Moving forward

The remnants of the person I became studying abroad are permeating my life back in Charlottesville, and I’ve never been so excited. As I write this article, it’s been five days since I came back to town.

I waited until Sunday — the last possible evening — to come back to school. It was dark outside as I hauled my bed upstairs into my new apartment room. My dad hammered and screwed, putting my bed and dresser together. He kissed me and said good-bye, and all the while I sat on my floor texting school friends I was yearning to see.

One of my girlfriends came over and we talked our hearts out as I dolefully unpacked some clothes into empty drawers. I didn’t want to move in. I didn’t want to call this new place home. It was still too soon. The party moved onto my porch and before I knew it I was outside smoking and drinking with three or four friends. I left my apartment to go to a friend’s house, and the next time I checked the clock it was 4 a.m. and I was crawling into bed. I was exhausted and drunk and had class in five hours.

The next morning I looked in the mirror and realized what I was trying to avoid. Sometimes it takes a total absence of something before you can realize what it is you’re trying to see. What is darkness but the absence of light? I see my same self, with the absence of what I had been expecting. Nothing had changed. There I was, and I was not going anywhere. I was still the same person I was last night and last week and last semester, and I wasn’t going to lose all the progress I’ve made.

I was prolonging sleep last night because it marked the official end to my winter break, thus marking the official end of my semester in France. According to the calendar and clock, I was going to regress to the person I’d been at U.Va. before I went to France. Falling into my old habits, remembering the swing of things, stressing out about school all the time and missing out on some of the greatest aspects of college life. I was afraid of starting my 5000-, 4000- and three 3000-level classes with only upperclassmen, fearing they would allow my anxiety over schoolwork to govern my life, like it did before.

In France, life was about appreciating another country, culture and people. The schoolwork was trivial, easy and didn’t count for much, so nobody ever hesitated when it came to restaurant outings, train and bike rides, window shopping and drinking a little too much on the weekends.

My winter break followed quickly after, and I was thrust into Christmas, into giant family gatherings, with two new nieces included. Then came seeing friends and an ex-boyfriend, post-holiday gift shopping and unpacking. A week in New York came and passed. I went out and partied too much with my best friend there, who I hadn’t seen since July. The night before coming to U.Va, I stopped at James Madison University for the night to celebrate a friend’s birthday, gossiping and cuddling with best friends from home until 4 p.m. The past six months of my life had been one giant life, love and party cycle, and I was afraid of losing that lifestyle when I drove into Charlottesville later that day.

Maybe it is cliché, and in your eyes it is just study abroad, but for me it’s personal. Maybe you don’t or can’t understand, and I’m writing this for myself, reflecting. Maybe you won’t even see the changes in me and will continue to treat me and view me as the same way you did before. But I don’t care. My perception of myself and my role at this university have changed. I’m not here to get straight A’s or write thesis papers or impress professors or even lead my group in an assignment. I’ll never be that person, so I’m going to accept who it is I really am, like I did in France. I’m going to write, cry, eat, play, drink, sleep, run and smoke when I want. I’ll focus on the people who make me happy and embrace the qualities that other people love me for. This semester, this year, and this life, I will be Valerie.

_Valerie’s column runs biweekly Tuesdays. She can be reached at _

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