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Endings & Beginnings in Montpellier, France

Updated: Dec 16, 2022

As a graduating undergrad student at UMass Lowell, I’d been torn between continuing at the school to complete a Master’s in Education, or applying elsewhere to try to get into an MFA program in Creative Writing. Both appealed to me for different reasons. The one-year M.Ed would fast-track me to a teaching job, while the MFA would allow me to further hone my writing skills and align me with a group of like-minded writers. In the end, I opted for the teaching track (I was already in my 30s and anxious to start a new career), but after my first year or so of teaching, I circled back to researching low-residency MFA programs. With the low-res model, I could take online courses while I taught, and then complete on-campus residencies once or twice a year, depending on the program.

The University of New Orleans, I’d discovered, offered a program with annual residencies not on-campus in New Orleans, but in various locations throughout Europe. Their flagship residency was based in Madrid, Spain, with a secondary program in Montpellier, France as well as a program specializing in poetry at a castle in Italy. On a whim I applied—with a while-the-hell-not-shrug—knowing that these programs were competitive and only accepted a small percentage of applicants.

So it wasn’t until I’d been accepted that real decisions needed to be made. Did I want to commit to a three-year program, so soon after completing my undergrad and then M.Ed? Did I want to earmark the next three summers to studying in Europe? After all, one of the benefits of my new teaching job was the freedom to decompress over the summer—did I really want to fill my calendar with year-round coursework: readings and essays and assignments? Again?

One night I drove to my parents’ house and told them about the acceptance letter and voiced the pros and cons I’d been considering the last few days, leaning on the negatives: time consumption, stress, tuition, airfare to Europe, another lengthy commitment. But it was my father who so easily dismissed all my contrived pessimism: “I say do it,” he’d said. “Why the hell not? That’s what life’s about: taking a shot and trying things.” Of course, it had been the response I’d been looking for all along, the one I hadn’t quite been able to give myself. And I accepted the offer the next day.

At the airport a few months later, my mother hugged me on the sidewalk and said, “I’m nervous for you.” I laughed and told her I’d be fine, but the truth was I was nervous too. Five weeks in France was a long time, especially for someone who had never been abroad before. I was traveling alone, and I didn’t know a single person where I was headed. I barely knew where on the map Montpellier was even located. I felt like I was stepping into an abyss.

* * *

But the juxtaposition between how I felt boarding that plane in Boston and I how I’d felt a month and a half later flying back home, could not have been more extreme. It feels hyperbolic to call the summer life-changing, but, man, I think it was. France opened my eyes in ways nothing else had before. When I’d abandoned school after a couple false starts in the years following high school, I’d pinballed almost randomly from one career attempt to the next. I worked as a “counselor” at a couple locked-door mental health facilities, though counselor wasn’t quite accurate—I was more of a guard, or babysitter, a body in the room, keeping patients safe. Very little actual counseling occurred. Not from my end, anyway. I tried Florida for a while, shingled roofs, laid bricks, unloaded trucks. I settled into tending bar for several years. All the while, I’d occasionally get asked if I’d ever thought about going back to school. And when I got such questions, I lied. “Maybe,” I’d say. Or, “I’m thinking about it.” Or, “Probably, one of these days.” But the truth was, I wasn’t thinking about it at all. I’d been a weak student the first time around, to say the least, and the last thing I wanted to do was go through all the hoops - the financial investment - of starting back again, only to drop a class at the end of September because I was struggling, then drop another class mid-October because I’d missed it too many times, and then not bother to enroll for spring, and the whole failed experiment would crash and burn—again.

But here I was in the south of France, taking the first steps toward my second master’s degree. I called it a reward. A reward for finally going back and finishing my bachelor’s and enjoying every minute of it. A reward for taking the logical road and completing that one-year M. Ed so I could finally get the teaching job I’d wanted for so long. I modeled myself, in secret of course, after Indiana Jones—bespectacled classroom teacher, clean-shaven and academic in one world, rugged adventurer globe-trotting the planet in the other. While many teachers taught summer school programs or worked on earning professional development points, I liked the idea of the teacher who spends their outside-of-the-classroom time out in the world, collecting real and unique life experiences, and bringing that knowledge back into the classroom.

By the end of that opening week in Montpellier, the first jolt of panic struck: we’d completed a full week already. This was going to go by much too fast. I needed to make sure I slowed down, that I appreciated every minute of this funky, tropical city on the Mediterranean Sea. And so that’s what I did.

I spent weekends traveling. The first weekend was a scheduled group excursion to Paris by TGV speed train. We visited the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, ate at sidewalk restaurants drinking wine, listening to music, taking in the lights and the night. The second weekend we had another group trip, this one by overnight train to Venice, Italy. After two short weeks, I was in love with Europe. The more I saw, the more I realized how little I’d seen. Paris had gone by too fast, so on a free weekend, I went with a small group back to the City of Light. I also visited Nice, Avignon, Carcassonne, and Nime. Then booked a place on the beach just outside Montpellier for a final weekend. While some spent those free weekends in Montpellier, catching up on classwork or catching up on sleep, I stayed busy; I stayed moving. I’d thought five long weeks would be leisurely, that I’d have all the time in the world to read and write, and that I'd probably be fending off homesickness by the end of it, but the days were falling away too fast, and there was too much to do, too much to see, too many experiences I’d left on the table. Not only was I not homesick, but I hadn’t thought of Boston at all. Not once.

There is a British pub in Montpellier that we visited regularly, probably three times a week, at least, called The Shakespeare. Our dorms were well outside of town, so any walk into civilization, for dinner, drinks, a movie, or shopping, took a three-quarter of an hour commitment. We’d arrive at The Shakespeare tired and thirsty. We became regulars. The owner, a man who sounded—and looked—quite a bit like Paul McCartney, got to know us well. He’d bring us a round of free shots once in a while, and then take one for himself. Often, we all played cards at one of the tables, or sometimes brought our drinks outside for some July Mediterranean air, and inevitably, reluctantly, began the long walk back, but feeling rejuvenated and buzzed and happy. One of the great benefits of a study abroad program, of living in one space for so long, is that you really do turn into a regular. Maybe not quite a local—not in five weeks—but certainly comfortable. You know your way around town, have favorite spots, and have time to settle into a place. For a least a short amount of time, you’re living like a local.

I found an ice cream shop I really liked, and stopped in frequently. They offered four sizes, and even though I spoke almost no French, I got the gist: petit, moyen, grand, and amėricain. I ordered the small, like the locals all did—little golf ball-sized treats atop their cones, the perfect size for an afternoon snack while strolling shops. Even on a hot day, the ice cream didn’t have time to melt down your hand.

I bought my first ever pair of flip-flops in France. I’d never liked how they felt, couldn’t get used to that piece of rubber between my toes. But the local men looked sort of cool in theirs, so I finally bought a pair. I noticed the local men wore T-shirts significantly tighter fitting than the baggy tees I was wearing, so I bought a couple new form-fitting shirts. And during my weekend stay at the beach, one local shop sold inexpensive Capri pants. The first couple weeks I’d been in France, Capri pants had looked weird, but now, in my fourth week, I’d grown to actually like them, especially with the fitted tee and the flip flops. Now, my American shorts, the hem well above my knee, looked weird, even a little dorky. So I bought a pair of Capri pants, and then, a week later, pulled the trigger on a second pair.

After our farewell dinner outside of the city of Nime, we returned by bus to Montpellier and continued the celebration. I was celebrating not only the end of a great summer, of course, but I was appreciating this new beginning—the completion of the first leg of a three-year academic journey, of course, but really a broader rebirth of sorts. Without being too melodramatic, something had changed. I’d felt it even then, at the end of that first summer, in that very moment. I hadn’t yet skinny-dipped in the Balearic Sea off of Barcelona yet—that would be the following year, or run with the bulls yet in the throes of the San Fermín Festival in Pamplona—that was still two summers away; or been tossed off a sprinting horse on a ranch in San Miguel de Allande, Mexico: those were all to come. But I knew then that I’d found the first of what would certainly be a lifetime of special places, that I’d found a niche of people who were writers and travelers and other like-minded souls living on the fringes. I hadn’t yet started a new job as a professor of writing and literature at my alma mater, and I hadn’t yet visited the nearly two dozen European countries with the future wife who I wouldn’t meet for three more years. Those were all coming. And though I didn’t know at the time what form these special moments would take, I knew then that they were there, just beyond the horizon.

Late that night the celebration devolved into a toga party. We were drinking freely and without reservation, toasting our recent past and our futures. At one point I wandered out into the courtyard, alone, and noticed an inky night sky blistered with stars. I lay back on one of the picnic tables and folded my hands on my stomach—the toga fluttering—and I drew long, easy breaths to center myself, making a note to stay in this small, private moment as long as I possibly could. The night was alive with meteor showers, and I watched white streaks of light scratch the sky like matches.

* * *

On my return to Boston, I decided—only half in jest—to wear my new French look on the plane, so that when I got home I’d be presenting my family the brand new me. I figured I'd get a good laugh, some eye rolls. I wore my navy blue Capri pants, a new tee, and a pair of Euro athletic shoes I’d bought in my final days in France. I was dark with tan and had lost fifteen pounds, and it looked as though I’d completely reinvented myself. Which, of course, I had. Though it had nothing to do with what I was wearing.

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