4.20.2015

How has technology changed traveling abroad as a young person?

Hi @jordannovet. (Inside joke.)

I'm in France, and I've been thinking a lot about how travel has changed since my first trip here back in the '80s. Most French people I've spoken with at any length on this trip have asked me how I learned to speak their language. (My French is decent.) I mention that my mother-in-law was French and preferred to speak French even though her English was perfect. I mention that my kids go to a French school, and lots of people there speak mostly French. And then I tell them the real reason: When I was a teenager, after two years studying French, I spent a month living in total immersion with a French family.

I remember that summer so vividly. It was my first time in Europe, and the difference in time zones made it seem like it was California on the opposite side of the world, not China, as we'd always been told we'd reach if we dug a hole through the Earth. I was desperately homesick. I remember waking up the first several nights with jet lag and just sobbing quietly in my bed with the weird cylindrical French pillow. I wrote lots of letters home. I stared longingly at the few photographs I'd brought with me. I listened to the Cure on my walkman. I clutched the $20 calling card my parents had given me in case of emergency, knowing that desperate homesickness didn't qualify as a use case. (Calling internationally was something like $1 a minute back then.)

The family had three children, and nobody spoke any English. I remember when I first met them, they asked me how I was doing. I answered, awkwardly, "Je suis bien," even though I knew it was wrong. I just couldn't believe that real people actually said "Je vais bien" (I go fine) to say they were fine. My French host mother said very sweetly, "Tu vas bien?" and continued the conversation.

It was that moment when I realized this whole French thing was real. Nos Amis (our textbook), Madame Nail's lessons, and La Boum -- these things were all real.

A month later, I returned home and ran into Madame Nail on the street. We chatted fast and furious, like regular French people. I had definitely leveled up.

So here we are 30 years later, with Facebook, Instagram, email, and, most importantly in this context, Skype. I can talk to my friends and family every day for free, sometimes multiple times a day if I want. I can text them as if I'm right there. I have an app to tell the time difference.

I wonder how my trip would have been different, and what effect that would have had on my language learning, if I'd been able to Skype my best friends in the middle of the night instead of suffering quietly through the hours alone waiting to wake up to have breakfast with strangers in a language I barely knew. What would it be like to spend the end of every day posting notes on Facebook, chatting real-time, and catching up with what people are doing back home, as I do now on vacation?

I don't have any answers, but I'd love to hear from kids having these experiences, and how it all works nowadays.