I love this prompt idea…. because the furthest I’ve been from home is a big deal. When I was fifteen, a grade 10 student, I had never been away from home longer than a couple of days without my parents. My best friend was going through an application process to go on an exchange — she’d decided she wanted to go somewhere for three months (honestly, I can not remember where… but she was going to go). She told me all about the program, and my brain started to spin. I thought, hey, this could be kind of fun.
I applied on the second-last day possible to accept applications, much to the stress of my parents and the French Department head… it involved a phone call to my Mom from the school to say “hey, I’ve impulsively decided I want to go to Switzerland for three months. Applications are due tomorrow…. can I do this?
Bless my Mother, her (and my Dad’s) answer was yes. Yes, bring the application home, we’ll fill it out together.
I brought that application home, we spent hours pouring over it and filling it out, and I got psyched up. I got to choose three destinations in order that I would like to visit.
The plan was to go somewhere French-speaking and come back fluent.
After the process of the applications and interviews was all finished a few weeks later, it was announced over the PA at my high school the names of those of us who were going to go (my best friend had not submitted her application after all…), and apparently there were no suitable matches in Switzerland OR Belgium, so, I found out I was off to France!
This was May. In August, we picked Emma (my exchange partner) up at the airport, and she began a journey of three months in Canada. If memory serves correctly, she loved it and didn’t want to leave.
In February, my Mom put her baby girl on an airplane for the first time in her life, and sent her across the Atlantic for three months. I bawled all the way to the airport…. Second thoughts… I had them.
We landed in Paris after an 8-hour red-eye flight (let me tell you… for never having been in an airplane, that’s a LONG time to sit in a giant piece of metal with wings flying over the Atlantic), I couldn’t hear anything because my ears don’t pop on landing, and my three month adventure started.
For those who know me personally, you know that I talk a LOT…. well… for the first 3-ish weeks I hardly said a word. You see, if you’re familiar with the Ontario Core French program, you’ll know that going to a foreign country with a grade 9 education in the subject is not adequate. I knew how to describe clowns, the names of some animals, and how to ask to go to the bathroom. Yup — 6 years of French, folks…
As the first month came to a close, I was getting the hang of my new surroundings, and I was starting to be able to converse. I could go to the bakery by myself (gosh, I miss the bakery. You could smell it from down. the. street.) and order our bread for the day. That’s right, we bought bread by the day. We did not buy a loaf of bread shocked full of preservatives that would last over a month in the fridge. I could talk to my classmates…. and once I figured that out, I never stopped talking. My new classmates were like “je pensait que cette fille était silencieuse.” (I thought this girl was quiet.)
I spent the last two months continuing to be pathetically home sick. My friends and my Mom sent me awesome care packages, though. You have to remember this was pre-fast-internet. Dial-up with a pathetic monthly limit meant I didn’t get to email much, and had I gone the year before I wouldn’t even have been able to do that because no one really had it.
It was full of adventure — a science-themed amusement park called Futuroscope with one of my classes, a group of British exchange students at the end of the three months who stuck me between them and the French students and let me translate — what a feeling, snowboarding in the French Alps, crushing on my 17 year old snowboarding instructor who happened to be from New Zealand and was the first English-speaking person I’d found in three weeks, shopping in downtown Grenoble, nearly stepping in dog poo INSIDE Charles de Gaulle International Airport…. swimming in the Mediterranean, 30 degree weather in April (in Toulon for a beach trip for Spring Break, not in Meylan in the Alps where I lived), and so many more experiences I’ll never forget.
While France is not currently high on my “must visit” list (and there are many places that are), I have valued the experiences that made me independent, self-sufficient, fluent in French, and showed me the true value of the friends and family I had at home that I missed TERRIBLY.
Most of the pictures are pretty terrible. You see, before the age of digital cameras I was a terrible photographer. Pretty much everything is crooked, a lot of them are blurry, and the lighting is all awful. Does that mean I’m not actually a good photographer? I would argue no, because when I got a digital, I spent a lot of time learning how to actually use a camera. However, that being said, I’ve got only one picture that I’m comfortable putting out there… and I didn’t even take it.
On a day in April in Toulon, in the year 2000, I was standing on a balcony with palm trees and the Mediterranean in my background, having just spent the afternoon on the beach at 30+ degrees… and been in the Med up to my collar bone (briefly, because it was only 18 degrees…). This view is something I’ll never forget.
side note: the random dot in the sky is because I had this hanging on a bulletin board for a long time. Also… dear 15 year old me… whoever told you that navy blue baggy tshirts, black umbro soccer shorts when you don’t play soccer, and ugly velcro sandals were ok owes you a big apology. That is all.