Exchange turned out to be about so many things that you cannot photograph.
About tasting bad food cooked in a way that one is unaccustomed to, and yet slowly finding the taste in it.
About feeling badly out of place, and conquering those feelings.
About travelling alone. About doing many things alone, awkward as one is.
About realizing the gap between the France of one’s dreams and reality – and about accepting that. About understanding that no country or people are a set of stereotypes frozen in stone.
About an elderly French passenger on the Karlsruhe platform asking for one’s help and doing one’s best with one’s own limited knowledge of the language.
About having your calculator break down two days before your exam and rushing into a large shopping complex to get it repaired somehow.
(And, in the shopping mall, realizing that the little girl right in front of you on the downward-sloping elevator has lost hold of her mother’s hand and is now too scared to go down the weird moving steps alone. About suddenly identifying with her (wasn’t I exactly like her twenty years ago?) ; holding her arm, unsure of how her slightly forgetful mother would react; guiding her gently on to the steps until she safely reaches Mama and then running towards the electronics store.)
About attending worship at the Notre Dame cathedral and wondering if an Indian temple would so willingly let obvious foreigners and non-believers take part in Mass.
About walking down the Champs-Elysees with that Joni Mitchell song floating through your mind.
About suddenly wishing that one spoke more French.
About having your gentle, friendly housekeeper explain why she is “perhaps a little bit racist” and why she supports Sarkozy and hates Hollande – and about realizing how different things look when you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and understanding how complex some problems really are.
About reading Francois Villon on an astonishingly warm December day. With the Ballade de Mercy playing in the background.
About eating ghar ka khaana with a student from a third country (neither India nor France), and explaining – or trying to explain-your country to her, and listening curiously in return.
About visiting that pretty historical village just down the mountainside, with its medieval church , and noting the number of young men slain by those two wars -all that the world gave back to them was a plaque, festooned with the blue-white-red tricolor and the occasional bouquet of flowers.
Sure, exchange is also about planning trips and seeing amazing places, the sort that make it to “50 Places to Visit Before You Die”. Europe is immensely beautiful, and travelling is easy. I loved the few trips I managed to make. But somehow I never expected exchange to be an extended European holiday. To be honest, that attitude seemed a bit…strange. And it didn’t turn out to be one, and I find it interesting that exchange turned out to be about a lot of things – trivial, perhaps, compared to the thrill of climbing cliffs and enjoying beautiful scenery, but who knows ?