“Bonjour.” This was the first word that I spoke upon arrival at L’Académie française, the Virginia Governor’s French Language Academy. Although this word is usually interpreted as a simple “hello,” it also possesses a deeper meaning, which is why it holds a special place in my heart. This seemingly ordinary word conveys much more than a greeting; its literal translation wishes upon others a good day. And living each day to its fullest was precisely how I intended to spend my time at the Academy. While the beginning was indeed promising, I would soon realize that not everything was as picture-perfect as I had imagined it to be.
When signing the oath committing myself to speak only French and avoid any form of English communication for three weeks, I was oblivious to the challenges that awaited me. This experience began as an internal struggle, as I often asked myself, “Why did I voluntarily place myself in this demanding full-immersion setting, away from my family, without a cell phone, and completely secluded from the rest of our world?” As I questioned the wisdom of my choices, I was simultaneously reminded of an image of my younger self. The unwavering memory on which I was now reflecting involved my bewildered five-year-old self mounting the stairs of a school bus, surrounded by strangers speaking English, a language I was unable to comprehend at the time. After having immigrated to the United States from my native country, Israel, only a few days earlier, I was both eager and anxious for my first day of Kindergarten.
The constant replay of this vivid memory in my mind was now conjuring up the word “shalom,” a Hebrew word, the first one that I heard as my parents welcomed me into this world. Similar to ‘bonjour,’ this word also possesses a double meaning, but this time, along with “hello,” it means “goodbye.” This was precisely how I felt at that moment: farewell to my old life, hello to the beginning of a new chapter. While I was yearning for this day since the moment I arrived in the United States, I was overwhelmed by the confusion circulating through my mind, and tears began flowing down my face. Since I felt as if I had just been ripped away from the only language, culture, community, and reality I had ever come to know, frustration and loneliness initially trumped my previous optimism.
My first year in the United States was extremely difficult. Learning a new language and immersing myself in a new culture required an immense amount of patience, perseverance, and resilience. Nonetheless, successfully overcoming these challenges left a powerful impact on the rest of my life, molding me into the multi-faceted individual that I have become. Following this experience, I promised my future self that I would forever continue to seek new adventures, never halt my curiosity for the meaning of words, and always embrace my unique cultural identity despite the obstacles that I would encounter along my journey.
This past summer, I fulfilled the promise I made to myself over a decade ago, by reliving an experience similar to the one I underwent upon my arrival in the United States. My three weeks at L’Académie française had turned into a life-changing experience. I was granted the opportunity to analyze French poems, learn Cameroonian dance, sing the national anthem of Côte d’Ivoire, immerse myself in making traditional crêpes, and admire the coexistence of cultures and religions in Senegal. The entire experience was an enlightening one, for each day, I was living a new adventure by enriching my mind with the study of the French language and culture. At the conclusion of L’Académie française, I said, “au revoir,” expressing not a final goodbye, but my intention to fulfill the literal translation of the phrase, “to be seen again.”