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My Big, Fat First Trip Abroad

My experiences speaking a second language, flying by on the seat of my pants, and not caring what my fellow travelers think.

I stepped onto the tarmac at the Casablanca airport and into a cloud of mosquitos. I was on my way to Dakar, Senegal, to study French for a month, and the previous 30 hours had been spent alternately in planes, trains and on benches, and stealing naps when possible. With my stuffed-to-the-seams backpack slung over my shoulder, clutching my passport and visa papers, and stinking of airline food, my fellow passengers and I were directed onto a crowded bus. There was nowhere else to go, and I don’t speak Arabic, so I didn’t ask the destination and boarded. I kept my fingers crossed, hoping we were headed somewhere that had someone who spoke English or French and knew where my next gate was. Upon getting off the bus and following the crowd inside like a sheep in a herd, I sighed with relief when I saw translated signs that read, “CUSTOMS AND TRANSFERS.”

Before this trip, I’d never left the country. My parents love taking trips, but we’d never left the continental United States. Our vacations were confined to where our minivan could take us; usually ending up lakeside, playing cards, and sitting on the bumper of our rented pop-up camper. On the converse, this trip was quickly thrown together; a last-chance shot at traveling before I graduated and the full weight of my student loans were dropped on my back. My visa was submitted an hour before the deadline. My passport was expedited. My suitcases were borrowed.

The months leading up to my departure were exciting. But the few hours before I boarded my flight were terrifying. It was happening too fast and my bag was too heavy. I might have forgotten something. Why didn’t I book a hotel yet, or much less, figure out how to get into the city from the airport? I arrived at my gate two hours early, wracked with anxiety—every few minutes my hands disappeared into my bag to feel for my passport, visa papers, and traveler’s checks.

I couldn’t stop envisioning what I would do once I landed. I hadn’t spoken a word of French in months. Even at its best, my French was mediocre, choppy, and only spoken out loud in the safety of one-on-one speaking exams in the professor’s office. How was I supposed to use it to navigate cities I’d never been to? What was I thinking? What if I get off the plane and everything is in Arabic and I can’t find my connecting flight? Oh my god. I am going to miss my flight and be stuck in a Moroccan airport for a month. My mind was spinning faster than the airplane turbines.

I was seated by the aisle—thank god—next to a woman scolding her two small boys in French—shit. After forcing my oversized “personal item” under the seat, I took a Dramamine and mentally prepared for a long flight. As we took off, I listened to the boys talk and tried to understand what they were saying.

The flight attendant asked us what we’d like to drink, and was received with a blank stare from the woman next to me until she held up several options to her. The woman attempted to control her sons, and enunciated, “Trois jus d’oranges.”

Three orange juices, I mentally translated. Alright. Not too bad.

“Would you like ice?” the flight attendant asked my seatmate with no response. “Ma’am? Do you want ICE?”

Est-ce que vous voulez la glace? I mentally translated and willed the woman to understand. No luck. She continued to stare blankly at the flight attendant.

My heart thumping and forehead sweating, I spoke the first French words that escaped my mouth in over a year; “La glace?” The woman nodded to me and turned back to her boys, my personal triumph nothing but an insignificant moment in her life.

From that moment on, each time I encountered a barrier I faced it head-on. Not because I miraculously and spontaneously improved my French language skills, but because I was filled with the ironic confidence of knowing that no one else cared as much as I did.

Over the course of the trip, I told off catcallers in Paris; apologized to the woman whose foot I stepped on while getting on the train [pardon!]; argued with a Senegalese taxi driver who had promised a ride for 1000 CFA and tried to charge us 3000 CFA; pushed back on the rude Moroccan men who decided to bypass my spot in line; navigated the 40 miles into Paris on the metro system; and explained a bad reaction to malaria medication to a francophone doctor in Senegal after vomiting in the street a mere 10 hours after my arrival.

In these moments, when I was alone, I had no choice but to go forward. I had to use my rudimentary French to ask the intimidating airport workers how the metro works. I had to pay the extra fee at the visa pick-up booth in the Dakar airport that the website definitely didn’t mention. There’s no other choice, because an “I chickened out and changed my mind” return service flight back to America does not exist. I marched up to the customs lady that had just yelled at the person before me in Wolof, and unabashedly asked “Quoi??” when I didn’t understand what she said. She glared, and I smiled and confidently asked her to repeat herself. And she had to, because my fearless ass was holding up the line.

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