Last week, I went on a trip with women I only knew for five months about two years ago. The reunion was exciting, but heavy with the risks of having nothing in common, nothing to do, nothing to say. On my way, I brainstormed conversation topics, crossing my fingers they’d last us the whole stay. Turns out I could've thrown them out right after our first hellos.
When I spent a semester abroad in Nantes in the Spring of 2016, I started off friendless and terrified. Since the barebones exchange program was the cheapest option for me, I took it and set myself up for direct enrollment in a French university that was way over my head. Of course, I didn’t admit that to myself until I found out at the end of the year that I’d failed a class: M2--Gestion des Ressources Humaines. Still get nightmares about it.
The French students intimidated me with their rapid-fire conversations from within clouds of cigarette smoke, and many of my professors made it clear that they would make no distinction in grading between native and non-native French speakers. I was quaking in my clunky American boots. Even though I left with the conviction not to fall into the comfort of a travelling crew of fellow Americans, I craved the familiarity of my native language to fall back on.
Erasmus saved me, a European exchange organization known both for expanding cultural horizons and for encouraging months of wild and irresponsible partying. Students from every corner of the continent hop around neighboring countries’ universities after having braved a forest of paperwork, and they congregate at Erasmus-sponsored outings like paper clips crammed on a magnet. My first exposure to this was a tame night, thankfully, wherein we learned the history behind the French Galette des Rois and then proceeded to stuff our faces with them. The handful of Germans, Austrians, and Americans I met there evolved over the course of the semester into what we have immortalized today in the Whatsapp group chat, “les filles de Nantes.” I’m still not sure if “les filles de Nantes” is awkward French, but as a gaggle of Americans, Austrians, Belgians, Germans, and Swedes, I don’t think any of us really knew. If so, we definitely didn’t care.
In Nantes, we clung to each other in a haze of confusing schoolwork, happy weekend trips, awkward social encounters with the locals, and wine and cheese nights. Time with “les filles” was a perfect balance to the stress and humiliation of life as a bumbling foreigner. We were there for each other, unified in our cluelessness. We spoke to each other in French even though it was nobody’s native language, which turned our conversations into a mix of several different accents imposing their unique limitations on the bedraggled, beloved local tongue. It was our own sort of dialect, and while it certainly wasn’t sophisticated or grammatically correct, it allowed us to communicate and feel comfortable doing so. The times when French just couldn’t cut it, English, Flemish, and 3 different German dialects would come out in alternating bursts until the whole group arrived at an understanding. We certainly turned heads.
When the end of the semester came, we said goodbye over a teary piano sing-along in the basement of our student housing. We went back to our respective countries with nothing but the whatsapp group to keep us together. The Europeans in the crew were lucky enough to reunite a couple of times, once for Oktoberfest in Munich and again for a ski trip in Switzerland, while I read the messages and admired the group photos from the other side of the Atlantic, usually elbow-deep in school work.
This year, though, I get to be among the Europeans, and when the idea popped up on Whatsapp to reunite in Nantes, where it all began, it was finally possible for me to join in. As life is life and refuses to compromise, not everyone was there, but all the same I rolled into Nantes, nervous and excited to reunite with some of my favorite Germans, Austrians, and Belgians. The initial awkwardness dissipated after our first round of hugs, as there were more important issues to address. We needed more supplies for our wine and cheese night.
Now that I’m back in St Nazaire and they’re scattered across Western Europe, I've got a fresh batch of group photos and memories to sift through. It's nice to be reminded that just because we were a group that needed each other once doesn't mean that's the most we'll ever be. We've affirmed in three tenses: we were friends, we are friends, we will be friends.
Next time, I’ll try not to overthink it so much, maybe forget about that list of potential conversation topics out of fear of running dry. Or maybe I’ll keep that in my back pocket for another year anyway. You can never be too prepared.