It didn’t take much luring for me to go abroad in high school. I grew up in the safest city in the United States, Irvine, California, a place everyone wants to leave until they find themselves returning with a spouse, three kids, and an $800 HOA fee. At the time, I was a sophomore in high school and felt like the only gay teenager in Irvine. I knew I had to get outta dodge, as the saying goes.
I needed to escape, so I read, and read and read. That was the best and cheapest way for me to travel. I didn’t care for my high school English class novels; for me, Steinbeck had to wait (plus that turtle chapter in The Grapes of Wrath was so slow). I wanted to know about real lives, the lives lived out there beyond the proverbial curtain of Orange County. For me, back then, reality was something, anything different from my own. I read mostly of worlds across the globe. I became involved in Amnesty International and would digest their reports on all the atrocities, false imprisonments, and torture happening thousands and thousands of miles away from Irvine. My father, in fact, did not find it amusing that I would write letters to government officials in say, Iraq, to stop their citizens from being tortured. He demanded I not put a return address on the envelope. Saddam never wrote back anyway.
Apart from the laundry list of stories detailing human rights abuses across the world – beheadings for not wearing a headscarf, imprisonment for being the wrong ethnicity or religion or gender, etc. – the main thing I learned was that there were people out there that lived very different lives. I could imagine a world without manicured, equidistant trees or strip malls or pep rallies. I somehow knew I needed to confront the complexity and loudness of the world and I couldn’t do that shaving my legs for the next swim meet.
I didn’t want to imagine anymore. I had to leave. I wanted to go to France – and so I did. I stormed into the guidance counselor’s office (well, I didn’t really storm in since I wasn’t angry, I was just excited) where she directed me to the cabinet housing all the summer abroad brochures (yes, information was still kept in cabinets at that time). I quickly found exactly what I wanted – a couple weeks with a French family in the Loire Valley then some time exploring the south of France.
A few months before departure, I received in the mail a list of other students across the US participating in the program that summer. I reviewed the list with my parents and noticed most of the students came from the East Coast. My oh-so-mature parents started to giggle a little and pointed at the name “Nico” on the list. After asking why they were laughing, they told me what it could mean in Arabic slang, so I then started to laugh. Look it up.