I’ve wanted to go to Paris for my entire life. I tried (and failed) to teach myself French in elementary school and even went as a mime for Halloween. In high school I took French all four years and won the award for being the best student in French two of those years. I chose Duke partly because I knew that the school had a program in Paris and I even changed my major to French. I was in it.
I lived in Paris for a month this fall as part of a study abroad program. My time there was wildly fun, but also incredibly painful.
I had the perfect home stay with a charming couple—she was a documentarian and he worked in marketing but used to make films. They gave me a key to their apartment and let me stay out as long as I wanted. And they had a hot son, who later followed me on Instagram. I’m talking a hot, hot actor son. That is the abroad jackpot. I was living it, folks. For the most part.
I only really knew two people in the program well. Even though everyone else I met was incredibly friendly and fun, the whole time I was there I felt really lonely. I missed my good friends from school. I missed my parents. I missed my professors speaking English.
One night we went out as a group and I got separated from everyone else. I ended up sobbing in the streets of Paris for four hours, drunk and lost. My phone had died and I couldn’t find my way back until I sobered up. I was crying about a lot of things, but mostly how abroad wasn’t meeting the majority of the expectations I’d had for it. And I’m not sure why Paris is called the city of lights, because it was pitch black when I was stumbling around in the streets at 2:30 a.m.
I was heartbroken. Where was the magic that countless romantic comedies had promised me? Did I have to start smoking cigarettes to really feel it? Why wasn’t Paris filling me with love? I wasn’t looking for romantic love, per se, but true love for the city and food.
And then, amidst all these questions, my butt started to hurt. I don’t mean “ouch” hurt, or even “wow that was bigger than it looked on Grindr” hurt. I mean “bawling crying, pass out on the subway, can’t move” hurt. It became really difficult to get around the city, so I spent about a week alone in my homestay, trying to find ways to keep my mind off my derrière (that’s French, by the way). This obviously put a serious damper on the future relationship between me and my host brother. How would we cycle down by the banks of the Seine if I couldn’t sit down on the seat of our tandem bike?
A doctor had to make a house call to the apartment, which felt very chic and 1900s, until he looked directly into my butt like it was a third eye and gave me a shot in my cheek (you know which cheek). It didn’t get any better, and two days later I found myself in the proctology unit of a French hospital. My doctor, who was very kind, didn’t know much English, but she knew enough to say “This is really bad!”
And it was really bad. I’d developed an anal fistula. Not to brag or anything, but King Louis XIV died from one. I needed surgery. The doctor wanted me to get it in France in two weeks, but I wasn’t about to go through all of the explanations and paperwork that come with a surgery in French. I also didn’t want to put my sweet, sweet host family through whatever my recovery might be like.
So I filled out the paperwork to medically withdraw from school. Heartbroken and butt-broken, I flew home to Florida.
Goodbye perfect host family. Goodbye hot host brother and the dates that I had planned that you would pay for because you’re a real gentleman. Goodbye new friends.
Of course I was upset about having to leave, but if I’m being honest, I was a little relieved. It’s scary to get sick in another country, and I wasn’t really that comfortable talking about what was happening to any of people I had just met on the program. Anal fistulas are incredibly isolating, which is not something they tell you on WebMD.
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With all the loneliness, and then pain, that’d I’d been feeling, it was really nice to go home and to get better. I’m incredibly lucky to have a family to go home to, and to have access to some “good ass” healthcare. I was also offered a job in New York for the rest of the semester, which turned a crummy situation into something really exciting.
The biggest take away I have from my anal fistula (again, the infection of kings) was that I really wasn’t ready to go abroad, mentally or physically. Living overseas is a much bigger deal than I thought it was, and one I wish I hadn’t taken as lightly as I did. There’s a lot of pressure at Duke to study abroad. But I don’t think we often consider the things that can wrong in another country. Maybe you too will develop a large infection in your rectum. Maybe Oktoberfest isn’t fun, but just a crowded German fair filled with people yelling. Maybe that incredible French diet of cheese and bread should really just be called the bloat and fart diet because that’s all it made me do for three weeks straight.
Abroad might be the best four months of your life, but it sure as hell wasn’t for me. I’m alright with that. We grow from the bad stuff too, and usually even more than if everything is perfect. It’s also fine to not go abroad at all, but it can be hard to feel that way with all the Snapchats of nights out and Facebook profile pictures with Big Ben. Just remember that behind all those cliché Instagram captions and VSCO filters, there might be a sad, lonely person, whose hopes and dreams of a romantic love affair with their French host brother have just been dashed across the cobblestone streets…and who also has an anal fistula.
Teig Hennessy is a Trinity junior.