So my fall exchange got cancelled.
I was very excited after submitting my application. I was so excited about having my visa in late spring, getting on that plane in August, travelling to an unfamiliar territory, immersing myself into a different culture and speaking another language. It was a little scary to be frank, but with many more bits of enthusiasm and curiosity than one could imagine. I was eager to go, to learn and to grow into a better version of myself. I was ready to broaden my cultural awareness. I was ready to see how culture and psychology are the essence of understanding human beings. But then, it got cancelled. It wasn’t inevitable in February, but it wasn’t hard to see it coming in late April. I applied for a whole year, so I’m trying to stay positive and be hopeful that my winter nomination won’t be suspended by October.
I think I’ve been waiting for this for a very long time even before I started university. When I decided to be on an exchange, the first destination also the last that came to my mind was France. And when I found out about the city of Strasbourg in northeastern France where the most charming European Christmas market in the world takes place every December, I promised to myself that I would live there one day. I promised to myself that I would become a French citizen one day. And I promised to myself that my parents would live there for half a year with me, and then the other half with my brother in Montreal. Well, winter is very long and hard in Canada, and sometimes it still snows in May. But in Strasbourg, it’s perfect. They wouldn’t find themselves haggling with the love-hate relationship when it comes to Alsace snowy season. It just feels right. And cozy.
I would tell them everything that I know about Alsace wine. I would take them to La Petite France. I would show them everything I learn about the art of French cuisine. I would watch Julie & Julia with them. They would each get a bike to go around the city on those beautiful bike paths every morning. My mom would go to farmers’ markets everyday with her Viet friends. She would prepare fresh Phở broth every Saturday morning from her favorite cookbook. As Michael Pollan said, “Culture, when it comes to food, is of course a fancy word for your mom.” She loves fresh and local vegetables. Me and my dad would go for a walk together every morning before I start my day at work. My mom would find us on one of those café terrace along the Rhine where we would chat for hours about Europe, my brother, Canada, education, travelling, Emmanuel Macron & politics.
He would retell me all of those after-1975 stories. He would tell me how he wanted to travel around the world so much when he was young. He would tell me how disappointed he was at not being able to escape Vietnam when the communist party came in power. He did try for many, many times, but luck wasn’t on his side back then. But I imagine what would have happened had he been able to run away from the poisonous Saigon? He wouldn’t have met the most beautiful and caring woman in the world. Me and my brother wouldn’t have even existed. This blog wouldn’t have been born. And so many other stories would cease to exist.
He sacrificed his youth for us. He started his twenties with many hopes and dreams, but his whole life was prepared for taking care of us. When I told my dad that I was going to France for a year, there was a moment of silence and then he told me, “Son, you are fulfilling my dream. You are making it happen for me.” And me on the other side of the line, trying to hold back the tears and whispering in my head; “Ba ơi, con sẽ làm được. Con sẽ thực hiện ước mơ của ba. And then one day, I would take you there with me. I would take you to where you were supposed to be forty years ago. You have sacrificed your whole life for us, now it would be my turn to take care of you.” I would travel with them around France, Germany, Italy, Sweden & Denmark. We would go to Copenhagen together during the winter holidays. I would tell them all about the magic of hygge and Denmark culture. I would tell them about my tuổi trẻ, about those stories of over 5 years living in Canada to find myself, my cultural identity and to rewrite my childhood before the beginning of another chapter in my life.
I remember looking for universities in France for weeks while negotiating between Lyon and Marseille, but when I read about this city on a snowy winter morning, I just knew that was it. It was the one. I just knew that I would fall head over heels in love with this place like I did with Montreal, Ottawa & Gatineau. I couldn’t stop talking to my friends and family about this magical place for weeks. It was like nothing else around me seemed to matter. It was true love. It was like I have known this city for years.
I may no longer belong to Saigon, but Phở is and will always be a part of my identity. Comfort food can have that power of healing our scars and giving us peace of mind.