As a Cuban girl with an American passport and a home in the Dominican Republic, I am no stranger to foreignness. My sense of identity is as makeshift as patchwork, an improvised quilt with no set pattern. On one hand, it makes for interesting introductions; on the other, it has left me with an appetite for belonging.
In the words of British-born American travel writer Pico Iyer, “To be a foreigner is to be perpetually detached, but it is also to be continually surprised.” He paints outsiderdom as an asset — a sort of “diplomatic immunity” into the unknown. But, rather than simply granting me a tendency toward noncommittal passage, my lack of roots has turned the world into a treasure hunt of sorts. Its four corners glimmer with the possibility of finding a sense of kinship with that which does not belong to me. This is where my affinity for travel comes from — it is the search for proof that connection can exist, despite foreignness.
More often than not, I have found that proof. I have found it in the pleasure of a shared beer and the exchange of life stories in the Costa Rican jungle. I have witnessed it in playful negotiations with the merchants of Florence, who preach about the value of a kiss in exchange for a leather jacket. I have felt it in the smiling faces of orphaned children in the Dominican Republic, who want nothing more than to braid your hair and to shower you with intricate stories. But foreignness is a strange thing. It morphs between the thrill of the unknown and a feeling of cold isolation, and it does so without warning. It was the latter that greeted me one foggy January morning as I stepped off the bus that deposited me at the foot of a quaint Provençal village — it was the start of my first study abroad experience, the place that would become my greatest challenger over the next three months.
Located in the heart of France’s Luberon valley, Lacoste is a postcard reminiscent of medieval times. Winding cobblestone streets and terracotta roofs host students of the arts under the patronage of the Savannah College of Art and Design year-round. But what is a celebrated oasis in the summer becomes a silent graveyard once the blanket of winter sets in. The population seemingly evaporates into thin air and fewer than a hundred souls are left to fend off the cold. Despite my best efforts, I could not will the French villagers I had so eagerly imagined into existence. Quaint, blue shutters that once held the possibility of befriending a local remained shut, day in and day out. The closest thing to a native Lacostois that I encountered was a stray dog, who wandered aimlessly around the chateau that sat perched atop the hill, eager for a petting hand and hungry for a bone.
For the better part of my time there, I struggled to understand why it was proving to be so difficult to find a sense of connection to this place. Perhaps it was the fact that my experience didn’t feel foreign enough. Several years of French classes had spared me the intense culture shock and, despite being thousands of miles away from home, I was surrounded by American students. My tendency to discover myself in the unknown felt stymied by the familiarity and comfort of university life and an American enclave. But this dilemma revealed an entirely unexpected side to the concept of belonging. Rather than grant me the opportunity to satisfy my longing for kinship in the excitement of colorful experiences and exotic encounters, Lacoste forced me to pause and face the silence that had been plaguing me. It was only in that stillness that I was able to understand that home — the elusive notion that had escaped me in my birthplace, teased me in the thrill of the unknown, and tormented me in the foothills of the French countryside — is not necessarily bound to a physical place. Sometimes, home is as simple as a feeling within.
About halfway into my journey, I came across an article that was written by travel writer Sarah Buder about the lessons she learned after a year of travel. Something she said about our expectations as travelers stayed with me.
“Meaningful travel isn’t a relief from the real world — it’s a direct confrontation with it.”
Lacoste was my confrontation with reality, a test in facing loneliness, isolation, and lack of belonging. It was a reminder that foreignness, although beautiful in its own way, is not always romantic and almost never what we expect it to be. But whether it greets you with a steaming cup of mint tea in a Moroccan medina or the eerie stillness of a sleeping valley in the South of France, foreignness is a feeling worth knowing. No matter how drastically the scene changes outside, the real discoveries are the ones you make within.