I started this series last year. It was born from sharing some stories with my mother to show how I encounter so much kindness and care, especially as a lone female traveller.
I have seemed to rid of my writer’s block and wanted to revisit the memory lane with these stories. Furthermore, having recently experienced some bad, I needed to reassure myself and many travellers out there, that I had experienced the goodness of humanity and those far outnumber the evil.
I’ve been traveling all my life.. my first flight taken when I was a mere three months old. Of course I wasn’t aware of it, but I have a sneaking suspicion my mother remembers it to great detail.
My first truly independent trips were taken a the end of college, when I set of on my version of the “Grand Tour,” designed under the auspices of an independent study abroad itinerary. Looking back, I realize now how naive I was. I was confident, armed with recently learned languages, in what would be a modernized Western Europe compared to the emerging Asian countries I grew up exposed to.
My first destination was a language school in Nice, where I did a home stay. My school mates were diverse, mostly students studying hospitality and travel and taking the summer to immerse and become fluent in French. It wasn’t a large university program that American kids tend to participate in groups together. I was one of three Americans in the whole school of about 50.
The students I bonded the most were an eclectic group: two Germans, an Austrian, one Colombian, one Mexican. Yes, they had their own languages they could communicate with one another. As true to any language program, we never spoke French to one another. The boys wanted to practise their English, calling it killing two birds with a stone in their language proficiency.
Our program scheduled went over the 4th of July. The boys insisted we go out to the beach, break open a bottle of wine to celebrate on my behalf. How can I turn them down?
We were sitting on the pebbly beach of Nice, enjoying the evening breeze when we heard commotion behind us. Standing up and scanning out of curiosity, the commotion approached us. A group of thugs in their mid-twenties were marching around with a pipes and sticks in their hands, demanding with tangible hostility at everyone “Les Américains? Où sont les Américains? You, from America??”
When they approached us, my friends formed an instinctive circle around me. I never could recall, in the darkness, whether the gang ever glanced at me. I am of Asian ethnicity, an advantage especially in that moment. One of the boys stepped up, quite literally, to answer the questions from the gang when they came us. The rest of the guys backed up, forcing me back behind them. But we all had accents in our French, and the ring leader of the gang kept challenging our guy, a Colombian.
After what felt like an eternity, the gang moved on, in search for victims. They weren’t mollified, just satisfied that we weren’t enough targets for them.
Looking back.. when I related that story in the pre- September 11th days, even shortly after, a lot of my American audience would get indignant and puff up and stated I should have yelled back in their face and been proud of my nationality. Arguing with those statements was futile. I learned that night what it meant to put my attitude and pride aside and to avoid trouble.
More importantly, I learned, even at our young ages from 18-22, my new found friends knew to look out for one another. We never knew what the gang was up to, but their menacing body language told us the threat was real enough to be taken seriously. I didn’t even have to say anything and I didn’t even have a chance to; the boys instinctively physically shielded me from the gang. That was the beginning of the program, less than 10 days in.. we were inseparable for the entire month.