TAPIF: One Year Later

At the beginning of October 2014, I began my year in Compiègne with the Teaching Assistant Program in France. One year ago.

I was supposed to arrive at the end of September, but plane engine issues coupled with airport strikes in Paris (Ah, la joie des grèves françaises!) delayed my arrival in France by 10 hours. However, I arrived. And what a year I had!

When many people describe a profound experience, they say it “changed my life.” This often implies that something (a quality, an idea, a person) was missing before the event took place. My seven months in Compiègne were not life-changing in the sense that I became someone I wasn’t. Rather, I changed because qualities that lay dormant in me were revived and strengthened, and even some faults were diminished. I begin to think that growth is not so much an addition or subtraction as it is a refinement of spirit. If God formed us fearfully and wonderfully, He must have given us everything we need to go through life, and sends people or experiences into our lives accordingly to draw out and refine these different qualities in us.

I’m not going to write a “listicle” for this topic because it’s too simple. Rather, I’ll just share two of the most poignant lessons from my time in France, hopefully in a semi-coherent manner.

I’ll be honest: I’m no expert on children.  I took a babysitting class in middle school, but there were never any kids in my neighborhood to babysit, and my youngest cousins lived far away. I never took a pedagogy class in college. So no, I didn’t really know what I was in for when I accepted a position teaching middle school English. Since I returned home, I’ve gotten a lot of messages from prospective teaching assistants expressing the same fear: “I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve never taught anyone anything! How am I supposed to teach them for a whole year?” To those assistants who might be reading this post: you don’t need a long resume of teaching experience to do this. You just need to be a resource.

On January 7, 2015, the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were attacked, and many of France’s prominent political cartoonists were killed. The next day, I walked into my weekly conversation club with a lesson all ready. One of my students raised his hand and said, “Miss, can we talk about Charlie Hebdo?” I could see the fear and pain in the eyes of my 12- and 13-year-old students, so I agreed. We spent the whole hour discussing the event (in English) and I said very little. The class carried the conversation all on its own. My only remark was at the end of the lesson: “There are many people in the United States who are thinking of you and who support you.”

Kids are used to adults not taking them seriously. It used to infuriate me when I was younger, and I’m sure it was the same for you. The best thing you can be for any child is a willing listener.

Outside from teaching, I became bolder. I learned bite the bullet of fear and take chances, especially when it came to meeting new friends.

There is a stereotype that the French are not as friendly and open as Americans are. In my experience, this is only partly true. Most of the French people I met were very friendly and open, especially once they found out I could speak French well. But it was not the same smothering friendliness that you often see from Americans. It was a reserved politeness that slowly, organically developed into friendship.

I found out about the Communauté Chrétienne des Étudiants (Catholic community at the local university), a week or two after I arrived. It took me another month to work up the courage to attend a meeting. What sort of community was this? What if they never had an international student before? What if my French wasn’t good enough? And was I even allowed to join because I wasn’t a student?

God makes swift work of our doubts when we trust Him and take a leap of faith. I attended my first CCE Mass and dinner in November, and my only regret was not going sooner! In this community, I found warm, welcoming people from all over France and the world who cared about me and made me feel at home. Some of my best memories of the year come from this community. It was so wonderful to make real French friends!

And of course, I can’t forget the other language assistants I met from all over the world, an eclectic little family of expats that supported one another exploring a new country. And abundant kindness flowed in from my roommates, my coworkers, my students and their families, and even the everyday compiègnois. Most greeted me with a kind bonjour and smile, and many went beyond the call of politeness, inviting me to dinners and parties, or taking me on excursions to tourist sites in the area. It was truly heartbreaking to leave a place that had become like home in less than a year.

Toward the end of my stay, I thanked as many people as I could in person for their welcome and hospitality. One friend responded,  “It was nothing. You were so dynamic and happy that you fit right in.”

Goodness attracts goodness. You don’t have to be an outgoing or extroverted person to find friends in a strange land. You just need to be present, be open, be kind. There will be times of loneliness and homesickness, and that’s OK. But if you have courage enough to reach outside of yourself, you will make a home wherever you go.

Merci à tous qui m’a très bien accueillir pendant mon séjour à Compiègne. And bon courage to all the new language assistants in France this year.

À bientôt!

– Vicky

Sweet Endings: My Lenten Dating Fast Wrap-Up

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OH MY.

I HAVE NOT BLOGGED IN TWO MONTHS.

WHAT?

Between final exams, graduation and packing up my life, I never got to tell you all how my dating fast ended. Well, the short answer is that it didn’t.

True, I finished Becker’s book, did all the exercises and reflections and learned a great deal about myself in the process. But like the story of Jesus and his apostles, my dating fast didn’t end with the Resurrection of our Lord. I still have a long way to go in my walk with Christ, as does everyone else; anyone who says otherwise is fooling themselves. I’m not perfect. I still have many wounds that need healing. I’m still a hopeless romantic and there are times that I get impatient or anxious to be in a relationship. But God has blessed me abundantly in the past two months with friends, fellowship, peace and academic success.

In a sort of catch-up post, I’ll share a few of those blessings here:

1. My school’s second annual Beautiful Women of God retreat, which I helped to plan. I also got to talk about my dating fast experiences and share my testimony with 50 other women, including one of my best friends from high school, who was visiting for the weekend!

2. Solidified post-graduation plans. More on those to come later!

3. A wonderful 22nd birthday, despite it being so close to finals. Celebrating with my roommates and newspaper ed board, and the countless birthday messages from my family and friends. Thank you from my heart.

4. A fantastic senior week with friends I didn’t even know I had, which included a wine tour, jumping in the fountains on campus (a tradition at my school) and senior formal, to which I wore a dreamy pink gown that I paid 40 bucks for at a thrift shop.

5. Getting to cut off 12 inches of my hair to donate to Pantene Beautiful Lengths, an organization that makes wigs for women who have lost their hair due to cancer. For more information on donating, please visit their website.

6. Fruitful conversations with family members, friends, classmates, campus ministers, host family and most importantly, with Jesus. 🙂

7. A new laptop, which I am currently using to type this post. I’m officially an Apple convert. Thanks, Mom and Dad!

8. Graduating cum laude and getting all A’s and A-minuses for my final semester of college! God is SO good, all the time.

9. Spending graduation weekend with my four favorite people in the world: my parents, sister and grandma.

10. The new chapter of my life that begins tomorrow, as I head off to Philadelphia for training, and then to Florida for my summer internship. I won’t give away too many specifics because this is the internet and people are crazy.

BONUS 11: You, reading this blog right now. You are a blessing to me, whether you have followed this journey from the beginning, or have just started. Merci mille fois!

A bientôt!

– Vicky

What have been some blessings in your life lately? Share them in the comments below!

Blessings Come Through Snowflakes: My Lenten Dating Fast, Day 1

“What if Your blessings come through raindrops? What if Your healing comes through tears? What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near?” – Laura Story, “Blessings”

This is going to make me lose some of my Catholic street cred, but this is the first year I’m taking Lent seriously.

I know, I know, where the heck have I been for the past 21 years? Well, I’m not going to make any more excuses.

Throughout my college years, and especially this past year, I’ve often caught myself throwing spiritual temper tantrums. It’s odd, because I never really threw tantrums as a kid; one look from my dad squashed all thought of rebellion. Yet here I was, fighting my Heavenly Father as He tried to draw me closer to Him, to call me to a deeper understanding of my faith, to help me be satisfied with His love before anyone else’s. This last point has kept me from a deeper relationship with God for a long time. I’ve been single for about six months now, and I don’t think I ever fully healed from my last breakup. It sounds backwards; why wouldn’t I want to get over it and move on?

The truth is, I have wanted to move on. I just haven’t allowed myself to.

Our culture has a hostile attitude toward grief of all kinds: breakups, death, illness, divorce, financial troubles, loss of a job, etc. We’re given a grace period of two or three weeks before we begin to hear silent remarks of “That was ages ago! Why are you still crying over it? Can’t you just move on?” Anyone who has ever been through grief knows that these things don’t just vanish in two weeks. A scent, a look, a thought will trigger a memory months, years or even decades later. Bottling it all up does no one any good. So this Lenten season, I am allowing myself to heal, to grieve, to run into Jesus’ arms and find rest.

I stumbled upon Katherine Becker’s book “The Dating Fast” while browsing through Catholic articles on the Interwebs one night. I’m sure there are other types of dating fasts out there, but Becker’s is a 40-day devotional about healing from past relationships, building a deeper relationship with Jesus, and rediscovering God’s true plan for love and marriage. Oh, and by the way, no dating, no crushing, for 40 days. I’m serious. I ordered the book from Amazon and it came in on Valentine’s Day — too perfect, right? So for the next 40 days, I’ll be reflecting at random intervals about what Jesus has been revealing to me and how I’ve grown.

Day 1: “Love is patient, love is kind, yadayadayada” – 1 Corinthians 13:4-8.

Ah, the classic wedding passage. I admit that I rolled my eyes when I saw this as my first reading. Wasn’t I supposed to turn away from taking BuzzFeed wedding quizzes and focus on God? But as I reread it slowly, I realized that the passage is not just a bunch of rules about how two married people should love each other; it’s a reflection of how God loves us. Becker’s reflections suggested replacing the word “Love” with “God.” “God is patient. God is kind, etc.” This is how God loves each and every one of us, even if we are not patient and kind and loving to Him or to others.

But I was still frustrated. I didn’t know how to let Jesus love me. Jesus couldn’t take me out to dinner and give me a big hug and kiss at the end of a rough day. How could I be satisfied with just His love if He was up in Heaven and I was stuck down here? I finally said, “Jesus, You need to show me how much You love me, because I can’t see it.”

When I left my apartment to go to my first class, it was snowing. I felt the snowflakes hitting my cheeks and lips, and I imagined they were little kisses from Jesus. I know, I’m so corny. But Jesus kept showing me little ways He could love me, through a stranger who held the door open for me, or a classmate who ran to get me paper towels after I had spilled my coffee. Of course, I also received His love at Ash Wednesday Mass, through ashes, Communion and the faces of my beloved community.

I wouldn’t call today the best day ever: I took a grueling Italian midterm, snapped at one of my colleagues, and dragged my feet on answering emails. But through it all, Jesus made my day better. He’s not stuck up there in Heaven; He is with us, always. He is ever-vigil, always scheming new ways to show us how much He loves us. He wants to show every single woman how beautiful and loved she is; He’s just waiting on your “Yes” to His love.

How are you preparing for Easter during the season of Lent? Tell me in the comments!

A plus!

– Vicky

For more information on Katherine Becker and “The Dating Fast”, please visit www.thedatingfast.com.