French-Pumpkin Soup

Gretchen M. is currently a junior at SYA France and a blogger for the Campus Reporter program. She comes to SYA from the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools in Illinois.

An autumnal-orange French-pumpkin soup has been set on a hand crocheted potholder on top of a brown-speckled stone dinner table every night since October 1st. I’ve heard now, through a friend’s shared excitement, that it seems to be a common staple in French kitchens. Its light spice is warm enough on quickly darkening nights, or after my 9 o’clock soccer practices, to be appreciated by flushed cheeks, tired limbs and cold hands. Although the warmth might make up for it, after my first spoonful, I did notice the absence of about four or five clockwise turns of a black pepper grinder. In fear of my one-month-after-arrival newness, that request being translated through the ever shrinking language barrier as an insult was too big of a possibility. So, that first night I tried to appreciate it in its origins. 

Those one month worries seemed to manifest in a few different ways. When I first arrived in France, I constantly worried that through the fast paced intensity of my new routine, I wouldn’t be able to preserve certain traditions, like spicing my food, or simply physical things that made the changing of seasons bearable. I worried that time would move too fast and I would lose the moments. I missed the slow romanticisation of the reddening vines on the gothic tours of the University of Chicago or the crisp fallen leaves leading to the large stone arches that sometimes felt like the only way I would be able to make it through the day. To me, winter was defined by candlelight illuminating the light snowfall outside my window, classical playlists, pine and spiced vanilla. Missing the physical elements of change I was comfortable with, I worried I would eventually lose myself.

During this whirlwind, the SYA France campus read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast in English class. Our essays have now long been read and graded but what stayed with me longer than the numbers was the importance of what Hemingway accomplished through the simple act of retrospective observation in the hectic city of Paris. I find the most important part of the assignment given was to replicate this observation, to pick a spot within the chaos and just watch, take notes, then later return to process what we saw through a written piece. This reminder to take a moment to disconnect from yourself and focus on your surroundings was incredibly refreshing. I realized that I’ve grown educationally, mentally and linguistically from this experience in France more that I’ve opened my mind to the slower pace than the past two months. Of course that's speaking quite removed from reality, as I know this entire experience will be life changing by its definition, but the process of processing my surroundings enforced through the curriculum has been so helpful. Curriculum that goes outside the English classroom as well, cumulative projects and presentations help me stay on track of the moments I would regret missing in twenty years. 

That worry, that everything and everyone were going by so fast, that I would blink and be back four hours into a seven hour flight back to Chicago, still has a place in my mind, but I have been pacified well by the wise guidance all of my friends and I have been given through SYA.

That specific pot of soup was finished by that Friday. Saturday passed and the soup was remade in the same large pot that Sunday evening to be used for the rest of the week. With three more new pots, my English class’ aid, and just a few more French classes came a renewed bit of courage. 

“Est-ce possible pour moi d'ajouter un petit peu de poivre?” My host mom’s chuckle worried me for a millisecond until her feet carried her to rummage through the spice cabinet, returning to the dining room table with an almost empty container of pepper from the very bottom and back of the cabinet. I must have been the first one to use the thing since the last SYA student in the home. Just like that it felt like fall in Chicago again; with just the simple addition of four clockwise turns, a bit of what I knew of home was here within the newness. The comfort of the memory of my American mother’s soups that stayed on the stove all day filling the townhouse with fresh herbs and Carole King returned. Finding new physical elements of home and change in a new reality. 

Every night since the addition, my host sister and I bump hands reaching for the pepper. The seasoning has become an inside joke at the table, going so far as my own new grinder appearing at my designated place one night, parts of my preserved traditions represented in its little flecks. I connected to my surroundings and circumstances so importantly through just that one piece of my sixteen years in the United States. Through this, processing differences, preserving traditions and recognizing time and its passage, I’ve found growth.

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