“On est bien à Gap”

If you’ve been kind enough to have read a few of my entries this year–though not if you only read my most recent entry–you will probably have noticed that I did not pass the year in solitude.  Mom and Dad, feel free to take your ‘I told you so’ moment.

Voilà, my fellow ‘gapençais” assistants, in no particular order.

Emily

Without this one, I surely would have eaten much less chocolate and drunk much less wine, which is to say, thank you.  I, on the other hand, probably convinced her that Americans put butter and salt on everything.  Sorry, Amurica.  Emily and I lived together in an apartment at the high school where we taught.  She studies French and history at the University of Southampton (I don’t think she’s been to Scunthorpe).  She will deny it to the bitter end, but she has quite the flair for telling stories.  I don’t know what I would’ve done without her this year—probably use even more butter and salt and definitely cry from boredom.

Colee

Besides being fun and smart and interesting, Colee reminded me of something that I all too often forget.  Colee has a very strong personal faith, and she regrets that many Christians feel the need to define what it means to be a ‘good Christian.’  As an atheist, I accept a label that’s not always used in a positive way for a group that is by no means homogeneous.  Being friends with Colee has made me think twice about generalizing, especially when it comes to something as personal as faith.

But besides all that crap, she’s just a ton of fun, y’know?  Plus, she’s from Cleveland, so we’ve got some serious Rust Belt solidarity going on.

Juan

It is in large part thanks to this guy, our sole Spanish assistant and a native of Sevilla, that I got to be so close with everyone mentioned in this post.  Juan makes friends everywhere he goes.  No, seriously, we were lucky to see him as often as we did considering how many open invitations he had going in the area.  Similarly, he rallied the troops in Gap in November and was soon organizing hikes, dinners, and foosball tournaments.  I wonder whether the creator of Couchsurfing actually got the idea for it after meeting Juan?

I also love Juan for his creative take on French spelling and insulting diminutives, including the classic ‘my little piece of fish caught in my throat.’

Daniele

How could I separate Juan and Daniele, even in a blog entry?  If the non-English speakers learned one English expression this year, it was ‘bromance.’  And boy, will Juan and Daniele’s go down in bromantic history.  It was on pretty much from the beginning, but once they exchanged their ‘diarrhea in the presence of women’ stories, we knew this was forever.

Daniele, one of the Italian assistants, had a rough time this year, thanks to some vicious three-year-olds.  For the first half of our time in Gap, he had us chuckling at his emphatic ‘Il FAUT’ (‘You must,’ roughly), his very honest opinions and accompanying grimaces, and his similarly frank explanations for his needing to go to the bathroom.  For the second half, he gamely put up with us imitating all of these things.

Maddy

Between her American roommate, Maggie, and her fellow British assistant, Maddy, poor Emily was doomed from the start.  Maddy joined Colee and me in Prague, when we discovered our shared love of ‘The West Wing.’  I can only hope that my constantly raving about it will soon have her devouring ’30 Rock.’  I, on the other hand, am in awe of the whirlwind trip Maddy took with her friends last summer through essentially every major European city, and some not so major, too.

Maddy is one of the few people I’ve ever met who willingly sat through more than one YouTube video of a certain high school marching band.  We also harmonize on Lady Antebellum’s ‘I Need You Now.’  Maddy, by the next time we see each other, I promise to have learned at least one song from ‘Les Miz’!  Meanwhile, you work on ‘Rent.’

Guesses, anyone? Comment! If you don't know who the unlabeled guy is, it's because he's not an assistant and disappeared after he got mono in December. If you don't know who the unlabeled girl is, I'm surprised you even made it this far. Number 10 is obviously going to kill me when she sees this.

Ha Nam

Another assistant who continually impresses me…don’t they all!  Ha Nam, our only German assistant in Gap, has lived in Berlin for most of her life.  Her family is originally from Vietnam.  Naturally, she speaks Vietnamese, German, French, and English, all fluently.  Okay, so she picked up a bit of the southern French accent this year from babysitting for a gapençais family, but we’ll let that slide.  Check back in ten years, and I probably still won’t have reached fluency in that many languages.

In any language, Ha Nam is fun and funny.  She’s the kind of person you immediately want to be best friends with.  I can’t wait to see her in Berlin in a few weeks!  Although, as the last assistant I’ll see before I go back to the US, she may be in for some tears.

Kate

Kate ruined any chance I had at having street cred for my dad working in New York.  She’s a New Yorker, born and raised.  But I’ll forgive her, because now when I visit New York, I’ll have someone to hang with.  That is, if she doesn’t escape to the West Coast.

Kate won me over one night when she asked me, “Has anyone ever told you that you remind them of Liz Lemon?”  My heart skipped a beat.  But I appreciate Kate even more for her openness.  She is upfront about who she is and what she thinks, and after seven months, I’d consider myself lucky if just a little of that has rubbed off on me.

Anna

Our second Italian assistant, Anna, isn’t one to start a debate.  She’ll more likely sit back and observe those who do.  Then again, I would not want to piss her off.  Behind this reserved exterior, she’s incredibly intuitive, and I have often felt as if she were watching over all of us, making sure our little family stays intact.  Even if I hadn’t seen Anna for years and years, I know she would greet me, same as ever: ‘Dis-moi, Maggie.’

Also, she cheats at cards.

Sarah

Another American, Sarah definitely logged the most f-words out of all of us English speakers this year.  I know, I’m surprised too.  With her living in Portland and my having gone to school in Pittsburgh, we had a nice little East Coast-West Coast hipster bond going on.  Sarah loves food and is going to graduate school in Italy this coming year to study food science.  We are definitely staying in touch.

In addition to her filthy, filthy mouth, I love Sarah for her willingness to scratch my back (for real).  And even if she ends up living on a self-sufficient farm in the middle of nowhere, I will visit her, in the hope of curing her of her aversion to hugs.

Shane

Poor Shane.  As the only Anglophone guy around, Shane got a huge dose of girl talk this year.  He also put up with the same tired joke about his native Ireland’s favorite foodstuff AND with our referring to St. Patrick’s Day as his birthday.  Actually, don’t feel too bad for him, this kid can dish it out too (and he did get cake!).

When I was in Ireland in March, I was about to come to Shane’s hometown of Galway, by chance really, when he informed me he was actually leaving the day I was arriving.  That’s cold, Shane.  Just for that, I’ll conveniently not be around when you come to visit Lower Makefield, Pennsylvania.

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The Lonely Traveler?

I get it.  You don’t know anyone where you’re going, you’ve never been there before, you don’t speak the language.  I get that some people don’t like traveling alone.

Actually, most of the people I’ve talked to about traveling alone say they wouldn’t like it.  Not don’t.  To which I say, you might be surprised.

I’ve been on my fair share of solo trips: Madrid-Sevilla, Florence, UK-Ireland.  I have even broken away from travel companions, God bless’em, mid-trip to go on my own to a city I really wanted to see.  (Grace and Utsav, if you read this, it had nothing to do with you and everything to do with my incredible rigidness, exacerbated by an Excel spreadsheet I started preparing last August.)  This weekend, I’ll be leaving on a six-week trip that will take me through Spain, Portugal, and France (with a random trip to Berlin thrown in) before it’s back to the States.

These are not dangerous places, even for a lone 23-year-old, vaguely Aryan-looking American girl.  But the reactions I get have nothing to do with safety.  I’ve gotten sympathetic looks and nods, even eyebrows raised in concern.  Then there’s the standard ‘I don’t know if I could do that,’ which conveys nothing near the respectful curiosity I think it is meant to.

At least in a few years, when I hit my late twenties–crunch time!–I’ll be prepared for my role as the still-single older daughter who everybody thought would make it to the altar before her baby sister.

The downsides of traveling alone are obvious: having all of the burden of planning on you, getting bored or even lonely, feeling exposed, without a wingman.  I’ve experienced all of this at one time or another.  I’ve made sacrifices.  I’m probably not going to go to a bar in Ireland, or Spain, or the Czech Republic, alone.  Forget going to a club on my own.

The upside is not as obvious to others as I would’ve thought.  When you travel alone, you are forced to make new friends.  There it is.  You might be thinking ‘Well, duh!’, but I can’t tell you how few people seem to think of this.

Take my last trip as an example.  I spent a week in Edinburgh and London, then went over to western Ireland for another week.

My first night in Edinburgh, I had my first solo Couchsurfing experience.  Couchsurfing is a site that allows users to find either hosts in an unfamiliar city or ‘surfers’ who need a free place to stay in your hometown.  More on that later.

My host told me he’d be hosting other people and having a huge CS party the night I stayed.  Fine by me.  It turned out he couldn’t throw the party, but he still ended up with six Couchsurfers at his place: an American au pair living in Paris, an American girl and a Polish girl who study medicine together in Poland, two Norwegian girls who are making a documentary about CS, and me.  We came there alone or in pairs, yet there was an immediate feeling of solidarity, of looking out for one another.  Even after I checked into my hostel, I met up with Marianne and Ida, the Norwegian film students, almost every day until I left Edinburgh.

See, they're real!

In London, I wasn’t really alone.  For my first two nights, I stayed with Laura, one of my best friends from Ewing and my parents’ original ‘third daughter.’  Laura used to come to our house for ‘second dinner’ after her family had finished eating three doors up the street. I had a great time meeting her friends from the University of Maryland’s London program.  To thank her, I tried to approximate a Bohlander family dinner for her…yes, tried.

My third and fourth nights in London, I gave Laura a break.  I found a Couchsurfing arrangement with a 30-something veterinarian from the Netherlands and her 20-something British roommate.  We talked about London, of course, but much more than that.  Turns out, my Dutch host did a fellowship in Philly a few years ago and is visiting her friends there this summer.  Sure enough, after staying at her place for just two nights, I’m already hoping to see her again on my side of the Atlantic.

In Ireland, I admit, I started feeling the first signs of loneliness.  I was in County Kerry, a huge tourist attraction when the weather warms up, but pretty remote.  But one of the great things about traveling so far from home is just being American is a good enough excuse to strike up a conversation with someone, especially other Americans.  And by this point, my ears perk up at the slightest hint of an American accent, in any language.  Well, the Romance languages anyway.

In Killarney, I got a drink with two girls who were on a road trip through Ireland, one of whom told her would-be suitor that, seriously, she really wants to be a Bible school teacher.  Now, that’s a memory.  On the bus to Galway, I met two girls on spring break from Penn State (I was polite, I swear).  In Galway, I sought out some traditional Irish music with a young professional who lives in Philly and a Cali girl who teaches English in Barcelona, both of whom I met at my hostel.

I’ve got love for the Europeans, too.  Twenty minutes after they figured out I speak French, I went to the club in Killarney with a group of French undergrads who study English in Dublin.  My CS hosts in London hosted an adorable young Italian couple the second night I was there.  Over breakfast, they talked about how they are not going to baptize their future children (that’s a big damn deal in Italy, or France for that matter).  They’re going to support their children’s right to choose their own religion.  It should come as no surprise that that just makes me all warm and fuzzy inside.

This all goes to say, yes, I have made sacrifices by choosing to travel alone.  But, if you choose not to travel alone, don’t assume that you’re not making sacrifices.  Who knows?  Maybe you’re the kind of person who will always be making new friends.  I have a few friends like that.  Speaking for myself, I would not have met many of the people I just mentioned if I had been traveling with friends.

Here’s hoping that by the time I arrive at the Marseille airport six weeks from now, and one day before my visa expires, I can rattle off an even longer list of new friends.

Cuz that’s the best way to stick it to the haters.

Because you made it this far!