I first visited France when I was in primary school. I don’t remember much of my childhood, but there are so many moments from that trip that I remember so clearly. Perhaps I’ve just played them through so many times in my head.
We were based at a PGL centre somewhere North surrounded by a forest, with cabin-like sleeping dorms and bunk beds. The English staff in their blue polo neck t-shirts would lead us in sport-based activities – I was always terrible at anything physical, but we had the chance to try archery and I loved it.
We had meals in a huge hall and were introduced to frog legs and snails (which, of course, tasted like chicken and garlic respectively). We took packed lunches on excursions – huge, white baguettes with any filling we liked (including chocolate spread – who could resist!) and deliciously salty crisps, far better than Walker’s back home.
Excursions were probably intended to encourage us to practice the language a little, but my mouth was only open for one thing – to gawp in awe at all the new sights. We went to a market where a giant fluffy rabbit sat solemnly in its box; cheeses of all shapes, colours and sizes wafted their aromas across the crowds; and a picture of a bee adorned cellophane bags of boiled honey sweets, which I’ve been obsessed with ever since.
The highlight of the trip was visiting Mont St Michel – I’d never seen anything like it. We climbed and climbed, following the heavy steps and heavier breathing of our over-weight teacher, before being let loose to explore ourselves. It was magical; the kind of magic I had only ever watched in films or read in books. Now it was real.
As the days passed, my love for France – and for travel – grew. As my classmates cried, longing to go home and be reunited with their families, I looked out forlornly and wished I could stay. One more go with the bow. Another bag of honey sweets. Just a few more steps up Mont St Michel.
The trip was quickly over, but the impression it left on me has never faded.