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A moveable exhaustion : the sorrows of young foreign students

By February 21, 2018 No Comments

We have republished this article through The Sundial Press’s partnership with La Péniche, the newspaper of Sciences Po’s Paris Campus. The original post may be read here. Throughout the year we will be syndicating articles that appear in the newspapers of other Sciences Po campuses.




Paris hit me like a bullet in the head, at first.

For weeks I would roam the streets of the city I was to spend (at least) my next two years as a tourist, wide-eyed and confused. I would look up from my phone, notice the classic Haussmanian architecture or some mouth-watering boulangerie and be punched in the face by reality.  It was the same confusingly happy feeling you get when after endless daydreaming you find out that yes, the person you have a crush on actually does like you back. You can’t really believe it. You walk through your own existence on a cloud of incredulity.

Paris could be my home, now. But it didn’t really feel like it.

It was but a few weeks in, a warm day of late September, when I first found myself ready to give Paris a shot. I was walking absentmindedly through Buttes Chaumont after a night at a house party, when I noticed this welcome change of my heart.

Perhaps I was still pervaded with a slight confusion from the previous night and the loud, cheerful breakfast-turned-lunch I’d just emerged from. Perhaps it was the utter beauty of the city lying at my feet. Perhaps it was the relief of believing I’d found some friends for life already. Or perhaps it was a weird, late-night conversation.

It was an unsung concern I had tried my best to hide behind a curtain of excitement every time I started a new adventure. Behind the buzz of meeting new people. Behind the awareness of just how lucky I was to move to another country and start a new life, there it was. A dreading question: would I ever allow myself to settle down?

We were sitting on the side of a bath tub when I found out it wasn’t just me. We’d been drinking. He admitted that he was oh, so tired of that kind of life already. At 24, he’d already seen so much of the world. He had already lived in so many different cities, He’d spent his last year traveling, trying to visit all the friends he had scattered around the world. Just a month before, he’d packed his bags in a city he’d learned to love, parting ways from the family he’d chosen, kissing a girl that couldn’t follow him to France goodbye. It was just so, so exhausting.

It was but another version of a story everyone, at that house party, could tell. Same went for the girl who was crying in a corner over the hardships of a long-distance relationship. Same for the two guys who’d met in Canada and had decided to apply for the same master’s degree in France not to lose each other. Same went for me – despite having spent an entire life surrounded Italian landscapes and having moved merely a couple of hours away. I must admit I felt less entitled to nostalgia than many other foreign students. Still, there we all were, intimately handling our fears with caution.

We were beginning to appreciate each other’s company, of course. But what about the company of those who hadn’t chased us on this path? What about those friends that were always promising long, emotional Skype calls? What about those parents who could barely stand the idea of you someday calling another country “home”? What about that desire, relegated to a corner of our minds, to finally stop spinning and just lay roots somewhere?

There’s probably a long, untranslatable, composite word in German or Russian that covers this undefinable emotion: the closed fist in the stomach you feel when your grandmother reminds you she was already married and settled at your age and there you are, planning your next solo trip. The shiver down your spine when your first classmate from high school gets pregnant and you’re trying to decide whether to stay abroad when you finish your studies or whether to come back. The reflected disappointment when you hear debates on TV about those millennials that would rather escape by the thousands rather than stay and fight for the growth of the country that raised them. Years of wanting to break free from a tiny Italian town in the middle of nowhere did not prepare me for all the goodbyes and unfulfilled promises. And there was no word for it.

Turns up there was, though, a shared sentiment, a common understanding. I wasn’t the only one that had outgrown her origins but struggled to live with the implied consequences of setting herself free. I wasn’t the only one who felt betrayed by the implications of working to become a “global citizen”, leaving a defined sense of belonging and identity behind.

Blaise Pascal once said that all man’s unhappiness stems from a single cause: his inability to remain quietly in a room. Bruce Chatwin, possibly the world’s greatest travel writer, perfectly quoting the French philosopher in his Anatomy of Restlessness, pointed out how thousands of years of literature, art, or pure history prove that wandering is a human characteristic. Still, even the British adventurer still felt a need to dedicate a chapter of his memories to his little, minimal room in London. It’s called A place to hang your hat and it does accept, within the limits of a life lived for discovery, that knowing you have a place to get back to and rest when curiosity runs out and your limbs feel numb is a priceless commodity.

If even an untameable soul like good old Bruce felt exhausted from time to time, who are we – simple students, comfortable immigrants in a country that opened her arms to us (more or less)– to fight strenuously against the desire of knowing there’s a corner of the planet you feel is your home more than any other? What about the dread of having to leave, once again, your city? What about the endless, draining process of learning to know and love a place that doesn’t seem to understand you, where there’s somewhere else you’d rather be? What about all the people who are left behind in the process?

Six months in another country and I am nothing closer to an answer than I was that sunny day of late September in Buttes Chaumont. I still sigh when I hear accomplished journalists or diplomats agreeing on how the job I so ardently want is going to ultimately result in a lifetime of sacrifice and heartbreak. I still ask myself how far my curiosity is going to bring me – and if I’m strong enough to follow it through. I still hear my parents silently sigh when they catch me calling some far place home.

But, if there’s something a drunken night spent reassuring a crying friend in a Parisian bathroom taught me anything, it’s certainly that we can, after all, make it through this tiring life we’re shaping for ourselves. With a little help from our friends.

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