Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Learning to shop à la française

Courtesy A elalaily, Wikimedia commons
In the U.S., nine times out of ten, “shopping” means driving to a mall and rushing from store to store with dozens, if not hundreds, of other people. You push through racks and shelves and cases of stuff – less than one percent of which you may actually need – under the disinterested gaze of bored salespeople whose most helpful act may be to bring you another size if you find a pair of shoes or piece of clothing that you actually want to try on. You fight your way back out to the parking lot only to have that moment of where-in-the-world-did-I-park-the-car panic, then drive home having spent several hours of free time stressed out and rushed.

Needless to say, I am not a shopper.

In Europe, however, shopping is a completely different experience. On my second day of class in France, when I was terrified that I was going to get lost in the maze of medieval Aix-en-Provence's streets and end up rushing in late, I discovered that the route to school my host mom had advised I take also happened to lead me through most of Aix's Tuesday/Thursday market, which is scattered throughout the city. Ten minutes into my walk, I stumbled into a square that had been empty the afternoon before but was now filled with market stalls. Saucissons, olives fraîches, fruit, cheese, olive oil, pasta...combined with the smell of fresh bread from the boulangerie on the corner, it was enough to make my mouth water. Well, I thought, I have to eat lunch, don't I?

I browsed the fruit stalls, staying cautiously toward the middle of the aisle so as not to be too obvious in my perusal. Drawn in by some beautiful pears, I drifted closer to one stall and jumped when the vendor bid me good morning. I answered in kind and timidly asked if I might have three pears. The vendor weighed and bagged them in a flash. "Deux euros, mademoiselle," he said. I pointed out that the scale said €2,12 and offered him the exact change; he took the two euro and waved off the rest with a wink and a smile.

Along the banks of the Seine, Spring 2006.
The pears were all I was brave enough to buy that first day, but in the months that followed I came to love the markets that sprawled through Aix most days of the week. One of my favorite things about Saturday mornings was seeing the flower vendors setting up their stalls as I passed through the market square on my run, the blooms a bright wash of color against the cobblestones as "Bonjour !" was tossed back and forth across the square.

My routine during the week, every second or third day, was to leave early for school, so I could wander through town on the way. I stopped for a baguette, usually still warm, at the boulangerie up the street from the square where the fresh food vendors set up, then ambled through the market aisles, buying produce for lunch and sometimes watching my friends decide which saucissons to try (after seeing one that listed "donkey" as an ingredient, I couldn't bring myself to eat them). Between classes, I headed to the courthouse parking lot or down to the Cours Mirabeau, Aix's one wide boulevard, to browse the goods for sale there. I bargained with a leather merchant for a good price on a small, cross-shoulder purse that I could wear more comfortably than the one I'd brought; I bought countless blocks of scented savon de Marseille for my family and friends; I spoke at length with a Moroccan merchant about his scarves from North Africa and ended up buying three throughout the year, for my mom, my grandmother and myself; I browsed for a fall jacket and bought one for €50 that I still get compliments on every time I wear it, five years later.

By November, I'd worn holes in one of my two pairs of jeans and desperately needed new ones. My experiences in the open-air markets had given me the confidence to try shopping in some actual stores, so I ducked into a boutique that always had cute window displays. Rather than mutter "Bonjour" to the saleswoman and try to make myself invisible, I smiled as I said hello and asked for her help. She gave me several pairs of jeans to try (and somehow assigned me the right size from the three the store offered after barely a glance - it's one thing the French are great at, even the men, that I've never been able to figure out), then gave me her opinion on which looked best. I agreed with her, so I bought that pair and wore it constantly for the next two years.

The one shopping experience that really unnerved me, initially, was when I needed new lingerie and wandered into a boutique in the town center. I received the kind of assistance I'd come to expect from one of the saleswomen when it came to size and I was grateful for her help, since thinking in centimeters is not one of my strengths. When I'd been in the dressing room for about three minutes, the curtain suddenly opened and the saleswoman stepped in. "Ah oui, ça vous va très bien, mademoiselle !" At the moment, I didn't care whether or not the bra I was trying on suited me; my American brain, which any Frenchwoman would have called pudique - prudish - couldn't get past the fact that a complete stranger was standing in a dressing room with me while I tried on underwear. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that I wasn't in the States, then asked if she thought it was the right size. She adjusted the straps, looked appraisingly at my reflection and nodded, "Parfait." Perfect. Well, okay then.

I left the boutique feeling a little dazed, but during the next few months adopted the same "When in Rome" mentality that I had been applying to everything else in France. By the time spring rolled around, I was comfortable enough with shopping à la française to go swimsuit shopping in a tiny boutique where the saleswoman vetoed two of my choices before agreeing with me on the fit of the third.

Since returning to the U.S., I've come to actively miss not only the delicious scents and beautiful colors of France's open-air markets but even the French saleswomen for whom the American idea of "personal space" is a completely ridiculous concept. I usually shop alone and having someone tell me, with absolute honesty, whether or not a piece of clothing flattered me was a great experience that I often wish I could replicate in the States. As nerve-wracking as those first experiences with unfamiliar shopping customs were for me, they were also some of the best lessons I received on assimilation: dive in headfirst to local customs and you'll almost always come away with an appreciation for the way the locals do things - you may even decide you prefer them to the way the same things are done at home.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Snapshots: Angels Landing

One of the stunning vistas visible from Angels Landing.
Standing at the top of a cliff, turning slowly to absorb every bit of a 360-degree view of sandstone peaks - some cream-colored, some pink and some deep red - is a breathtaking experience. When you've climbed 500 feet in elevation in half a mile over narrow rock faces embedded with chains, scrambling up chest-high boulders and edging cautiously past descending hikers to get there, it also feels like a great reward for having ventured all the way out to Zion's Angels Landing.

Looking up at the first set of switchbacks
from the beginning of the trail.
Not a long hike at five miles roundtrip, Angels Landing is nonetheless considered one of Zion National Park's more difficult trails, namely because of that last half-mile. Scout's Lookout is two miles and a 1,000-foot elevation gain from the trailhead and many hikers stop there, content with the views to either side of Zion Canyon and down to the canyon floor. The hike to that point is enjoyable but challenging, with steep switchbacks. Among them are 21 of the shortest switchbacks I've ever been on, known as Walter's Wiggles and named after Walter Reusch, who designed the strange section of trail and helped with its construction in 1924. Leading up to Walter's Wiggles is Refrigerator Canyon, which is a treat to wander through in the summer with temperatures that are regularly 10-30 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than the rest of the sun-baked trail. 
A view of the Virgin River from the bridge that leads from
The Grotto to the Angels Landing and West Rim trailheads.

Whether or not you make it to the top, the hike provides beautiful views of the canyon floor, the Virgin River and the incredible sandstone formations that characterize Zion. Hikers on this trail generally know what they're getting into and are in it for the long haul, so people are friendly on the trail and conversation with strangers during quick breaks in the shade is common. Continuing past Scout's Lookout is strongly discouraged for anyone with a fear of heights, since the trail past that point is quite narrow with very steep drop-offs, and there are some gaps between the chains erected by the NPS that can be paralyzing for those already uncomfortable with the elevation. If you're not afraid of heights and are in good health, however, I highly recommend at least trying the last part of the trail - the view from the top is well worth the effort (and if my parents - 61 and 73 when we hiked this last month - can do it, you likely can too!).
On the way to Angels Landing, looking
back along the trail toward Scout's Lookout.

On the last, most challenging part of the trail from Scout's Lookout to Angels Landing, the mood is even more friendly, taking on a kind of "we're all in this together" vibe that keeps conversation going and has hikers carefully maneuvering to allow one another to pass safely. My parents and I spoke at length with three American women who travel together every year, an Aussie from Queensland with whom we'd spoken extensively on the Hidden Canyon trail the day before, and a group of Americans who thought my dad should get an age award for making it to the top, to name just a few - not to mention the Argentine gentleman wedged into a nook in the rock to let descending hikers pass who offered his hand as a brace for a particularly long drop from one boulder to another.
The view down Zion Canyon from the edge of Angels Landing.

Once you reach the top, the sandstone flattens out, the chains disappear (which is cause for concern for some) and - with the exception of one particularly slanted, narrow spot as you're heading out to the edge - any reason for nerves evaporates in the face of the view. At a height from which the park's shuttles look like ants winding along the canyon floor and with nothing but air between you and the nearest of the canyon walls, it's easy to see why Frederick Vining Fisher, who named the hike, said that "only angels could land [on it]."

Not everyone is comfortable with the way the trail to Angels Landing is constructed (read a 2009 devil's-advocate column from the L.A. Times here) and there have been hikers killed in falls from it (five, to date), but fatal falls from the more popular, easier Emerald Pools trail are more common, though still rare (seven, to date).
At the very top of Angels Landing, relaxing with the
beautiful views on September 11, 2010.

My experience was a very positive one, and I wouldn't discourage anyone in good health, who isn't afraid of heights (or perhaps particularly prone to clumsiness), from trying to hike the whole trail. The first two miles are a relatively steep climb but provide beautiful views of their own, so if you get to Scout's Lookout and decide you don't want to go any further, it won't be a wasted hike. If you do continue onto Angels Landing, be patient, as you'll often have to pause to let a string of hikers going the other direction pass; take all the time you need to take each step safely, especially as you're descending (as I told an older French woman descending ahead of me, who offered to let me pass at a particularly precarious point, "I'm in no rush, take your time!"); and keep one hand on the chains at all times where they're available - they're there to prevent falls, and on a few particularly steep sections they're very useful in helping you walk up the rock, hand-over-hand.

Whether or not you go all the way to the end, you'll have beautiful views from a challenging trail. If you do make it to Angels Landing, you'll get some of the best views in the park - and a great sense of accomplishment.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Counting down to Oz

Courtesy of Navin75, Creative Commons
So, why Diary of a Wandering Student and why now? The short answer is that I'll be heading to Australia's Macquarie University for grad school in a few months and I want to establish a space to record my adventures and hear about yours before I head Down Under and am too caught up in exploring a new region of the world to think about creating a blog to talk about my experience there.

I've been counting down to my February 2011 orientation for almost a year already, since I received my official acceptance into Macquarie's Masters of Translating and Interpreting with a Masters of International Relations program in December 2009, but my impending departure is starting to seem more real lately. Exponentially more real this week, since - drumroll, please - I bought my ticket to Sydney on Monday!

I'll leave on January 25th and arrive midday on January 27th (when that whole losing-a-day thing, which makes sense in theory, will likely throw me off for a while in practice), two weeks before orientation begins and I become a full-time student again. Since I'll be arriving from cold, snowy winter in the Arizona mountains in the middle of Sydney's summer, the current plan is to head south to cooler Tasmania for a few days, maybe a week, and explore some of the national parks that make up about 40% of the island state. I'll spend the rest of my pre-orientation time exploring North Ryde, Sydney and environs, hopefully finding local gems (the best local markets, tea shops, parks, beaches, cafés, etc.) - and learning how to order coffee, Aussie-style (long, short, black, flat, white...I know the terminology, but haven't quite made sense of how it relates to how Americans order coffee)!

One thing that's stood out as I've been asking around about Oz and researching the dos, don'ts and history of the Lucky Country is that no one I've talked to - not even one person - who's visited Australia has a single negative thing to say about their time there. Usually when you ask around about a country, some people will tell you they loved it, some will have had a mediocre experience and at least one or two will have been seriously annoyed by some aspect of the local culture. When you ask around about Australia, people tell you how lucky you are to be going and that you'll love it. Then they ask how long you'll be staying and if they might come visit.

Needless to say, I can't wait to go. I hope you'll join me in my wanderings, both before I leave and after I land in Oz.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Profiles in Transit: Patience at la Tour Eiffel

The people who sit in the information booth at the Eiffel Tower must have one of the most exhausting jobs on the planet. People storm the booth in droves, asking questions in broken French and a myriad of languages from around the world, the answers to most of which they could find by simply reading the signs posted around the plaza at the base of the monument. Or by turning to the right page in one of their six dozen guidebooks.

The Eiffel Tower was one of my first stops in Paris on my first trip there with my parents. I was 15, and had recently finished third-year French as a freshman in high school, so my mom sent me to ask her question. I formulated it carefully in my head as I walked toward the information booth, and was encouraged when the man in the booth smiled at me as I stepped up to the window. "Bonjour," I said, pleased when his smile widened a bit and he responded in kind.

I don't remember what the question was, but I asked it and he answered - slowly, but without being too obvious that he was taking extra care with his enunciation. I said "Merci!" and sauntered back to my parents with the answer, proud of myself for understanding it. My mom remembered another question she wanted to ask and sent me back...then remembered a third question when I came back with the answer to that one. I was embarrassed to be back at the information booth's window again so quickly, but since the man inside was still smiling when I arrived for the third time, I fumbled my way through the last question - the trickiest, making use of some of the complex grammar I had just learned - and the man patiently waited for me to finish, then repeated his answer twice when I wasn't certain I understood after the first time. I thanked him again and joined my parents to make the climb to the top.

I never got the name of the man who was working in the information booth that day, and I have only a vague memory of his face - maybe early 30s, on the pale side, brown hair and a medium build - but, 10 years later, I still think of him often. Whenever someone complains about how rude Parisians are, how they never let you finish a sentence in French without interrupting to tell you to continue in English, how they're insufferable when it comes to helping English speakers, I remember this man. At one of the most popular attractions in Paris, he was patient enough to let me stumble through my limited French not once, but three times. As busy as he was on a tourist-filled June morning, he was careful to speak slowly enough for me to understand every word. His kindness, his patience and his smile are what I've come to expect when traveling through France, and I have yet to meet with anything less. And when I see struggling tourists in a city where I feel at home, I try to offer them assistance with the same attitude that man showed me: patience, and a smile.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Found in Translation

An earlier version of this post was initially posted on my personal blog, There Is No Spoon, in July. It explains my decision to study international relations, translation and interpretation (which ended up also being a decision to go to grad school in Australia!) and my love of language, so I'm reposting an edited version here, since these decisions were crucial to my continuing journey as a wandering student.

I'm four months out, give or take a week or two, from my departure for Australia, and anticipation is building by the day. I've finally bought and broken in hiking boots, found a new rolling duffel after bidding a fond farewell to the most beat-up of the two that saw me through four years of college and nearly three years of post-grad life and - after considerable research - have chosen a pack in which to lug more of my stuff to the other side of the world and been fitted for the right size. I filled out my housing application this summer and am nervously toying with ideas for scholarship essays. I've loosely planned out my course schedule for the two years of my Masters program. I'm so excited, both to travel in a new part of the world and to study subjects I love, that some days I feel like I'm going to burst.

One thing I realized I haven't done, however, is explain my choice in courses of study. My choice of school was one thing, but I haven't touched much at all on why I want a Masters of Translating and Interpreting with a Masters of International Relations in the first place. (On a side note: every time I babble out that mouthful to someone who asks what I'm going to be studying, there's a moment of stunned silence while they try to digest what I've just said. It makes me feel a little ridiculous.) So, here goes...

My one required course my second semester abroad in college was English to French Translation. Translation was a scary word. And, actually, it sounded kind of boring. Why would I want to take someone else's words and plug them into another language when I could write my own, in either language? I dreaded that class throughout first semester, when two of my friends were taking it, despite their protestations that they liked it. About halfway through my first translation, an excerpt from David Sedaris' Holidays on Ice, a light blinked on in my head. This is translation? This is fun! What was I worried about?

Translation became one of my two favorite classes that semester, not least because of my professor, a professional translator in her own right, and one who understands that languages can - and should be - fun. What I learned from her, and through the practice of translating several pages of varying material each week, was that translation is a far cry from something as simple as transposing a word from one language into the matching word in another.

Like people, language has baggage. Words have a history that's tied to the places they come from, the places they're used and the evolving cultures of the people who use them. And finding the right way to communicate not just the meaning of the word itself but all the nuance of its baggage requires an understanding of cultures on both sides of the translation. (Of course, this doesn't apply quite as often or to the same degree when you're talking about translating instructions for assembling a piece of furniture; we've all laughed at the stilted language in manuals for things manufactured in another country.)

Part of the translator's or interpreter's job, especially when it comes to literary translation (which is feared by translators far and wide as the black hole of the industry, in which you lose yourself and never make any money - so, naturally, it's my favorite type of translation) and diplomatic interpreting, is having a firm grasp of the historical and cultural baggage of both the language he or she is translating from, and the language she's translating into. That knowledge, and the ability to translate nuance and background without interrupting the flow of the text - or the speaker's rhythm, in interpretation - is the mark of a good translator. Which means, when you're dealing with a good one, you won't even be aware that they're there (or hardly, in the case of an interpreter), and you'll be able to read or listen to the thoughts of someone from thousands of miles away, with a background that may be radically different from yours, as though they lived in the house down the street.

And that - that bridging of physical, cultural and linguistic space - is why I want to be a translator and an interpreter. I tend to view the world in terms of relationships, between people, between words, between cultures. What's the same? What's different? How does what's different relate to what I know and understand? Usually, what's different has some point of reference to what I know, that makes what might at first seem alien at least something I can grasp, if not fully comprehend. And it's those points of reference, those connections between languages, that let us bridge the gap between cultures and appreciate the lives and thoughts of men and women to whom we may never have given a passing thought, but whose lives - and livelihoods - are inextricably linked to our own.

Our world is getting smaller, and the need to communicate more effectively, more thoroughly and more often with others is growing. Much of the world is in crisis, whether humanitarian, environmental or economic, and that isn't a reality that's going to change anytime soon, especially if we don't talk to one another across the political and linguistic boundaries in which we've barricaded ourselves. There are great ideas out there, in every corner of the world, and translating them, language by country by continent, can only help our collective future.

I dream about a world where every idea - an environmental solution, a discovery in astronomy, a humanitarian cry for help, a literary daydream - races from person to person around the globe within moments of its inception, sparking interest, aid and inspiration. Largely thanks to the internet and affordable international travel, we're closer to that dream than we were thirty years ago, but we still have a long way to go. In becoming a translator and an interpreter, I hope to bring us just a little closer to making that dream a reality.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Profiles in Transit

My mom is fond of saying that, on my first big trip abroad, I looked at every monument, every piece of living history, as though I hadn't been certain it really existed until the moment I saw it with my own eyes. It did feel something like that: I felt the huge smile spread over my face the moment I saw the top of the Eiffel Tower as we walked toward it along the Seine; I stared in disbelief at the mosaic of a dog with the words "Caveat emptor" beneath it embedded in a floor in the ruins of Pompeii, an image I'd seen hundreds of times in my Latin textbook; I watched the wooden steps passing beneath my feet as I climbed the Arc de Triomphe, wondering about all the feet before mine that had worn them smooth.

I goggled at the places I went and the things I saw, but it was the people I met - however briefly - who left the deepest impressions. For me, one of the best things about traveling is the map of memories it creates. I can look at a picture of somewhere I've been, or pinpoint a trip on a map, and remember the interactions I had with the people there, whether or not I spoke their language or they mine with any fluency. Those memories bring back the feel of a place: the scents of the market, the sounds of the traffic and the language filling the air, the textures of the streets and buildings, the tastes of the local food. And it's in remembering those details that I can travel back, at least in mind if not in body, to the places and people I've so enjoyed.

These "Profiles in Transit" will help me chronicle the people I meet and, hopefully, will give you a window into some different cultures, whether or not they're ones you've visited yourself.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Table for One?

There's traveling, and then there's traveling alone - they're two completely different things and each has its own strengths and weaknesses, as well as its own stresses and delights.

Traveling, whether it's with a group or just one person you know, tends to keep you in something of a bubble. Or perhaps a better way to put it is that traveling with people you know or with a group that organizes things for you keeps at least one foot in your comfort zone. You'll always have someone to talk to who speaks your language, someone who's likely to be as bemused as you are by confusing customs, someone to verify whether you're right or wrong and someone to help you stay safe. Traveling also leaves you little to no personal space and requires a lot of compromise between what you want to do and what those you're traveling with want to do.

Traveling alone doesn't let you exist in a bubble and, the first time you do it, you get shoved well beyond the boundaries of any possible comfort zone. Whatever you do, whether it's finding the right phrase in the book for buying student museum tickets instead of full-price ones, getting on the right train or finding your way to your hostel or hotel in a city you've never set foot in before, you're on your own. On one hand, you get to set your own schedule and do what you want; on the other, there's no one to decompress with or to watch your back.

I was nervous about my first solo trip, not because I was more concerned than usual for my safety (as I told my parents, Ireland is Western, English-speaking, friendly and probably safer than much of the U.S.) but because the thought of traipsing around by myself for a week, with no one for company, was a little daunting. The idea of traveling alone had never really occurred to me, and the fact that I was taking a solo trip was purely accidental: the friend who'd planned to come with me got sick at the last moment and was unable to go. I went anyway because I didn't want to forfeit either the chance to visit a country high on my list or the non-refundable tickets I'd bought to get there, but I didn't really know what I was going to do by myself for a week in a country where I knew no one.

So I was surprised to find, barely a day into my trip, that I loved it. I stood at the Cliffs of Moher, wandered the streets of Galway, hiked across Inis Mór and soaked up the sun in St. Stephen's Green, on no one's schedule but my own. I loved my hostel in Galway and hated the one in Dublin, but I got by without any major problems and the people were interesting, regardless. Suddenly, solo seemed like a great way to travel, rather than a lonely, forbidding, potentially scary event.

April 2006. At Dún Aonghasa, a prehistoric cliff fort on
Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands. 
I made friends with a girl in my hostel in Galway and a guy in my hostel in Dublin. With the former, I went out for a pint at Tis Cóilí and ended up in the middle of a seisún of fabulous traditional music, casually and energetically performed by talented musicians who had dropped by and ended up jammed into the front window, sipping their own pints between songs. The bartender laughed when I asked if there might be a CD of the group's I could buy, but offered me one by a solo accordion ("box") artist, Colm Gannon, which I still listen to regularly. With the latter, I sat in the hostel's lounge and talked about Ireland vs. the U.S. in every aspect we could think of - education, sports, culture, attitude, outlook on life, etc - while a party raged on in the pub next door, for what occasion I don't remember.

The only part of the first solo trip that really made me uncomfortable after I'd settled into enjoying myself the first evening was eating alone. My hostel roommates and I were on different schedules, so I ate by myself in the common room in the morning. I was usually off rambling when lunch and dinner rolled around, so I stepped cautiously into pubs or fish 'n' chip houses and either ate standing up at the counter or asked for a table for one, feeling awkward until the moment I walked out again. Eventually, I started to relax and read or wrote while I ate, using it as time to sort through what I'd seen and done and figure out what I thought about it all, making small talk with the server if he or she seemed friendly, or sorting through the photos on my camera to delete the accidental, duplicate or just plain terrible ones. If you get a postcard or a letter from me while I'm traveling alone, it's a pretty safe bet that it was at least partially written on a table or the top of a bar.

That first solo trip was something of an experiment - a successful one. I learned that I enjoy my own company enough to travel alone, that I'm extroverted enough when pushed out of my comfort zone to make new acquaintances, that although it can be tiring I have the mental energy to stay alert and aware of my surroundings at all times without someone else there for backup, and that, despite my initial uncertainty about it, a table for one can be a relaxing, rather than an embarrassing, experience.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Birth of a Wandering Student

I've been a wanderer for longer than I've been a student, officially-speaking. Exploring new places is something my parents love to do and I grew up doing it with them, traipsing throughout the continental United States, gradually venturing a little further out - British Columbia, Baja, Hawai'i, Alberta, Alaska. By the time I started school, the number of national parks I'd hiked in rivaled the number of kids in my kindergarten class.

The summer I was 15, we went to Europe and my conception of the world was blown wide open. There were so many things to see, and so many people! I couldn't absorb it all fast enough; not the sights, the sounds, the smells and certainly not the accented and sometimes broken conversations with people who lived in fascinating places I'd only read about. Every time we got on a train to go somewhere new, I was both excited about what we'd see next and frustrated that I hadn't seen nearly enough of the place we'd just been.

I kept traveling as a teenager: a partial summer at Georgetown University at 16 was my first real exposure to the east coast and to the fact that more than the weather changes as you move throughout the United States. I was lucky enough to attend a high school where, at 17, I was able to take a two-week trip through France, sponsored by my French teacher. We explored the Roman ruins of Nice, the châteaux of the Loire, the beaches and the cemetery at Normandy, Mont St-Michel, Monet's gardens at Giverny and, of course, Paris. I fell even more deeply in love with France - the language, the architecture, the art, the history - and vowed I'd find a chance to go back.

That chance came my junior year of college. Thanks to credits from the numerous AP exams I'd taken in high school and The George Washington University's (GW's) desire to see its students spend time outside the country, I had enough leeway in my schedule to study abroad for a full year and still graduate on time with a double major in International Affairs and French Language & Literature, as well as a minor in music.

I thought about going to West Africa, where I could use my French, learn a local dialect and explore a completely different part of the world, but decided I wanted to study somewhere I could blend in and really feel like a part of the local culture. I contemplated Paris, at that point my favorite city in the world, but every program I looked at involved at least some courses in English, and I didn't want to be an ex-pat, I wanted to try my hand at being French. Finally, I found a small folder in GW's study abroad office on a program in Aix-en-Provence that taught only in French and required its students to sign a contract stating that they would speak French exclusively during their time there. It was exactly what I had been looking for.

My experience at the American University Center of Provence was my first chance to combine travel and traditional education (rather than the discoveries that are a natural by-product of traveling), and I couldn't get enough. Studying French culture from French professors, not to mention living with a French host family, helped me to assimilate. Studying French literature, archeology, art, history and film with Cézanne's studio, Roman fountains and Etruscan ruins mere minutes away, in what was once a medieval walled city, was bliss.

Early on in my time at AUCP, fall 2005.
Academics were the focus of my time in Aix but, with the generous vacations on the French calendar, I also had time to travel. I spent time in Florence, Paris, London, Vienna and Marseille with other students in the program who had become fast friends. When my parents came to visit, we explored central- and southwestern France and I was thrilled to give them a near-native tour of my temporary home.

I can't pinpoint the moment, but sometime during that year the travel bug, trailing me all my life, caught up with me in earnest and I was hooked. At the same time, I became a culture junkie: when the travel bug pulled me somewhere new, I wanted to know the roots of the place and the people who lived there. What made them who they were? How did their language influence the way they lived and vice versa? What were their views on traveling? What tone did their literature have, what subjects did it address and why? How did they perceive the world? How did they perceive me, for that matter?

And so, somewhere between the national parks of the western U.S. and the cobblestone streets of western Europe, this wandering student was born. Although I've been traveling all my life, my journey's still in its infancy. Whether you're in a similar phase of your own odyssey, are in the middle of it or have yet to begin, we can learn a lot by sharing experiences; won't you join me?