Currently In Search Of My Next Destination

“These experiences have not only humbled me and taught me how to laugh with others at my own expense, they’ve been examples of human empathy and the lengths people are willing to go to help a foreigner feel more at home.”

Lena Jacobs, GA Writer

April 15, 2017

Rewind to my last semester of university: I had a job lined up in my hometown, which I had been working toward for years. I felt accomplished, but I was mostly dreading the daunting reality of two weeks vacation for someone who has a serious travel bug. Finally, when the bug became as loud and irritating as a mosquito buzzing in my ear all night long, I realized I needed to look for a more adventurous start to my professional life. I wanted an experience a bit more culturally immersive than a backpacking trip, so I decided to take a year and try my hand at building a life for myself in another country. After all, I was only 22, I didn’t study French for nothing, and after a year abroad I would be ready to come home and settle down to a serious career.

Wrong again, because my first year working as a teaching assistant in France made me wonder if I would ever be ready to come home and settle down. I worked in a small town on the Northern coast of France called Dunkerque, which is the butt of many jokes coming from the classier Parisians or Cannes film festival goers because of its gray, windy weather and “tasteless” (or, in my opinion, awesome) annual carnival. However, the North of France is known not only for its excellent beer, but for being the most open and welcoming region in the country, and it certainly proves the negative stereotypes about the French wrong. Take my first day of work for example…

I am on the train to my first day teaching when I see the ticket controller enter the car. "Mademoiselle" he says, looking perplexed as he studies my ticket, “this train is going to Paris, not to Dunkerque!" My ability to express myself in French drops to a middle school level and my heart/sweat rate skyrockets. I manage to ask him if I can borrow his phone to call my boss and tell her that I'm on my way to Paris and I'm going to miss my first day of work. All eyes in this packed train are on me and all ears are on my broken French with a terrible American accent, and I can tell you that the ratio of looks of amusement to looks of pity is pretty unfavorable.

My boss turns out to be lifesaver #1 of the day, as she just laughed, said it’s ok, the trains will take some getting used to, and that she'll just have to reschedule our important meeting with the "Inspectrice" (my boss's boss's boss…). She later invited me to dinner at her house, and over the past 3 years I’ve become the adopted American daughter and gone to all kinds of family events.

Lifesaver #2 of the day is the train ticket controller. Those guys get a bad rep, but after this experience I’m ready to start rocking an ‘I heart train controllers’ t-shirt and/or beret. He explained that this actually happens more often than one may think, and I must have looked at the arrivals board instead of the departures. You see, a train arrived from my destination on platform 46, but was headed to Paris afterwards, and it happened to have the same departure time as my train which left from platform 15. Oops.

He told me we would be arriving in Paris, but I could take another train back with him (for free, in first class!), where after another few phone calls, my boss said she'd be waiting for me. Only 4 hours late to my first day of work, talk about a win. He then invited me to go where no American girl has gone before: the train controller breakroom. I spent the next hour drinking coffee with several middle aged men in purple vests who enjoyed hearty chuckles at my expense.

That day was not the last time I made a fool of myself in public or made a cultural faux pas (like mixing up my words and accidentally asking my dinner host if there were condoms in the food). These experiences have not only humbled me and taught me how to laugh with others at my own expense, they’ve been examples of human empathy and the lengths people are willing to go to help a foreigner feel more at home. From spending Christmas with all the inhabitants of a tiny Corsican village, to helping deliver a baby sheep at the family farm of a friend I met in a dingy bar bathroom, I have a million stories and heartwarming memories. With an expiring contract and visa, I will have to leave France at the end of this academic year, but I’m not ready to throw in the towel on these humbling experiences and cultural encounters, so I’m currently in search of my next destination.