Somewhere back in history, parents and teachers got together and compiled a list of rules that children were forced to take in, master, and never ever forget that they had learned. I’m sure you all remember them: eat your peas and carrots, always say please and thank you, and NEVER talk to strangers. Well, my most sincere apologies to my first grade teacher and to my parents, but I am here today to admit that I have flagrantly violated the last rule, and I do not regret it in the least.
While I was spending my junior year studying abroad in Geneva, the first weekend trip I took was to Nice, France. It only required a train ride, and my friends and I found a really incredible hostel for a super reasonable price. It was almost a case of ‘How could we not go?’ It was doubly wonderful because my best friend from high school was studying in Cannes, so after a couple days of Matisse and salade Niçoise, I said goodbye to my Geneva friends and took a 15 minute train ride down the beach to Cannes.
Let me say first that Cannes is STUNNING. Nice was nice (ha!) but it was a teensy bit touristy and the beaches were covered in rocks. Cannes was the exact opposite: super swanky and classy, with beautiful sandy beaches. I was immediately in love. After a couple hours reading on the beach, I went to the International School of Cannes to find Colleen. I dropped my stuff in her room, since I would be staying there that night, and we took ourselves back down to the beach and spent all day basking in the glory of our lives, in that we were 20 years old and lounging on the French Riviera.
The day concluded with an amazing dinner at a restaurant on the beach, and several bottles of champagne. Around 11:00 pm, we started to go back to the school (my train left around 8:00 the next morning, so I had to call it a night fairly early). As I casually sauntered through the doorway, as I had done 10 hours prior, I was stopped by a large man in a uniform. He asked for my ID. Uh, I’m not a student here. Well, then you can’t come in.
Evidently, the International School didn’t allow overnight guests of any kind. No matter what the situation. Regardless of the fact that I had nowhere to stay, hotels were no longer open, and there were no hostels in Cannes. After ten minutes of pleading, and realizing that there was no way I was getting in, Colleen went up to her room, got my stuff, and walked with me to the train station, where I had determined I’d be spending the night. I chose the comfiest looking bench, directly in front of the Police booth, and mentally prepared myself for the night ahead. Colleen sat with me for a while, but since she had class in the morning, she had to leave me around midnight.
I tried to be optimistic. I tried telling myself that this was an adventure I’d never forget, and that it was a great learning experience. The other part of my brain wasn’t having it, and sleep certainly wasn’t happening. Trains kept coming in, so at least I had people to watch, and my iPod had a full charge, so at least I’d have entertainment.
At 1:00, people started gathering in the station, waiting for a late train. An adorable old French lady toddled over to my bench and sat down next to me. Even though I had my headphones in, she started chatting with me. I don’t know about you, but my foreign language skills aren’t stellar at one o’clock in the morning, but I did the best I could. She said she was waiting for her daughter, who was an English professor, and she hadn’t seen her in months. I told her about how the International School was my new arch enemy and I was planning on sleeping on the bench we were sitting on. She was horrified and said she’d keep me company until her daughter arrived.
Ten minutes later, the train came in. She got up and hugged her daughter, and they chatted for a few minutes. They kept looking over at me. Then, the daughter came over, and in English (thankfully) said that her mother was very concerned about me sleeping in the train station, and they’d very much like it if I were to come stay with them for the night.
Here it is…the moment that parents and teachers had warned me about. Forget the fact that I had spoken to a stranger (no-no #1), but now they were inviting me back to their house (no-no’s #2-98). I had a very intense and brief fight-or-flight debate with myself. It was a grandmother and her 40 year old daughter; they didn’t seem like the serial killer types. They were offering me a bed; my only other option was a hard wooden bench. If all else failed, I was a competitive runner, and I could most likely get out if I needed to. So…I went for it.
I made mental notes of every corner we turned. I noted what street the building was on, and what number the building was. I made a note of all the exits on our way up. Luckily, most buildings in Cannes have balconies in the apartments, so I could at least jump off that, right? We got into their apartment, and offered me something to eat, and then the daughter explained that I’d be taking the grandmother’s room. Now, keep in mind that the daughter was visiting. She was supposed to be staying in the guest room. But, as was explained to me, when there was a guest, the guest takes the master bedroom, and the host takes the guest room. This meant that the daughter would be sleeping on the couch because of me. I protested and said the couch was fine, but they wouldn’t hear of it. I was touched by the generosity (and mildly suspicious).
So, I took the master bedroom. While it was better than a bench, I didn’t sleep much that night. I slept in my clothing, with my shoes on, hand clutching my passport and train ticket. I was still moderately concerned that my parents would receive a call in a week from the French Police that their daughter’s body had been found in Monaco. Awesome. But eventually, the sun came up, I hadn’t been murdered, and I was offered a croissant and coffee. They also asked if I would be willing to give them my Geneva contact information so that they could get in touch with me if they ever came to visit; kind of use me as a tour guide. Naturally I gave it to them, thanked them profusely, and went on my merry way.
Now, this is not advocating sitting in a train station late at night and striking up conversations with strangers with the intention of accepting their offer to stay in their homes. Not in the least. I understand that I’m very lucky that I didn’t end up as a headline. This is more an example of how life-changing the study abroad experience can be, within a couple weeks of going abroad. I was overwhelmed with the generosity of the human spirit, and I will never think of the French as being snooty and unfriendly ever again.
And no, my parents still don’t know.
– Kat Cosgrove, DUSA Peer Advisor