Last June, I joined an essay writing competition organized by the European Union in the Philippines called What’s EUr Story. To my surprise, my entry was one of those shortlisted. The awarding ceremony was held earlier today at Alliance française where I was part of the 13 Finalists/Honorable Mentions. Our works will be published in a compendium to be published by the European Union in Brussels. 😁
Just thought of sharing it here since one of my motivations to write this was that if I didn’t place or anything, at least I would have a blog entry to post! Also, some of my mom’s friends wanted to read it. Hehe. I never considered myself a great writer but it’s something I love doing so I see this award as validation that I must be doing something right.
*Our entries didn’t include pictures but I was reminiscing a little so I added them. 😊
A Student Of Life
By Natazia Therese D. Grimares
As a child, I always dreamed of visiting Europe — specifically, France. I read endlessly about its rich history, looked at photographs of its magnificent landmarks, and fawned over its elegant fashion. I often thought of what I had to do and how long it would take to get there, knowing that traveling abroad wasn’t a luxury I could readily afford. Still, my heart yearned for seeing the Eiffel Tower and taking a stroll by the Seine River. I pictured myself in my late 30’s, people watching in daylight while eating a pain au chocolat in an al fresco restaurant in Paris. As I got older, I thought of this dream and efforts towards its realization less and less — that is until I had to decide what course to take for college. My mother sat me down and asked me what I wanted to do in life. “Toughest question I’ve ever been asked in my 18 years of existence,” I thought. I couldn’t remember giving a complete and coherent answer. But what I do remember was that I said I wanted to travel. I wished to live abroad, experience a multitude of cultures, and meet people from all walks of life. She came to the conclusion that I needed to become a diplomat to accomplish such a goal. So in filling out college application forms, European Studies was first on my list. Thankfully, I was accepted into the program at my dream university. With bright eyes, an eager mind, and high hopes in check, I was ready to start my journey. As a European Studies major, I had to specialize in a foreign language. So without hesitation, I picked French and spent every semester thereon learning the basics and rudiments of the language. It was something I really enjoyed. I spoke it every chance I could, bien sûr.
One of my motivations for attending the university I chose was the Junior Term Abroad program. My friends from the upper batches had told me that it was among, if not, the best experience of their college life. I was looking forward to having the same opportunity. But when it actually presented itself, I hesitated. My parents were already working hard to send me to a good school — paying for expensive tuition, as well as gas, toll, and allowance. I didn’t want to impose the burden of having them fund my trip which included tuition, lodging, and transportation abroad. Still, in the hopes of keeping my dream alive, I applied. In secret. I thought that if I didn’t get in, at least I tried. If I did, then maybe, somehow, I would find a way to push through with it. I sent my application on the last day of submission. I wasn’t expecting anything. But with a stroke of luck, I made it! “Merci beaucoup,” I whispered up above. I was ecstatic! I scrambled for words to say to my mother for I was to pay a reservation fee a week after. She didn’t know I had applied. However, when I told her I got accepted, she said she would do everything in her power to help me get there. Although I was at a loss for words, I was most thankful as I hugged her.
Everything worked out and months later, after all the planning and preparations, I was set to leave. I was so excited to live in France yet at the same time, so nervous about leaving home. I believed I had yet to achieve a stable level of independence. Eventually, I convinced myself that nothing could really prepare me for the journey I was about to embark on, but that uncertainty and fear of the unknown would be a part of it. I would embrace all the possibilities. Anything life decided to throw at me. Rennes, the capital city of Brittany, was to be my home for 5 months. In a recent study by The Local, Rennes beat the likes of Lyon, Nice, and even Paris as the best city in France for expats to live — and rightfully so. Timber-framed houses lined up in rows. Old cobblestone roads with trees on either side. An abundance of lovely and vibrant people, mostly students. It sure had a small-town fairytale charm to it. I lived in an apartment with four other schoolmates from my university. We would sometimes take the bus or walk to Sciences Po, our host school. The professors and host students were warm and accommodating. They taught and engaged with us passionately, and eagerly answered any queries we had. When we didn’t have any classes and when we had our breaks, we would travel. Traveling was my favorite part.
Where do I even begin? I made so many unforgettable memories in Europe. I climbed to the top of the Cologne Cathedral to see the city and the Rhine River. I swam in the waters of the French Riviera in Nice with my best friend. I saw actors and celebrities in Cannes during the Film Festival. I played with snow for the first time in the Jura Mountains of Switzerland. I couch surfed with friends in an apartment in Budapest. I visited the St. Nicholas Cathedral where Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier III in Monaco. I went on a picnic in Champ de Mars in front of the Eiffel Tower. I stood in awe of the majestic Cathedral of Notre-Dame. I explored the beautiful ruins of Pompeii in Naples. I rode a gondola through the Grand Canal of Venice. I marvelled at the still under construction Sagrada Familia of Antonio Gaudì in Barcelona. I toured the busy streets of Amsterdam while riding a bike. I could go on and on. All this I was able to accomplish at 21 years old — way earlier than my target age. I was overwhelmed by the indescribable feeling of doing things for the first time — in places I’d never imagined to see with my own eyes. Making friends with people from all over the world, eating exotic food and cuisine, and visiting all kinds of historic monuments and churches were acts that fulfilled my goal of growing through traveling. I was amazed at the diversity of all the places I visited like the astonishing differences in culture, art, architecture, and language of Eastern and Western European countries. Despite these differences, however, the whole of Europe and its diverse cultures coexist harmoniously.
Having studied extensively about the European Union and majoring in International Relations, I was fascinated by the creation of the Schengen Area and the free movement of goods, people, and services. A world without borders. Quite the Utopic vision. And there I was, reaping the benefits of having received the visa approving of such inter-country travel. “What a great thing it is to be a citizen of a European country,” I often thought. Voyaging and wandering made easy. The countless opportunities. Everyone was so pleasant and accommodating, especially students from our host school who designated us exchange buddies. They took us on excursions such as when we went to the Loire Valley in west-central France and visited Château de Chenonceau, Château de Chinon, and Château d’Azay-le-Rideau, which were all very exquisite. One of my fondest memories was when we visited Normandy in the northern region of France. We went on a 14-kilometer traversée to and from Le Mont Saint Michel, the famous island commune with a gothic abbey on a hill, which served as the inspiration for the palace of Rapunzel in the animated film, Tangled. It was extremely low tide and our guide had us follow an old pilgrim’s path which pilgrims of the Middle Ages would take to get there. Rather than a path, however, it was a muddy traverse that felt more like we were walking into the sea. For miles, we could only see the bird-filled rock of Tombelaine and beyond it, the captivating silhouette of Mont St. Michel. It was a tough walk. But it was an incredible sensation feeling one with the people of the past — journeying through the same route while maneuvering around the ever-changing tides. Our guide also treated us to a quicksand experience where some of our companions volunteered to be ‘trapped’ and afterwards, we did a team effort of pulling them out.
Another favorite moment was when we had our farewell party in Parc des Gayeulles in Rennes, hosted by the organization from our host school that took care of exchange students. At one point, with music playing and some audible chanting, they sat down in a line and carried all the exchange students overhead and continuously passed us on to the next person behind them. Although we we weren’t entirely sure what was going on and some people would fall, we knew it was all in good fun. At that moment, we were all unbound by our differences and free of inhibitions. No race, ethnicity, or religion separated us. Later on, I found out that what I had thought to be a variant of crowd surfing was actually a tradition from Fêtes de Bayonne in the Basque Country. It was really nice of them to include us. But it wasn’t surprising. They made us feel very welcome during our entire stay. I never felt like a stranger and found a sense of belonging — something I never thought I would find away from home.
Perhaps home wasn’t even really far away after all. We were invited by the Philippine Embassy in France to attend the Farewell Reception of H.E. Ambassador Cristina G. Ortega in Paris. She happens to be my grand-aunt whom I draw great inspiration from. We celebrated her many diplomatic achievements and the forging of closer ties between the Philippines and France. I’m so glad we went because the whole Filipino Community was present for a night of recollection and thanksgiving. We met many Filipinos who thrived in their different fields such as fashion, theater, business, and trade. “How remarkable,” I thought as I pictured myself standing in the Ambassador’s shoes, entertaining my own constituents whom I have helped and cherished deeply. I was determined more than ever to fulfill my dream of becoming a diplomat.
Home was also our newfound friends. On our last week, we international students had a potluck which featured different cuisines from the various countries that we came from. I was able to learn and appreciate the food types and staples of other people. It was the perfect close to our memorable trip as we reminisced about the past months. It’s amazing how in a relatively short time, we were able to exchange ideas, share each other’s cultures, and ultimately, find a friend in one another. The respect and admiration we had for one another was exhilarating. We influenced each other positively in ways that we never thought was even possible. Until now, we keep in touch and update each other on life events and new ventures.
The impact of my Junior Term Abroad is felt until this very day. My experience allowed me to communicate with others more freely, embrace every alien concept, and become more self-reliant. I returned home with a fresh perspective and unparalleled clarity. Before my trip, I had always thought of the world as scary and dangerous…but I was wrong. There is so much good and beauty in it if you’re willing to lose and immerse yourself in the ocean of opportunities. There is so much to learn if you look beyond. You’ll never know what kinds of places your own two feet will take you, and the serendipitous encounters and lessons you’ll have with people whom you may never see again. I discovered that the term that would perfectly encapsulate me and my meaningful journey is my bold transformation into “a student of life.”