Two hundred thirty-four steps. Two hundred thirty-four winding, metal steps. Two hundred thirty-four winding, metal steps, on crutches. It was the summer before my freshman year and I was climbing l’Arc de Triomphe in Paris with a leg I had broken only a week before. It took some creative problem solving and a lot of patience, but that trip changed the way I viewed challenges in my life. I learned to overcome obstacles in ways I had never imagined previously. On June 9th, 2007 I left the United States to travel to a foreign country for the first time without my parents. With two teachers and nineteen other middle school students, I boarded my first over-seas flight to participate in the French-American Student Exchange Program.
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I would be staying in Créteil, a small suburb of Paris, with a family I knew almost nothing about. Through e-mail correspondence I had learned that the family had a daughter, Claire-Amèlie, who was near my age, and that they spoke very little English. I also knew that my one semester of middle school French would not carry me very far in the “real world.” Indeed, the language barrier was one of the greatest obstacles I faced. Over the next two weeks my French-English dictionary traveled with me everywhere I went. One night when Claire-Amèlie and I went to a friend’s house for dinner, her friend’s seven year old sister, (who spoke even less English than I spoke French) was trying to explain what the dessert options were. In order to communicate the choices to me, she pulled out a small chalkboard and drew pictures of the desserts that were available. I ended up choosing ice cream since it was the only drawing I could actually identify. On a separate occasion my host family and I went out to dinner in downtown Paris. Seeing that I was having difficulty reading the menu, the family started trying to act out the different foods. My host father even started making barn-yard noises of the meats available. It was only after ten minutes of this charade that the waitress came over with a translated menu and said, (in English), “I see you are having some difficulties with the menu, could I help you translate anything?” While the language barrier was difficult to overcome, by the end of my stay I had learned how to act out almost anything. I had learned far more French than any semester in a classroom could ever teach me.
Another obvious challenge I faced was having a broken leg. The weekend before I left for Paris, I fractured my right fibula during a soccer game. This was the first time I had ever broken a bone or been on crutches. Before I even left for France I faced the hurdle of getting my doctor’s and my parents’ reluctant approval. I also had to convince my teacher that I would be able to “keep up” and would not be a hindrance on the trip. Once the trip began I discovered a whole new set of obstacles. I realized pretty quickly that I would not be able to carry my own luggage, and had to recruit a few of my classmates to help me. I also came to learn that every airport we passed through would think I was a terrorist suspect and thus have to completely disassemble my crutches and leg brace, swab them, send them through special scanners, and leave me to hobble through security without either. When I arrived in France I was determined that I would not let my being on crutches keep me from doing anything. It was this motivation that got me to the top of l’Arc de Triomphe. My teacher told me that I did not have to go to the top of the monument (and that had no elevator), if I did not want to. She said that there was going to be a group of students staying with our other teacher at the base while the rest of the group went to the top. When I told her I still wanted to go to the top she just smiled, shook her head and said something along the lines of, “I knew you were going to say that.” Thus, two hundred thirty-four winding, metal steps later I emerged from the dark interior of l’Arc de Triomphe having accomplished what few people thought I could do.
That trip taught me far more than I have ever learned from any trip. I learned far more than could be expressed in the curriculum for the exchange program. In my two weeks in France I learned that so much of what holds a human back from doing anything is purely a subconscious mental fear of sorts. In learning to overcome this mental block to climb l’Arc de Triomphe, I taught myself that there is very little I cannot do. I learned that once I set my mind to a goal, there is very little anyone can do to stop me.
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