When I left to study abroad in France, I never pictured myself at the bottom of a cliff.
“You want me to explain you in English?” I look up from the rope in Marie’s hands and her expression of obvious frustration breaks my concentration.
“No. No, thanks. I need to practice my French. Just one more time, please. Slowly.” I reply in broken French. She takes a deep breath, steps towards me and starts again.
“Tu as ta corde.” You have your rope. Should I be watching her hands or her mouth? She measures an arm’s length and pinches the rope.
“Laisse un peu de la corde au bout.” Leave a bit of the rope at the end.
“Fais un huit.” Make an eight.
“Tire.” Pull. Pull the rope through, got it.
“Suis l’huit à travers avec la corde et voilà. T’as ton nœud.” Follow the eight back through with the rope and done. You have your knot. She hands me the rope, “Your turn.”
I give her a nervous smile and a quiet merci. My hands fumble with the rope as I recollect the instructions. After two unsuccessful attempts, I’ve finally made the figure eight knot. Hell yeah. I smile at Marie, but she’s gazing longingly at the cliff face. Everyone else is already halfway up it, and the victory I feel melts into frustration and embarrassment.
Damnit, Tess, I think to myself. You always get in over your head. What the hell were you thinking? Were you thinking? You’ve never been rock climbing before. Yet here you are, on the side of a cliff, in I-don’t-even-know-where France trying to learn it in French from a bunch of college students. Conquering your fear of heights, yeah. Great idea. How fun.
“Are you ready, Tess?” Marie asked.
“Si, I can belay you first,” I replied.
She looked intently at me. “Are you sure you know how?” I laugh to myself.
Yeah Marie, I wouldn’t trust me, either.
But nonetheless I say, “Yeah, I think so.” She raises her eyebrows, then checks her harness, looks up to the sky, crosses herself and starts climbing.
She makes it look easy, tracing the edges of the cliff with her fingers, deftly finding grooves and ascending in a steady rhythm. She only takes five minutes, but the entire time I’m utterly terrified I’ll screw up something. I’m holding the rope in a death grip, pulling it as it burns against my palms, sweating buckets.
“Ready!” Marie shouts from the top, and I loosen my grip so she can descend. She floats down, smiling. “Mon Dieu, that was terrifying. But really fun once you learn to trust yourself. Now it’s your turn!”
Shit, Marie. I’ve already tied the knot and learned how to belay. That’s enough for one day. I sigh, knowing that if I stop now, I’ll be the only one who didn’t try to climb today. F–k it. I unclip myself, take Marie’s rope and tie the figure eight. “Alright, hop là,” I say to Marie. And then, I start climbing.
The cliff face becomes a puzzle, and I must find the pockets and edges I can fit my hands and feet in, then hoist myself up using all the upper body strength I don’t have. I never turn around. If I look anywhere except straight ahead, my heart will start beating a million miles per hour and I’ll freeze.
I hear Marie shouting up pointers on where to go next and let her voice guide me. Somehow, with sweaty palms and my fingernails caked in dirt, I make it to the top, panting. I wipe my forehand with one grimy hand and carefully turn around to take in the view.
Rows and rows of golden-green vines stretch towards the afternoon sun. I see mountains to the right, a faded blue in the distance. It is breathtaking. Of all the beautiful sights I’ve seen since arriving to Europe mid-August, nothing compares to this. It feels so personal, this expanse of September countryside tucked away for my viewing pleasure, perfected by the angle from the cliff’s peak. I soak it in, reveling in my accomplishment.
When I arrived to the class earlier that afternoon, I immediately felt out of place. I was the only American in the group, and barely understood what happened around me. After a 30-minute drive to the mountain, I was already exhausted from trying to keep up conversation in the car and doubting my French skills. As I struggled to keep up with our instructor’s brief explanations before she paired us up, I regretted signing up for the class and felt sure that I wouldn’t return the next week.
Summiting that cliff was one of my proudest moments. Despite the discomfort and awkwardness I felt, I came back the next week, searching for that feeling again. Though it wasn’t what I expected to do with my time abroad in France, rock climbing became one of the best parts of my experience.
I learned the most French, talking to my peers and trying to understand what was going on. I asked more questions than I typically allow myself. I had to keep my peers safe, and that forced me to advocate for myself and develop some persistence. What’s more, I discovered a new passion. I’m still rock climbing, and find it a lot easier to do in my native tongue.
I’ve heard the phrase, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone” umpteen times, but it does ring true. My advice to students who feel stuck hesitating on the brink of their next adventure is: trust yourself.
Yes, it does suck to feel incompetent and entirely dependent on others, but it is better to put yourself in that position than to shy away from embarrassment and never learn. Studying abroad is all about discovery and stepping out into uncharted waters. Embrace the adventure and all that entails for you. You are more capable than you can imagine for yourself.