “fail.”

The first few months were ridiculous, obviously, France is way different from the US. Aside from the different food and beautiful architecture, my experiences with people were different because of the language barrier. I was so scared of everything when people asked me questions I’d freeze. I remember having to give myself pep talks to just go to Franprix and feeling like a complete idiot trying to speak with my French friends. That incredibly annoying, slightly embarrassing feeling after completely losing a word mid-sentence or conjugating something incorrectly. The cool thing was that after a while I began to care less and less about making mistakes, I was more concerned with learning what I needed to learn. So yes! Please correct me when I mess up the passé composé for the 800th time. It will bring me one step closer to where I need to be. Some days it felt like I knew nothing. I was completely hopeless as if the only thing that could save me was if I caught the first plane back to the States, but, after hearing stories from fellow study abroad-ers, I realized that I wasn’t alone. Learning a language isn’t an event, it’s a continuous process of ups and downs; experiencing everything from forgetting words mid-convo to ultimately having dreams in French.

Day-to-day interactions and arguments are the best way to learn a language.

To be honest, although I somewhat enjoyed the formal French classes and benefitted from them, my best conversations in French were with my friends, Uber drivers, and cashiers at my local Carrefour. After an awkward pause because of me probably forgetting a word and apologizing for my trash French whilst bagging my groceries, it would usually end up in them asking where I was from. I’ve heard “Ahhhhhhhhh, vous êtes américaine” probably a billion times. These encounters although occasionally, well, usually awkward would eventually evolve into tons of vocab and speaking practice… and sometimes uncomfortable flirting (i.e. one dude asking me if I’d like to come over and watch Disney movies with him… super weird – like why Disney out of all movies?). Before I left, my cousin who had studied abroad before had told me, “You don’t know how much you’ve learned until you have to argue with someone in that language.” I laughed initially, but she turned out to be right. I didn’t realize how much I had learned until I was arguing with a snooty clerk at customs, not one of my best moments but hey, at least I knew what to say. Sometimes with French, the technicalities of the language (all the conjugations, tenses, verbs, etc.) can make you want to fling every French book you have across the room and just throw in the towel, but moments like these reminded me to be present in this process of learning and to recognize lessons even in my seemingly small engagements.

Out with the old and in with the new, boo!

Being in Europe provides this insane level of flexibility and access. In the same amount of time it took for me to go from Brooklyn to the Bronx, I could go from Lyon to Genève (a far better experience than the 5 train if you ask me) that experience taught me so much about how I perceive the world, how big but small this place can be. I used this as an opportunity to start taking risks, if I found a cheap train ticket to somewhere I’ve never thought of going, I’d do it and try and have a good time. One time I found an insanely cheap plane ticket to Copenhagen, I had never really thought of going there before but I thought I’d give it a shot. I ended up absolutely ADORING it and had the best time (aside from a really sketchy Airbnb experience but I guess it made a memory).

The cool thing about being away from home is that you get the opportunity to write your own rules and if you want you can seriously reinvent yourself. Prior to going abroad, I wasn’t really the “Shut Up and Go” type, I was relatively shy and reserved. I always wanted to get out and travel, but I never thought of it becoming a reality.

So, when I was given the opportunity I said: “Screw it, why not?”

Through this, I learned how to trust my instincts in a tough situation, e.g. when you feel like you’re about to get scammed at a bazaar in Istanbul – we’ll save that story for another day.  It was empowering for me, as a young woman of color, to take my life into my own hands and to do things that excite and challenge me, to explore different parts of myself and the world.

So, heck yeah, you’ll have ups and downs (sometimes a lot of downs) but you will learn and you’ll learn to roll with the punches and when you look back on these experiences, you’ll think “damn, now I really did that!” *insert 12 clapping emojis*

Happy travels!

Meet Mikel: Mikel Aki’lah Jones is a 19-year-old writer from Brooklyn, NY. She uses her work as a way to share her reality and perspectives of the world around her. She is currently living and studying in Lyon, France. Keep up with her on IG.

(Photos via Unsplash)

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