General Anxiety (and Other Existential Crises)

I’ve dealt with anxiety my whole life – literally. Some of my earliest memories from my childhood are of having panic attacks due to intense separation anxiety; at five or six years old, I was convinced that my mother was going to drive off and abandon me if she stepped outside to heat up the car in the winter, or dropped me off at a Girl Scout meeting. As a teenager, it was social anxiety that crippled me to the point of near reclusiveness.

If I had to give it a name now, as an adult, it’d just be general anxiety (I’m pretty sure this is a thing anyway). Now it’s no longer confined to social situations or separation from a parent – instead, it’s just everywhere.

Dani doesn’t answer her phone even though I know she’s free? Well, she must be dead, obviously.

Dog barfs on the carpet? Gonna be dead.

Cryptic, “Can you call me when you get a chance?” text message? It must be something terrible. Someone’s probably dead.

When I was working full-time, the intensity of this anxiety was muted – I think the constant grind of teaching left little time for fretting over hypotheticals (though everytime I had to send a parent e-mail, I felt the familiar twinge of, They’re gonna hate me and call the principal). Since I started graduate school in August, a much more solitary experience where you literally spend the majority of your days alone with your own thoughts, the symptoms have ramped up again. Oddly enough, I have very little anxiety about my academic performance – that’s an area where I feel, strangely, relatively confident – but other existential questions have been bubbling to the surface. It feels like I’m watching the days pass me by and waiting for that “someday” when my life is going to start. I thought that uprooting to a new state and beginning this new chapter would help, but in truth I think it’s only gotten worse.

Why am I here? What am I doing with my life? Is this what I want? What DO I want? What am I waiting for?

I don’t know the answers to any of those questions. Or, I know the answers —

I want to travel. I want to teach and serve others. I want to write. I want to create a life I’m proud to live, not one that feels like a fulfillment of the expectations society has put before me

but I just don’t know how to make it all happen. Yet when I think too much about all of this my heart begins to pound. I sweat. The nausea hits. And then I find myself on the couch, scrolling mindlessly through social media but not really seeing anything, trying not to fret about another wasted day.

I leave for France in less than three months, and this finally feels like a step in the right direction – it’s something to do since I studied abroad in 2011, but then life and other circumstances and opportunities lead me down another path. Yet with the move comes even more anxiety – and let me tell you, there’s a reason the French are collectively depressed. The bureaucracy of such a move is ridiculous and it times it feels overwhelmingly, unbelievably impossible that it will actually happen. I mean, who can manage with such chicken-and-egg procedures such as:

  • To get a visa, you need proof of accommodation for the first three months of your stay.
  • To get such an accommodation, you need proof of a French bank account.
  • To get a bank account, you need a local address.

I’m not even going to talk about the paperwork involved with bringing a dog abroad, because frankly I’m mostly embarrassed that we’re even doing it, but it involves pages of documentation and such a tight timeframe of appointments with a variety of specific people that it’s all kind of making my head spin.

I am trying to live in the moment. I am trying to remember that everything always gets done, even when it seems really, really hopeless. I am trying to remember that despite our best laid plans, we never really know where life will take us. What opportunities will the next year present? Who or what will push me in a direction that I never anticipated? The truth of the matter is that I have no long-term agenda. No commitments that must be fulfilled, or plans that are so significant that they cannot possibly be changed. When I’m in this frame of mind – the one in which I am in 100% control of what I say yes or no to, when I remember that I am allowed to change my mind and make new plans – it becomes easier to quell the panic.

I mean, Lexapro would probably help too. One thing at a time.

 

 

 

Advertisements

The healing waters of Vichy, France

France wasn’t really in my 2016 travel plans, but last year an opportunity came up that I knew I had to jump on. It was a scholarship for American French teachers, sponsored by the French Embassy in Washington D.C., for a two-week pedagogical “internship” at a language school in the city of Vichy. Very nearly all expenses paid – tuition for the language school, room and board with a host family, a round-trip train ticket from Paris to Vichy, a $600 allowance to defray the cost of a plane ticket, and 200 euros in spending money.

Um, yeah. Sign me up, please.

The only problem was that the scholarship is super competitive. Like, only 20-teachers-nationwide-competitive. Added to that, I didn’t even find about it until literally three days before the deadline Still, I figured I’d give it a shot (it didn’t cost anything to apply – but I did pay to overnight my materials to Chicago) so I cobbled together the application materials as best as I could (realizing that I had lost my passport in the process – thank goodness I had made a copy of the first page for my records!) and crossed my fingers until the day the notifications were to be sent out to the recipients (it was a Friday).

cavilam.jpg
CAVILAM – Alliance Française

Well, the day came and went and I hadn’t heard anything. I let myself feel disappointed but ultimately moved on – I had rushed to get the application together, after all, so I couldn’t be too surprised – when Wednesday arrived and so did the e-mail that started with Félicitations!

I may have cried a little in front of my students. They were nice about it though!

A few months later I was on a train from Paris to Vichy.

Vichy is an interesting place; it’s in the center of France, right in the midst of a chain of dormant volcanos called Puy-de-Dôme. For literally centuries, Vichy has been known as a place of healing and restoration – there are numerous natural springs that provide the city with mineral water. Some is freely drinkable, and you can fill up as you like at a couple of local wells. The water is naturally carbonated and tastes slightly salty. The others are found in a beautiful art nouveau building in the center of town and can only be drunk with a prescription from the doctor citing your specific ailments and what variety of mineral water you need to drink to cure them.

There are also hot springs and spas are in abundance. Likewise, outdoor activities are in abundance – rowing, biking, horseback racing at the Hippodrome, a lovely riverside park for jogging or rollerblading. It’s a place that values health, quietness and calm. It was lovely. I was surprised at how much I loved it there, particularly considering Vichy’s more recent history.

20160704_185134.jpg
La source des Célestins, just steps from my host family’s house

While Vichy has long been known as a sort of “resort town”, just slightly more than 70 years ago Vichy became known for something else. The French government, on the eve Germany’s invasion of Paris, packed up and left the City of Lights while simultaneously assuring her citizens that there was nothing to fear. Yet the Parisians awoke one day to bombardments, and also to find that their leaders had fled – to Vichy. Vichy became the new capital of France, and forevermore a symbol of the French government’s ultimate collaboration with the Nazi regime. Maréchal Pétain, the president of the Vichy regime, was complicit in the deportation of thousands of Jews – including children (originally denied by the Nazis, Petain sent them anyway) – to ghettos and ultimately, death camps such as Auschwitz.

 

In Vichy, there are no traces of the war years. No museums, no memorials, no commemorative plaques on any buildings as there are in Paris. The quiet calm of the city makes it hard to believe that such atrocious ugliness happened there. Yet I’m sure the citizens of Vichy – largely made up of elderly retirees – must carry the memory quietly within themselves.

Or perhaps, just as the water of Vichy has healed the many thousands of people who have come to drink from its springs, the city itself has been healed, too.

You Probably Shouldn’t Study Abroad

Yes, you read that right. You really should NOT spend that semester in France, dear reader.

I mean, after all, a semester (or even a year!) away from home is a long time! Think about all the things you’d be missing – you know, those Friday night parties at your best friend’s apartment that you and your group of friends go to every week and, well, do the same things you always do together? You definitely wouldn’t want to miss out on those just to gallivant about Europe or Asia, would you?

And speaking of friends, think of how much you’re going to have to put yourself out there to meet new ones while you’re abroad. School-sponsored weekend excursions, weekly conversation hours at the bar, classes every day with strangers? Strangers who also probably won’t know anyone else and may be just as homesick and nervous as you are? Is that a can of worms you even want to open?

Not to mention that those new friends will probably come from totally different cultures and all walks of life. They may even challenge everything you thought you knew about a particular cultural group, or even your own culture and perspective – could you imagine?

And forget about the language issue – what if French is the only language you have to communicate with all these new people? An entire semester or year of only French, with minimal (or even no) English at all. What’s even the point?

Don’t even get me started on the food.

And when it’s all said and done, think of the heartache you’ll experience when you have to leave this brand new home you created for yourself, the family you chose, to return to a place that feels almost as foreign to you as your destination did six months ago. How could you possibly withstand those pangs of nostalgia when you stumble across a photo from that night on the banks of La Maine, that longing deep in your gut when you remember how it felt to wander the cobbled streets and drink wine on the terrace at night and that last bise goodbye before you got on the plane, not sure if you’d ever see this place or these people again?

No, no. You should probably never study abroad.

Five Years Since France

223322_10100180914927048_984349_n

Five years ago today, I stepped on a plane and my life changed forever. I had just gone through a major transition in my life and wasn’t sure what would be waiting for me when the plane landed in Paris. I was excited, terrified, sad, nervous – everything, as I faced the prospect of spending five months living and studying in a foreign country, away from my friends and my family and my familiar.

It wasn’t easy at first. Landing at the CDG airport was a shock – we (I was with two other girls from my same university) were greeted by a clearly homeless and mentally ill man with no pants or underwear on who was lighting magazine pages on fire inside the airport. The first time I ever spoke French to a real, live French person was to buy train tickets (I planned out everything I was going to say, word-for-word, before I got in line). The bathrooms were filthy and cost money to use. It was freezing cold in the train station, and the only area with heat was a closed-in waiting area that smelled so strongly of urine I could practically taste it. The jetlag caught up with me once I sat in my seat on the train, and though I was so exhausted I could barely keep my eyes open, I was terrified of falling asleep and missing my stop.

167000_932261219098_5009777_n

And then we arrived in Angers, met our host families and went to our new homes where it really started to sink in – this is it. I won’t see my home or my family again until June. I cried the first night as I Skyped with my mom.

But slowly, Angers started to feel comfortable. My French exploded, and I felt more confident in my second language that my first, wanting to avoid betraying myself as an outsider. I made friends with my host mom’s daughter, fell in love with a little café and their amazing lattés, and even reconnected with some friends that I had originally met during my time in New York, who I thought I would probably never see again after they announced they were moving to Paris (life is so funny sometimes). I got to know people from all around the world. And then when June rolled around, I didn’t want to leave.

I’ve been back to France many, many times since then. I even revisited Angers in 2013 and had lunch with my host mom in that big, old house. It felt like slipping back into a favorite old sweater. Five years – it seems like so long ago but just yesterday at the same time. Even so, I can’t help thinking that I’m not quite done with Angers yet.

168429_931748556478_6015800_n

The Middle Village: Corniglia

On our trip to Cinque Terre, our “home base” was the middle of the five villages, Corniglia. We actually came by our lodging a bit by accident; originally, we had hoped to stay in Vernazza or Riomaggiore. In fact, we had found an AirBnB that the both of us adored and in the time it took us to come to a consensus, the room had been snapped up! And so it goes with such popular destinations, I suppose.

11807426_10103321098449098_3360833920551766800_o

Well, we couldn’t agree on anyplace else in either Riomaggiore or Vernazza that also happened to be within our price range and so we clicked on the next listing we found which was a room in a B & B in the very heart of Corniglia (not that it’s that big of a town but really, it was the dead center of the village). Once we saw the pictures of the roofdeck, we knew – this was it!

When it came down to it, we could not have been happier with our choice. Our hostess, Lidia, was utterly charming and kind; she provided us with maps, directions, suggestions on where to eat, and checked in on us each day during our stay. It was clean, centrally located, had an amazing view and oh, yeah – was literally just steps away from the best gelato I have ever eaten in my life! I mean, we’re talking about a village that counts about 250 year-round residents, but still. If you’re ever in Corniglia, do yourself the favor of getting a scoop or two at Alberto’s – the basil/lemon combo (made with fresh basil from the garden!) was the stuff of which dreams are made.

11794187_10103321101832318_1961194482166329173_o

Corniglia is distinctively different from the other four villages in the Cinque Terre in a couple of ways. First, it’s the only village that doesn’t touch the water. There are two ways to get into the village:

  1. By hiking in from either Vernazza or Manarola.
  2. Arriving by train and walking up 245 stairs.

To be fair, there is a semi-reliable shuttle that runs from the train station to “downtown” Corniglia, but you do have to buy a ticket to use it and it only runs until about 5:00 PM each day.

Once you get into the town itself, though, it’s markedly different from the others. Quieter. Far fewer tourists. There’s no beach – just a man-made swim spot at the bottom of a steep, rocky staircase. More laid-back restaurants. None of the chintzy souvenir shops that make up the bulk of the businesses in the other villages. Corniglia just seems much more untouched – perhaps it’s the hassle involved in actually getting there, but something about its realness made me love it so much more. While we visited the other villages during the day, we returned each afternoon to Corniglia to enjoy our daily aperitivo and to eat dinner. We also couldn’t bear to miss the sunset from the roof of our B & B! I miss just sitting in the warm evening breeze, listening to the sounds of life down below – the cathedral bells, the rumble of a car rolling past, silverware clinking on plates, laughter. If you find yourself in the Cinque Terre, do yourself a favor and spend at least one night in Corniglia. I promise, you will not regret it!

 

Charming Cinque

I’ve got a thing for villages.

Don’t get me wrong, I love cities, too – I’ll never pass up an opportunity to go to New York or Paris. But there’s just something about tiny streets, quaint cafés and locals who all seem to know one another. The quiet and solitude. The realness of it all. I love villages!

The first time I saw Cinque Terre was in a photograph at a local art fair. It was Vernazza, I think, at dusk. Its colorful buildings and harbor with little canoes was lit up against a midnight sky and I turned to my Partner in Crime and said, “We have got to go there.”

11732040_10103321099646698_5594481910027241923_o
The view from our rooftop terrace in Corniglia.

At the time I saw the photo I didn’t think I’d have my feet in Cinque within a year but it just so happened that it worked out that way. We knew we were flying into Rome, and had to make the trip up to Lyon, France and Cinque turned out to be an easy stop between the two. We were there for about four days, which was just enough time to see each of the five villages. Each one was just as beautiful as I imagined it; I don’t think that I could ever, ever get sick of staring at the Mediterranean. I’ve never seen a more beautiful blue – it was just impossible for us to capture on camera. Sitting on the rooftop terrace of our AirBnB, with a glass of wine, staring out over the sea and watching the sun set beyond the horizon while the cathedral bells of Corniglia chimed from across town…it’s a memory I will always cherish.