Like you, I was a study abroad student in my early 20s – just a few years ago now! Except, I guess that it wasn’t really a study abroad experience as I was full time in a British university and we didn’t have any “fall break”, but we did have a huge Easter break. We also had “winter break”, which lasted about 5 weeks between the beginning of December and the middle of January.
So, what to do in my first ‘break’ period when studying abroad? The answer came in the shape of two buddies on the university basketball team, Paul and Jeff. Paul had bought a second-hand Volkswagen beetle [named “Hans” – Paul was an American of German extraction and was training for the Lutheran priesthood] and he, Jeff [from Boston], Chris [an anthropology student from Berkeley who impressed me throughout the trip by reading Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit [Being and Time] in the back of the beetle, and I took off on a trip to Morocco. Morocco was a pretty exotic destination way back then for four inexperienced North American travellers. We didn’t have credit cards, nor had ATMs been invented way back in the Neolithic 1960s. We carried our cash - francs, pesetas and sterling – with us. We kept to the back roads through France and Spain as the European motorway – first invented by Hitler in the 1930’s – had not spread far from the land of its birth. In France, we stayed in that great chain of French Hotels – the Hotels de la Gare – which are conveniently located adjacent to the railway station in every middle- sized French town. I thought at the time that, if I were a business student and not an Egyptologist [which I was, believe it or not], I would do a thesis on the business acumen of the “De la Gare” family. What foresight to have established a hotel in such proximity to the railway station in just about every French town! In Spain we stayed in pensiones: hostels hadn’t been invented yet.
We had a great time in Paris where we met two young women, both called Susie, from the University of South Carolina who were studying in Lyon. The wine flowed and a good time was had. We discovered that the French approach to plumbing – public urinals for the messieurs – and the all too familiar “hole in the ground” indoor toilets – was both more liberal and more primitive that was our custom. And none of us had ever seen a bidet before! The British at least – god bless them – had sit-down toilets; long may Mr Thomas Crapper, the inventor of the modern water closet, be remembered and praised for his invention. As I was from French Canada, I was the designated French speaker and interpreter. I remember my embarrassment and confusion in central France when I asked for “pain” in a “boulangerie” and the serving women didn’t understand me. In retrospect, it wasn’t the Quebecois accent. Rather it was my cultural ignorance: just asking for “bread” in a bread shop didn’t work; one has to know the names of the different kinds of loaf on sale. So my 15 years of French were all to no avail because the French were far more sophisticated about bread than we lamentable, one-dimensional, sliced-bread eating North Americans. Later on, when the Volkswagen broke down in freezing weather in a snowstorm on the outskirts of Paris, I had to hitch a lift along the highway to get to a garage and ask for a replacement “distributor cap”. Except that I didn’t know the French term for “distributor cap”: it is not, for example, the “chapeau du distributeur” as it should have been; nor was it “le distributor cap” as the weekend is “le weekend”; instead it was, and probably still is, “le tete du delco”, a piece of French trivia that I have never forgotten because of the pain and anxiety it caused me at the time.
Spain was decidedly more foreign than France was, but nothing could have prepared us for Morocco. We visited Tangiers, Rabat and Fez. The first two were reasonably “modern” cities, but it
was hard to know if we were in the 14th century or the 20th century in Fez. Fez was distinctly “untouristy” and made us aware of the enormous cultural gap that existed between Moroccans of the interior and North Americans. I remember feeling uncomfortable in Fez: although we were humble students, we were westerners and incomparably better off than most of the people in Fez.
We spent more time in Spain on the return trip. On New Year’s eve in Valencia, I ran into a guy I played football with in Montreal. We had both graduated from college about 7 months previously. In France, we stopped in Lyon to meet the two “Susies”, the girls from South Carolina we had met in Paris on the way down. Then “Hans” broke down: first the windshield wipers went, then the distributor cap. We were all glad to see the white cliffs of Dover. Although we had only been in England since September, it was now our “home”. I bought a copy of Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit. And, no, I haven’t finished it and wouldn’t know even where it is.
No doubt many of you will feel the same after returning from spring break. Have a great time and be careful out there. In my next blog I might just get around to telling you about my first ever spring break, also with the two Susies!