In some ways this could qualify as an “origins story”, as it ushered such an important part of my life…
Penn 1987-88… I dreamt about this exchange program, the possibility to spend a year studying in the US for so long. It even guided academic orientation as it was an important factor in my choice of university in France.
Phillipe Labro’s mostly autobiographical book “L’étudiant étranger” – literally “The Foreign Student” – had moved and inspired me. I saw this as a possibility to initiate a metamorphosis process, to break through some of my barriers, and bloom.
In order to get it, I had to be in the top 10 students of my class. That was my primary goal, and I worked hard for it.
When I received the confirmation letter, I was elated. My dream was coming true, and my first long international adventure was about to begin.
The big day is finally here. I’m about to board a plane and actually fly, for the first time of my life.
As I soar through the air, I think: “Flying is so amazing. I promise myself to never get blasé about it”. In spite of my innumerable trips since, I have mostly been able to keep this promise.
We land in Newark. One of the first sights my jetlagged eyes take in is the Manhattan skyline glistening in the dark in the distance, as the minibus the university sent to pick us up whizzes through the highway to take us to Philadelphia.
See also my article on my first trip to New York.
The view over the Philadelphia skyline from my apartment, on the 25th floor of one of the best student residences on campus (the university treated us well!), is literally breathtaking for me. One Liberty Place, Philadelphia’s first iconic skyscraper, is almost finished.
See also my article on Philadelphia and West Philadelphia.
Locust Walk, the social spine of the campus, is bustling with a (very relatively) diverse crowd. A new world starts opening up to me.
Benjamin Franklin, the primary founder of the University of Pennsylvania, watches over this small world, casually sitting on a bench …
… or, more regal, at the heart of the campus.
Settling in, my room looks a bit monacal …
… especially compared to the exuberance of one of my flatmate’s!
Enjoyable new habits form quickly, like for lunch, eating takeaway from one of the numerous Chinese food trucks dotting the sides of the campus.
Time flies, and the campus quickly adorns Fall colors…
I’ve never been a fan of spectator sports, so for me, attending one of the Penn’s football games on campus (against archrival Cornell), in a stadium which in France would rank among the largest, is more a social and cultural experience …
… especially when the students throw toasts all in sync …
… and the cheerleaders do their parades.
By the time winter comes …
… our group of 10 French students is well knit.
Studying takes a large part of our lives. Unfortunately, I don’t have one of the luxuries most students enjoy, to choose my environment – like here, one of the posh lounges of the campus library.
As Henri, my study partner and friend, and I chose computer science, it means spending countless hours in front of some of (then revolutionary) IBM PCs, in cubicles, in the windowless, neon lit “mezzanine” – the main computer lab on campus.
We often go back to the lab at sunset …
… and evenings of work sometimes turn into nights. I see more than one sunrise over the Philadelphia skyline as we come back to our rooms, exhausted.
The 24 hour convenience stores, a complete novelty to me, become somewhat of a life support system.
Still, these form some of my fondest memories of that year – like when Henri and I design and build from scratch a full-fledged computer for the first time …
… and then turn it into a music synthesizer.
Spring seems to arrive in a blink …
… reminding us of the fleeting nature of this experience, and inviting us to continue making the most of it.
With it, rituals and festivities abound on campus, like the Spring Fling, where numerous bands perform, often a capella.
Energy is high and the spirits are lifted.
The traditional U of P epic songs, like the Red and Blue and Hail! Pennsylvania take for me a special intensity and resonance.
The end of the year is in sight, and at Hey Day, the sophomores celebrate the prospect of turning into seniors and entering their ultimate year before graduation.
As the temperature rises, the campus grass becomes again the place to be …
… and everybody is outside, from pensive students to lounging frat boys.
What a year… I lived so much here. And met Jorene, mother of our 3 children, and who shared 18 years of my life.
Time to ride into the sunset …
… and move on to new adventures!
More to come, stay tuned!