48 years ago next month, I traveled, for the first time, to a foreign country. I stepped off the plane at the Charles de Gaulle airport and thought, “Wow, they really do speak French here!” I had never heard native speakers of a foreign language before. I was 16 years old, and that was a summer of many firsts: the first time I communicated primarily in a foreign language; the first time I climbed a mountain; the first time I kissed a boy, and the first time I felt completely free to be myself. After that summer, I felt I was meant to be born in Europe – that living in Southern Indiana was a tragic mistake that someone would eventually figure out and reverse. After a few days in Paris, I lived in the French Alps near Grenoble with a host family who took me under their guidance and taught me how to live another culture. When I left 8 weeks later, my host mother and I both sobbed.
When I returned home, I often thought about moving to France some day. I vowed to return to France and, 5 years later, I did return – spending another summer there. I was in Paris on Bastille Day, 1979, where it seemed like the whole world crowded onto the Metro, saw a free play at the Comédie-Française , and headed to the Place Vendome, or maybe it was the Place de la Concorde, I can't really remember. Under the night lights in red, white and blue, the entire city seemed to be swaying and singing, La Vie en Rose. This song – about a passionate and certain love, one that brought so much happiness the whole world looked better – was as much the national anthem of France as “La Marseillaise.” Written in 1945, at the end of World War II, newly liberated France fell in love with the song and its famous singer, Édith Piaf. Her passion and exuberance reflected the freedom and excitement of a new era. When I heard it that night in 1979, it reflected my own absolute certainty that this city – Paris – had embraced me and taken me for one of its own. I knew I would return.
42 years later - 2022 - I stepped foot in Paris again. The happiness I felt walking its streets with my own unwavering partner in love and in travel is hard to describe. Paul and I walked along the Seine, saw the soaring windows of La Sainte Chapelle, drank wine and ate French culinary delights.
We had the added pleasure of visiting with family who were also visiting Paris, and seeing the delight on the faces of our young great-nephews as they experienced this magical place. The joy in speaking French again was intoxicating, if a bit more difficult due to the effortless use of English by most French (that was a surprising change from 1979). Some, though, indulged me and let me converse with them as I felt my rusty French start to return.
I can trace my passion for travel to that first time I set foot on French soil. The summer of 1974 was full of so much learning, so much adventure, and so much fun. Here I am – 64 years old – and now I can make good on the commitment France made to me all those years ago – to keep traveling, to keep learning, and to keep having fun. Paul and I have vowed to return – this time, a lot sooner!