A simple plan
The arrival of teaching assistant Mlle Bourstain was, of course, the most exciting event that happened during the study of high school French. We were 15, and she was in her early twenties, fluent in another language, and not our regular teacher. In one person existed every stereotype a class of adolescents could desire.
The lessons, like much of the French, have been forgotten. Many of the students probably don’t even recollect Mlle Bourstain ever being a part of their life at all, for her appearance was brief and amidst a time when so many formative arguments, stresses and successes vied to become memories. Those who do remember might say ‘oh, she was quite fit’, or recollect her being given the grief reserved for substitute teachers.
However, one activity Mlle Bourstain did struck a chord with me, staying in my mind long any verb endings. Entrusted with the class for an afternoon, she showed us pictures of where she had done her language immersion: an island in the Indian Ocean named La Réunion. None of us had ever heard of it, but it became the first place I ever thought ‘I’m going to go there when I’m an adult’.
It surprises me that this idea stayed in my head for so long. I moved for schooling in America, then back to Britain. At university my thinking went haywire in messy alcohol. I sent myself to China, where a whole new world of unusual and uncommon experiences began. Yet knowing where Réunion was on a map, the prospect of going never died. Eventually, when I sorted myself out under the pretence of adulthood, I would go.
Doubts are bedmates of quests. In the television show The Art of Travel, philosopher Alain de Botton does not disembark in Barcelona, citing the novel À rebours, by Joris-Karl Huysmans, in which the protagonist cancels a trip to London for fear it cannot match his imagination. But my trip to Réunion was different. It was about meeting an ambition, not an expectation. It was a personal promise, and a personal promise must inevitably become a disappointment when left undone.
I was 25 when I bought my tickets to La Réunion. A decade had passed since Mlle Bourstain had given me the inspiration not of a subject to study, or success in an area I knew, but experimenting with a place in the world I did not know. There is undoubtedly a lesson about the heart of true teachers here, and the relevance of inspiring a life. More pertinantly, that is how I reached Réunion, the island in the Indian Ocean.