Making Friends in an Empty Elevator and Other Thoughts on Going Abroad Alone

Rj Walters
September 28, 2021

I am actually in France, I am really unsure how this honestly came to be, but I am actually here and living in France. It only hit me the other morning while I was sitting outside, eating breakfast and I just sat for a moment, wide eyed in awe of the fact that I really did it. I have spent the weeks waiting to wake from a dream, like I’ve strayed too far and found myself following a yellow brick road.

From the moment that I walked away from my family at Denver International Airport, I knew that I would be alone until I got to Nantes. There was no one else from my school going to Nantes, no one else from IES Abroad flying on either of my flights, and even when we met at the train station, I had no idea what to expect. So, for all intents and purposes, from the moment I hugged my family goodbye, I was completely alone.

My parents are incredibly good at talking to strangers. They are quite apt at commenting on a bag, ready with perfectly timed compliments or directions, and open themselves to the world around them. There is no person undeserving of a laugh or of a polite comment. It has been said that my mother could make friends in an empty elevator. I grew up around those who want to help or get to know others. A mom who once was having such a good time on the light rail even the train driver had to come out and meet this joyful, incredible woman. In 21 years, I have learned the importance of talking to strangers and being open to the world around me. It’s a fairly useful tool, especially if you’re trying to make your way across a new country with a suitcase the size of a mini cooper.

Making my way through three airports and two train stations is a feat in and of itself but doing it on about 4 hours of sleep and with the aforementioned small car in hand is even more impressive. Throughout the entire process I was often confused or lost. Clueless as I stared at a sign trying to understand. When I left Chicago on my second leg, I didn’t know a single person on the plane. I called a friend to say goodbye before the adventure really began and then sat in silence for multiple hours. Somewhere over the Atlantic I had to ask a favor of the person next to me, we then got to talking about life and why we were going to Paris. Once we landed neither of us really knew how to get our bags and where we needed to go. I was so happy to have had someone sitting next to me, kind enough to answer my questions and have a conversation. We helped each other navigate Charles de Gaulle Airport, she found her bus and I found my way to the station. She followed me on Instagram and I her; It was so astounding (though it probably shouldn’t have been) to me that in less than eight hours I had made a friend (Hi! if you’re reading, hope you’re enjoying France).

After I said goodbye to my new friend, I made my way toward the train station located in Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport. If you’ve never flown into CDG it is a bit of a confusing mess of an airport, its terminals are so large that they feel almost like an endless flow of windows and high ceilings. The closer I got to the train station, the closer I got to meeting so many IES Abroad folks for the first time. Now, I am not normally a very nervous person, but you bet I was as I got closer to that train station. I was so unsure about how we were going to meet, if we were going to get along, and just about everyone all together. It felt like the first day of elementary school all over again, meeting everyone outside in the cool morning air before you go in for class. I came down the escalator into la foule in the station, found the IES Abroad students and started our long road together.

Between the time I sat down in the train station to the time we finally got on the train I felt like I had known every single person I’d met for weeks and months not a couple of hours. The same happened when I got to Nantes and to my homestay. I was welcomed by my host family like I distant relative, someone they had never met before but were happy to welcome into their home and their lives. I was met with kindness and support as I began my transition to living à la française. The welcome was something I hadn’t expected and as I unpacked and talked with my host dad, I felt like I had come home in a small way.

Once together for our orientation, the IES Abroad students in Nantes began the process of building a community, we lived a lifetime in ten days and found home with each other. Our lives were all turned a little upside down, we were all a little bit alone, and in those ten days we formed and stormed faster than any group I have ever been a part of. I had no idea what this experience was going to be like, and I still have a long way to go to figure it out, but I am so happy that these are the people that I get to have it with. I came to Nantes alone, there was no one from my school here, no one I knew at all.

Three weeks ago, I sat on a plane and watched the only home I have ever known fall away and disappear beneath a sea of clouds. My home, the place where I grew up, full of my friends, my family, the people who make my life whole. I thought I would be alone the moment I walked through security at Denver International Airport, making my way silently from Denver to Nantes, through airports and train stations. But the thing that no one tells you about travelling and going abroad alone, is that you are never truly alone.

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Rj Walters

<p>My name is RJ Walters-Dorchak, and I am currently a senior at the University of Colorado Boulder. I study French and my degree is focused on French and Francophone language, culture, and literature. In my free time, I love to read, cook (Julia Child is a personal hero), and spend time outdoors in Colorful Colorado. Music is also something near and dear to my heart and I have a small but mighty collection of vinyl at home. I am thrilled to share my experience and adventures in Nantes with you this fall.</p>

Home University:
University of Colorado - Boulder
Arvada, CO
French Language
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