My junior year of college, I studied abroad for one semester in Strasbourg, France. Studying abroad in France for five months was, for me, a big thing. I grew up in a family that didn’t really travel, didn’t fly, didn’t venture, so traveling alone for five months to a foreign country was a big step, but a step I don’t remember ever hesitating to take. I somehow knew I had to go. I mean, I knew being a French major in college meant I had to go, but beyond that, deep down, I knew growing up meant I had to go. So I went. And I grew up.
I grew up alongside four of the best people I’ve ever known; four of the most important people of my life, no exaggeration. Within about of a month of being in Strasbourg, we had formed a group, the Big 5, that went beyond friends.
First of all, there’s Chad, my husband, a man among four crazy women (there were others in our study abroad group, other boys and other girls, but he was the lone male in a quintet of students who would, from then on, be the Big 5). We both came from Messiah College, a Christian college in the middle of Pennsylvania. We had had two classes together before studying abroad, but it was this shared experience that really brought us together. For so many reasons, this has obviously changed my life.
Second, there’s Amanda. She also went to Messiah, although we didn’t share courses together before traveling to Europe. On the very first nights we were in France, as a study abroad group of about 15 or 20 from different universities, Amanda and I roomed together before moving in with our host families. Even still, I see so many similarities between her and I. And I love her for all of those similarities and also all our differences. She is smart, and wise, and introverted like me, and kind beyond measure. Her dry wit catches you off guard in the best way. I love her for so many reasons that I can’t even begin to describe.
Third, there’s Janell. Never will you meet a person more willing to give you a chance and make you feel special and known and important. Don’t get me wrong, she values loyalty—so don’t you dare cross her—but she’s so incredibly funny and honest and fun-loving. She’s the kind of person who can make you feel important in a room full of people. She pays attention and somehow manages that fine line between the profane and the sacred so well that you can’t even imagine holding anything back from her, because she will understand—no matter what comes out of your mouth.
And fourth, there’s Meredith. Meredith moved down south, all the way to Alabama when we all came home from studying abroad, and now she’s in Iowa. And that makes it hard for her to be there for our group reunions. Every time we get together without her, we’re always, always only 80% there. She is a presence that’s sincerely, deeply missed. Meredith is, in many ways, the heart of the Big 5. We have a lot of fun, even when she can’t be with us, but she brings with her so much sincerity and truth and honesty and humor, that her absence is always felt.
Studying abroad isn’t something that everyone does and it isn’t easy for everyone who does it. I didn’t expect it to be easy for me. In fact, my first journal entry from my time in Strasbourg was really a pep talk to myself– this might be hard, you might struggle with the language, you might struggle making friends, but it’s important that you’re here and you’re doing this. It turned out to be much easier than I made it sound on that first night. I don’t think it would have been easy if it weren’t for the Big 5, but I had them, every step of the way. Every “Good France Day” and every “Bad France Day,” they were there, to teach me to let go, to help me learn the language, to drink and have fun with friends, to walk home together, to fight and make up, to live life alongside people you love.
We figured out life in France together. And that’s really what you need—a group of people to figure out life together. Because life is hard and complicated and not nearly what you expect it will be half the time, but if you have people who will walk beside you and make mistakes with you and pick you up when you need it, then God has given you everything you need. He gave me what I needed in France.
Almost two years after studying abroad, Janell married Doug, the smart, funny guy she had been dating all through college, the guy she missed so much while she was in France with us. The Big 5 was there for that wedding. About two years later, Chad and I got married, and the Big 5 was there with us. Then, another two-and-a-half years later, Amanda married Jr., the funny, lovable man she’d met living in Philadelphia. The Big 5 traveled to Colorado for that wedding. Just six months later, Meredith married her Southern sweetheart, Josh, and my heart broke because Chad was in the hospital after his appendix burst and we couldn’t make the trip down south.
We’re approaching our ten year study abroad anniversary this fall. Ten years. To celebrate, we’re all getting together for a few days to laugh and play games and drink wine and reconnect. All eight of us– the Big 5 now the Big 8. And I can’t wait.
A lot has changed since we studied abroad. Ten years is a long time. But these friendships feel as strong as the day we left France and we somehow always pick up where we left off. Because this is true friendship. I know no other group of people who I can laugh so hard with, share hard truths with, make terrible mistakes with, and move on with such humility than these people. I love them and I am privileged to be in their company, and call them my friends.
So, to the Big 5: thank you for ten years of amazing memories, including five months of memories in France that changed all of our lives. Living in Europe has impacted my life is so many ways, and I’m so lucky to have shared that with you. And as we continue to grow up, together or far apart, I know I have a group of people who will always stand by my side, make me laugh, and hold my hand when things are hard. And I hope you know it too. I love you all.