There is little hard evidence as to why people cry on airplanes, but scientists speculate it’s a combination of stress and fatigue from traveling, sadness about leaving somewhere, and low pressure depleting blood-oxygen levels and wearing down emotional stamina.
In my case, the fact that I was watching Me and Earl and the Dying Girl for the first time and flying home alone from a hell of a semester in France on Thanksgiving day may have had something to do with it.
I don’t have time to tell the whole story. I’m not sure anyone actually knows the whole story. I don’t think that, three years later, I would be able to piece it together anyway. So this essay is, as much as anything else, a way for me to process it all. In the interest of time, you’ll have to just take my word for it, as many people, even friends, have not: It was a bad semester. Not all bad—in some ways here and there it was spectacular. But, in short, it took me a long time to find friends; I wasn’t getting enough to eat; I was terrified of interacting with anyone in French; and honestly, clichéd and kind of pathetic though it was, I was lovesick. These things pile up.
One thing I realized quickly is that I did not need hard classes on top of everything else. Close to forty percent of the way through the semester—at the last moment I could—I decided to drop down a level. To my credit, I guess, I had been placed at the highest one, but at no point did I believe that I belonged there. I think few people believed I did.
“Jeff nous quitte,” announced Dominique, the professor, to the C1 class on my last day. Jeff is leaving us. Though it appears to, the French verb does not carry the same connotation of quitting as it does in English. In French, quitter can mean something as emotionally uncharged as exiting a building or walking from one room to another. So it was that Dominique said it, with no hard feelings I was aware of.
It certainly felt like I was quitting, though. Well, I mean, Dominique didn’t mean it that way, but I was very much quitting. Something was harder than I wanted it to be, so I stopped doing it. Isn’t that what that is? It felt like all the other students felt like I was quitting too.
Maybe I’m forcing it, but there’s sort of a theme here.
The official story is that, after the Paris attacks, I no longer felt safe being in France, nor did my parents feel safe with me there. Military weapons had been found stockpiled in Lyon, after all; someone had been beheaded by ISIS in St. Étienne, both about an hour away from Grenoble. Truly, it’s not that I wasn’t a little uneasy.
Mostly, I hadn’t felt “safe” that whole semester—not secure, not stable, anyway. I’ve only told this to a few people, but mostly, I was just the ready to get the hell out and stop dealing with everything I had been dealing with. The Paris attacks were part final straw and part good enough reason for me to go home.
What no one ever told me, however, is that sometimes it is not relief you find in leaving difficult situations. Sometimes it is disappointment—that things were not what you had hoped, of course, but also disappointment in yourself. Sometimes it’s grief, sometimes guilt, sometimes regret.
The night before Thanksgiving, I sat with pretty much all of the friends I had made on that trip at Falafel Byblos, laughing, not worried about packing yet, and truly, at least more than anything else, thankful. We were leaving to get drinks when my dad called. The strike delaying my flight, allowing me this bit of time, had ended. I would need to be at the airport early the next morning unless we wanted to pay $1,000 to change tickets. I said hurried goodbyes and left to pack.
Back home, on my way out the door, my host mom and I exchanged la bise (the double-cheek kiss) for the first time. That won’t strike most of you as weird, but courtesies like this are a big deal in France. Most students in the group had greeted their hosts this way back in September and had continued greeting them like this since. My host mom and I just never got around to it. After missing that initial one for whatever reason, it never felt like the right time, I guess. But until that moment, I thought I had been the only one who felt weird about it, like it had been missing. Only if you have procrastinated until the last possible moment on some important gesture with a family member—thanking them or telling them you love them or apologizing—do you understand how that felt. Not like relief.
I remember very little of the next day—just watching Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and crying. It was midnight again, France time, when I sat down for the turkey and mashed potatoes my family had waited to make. I was overwhelmed with fatigue, with uncertainty about what it would look like to finish the semester and see friends who didn’t know I was back, and with so much doubt about the previous two weeks and, really, three months. But the food was good, and I did miss my family. I don’t know exactly what I felt then because it all felt so surreal. It wasn’t quite thanks.
Jeffrey (‘17) ultimately settled on studying film and media studies and French, though food is his greatest passion. He lives in Grand Rapids and is trying to teach himself computer science so he can, among other things, cyberbully Elon Musk.