In a week, one of my friends will be graduating from college into adult life. I asked her how she felt about that, how she thought her college experience had been overall; if she wished she’d done anything differently and if she had any words of wisdom for a girl who is just about halfway through. Her response was something that I’ll always remember, and that I think is extremely applicable to the study abroad experience.
"You know that feeling of satisfaction you get when you squeeze the last bit of toothpaste out from the tube?" she asked. "I just feel like college is that tube of toothpaste, and I haven’t managed to get all of that out yet. And I don’t think I ever will."
When you’re abroad, there will be so many things that you could be doing—things that you truly feel like you’ll never have a chance to do again in your life—and you just can’t do them all. And this fear of missing out—even before your study abroad experience has ended—is a crippling thing.
There have been many days after class when my friends and I have been sitting out in the courtyard, debating what to do afterwards. Spring in Paris has alternately been cruel and kind to us, with some days of heavy rain but others of upwards of 20°C. On these days, we’ll sit out in the courtyard and list things to do: go to a bakery, stop by a museum, grab a bite, visit the national library, sit in the garden. And more times than I can count, what we would actually end up doing was get on the metro. And go home. Because when there are too many things to do, it suddenly becomes hard to do any of them.
This has been one of the strangest struggles I’ve never thought I would encounter and one that sounds completely made-up and even annoyingly privileged.
This has been one of the strangest struggles I’ve never thought I would encounter and one that sounds completely made-up and even annoyingly privileged. But it is certainly one that I have observed in myself and in others frequently enough that it warrants talking about.
There are over 100 museums in Paris. There are cafés on every street, many of which would be hard to notice unless you happened to be walking by them, and serve amazing coffee. There are little bakeries, sandwiched everywhere between different storefronts, emitting the delicious scent of flaky pastry. There are parks—beautifully kept parks—whose flowers change seasonally to fit whatever colour scheme the city has decided for it during those months.
There are so many things to do and see, so many places that you will visit and promise yourself that you will visit again. Chances are, you won’t. I am now in the second-to-last weekend here in Paris, and I’m suddenly realizing that I understand exactly what my friend was saying: There is no way to squeeze all the toothpaste out before I go.
Each new completely new, commitment-free day presents its own struggle. Do you visit the Orsay? Do you return to that bookstore with a café inside? Do you go back to that cute café on the rive gauche? But how can you return anywhere you’ve been before, when there is so much more yet to see?
It is hard to gain any feeling of comfortable routine, it is difficult to feel as though there is actually room to gain any sense of satisfaction with whatever plans you have constructed for the day. And before you know it, you and your friend have read through TripAdvisor reviews of countless bakeries, while sitting in the courtyard on campus, and it is now time for both of you to head home to have dinner with your respective host families.
No matter what you do, Paris is a city that will keep you feeling like you just didn’t have enough time there. And even if you are there for plenty of time (like I have been), you will still have countless days spent simply wondering what there is to do, how to live the day so fully that you won’t wonder later if you shouldn’t have done something else with it. But that’s also the beauty of the city, what makes it so singularly special. There is history everywhere, in a way that doesn’t exist in any city in the States, simply because cities in the States haven’t been around that long.
One of the biggest pieces of advice I would actually give someone going to Paris is not to expect to feel satisfied when you leave. I suspect that even people who live here for their whole life don’t ever feel like they got all the toothpaste out of that tube.
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