I’m writing to you from Marseille, France and am so grateful to be here. My life these past few months has been many things; difficult among them. Despite everything, however, I’ve found my blessings to be far greater than my hardships.
In late November, as many of you know, my dad passed away in a freak accident while sailing. I left school for about two weeks before finishing my exams and heading back home for winter break. Kedge starts class early by European standards, and I arrived in France on January 6th. Within six weeks I had lost half of my immediate family and moved halfway across the world. I would be lying to say this was not incredibly challenging.
My message to you all, however, is not one of pity. I want you to know that I am enjoying my time here and feel blessed beyond measure. I want to share with you a few anecdotes from my past few months that prove there can be beauty (and a lot of laughter) in the chaos.
1. I missed my visa appointment, got dropped from course registration, and found out the semester ends a full month later than I had been told.
While I was home for my dad’s services, I missed my visa appointment at the French Consulate. As I was trying to sort out those accommodations, I contacted Kedge and figured out that a clerical error had removed my file from registration, and I could not select classes because they were all full. That same clerical error had resulted in incorrect information being provided to USC, with which I had made summer plans based on the academic calendar’s original ending date of late April, not May as it should be.
Fast-forward a few weeks, and I reached out for help from the university. They got me a visa appointment the next day at a consulate closer to my hometown. I changed programs at Kedge to allow me to register for classes, and as a result, now only have class three days per week. I’m staying in Europe a month later and will use some of that time to travel through Italy with my mom. I had a lot of choice words for my situation, but hindsight, my words should have been “thank you”.
2. I’m living in the artist district of Marseille, conveniently located next to the Bandido’s lounge. The Bandidos are like the Hells Angels. I walk past their Harleys on my way to the metro.
When I first arrived in France, I was excited to see classic architecture, white stucco walls, and gardens. It turns out that my apartment is in the artist district, and said white walls are actually covered in graffiti depicting the assassination of world leaders. The surrounding area is a skateboard park where Marseille’s less fortunate gather at night.
Fast-forward a few weeks, and I realize that my living situation is more authentically Marseillais than I could have hoped to find. Marseille is a port city and a regional hub of immigration out of the Middle East and North Africa. For this reason, it is one of the most religiously, ethnically, and economically diverse cities in France.
This is the reality for many people in Marseille; the streets aren’t always safe at night, neighborhoods are melting pots, and many are poor. But seeing as I study French, Arabic, Islamic World Studies, and African Studies, I couldn’t ask for more in the way of a living case study of my interests. In many ways, the realities of present politics, economics, and culture collide in Marseille. I’m lucky to be able to learn from it. I was originally upset about my living situation, but in hindsight, I should have said “thank you”.
3. After working towards an internship for over two years, the executive who verbally offered me the position retired just weeks before I was scheduled to receive my paper offer.
Towards the end of my freshman year, I attended a Moore School networking event and made a connection with an executive from a company I was interested in. We discussed my resume and interests, and he eventually offered me an internship. I was busy working out the details and awaiting the paper offer when he retired in October. The pressure began to build in November when, on top of everything else, I fell out of regular communication with the company. I was sure that I would have to start the internship search from scratch.
Fast-forward to this week, and I just submitted my signed paper offer to my new boss. I’ll be spending the summer in Dubai working for UPS at the 2020 World Expo. Before the executive retired, he passed my resume to other employees, thereby giving me even more exposure to new contacts. I’ll be writing my senior thesis on my work there, and hope to conduct research in Rwanda for about a week beforehand. I thought all my plans were ruined, but in hindsight, I should have said “thank you”.
4. I went to Latvia and almost accidentally took a bus to St. Petersburg, Russia because I couldn’t read the signs printed in Lithuanian. I then went to what I thought would be a spa, but it was actually a sauna where you get hit with birch branches and have to jump in a frozen pond.
My USC roommate is studying abroad in Latvia, and I spent a weekend visiting her. I flew into Vilnius, Lithuania and had to navigate my way to Latvia by bus. It was incredibly frustrating to not be able to communicate or even read the street signs. Excited for some R&R, my roommate told me we were taking a trip to a spa. Said spa was actually a sauna in the Latvian countryside where, after multiple rounds of going into and out of the sauna, you get massaged (read: beaten) with a bushel of birch branches. Normally the program director would have done this, but since he was tired, the other members of the program (West Point cadets) were put in charge. As if that weren’t enough, I then had to jump into a frozen pond and afterwards take a “shower” with a bucket and ladle.
Fast-forward to now, and after taking many trips since, I can say with confidence that Latvia was my favorite. I went for some relaxation and instead wound up sleeping on a mattress with a hole next to an open window while it snowed. However, I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed so hard as when the program director told the West Point cadet to hit me “harder and faster” with the birch branches. I’ve also never been so grateful to have a best friend like Anna. I was unsure about my trip to Latvia, but in hindsight, I should have said “thank you”.
5. My dad passed away in November, the day after my 21st birthday. As an only child, we were incredibly close. He was, and continues to be, my best friend.
As I mentioned, my dad died in a freak accident while working on our sailboat. He bought it used and had grand plans of one day restoring it to perfection. He wanted to get it repainted in USC colors because he loved the school so much, often stating that if he were a student today, he would have done anything to attend. My dad put himself through college because his parents couldn’t afford to send him. It took him over ten years to complete his degree by night classes. His work ethic built the life I get to enjoy. I couldn’t gather myself to speak at his services, but I wrote a eulogy that my aunt delivered for me. I think this excerpt sums up the loss well:
“A few weeks ago, nearing the end of the sailing season, I decided to make a weekend trip home and take a sailing trip with my parents. While we were out on the water, my dad told me to get behind the wheel and steer. I had never done it before and asked to be instructed. He told me “point the boat into the wind while I raise the sails.” I replied, “but that’s the hardest direction, the headwinds are strong.” He explained that, “yes, it is difficult, but that’s how you gain speed.”
Now, in this most trying time of our lives, I think back to that day as a poetic reflection of life, that as we face these headwinds and as the captain has left, it is now that we learn how to steer, how to raise ourselves up, and how to raise our own sails.”
When I first arrived in Marseille, I was heartbroken at what I lacked. My dad had just rush-processed his passport because, despite the planned trip being in six months, he didn’t want to take any chances. We talked often about his first trip out of the country, where we would go, and what we would do. We talked about sailing on the Mediterranean and renting a Ferrari in Monaco to see the Grand Prix route.
Fast-forward to this week, and I’ve just returned from Monte Carlo. I bought a tour of the Grand Prix route in a Ferrari and we drove along the coast. As I looked out the window, thinking of him, what do I see? A single sailboat with white sails, just like his. The poem “Gone from my Sight” by Henry Van Dyke was used on the prayer cards at his services. I encourage you all to read it. The parallels make my jaw drop every time.
Fast-forward to this week, and I’ve also taken sailing lessons. I enrolled in a sailing academy and the courses are in French. Marseille has been a port since antiquity, making it one of the oldest sailing destinations in Europe. I want to celebrate his life by doing things he loved. I take solace in the idea that instead of just one week in Europe, he can now enjoy every moment of my life with a front row seat. My dad and I had a special relationship, and I was heartbroken when he left. In hindsight, I wish I could just tell him “thank you” for the time we had.
Brothers, I cannot thank you enough for the kindness you all have shown me the past several weeks. Thank you for the texts, offers to visit, and thoughtful messages. I hope this letter reminds you that the challenges of life are often detours, not roadblocks. My life has been a whirlwind, or perhaps a certain type of storm of-late, but it’s my life, and I’m grateful to have it. This season of life is very difficult, but I remain firmly convinced that life is still a very beautiful thing. Thank you all for reminding me why.
SOU Bros Abroad
This blog serves to highlight the experiences and tips that Brothers studying abroad have.