This weekend, along with the rest of the Tufts-in-Paris program, I boarded an early-morning train from Paris’ Gare Montparnasse and set off toward Bordeaux, a city in the southwest of France and a part of the country’s Aquitaine region.
While many places that I visited this semester have made for entirely new experiences — full of previously unknown cuisines, cities and customs — Bordeaux was already somewhat familiar to me. In my sophomore year of high school, I spent a little over a week in Bordeaux while I participated in an exchange program. I stayed with a host family that had a daughter my age over my school’s spring break, and the following fall she came to stay with me in New York when her lycée visited my high school.
I was unsure what to expect as I prepared to return, now over five years later. When I first came to Bordeaux, I was 15 years old, and the trip was the farthest I had ever traveled without my family. It was the first time I was fully immersed in French language and culture, the first time I navigated living with a family that was not mine — four other people whose quirks, lifestyles and schedules I had to quickly adjust to.
And even with the fondness of that experience rolling around in my mind, I felt something a little like nerves as our train pulled slowly out of the station. So much had happened in the last five years — I had graduated high school, started college, turned 20 years old during a pandemic, moved into my own house — the list goes on. It seemed like returning to Bordeaux — the place that had planted the idea of studying abroad in France firmly in my mind and since served as my motivation for continuing with French — might reveal just how much I had grown in the last five years.
Once we arrived in the city center, I was able to have lunch with my host sister from Bordeaux and a friend of hers who had also participated in the exchange. Our conversation flowed more easily now, thanks to my five additional years of French practice. We had both changed physically and charted new paths academically as we entered our early adulthood years on opposite sides of the Atlantic. But the essential components of our lives had stayed the same, and conversation came easily. Bordeaux itself did, too. As I walked through the Place des Quinconces, strolled alongside the Garonne River and visited the city’s recognizable Place de la Bourse, the city that inspired this semester abroad began to materialize once again, and small experiences forgotten from five years ago came rushing back.
There’s something about visiting a place you haven’t seen for years that reflects your own changes back at you. I felt instantly comfortable in Bordeaux — the apprehension that characterized much of my exchange trip replaced by confidence. The street signs were easy to read. I didn’t need to rely on a translating app to get me through a meal. But much had stayed the same, such as, most importantly, the joy I felt both then and now to explore and to immerse myself in a new environment. While Paris is presently the center of my study abroad experience in France, it really was Bordeaux that started it all.