The first time I lived abroad it was as an Experimenter. I had been studying French for three years and then went on The Experiment to discover Paris and live with a host family in the Loire Valley.
That summer was not easy. I quickly realized the French I had learned in school wasn’t the same as the slang my French friends spoke. At one point during my weeks in the Loire, I became sick and realized though I had studied French for three years and, when I most needed it, I didn’t have the vocabulary to make the simple sentences: “I have a stomachache. May I lie down?”
And yet, as a sixteen-year-old, I thought that summer in France was the best one of my life: full of new experiences, of learning, and little joys. In Paris, when my Experiment group didn’t seem to be getting along, our group leaders created a scavenger hunt that took all day and led us to every single arrondissement. It was so long and difficult that we could not complete it, even though we ran all over the city and forgot even to eat lunch. Though we failed at that scavenger hunt, I still remember the joy we felt trying, and the lightness. The adventure and the laughter of it. This was a lesson for me, that from failure can come great joy.
What I took away from that summer was that I loved being an exchange student. That is, I loved a form of travel and exploration that allowed me to linger and opened up the possibility for deep connection with a place.
In college, I studied abroad in Syria. There, I lived with a host family who worked for the resistance years before the revolution. My host father was a writer, the first professional writer I knew. He was famous for writing a soap opera that was both outrageously funny, and also used humor as a means of social critique. In this subtle way, he spoke out about the problems of dictatorship years before this was allowed. It took great courage for him to do this, as speaking against the government was of dangerous. He lost his job over an article he wrote, he lost his job.
In France, I had learned the joy of process; I had gained so much discovering France, even when I failed to find the right words to express myself, or when I lost the scavenger hunt. In Syria, I learned about the bravery of speaking one’s mind and following a passion. It was not easy to be a writer who was critical of the government, yet my host father kept writing because he believed in the power of words.
From Syrian writers, I learned that a single sentence can express layers of meaning. For example, in 2011, at the beginning of the war, a play was put on in Damascus. In the play, which was set in the time of Cleopatra, a queen exclaimed, “Cry my son… because you couldn’t hold this country together.” After this line, the theater fell so silent you could have heard a pin drop. The line was powerful, because eEveryone in the audience understood the double meaning of the line. In the play, it was spoken by an ancient queen to her son, but at the same time it It was also a statement about contemporary Syria, a critique of the Syrian president who refused to engage peacefully with protesters in the early days of the war, and instead saw his country slowly fall apart.
I learned the importance of listening beyond the obvious meaning of words; the importance of context in making meaning; and the power of a whole room of people who have all become good listeners so that they understand the subtlety of a single line in an ancient play. Words can have so much power.
Eventually, I became a writer and, inspired by the lessons I had learned as an exchange student in Syria, I published a novel. Called “A Word for Love,” my novel follows the story of a young woman who travels to a foreign country in order to become an Arabic scholar of Arabic, and instead finds herself caught up instead in the lives of her host family and a Romeo-and-Juliet-like romance that teaches her about love, loyalty, and herself, and changes her reading of everything.
Why is the novel called “A Word for Love?” Because it is said there are 99 words for love in Arabic, and each one describes a unique feeling. To memorize all these words is to acknowledge the fact that love is multifaced and multilayered. It is to find joy in a feeling that is both universally felt, yet uniquely experienced. In France, I could not speak enough and yet found I was happy despite this fact. In Syria, I learned the joy of precision.
Once an Experimenter myself, as an adult I led programs in Jordan, Morocco, and Spain. Though sometimes fearful at first in a new place, I was amazed at how quickly my students adapted. They became experts at navigating supermarkets, negotiating their own fares for taxis, and everywhere they went, they played soccer. They learned that it is not necessary to be fluent in a language in order to create deep friendships, yet they took joy practicing their languages, and in forming new sentences. They learned that laughter is the same in all languages.
I am now working on a second novel. The idea for this novelit came while I was leading students with The Experiment in Jordan.
I suppose the ultimate lesson is that when one becomes a traveler, then one is always a student. That cultural exchange should not be seen as a single event so much as an ongoing state, one we are constantly taking part in, remembering, and rethinking long after the physical journey is done.
Emily Robbins’ debut novel A WORD FOR LOVE was inspired by her Fulbright Fellowship in Syria where she studied religion and language with a women’s mosque movement and lived with the family of a leading intellectual. She is the recipient of two Fulbright Fellowships for research and writing, and her nonfiction has appeared at LitHub and in the New York Times. www.emilyrobbinsauthor.com