Planes, Trains and Automobiles (Student Chaperone Edition)

We at DWWP love working with writing prompts! Continuing from last week, each writer this week will take on the theme of “vacation.”

When I was still teaching high school French in Chicago Public Schools, I had the chance to take students abroad on three occasions. While these stories are unfortunately lacking in John Candy and Steve Martin-style shenanigans, they are some of my favorite misadventures from those trips. At the time, I may have been too travel-weary to appreciate the humor in those moments, but now I can’t look back without laughing. That’s something I’ve learned about travel — depending on the nature of the vacation, it can look better in retrospect; the experiences grow richer over time.

Planes

After 10 days of non-stop touring in France and Spain, we were ready to head home. My colleagues and I tried to keep one eye open between us as we lounged in the Barcelona airport in the predawn hours, although there wasn’t much need for chaperoning at that point. Our sixteen students were out for the count. They’d been troupers the entire time, getting out the door every morning by 7:30 AM, wearing down their treads throughout the day, and staying up late playing Angry Birds or whatever teenagers did before Snapchat.

Now that the fun was over — the trip that had been a year in the making — we all wished we could teletransport home. The prospect of flying back to Paris and getting our connecting flight to Chicago sounded bogus, as the kids would say (if I had a euro for every time I heard “bogus” and “thirsty” on that trip, I’d be able to afford another round-trip ticket).

Our flight was delayed. When we arrived at my least favorite airport ever, CDG*, airline staff was there to get us to our connecting flight. Since we were such a large group, the flight was being held for us. We got to deplane via stairs onto the tarmac, which sounds more cinematic than it felt, before being ushered onto a shuttle that took us to an entrance. Thank god we were so practiced at headcounts by that point that we could do it while sprinting down airport corridors.

The image that I come back to, the one that never fails to crack me up, is of my student Richard** going through security. He and I were the last ones, because I was bringing up the rear and because he was overflowing with an assortment of loose carryon items. Richard was a dedicated International Baccalaureate student who was using down time on the trip to prepare for the intensive upcoming exams. As we approached the conveyer belt, I noticed that he had left a Hansel and Gretel-like trail of papers, pens and highlighters in his wake. He wore his CPS-issued backpack on the front of his person like a baby carrier. He was half wrapped in, half trailing, the blanket he’d kept as a souvenir from our overnight train earlier in the week. There was no need to remove shoes, because he was already shoeless. The French employees who were directing us had a look of bewilderment in their eyes that I’d only ever seen when I’d tried to lay out in a bathing suit in a French park once.

I helped Richard gather his items and we ran onto the plane. The other passengers, who had been sitting there for a while now, stared at us as we made our way to our seats. Richard was unperturbed by the whole thing. What was all the fuss about? He wrapped himself up in his blanket and settled in for the flight.

Trains

We all know that the French are passionate about their right to go on strike. On fait grève. It’s simultaneously one of their most admirable and most aggravating qualities. I used to love hearing the chants of protesters outside my window when I was a student in Paris, as long as it was midwives or some other group whose work stoppage wouldn’t directly inconvenience me.

When you’re traveling with a group of high school students who need to catch the night train from Paris to Toulouse, and the word grève is hovering in the stale Gare d’Austerlitz air, you might look less favorably on this particular French liberty. When we arrived at the platform we found out that the workers had gone on strike — boo! Then we found out that the strike was already over — hooray! The problem was that the passengers who were supposed to depart earlier were now occupying our train and refusing to get off.

Our students had located their sleeper cars, only to find them full of people. A few of them reported back to us that drunk French dudes were getting in their faces. I don’t think the passengers were trying to start a fight, I think they were just being French — asserting their inviolable right to stay on the train through loud talking and emphatic pointing. Nevertheless, it was unnerving for our kids, who were trying to explain that we had tickets for this train, and I was mad. I tried to sort things out with the squatters, but they were having none of it. Our tour leader said she’d work things out with the conductor, so after making sure all of our students were on the train, we slid into our shelf-like beds like sleepy sardines.

In the morning, we found out that the conductor’s solution had been for surplus passengers to sleep in the corridor, which included some of our kids. We also hadn’t realized that we’d only have a few minutes at the Toulouse stop to get up and out before the train continued on its merry way. The other teachers and I ran through the train looking for our students, who were scattered throughout, telling them they’d better be on that platform or else they’d end up in the Pyrenees alone. I envisioned having to tell parents that we’d lost their child somewhere in southwestern France.

I thought there was no way they’d all make it off before the train left the platform, but they did. Most of them barely awake and in their pajamas, and one with a bonus suitcase taken by mistake***, but still . . . I was so proud. We felt terrible that some of them had had to sleep in a hallway, but they didn’t complain. Troupers.

Automobiles

Technically, my last story takes place on a bus. This was on my most recent trip with students, in 2014. It was our last night in Barcelona before returning to Chicago, and I was on my last nerve. Our guide was leaving us on our own after dinner for a few hours because we opted not to pay for the “optional” excursion that another school in the tour group chose to do, and the students were ready to mutiny. They were out of money, exhausted, and wanted to get back to the hotel to pack and sleep. I was annoyed with the guide for not being clear about the situation earlier, annoyed with the tour company for the constant upselling, and annoyed with my students for not going with the flow.

I wasn’t doing a good job of hiding my irritation, but one of my lovely co-workers rose to the occasion and inspired the group to make the best of it. We found a plaza off the beaten path that had a gelateria, which always makes everything better, and local musicians, which led to some breakout bachata dancing. It was kind of awesome, one of those unexpected moments that you couldn’t have planned if you tried.

Afterwards, we met our charter bus at the pre-determined pick-up point, but the other group wasn’t there yet. When the driver let us on, one of my students noticed his microphone. He asked if he could use it, and the driver was more than willing to indulge an impromptu karaoke session while we killed twenty minutes. My student, one of those old-soul artists who is on the quiet side, broke out into a ballad. Everyone loved it, because we didn’t expect it to come out of him and because the whole evening had turned out to be a charming surprise.

People who don’t work with high schoolers tend to be overly impressed by the challenge of traveling with students. It is a huge responsibility, and not without its headaches. At the same time, it can be more rewarding than traveling alone. When I first took students to Paris I thought it would be a bummer not to be able to hang out in my old haunts, drinking wine or reading a book; instead I got to see my favorite city through new eyes. I imagine it’s similar to the reinvigoration parents feel as they experience familiar things anew through their kids. It was more fun than I could have predicted to see them bravely using their French, trying new things, and helping each other navigate a foreign system. I got to know students better than I ever had the chance to in the classroom, and I’ve seen many of them go on to become avid travelers, which is a beautiful thing.

As far as hassles go, that’s part of the travel bag. The moments borne of frustrations, detours, and waylaid plans can make our journeys memorable and maybe even change us. Just like our friends Neal and Del.

Neal: As much fun as I’ve had on this little journey, I’m sure one day I’ll look back on it and laugh.

Del: [giggles] Are you sure?

Neal: [starts chuckling] Oh God. I’m laughing already.

* In 2000, I spent a Kafkaesque nine hours in CDG looking for a passenger of a flight that went missing. No employee could tell me what was going on, only that the plane had landed but then disappeared. There’s nowhere to sit or eat or shop in that part of the airport. The passengers eventually arrived by bus from Belgium, and by some miracle we ran into each other circling the terminal.

** not his real name

*** we did our best to make sure it got back to them

Pinkbus

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