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?


Anonymous said...

I kind of have a smiler past as you in regards to traveling as a family, various road trips around the US until the big cross country trip and then after that, Europe! Unlike you though, I can't speak another language if my life depended on it and took sign language in high school. And while every country has it's over sign language, just learning how to communicate with your hands has served me well when I can't speak the language!

Can't wait to read more!

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

Oh, how cool - I learned a little bit of sign language, but about all I remember is the alphabet and random words (girl, boy, candy, pumpkin...). I've always thought it would be really neat to be able to speak it more fluently. And that's a great point that communicating with body language can help you more than you ever dreamed!