Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Ugly Truth: Independence Abroad.

The temperature was dropping quickly as the sky darkened with the ominous approach of night and right. The rural street was deserted-- except for two girls standing under the shelter of a bus stop. Despite a crumpled schedule's promise of a shuttle to the train station, it did not appear as 5:15, 5:25, and 5:35 flashed on the screen of an out-of-service Iphone. They walked out by the side of the road, but few cars passed by. On the verge of a disaster and missing their train back to Paris....

Okay, so that was a bit dramatic. But when Paige and I were in that situation this past week, it seemed like the end of the world. And so begins the back story. One day, out of our weeklong journey in the City of Light, we decided to visit the house and gardens of Claude Monet (fabulous painter of waterlilies) in Giverny, France. It's a tiny village, about an hour and fifteen minutes from Paris by train. Simple enough, right? The first problem arose before we even left, in the St. Lazare train station. We were right on schedule to catch the 12:20pm train until we exited the metro and discovered that we had no idea where or how (because we don't speak French and I mean NONE) to buy tickets, or which of four floors the trains departed from. In short, we ended up sprinting from the first floor to the third only to miss the train by by about two minutes. We finally had the courage to actually go to the information desk, where we received second class tickets and a valuable schedule. Fifty minutes later, we were on our way to Vernon, with picturesque views of the countryside. At one point, we switched trains and ending up meeting a Brazilian girl who speaks French who was also headed to Monet's gardens. This leads me to  the most complicated part of the process of getting to our destination: the shuttles. Now, I suppose these shuttles from the train station in Vernon to the museum in Giverny exist in real life, but I can't be certain. We assumed that we had missed the last one of the day, so we split a BMW taxi with the Brazilian-who-speaks-French for the ten-minute ride. It was smooth sailing once we found ourselves amongst the auburn leaves in the quaint village and we spent about two hours exploring Monet's wonderland, walking through his house, seeing the famous waterlilies, and soaking all of the nature in. Though primetime is in the spring, it was still beautiful in the fall and not crowded at all--which may have been the cause of our next problem. We took our time leaving the museum and then stopped at cafe for pastries and tea, thinking we had all the time in the world to catch the shuttle back. And we did, because there was no shuttle (refer to dramatic intro above.) I've concluded that there was no shuttle for one of three reasons: a) It was the last day the gardens were open until April and therefore there weren't many people and therefore the shuttle service stopped early, b) we were in the wrong place to catch it, or c) my schedule was wrong. I would like to choose option A, but I will never be entirely sure. Now, we ended up waving down a taxi that already had people inside, but they were nice enough to let us share with them back to the station. The last and probably most stressful event of the day happened on the way back, when we switched trains somewhere in France. One would naturally think that if you switch trains on the way there, you should switch trains on the way back. So, without glancing at our tickets, we hop off the warm, cozy train TO PARIS,and then discover that it really would have taken us to all the way back. By the time we were fully aware of this mistake, the train had already left and we were standing on the dark platform looking incredibly dejected, confused, and hungry. Fortunately, a little French boy, who spoke English, helped us out and even led us to another train back. When we finally saw the glittering lights of Paris, we were simply exhausted. It was quite the day.

I tell you this whole story because I think of it as a defining experience: a first taste of the real world. Yes, I'm in Spain "by myself" but I have advisors, a host family, and friends that support me daily. But that day (and all week) we were two, naive 18 year-old girls trying to figure things out on our own and it didn't always go smoothly. Independent travel is so much harder than I first thought, because you have to plan everything down to the exact detail and prepare for the worst. Two things that we failed to do. We also relied on the hope that people would speak English to us, which did end up happening, and probably was the reason we made it to Giverny and back to Paris that night. But what if that little boy wasn't able to communicate with us? Where would we have ended up? My point is that we were traveling selfishly, with the idea that the world was looking out for us. To get the most of out a trip, we need to be looking after ourselves and looking out at the world around us. That means that next time, I vow to learn a decent amount of the language of my destination before I travel independently, not expect people to adapt for me. I also vow to arrive to the train station a little bit earlier and to leave before dark, maybe that way I can enjoy the ride. 

Our week as a whole was a spectacular mix of fall, croissants, landmarks, history, new friends, and French. We stayed in an upbeat hostel, had Paige's friend from Toulouse come and stay for a few days, did the typical touristy Parisian things, and spent a lot of time drinking tea. For Halloween, our hostel threw a party, and since Paige and I have adjusted to the Spanish nightlife, we were the last ones to go to bed that morning. Paige and I made friends with the hostel staff and waiters, which really made our stay that much more fun. On our final days, we met a group of girls who are teaching in Dijon, France, who invited us to visit sometime, and of course, we returned the invitation. Hostels have their advantages-- you meet young people from all different places on all sorts of journeys, as long as you don't mind sharing a bedroom with eleven of them. I think I'm one step closer to becoming a global citizen. 

In other news, I'm off to Morocco, Africa on Friday with CIEE, where we'll stay with host families, speak with college students about global issues, and really get to experience the exotic culture there. You can visit for details of my trip, but I'm sure I'll have a blog post about it soon.