You read a lot about how travel changes you. It broadens your horizons. It makes you more tolerant. My friend, the photographer Joseph Powell, is working on his memoir of traveling to Europe for the first time. If you know Joe, you know that he is talented, funny, caustic, and smart as a whip. What you might not know is how thoughtful he can be. This piece, and the others – which I pray he will publish here! – prove that travel changes you, and that Joe is a reflective, hilarious genius. Read on.
….Attending school in France was no different. I read up on it, I did my research, I planned as well as I could financially and prepared myself emotionally. I had never taken a French class or any language class for that matter, so I taught myself some basic phrases. I was a late college student and the opportunity to study abroad came up one night playing board games with friends. “We should take a trip to Europe!” quickly became “We should go as students” and before I knew it, I had signed up. When the time came, I was the only one going. It was 1994. I was 26. I had lived on my own for quite a few years, worked a full-time job and had started college two years earlier.
I arrived in Paris very early in the morning that September and was quickly shaken awake by my new environment. I got in a cab, explained carefully, I hoped, where I needed to go and watched the city fly by the windows. After pulling up in front of the hotel, I paid the driver with the play money I had obtained at Thomas Cook and stood on the sidewalk with my luggage breathing deeply. I managed to check in with little issue and went upstairs to unpack. Other students trickled in during the day, we were assigned room mates, got to know each other and spent nearly two weeks of fabulous time in the city of bread and cheese.
As our time in Paris came to a close, we had all made our friends and found our social groups and everything seemed right. I was comfortable and satisfied with my experience so far. We were scheduled to head five hours south on the TGV to our new hometown, Pau. A charming little community nestled in the base of the Pyrenees. It had a castle and everything. We were all excited.
A requirement of the program was that you spend the first four months with a host family. I was a little hesitant at first, since I wasn’t 18 or 19 like most of the other students, but I thought it would probably be a rewarding experience and good to have some guidance.
When we got off the train at the station, it was a little odd. Host families were lined up on one side, students on the other. Our coordinator, Robina, called our names, the families came forward and we were hustled off to their homes with barely a chance to wave goodbye to each other. I had no idea what my host parents names were because they were introduced to me at about 100 miles an hour. All I knew was that there was an older couple in the front seat of the car, a long, low, Citroen hatchback that I swear I had seen in a Pink Panther movie. And I was in the back. And they were talking. Like people do. And I had no idea what they were saying or why. It occurred to me that this could be problematic.
After a harrowing drive through narrow streets where the man nearly killed several people, we arrived. I got out of the car and stood there like an idiot while he unloaded my bags. He grunted at me and pointed toward the door and I followed him inside where he led me up a narrow staircase to my room. He made a few gestures, said something I didn’t understand and left. I sat on the bed and stared out the window, drew a deep breath and took it all in. I was exhausted.
I unpacked some of my things, got out my schedule and realized I was supposed to be taken to the University for orientation in the morning, so I thought I should go and find out exactly how that was going to happen. I crept tentatively down the stairs into the dining room where the man was drinking something and watching television. “Hello. I, uh…I’m supposed to go, uh, allay, to the school. Ooneeversitay. Tomorrow. I think”. He turned and looked at me, blurted out a word and his wife came running in with a key and gave it to me and pointed at the door. Then he made some big gestures and said something and turned back to the television, satisfied that everything had been explained.
I turned around, walked back up the stairs and went into my room.
“Well done, Joseph. Well done.” I thought to myself. “You are 26 years old and have somehow gotten yourself into the middle of a fucking nightmare in a foreign country and have no idea what you are doing, saying, eating or reacting to. You can’t tell the fucking time, you can’t tell anyone anything other than your name, you can’t understand the months of the year, the days of the week and if you suddenly collapse in a series of seizures, you’d be fucked because they would probably think it was an American tradition to drop to the floor and choke to death on your own drool.”
Cell phones didn’t exist for the general population then. I wasn’t even sure they had a phone. Did they have phones in France? I didn’t have anybody’s number other than the school. I had a map of the city, so I decided I would try and find out where I was. That was fruitless. I couldn’t read. I opened the window and leaned out to smoke a cigarette. “Fuck them,” I thought. “If they aren’t going to make an effort, just, well, I’m gonna smoke.” I spent the rest of the evening going in and out of the house, looking out the window, walking up and down the street for no reason and trying to appear intelligent. They didn’t offer me food. I was hungry, surrounded by unfamiliarity and scared shitless. I finally wore myself out and was resting on the bed when the man threw my door open and yelled something while pointing at the bathroom across the hall.
“Great. You have a bathroom. Thanks, Pierre, or whatever the fuck your name is. I’ll be sure to use that.” I rolled over and slept.
The next morning I got up, took a shower and nearly electrocuted myself with a blow dryer because I apparently wasn’t using the right adapter. “Savages” I muttered to myself. I went downstairs and into the kitchen where the woman greeted me with a bowl of something and pointed to a table where she had laid out milk, tea, fresh bread and butter. It was good. Warm and nourishing. She said something to me that I guessed was related to how I was getting to school. Sure enough, Pierre appeared, car keys in hand and pointed out the door. I rolled my eyes and followed him. The woman ran out after us and grabbed the key I was holding in my hand and swept her arm toward the gate at the end of the driveway. Was she saying I would need to unlock it to get in? That I would activate a nuclear weapon by sticking my key in the gate lock? That if I didn’t unlock the gate, they would take back the Statue of Liberty? “OK, sure thing” I nodded.
We pulled up to the school. If I had known where I was going, I would have made him drop me off a block away to avoid the embarrassment. My group was waiting there. “Did yours feed you?” “Mine were really weird.” “Did they talk to you about laundry?” We spent an hour discussing our evenings and then went on an exhaustive walking tour of the town and university, which concluded with Robina proudly announcing that, with our maps, we would now have to find our way home as a way of familiarizing ourselves with our new community.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I screamed in my head. “I have just spent thousands of dollars to attend school in a foreign country. I have to live with people I don’t know and who I can’t understand. I couldn’t even find toothpaste if I had to and now you want me to ‘find my way home?’ What did I just do? Join the French fucking Foreign Legion?” After a quick conversation with a girl named Shannon, we decided that we lived near each other and set out walking, maps in hand. (We had hit it off in Paris, and she was quickly becoming my best friend there.) We parted ways a few blocks from where I thought I lived and resolved to meet up again the next day. I headed down the street. Sure enough, I came around a corner and saw the familiar gate. I let myself in and went to my room.
The next few days weren’t much different. School didn’t start for a few weeks and I had more time on my hands than I had ever had. I smoked a lot, was yelled at quite a bit by Pierre and spent all of my time with Shannon and the other students, only going “home” when I had to.
When you signed up for the program, you had to choose a meal plan with your host family. I chose “Sunday only and breakfast daily” because it was less expensive and I assumed I would eat on the run like I was used to. I had also heard that Sunday dinners were the largest and most elaborate meals of the week in a French household.
I woke up Sunday morning filled with dread because I knew I was going to have to eat dinner with these people. I went about my day and spent the late afternoon in my room trying to decipher a text book when I heard a noise outside my window. I got up to look and could see that the gate was open. Pierre was standing there directing other people who were moving odd-looking chairs and a small table through the gate. The neighbors were having a yard sale. The neighbors were coming over for dinner? They were having a chair and table exchange, a common French Sunday pastime. I had no idea. I went downstairs.
The house was filled with people I had never seen before. A young couple. A small child. A middle aged woman and a 30-something year old man. I waded through them into the dining room where I could see the extra chairs and additional table in place. Pierre was standing at the end of the table pouring a dark liquid into glasses. He looked up, pointed to an empty glass and gave me a look that said “Do you want one?” I quickly nodded yes. He poured a generous measure of what turned out to be a delicious bourbon and handed me the glass. I sipped it and the warmth spread down my throat and into my chest. A few people trickled in and had drinks. Occasionally, someone would point at me and say something, making me feel like a really bad piece of art.
The middle-aged woman took an interest and asked me several things. I tried to answer her, but I didn’t know how. Frustrated, I looked around the room and realized I had been classifying these people as if I was Diane Fossey. “The large one seems to be the leader of the group and the younger female is very submissive. The frail looking female in the corner has been secluded from the group because she is weak. The older, sturdy female is responsible for gathering food.” I decided that in a setting such as this, it would be best to sit still and keep my mouth shut, lest they turn on me. I wanted to go home. I missed my family and friends. I missed knowing who I was with. I missed being able to speak.
My eyes welled up with tears and I caught my host father’s eyes. And he said, very carefully and slowly in very poor English, “Tell us what your name is.” I was caught by surprise, but quickly blurted out “Joseph. My name is Joseph.” He then asked me another question I didn’t understand and got upset that I couldn’t tell him what he wanted to know. He splashed another bourbon into my glass and said loudly in French “Do you have pictures?” Yes. Yes! I had photos. I knew what that was! I was told to bring a photo album of my family and friends and life back home. He yelled “Go get your pictures and your dictionary” and I knew what he meant. I ran up to retrieve them and rushed back down.
He opened the photo album to the first picture and pointed at a photo of my brother, Daniel, and asked me, I thought, who it was. I said “Dan” with tears spilling out onto my flushed cheeks. “He’s my big brother.” I wanted to tell him that Daniel taught me how to tie my shoes when I was four and that he and his wife were going to have their first baby soon and how upset I was that I wouldn’t be there. He grabbed my French-English dictionary and looked up “Brother” and said “Frere” and pointed back to the photo. He flipped to another page in the album and pointed at a photo of my Mom. I cried “Mom! That’s my Mom!” He gestured “No” with his finger and said “Mere” and gestured back to the picture.
He went through every photo that I had and taught me the words for “Mother” and “Sister” and “Home” and “Father.” He put his hand on his chest and said “Francois.” He took his wife by the hand, pulled her into a hug and said “Gisele.” [See Francois and Gisele pictured above.] He gave me his business card, which I still have, and I learned that he owned an auto repair shop and that their last name was Campos. He told me that their family heritage was Spanish. I learned that the people I didn’t know were his Daughter and Son in Law and Grandchild. His wife’s sister, who was widowed and his oldest son. He said that they weren’t wealthy people and that since their children were grown, they hosted exchange students for extra money. He explained that I was welcome there, but that they had rules and I wasn’t allowed to smoke out of my bedroom window. He said they didn’t like me coming in and out of the house during very late hours.
And he said I could ask him for help if I needed anything.
We spent the rest of the evening eating the most amazing meal I have ever had and drinking a lot of bourbon. We watched cartoons on television. Gisele brought me candies and a cognac after dinner. I stumbled up to bed and passed out.
The next few weeks were better. The days became easier and Francois would spend hours each Sunday teaching me words and phrases at dinner and trying to trick me. He would point at the table and say “Spoon?” to see if I was paying attention. Giselle taught me that if you translate English into French, it doesn’t work because people might think that you are pregnant after dinner when you meant that you were full. She taught me that you must learn to think in French before you will be able to speak it well.
School began and I started my first official French class. I learned where the grocery store was and, from a cashier there, learned about money and how I needed to know what the value of each coin and bill was or people would take advantage of me. I learned where I could buy toothpaste. I would come home from school and find the laundry in my room washed, starched and ironed every week. I learned how to use the telephone so I could call Shannon and my family. Francois helped me understand an article about a French author that I had to read aloud in class. I had friends over and we drank cocoa while watching Gisele make crepes.
Before I knew it, the first four months were coming to an end and I was asked by Robina if I had chosen to stay with my host family or move out on my own into a dorm room on campus. I didn’t know what I should do, so I asked Francois at dinner that week. He said, in no uncertain terms, that I needed to go.
I was crushed. I thought we were doing well! I finally felt at home there and I didn’t want to leave. It was the only place where I felt like I knew what I was doing and, aside from Shannon, the closest thing I had to a family. During a strenuous conversation in French, he explained that I was old enough to be on my own and he was confident that I would succeed. He was impressed that I had learned so quickly and that there were other, younger students who needed my room and their help more than I did. Gisele agreed I should go, and explained that I must come every week for Sunday dinner. And that it would still cost ten francs. That they hosted exchange students for extra money and they weren’t wealthy. But I would have to return so that they could see how I was doing and make sure I was eating at least one good meal a week.
So I moved. And I came back every Sunday for the rest of the year. I was unofficially appointed “Campos Family Orientation Guide” to the new students, many of whom didn’t speak French yet, but often spoke some English. I was responsible for making them aware of the rules. I was called upon to tell Maite, the slightly wild Spanish girl that she wasn’t allowed to come home at three in the morning and wake the house up. [See Maite pictured above with Gisele.]
“She can’t come running in and out of the house at that hour!” Francois yelled, his eyes bulging. “She is young and alone. She should not be out by herself! What if something were to happen?” I thought for a moment and said “Maite, Francois doesn’t like you coming home late and waking everyone up. This is not as large of a city as Madrid, but there are still dangers.” “Why is he all the time yelling?” She asked.
I smiled and said “He yells because he thinks, like my Father, that someone will understand a foreign language if it’s loud.” We both giggled. “And because he’s worried that something might happen to you if you’re out late by yourself. He likes you. I can tell already.” Maite looked up at me as if she owed me an explanation and said “But I am careful. I know what I do. I am not stupid.” Francois didn’t understand most English words, but he knew what stupid was. His eyes got wide for a moment, but he let it slide. Choosing my words carefully, I said “He knows that you are smart. But he feels responsible for you and he doesn’t sleep well if he knows that you are out late. I know it’s difficult to see, but he’s really very nice and gentle. You can always ask him for anything that you need.” She sighed and rolled her eyes “Ai Ai Ai!”
“Did you tell her?” Francois asked. “Yes. I told her that she was welcome but that she had to follow the rules.” “Good” he said. “We didn’t have to explain any of this to you. You were easy compared to her.” I smiled into my bourbon…..