As only a high school junior, before last week I had very little experience with international travel. So it was to be expected that eight hour overseas flights, jet lag, and being an ocean away from home was a concept as foreign as the county I was going to. Having only briefly crossed the Northern Maine border into Canada as a prerequisite, the idea of spending my April vacation touring France was equally daunting and thrilling to an adventurous person like myself. Naturally, I jumped at the chance when it arose. Luckily for me, my first real globetrotting experience through EF Tours and hosted by Windham High School turned out to be perfect combination of learning the ropes of foreign travel while still having the comfort of teachers and week-long tour guides to lead the way.
My group of 15 students consisting of mainly students in or having previously taken French class in school (yet the trip remained open to everybody), was organized by group leaders and Windham High School French teachers Erica Brown and Katie Dresnok. Their international travel, living, and previous EF tour experience made the trip go as smoothly as any newer traveler such as myself could have possibly hoped for. The parent and grandparent chaperones on the trip were also a great addition to the trip and they made us feel a little more at home even when we were 3,000 miles from it. The other students and I quickly bonded after the first 30-plus hour long travel day, and went on to go through so many new and once-in-a-lifetime experiences together as new friends.
After a compact first day of busses, airports, planes and more busses, our personal EF Tour Guide named Sebastian met us in Paris. He was entertaining, friendly, and informative throughout the eleven days of our stay in France. Sebastian worked hard to ensure all logistics, including transportation, sightseeing tickets and guided tours, and hotels were ready for us: Essentially taking care of the most stressful part of travel. Our bus rides to and from our destinations were narrated by Sebastian, who provided us with not only historical information but also shared anecdotes about the culture and customs to help us better assimilate into the country to get the fullest effect. We were joined by another group of high school students from Massachusetts and together we embarked on the tour EF calls "Paris and The Chateaux"- but the name underwhelms the true nature of the trip.
We traveled from Paris to the Loire Valley, to Normandy, and to the French Riviera, even making a stop in Monaco. In addition to hitting all the must-sees such as the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre Museum, the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Arc de Triumph, the Gardens of Versailles, we toured and explored cities, castles and cathedrals I had never even heard of, but am sure to never forget. Seeing the dwellings of so many members of French royalty, and being told their backstories made me understand why they rightfully ended up in history books. My fellow students and I put our most recent history lessons to use and discussed the events of World War II while in Normandy- thankful to have an understanding of the sacrifices we were looking at while visiting the D-Day beaches, American Cemetery, and the Caen Memorial Museum. In addition to historical and typical tourist stops, our trip gave us outlets to experience French culture, such as touring factories where two of France’s most notable exports are made, wine and perfume. Our bus driver was even willing to stop on the side of the road for a photo-op with one of the many fields of signature yellow canola flowers scattering nearly every field, viewed from nearly every highway, from Paris to Nice.
While the breathtaking scenery and influx of new information about France's past, one of my favorite parts was experiencing the country's present. Given the information needed from our tour guide and group leaders, we were trusted to venture off and explore by ourselves. This allowed time for browsing both souvenir shops and designer boutiques along the Champs-Elysees in Paris. We tried espresso for the first time at a street-side café, all on our own accord. The free time we were given let us make the most of our own personal experiences and be the independent travelers we aimed to be by going on this trip. Even plagued by my rocky French, I learned the important lesson that a simple "s'il vous plait" and "merci" can get you far in France, but knowing I could do it on my own gave me the cultural immersion that truly made the trip.
Through the guidance of my teachers, tour guides and EF, my debut travel abroad experience was unforgettable and awe-inspiring, and gave me the experience and confidence to become the traveler I wish to become. Everything from navigating public transportation to foreign etiquette will make me a better traveler in the future. While this may be my first and last EF tour, it was a trip of a lifetime. I strongly encourage all young and wanderlust-stricken travelers to take the opportunities offered through the high school. Happy travels, or should I say, bon voyage!