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 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.