Profiter de la vie: Coming back from a semester abroad

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I was warned about culture shock when I left California to study in Bordeaux, France, for the fall semester. I was told I might feel disoriented and confused in my new European environment. When my program ended, I was reminded that I might experience reverse culture shock. But spending time with my family over winter break and seeing my friends for the first time in months, I felt at home, and I was convinced that I had escaped the anticipated reverse culture shock. I was wrong.

Walking around campus on the first day of classes, I felt completely disoriented, like I was again in a foreign country where nothing seemed familiar. My classes are in buildings I’ve never entered before, there’s a large, unfamiliar building at a former construction site on Sproul Plaza and I’m still adjusting to my new apartment.

Having unpacked the weekend before syllabus week, I felt as though I’d barely slept in my new bed when classes started. Walking into my first lecture Tuesday, I realized just how unprepared I was for the rigor and workload of the typical UC Berkeley class. I had spent the last semester completing homework on train rides to Barcelona and at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, using my weekends to explore the chocolate museum in Biarritz, France, and wander around the Tate Modern in London. Each of my French classes only met once a week, for two hours each. I spent my ample free time walking around Bordeaux, touring local chateaux, tasting wine and eating all the baguettes, cheese and macarons I could.

The eight books on my syllabus that first day were an unwelcome “welcome back” present.

I have spent the past couple of weeks feeling as though I am barely keeping up with my workload and struggling to get organized. My days are filled with questions: How did I structure my notes before? Did classes always move this fast? Is anyone else feeling unorganized and unprepared?

Part of my difficulty folding back into the fast-paced tempo of UC Berkeley is my unwillingness to abandon the study-abroad mindset. I want to keep travelling, keep searching for the next weekend adventure. I find myself stalking airline websites, price-comparing flights to New York City, Rio de Janeiro and Sydney.

In France, I was repeatedly told, “Il faut profiter de la vie,” or “you need to enjoy life.” It reveals a lot about the French cultural attitude toward work — yes, it is important to work hard, but it is equally important to relax, sit outside a cafe and savor a cup of coffee or a glass of wine with good company. It is an attitude in absolute opposition to the cultural climate of UC Berkeley and, in my opinion, of the United States, where it is necessary to always be working, to be the last person poring over his or her laptop in the library or finishing an assignment. I’ve often felt guilty taking a moment to myself to watch a movie or try out a new recipe when I know I have readings to finish or an essay to write. I could never really silence the small voice in the back of my head questioning me, always asking, “Why aren’t you studying right now?”

Of all my unforgettable experiences in France and across Europe, that is really the one thing that I hope I will truly never forget — I hope that I can hold onto that idea of “profiter.” More than the view of Barcelona from Park Guell, more than the Reichstag in Berlin, I hope that I will always remember how important it is that I “profite de la vie.”

I know that it’s easy to forget to take a moment at the end of each day, to let go of the stress over unread readings and unwritten papers and enjoy a cup of tea, or listen to music, or watch a movie, or read a novel that doesn’t have anything to do with classes. But it’s important to remember that however hectic life becomes, either at UC Berkeley or in postgraduate life, we should always make time to go to an afternoon yoga class or spend an evening baking cookies with friends. I don’t want to forget the most important thing I learned in France: that life is more than constantly studying and time filled with work and responsibilities, that life is something to be enjoyed and appreciated, like a glass of Bordeaux wine.

Contact Patricia Serpa at [email protected].