Par Avion: A Travelers Guide
It was my third year taking French in a suburban high school near Los Angeles. One day during class, we had a few guest speakers come to give a presentation to the class, and they offered us a chance to go to France. My instructor was going to be one of the chaperones, and I desperately wanted to go. Later that same week, my sociology instructor also was taking a group to Europe, but they traveled through six countries instead of just one.
By the time April rolled around, I was already planning my outfits out carefully. At that age, I just loved fashion. I could have even been accurately accused of being a clotheshorse. As co-conspirator, my mom and I were hitting the malls every weekend.
We had fun preparing for this arduous journey. Mom and I went to the Melrose District buying everything from a hair dryer with a European adapter, to a travel alarm clock, a wallet with a filing system of sorts for everything from rail tickets to a passport. To a greater or lesser degree, I think my mom was living vicariously through me.
Now that I am a parent, I can safely say that part of my mom’s job here was to keep my feet on the ground just a little. Already I was living this incredible dream straight out of a 1960s movie, and I needed a voice that would keep in perspective the practical aspect of the trip, and not just the delights. Frankly, the planning and the dreaming were fun. In those months of planning, I became the quintessential tourist.
My dad hopped right on board and bought me large luggage that would be able to hold all the things a young girl would need on such an extensive journey. There was a commercial at the time for Samsonite luggage. The bag was called the American Tourister. In the commercial, a gorilla is in a cage with the luggage and pounds it against the wall, jumps on it, and basically just monkey’s around with it. I liked the feature that it had wheels. This bag along with another huge suitcase came along with me.
Finally, the big day arrived. My parents and I arrived at least two hours before the other students. I could hardly wait. Compassion is still felt for the passengers who sat next to me on that trip to Paris. I had a lot of layovers, so there were about four people out there that I probably drove insane. I talk too much when I am anxious, nervous, or excited. This particular trip I was all three. I literally talked constantly, enthusiastically, and rapidly for the 23-hour journey to anyone who would listen.
I know that I looked so cliché at the baggage claim with two huge suitcases and three different styles of carry-on luggage. All that was left to complete the look was an adoring entourage of fans. Reality had not hit that I was just a student. The larger problem was that I also brought too much stuff. Being the era of the yuppie syndrome, this was almost expected. There was a bumper sticker that was very popular that read: “He who dies with the most stuff wins.” Winning was what I had set out to do.
We spent our first eight days in Paris and went on various excursions throughout the city. By the second day, we were on the Metro, and learning how to use it. The family I stayed with owned a bed and breakfast on the left bank near the Cardinal Lemonade stop and next store to a bakery. I loved the museums, especially the Jeu de Paume. I loved walking by the river Seine, on all the highly decorated bridges, and having lunch at the Place de la Concord. I loved Paris, and it’s effect on me as a young woman will be with me always.
Some of the delights of Paris got lost in the pre-occupation of what I would wear the next day. What a waste of my time! But from my folly, I learned so much about the mind chatter we pre-occupy ourselves with. If you find yourself in Paris gaze at the paintings, marvel over the architecture, and enjoy a French pastry. Otherwise, you’re missing all of the delights. This wasted time, seemed to be as heavy as my huge suitcases.
To see France accurately, you must get to know it’s people and it’s customs. This is why we were required to learn so much about art, art history, the French culture, and to take extended French conversation classes. I dreaded leaving Paris in a sense, but I was so excited to embark on this new journey. I remember that we first went to the Palace of Versailles as sort of our farewell to Paris, although it is technically outside the city.
Once we were on the move, it was forced upon me that we had a schedule to maintain. Things started moving to the wayside. The tactical planning of my wardrobe became secondary. My quiet and reflective time with my journal became minimized. My meditative time with God was even shortened. I learned while on the move between stops that sometimes in life it’s the getting there that is so delicious. More importantly, I learned that if you are in a new place you need to take it all in. We become so busy with nothing but our hectic lifestyle that we miss the importance and profound impact of just stopping. I mean it. Just stop.
Much to the South of Paris is in the Champagne region of France. We went inside a real winery called Vouvray. In the states, none of us would be allowed to drink which accelerated how much we all consumed that first night. But after dinner, we went to see them light up the castle of Chenonceau. There was nothing else to do in this small town but see the castle.
The pace was much slower once we left Paris. At the castle that night, they played this oral narration over loud speakers, as the onlookers listened. The castle was absolutely enchanting. You almost were waiting for the director to call, “cut!” since the largest full moon I’ve ever seen hung perfectly above it. The following morning, we toured the castle and the extensive grounds. The presentation the night before overshadowed the “tours” that the average tourist took.
Immediately following, we had to pack up all our suitcases for yet another stop. I couldn’t help but think, “Can’t I just leave them here?” The commitment to everything from the constant letter writing, and carrying all 5 of my bags seemed like a chore. I finally was making some progress in the realization that I was here to see and experience France. It was glorious.
We moved on after that to the caves at Lasceaux. Those cave paintings have been in nearly every ancient history book I’ve ever seen since then. It is exhilarating to know that I have seen them first hand. I will always remember hearing the hushed voices of the other students saying things like, “I wonder what they were trying to tell us.”
Every hotel had this certain sameness about it. They all had much cleaner rooms that had warmth to them, and didn’t feel sterile as in the United States. Carcasonne was different because it is a medieval castle, and Rocamadoor was different because it was a renaissance castle erected into the side of a cliff. But putting that aside, the similarities far outweighed the differences. After we checked into each hotel and were given our room assignments, the students and our luggage would climb up at least 3 flights of very steep stairs that were set in a circular pattern. As we were climbing we were winding up the stairs like you would in a high lighthouse or tower.
Now you need to imagine me trying to maneuver this with the largest luggage I could have possibly bought. As we ascended the stairs, my little waif like figure on my tall frame would have my face completely blocked by my bulky baggage. My arms would be extended to max range, and that was no small feet being 6 foot tall. Not only did I have to make this trip once, but instead, I brought two huge suitcases and would have to make this climb twice.
We arrived in Rocamadoor on the fourth of July. I remember this so vividly because our hosts made apple pie for dessert after our traditional French eight course meal. They also provided us all with sparklers. The contrasting scene of the students climbing the ramparts with sparklers in our hands seems almost surreal to me now. At this point of my journey, even the sparklers seemed to have weight. My arms were still sore from carrying those heavy suitcases.
I was beginning to contemplate how beautiful this scene really was, but also all the things I want to take with me in life. I spent so much time planning, and that wasn’t really so bad. However, so many of my plans were not working out as well as I imagined.
I had envisioned this Audrey Hepburn extravaganza where I’d have no less than 3 steamer trunks, a pack of hounds, and an endless line of bellhops to carry this luggage around. In reality, there were no caddies to carry my heavy baggage, since most hotels were run by petite, middle-aged or elderly aged women managing them.
Periodically, I’d wash out some of my things with Woolite, and hang them in my bathroom so my clothes would remain fairly clean. That evening, I realized that I really only was wearing 2 skirts, 3 tops, occasionally my jeans, and a pink dress. Yet I had between 24-30 outfits with me in these large bags. My mom had put a collapsible carry on bag in one of the bags for souvenirs, and I transferred all my toiletries into that small bag. As we made our way down the mountain, I noticed a little store with a small, soft-shelled suitcase in the window. I asked my group to wait for me, and they told everyone we had a 10-minute shopping/potty break. For $30 I bought this lightweight suitcase and I put my favorite outfits that I had been wearing throughout the trip in it.
The next stop arrived, and I located a post office immediately. I was so impressed with my ability to have the entire transaction handled using the French language! My hair-brained idea was complete. I addressed my suitcases with my parent’s names and United States address on my heavy suitcases. I ditched them there in a small post office in Carcasonne. I had the bags stamped, “Par Avion” or “Air-mail” and they were on their own journey back home.
In that liberating moment of releasing myself from the bags, I found myself. I was a foreign exchange student in a another country. I had eclectic taste, and had loved to experience new things. I loved to talk to people that are very different than me, and learn more about them. Also, now I had learned the value of traveling light.
By the time we reached our next destination of Juan Les Pins, France the concierge was starting to compile quite the stack of messages for me. My parents had called at least 5 times before our tour bus even arrived. When I first learned of this, I was beginning to worry that something might be wrong at home from the frantic tone of the desk clerk and concierge’s voice. Late that afternoon, I was on my way to dinner when the hotel staff flagged me down. I took the call in the lobby, which I had never done before. It was weird sitting in the little wooden phone booth.
“Hello, Laura?” my mother said anxiously.
“Yes, mom. It’s me. Is everything ok at home?” I said.
“Oh honey, we’re fine. But are you alright?” (slight pause) “Your dad and I got your bags here with our mail today, and we don’t know what to make of it……” mom sounded both confused and frantic.
“Oh. That. Well mom, I have to tell you, I don’t think I could’ve carried those heavy bags up one more steep, winding staircase if I’d of wanted to!” I exclaimed.
For a few moments there was an awkward silence, and the teenager in me feared that I was in BIG trouble. Suddenly, my mother let out a howl that startled me. Next thing I knew she was roaring with laughter. Before our phone call ended we were both in stitches. I laughed so hard that I cried. What a release!
It’s funny how something as simple as inconvenience taught me so much about not only travel, but also about life. From this I learned to never over pack, not just for a trip but also for life. We all hang onto something in this journey we call life that we don’t really need. These things are not just literal, but also they can be emotional. Feelings of insecurity, betrayal, jealousy, rejection, and even our past can often bog us down and keep us from living in the present.
Often, there are two enormous suitcases that are filled to the brim of things we don’t need. If you have too much packed in your baggage, you’re going to find it hard to climb the stairs later. With perseverance, we need to climb those stairs, or we’ll never reach the top.