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Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Nine Months in France at the ISU

They say 9 months is how long it takes to develop a human baby. Actually, “they” say it’s closer to 10. Whichever it is, I find it amusing that this chapter of my life, this Masters program and my time in France, lasted roughly the same length of time. This post is entirely reflective, on my thoughts and experiences of the International Space University, and of my time in, mostly, Strasbourg, France. I have had such amazing experiences and I wish to reflect upon them now. 

I remember the first day I arrived at my apartment. The taxi driver dropped me off, I looked up and down the street, and finally at my apartment. Between the front door and myself stood a gate, and I could find no bell or means of communicating with my roommate who I hoped was inside. I looked down the street again and saw...a boat? Was there water that way? With no internet service, and no working phone, I was unable to contact my roommate. So, I strapped my bike and luggage to the gate, and walked around until I found a McDonald's, as I had seen a sign for one earlier.

Using my Skype plan, I found out she was indeed home and that the gate was easier to open than I realized. Feeling slightly foolish, I made it back and was welcomed graciously. My roommate had a day’s head-start and had already bought some supplies and had began storing things in the kitchen. Settling in, I began to unpack, enjoying the sounds and smells of this far-away land.

The next few weeks developed quite quickly. I took French lessons, and began work at the ISU. There was a lot to do, but it wasn’t that difficult, just time-intensive. People were very social, but I was not. I have often been guilty of taking myself too seriously, but I always prefer this to the alternative. While others seemed willing and able to party every other night and especially on the weekend, I spent most of my time alone, in my room.

While I understood the need for balance, I was at the ISU to succeed academically. This was to be my stepping stone into my future career, and I did not want to waste any opportunity for improving myself and my skills.

Unfortunately, my isolation caused some trouble at home.

My roommate, who seemed a more gregarious person, was troubled by my anti-social behaviour. She seemed to believe that we would become super friends and that we would spend most of our time together, however, I was not willing or able to accommodate those needs. I tried to explain that I isolated myself for my own reasons and that they had no nothing to do with her, or my feelings toward her. I am still not convinced that she understood, and over time, our relationship went from mediocre to worse.

I tried consulting with friends and family back home, trying to fact-check and make sure that I wasn’t missing anything, or unjustified in my desire to be left alone. My friends and family stressed that I make an effort, but that I also stay firm to my own needs. I wasn’t trying to be mean, but I preferred eating alone, and I preferred spending most of my time reading, writing, and studying. Additionally, my roommate  and I came from very different backgrounds and cultures and this was causing problems as we seemed to have difficulties understanding each other and our needs.

During the first module break, I went to York, UK, to visit some friends who I had not seen in some time. We had an excellent time and I loved every moment of it. While I had trouble at home, I had absolutely no problem in the UK. My friends knew me and were very accommodating, and the stress-free atmosphere gave me a chance to relax and enjoy myself. I really enjoyed the culture and hope to go back some day.

Back in France, things became busy. Major projects at the ISU, but wonderful opportunities as well. I met Canadian astronaut Dr. Robert Thirsk, made him Sheppard’s (or Cottage if you’re from the UK and are insistent) Pie, and got an autographed picture for my family. Christmas had arrived, and I enjoyed the sights, sounds, and smells of Strasbourg. Christmas trees, Christmas market, and hot wine/spiced cookies everywhere. It even snowed, once, leaving a centimetre of snow on the ground for one night.

It was beautiful, and wonderful, and the Christmas party was a lot of fun. Food everywhere, rosy cheeks, and gifts all around. One of the funniest moments was when Jan, an architect from the Czech Republic, refused to give up slippers he had received. We were having a White Elephant party and the rule is, you can either open a new present, or “steal” one which had just been opened. Jan was under threat of having his gift stolen and his refusal to give them up was riding the line of comedic and party-ruining. Finally, Jan gave in, but eventually got another pair of slippers, so it all worked out.

At the end of the evening, I walked back to my apartment wearing my very best, carrying a bottle of wine for my family, feeling very European.

Christmas in Canada was a treat as always. Family, friends, snow (so much snow), food, and gifts. It was another beautiful year with everyone getting together and enjoying each other’s company. I had many stories to tell, and I was even able to speak some French with my grandfather, which made us both proud.

Back at the ISU, relations between my roommate and I continued to degrade. While Christmas had given us a chance to relax, it had also given me some perspective. My roommate, overhearing a conversation I was having with a family member, thought I was spending all my time complaining about her to people back home. I tried to reassure her that this was not the case, but everything I said seemed to hurt her more.

To me, I was consulting with those who knew me best, trying to make sure I was being a good person and making good decisions. To my roommate, I had violated her trust by talking with other people, and had been rude by complaining. In fairness, I should have spoken with her about these issues more, should have addressed them, but I found when I did, my concerns were waved off. I tried, early in the year, to explain introverted behaviour, and my roommate didn’t believe me. She didn’t believe what I was saying, thought I was just being off-putting. My roommate was also sick quite a lot over the year. Visits with the doctor, different medicines, check-ups, late nights, my roommate had struggled and I had struggled to help. Double trouble with that is that a) I don’t get sick very often and b) there wasn’t much anyone could do. I felt stuck, helpless, and I tried to explain this to her. She reacted extremely to this, thinking that I was complaining about her being sick. My efforts to explain did nothing to help the situation. This was the beginning of the end.

Shortly thereafter, I went to Germany with some friends. It was really nice to get away from everything, and we enjoyed a weekend free of the internet, and free of responsibilities. We went to a Star Trek convention, a first for many of us, and had a chance to meet the CEO of Mars One. Some of us had our photos taken with LeVar Burton (from Reading Rainbow and Star Trek: The Next Generation), and we all enjoyed an Enterprise-D photoshoot. It was a nice weekend and allowed me to open up to a few people.

The next major event was the trip to Russia. For that trip, I spent the week rooming with someone else, and had a wonderful time. We joked late into every evening, making references to ‘80s movies, and laughing so hard, our neighbours, also ISU students, giggled along with us. The week was incredible, eye-opening, and I had the chance to see some amazing Russian technology and exhibits. What was even more important, was that I opened up in Russia. While I had been withdrawing more into myself at home with my roommate, I found that I could relax and enjoy the company of others more in Russia. I guess being away from the work environment really gave me a chance to let go. I found people with whom we had things in common, and I laughed harder and more often than I had the earlier part of the year.

People noted the change, and liked it. We went to dinner, watched TV/movies, visited museums, and danced the nights away. It was a magical week and I am grateful for the connections it helped me to foster.

Back in France, I continued balancing work and play. I went out more, stayed at parties longer, and continued working hard at the ISU. Major assignments were coming up, and I was enjoying my time more than ever before. During the month of April, I had a major assignment due every week, but I managed to sneak in a trip to Italy. I attended a workshop on active radiation shielding, and met some very important people in that industry. I also met my soon-to-be NASA sponsor as, oh yeah, I would be interning at NASA in the summer!

It was an exciting time! I was becoming a serious professional, and I would be working at NASA! The name itself carried a lot of influence and I was very grateful to be having the experience. I vowed to work harder and do everything I could to be valuable and to use my time to my utmost advantage.
Roommate relations dropped off completely. We stopped speaking with each other, at home and at school, and well, it just made things easier. I started forming closer bonds with other people at the ISU, enjoying our time together, and spending more time getting to know them.

Final projects came and went, many discussed in earlier posts, and I had a much delayed, much anticipated anniversary of my birth. A day of bowling, billiards, and beautiful friends, I journeyed the streets of Strasbourg buying French books, enjoyed a walk in the park and dinner with friends, and delighted a room full of people while wearing a Darth Vadar mask and cloak. I just recalled the entire event in an earlier post, but suffice it to say, I was growing to love my time in Strasbourg.

Nearing the end of my stay, I made some very close friends, and had some very nice moments. One friend in particular showed me the beauty of Strasbourg, as we walked along routes familiar to her. She showed me a different side to its people, and a greater depth of cultural experience. We also had an eerily amount of things in common and enjoyed many books and movies, in English and French. Our love of languages often led us to having several conversations of several hours of duration each, and there were a few parties where I realized we had been speaking about grammar for over an hour. Toward the end, I introduced her to Star Trek, and we enjoyed much of our spare time together. I assured her, as well as my other friends, that distance was not enough to diminish my friendships. I do not let many people into my life, so those who do have a special place, I will fight to keep them close. When you spend your life learning about the vastness of the universe, what’s a few thousand kilometres? When you count the age of the stars, what’s a few months apart? Nothing. I now have friends all over the world, and while I might have been slow to start making friends, I hope to keep those friendships strong over time.

So, what have I learned this year in France, at the ISU? First, I have learned more about the interdisciplinary and international nature of the space industry. I went from being interested to educated, knowing who the major players were, and what their themes and interests included. I became involved and when combined with my passion, this will surely make for a qualified professional someday. I gained an internship at NASA; an amazing opportunity which I look forward to in the near future.

I also learned that, sometimes, you have to stand your ground and not give in, even to be nice. I think my roommate situation may have caused me considerably less stress if I had simply stated my problems more openly earlier on. I tried to work them out myself and this didn’t work. I also learned, or rather re-learned that I am more capable of balancing work and play, and that if I take the time to let people into my life, they may surprise me.

Strangely, I learned that I could sing, and dance, and that I enjoyed both. I have done both before, but I seemed to really flourish in this environment and now I look forward to opportunities to employ either skill. I learned how to combine the best parts of being human, logical and emotional, and I made excellent friendships which are not only spilling over into this summer (as my roommates are two close friends from the ISU), but I hope to continue for a lifetime.

I enjoyed my 9 month gestation in France. It was a beautiful country and I only saw one small part of it. I travelled to Germany, Russia, the UK, Luxembourg, through Switzerland, into Italy, and back. I considered this European trip part of the hero’s journey, but I see that it’s only beginning. I am not sure where I will be after September, but I hope to see more of the world, and learn more about it, and myself, as I go.

This reflection pales in comparison to the experience. To those who have been with me, thank you for everything, every moment, and I hope we share more in the future. To those who were not with me, don’t be too sure. I thought of every single one of you who are dear to me, and without you, I would have been incredibly alone. This finale may have become a little more irrationally emotional than intended, but sometimes it is nice to reveal that side, to let everyone know that you care.

Thank you for reading, as always, I remain grateful.

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