Why traveling is more important now than ever
When I found out I was going to chaperone a group of teenagers on a two-week trip to the south of France, I was beyond thrilled. I was ready to revisit the food, the architecture, the language, and the landscape I had grown to love during my eight month stint as an English teaching assistant in the suburbs of Paris. And as anyone jetting off to the French Riviera for the first time, I was excited to soak in the sun in one of the most picturesque destinations in the world.
As a copywriter at a student exchange organization, I sometimes get to take advantage of amazing (and free) opportunities like this. It’s hard work to travel and live with more than a dozen American high schoolers, but it’s also rewarding to help them navigate a new language and culture. Another added benefit was that I had the chance to practice my French, which after more than a year in New York had gotten a little rusty.
Our trip was set to leave for Nice in mid July. But the day before I was scheduled to meet my group at the airport, there was an attack on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice during a Bastille Day celebration. (For anyone who doesn’t know, Bastille Day is France’s Independence Day.) It was a tragic and violent event that spread fear both in France and abroad.
I’ll admit I was nervous about going to Nice right after the attack, and so were the kids I was chaperoning. But at the same time we felt that it was in a way even more important for us to go abroad after something like that had happened. In fact, one of my students told me right away that she hoped our trip would help foster peace and understanding.
It’s my belief that going out into the world every day carries with it a risk, and that we can’t allow fear to keep us from experiencing life. So after a few moments of hesitation, my students and I went ahead with our travel plans. We headed to the airport in New York with overstuffed suitcases and boarded a plane to the Cote d’Azur.
The next day we arrived at our language camp in Villefranche-sur-Mer, a beautiful beach town just outside of Nice. (The Rolling Stones had famously lived in a waterfront estate there while recording Exile on Main Street in the early 1970s.)
Once we had settled in, we headed to the cafeteria for dinner. But before we could start eating, the director made a special point of speaking to the group and thanking us for coming to France during this difficult time. She said our presence made them feel a strong sense of American support and friendship.
My students and I spent the following days conjugating French verbs, visiting the beach, and exploring Nice and Monaco. The events of July 14th did not have a direct impact on our day-to-day lives, but we could tell that security was especially tight and the area around Nice was more subdued than usual.
Toward the end of our two weeks, the camp held a special “American night,” which offered a French interpretation of Americana. We enjoyed an evening of hamburgers, popcorn, and un-ironic square-dancing performed by a local French group. The camp directors dedicated the evening to us Americans who were determined to explore the country and learn as much as we could about French culture.
Their tribute gave our trip even more significance — not to say that simply learning a language and making international friends isn’t incredibly important. But I’m proud that my students decided to pursue this adventure even when outside forces made it a challenge.
I’m glad that we were able to spend two weeks in France not only learning about another culture, but also witnessing first-hand the powerful impact of global exchange. As my students and I took in the winding mountain roads, azure waters, and Belle Epoque homes of Villefranche, we were impressed by the country’s astounding beauty. But as we got to know our hosts and learned about the tragedy from their perspective, we were above all moved by their strength and resilience.
So, in a time when many want to close off and protect themselves from people and parts of the world they don’t understand, I think it’s important to do exactly the opposite. I say: travel abroad, learn another language, and meet people who are different from you. It’s essential to challenge ourselves and what we believe, now more than ever.