France, Spring of 2016. When I was going through a particularaly tough year amidst the broken chaos of a parents divorce, two school transfers, a stressful job, and an uncertain identity. In a time when I didn’t know much about what brought me joy, I did know travel was something I desperately longed for. For the space, the freedom, the adventure. I craved it and always had.
I took two trips that year. One chilly November weekend adventure to Chicago where it snowed and we ate soup, and the other was a spring break trip to the south of France to visit a good friend from my previous school. I didn’t have much money, but I had enough to put down for the trip and so one Saturday night in my room, despite huge intrinsic doubts, I bought a plane ticket and had to be talked into keeping it the next morning. I just remember feeling so guilty and so unsure. I knew my parents would never approve, and at nineteen was one of the first big rebellious steps I took despite what I knew they thought. My head was fuzzy all the time and I needed to get out make it better.
The week leading up to leaving, I had the hardest academic week of my life. Tests, projects and papers were all due and the pressure was on, giving me zero space to process my trip. After turning in my last test and crashing on my bed, I remember feeling complete exhaustion and practically had to force myself to get up and pack. Early the next morning I woke to go to the airport and knocked out, trying to rest the entire eight hours. This theme of exhaustion would follow me my whole trip.
When I landed however, the sun was bright, the air was warm, and the flowers bloomed. I met my friend whom I hadn’t seen in months and she helped lighten my load while we got to town. Antibes greeted me with its small-town French charm and beautiful beaches while I settled in and immediately took a nap.
That afternoon I had some eggs Benedict, with homemade hollandaise sauce and went out drinking for the first time in my life (yay for being legal in Europe!). We went to an absinthe bar, wore funny hats, talked to haughty French people, and stole a bottle of wine for later. It was an excellent introduction to the Riviera and one that I haven’t forgotten.
The next morning, we slept in, grabbed a quick breakfast, and then caught the train to Nice which is the same town I flew into the day before. Being a significantly larger town than Antibes is, I felt there was much more to do and see here. We saw the end of a big bike race on Main Street, got fig sorbet, sat on the pebble beach, and my most favorite, wandered around the farmers market. I saw many beautiful flowers, tried tasty new foods (candied flowers, jam brittle, and pasteque) and the vendors were so kind despite the fact I did not speak French. I feel that there is quite a stereotype of French people that they will be absolutely terrible to you if you don’t speak any French, but my experience was not so. Granted, I was in the middle of a French course at school in preparation for the trip and found the language incredibly different, but I at least tried and that’s all that really mattered. I remember the nicest fruit vendor who insisted I try many different things. I distinctly remember having the best orange of my life at that market, one where I could actually taste the sunshine.
Afternoon time, we hopped on the train again to continue East towards Ville-du-France where we meandered through the beautiful European streets, gazing at architecture and taking in the sunshine. I have one of those snippet memories of looking backwards and seeing a flock of birds take off and flying over the sea. I think it almost made me cry when I saw it and so is seared in my mind. We found our way to a rooftop restaurant where I had the best lunch of my life (still true to this day) of linguini pasta with truffle cream sauce and hunks of parmesan paired with a champagne cocktail and more views of the sea. I think this was one of those moments where I truly fell in love with food and the ambiance that goes with it. One thing I can’t deny is that the French really know how to do food!
That evening when we returned Grace and I made a thank you dinner for my roommates at the time who where letting me stay on their pull-out couch for the duration of the trip, since Grace was in a homestay and didn’t have an extra bed. We went All American with Kraft Mac and Cheese, salad with Ranch, Thin Mints, and our stolen wine from the absinthe bar. After we cleaned up I explored French Netflix and fell asleep looking at the most beautiful view of the beach.
The next morning, the third day, we hiked to Eze and this by far was my favorite day of the whole trip! An hour up man-made stairs gave me my first real hiking experience (despite living in Colorado for a year) and the sore legs to prove it the next day. When we had almost reached the top, Grace insisted on stopping at Fragonard, the French perfumery where I bought a beautiful scent to match hers and still adore today. Another tip of the hat to French quality goods.
Once we reached Eze, we went through the small gates into the official boundaries of the city. Old and on a mountain, this town had a perfect vantage point against medieval pirates and pillagers, which is why it’s one of the only that are still around today. I remember the city as small and built on itself, with tiny corridors and winding stairs where sun poked through abnormally. We reached one clearing where we saw a small artist’s shop and stopped to look. After chatting with the painter, we learned that he was born and raised in Eze and learned to paint from his mother, who learned from her father. Painting had been passed down in his family along with a love for his city which is why he never left. The man was so sweet and gave Gracie and I discounts on two complementary pieces of the exact clearing around the corner from his shop. To this day, that print is one of my most prized possessions. To me, it hold such a sweet memory of a near-perfect day and the sweetness of strangers. I have gazed long and hard at that picture in remembrance of those things.
The next morning it had been established that Kaila, another friend of a student who was visiting over her spring break, would go with me to Monaco where she and I could explore for the day and leave Gracie and Olivia to go to class. We started the morning with a brunch of brioche French toast with whipped cream and fresh strawberries (again a tip of the hat to French quality) and then after ample instructions from the girls wandered around the Yacht port for about a half an hour before catching a train due East. Kaila and I mainly just walked around to see the views, Monaco is shaped like a big U and you get dropped of in the center of it so we chose one side and then went back around to do the other. We passed on the aquarium and the Monte Carlo Casino because we didn’t see the point in paying for them. Instead, we saw some beautiful gardens, stumbled upon Grace Kelly’s grave, and again had a beautiful lunch. Kaila and I split a bottle of wine but she then proceeded to tell me that she didn’t really enjoy wine so I drank three and a half glasses and walked out of the restaurant very tipsy. Why not have your first drunk experiences in France? The main thing I took away from Monaco was the wealth. The showiness of the cars, yachts, homes, and lifestyles were everywhere and Kaila and I couldn’t afford anything, so we just looked. Okay gawked, we gawked a little bit.
After the girls got back from class we all went out to dinner and were joined by other study abroad students as well. In this moment I think I solidified my idea of study abroad because I saw the change that being in new surroundings can have on people. Being thrown into a new culture, language, and lifestyle, anything that resembles what you know, you gravitate toward. I saw strong friendships between people who would have never normally been friends, let alone known each other, had it not been for this crazy experience. I myself totally experienced this during Rio as well. Strange people can be brought together the create this little family for a short period of time before you all go off and continue life. That dinner was really beautiful because I got to be part of that family.
The next day was a bad weather day but it was my last day in France so we walked the shops of Antibes for just a few hours, sat and read in a coffee shop, and then called it a day. That evening we celebrated a 21st birthday of a girl named Mary and went to a great homestyle restaurant where we had traditional regional food.
The long weekend was Venice! After taking a morning yoga class, finally getting to eat Paul, and catching an EasyJet flight over to Italy, we checked into a cute bed and breakfast run by a very funny Italian man. We did dinner on the canal at a restaurant who’s only light came from candles. I remember being very tired but having a very cute waiter. He seemed genuinely touched when I said the restaurant was lovely. I again got pasta (because who doesn’t get pasta in Italy) and red wine but slept uneasy and knew the next morning I had a fever. I was achy and exhausted and freezing the whole day but took the medicine I had and ended up buying more when I ran out.
We walked seven hours that day. St. Mark’s Bacilica, to the edge of the city by the water, went up a tower to see the city from above, ate at a place called Princi and had the best cappuccino of my life, and then walked some more. That evening I got ten hours of sleep. The next day was another one of walking, but also buying. We got a beautiful tapestry for Gracie’s mom, I got a Venetian mask and other trinkets, and we toured the Palace. Mostly though, we went on the famous gondola ride. I will admit, I almost didn’t do this when I visited. At the time I thought it was too expensive and the mix of all my sick emotions just had me beat for the day. Grace talked some sense into me however and I am so glad she did! Our driver’s name was Alberto and he chatted us up with details about the city. It really was kinda magical. I remember that night we walked the back streets after dinner and I remember looking up and hearing beautiful Italian from an outdoor restaurant and just being struck with the fact that I was in Italy. In the crisp night, with beautiful surroundings and a warm bed to go back to.
The final day back in Antibes I did a whole lot of resting and repacking for home. At this point, I could feel there was a bit of tension between Grace and I just from a culmination of things, but now I can say we of course moved passed it.
I would call this the end of the post, but something very important happened at the end that I need to talk about. I missed my flight. I had a direct from Nice to JFK but after a slight delay and having French Air Traffic Control on strike, my 2 hour layover turned into a 40 minute layover. My sick body sprinted through the airport with a very heavy carryon bag, flew through customs, baggage claim, and security only to be six minutes late and see my flight take off. I sat a cried. In the middle of JFK airport where my twenty year old self couldn’t deal with being alone, in a strange city, with hardly any money or hope left, and an exhaustion that I could feel deep-set in my bones. I cried because I had just had a long flight and a long day and no food. I cried because I wasn’t sure if the trip was even worth it from the relationship tension, unprepared packing, overspending, and sickness. I called my mom, found my bag, got a hotel and took a deep breath. I showered, treated myself to room service, and slept very well in a king sized bed that night. By being able to wash off the day before me, I woke up with much higher spirits and caught an early morning connection flight back to Minneapolis.
I call this trip one to remember because, as a relatively new traveler, it taught me a lot of very valuable lessons. Everybody will miss a flight at some point in their lives, but the first time is always the most intense. The stress, the chaos, the emotions, its altogether just a hard thing to deal with. But, this trip helped me realize that there are many other things in travel that are outside of my control, so I can’t expect everything to always go right. Leave room for error both in your schedule and in your wallet.
I also can’t expect that every person I travel with will travel the same as me. I know people who’s chosen method of travel is to spend months on end in one country or region, form a routine, learn the language, have a regular bar and grocery store to go to. I also know people who are ready and willing to be in a different location every single day and jam pack their time to get the most out of their trip. Just because you get along with someone in everyday life does not mean you’ll get along while traveling. Finding your style and people who match that are important.
This trip I found that my bag bit me in the butt so I also learned packing more does not mean you’re packing right. I brought six different tank tops for sixty five degree weather and all my books for a research project that I wrote maybe a page of when I was actually on my trip. I hauled a ton of unnecessary crap to another continent and it ended up being a driving factor in me not being able to get home on time. Travel with less, but be prepared.
Finally, this trip taught me, more than anything, that travel is all about perspective. I can’t expect a new mental state just because I move to a different location. I can’t anticipate that one trip will look a certain way based off another trip. I can’t appreciate beauty if I chose not to see it. I thought that going away on a trip would solve all my problems, but in reality it just heightened some and created others. The real rest I found was the week I took off after I got home, not what I found when I was in Europe. For a while I blamed the trip, but in the end realized it was just me and where I was at in life, and that’s a far more important realization.