Part I : Au Revoir, America !
My father drove me three and a half hours through the foggy morning of January 13th to take me to the Bangor Airport. From there, I was to catch a plane to Philadelphia to Amsterdam to Nantes. However, this was not the case.
Bangor to Philadelphia, 3:30 PM. Canceled.
Well, that was a problem. But I had a long layover in Philadelphia. Maybe the next flight…
Bangor to Philadelphia, 6 PM. Canceled.
It was too foggy in Philadelphia for any planes to depart or arrive. Unfortunately, the airline in Bangor only flew to Philadelphia. I was stuck. My father talked to the man at the desk, trying to find a way for me to get to Nantes. It seemed impossible.
“Portland?” My father asked, thinking he could drive me the additional three hours to the nearest airport.
“No, that won’t work,” the man at the counter replied, clicking away at the computer.
After exhausting nearly all options, my father asked, “Boston?”
“Well…there’s a flight that leaves at 7:45 PM. It goes from Boston to Paris to Nantes. You would have to check-in at six.”
“How long does it take to get to Boston?” my father asked.
“What time is it now?” he asked.
I looked at my watch. “1:45,” I said.
“Let’s go,” my father said.
We had four hours to drive in the fog with no directions and no GPS. As I sat in the car, I was in utter disbelief. We weren’t prepared for a drive to Boston. I wasn’t sure if my father would have enough money for the tolls or if we had enough gas in the car. Besides, it was a Sunday and my father had to go to work in the morning. After he dropped me off at six, he would have to drive the seven hours back home in the dark and in the fog. What about traffic? How on earth we were going to do this? This task was impossible and crazy. Maybe it was a sign from the heavens…turn back now! France doesn’t want you.
With a little luck, and some help from my smartphone, we arrived in Boston with plenty of time to spare. I said goodbye to my father, almost hesitant to leave. I knew I would miss him and everything about America for the next five months of my life. I would miss my friends. I would miss free public bathrooms and free water. But, when my passport was scanned and I was through security, it was apparent that there was no turning back. I was going to France.
On the airplane, I was in the last seat next to the window. From there, I watched as the lights from the sky scrapers of Boston faded into fog and nebulous matter. I tried to capture the view, as it would be my last image of America for five months. But, high in the sky, Boston looked like any other city. My flight, itself, was pleasant. I watched a movie, I slept and I ate. About an hour before arriving in Paris, the older woman sitting next to me began to talk to me…in French. Are you staying in Paris?
Yes, I had ordered food on the plane in French, but I had ordered food a million times in French in Canada. But I had never spoken to an actual French individual in a real life situation. This was the moment I had been waiting for, the moment where fourteen years of French would either help me or hurt me. I took a deep breath and, in broken French, gave her my story. I told her I was a student studying in Nantes. She was a mother, living near Nice. She had been to the States to visit her son, who was studying abroad in America. Before, I knew it, I looked outside and saw the lights of Paris. On the horizon, a new day was breaking. The sky was a vibrant pink and orange.
As the flight landed, the woman handed me a piece of paper with her name on it and a telephone number. “If you are ever near Nice, or if you need anything, give me a call,” she said in French.
She looked outside at the airport. Charles de Gaulle was huge. With a smile, she said, in perfect English, “Welcome to Paris.”
Part II: Bonjour, France!
I walked off the plane with a sense of pride. I had made it to France. After years of planning and preparation, I was in France. But my feeling of elation did not last for long. I was thrown into a whirlwind of chaos. My flight had landed in Paris at 8:30 AM. I had to board for Nantes at 9 AM.
Charles de Gaulle is a large airport. Terminal was probably larger than the entire airport in Presque Isle, Maine. To make matters worse, I had to get to another terminal. I had to get out of that one large terminal, walk a million miles, catch an automated train to the correct terminal, go through passport control, go another million miles, go through security, get selected for a pat down (five minutes to go until my plane boards), run the last million miles and pray that I did not make a mistake. Luckily, I managed to navigate the maze of an airport to arrive at the correct gate, just in time. I was sweaty and tired, after asking several airport officials for assistance. They all reassured me that I would make it to my gate on time.
I did, but just barely. The woman scanning tickets looked at me. I was out of breath and probably looked in distress. She saw my American passport and smiled at me in pity. She spoke in English, “Be careful. It’s slippery outside.”
I was too tired to reply anything else, but the English, “Thank you.”
From there, I had to take a bus ride to the plane (which, knowing French bureaucracy, was probably at the same terminal I was originally at that I had rushed away from, just kidding! I hope it wasn’t!). On the plane, we had to wait for them to deice the plane, a regular occurrence in Northern Maine, but I had no idea that France got so cold. On this flight, I was on the emergency exit row and had an entertaining conversation with a flight attendant. He, in French, gave the best emergency instructions I have ever received on a plane before. He truly enjoyed his job.
I slept for the duration of the flight, which was surprisingly quick. It lasted no more than 40 minutes from take-off to landing. I arrived in Nantes and collected my baggage. I walked outside of the airport and on to the sidewalk. I was officially on solid French ground for the first time in my life.
I had to get to the international house where coordinators would assist me. I knew it would be easiest to take a taxi. If only I could find them… I walked around. What does a French taxi look like? I saw a line of cars and figured they must be taxis. If not, I was going to be kidnapped and that was that.
The man at the driving wheel was not smiling. “Hello? Can you take me to this address?” I asked in French (although, this is probably not what I really asked).
He looked at the index card with the address of the international house. “Oui,” he said shortly and as if that was a stupid question.
I hopped into the back of the car and watched France roll by my window. It looked a lot like Italy (where I went for a spring study abroad trip), which looked a lot like America. The signs were in French, but for the most part, the trees of the highway were the same.
The driver missed my stop, but got me close enough. I walked into the international house and, just as I wanted to be done with everything, things got much more complicated. My coordinator was very understanding and let me call my parents on her phone. It was a good thing she did that because I still don’t have phone service and I just got access to the internet. She explained everything I needed to do, but all I wanted to do was get to my room.
Instead, I paid fee after fee for random requirements. I discovered that France is a very cash driven society, where even French social security (207 euros) must be paid in cash…no exceptions. Furthermore, the traveler’s checks that I had intended to use were virtually useless. No one uses traveler’s checks.
Finally, I was sent on my way to check into the dorm, but even that would not be easy. I had to navigate the tram system in France. Luckily, my coordinator walked me to the stop and showed me how to pay for my ticket. She told me the stop I needed to go to and I was on my way. When I arrived at the dorm, I had to pay for the security deposit and the first month’s rent before I enter my room. I couldn’t use my traveler’s check and I certainly did not have enough money. I was slightly panicked because I was told the only way to pay was in cash. However, I managed to convince the woman to let my pay in credit card. She seemed irritated at my lack of understanding, since I had to have her repeat things several times. I doubt I could understand half of the terminology in English…let alone French! At the end of the transaction, I apologized for my French. She looked more sympathetic, but she could have just been happy to have been rid of me!
Little did she know, that when I went to my room and saw no bedding, that I would be back to buy bedding. The set included a pillow, pillow cover, cover and two thin sheets. My room was freezing cold. I knew it was going to be a long night. I unpacked (after carrying my suitcases to the top floor – there is no elevator) and discovered the room had no toilet paper. I went on an adventure to find some and returned with pink toilet paper and pink hand soap (the choice of color wasn’t really mine – it was the cheapest they sold, although they did also sell green and blue for a higher price). I returned to my cold room and settled in for the night. I was exhausted, stressed and overwhelmed.
I put on as many clothes as I could find and huddled near the heater. Then I tried going to bed. As tired as I was, I couldn’t fall asleep. My mind was processing everything the coordinator told me I had to do…by myself. I was alone. I was alone and cold. I let my emotions wash over me and told myself that this was normal. It was stress.
Sometime during the night, I closed my eyes and hoped that the next day would be better.