My First Time Abroad


nothing says Paris-ready like a Minnie Mouse sweatshirt & stirrup-pants
(C) Christina Saull – All Rights Reserved

It still baffles me to think that my first trip abroad happened alone – well, alone with 35 of my closest classmates & only a few adults in tow. For three weeks I was fully immersed in everything France, wandering the country with a fanny pack & a smug, toothless pre-teen smile, armed with disposable cameras, ready to take on the world.

my BFF Rachel & me in front of our school, complete with bad hair & faded jeans, sporting my brand new PARIS t-shirt
(C) Christina Saull – All Rights Reserved

My first time abroad was part of a back-to-back exchange program between my suburban Cleveland elementary school & the tiny town of Épinal, in the beautiful Alsace region of eastern France. The premise was simple: I would travel with elementary school students from my WASP-y school district & live with a local family for three weeks. Then the student I stayed with would come to Ohio & live with my family for three weeks. However, because of some sort of snafu, I ended up staying with a French family in a different town who spoke almost no English & a different student came to stay with us in the States. An early life lesson that travel doesn’t always go as planned.

the good ol’ days – RIP Northwest Airlines

On April 1, 1993, I boarded a Northwest Airlines DC-10 & flew from Cleveland to Detroit to Paris. My first international flight was spent drinking frozen orange juice & watching Last of the Mohicans on the economy class giant screen (no personal IFE in the early 90s!). We landed at DeGaulle jet lagged (I couldn’t sleep on planes even when I was 10), but excited to explore. As our motor coach wound its way through the narrow streets & down the grand boulevards, we saw the sites that we’d only read about in books: the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triumph, the Louvre. For many in my group, this would be their only glimpse of Paris; I was lucky that my host family took me back over a weekend to fully embrace this magical city.

Life in Small Town France

Life in small town France, living with a family in a giant stone mansion, was a challenge for a suburban American kid. The language barrier made it virtually impossible. My host family didn’t shower every day & found it odd that I wanted to (I ended up negotiating an every other evening arrangement). Their milk was stored in the kitchen cabinet (this still baffles me about France) & I went to bed hungry some nights, declining to eat split pea soup (which I still dislike) & other French delicacies for dinner. One especially homesick day, standing in the relatively small kitchen (a classmate who traveled with me has reminded me that the real kitchen may have been under renovation), I tried to ask my french mother for a hug. She didn’t understand what I was asking so I had to physically wrap her arms around me.


how do I get a job that lets me live in a giant house like this? (I think he was a doctor…)
(C) Christina Saull – All Rights Reserved

I celebrated my 11th birthday in France, a haze of a day that I don’t recall many details of, except that I missed my birthday phone call from my parents because I left for school early & I had some sort of birthday party that I seem to have no photos of. My class at school sent me an Air Mail, wishing me happy birthday & my crush du jour signed it, which probably made it the best birthday present ever at the time.

During the day, my American classmates & I went to school, taught by the American school teachers who came with us. We ate eclectic French public school lunches of steak, vegetables, potatoes & delectable desserts. On Wednesday’s, when French public schools have the day off, we explored castles in Kaysersberg & German-style tudors in Strasbourg. We sang to Michael Jackson cassette tapes on charter buses (the only American artist our French counterparts were familiar with).


Haut Koenigsbourg – 40 mins outside Kayersberg – one of the most popular attractions in the Alsace region
(C) Christina Saull – All Rights Reserved


Cathedral of Our Lady of Strasbourg
(C) Christina Saull – All Rights Reserved

A Weekend in the City of Light

One weekend, my French family & I, along with another family who was hosting an American student from another school, drove the four hours back to Paris. As I peered over the front seat at the dashboard, I remember being shocked that we were going 120! Of course, that was the relatively normal highway speed of about 75mph. We floated down the Seine on a tourist river boat, stood in line to zip up to the top of the Eiffel Tower & even stopped by the McDonald’s next to the Arc de Triumphe.


the view from the top of the Eiffel Tower on a hazy day
(C) Christina Saull – All Rights Reserved


(C) Christina Saull – All Rights Reserved

I remember being totally in awe of the sights & sounds of Paris: walking through the Latin Quarter, past the Greek restaurants with their hosts beckoning you in by breaking plates. Eating gyros out of restaurant take-out windows (a delicacy I declined & still regret), Nutella crepes on the street (something I was smart enough at age 10 never to decline) & stuffing our faces with Kinder Eggs (at that time, not banned in the U.S.). We went to the Louvre & saw Mona Lisa’s sly smile. We went to the Basilica of Sacré-Cœur & climbed the hundreds of stairs & lit candles.

Thinking back on my trip now, I know I didn’t appreciate it as much as I should have; I think it’s hard, as a fifth grader, to appreciate such an amazing opportunity. If only we had digital cameras then – I would have come back with thousands of photos, instead of the hundred or so faded 4×6 prints I have stuffed in photo albums now.

I didn’t travel abroad again for a long time – nearly 15 years when B & I went to Europe for our honeymoon. I appreciated it a bit more that time. Some day I’ll get back to Paris, to walk again through the Latin Quarter. I think I’ll have a gyro this time.


(C) Christina Saull – All Rights Reserved

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About christina

Christina is a 30-something D.I.N.K. travel writer & photographer who travels the world often wedged into the middle seat. Follow her on Twitter & Facebook.

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10 Responses to My First Time Abroad

  1. Mary Calculated Traveller January 22, 2015 at 8:13 am #

    What a great story Christina! I love that you still have all those photos from your youth..Didn’t we all have fanny packs at one time or another! You WILL get back to Paris one day I just know it!

  2. Helen Anne Travis January 22, 2015 at 10:58 am #

    What an amazing experience! And how funny to see all those film photos. You have to go back and get a gyro soon!

  3. Emily January 22, 2015 at 12:10 pm #

    My first trip to Europe was with my parents in grade school – and like you, I didn’t appreciate it as much as I should have. I missed the creature comforts of home and was suspicious of anything I didn’t recognize (which was pretty much everything). I did love the gyros in Paris though – mainly because it was stuffed with fries. Yum!

    Jemily Life

    • christina January 22, 2015 at 5:34 pm #

      If I had known those gyros were stuffed with fries, I can guarantee you I wouldn’t have turned it down!

  4. Megan Kennedy January 22, 2015 at 8:32 pm #

    I love that you have photos from your first trip abroad and the memories are still with you! What a great experience to have in grade school. Hopefully you get to return to Paris shortly.

    Most children wouldn’t appreciate it, but that’s why we get to travel when we are older and savour every moment.

  5. Emma January 23, 2015 at 2:49 pm #

    What a brilliant story! It’s so nice to look back on old photos and remember past trips abroad – especially when they are from school. And going on an exchange must have been a great experience?

  6. Andrea Rees January 23, 2015 at 5:53 pm #

    Oh what an experience for anyone, but especially you at 10 years old. Great that you have the photos. Wonder if this was this trip that started your love for travel?

    I had planned to do an exchange with a French speaking family in my grade 7 year, but instead of France it would have been in Quebec, Canada. Sadly, that didn’t happen, but this made me think of it.

  7. Jennanna January 24, 2015 at 1:37 am #

    What an amazing experience! I would have loved to have done a trip like this when I was younger. The first time I went abroad was in college for a short study abroad program, but I was hooked! Always fun to hear about people’s first time abroad–thanks for sharing!

  8. Sophie January 24, 2015 at 10:05 pm #

    This is a great post! I want to do a post like this now. It’s always interesting to see where people’s first trips abroad were. It must have been pretty scary for you being so young and far away from home.

    Also I love film cameras! Love them!

  9. Steph | A Nerd at Large January 27, 2015 at 5:24 pm #

    Wow! You must have felt like a fish out of water to be away from home for at such a young age. Thanks for sharing your memories.

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