The first time I traveled abroad on my own was in 1993, for the University of Washington’s Autumn in Avignon, France program. The experience started with a long transpolar flight to Copenhagen on SAS connecting to Paris Charles de Gaulle for a five day orientation in the City of Light before taking the TGV, the bullet train, down to Avignon.
There were approximately a thousand things that I learned in those first five days in Paris.
I remember geeking out over the Paris Métro, realizing I had access to the entire city on foot. My actual, early-90s thought was “all of Paris is one big outdoor shopping mall!” Remember, at that time, that was high praise, and that I was a car-centric suburban American teenager. Now I when I think about the Paris Métro, I think “oh, this is how cities are supposed to be.
I also remember that getting from the airport into town was more complicated that I had hoped. I walked into the RER station and asked for a carnet de dix (a 10-pack of subway tickets) just like the guidebooks and the orientation packet told me to do. The dude in the window behind the glass shook his head and mumbled something into the microphone, I didn’t understand. I tried another window, “un carnet de dix, s’il vous plaît” and got the same rejection. Meanwhile an American girl next to me with a crazy American accent and zero knowledge of French comes back from the next window with a ticket, saying “I just said, I want to go here, and pointed to a map.” I was too scared at this point, so she went and bought my ticket for me. It turns out the RER is the regional train, and the Métro is the local train, and RER stations didn’t sell 10-packs. The lessons I learned: you don’t need the target language to communicate effectively; bureaucracies are baffling; guidebooks and orientation packets can be wrong. After that we got on a train, and a kid across from us was emptying out a cigarette, mixing the tobacco with weed, rolling it back up into a spliff, and then offering some to my friend and I. I asked him how to say it; he taught me the word “le ganja.” That was an eye opener.
No, we did not accept the offer; we both politely declined.
I remember emerging from the Étoile station onto a bright and sunny Place Charles de Gaulle and thinking, “All these people… are speaking, thinking, living… IN FRENCH! Their brains are fundamentally different then mine; if they want to speak English, they have to STUDY IT!” Of course, I knew intellectually long before I arrived that French people speak French, but it was freaking me out to be there, to look at a random person and think, “that person speaks FRENCH!” and then looking at the next person and think “THAT PERSON TOO!” Sure I had grown up in a multilingual household, and sure I had met non-English speakers before, but for some reason, on that day, it was freaking me out.
Ooh! I remember learning that jet lag is REAL, especially when you travel east! I had traveled west to the Philippines once before, and jet lag was just a matter of staying up later and going to bed when it gets dark. But travelling eastward, and arriving exhausted when it’s not even lunch time… that’s hard! I remember pushing myself for the first few days, and declaring myself over jet lag. On day three I took the room key and went back to the hotel for an afternoon nap. When I woke up groggy I made my way to the hotel lounge. My roommates were there, surprised to see me, asking me where I had gone with the room key. I said I was taking a nap, just like I told them. They said they had been knocking on the door and screaming at me to open up every half our or so, for the last FIVE HOURS. I was so embarrassed. Thinking back on it now, locking them out of the room and keeping them from napping probably helped them to adjust their body clocks…
I definitely pushed a local guy into a pile of garbage when he wouldn’t stop hitting on my friend. I thought I was starting a fight, but he was just a little bewildered.