Study abroad adventure turns into misadventure

 Toulouse, France

Toulouse, France

By Gerald Ellsworth, Staff Writer

Sleeping on the floor of an 8′ x 5′ foot room in 120 degree heat was not my ideal room for the first semester of college, but it was an experience. Studying in Toulouse, France was my idea of an exciting start to life on my own. I wanted to experience something new, a time to grow into the person I wanted to be. I left my whole life behind, packing everything I could into a small suitcase that I would bring with me to this foreign land. I was broke, alone, tired, infested, and most of all: scared.

I was 18 and fresh out of high school when I hopped on a plane, first to Detroit, then to Paris, then finally Bordeaux. It was an exhausting trip spent racing from plane to plane with my luggage and guitar, hoping that I wouldn’t miss a flight and be stuck somewhere where I couldn’t communicate with anyone. I was lucky to land in Bordeaux and see a familiar face; family members on my mother’s side who were going to take me to the university where I would be staying. The language barrier was difficult to break, with many awkward moments spent using our hands to try and express ourselves. When we finally arrived at the school, they helped me unpack, wished me luck, and went on their way back to their homes.

I spent the first few hours exploring my new room. While it was small, barely able to fit a cot and desk, it was mine and I wanted to make it nice. However, “nice” would be the last word used to describe the monstrosity that was this boarding. Cockroaches skittered across the floor and into the closet, making their home under every piece of furniture in the room. Every few minutes, I would spot movement in the corner of my eye as I saw a roach romp across the walls. As disgusting as this was, I wasn’t too surprised that I saw some bugs; After all the dorm room itself was old and the building was pretty much in the center of a very forested area.  I decided to chalk it up to the building being old and just figured I would live with the roaches and hopefully befriend them before the end of my first semester.

On my first venture out onto the campus, I decided to check out where to eat. It was a Sunday and my first evening alone. Dinner was entirely up to me. I thought maybe I would go to the cafeteria and find some other students to try and talk to? Or I could go into the nearby city and get a bite to eat at a restaurant? My options were limitless! For the first time in my life, I didn’t have parents telling me I had to be home for dinner to eat with the family. However, my dreams of freedom were ultimately dashed by a difference in US and French scheduling. I learned, very quickly, that France does not operate on the same schedule as America and almost nothing operates on the weekend. There were no buses, no cafeteria workers, and none of my fellow students were even in the dorm. I was completely alone with no way to leave and I was both thirsty and hungry. I went to bed that night without eating or drinking, considering the bugs in my room as a possibility, if only for the protein.

Waking up the next day was one of the worst moments of my life. I was hungry, hot, and unbelievably itchy. The temperatures in France, I found out, were very high in the summer of 2011. With temperatures reaching 43 degrees Celsius (109 degrees Fahrenheit), I woke up in a sweat. Every breath I took was hot. My body felt like it was melting underneath my skin as I baked in the small oven of a room I resided in. The dormitory, being old and European, had no temperature regulation at all, so my ability to cool down was limited to reaching over to my sink to splash warm brownish water on my face. The itchiness, I found, was a result of another infestation that I was unaware of until that morning: bed bugs. My whole body was covered in small, red, itchy little dots. I was horrified. Not only did I have roaches on the floors, but bed bugs in the bed. My options of places to comfortably sleep were quickly dwindling, leaving me in a bit of panic as I left my room to shower. Unexpectedly (or expectedly at this point, as I figured everything that could go wrong was going to), I walked out of my room to a line. Not just a line of two or three people, but about twenty people lined up waiting to use the bathroom. On our dorm floor, there was a single bathroom for twenty-four people. The bathroom consisted of a single shower and a single toilet, and it was up to us to clean it (which meant it was never cleaned). I was hot, hungry, thirsty, itchy, and I had to wait in line to use the bathroom at 7 in the morning before my first class at 8.

While my classes were fine, coming home was a nightmare every day. I tried to adapt to my routine and turn it into an experience, but I can’t say I was very good at making things better. I went to the grocery store on Friday’s to stock up on non-perishable foods for the weekends. Most of my meals consisted of white bread and Nutella, the only food that was cheap enough and filling enough to keep me from decaying away in the southern French heat. I slept on a blanket on the floor most nights, considering the cockroaches to be more friendly neighbors than the bed bugs that inhabited my sheets. I would wake up at 4 in the morning to shower and use the bathroom to avoid the lines that compounded at around 6:30. It was annoying, but I started to manage it a little better. The unfortunate truth was that because I was so focused on not starving and avoiding the myriad of bugs that I called roommates, I made a grand total of zero friends during my stay. I spent my time alone, and was my greatest regret of the situation I was placed in. There were no fun stories, no memories that were made, and no great nights out that I experienced. It was a disastrous event that I can only look back on and laugh as it tested my willpower more than any other event in my life.

I called my mother a few months into my stay in Toulouse at the first chance I had with a phone, and she was excited to hear my stories. Her excited questions almost brought me to tears as I had to explain to her how devastated I was by everything that had occurred. I remember her asking me if I thought I could continue going through with it. I thought to myself about what I was doing, where I was, what I had back at home. I had lost about 15 pounds in only a few months, was sleeping on the floor, and living on 4 hours of that sleep just to use the bathroom in the morning. With a heart full of shame, I told her I just couldn’t do it anymore. I wanted to go home. I thought I was an adult, but I wasn’t. I was just an 18-year-old kid trying to make it in a foreign country completely alone. That night, I began packing my bags up as my mother called my uncle to pick me up and take me to the airport for a flight back to the United States.

Touching down back in the U.S. was one of the best feelings of my life. Hugging my parents again made me feel safe, knowing that I had friends that were excited to see me made me feel wanted, and knowing that I could speak to people and have them understand me made me relieved. Being away was one of the most interesting experiences of my life. It was something that shaped a lot of how I think these days and makes me wish I had gone about it differently because it could’ve been such an amazing experience. When I learned of MCC’s exchange program, I wanted to try it again, this time with some structure and a safety net of support behind me, but I decided to keep my feet in America for the time being.  I’d recommend anyone try to take a chance on travel, no matter what anyone says to you or what stories they tell. No matter what your experience is, you can make it through it, you just have to get out there and try.