Let's rewind to 2008.
I was in my sophomore year of high school. Now, those of you that know me personally might know that high school was not exactly a shining part of my life. I desperately missed my friends from elementary school, who all seemed to have gone to the same private school while I was sent off to the public school near my parents' house. I was constantly frustrated with myself and my family, and overall just fell into poor mental health, which quickly lead to poor physical health. It was a rough patch, to say the very least. I knew that my mom and dad were at their wits' end with me. No, I wasn't messing around with any substance abuse, but I wasn't taking care of myself the way normal high school students do. So my parents tried everything: leaving cards of encouragement on my pillow, trying to arrange 'hang-out' sessions with my dwindling pool of friends, and even just trying to talk me through it. And then one day after our (very stressful) Easter vacation, a teacher asked me to stay after class to chat. It was my French teacher. And she knew something was wrong.
Madame B was one of my favorite teachers. She was so passionate about French language and culture and it showed each and every day. She was animated in the classroom, kept lessons interesting and engaging, and as cliché as it sounds she just made learning fun. I fell in love with French. I joined the French club, went to 'ciné-club' (movie nights), and even started studying on my own outside of class. So when Madame B asked me to stay after class that day, I was mildly excited. Until of course we actually talked and she voiced her concerns about me. I started crying and got the longest, most comforting hug I have ever received from another human being. Things were going to get better. Things had to get better. I just had to focus on something else. So with Madame B's help, that 'something else' became French.
I buried myself in French. Frustrated with mom and dad? Work on verb conjugations. Annoyed that my brother wouldn't leave me alone during dinner? Practice sentence structures. Have an awful experience out in public? Start working on the subjunctive. I let French become my crutch for everything and it was soon my number one form of stress relief. It started coming so easily for me, Madame B even let me move from French II to French III so I could make it to AP French by my senior year. In addition to my studying, our French class had been writing ink-and-paper letters back and forth with another high school, in France. Our pen pals lived just west of Versailles, and we spent most of year getting to know them through these letters. It was incredible, and every new letter or photo rekindled that spark inside me that thrived on learning about France and its culture. So about a month before the school year ended, when Madame B announced that those who were so inclined could join on a trip to go visit our pen pals, I knew I had to do it. I had to go to France.
My parents weren't so sure.
The thought of sending their struggling daughter to a foreign country where they'd have no control for 10 days did not seem like a great idea. I don't think I've ever begged to the extent I did in order to go. I promised them I would work on my health, my priorities, and of course work out a payment plan with them. I stopped arguing about small, insignificant things (most of the time). I started pointing out how much of a literal life-saver French had become and how the trip could be a huge stepping stone for me. I mentioned that Madame B was a huge supporter in all of this (and I knew they really liked her). And by some miracle from heaven, they finally agreed. I could go to France.
Months of planning ensued. Madame B hosted a few "informational nights" at her house to give all of us students and our parents peace of mind about traveling abroad. She walked us through applying for a passport and my parents surprised me with the paperwork on my birthday. She talked about euros and navigating the metro and important phrases and customs to keep in mind. You see, the six of us who were going weren't going to be staying together: we were all staying separately with our pen pals and their families. There were some plans in place to meet up on occasion (to see the Eiffel Tower, go to a French high school, and see the Palace of Versailles), but other than that we were on our own. Our French language would be put to the ultimate test and I couldn't wait.
(Before the times of smartphones: behold the time stamp)
When the day finally came to leave, I was more nervous than I'd ever been in my life. I lugged my mother's suitcase around the airport (this was before every suitcase had wheels), bid her au revoir at security, and joined my classmates and Madame B in finding our gate. We were going....we were actually going!
The next ten days flew by in a heartbeat. We met our pen pals at the train station, where we all went our separate ways. The very first night in France I remember having the most spectacular 5-course dinner (homemade by my pen pal's mother) consisting of fruit, seasoned noodles, balsamic salad, some kind of stuffed tomato, and a giant apple torte. There was a rose-flavored drink and tons of delicious baguette. Her parents, her brother, and a coworker of her father's (an older gentleman visiting from the University of Wisconsin) sat at the table for three hours. They drilled me about my studies and life in Michigan (in French) and I did my best to remember past, present, and future tenses of verbs in a comprehensive response. The man from Wisconsin helped with some of the translation, but overall it was an eye-opening experience. Several times during that first evening I thought I'm in France. I'm actually in another country. And nothing back home matters right now.
In the following days, I had more new experiences than I could have imagined. I rode a bicycle through the countryside, following my pen pal and her mother to the bakery for fresh bread (which yes, we put in a basket on our backs as we rode, how cinematic!). I had fresh croissants and pain-au-chocolats. I experienced a French high school with students smoking just outside the front doors. And the food they had in the cafeteria shocked all of us when compared to the pizza sticks and chips we had back home. I saw a light show on the side of a cathedral in Chartres and drank wine in public at a restaurant called Le Serpent. I even rowed a boat in front of the Palace of Versailles, listening to Madame B tell us about the life in France while the 'Sun King' was the reigning monarch. There was so much to be learned, so much that I would have never understood just through a description in a book. (For example, in Montmarte you can actually see the Moulin Rouge. Just be careful not to stand in one place for too long or else artists will demand you pay them for the portrait they've already started drawing of you!) I made more friends in those ten days than I'd managed to make since going to high school. It was absolutely incredible. None of my insecurities, issues, or fears had followed me across the ocean. I was immersed in another world.
...except for the fact that I did have some severe stomach issues the first few days because of all the bread I was eating (my physical health was doing better, but my system was definitely not used to so many carbs). Once I became accustomed to the French cuisine, things got much easier. On one excursion, we ran through Paris in the rain to make it into the Louvre without getting too soaked. We explored the Musée d'Orsay, the 'love lock' bridge, and even walked along the Champs-Élysées. We climbed up the 669 steps to the second floor of the Eiffel Tower and may or may not have written our names on it. Madame B told us that the Eiffel Tower was originally constructed as a temporary exhibit for the World's Fair. It served to commemorate the centennial of the French Revolution and demonstrate France's industrial power to the world. Nobody expected it to become permanent, let alone such an iconic symbol of the city! We were so surprised, or maybe it was just the spectacular view taking our breath away...
I learned so much about myself during the trip to France. I learned that I certainly was not my circumstances: I was just weighed down by them at home. All of the frustration, the panic, the tears of the entire previous year vanished the moment I got off the airplane. My issues with self confidence and body image evaporated as I dined with my host family and spent time having meaningful conversation with them. I developed a new passion for foreign language and culture and somehow it made me more determined than ever to heal. I wanted to be able to experience more. I wanted to be able to travel, more.
The very last night in France, I drove with my pen pal and her family deep into the heart of Paris. We walked for what felt like ages, her parents reciting the story of how they met after seeing a certain landmark that was significant to their history. Her brother talked about sports, I countered with the little I knew about sports in America, and my pen pal dove deeper into my background as well. By the time we reached the restaurant, they felt like my own family. They knew nothing of the hell I'd been through the past year, yet here they were accepting me, making me feel loved, and showing me the most beautiful, lesser-known parts of Paris. I felt like I was in a movie. Even once we'd arrived at the restaurant - a historic, upscale establishment called Bouillon Chartier - I just felt like I 'fit'. It was a feeling I hadn't experienced in years, if ever. My host family, the French language, the way of life...it was an immensely powerful paradise compared to the life I'd been living.
Coming home was the hardest thing I've ever done. I had managed to escape for ten whole days. No disappointed looks from my parents, no frustrating talks or unkind comments from the students at my high school, nothing. I'd just experienced the most beautiful city, amazing food, welcoming hosts, and complexly unique culture and frankly had no desire to return. The transition was tough. It definitely lent way to a few harsh reality checks. But I continued on with French, now having had an immersive taste of it. I had to continue. I had to learn more.
As weird as it sounds, my trip to France in 2009 saved my life. If I hadn't been inspired to work for it, to heal mentally and physically so I could go, I don't know where I'd be today. I will never forget Madame B and her kindness to me that day when she asked me to stay after class to 'chat'. She lit a spark inside of me to be well, to live well, and to learn French. Since that trip, I continued to study French for another 6 years, even minoring in it in college. And my studies continue even today. I've returned to France on one other occasion (coming in a future post!), and definitely would love to do so again in the future. I've tutored French for over seven years now, and even did a "French day" at my sister's school when she used to teach first grade. It has become such an important part of my life and it all started with that first trip across the ocean.
It was the beginning of having the "Travel Bug".
It was the beginning of having the "Travel Bug".