Learning How to Be Happy in France

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I became infatuated with France during a trip to Paris with my family when I was 15. I loved the mellifluous language, the curly-cue architecture, the sophisticated fashion, the delectable pastries. Two years later, however, my parents all but had to push me onto an airplane to spend a month living with a French family. This difficult and wonderful trip taught me life’s most important lesson: how to be happy.

The Louvre

The Louvre

The bags stopped tumbling down the chute and all of the other passengers piled their carts high with luggage and left the carousel. I pushed my empty luggage cart a few feet before abandoning it all together.

I walked up to the man in uniform, terrified he would ask me things in French I would not understand. If he spoke German or Chinese or Hungarian, that would be fine. I would not be expected to know those languages. But cette langue I should know after two years of high school French, or so I thought. He stamped my passport and I was officially en France.

Among the crowd I spotted Claire’s model-like face. She had been my family’s foreign exchange student at our house in Arizona the previous summer, before my senior year of high school. My family took her to Disneyland; she and I barely spoke during that 8-hour drive to the Happiest Place on Earth. For a friend’s party I had lent her a tight, flowered dress and almost laughed at seeing her sweet innocence in stretched garb. My big brother and his girlfriend had taken her to some adult bookstore where she watched soft porn in a booth through half-closed hands; meanwhile I was making out with my boyfriend in his pick-up truck on some desert dead-end road. Here, in her own land of France, Claire was all confidence and maturity, sporting dark Levis on her long legs.

From the garble of French thrown in my direction I deduced my bag was nowhere to be found. Claire, her mom and dad, and I squeezed into a tiny French car. I stared out the window, searching for something beautiful to be excited about. Instead I found stoplights, traffic, and billboards peddling perfumes and make-up.

Once we reached Claire’s uncle’s Parisian flat, I was encouraged to take a small nap. I protested, wanting to adjust to the new time zone, but they insisted. I dropped myself onto a twin bed, obviously owned by a pre-adolescent boy. Hours later, I woke up in darkness.

Sacre Coeur

Sacre Coeur

I exited the room and found Claire gabbing excitedly over the kitchen table with two teens — a blond frumpy girl with a pointy face and a tall handsome guy with brown Superman locks. They said, “salut” and continued with their torrent of thunderous French words. I tried to catch a word, any word. I leaned forward, as if words poured in from close up would make more sense. I couldn’t even pull out a simple “oui” from their downfall of chatter. Eventually I gave up.

Claire’s parents returned to their home in Normandy. Meanwhile, we teens got a nibble of summer-before-college freedom.

I couldn’t sleep at night. My internal clock was all messed up from the nap that was forced upon me. I brought but one book with me — a tome about elephants and their mating habits. The book was my only company but it was a lonely, scientific, and often disgusting tale. While my flatmates dozed, I stared at the two tiny turtles owned by the room’s rightful human occupant. I watched the reptiles as they slowly chewed, chewed, chewed their bites of lettuce. It was the loneliest thing I had ever seen in my young life. Most nights, I finally fell asleep as the sun began to rise.

My first morning, everyone got up before me. I was pleased to find the flat empty. In the small kitchen I pulled open a white crumpled bakery bag to find a croissant. I spread it with butter and chunky strawberry jam. Its flaky goodness was the first whiff of joy I found during this trip to France.

My teen-aged friends returned soon enough. We retrieved my lost bag from the airport. Over the next week we explored the Louvre, Mont Martre, Sacre Coeur, Notre Dame. We would be walking through Paris and suddenly, they would all turn and head the other direction while I continued on, oblivious of the conversation indicating a change of plans.

Cherbourg sea

View of the Atlantic from Cherbourg, France

Claire’s parents reappeared about a week later. We drove from the city through small towns and green fields and farms to their hometown of Cherbourg, situated along the Atlantic ocean border between England and France. I sat in the back of the petite French-mobile, a whirl of garbled French enveloping me, and I literally counted the minutes and the seconds until I could return to my American home. It was like counting sheep to go to sleep, only more pathetic.

I missed my boyfriend terribly. I felt adrift without him. One time back home in Arizona, I went to a movie without him, with a few girlfriends. I had to call him halfway through to come pick me up — I didn’t know how to function without him.

I finally got a hold of my beloved sister on the phone. She had me talk to her boyfriend, Michael (who is now her husband); he had lived in France 10 years prior when he was my age. I sobbed into the phone that I wanted to go home. Michael said, “Tell them, Oh yeah, in America, we get to leave the lights on all the time,” referencing the French inclination toward energy conservation and subsequent dark hallways in public buildings. I laughed, feeling at least visible for once in weeks.

We traveled to the shores of Omaha Beach in Normandy, where the American troops had tried to swim ashore in the name of freedom. I’d heard tales of World War II before, of course. But staring at those rows and rows and rows and rows and rows of crosses and the occasional stars of David, I was overwhelmed by what it all meant. These soldiers, many not much older than I was then, came to these shores, knowing death was at hand, and they tried anyway. For me. For my family. For freedom.

Omaha Beach cemetery in Normandy, France

Omaha Beach cemetery in Normandy, France

Afterwards, we drove on to Caen (in northern France, not the famed southern Cannes of the film festival). We stopped at Claire’s grandmother’s house. She was a diminutive thing with a puff of white hair. She scurried about the kitchen, wiping her hands nervously on her apron. She was about 80 years or older. She served us a lunch of tomatoes stuffed with tuna. I forced bites of the grainy, overly-ripened red fruit into my mouth and its topping of mushy, fishy blech.

As our lunch neared its end, Claire’s grandmother started to cry. She dabbed her eyes with her cloth napkin. Claire and her sisters translated, “My father told me to always do my best to welcome any Americans. Your country saved my country. Without you, we would have nothing. Here you are in my home, and you are not happy. My dad would be so sad, so upset.”

“No,” I told her, “I am not sad,” but the tears in my eyes betrayed my words. I was sad for me and for her and for the French who lost so many and for the American soldiers who stormed the shores, knowing they would likely die.

When we returned to Cherbourg, I was buoyed by Claire’s grandma’s need for me to be happy. I should be happy for her at least, I thought.

Beach near Cherbourg, France

Beach near Cherbourg, France

At the beach while Claire and her friends gossiped and giggled, rather than feeling left out by their too-fast-moving conversation, I concentrated on the beauty of the sound of the waves rolling over the sand and back out to the sea. I stopped worrying about how silly I sounded and spoke in stop-and-go French with Claire’s family over dinner and at the pub with her friends afterwards.

Alone in my thoughts and observances in the French-mobile once again, I felt happy as I stared out the window at the voluptuous clouds in the sky and noticed the deep green of northern France’s grass. Nothing had changed besides my attitude. I was struck by the most important lesson of my life: I could choose to be happy. So I did.

When I returned to America, I was decidedly different from the timid girl who had boarded that plane to Paris. Instead of hiding from things that made me nervous or uncomfortable, I faced them head-on, swallowing my fear and choosing to be strong. I was no longer dependent on my boyfriend, who tired of my waning affection and broke up with me the night before I moved into my freshman college dormitory.

Two years later I spent my junior year studying abroad in Montpellier, in the South of France. I returned to Cherbourg to visit with Claire and her family during my study abroad year. Claire and her sisters giggled when their father attempted to talk to me in his broken English, and they kept reminding him I could now understand French, “Papa, elle peut parler français maintenant!”

My French has faded over the years but the lesson has not. Happiness is a choice.

Have you ever learned a lesson while traveling that changed your life? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

About Colleen Lanin

Colleen Lanin is the founder/editor-in-chief of TravelMamas.com. As the author of her book, "The Travel Mamas' Guide," she teaches parents not only how to survive a trip with children, but also how to love exploring the world with their offspring. Her stories have appeared online and in print for such outlets as the "Today" show, NBCNews.com, Parenting Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, Chicago Tribune, Expedia, San Diego Family Magazine, and more. Colleen gives tips on television, radio, and as a public speaker. She has a master’s degree in business administration with a background in marketing. She lives in Arizona with her husband and two kids.

  1. Amber's Crazy Bloggin' Canuck says

    I think my very best life lessons have been learned during travel. I had an opportunity to spend 18 months in France once upon a time and this post was a lovely trip down memory lane.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Amber- I didn’t know you lived in France too! We’ll have to practice our French together sometime, n’est ce pas?

  2. San Diego Momma (Deb) says

    Wow. So brilliantly written. And I love the end.
    (All of it, really.)

    I visited France in my 20s (Paris. Toulouse) and it was wonderful, if not disconcerting. Lessons, indeed. Lesson one: There’s so much more to life than you see in your little corner of the world.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Thank you, Deb! I love France now – I hope to spend a month their with my kids next summer. It’s a fascinating, beautiful and intimidating country!

  3. JoanGrossfield says

    Is this part of your book? It’s very well written and very interesting. Your writing just flows.

  4. Keryn @ walkingon travels says

    Honestly I think everyone should study abroad when they are in high school. It is one of the most eye-opening and life-changing experiences you can have at that age. I went to Moldova on an exchange for a few weeks at the end of my senior year. It was terrifying and I was going with other kids from my school. All 4 of us would be in the same town, but staying with our separate host families, whom our families had hosted earlier that year. It is interesting to see the tables flipped when you do an exchange too. It makes you open your heart even more to people living in our country and trying to navigate the confusing waters.
    Thanks for sharing!!!

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Keryn – I wish everyone would participate in a foreign exchange program during high school or college too. Many people think studying abroad is only for rich people, but that’s not true! When I returned from studying in France for a year in college, many of my fellow students made comments to me like, “I wish I had the money to study in France for a year.” Truth is, I chose a very affordable program and my dorm room expenses were minimal due to subsidization by the French government so my expenses that year were about the same as staying at home, even when air fare was included in the cost. Of course, college tuition is becoming so expensive, I worry that pretty soon just a college education will be just for the elite, but that’s a whole different discussion!

  5. Kate SD Deals n Steals says

    I visited Paris France for 1 1/2 days as part of a traveling girls choir when I was 15. Not long enough to take in much of anything really – it was a whirlwind – we saw the Lourve & the Eiffel Tower – and then we were back on the bus! I wish we could have spent more time and I hope to go back soon!

    I LOVE your story and that at 15 you were able to learn that lesson (I was decidedly grumpy at 15 ;-))

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Kate – I hope you will get to return to France someday! It really is one of my favorite places on Earth. I learned this lesson at age 17, actually, the summer before my freshman year of college. That’s one of the great things about travel – it helps us grow and mature in wonderful ways.

  6. Eileen at familiesgo! says

    I’ve been in so many traveling situations where i’ve felt intimidated or discouraged or out of my depth but they always worked out. The lesson i’ve taken from it all is that fear is not a good reason to not do something.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Eileen – I so agree! There are times when our fear keeps us safe (like when our instincts tell us not to go down that alley or get into that elevator with that stranger) but many times our fear is a fear of failure or of looking silly or of facing something unknown. What a richer place the world is when we fear the unknown and forge ahead anyway!

  7. Colleen, amazing,articulate, wonderful article! I think perhaps your Mom just thought perhaps because there were times when you weren’t so thrilled with the place, that maybe you would be hurting folks’ feelings who are from there and might read it? Reassure her no one will feel that way, you have such an appealing, “bring the readers in” style in your writing, when I read your blog it is as if I have been to the same places you go to, so I feel like I get many vacations in one year, without ever going anywhere! So happy you started doing this, I applaud you and admire you, you are surely a Superwoman, which makes sense right, Superwoman being married to SuperMan and having Superkids!!!! xoxoxoxox Bon Jour!!!! Merci!!

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Kate – You are too sweet. Thank you for your kind words about my writing and my family! My mom did not like this story because she thinks it is too risque for Travel Mamas. Mostly, I think she would like to think her children were always innocent and perfect, or at least she would like others to think this was the case!

  8. I have always, always wanted to visit France. But first I’d like to learn French so I can read Proust in the original language and THEN go.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Becky – I have never read Proust. And I was a French major. That’s wrong, huh? I hope you will get to learn French and visit France someday!

  9. Such a fantastic story Colleen, and beautifully written. I constantly threaten my kids that if they don’t keep their French grades up in school I’ll take them to France for the summer until they learn the language by force. Unfortunately for me, the girls are now old enough that they’re starting to understand the romantic aspects of France, and they think spending a summer there sounds fun. We may have to run into you in Paris next summer.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Steve – My 7-year-old daughter loves for me to teach her French words and read bed-time stories to her in French. I need to sign her up for French lessons so she can try to make friends at the playground in France! I hope to see you there next summer, mon ami!

  10. hi there, i’m from SD Mombloggers and so glad i stopped by. i’m impressed with the quality of your storytelling skills here- really solid, interesting writing!! this was a wonderful read, and i could completely and totally relate to your epiphany- i had the same experience on a long desert trip where i felt totally alone and afraid as well. beautiful images, too!

  11. Laura Lohr @mommycanrun says

    This is so beautifully written! I love this!

    I spent a semester in France (on the Western coast of France in Nantes and Vannes) with a host family in my junior year in high school and the experience was wasted on me. I, too, had a boyfriend I left behind.

    In college, I spent another semester at the University of Paris and lived at la Cité internationale universitaire de Paris. I spent some time in Normandie that semester too. It is breathtaking. I’ve been back a couple times since and France holds a special place in my heart!

    Thank you for stirring up some fond (and not so fond) memories inside my brain. 🙂

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Laura – I think France holds a special place in my heart not only because I love the language, the food, and the culture but because I had such intense (both good and bad) experiences there. I definitely feel ALIVE when I’m in France!

  12. What a wonderful story! I’m glad you were able to learn to choose happiness while there because it sounds like an amazing experience to have in your teen years. I also took French in high school and sadly have forgotten most of it. I keep meaning to study it again one of these days.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Gina – I’m looking into taking French classes through Alliance Francaise. Maybe there is a similar school near you? 🙂

  13. Thanks for sharing this with me! One of my biggest regrets growing up is not being a foreign exchange students- specifically France.
    I am really very excited about this trip to Normandy- mostly for my father. He was not in WWII, but grew up with his father, uncles and brothers all who were involved. He was drafted in Vietnam and was in the service but did not have to fight in combat- thankfully! I know it will be a very emotional experience as well and am trying to prepare myself for that.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Farrah – No need to have regrets…you are doing your foreign exchange now! I think everyone should visit the beaches of Normandy. It’s just overwhelming what happened on those shores.

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