Today I woke up in my bed, to my alarm clock, in my room, realizing this was the last time I'd do so for 10ish months. After packing and repacking all my clothes, doo-dads and knick-knacks into a massive check-in piece and two backpacks I had my last breakfast in Maine. So maybe an omelette isn't the best breakfast before flying but so what!
I went to the Portland Jetport and said good-bye to my family, but hopefully not for long, thanks to Skype and all the other wonders of our age. I ran into Victor, an exchange student I'd met at the pre-departure orientation who will be heading off to Spain. It was definitely nice to see someone I knew who was going where I was. At the very least, it told me I was in the rate terminal. After losing my boarding ticket three times in a row and repeatedly finding it in my backpacks or under my seat, I boarded the almost-one hour flight to JFK airport in New York city. Thankfully they had the mini-tv's built into the backs of the seats with Direct TV, which offered some relief from the endless chorus of cries, shrieks, gurgles and yips from the three babies and dog in the seats around me. It was kind of funny, passing over Portland, looking down and realizing that I couldn't recognize anything from the air and yet if I was anywhere below I'd be perfectly oriented. As I saw Maine slip out from under the hull of the commercial jet I realized that even if Maine is the home of crazy weather, lobsters and gun-toting, LePage-supporting rednecks, I would still miss it and everything and everyone there.
When we touched down, I disembarked and found Victor and Carrie (also a friend from the orientation) as well as a girl from my middle school, also going to France, and another AFSer. Together we navigated JFK and made it to the baggage claim where we ran to and fro looking for our carousel. After a little we found it, and our luggage. Now if only we had found the AFS reps as easily. No, no no... Instead we did laps of the baggage claim, the appointed meeting spot, looking for people in AFS shirts. After a while we just sat down and decided we'd call them in a half hour, if they didn't show up first, that is. To make a long story short, they found us and we met up with other AFSers, looking equally bewildered, nervous, excited and exhausted.
We took a bus to the DoubleTree Hotel, the site of the New York orientation for all people going to Europe programs. After being issued an AFS shirt, name tag and international student ID card (complete with a horrible picture I totally didn't know they were going to use for that) I was ushered into a room packed with other students. We mingled and met new people and I met a ton of other people going to France. I got my room key, dropped off my baggage and came back down to hang out. We did a welcome thing and an "icebreaker activity" which consisted of running around asking people whether they could fit any of the description in the "people bingo" sheet. All for candy, of course! How else would they get a hundred or more teenagers to go up to a random person their age, quickly introduce themselves and ask if they could burp on demand or had a cat or came from a bilingual family????
Then we had dinner, a buffet from the hotel, which turned out to be a most hilarious affair. Between talking, cracking jokes, telling stories and trying desperately to eat like a Frenchman, we had a lot of fun and laughs. (In case you didn't know, which you probably wouldn't (I mean, hey, I didn't know either until I read a book about French culture) the French eat with both the knife and the fork, fork in the left hand, knife in the right. They don't cut their food and then drop the knife, like we do here at home, but rather keep it in their hand to use a tool to assist in the loading of food onto the fork. They also don't switch the fork to the other hand, they don't put their hands in their laps at any time during a meal (a sign of not wanting to talk or having something to hide: often looked upon as suspicious or nonchalant and rude) and the French never, EVER put their bread on the plate. It very specifically goes on the table and is used as a sort of spoon and mop for sauces and such.) Anyway, I'm sure you can imagine what happens when you put that many people of that age in one room to bond over rice, chicken and coconut cake.
After dinner, we had a "country resource" (a.k.a. a past AFSer from the destination country) come talk to us about what it's like to live in France and to answer our questions. That was pretty informative but more fun was the 3 hours of free time that came next. I hung out in a friend room with a bunch of other people going to France and AFSers drifted in and out with miscellaneous items such as laptops and burned popcorn smelling of old cheese. We listened to loud music, watched TV, showed each other where we were going to be living and going to school and overall got to know each-other better. It was really fun and I know a made a lot of friends that I'll be able to talk to when I'm in France.
So now I'm sitting in my bed in the hotel room at a quarter to 12 PM, tapping out an account of my day. Tomorrow we get to wake up bright and early to do all sorts of AFS activities and get phone numbers and emails of the people who won't be finishing the trip with us. Later in the afternoon we'll be heading back to JFK to continue on in our journey: first the long haul from New York over to Zurich (where we will all be breaking up into our individual country groups) and then, after a 4 hour layover (the perfect opportunity for me to use up some Francs from the last visit to Switzerland at the world's finest chocolatier, Sprungli) the rest of us going to France will take a shorter flight over into Paris.
Since I'll be getting up pretty early tomorrow (7:45, ARGH!!) I guess I'd better get some shut-eye now. So I'll see you in Paris where I'll be staying a couple nights for the France orientation.
Bon Nuit, Good night!
-Benji from NYC