I became a travel fanatic when my parents took me to southern France, the year I was fifteen.
I had liked travel before that, of course. Usually very much. We had gone to Disneyworld and Chautauqua and London, and even once the island of Guadeloupe. I enjoyed everyplace we went, but it didn’t really translate into a feeling of wanderlust. I was just too young, and it wasn’t something we did often enough that I caught the bug from my parents. I liked it when I went, and then I came back and went on with my life… without much thinking about going anywhere else after that.
Then my father and stepmother decided to go to Nice for a month, in company with my uncle and cousins. They didn’t originally intend to take me, but my mother wasn’t too stable that year, and they eventually decided they shouldn’t leave me with her for so long. So, they told me that I was coming with them.
I didn’t get a choice. And I got very upset. That summer was the first time I had ever had a boyfriend. I didn’t see how I could possibly leave him for an entire month. And I didn’t speak French, and I was terrified of not knowing anyone or being able to talk to anybody.
In other words, I was too scared of the parts that I didn’t expect to like to be able to imagine the ones that maybe I could. I think that’s a common problem for people who are uncomfortable with travel. Especially if they haven’t gone anyplace that’s outside their comfort zone yet — and that was definitely me at fifteen. I begged to be allowed to stay home by myself for a month. That was obviously a non-starter. So, I resigned myself to going, and to having a terrible time.
They hauled me, sulking, on an Air France plane with a change in Paris, and we settled into an apartment just off Nice’s wide, rocky Mediterranean beach. On our first day, we discovered that the air mattress we had brought along had a leak in it, but we couldn’t figure out where it was. So, we brought the mattress down and dumped it into the building’s outdoor swimming pool, to see if we could tell from the bubbles where the leak might be.
That mattress bought me entry into the kids’ community of the apartment complex. Everyone between the ages of seven and nineteen lived at the pool during the long summer daytimes, and they all thought it was enormous fun to have a full-sized air mattress in the pool instead of the flimsy little floats most of them brought with them. We played games on that mattress, and rowed around on it, and knocked each other off it. And they taught me French, as we floated on the mattress and ate piñola nuts from the trees around the pool deck.
For the next month, on the days when my family didn’t have sightseeing plans, I spent my days in the pool, playing rowdy games with my French friends, or sat on the deck beside it, playing cards with my American cousins. On other days, my parents took me to Monaco, to Italy, and up into the Alps Maritimes. We listened to concerts of medieval music in little stone village churches that had been built in the century that the music came from. I won a 100-franc slot machine jackpot in Monte Carlo, and took my parents out for ice cream with my winnings.
The last day before we came home, I went by myself for the first time to the little neighborhood grocery store where I’d been trailing my father, silent and scared, for the past four weeks. In my halting French, I negotiated a transaction for the butter and croissants that my father wanted, and some candy of my own. As soon as the shopkeeper heard me speak, she called out to everyone else in the store for their attention. Embarrassed and proud, I concluded my transaction and expressed my thanks in French, and received a warm round of applause from the other shoppers and the clerk, all of whom had seen the little American girl come and go without speaking for a month and knew they were watching a graduation of sorts.
I’ve never forgotten what it felt like to have a store full of strangers care enough about my struggles with their language that they’d pause in the middle of their own business to applaud my efforts when I got up the nerve to try a few sentences in public. It was wonderful.
My parents, of course, never did let me live down how badly I had wanted not to go to France, after it quickly became clear that I loved everything about that trip. In fact, they haven’t let me live it down to this day, almost forty years later. But that was okay… because it reminded me vividly of how I could NEVER assume that I wouldn’t like a trip. And I never assumed it again. I’ve become ravenous about travel: I’ll go absolutely anywhere, and I always expect to love it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a day trip to a local town I don’t know, or a summer job in a foreign country. I’ve taken trips that were failures before — you’ll hear about some of those — and I’m sure I’ll have more trips that are failures in the future. But I’ve never again been unwilling to try one.
There have been trips I enjoyed more than the one to Nice in my fifteenth year. You’ll probably hear about those too. But that one remains the best trip I’ve ever taken, because it taught me to love travel itself — anywhere, anytime, any variety. What’s the best trip you ever took? What made it the best? Please tell me about it in the comments!
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