I write this to you all fresh from an eight (!) day journey with my friend Anna Lee, where we hopped from Marseille to Aix-en-Provence, France to Florence and then on to Rome, Italy,before heading back here to face the end of our semester abroad, brave final exams, and soak up the remainder of our time across the pond.I spent my Thanksgiving going to French class and then hopping on a plane to Prague, Czech Republic, before tuning in via FaceTime to say hello to family at 1 am, when Thanksgiving was already, technically, over for me. Two days later, I took a train to Vienna and spent a whopping 24 hours there, exploring Christmas markets, touring Schonbrunn Palace, and going to a Mozart performance that was so surreal I can’t put it into words. **
Over the course of these trips, I’ve stayed in many a hostel or Airbnb and run into Americans, Italians, Slovakians, South Africans, Australians, Chinese, the French, Brits, and a number of other nationalities. Some of them are doing the same thing as me—taking a weekend, going on a trip while they’re already on the continent and airfare is cheap. Some of them are there for work. Some are there for personal journeys, or school, or they’re just trying to stay over here and travel until their Visa runs out and they have to go home. Everyone’s exact narrative varies, although some are similar enough, but we’ve all got one thing in common: we’re not from here, but we arehere.
And this, if I had to compile a list of personal FAQs from this semester abroad, would be one of the chief questions posed to me: Where are you from? Why are you here? (or, sometimes, why Edinburgh? or Why not France ? or any of that question’s grammatical variants). Of course, there are others: What are you studying, what year are you, how are you finding it here,and soon and so forth. But it’s these two—where from, and why here—that linger with me a little longer than the rest.
I’d say it’s because they don’t have clear-cut answers, but they do (Tuscaloosa, Alabama,and It just worked out better this way). Invariably, there are more complicated answers; I could launch into my backstory (born in North Carolina, a short stint in Alexander City, then Tuscaloosa, and now Charlottesville, Virginia), or I could—and sometimes do—recount the fraught saga of my hopes to study in Lyon, France or London, England, summing it up with the conclusion that God had different ideas than I did, and now here I am, in Edinburgh, Scotland, spending too much money on coffee, hiking up Drummond Street every morning, and somehow ending up at Christmas markets when I should really just be studying.
So it’s hard to pinpoint why I think about these questions so much, when it’d be easy enough to not think about them. I’m here because I’m here. I’m from the States. Which one,you ask? Alabama—yes, the one with Forrest Gump and that one Lynyrd Skynyrd song. Do you know much about football, the American kind?
But perhaps there’s something more to these questions, besides the potential complexity of an answer. These questions trace a journey, from point A (where I’m from) to point B (where I am now). They ask for a story, a narrative of movement from one place to another, that is rarely as straightforward as the words used to ask for it.
But I’m all about journeys, and trying to uncover why they happened, what I’m supposed to learn, and who I was when I started compared to who I am now. And this where-and-why only asks about the journey of before, of how I got here and not what has happened since. The sequel to these questions, the How has this changed you? hasn’t been asked yet, mainly because I’m not finished with my time here and so cannot yet fully employ that simultaneous gift and curse of retrospection to examine what has been good and what has been bad or strange or funny or hard.