International School Memories

Sometimes I swear I forget I lived abroad.  Other times, I can feel the way my times in Switzerland impacted my present life, particularly my days attending international school as a young teenager.

Here’s a list of my Top Ten (no particular order) memories from attending my international school in Francophone Switzerland:

1.  Having friends and classmates from what seemed like EVERYWHERE.

“You know, my friend from my school in Switzerland who lives in France but she’s actually half British half Caribbean…” 

“No, the one who lived in Fiji after Sudan but we met in Switzerland in between.”

2. Going on field trips to the Swiss Alps, France, Morocco… etc.

While all of my American friends back home got to go to Washington D.C. for their 8th grade field trip, I went to Provence, France with my classmates.  The next year, in 9th grade, I got to take an unforgettable trip with other students from different grades to Morocco for 8 days.


3. Hearing different languages every day.

From Korean to French to Spanish to Russian to Arabic… oh and let’s not forget English… 

4.  …And with that, being taught random phrases in these languages.

At fourteen or fifteen I learned how to swear in both Italian and Russian.  I haven’t forgot since!


5. Exploring a new identity as an American.

I never thought of myself as an American until I was surrounded by those from so many other places on a daily basis.  

6.  … And navigating the identity of being an international student on top of being an American.

It was a surreal time, because not only did I have my identity as an American, but I had to try and understand what it meant to be an international student– an American abroad.  My international student identity is what connected me to all of my foreign classmates. We were all so different in our upbringings and this was the one thing that tied us together.

7. Not taking anything too seriously at school.

I’m not sure if it was all international schools or just mine, but schoolwork was a low priority for most of the students.  Fun seemed to be the main focus, and perhaps this was because of the constant uprootimagesing.  Most of the students had no idea how long they’d be there or where they’d be next, so homework didn’t seem as important as exploring and goofing off.

8. Eating all kinds of foods.

“I’ll give you my grilled cheese if you give me a bite of your sushi…”

Moroccan Tajine, Japanese Tempura, British sandwiches with Marmite… It was all a new experience.99228701_18b96e7633_b

9. Taking the train to Geneva from school.

My school was located in Versoix, Switzerland.  It wasn’t too far from the city of Geneva, where, as 9th graders, many of my friends and I were able to hop on the train which was a brief walk from school.  We would walk around Geneva and explore (and as we got close to the young drinking age… drink) and enjoy the freedom of being an adolescent in a place with public transportation.

10. Not having to be politically correct… at all.

You could call someone black, white, gay, American, Russian and use all the stereotypes in the world and no one cared… mainly because most of them were true.  And even if they weren’t– it was never meant in a hateful way, but rather just a way of identifying in the chaos of an international environment.HELLO in eight different languages

geneva-all-inclusive-vacation-packagesimages taken off of google images.


Life in More Than One Language

I’m fascinated by the way the mind works.  One thing that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about over the past few years has been the way the brain develops a second language, or third, or fourth even. Being able to think, speak, read, and write in another language than your original, at least for me, makes me feel as though I’m transported into another means of existence.  I like the way I can physically be in the same world, same place, yet my mind is working in a different location. When I moved to Switzerland in middle school, my international school required that all of the students in 7th grade or older take not only French, the local language, but also Spanish or German.  I remember the panic that had risen in my throat at the time– how could they expect me to take both?!  I didn’t know much more than a word of either. IMG_8419

I remember feeling trapped, my eyes glazing over as I stared at the French text or made strained efforts to listen to the teacher speaking Spanish before me.  I constantly mixed up the words, often using a French conjugation in Spanish class or a Spanish verb during French.  My brain was a mixed up mess, the knots of words tangled up in every which way.

For that year I hated going to language classes, my heart racing and my stomach churning each time I was called on to speak in my awful American accent.  I remember receiving C’s in both classes, disappointment flooding my veins. With time, things changed.  My brain moved a little quicker with each passing week, allowing my confidence to slowly grow.  With more exposure, the pieces of the puzzles started to click.  I started to take an interest in the way that language was like a game… that conjugating could be fun, as long as I fell into the pattern.  My brain finally built the divider that it needed between French and Spanish, each language existing in its own labeled file in my mind.  I only pulled out Spanish during Spanish class and French during French class (or when out and about in Switzerland). Today I’m nearly fluent in Spanish.  My listening skills have improved vastly, and I feel as though I can pull out words without too much additional thought.  My French is still decent, although I no longer take it in college.  I’ve even tried to teach myself some Portuguese, something that comes easily because of my knowledge of other romance languages. So what am I getting at here?  That learning another language is a challenge, but it can be exciting.  It requires patience, time, and dedication (or perhaps being forced by your crazy international school in Europe).  I learned how each language is unique and set up differently.  English and French can’t always be directly translated, and that’s part of the fun: finding your own way to convey similar messages through different systems of communication. Learning other languages makes my mind feel flexible.  Thinking in Spanish during certain moments throughout the day adds another dimension of color to my life, even if only I can feel it.  Not to mention, I’m excited to eventually go on a term abroad to South America, where I will be able to actually communicate with others in this language. Learn another language– it’s one of the best things you can do for your brain, or at least, in my opinion.

“So you’re fluent in Swiss, right? Or is it Swedish?”

Once upon a time– the year 2007 to be exact– I moved to Geneva, Switzerland with my family because of my father’s job.  In 2010 we returned to living in New Jersey, after a three-year stint of living in Europe and attending an international school.

I always joke (except we all know that a part of me is quite serious about this) that I left the country “to go through my awkward phase.”  This obviously wasn’t planned, but it did just so happen to be the case.  I lived in Europe from ages 13-15 (7th-9th grade), and in my case, these were my roughest years in the sense of “awkward”: Socially, physically, emotionally.  I left New Jersey as a child, and returned as a mostly-not-awkward-but-still-a-little-quirky 16-year-old.

I could go on and on about my experiences living over there, both positive and negative, as well as everything in between, but that isn’t what I’m writing this post for.  I want to reflect on a part that most people often don’t think of when I tell them about my move to Europe and back– the discomfort of returning ‘home,’ when everything has changed.  

What exactly do I mean by everything?  I mean my views of the world, my mental state, my appearance, my familial and social relationships.  My tastes, my interests, my perceptions, my language abilities.  My experiences.  A change from childhood to adolescence.  From naive to not all-knowing, but more aware of so many things than before.
Even more so, not only were there all the changes, but there were also the constants.  Discomfort crawled up my spine frequently those first few months back in New Jersey, as I, a 16-year-old, entered the same home I lived in at age 12.  The home was exactly the same, but I was not.  It felt all wrong, as if I no longer fit into a puzzle that I was supposed to be a part of.  What was I doing incorrectly?  Why did I have to change, only to come back?  Entering high school was an even stranger part.  I wasn’t used to being in public school surrounded by 99% white Americans.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with being a white American; I am one, after all.  It simply felt unnatural to go from an environment of diversity of ethnicity, race, religion, and language, to a place where fitting in and being the same appeared to be the goal of the student body (not saying it necessarily was that way, but it was how I felt and perceived those things).  I re-joined friends that I had from fifth/sixth grade.  It didn’t feel right to see them in the high school environment, with their subtle changes and their growth from when I had last known them.  More so, I couldn’t stand the way that people expected me to be the same person I was when I left.  I was far from that.  I know that my friends were just doing what they could to help me re-adjust, but I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable at their attempts to bring me back to the past– as if my three years in Switzerland hadn’t happened.  I suddenly felt as though perhaps those years of excitement, adventures, struggles, and challenges hadn’t occurred, but perhaps were dreams, figments of my vivid imagination.  I knew rationally that I had lived there and that those things had happened, but a part of me was scared that I was going to lose it, and let go of all that I had experienced just so that I could ‘fit in’ at my American high school.  At age 16 I had one of several identity crisis’s, wondering where I belonged and if I could belong.

When people did ask me about Switzerland, they often mixed up terms, unsure of what languages were spoken in Switzerland or where the country was located.  “So you speak… what is it, Swiss?” I would carry on to explain that French, German, and Italian are the country’s national languages, but most locals speak English.  I happened to live in the Francophone region, and my international school pushed both French and Spanish simultaneously, causing me to eventually (to my surprise… it had been a rather rocky start) fall in love with language learning.  I couldn’t get mad at these individuals, because Switzerland was so far removed from their daily lives.  I couldn’t expect others to just ‘get it’ and know about my experiences without my explanation.  At the same time, I couldn’t expect people to always want to hear about my past.  I’ve come to learn that it’s hard for a listener to engage if they cannot connect anything from within their own lives to the conversation.  Hence, why most of the time I tried to stay in the present and refer to things I didn’t always care about, just for the sake of fitting in and avoiding putting others to sleep with my rambling.  Now, at age 20, I can finally say that I think I’ve come closer to figuring it out: It’s important to be true to yourself, but it’s also important to put others into consideration too.  It’s challenging to find that balance, but I believe it can be done.IMG_6438

A picture I took while visiting Geneva, Switzerland this summer (shown above).  This is the city we lived just outside of during those three years.

Throughout my sophomore year in high school, that first year of return, I did make many good friends.  It took time, as I reconnected with some old friends, and found some new ones in classes and on the track team.  I found a way to re-shape my puzzle piece slightly, altering it just enough to fit, but not enough to change the purpose of the whole picture.  It was a very difficult year, one where I felt alone much of the time, but I wouldn’t change it for my experiences.  I’m glad that I got to move to Switzerland, and I’m happy that I got to come back.  I wouldn’t know as much as I do about change and adapting to it if it weren’t for that experience.  Change is a topic I will talk about often, as it’s something that both frustrates me and fascinates me.  I love it and I hate it.  It makes me want to run away but it also lures me in.  Like with most things, I have mixed opinions.  Not everything is as black and white as I once thought it was– but rather a mix of grey and many other colors that overlap and intersect in ways that are difficult to imagine.  And that’s just life I suppose.  <— click on this link to read more about my experiences with change and handling transitions!

My house in Chavannes-des-Bogis, Switzerland (below):