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The Amusing Habits of Middle Schoolers Abroad

Over subsequent days, our tour takes us west along the coast of the French Riviera and then north, deep into Provence. We stop in Cassis, a picturesque port town and take a boat ride through the Calanques, narrow inlets cut into the lofty limestone rock bordering the Mediterranean. The boys are fascinated by what they see: the mini-cruise is a paradise in which young imaginations can run wild. They argue about which cliff is best for diving  — “this one; no, that one with the tree on top is the coolest” — until they spot waves crashing into the stone remnants of battlements and explain to anyone who’ll listen how such structures were the first line of defense against bygone marauders. Scuba divers below shoreside boulders become Aquamen and the boys compete by voicing ever-eerier visions of underwater caves. Rock climbers relish the Calanques and those we spy become Spidermen in the mind’s eyes of my boys.

The girls simply sit back and scan the scenery, taking it in quietly while futilely brushing blowing hair from their faces and wrapping their fleeces tighter. “It’s chilly on the water, Madame Bohr!” they declare and imagine themselves frolicking here in summer heat.

I overhear an amusing exchange between my father and son travelers as we head back to the harbor. “You’ll never see water this blue,” says the Dad, to which junior promptly replies, “What do you mean? I’m looking at it now!”

Our boat ride etched on our list of trip favorites so far, we head to the pebbly beach next to the bustling town square and I reassure the kids as they carefully pick their way close to the water, “We’ll have plenty of soft white sand once we reach the Atlantic.” The cobalt sea is restless and freezing cold but the students are determined to splash in the Med. The girls wriggle into their bathing suits à la competitors who’ve learned to change out in the open next to athletic fields. They slide on bikinis over their jeans and tees and then wiggle out of and roll down their clothes till they’re off. I’m reminded of my daughter in her soccer days, regularly slipping in and out of her sports bra and uniform without benefit of a changing room. The boys are more timid and less accomplished at changing au naturel and ask me to hold up a towel so they can disrobe (Mr. Always-Prepared has one in his backpack). They seem to forget we’re in France where little if any clothing is de rigueur on the beach.

In Aix-en-Provence, a university town an hour north of Cassis, the girls enjoy the carousel in what will become a string of colorful wooden horseback rides across the Hexagon. The boys continue their quest to sample as many sweets as possible, devouring their second ice creams of the day. The kids are all brave language troopers, even those who are studying Spanish and not French, and take pride in ordering food on their own. They’ve been daring about trying French specialties, including escargots, and have perfected the art of asking for take-away ice cream and crêpes, now sugary staples of their daily diet since they’re incapable of ignoring the ever-present, always beckoning snack stands. One student occasionally errs and states “Je porte” instead of “Je prends,” thereby saying, “I’ll wear” instead of  “I’ll have” followed by whatever food he’s ordering. But merchants understand him nonetheless.

The cover of my forthcoming travel memoir features a picture Joe took of me sitting, knees hugged to my chest, on a fountain in Aix when we lived here for most of one summer. I return to the scene just off the Cours Mirabeau, the town’s main boulevard, nostalgia threatening to overtake me as I reflect on how our lives have changed since the photo was snapped three years ago: we moved back to the states, I started a new career teaching French, Joe resumed his career building ships and now I’m bringing students to my beloved France.

Our brief, couple-hour stay in this young, cafe-rich, energy-filled town is over far too quickly and we’re back on the road. How fortunate I am to have stayed awhile in years past and made such picture-perfect places like Aix my home. As I watch my adolescent troupe once again scramble onto the bus, I make a wish that in the future, they’ll be as lucky as I’ve been with lots of opportunities to travel the world.

 

 
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Posted by on April 9, 2015 in France

 

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Back to France, Back to My Youth

I’ll do almost anything to go to France. Today I’m heading off on an Education First (EF) student tour on a plane full of teens, six of whom are under my care. As I anticipated, there’s nothing like being with youth to bring back your own. The excitement begins the minute we reach our departure gate and I let them scatter to buy food on their own. Just wait till we get to France, I think, and they’re able to wander cobblestoned streets without me.

I have four girls and two boys in my group, as well as one father, and when we reach Paris, we’ll join others to form a total of 50 – a full busload. I watch the girls sitting on the multi-colored airport carpet, their cell phones dangling from the power tower charger behind them, carry-on goodies and backpacks scattered. They’re oblivious to the world around them as they play cards, giggle continually, and periodically burst into belly laughs. The boys sit on chairs, content to be absorbed in their cell phones, delightedly telling me they’re playing tournaments and “hacking” into friends’ games. Without a doubt, I identify with the thirteen year-old girls and delight in their unbridled, innocent, all-consuming friendship as they hold hands across the aisles once we board the plane and make funny photo story montages on their phones, each one laughing harder than the next. How do I say “my best friends” in French, asks one girl who does not take French.

I win the lottery of overnight travel and score a middle of the plane seat assignment with the entire row to myself. I wake-up refreshed when the lights signaling breakfast come on. I’m doing well on this flight to Europe, having perfected my overnight routine: an eye mask, earplugs, a Tylenol PM and a glass of wine.  I’m out for the duration, even before we take off – a good thing, since I’ll be in charge the minute we hit French soil.

My students awaken draped over one another, bleary-eyed from staying up too late and getting only a couple hours of ineffective sleep, having taken the bait of endless free movies. But they’re instantly alive, sharing stories of overnight discomfort as if they’d undergone an epic adventure.

The almost constant rituals of affection continue among the girls as the plane lands – they so remind me of me at that age. I was never more content than when with my buddies, all of us promising to be forever friends. But as I now know, life has a way of enabling broken promises and I haven’t seen my middle school “besties” since I headed off to a high school many towns away. But vows of loyalty have remained intact with my closest high school chums – those from the days when all I wanted or needed were my girlfriends. These deep bonds of youth have endured. And now that our nests have emptied, we see each other regularly and we’re back to where we started, at ease, sharing stories, and giggling nonstop.

My spirited charges and I pick up our bags, meet our tour director, Guillaume, and as we head for the bus, one of the girls declares: “Oh, we’re in Nice? I wanted to go to Nephew!” It’s typical adolescent humor that always makes me laugh. My “tween” travelers are negotiating those tricky years between being children and full-fledged teens and for now, they appear quite sophisticated as they resolutely walk out into the southern sun of the Riviera and enter France for the first time, their luggage dragging behind.

After a quick tour of vieux Nice, we head for the promontory above town. While I’m itching to hike up, Guillaume, sensitive to group jet lag, loads us onto the convenient elevator to the top. We’re crossing the crown of the cliff to see the vista east over the colorful port and the students spy a red rope jungle gym rising 25 feet in the air. The girls, still blushing from flirtatious attention from a tanned French teen, and the boys, fresh from debating the relative merits of becoming quantum physicists or nuclear fusion specialists, they’re instantly back to the realm of children.

“Can we go up?” they plead, “Please?”

The rest of the tour group continues on ahead as I snap pictures of my “kids” climbing and twisting in the air. Next on our spontaneous schedule is a pick-up game of soccer or “foot,’ as the French say, on a lofty, sandy lot with their new friends, Dimitri and Éliot, who before we arrived were just kicking around the ball in the dust. Two of my girls and one of my boys are excellent players and the others handle themselves just fine as well, and in minutes, there’s a lively match in progress, with shots taken at makeshift goals between backpacks. I think back on the time my husband, Joe, and I took our own eight and five year-old children to Paris and that what they remember most is an impromptu soccer game with some French gamins in the Luxembourg Gardens.

“Must be Americans,” a passerby observes and I know it’s because the girls are as athletic as the boys as they head and juggle the ball with aplomb. “Yes,” I want to reply with pride, “yes, they sure are Americans,” I say to myself and smile, as I watch the players stop to exchange names and embraces (I’m sure Dimitri and Éliot are taken aback since hugs, even among friends, are too personal for the French) and then take multiple selfies. I’m witnessing international diplomacy at its best.

 

 
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Posted by on April 5, 2015 in France

 

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