Leave Yourself Behind

Tom Paris 1994A quick note:  This piece originally appeared on an old blog of mine in July 2004.  I’ve edited and updated it.

My only regret is that I did not stay longer. I would have loved to experience more, go deeper into some countries and learn more about other cultures. However, being a Student Ambassador has opened my mind even further, as I am forced to think on a global scale about my life, and the lives around me.

That is the final paragraph of the journal I kept during the summer of 1994, after I had spent 23 days touring France, Germany, Switzerland, and Spain as a People to People Student Ambassador. Written on a flight back from Paris after my fellow “ambassadors” and I had exhausted the plane’s supply of coffee and soda and had annoyed all of the other passengers, it’s a statement typical of a 17-year-old. At the time, I thought that the program changed my life. Of course, at 17, it had. Being on the verge of my senior year of high school, I was making earnest statements like that on a regular basis. Still, I cannot discount that those three weeks were a turning point in my adolescence, the result of a program whose educational experience was more well-rounded than intended.

Can You Really Get There From Here?

The mission of People to People International and its Student Ambassador program is: “to bridge cultural and political borders through education and exchange, creating global citizens and making the world a better place for future generations.” I received their brochure in the fall of my junior year, right around the time my guidance counselor was drilling into my head that I was in the most important year of my academic career, perhaps even my life. As a result, I went looking for the type of opportunities that would look good on what eventually became a rejected application to Dartmouth — Anchor Club historian, student journalist, and mock trial lawyer. “Student Ambassador to Europe” was something that college admissions officers were impressed with. Europe was where great art was born; where history took place; and where entire generations of disaffected young Americans fled to find themselves.

I convinced my parents that not only would I make it into the program, I would somehow come up with $1200 of the trip’s cost. Not that I knew how I was going to pull that off — this wasn’t exactly like the time I hoarded my $25/week from JillMatt Cards & Gifts so that I could save enough money to visit my friend Chris in Fort Lauderdale. But after some creative publicity, including a story in The Suffolk County News and a talk with the Kiwanis Club (where I made a never-fulfilled promise to come back and speak to them), I had my tuition. On June 24, I set off for Kennedy airport, where I met up with the rest of the Long Island delegation. We had our flight to Washington, D.C. canceled and were forced to cab it to LaGuardia where, in a move reminiscent of a bad Amazing Race moment, two of our group members were dropped off at the Delta terminal and not the Delta Shuttle terminal.

Don’t Smurf an International Incident

Ultimately, my People to People delegation arrived in Washington intact. The entire group of 28 hailed from Long Island, Connecticut, Virginia, Tennessee, and California, and was lorded over by three advisors — the LaMers of Connecticut and Mary Nolan, who had run the Long Island pre-trip meetings. They were all nearing senior citizenship (if they weren’t there already), and I have to admit that I admire anyone that age who is willing to travel for three weeks with a group of unruly teenagers. They had some help during those first few days while we stayed at George Washington University, where People to People’s representatives laid down all of the rules.  Essentially, they wanted to avoid three things: the “ugly American” syndrome, an international incident, and a babysit-the-rich-kids summer camp. I mean, that’s why the Student Ambassador program director stood on the stage in a university lecture hall and told us that we weren’t allowed to drink, smoke, do drugs, have sex, or even form cliques.

I honestly thought that last one was insane. Not that I wanted cliques to form, but it seemed that with 28 teenagers in close quarters, cliquing up was inevitable. In fact, small groups of friends formed on the very first day and would get even more defined as the trip went on. But when up against Papa & Mrs. Smurf (named so for Mr. LaMers’ beard) and Punky (Mary Nolan wore a spiked femullet), we were a single group of 28 students who annoyed everyone on the National Mall, the Metro and in the Crystal Underground. I guess all the things that annoyed me about D.C. when I was living and working there, then, were come-uppance for my acting like an asshat at 17. But anyway, I wrote about our initial camaraderie: “We started as … two groups of people from different states. We left as a group of Americans wearing stupid shirts and name tags.”

You Have to Know Where to Look

Those shirts and name tags were what we had to wear whenever we visited museums, monuments, and other landmarks throughout the four countries. Unfortunately, they were teal polo shirts that made us look like tourists, which shouldn’t have been embarrassing when we visited tourist attractions, but teenagers aren’t usually the most enthusiastic when it comes to wearing the same shirt and parading around in a group of 28. And to document how ridiculous we looked, we took pictures. Lots of pictures. Pictures of us wearing the shirts in the street. Pictures of us wearing the shirts in front of monuments. Pictures of us wearing the shirts while taking pictures of us taking pictures of one another. Hey, I had nine rolls of film — wasting half a roll on people taking pictures of people taking pictures was no big deal.

As much fun as we were having wasting film and time, however, People to People was still an academic program. So we were supposed to be at least learning something when we stood on the floor of the general assembly chamber at the United Nations in Geneva, visited the European Union in Strasbourg, toured the Black Forest, viewed great works of the Spanish masters, and learned about glaciers in Mont Blanc. There was a chance to get graded — for extra money, ambassadors could get college credit for their experience — and we were all tasked to write in our journals every day. Mine is filled with statements like: “Barcelona is a beautiful city, not as much fun as Paris is, but it has a lot of worth to it. I like its life and I like its welcomeness.”

I have no idea what that means.

Me in front of a bridge somewhere in Germany.

Me in front of a bridge somewhere in Germany.

Knowing is Half the Battle

As I was recording my education in my People to People journal, I was also keeping my personal journal. Reading that again, it seems like I did nothing but brag about some not-that-impressive bawdy behavior. However, amidst all of that bragging, there is surprise at how nice people were. Not that nobody had ever been nice to me in the halls of Sayville High. I had friends; I managed to avoid getting the shit kicked out of me on a regular basis; and while I didn’t have a girlfriend, I wasn’t as repulsive as some of the other boys. But I had endured much of junior high and high school constantly answering one of two questions: 1) “Can you take out your teeth?” (even though the fake front teeth I’d had from my bike accident hadn’t been necessary since the eighth grade); and 2) “What is that thing on your nose?” (a scar, which used to look like a big pimple, got many questions about being able to pop it, including one request involving ice cube and an Exact-o knife). So, you can understand why I was floored when nobody cared about all of my personal trauma.

A few days into the trip, I’d already found my “best bud” — Kevin, whom we’d nicknamed “Moose.” And while I hung out with people whom I thought were infinitely cooler than me, I didn’t think I became a whole different person. But it was a brand-new situation, a clean slate, and a preview of the first few days of college. In fact, People to People introduced me to some universal dorm truths:

1. Guys and girls travel in packs. I know they told us not to form cliques, but like I said, we were teenagers. So, you had guys like me, Kevin, and a few others; and you had small groups of girls who were all sisterly and whatnot. Much like your first month in a dorm, social outings were decided by consensus among those groups. After all, being in a group of people who are, at least, a little familiar and have similar interests makes one feel safe because at 17 you’re not yet at the age where you want to do anything alone.

2. There will always be one early formed group couple. Get a co-ed freshman dorm floor together and within a week, there will be two people who hook up and then start “college dating.” They hang around one another all the time — eating together, sleeping together, and watching TV together. In fact, it’s hard to find them not draped all over one another. Traveling to Europe that summer was no different, and the first couple followed that formula perfectly, even appearing to break up and reunite every time we reached a new city.

3. Hanging out in girls’ rooms late at night is a great way to flirt. So, we’re in a city like Paris and it’s close to lights out. That means it’s time for most of the guys to make their way to some girls’ room and lounge around for a couple of hours. These skills were perfected in college during late-night symposium-esque bull sessions, but here, they were introduced. In the very least, we all made some friends, and that helped on our last night in Paris when one girl got so plastered, Kevin and I had to carry her to her room, which seemed like an easy task but was complicated by the fact that we had to pass Papa and Mrs. Smurf’s room on the way.

4. It’s good to look the other way when your roommate acts like a moron. One of my all-time favorite college roommate moments happened during senior year. Amanda and I were sleeping in one Saturday morning and my roommate came into the room to get some things. Figuring the two of us were comatose, he ripped one of the loudest farts in history. We did what we could to keep ourselves from laughing, as we didn’t want to embarrass him. After all, I’d dealt with other idiotic behavior (much of it my own) ever since the day in Freiberg, Germany when Pat, who was too lazy to walk down the hall to go to the bathroom, used our sink as a toilet.

Long Way Back Home

Making friends helped ease the shock of being out of the country and away from home for the first time, especially since the most important part of our Student Ambassador experience was when we had to employ the “ambassador” part. Homestays were weeklong sojourns with families in Germany and Spain that were like abrupt exchange student experiences. I spent the first few hours of my German homestay hiding from my host family, nervous and homesick. I had been hanging out with my friends in Paris for three days and it wasn’t until I was alone in someone else’s house that everything hit me. Sitting alone in a house in the Bavarian town of Pocking, I began to realize that waking up in a Paris hotel room with my friend Danny screaming, “Vive le France!” at the top of his lungs from the street is not People to People. No, People to People is timidly standing in the bedroom of a strange family and counting how many of the 23 pairs of tighty-whities your mom has packed for you are clean.

As I spent three or nights with my host family, I came to be friends with my homestay brother, Martin, and gained a taste for Coke mixed with lemonade. My nerves died down and Pocking turned into one of those typical American-in-another country experiences. You know, the kind that has sheltered geeks like me writing journal entries like: “More evidence that youth around the world is the same. Many of Martin’s friends like the same thing I do, and wear many of the same clothes.” In fact, Martin was so much like me that we corresponded with one another for about a year after the trip. And I have him and his soccer-loving gang of friends to thank for my love of beer.

Until traveling to Europe, I had never even tasted an alcoholic beverage that wasn’t part of a holy sacrament (and on a side note, this completely explains why I drank Zima for about three weeks at the beginning of freshman year). You’d think that a 17-year-old public school student would be drunk on a fairly regular basis, but my lack of a functional social life meant that I rarely encountered alcohol, so my first beer was a Heineken on the last night in Paris. After dinner, four of us used our free time to find a bar and when we strolled into one, I calmly told the guys that I would order. After all, I’d passed the French Regents.

“Nous voudrons cinq beers,” I said.

“I’m American,” our waitress replied.

“Oh,” I said, embarrassed.

“You guys are eighteen, right?”

“Uh … yeah …” we all said, unconvincingly. She saw right through our bullshit, but returned with the Heinekens anyway. We toasted Paris and I quietly marveled at my ability to break rules. We weren’t allowed alcohol on our homestays, either. In Washington, we were lectured that ” [our host families] may offer it, but you have to say no,” but I spent an evening with his friends drinking it up at a bar named Hemmingway’s while watching the Belgium vs. Germany World Cup match. Had Papa and Mrs. Smurf walked into the bar, I don’t think that we would have had any way to justify any of our imbibement. Well, except that I considered toasting Deustchland in the company of drunken soccer fans to be part of the educational and cultural experience I’d paid for.

That wouldn’t have held much water. I don’t know how strictly our advisers enforced the rules, especially since they knew, deep down, that we were going to disobey them. I think they also knew that we’d get some sort of come-uppance. So, when we reached Barcelona and found our group of 28 fighting with one another, they just let it happen. The cause was probably more fatigue than anything, but our first night in Spain turned into that night in a freshman dorm where the hall “couple” breaks up, and all of their friends and roommates are forced to choose a side. I watched several shouting matches in our hotel while my roommate Dustin drank a whole bottle of liquor and holed himself up in a closet. The next day, we piled onto a bus and spent the next 12 hours driving to Zamora while a Spanish-language version of Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” played over the bus’s radio in a constant loop. I think it was the last place any of us wanted to be, even though we were heading for our second homestays and knew that a few days away from the group would do us all good.

Unfortunately, the Spanish homestay wound up being wildly different from the Pocking homestay. Unlike the suburbs and teenagers, we were paired off and placed in cramped apartments with people who barely spoke English. For some of us, that meant host moms who compensated for not speaking our language by yelling at them loudly in Spanish. My host family did not serve dinner until 10:00 p.m., and though the man of the house enjoyed having an entire fish on a plate set before him, I was kind of grossed out. This wasn’t the pampering of our German experiences, and we complained to the coordinators in a petulant, spoiled, American sort of way.

Despite the fish, I didn’t have too many problems with my host family. My “mom” was a quiet woman who knew that I really liked cocoa and sort of understood me when I said “something something disco.” That meant I was going to the cheesy club where all my friends were hanging out and was frequented by the French girl I had hooked up with. I later would proclaim in my high school yearbook that I fell “in love with” her during the two days we knew one another. Looking back on that quote in the yearbook and the arrogant-smirked picture accompanying it, it’s pretty embarrassing, but totally indicative of who I was. That is, a hormonally controlled seventeen-year-old boy who had barely ever gotten a girl to look at him the right way. So, I was hardly “in love,” and in fact, my very first kiss had only been two weeks before. That came from in Germany. We’d been hanging out at a Fourth of July party and I actually asked, using the English-with-a-crappy-German-accent that all of us had adopted by then (why American tourists decide it’s easier to communicate with foreigners by imitating their accents is beyond me), if she wanted to “go somewhere and kiss.” We retreated to the back of a field, got into junior high dance position. When it happened, I remember thinking, “I don’t know how to do this. I hope I don’t such. Wow. I didn’t expect her tongue in my mouth.” It was as innocent, I guess, as a thirty-second kiss could get.

We would write letters back and forth for a couple of years and she would write: “I can’t believe that I was the first girl you ever kissed!” I guess that’s a compliment.

The Summer Camp of it All

Despite the pathetic awakening or tinges of rebellion I had that summer, I came away from my time as a student ambassador valuing the group of friends I’d made. Kevin and I, especially, spent most of our free time in the trip’s final city, Madrid, playing pool or wandering around in search of something to do. Our hotel rooms had been small — my room was about the size of a storage closet (in fact, the bathroom was so small that the spray from the shower often landed in the sink) — and we weren’t too much for being alone.

Otherwise, we spent our time in the room down the hall, which was huge because it was on a street corner. Across the street, some guy named Brian who was supposedly making his way across Europe with a guitar and his wits (but admitted he had a trust fund, which kind of took some of the romance out of it) played his arsenal of Steve Miller Band tunes and we all counted the days until we flew back to the States. That was a very long goodbye — ten hours’ worth of plane rides and layovers during which we finished our journal assignments and signed each other’s notebooks as if they were yearbooks. Most of the girls ribbed me about my European-girl experiences, and the guys thanked me for crashing in other rooms when they wanted to hook up with their trip girlfriends.

My next kiss would be the floor of Kennedy Airport shortly after I’d cleared customs on July 18. That, of course, was after all of us strolled through the airport singing “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and “Lodi Dodi.” You know, because nothing says “America” like 28 kids wearing identical teal polo shirts and singing Snoop Dogg. But I guess it was testament to all of us having managed to emerge from three weeks abroad with positive attitudes. We snapped a few last pictures, hugged goodbye, and reunited with our parents at the international arrivals gate. A month later, some of us had a reunion in Connecticut. I stayed with Kevin and hung out for a few days in the same “well, nothing better to do” way we’d spent our time in Madrid.

The mini-reunions weren’t as fun as the trip because we were all on the verge of the next school year. For some of us, that meant the start of senior year, and we’d already re-entrenched ourselves in the lives we’d left behind that June. For the next few years, we tried to keep in touch. There were Christmas cards, letters, and some e-mails, but for the most part, my contact with everyone petered out, although I’ve since found a couple of those friends on Facebook. So, instead of being friends forever when we stepped off our plane in New York, we were at the end of Stand By Me. But nine rolls of film, two photo albums, two journals, and twenty years later, the 17-year-old inside me is still thanking all of them for changing his life. At least for three weeks, anyway.

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One comment

  1. Just found this, and although I covered Northern Europe and the year was 1989, it could have been written by me. My life was forever transformed by my PTP experience. I met my wife (now ex, not perfect) had 2 beautiful children and now am faced with the blurring memories of oh so long ago. Your blog brought me right back to those days, the bus trips, the food, the fighting and the friendships. I lost my innocence on that trip an I am forever grateful for it.

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