I am not good at packing for trips. My normal calm deserts me, and I feel worried and indecisive until my zipped suitcases are gliding away from me after I've checked in at the airport and am past the point of changing my mind.
Packing for a semester abroad was no different. I spent several evenings eyeing my closet gloomily, imagining myself the object of scornful glances from chic French university students. Did I own anything that would allow me to blend in?
I tossed another sweater into my suitcase and smoothed down the sleeves, allowing my real worry to bubble up: Would I be happy there? In a foreign place, trying to speak a language that was not my own, how would I ever fit in?
I might have been indecisive about my wardrobe, but I did know one thing for sure: I was definitely bringing a Frisbee.
It turned out to be the best thing I could have packed.
Just up the street from my French language school was a small park. Named for the 19th-century general whose bronze likeness dominated it, Cours Cambronne had long served as green space for a tony corner of Nantes. The park was walled by two gracious apartment buildings whose limestone facades loomed over the gardens below. Flowerpots overflowing with geraniums dangled from wrought-iron balconies, and fat pigeons waddled fearlessly along the gravel paths.
Two lines of waxy-leafed poplar trees were pruned into a rectangular mass, the tops sheared off and the sides as straight as bookends. When I stood beneath these trees, the leaves and branches were so dense that I could barely see the sky.
An avid Ultimate Frisbee player in the United States, I unpacked my disc and quickly managed to browbeat a few of my classmates into throwing with me whenever we had a free moment. The fresh air in the park was delicious after spending time at school breathing the damp, slightly musty air, which smelled as if it had been rising off the limestone steps of the building since its construction 200 years ago.
What I couldn't have predicted was the way that simple piece of plastic introduced us to the life and rhythms of Cours Cambronne, and, gradually, Nantes itself.
Mornings were usually quietest. If we arrived early enough, the waiters from the brasserie on the corner would be setting up waist-high wooden bins on the sidewalk, the slippery mounds of seafood inside indicating the day's menu. Once the giant gates of the park swung open, the expanse of gardens was shadowy and still.
With the creak of a wrought-iron gate, an old man would emerge from his ground-level apartment, shuffling around the jewel-bright begonia beds with a graying terrier who stopped to sniff each lamppost in turn. The morning dog walkers mostly kept to themselves, and my friends and I kept to the middle of the park, tossing the Frisbee without saying much.
Afternoons were different. The sky was achingly blue that fall; Nantes had been suffering from a drought the whole summer, and the sun shone bright and hot nearly every day. At 2 p.m., the mothers pushing strollers would install themselves on the benches, chatting and passing babies from lap to lap while their chubby toddlers played nearby.
Around 4, the older children came home from school, and the pace picked up. The stately apartment buildings echoed with shouts, and my friends and I moved our Frisbee game beneath the poplar trees to accommodate the games of pickup soccer that drew groups of five or six shrieking 9-year-olds.
The quiet, shadowy garden of the morning now felt more like a raucous communal backyard, and we happily joined in the din.
In time, our presence in the park grew as familiar to the regulars as theirs was to us. Some days, one or two of the older children would wistfully watch our game until one of us noticed and beckoned them into the circle: "Want to come play?"
Many of the older parkgoers appeared never to have seen a Frisbee and would slow their steps, gazing at us curiously as they passed. "Is it a plate?" wondered one elderly woman, and we grinned and stopped our game to show her the disc and explain what we were doing.
"Aah, I see," she said, still looking puzzled, before setting off again down the tidy gravel path.
We even met the landscapers who trimmed the poplar trees. They happened to be pruning the day when someone lodged the Frisbee high in the branches, and they were able to help us fish it back out.
I had been worried about finding my way in another country, and most of all about fitting in. But somehow, my passion for Frisbee helped bridge the gap.
Hanging out in the park engaged in a not-typically-French activity was exactly the opposite of conforming. And yet it provided a starting point for smiles and conversation, and the opportunity to learn the rhythms of daily life in our corner of Nantes.
Gradually we became part of the tableau of the park just as much as the mothers, the pigeons, the budding soccer stars, and the elderly men reading newspapers in the shade.
Standing beneath the poplar trees, I threw the disc again, watching it sail around the statue of General Cambronne and past a group of wide-eyed children before my friend snatched it neatly from the air. We were definitely not French. But nonetheless, I felt that we belonged.