Sitting in an antique claw foot tub with a spray nozzle to wash my hair, I was cold and homesick. A 17-year-old girl, I felt like I was in an alternate universe; when in fact, I was just 4,400 miles from home. I actually wondered if I would ever be in my own home with my own family, speaking my own native language again. I was in Fontenay-le-Comte, France. My family had arranged an exchange through a mutual acquaintance for me to spend one month with a French family. The French daughter, Coralie, would then return home to Georgia with me to stay with my family. After a weeklong trip with my high school classmates, my teachers and friends dropped me off on an unfamiliar train station platform in the South of France and went home. I took the train to meet my new French ‘mother’.
Fontenay is a historic village (as in, it has ruins from a medieval castle) dans le beau Pays de la Loire. The Portebois family was gracious, but they weren’t mine. And while the claw foot tub was beautiful, I yearned for my own factory-made tub and shower that was installed in our family home in 1980. The beautiful three level home had three wings, built respectively over the last three centuries. I wasn’t roughing it. The French mother was nurturing, understanding and lovely. But she didn’t look, smell, or hug me like my mom did. She spoke English, but we had an understanding that she wouldn’t speak my native tongue with me, unless necessary. I, being one who tended to stuff my emotions, would go days without calling my parents in an effort to stay strong. Then, I would call my mom and burst into tears as my homesickness erupted from my heart into my desperate words.
We gathered around the table for family meals, just as my own family did. But while we lingered over long lunches in the courtyard, (and the father enjoyed wine on his lunch break as a physician) I missed my mom’s cooking. I missed sitting in our usual places around my family’s round table with my parents and big brother. I would have given anything to have my mom’s americanized lasagna or chicken finger salad. Instead, I was expanding my horizons with ratatouille and moules. After one particular meal, they asked me if I wanted more food. I responded with ‘no thank you – I’m full.’ Only, I had really told them, in French, that I was pregnant. Needless to say, they got a good laugh, and I tried to laugh with them.
There was a pool in the middle of the fabulous garden. I had all day to sit by it, but no big brother to dunk me or lifelong friends to play Marco Polo with. They had one tv, so I watched soccer because I didn’t need to understand the narration. Life with the Portebois family was actually not all that drastically different from what I was used to, despite how hard it was for me to see at the time. I, simply, was way out of my comfort zone. I never regretted that month in France away from my family, even when I was there. Part of my young, 17-year-old self realized that my horizons were expanding and that was healthy. I knew that if I ever made it back home, I would never again feel the same way about the phrase, ‘there’s no place like home’. I have no doubt that Coralie felt the same way when she left Georgia. While she was with us, she got to go to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. And she helped us name our new Dalmatian puppy ‘Tache’ – ‘spot’ in French. But I bet she couldn’t wait to get back to her mama’s ratatouille and her claw foot tub.
I remember the plane ride home to Georgia with Coralie. I joyfully announced that our mode of communication would officially be switching to English. But the funny thing is, I don’t remember my reunion with my family. Or the first meal I ate in my own familiar universe. But I do still vividly remember my experiences with the Portebois family that summer in France, nearly two decades ago. My world got a little bigger. I didn’t approach that trip with any great teen-filled wisdom that I would grow. But I am proud of my young self for taking that risk to be just a little bit uncomfortable. And, ever since, I have valued that incredible experience.
Almost 20 years later, I still realize the benefits of stretching my comfort zone. But I certainly don’t do it enough. I’d say I’m in a stage of life where stretching my comfort zone is going to the grocery store with all four kids. I surround myself with ‘PLU’s’ (people like us), and we live in our comfortable bubble. Reminiscing on my experiences has made me think about how I can try to stretch my comfort zone in my life now, even within my own city. You don’t have to go 4,400 miles to stretch yourself. It’s not always comfortable, but that’s the point. I have to be reminded of my God who provides comfort in all situations: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” – Joshua 1:9. I would imagine that promise especially applies when we are out of our comfort zone.
In this short film (less than 4 minutes), “A Life Well Lived“, Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Mount Everest, shares some valuable life lessons. He says that “if you’re not living life on the edge, then you’re taking up too much space.” It’s not about thrill seeking, he notes, but about testing yourself. He adds that people learn the most when they are out of their comfort zone. “Being out on the edge, with everything at risk, is where you learn and grow the most.” Whittaker points us to a life well lived. Whether we are pushing physical limits, exploring new places and cultures, forming relationships or serving people not like us, or simply trying something new, I agree that expanding our comfort zone is a healthy thing. Sure, ‘there’s no place like home’. But it doesn’t hurt to venture out. What about you…are you taking up too much space?
“You are only confined by the walls you build yourself.” – Andrew Murphy
“A ship in a harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are for.” – William G.T. Shedd
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain