I remember the first moment when I felt like an adult. It came out of the blue and struck me and I realized that somewhere along the line, something had changed for me, and I couldn’t quite explain it.
In the spring of 2010 I set off on vacation for a few weeks. This was when I stopped going to my French school as exams approached for my classmates, and I wanted to travel. My English teacher helped arrange for me to end my school year early and I set off to Tours and Bordeaux, my second solo trip in France (following my spring trip to Bordeaux and Toulouse). There was a lot going on for me at that time and I left Fréjus feeling overwhelmed and confused about my experience in France and what I was going to do afterwards.
I love taking trains. They feel magical to me, but that is probably the Harry Potter nerd in me coming out. I was running away from some heavy problems, and the long train ride from St. Raphael to Marseilles, and then to Bordeaux, gave me plenty of time to think about everything.
When I left Fréjus, I was doubting myself. I questioned whether the trip was the right thing to do; was running from an uncomfortable situation the mature way to handle things? Was traveling instead of finishing up the school year with my friends really the best decision? Did I accomplish what I set out to do by going to France? Was the experience worth it?
(The answer to those questions was ‘yes’.)
As I rode and wrote, read and watched the scenery going by, I started to sort those things out.
I thought about my experiences up to that point. France was not fully what I expected, but it was still a place I loved and I loved living there. It took me some time, but I was doing well in school and I had made friends. The predictions made by people that doubted me that I wouldn’t learn to speak French were false; I had already discovered that I could communicate effectively en français. I wasn’t held back by my lack of language, and although I would never speak as well as a native speaker and my vocabulary wasn’t all-encompassing, I could now say with certainty that I spoke fluently in French. That had been one of my goals in going to France.
I thought about the situation I was dealing with in my host family; how I could act independently of authority figures and I could be happier for it. I could do things I want to do despite opposition and it was good for me to do so.
I realized as I traveled across France alone for the second time that I had reached a stage in my life where I was an adult. Going away from an unhealthy situation was good for me, and making that decision was the best thing I could have done.
School wasn’t the most important thing to me. It hadn’t been for a while, but on that train ride, it seemed to me that the experience of French school was just as important to me as travelling. The value of my adventure was not defined by my grades or the hours spent in the classroom; the immersion in the classroom and with my friends was ultimately the most important thing. My friends would still be there when I returned; I would see them again, and missing out on unnecessary exams was not going to deprive me of an essential French experience.
That recognition was rare and special; I didn’t know anybody at that time that had encountered something similar. I was in a different place in my life than my friends on either side of the Atlantic. I was shifting forward, challenging myself in a new way, accomplishing something I had dreamed of for years. It’s a weird to be 17 and think about that widening gap in my understanding of the world. At home, my friends were looking at colleges and taking AP exams; I had barely even thought about what I would do after returning from France, and AP classes were months away for me. I had just started figuring out what I wanted to do with my life but I was still shaky on the how or why of it.
On the way to this trip, and on the return of many others, it occurred to me how lucky I was that much of me is defined by travel.
Have you ever had a startling realization while traveling?