Even now it’s hard to believe they let me do it – take off for a year in France on my own at 19. Did some greater power, foreseeing my future, cloud parental judgment? Were my pleading letters from college that convincing? (Please, you have to say yes. This is the only opportunity I’ll ever have to see the world!) Or was it a lot simpler? Transportation, living expenses and tuition at the University of Grenoble cost a third less than staying at Beloit College for my junior year.
Odds are it was the money. Whatever the cause, a miracle is a miracle.
I sailed from NYC on one of the last voyages of the French Line’s aging cruise ship Liberte – D deck, sharing two sets of bunk beds in a tiny interior room with three elderly French women. It was August and steamy. The air in our cabin, far from fresh as we set sail, became a lot more pungent during the seven day crossing. Ship’s engines throbbed somewhere beyond the steel walls of our lemon yellow cubicle. Our ‘stateroom’, well hidden in a rabbit warren of corridors, wasn’t easy to find under the best of circumstances, but after a drink or two…. Daydreams of glamorous international travel evaporated. Still, incredibly, I was on my way to France!
Just a few months earlier I had listened, entranced, to the escapades of two girls in my dorm, just returned from a year studying French in Grenoble, not on the unaffordable college-sponsored program, but through enrolling on their own. I dashed off a letter to the address they gave me and, a few weeks later, heart fluttering, opened a flimsy brown envelope. Inside was a letter of acceptance to the University of Grenoble’s Comite de Patronage des Etudiants Etrangers. Tuition for the year – $60.
Let’s just say that I was not a star in freshman French. But with the prospect of a junior year abroad, I managed to raise my game to finish the second year with a B. That seemed respectable enough. I was a little worried that we seldom actually spoke French in class, but, after all, I was going to France to learn the language, wasn’t I?
My first brush with panic struck in the arrivals hall after La Liberte docked in Le Havre. I understood not a word of the babel washing over me. Fear froze my brain as I faced the impatient glare of the man behind the ticket window, with no hope of retrieving the words I needed to buy a train ticket to Grenoble. Rescue came in the form of one my elderly bunk mates who, seeing my terror, intervened and got me on board the right train. She even engaged an old man in my compartment, explaining my predicament in a tone of voice and with gestures that conveyed, even to me, the hopelessness of my situation.
At the Grenoble station, this second elderly angel helped me with my bags and then came with me in a cab to a spartan but respectable hotel. Pity in his eyes, he took my hand and gave it a squeeze. “Goodbye,” he said, the only English word I heard him speak. I watched as the taxi disappeared around the corner, taking with it my last lifeline.
What had I gotten myself into?