On September 9, 2001 my parents dropped me off at the gate at Washington National Airport for my semester abroad in Paris. Little did I know that day my life would never be the same again.
When it came to applying to university, I didn’t know what I wanted. All I did know was that I wanted to study abroad. I remember my mom talking about her junior year abroad, stressing no matter what you do in life you will have memories no one can take from you. Growing up in a family where both my parents traveled like it was the norm (and they made sure I saw as much as the U.S. as possible; I’m only missing 4 states), it became clear to me early that studying abroad is something I would do. There was no question. College, even with a major came with requirements, but study abroad allowed me to look beyond the traditional classroom and go to a new place and explore.
My fall semester I was in Paris on Wells College Program for the Arts (which no longer seems to be offered in Paris). I was a double major with Art History so Paris seemed a natural fit (and Anthropology my focus for my spring semester around the world on Semester at Sea).
There was no campus in Paris, so for the most part my classes met in my professor’s homes (sometimes with tea and cookies), where we’d convene and talk about the subject of the day before venturing out and seeing it in person. If you learn anything as an Art History student you learn that no matter how long you study something in a book, it’s different to see it in real life. The city became my classroom.
Another class met every Wednesday evening in the Louvre. I can honestly say that even after 3.5 months, I still have not seen everything in the Louvre. But rather than trying to see it all, my teacher would focus on a few works. (Not just the Mona Lisa, however, I will never forgot how she told us not look at Mona, but rather to look at the people who have come to see her and their reactions and expectations). She taught us to hold our hand up to our eye like a telescope and get as close to a work as we could (without getting in trouble with security). It may sound childish, but it’s something I continue to do to this day. You gain a level of understanding in looking at the details and seeing how the brush strokes come together. In hindsight, we probably could have looked at one piece of art all semester and still would have more to see.
My photography class met at Studio Vermès, a professional photo studio in the Marais near Bastille. It became a magical place, as you walk through a “secret garden” to get to the main studio, but may catch a glimpse of a professional fashion photo shoot en route. I learned black & white photography in an era before digital. My professor taught me to use my hands like I was a magician in the darkroom to make my photos stand out. We’d venture into Paris to visit places I never would have gone on my own, and sought to capture Paris beyond the clichés. My final project was a black and white contact sheet, which I had to shoot backwards on my camera in order to get it to start with “Bienvenue” and “à Paris” and end with “au revoir et à bientôt.” I remember the excitement and passion of when I showed it to my professor, and he said I had to have it made into a big print. I did and it’s framed in my parents’ home to this day.
During a weekend trip with our program to the Loire Valley we visited Château Chenonceau. At the time I wouldn’t know it, but it was the first time I would really talk to the person who would become my best friend. We have a lot of conversations in our lifetime, but I can remember a lot of details from that day.
Sometimes I joke that it took me ten years to make French friends, but, I’m serious (well, it was actually 8). My first French friend I made was Paris. I returned in 2003–04 to teach English in a French high school, but still didn’t do much better at getting beyond the expat circles until I moved back to Paris for a third time in 2009.
During my early working years in the U.S., I knew I needed and wanted to travel, but my friends neither had the time nor budget. So I traveled to Paris alone, where at least I knew the city. I learned not to be a tourist, but to live how I used to, which included attending my favorite hip-hop dance class. These travels, along with starting my blog (Prêt à Voyager [translation: ready to travel] in 2007, which explores the intersection of travel and design), made me itch to get back to France. I was seeing the need for a cross-cultural exchange, and I wanted to be part of it. In 2009 I decided to to pursue a Masters in Global Communication at The American University of Paris.
On September, 11, 2001 I was running along the Champs-Elysées. I quickly realized it was super touristy, but there was a certain thrill darting between people. That day I almost turned my t-shirt inside out (it was in English, one that I won at a regatta), but decided I was OK being a foreigner for the day. At Place de la Concorde I was waiting at a red light to cross the street when a man with an American accent saw my shirt and asked me if I had heard what happened. As he told me, I got goosebumps on what was already a chill crisp day. I continued to run through the Tuileries Gardens as I tried to process what had happened and if this could be true (not to take it lightly, but thankfully it was not as dire as the early report he had given me). The first images I saw were on TV at my host mother’s apartment, and all the commentary in French. She let me call home, and it was a huge relief to know my family was OK.
In the days that followed I felt oddly safe being far from home, in a very uncertain time everywhere. When people on the street would figure out that I was American they were sympathetic, warm and caring in a way that one typically does not interact with strangers on the streets of Paris. Men in uniform with machine guns were in metro stations, but instead of fear, ever since that day this sight makes me feel protected. A memorial started to appear in front of the U.S. Embassy, where I had been running at Place de la Concorde.
That December when my parents picked me up at the airport they would have to wait for me to get through the security check point rather than meeting me at the gate. Times had changed, but at the same time I had grown too. I never could have predicted anything that happened that semester: meeting my best friend, memorable meals, wine tastings, the things I saw, amazing opportunities. The experience of study abroad opened my eyes to a world beyond what I thought I knew.
When I returned to my friends and teammates at the University of Virginia, they were happy to see me. Many would ask how my semester was, but it felt nearly impossible to communicate so much of what I had experienced. It wasn’t until years later that several of them would tell me that not studying abroad was the one thing they regret.
To this day, and particularly in times of stress, I have to remind myself that my best ideas don’t come from sitting in front of my computer or from reading a book, but from getting out in the world. It’s not until I experience something for myself does it truly become real. In studying abroad I learned that we don’t just learn in the classroom, but from the encounters and exchanges we have on a daily basis. And until more of us have these conversations and dialogues, we can’t continue to grow. As the motto of my blog states, travel is not about where you go, but how you see the world.
This article was inspired by #StudyAbroadBecause, an initiative by the White House and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs which was kicked off by a #WHtravelbloggers Summit for Study Abroad and Global Citizenship.
Anne Ditmeyer is a communications designer and writer based in Paris, France. Follow Anne as @pretavoyager on Twitter & Instagram for a peek inside the world of an American abroad. More of Anne’s work can be found on
pret-a-voyager.com and anneditmeyer.com.
Anne also teaches Map Making on Skillshare.