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Postcard from France: Finding Hospitality in Le Havre

SAS students pose with their French hosts (from l-r) Kathy Nguyen, Claire (French student), Gabrielle (French student), Isabella (French host mother), Camille (French student), Rachel Darcy, Stefan Peierls, Carl Hughes, and the author, Tom Bertrand.

I’ve never been to France before.  In fact, I’ve barely been to Europe. Days before we arrived in Antwerp, Belgium—an overland port, meaning we had the option to travel independently to the next port of call—I asked everyone I could what they were doing and where they were going.  Paris was the common response. However, Paris wasn't for me—at least not this time. As a shipboard community, we’ve been visiting largely cities. I don’t mind cities.  But, I was looking forward to seeing some countryside. Luckily, I wasn’t alone.  I found six others on the ship looking for a similar experience. For over a week, we planned an overland trek from Antwerp, Belgium to Le Havre, France. We divided ourselves into two pairs and one group of three, using bus, train, tram, and taxi to hop from town to town across eastern Belgium and northern France.

On our second night, around 8 p.m., my travel buddy, Kathy Nguyen, of UC-Santa Barbara, and I ran into our shipmates Stefan Peierls of James Madison University, Carl Hughes of Oregon State University, and Rachel Darcy of Ithaca College in the Rouen, France train station. With them came Camille Fidelin, a college-age French girl who was taking the train to her parent’s home in Le Havre.

Carl had struck up a conversation with her about life as a college student in France. Camille, a traveler herself, spoke very good English having studied since grade school and it being an important language to learn in French schools, she told us.

Camille invited us to stay the night at her parents’ home and we graciously accepted her invitation. We were treated to dinner cooked by Camille and her sisters, Claire and Gabrielle—a feast of homemade pizza and pasta with sauce from freshly sliced tomatoes.

SAS students at the cliffs of Étretat in northern France with their French hosts. Front row: Kathy Nguyen. Second row, from l-r: Camille Fidelin (French host), author Tom Bertrand, Gabrielle Fidelin (French host), Stefan Peierls (holding camera pole) and Rachel Darcy. In back: Carl Hughes.

We learned that the girls’ parents often stayed out socializing later than their daughters, which surprised us, since back home in the states, our parents typically end the day far earlier than we do. We all stayed up until 2 a.m. exchanging ideas, values, and laughter.

They showed us their favorite French comedy skits on YouTube and introduced us to 80’s French music.  We shared some of our favorite musical artists with them as well. It was the intercultural experience we often talk about on the ship during our classes but here we were in a home in Le Havre with our French peers.

In the morning, we were treated to a breakfast of pastries, buttered baguettes, and coffee. Camille’s dad had gone out that morning to buy a few fresh baguettes—a daily tradition for French fathers, we learned. Her parents (Isabella and Oliver), who set and served the table, joined us for the meal, though they spoke little English. Camille told us that they eat breakfast together as a family every morning.

Camille and Gabrielle took us on a tour of the Cliffs de Étretat, where their father had been a head architect for the pathways. The cliffs were stunning and, afterwards, our gracious guides took us out for waffles and crepes before driving us back to the MV Explorer.

For me, visiting small towns void of tourists and, for the most part, English, gave me a fuller sense of responsibility, independence, and adventure. It gave me a fuller sense of the culture to speak directly with someone my age, finding common connections in an uncommon place.

Upon reuniting and sharing stories in Le Havre, we found that though no groups shared the exact same paths, but each trekker’s tale had common themes of warmth, hospitality, and generosity displayed by foreign strangers.

I plan to do more independent overland travel on this voyage. The locals that I’ve met will most certainly become faraway friends, though ones I hope to see again. I hope every traveler goes out of their way to meet local people and finds true demonstrators of generosity and warm hosts of hospitality. For us, it was a surprising and impactful part of this global experience.

  • Culture
  • Education

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