During my junior year in college, I decided that I would like to do a study abroad in France. Through the fall semester, the professors in the Language Department at my university encouraged me and helped me work out the details from choosing a program to figuring out how to apply my scholarships to the cost of the program. There were a few times when I thought it was all going to fall through, but by the time I left for Christmas break, we had nearly everything settled. During my month at home before the spring semester began, I made contact with the program director in Grenoble, a man named Alexis (a-lex-y). He told me about my host parents and I let him know when I was scheduled to arrive in Grenoble.
I left for France at the end of January in 1999, flying from Seattle to Paris with a stop in between. I found my way through Charles de Gaulle airport to the train station at one end. This would be the second time in my life I had ever ridden a train. The first was an Amtrak from Denver to Portland when I was 10. My dad took care of our luggage and ticket-punching and whatever else was involved then, but this time, I was on my own. I dragged my two suitcases through the train station (you aren’t allowed to take the luggage carts from the airport side) out to the platform. While I was there, I met two students from the University of Arizona. We talked for awhile, but discovered that our seats weren’t anywhere near each other, and they were going to be studying in Lyon. Too bad.
The TGV — train de grande vitesse (high speed train) pulled in and after stowing my luggage, I found my seat and realized that it was going to be a very lonely ride. There were only a couple other people in the whole car! So I settled in and decided to absorb as much of the French countryside as I could as we shot off towards Lyon. After awhile, I was freezing and there really wasn’t much to see, so I tried to sleep. In Lyon, I successfully managed to switch trains; I owe thanks to a stranger who saw me struggling with my suitcases and wordlessly snatched them up and hefted them to the top of the stairs for me. The French do love to help a damsel in distress. Just another couple of hours and I was in Grenoble.
As I disembarked from the train, I was approached by another “helpful” stranger who wanted to take my bags… for a fee. I held on tight and kept walking out to the main waiting area. I had never seen a picture of Alexis, so I scanned the crowd for anyone who might be looking for someone to arrive. A couple of times I thought perhaps I’d found him, but then the man hurried past to greet somebody else. Pretty soon, the station cleared out as everyone met relatives or got a taxi. And there I was, sitting on my suitcase in the middle of a train station. I remember it was pouring rain outside, so I didn’t venture out to have a look. I could barely see across the street, it was coming down so hard. I waited for close to an hour, trying to give Alexis the benefit of the doubt. Surely he would come for me, right?
Finally, I purchased a phone card for the pay phone and dialed the number he had given me. A weary, croaking voice answered on the other end. This didn’t sound like the voice I remembered, but I did my best to conceal my shock and in my most polite French, asked if I could speak with Alexis. The voice replied that he was Alexis.
“Alexis…? Ah, c’est Jennifer. Je suis à la gare.“ — I’m at the train station.
“Oh hello, Jennifer. We look forward to seeing you. What train station are you at? Let me know when you arrive.”
“But, I’m at the train station in Grenoble! I arrived an hour ago. Is someone coming for me?”
“Grenoble?? Today?!” His voice croaked. He was flustered now. “We didn’t expect you until tomorrow!”
“But… I gave you the dates…” I answered helplessly.
“Ah, yes, yes. Just… just stay there!”
As if I had anywhere else to go. I dragged my suitcases back out to the middle of the lobby where I had a good view of both doors and settled down to wait. Twenty minutes later, a voice crackled over the intercom throughout the station:
“Zheny-fair All, veuillez aller au centre d’informations.”
They had made several announcements in the time I had been waiting, but this one pricked up my ears. I listened again and was introduced for the first time to the French pronunciation of my name. Zheny-fair = Jennifer. Startled to realize that I was being paged, I hopped up and dragged my suitcases to the information desk. The man there passed me the receiver of his telephone through the small window, telling me, “Vous avez un appel de téléphone.” Bewildered, I took the phone, and heard Alexis’ strange, croaking voice.
“I’m sorry, Jennifer. I am so sick today. I can’t get out of bed. I have called André (one of my host parents) to come get you. It might be awhile. Hélène was not ready for you today; they are trying to prepare your room!”
I thanked him and settled back down to wait. A few minutes later, I heard my new name announced over the intercom again to take another phone call. This time it was André. He cheerily informed me that he would soon be on his way and that he would wear an American flag in his cap so that I could recognize him. I found that quaintly endearing and knew I would like him. Another half hour or so passed and two college students ran through the main doors of the train station and made a bee-line straight for me. They introduced themselves as Adam from Oregon and Jen from New York, also staying with André, who was out finding a place to park. A minute later, in he came, wearing a tan cap with a little American flag fluttering from the side and a big grin on his face. I knew it was going to be a good semester.