I was born in England and lived there until emigrating to Canada when I was 26. Apart from a few trips back ‘ome to show off children and visit relatives, I haven’t been back on business or as a tourist.
My first European trip was an organized student exchange after two years of high school. A 12-year old boy from the small village of La Roche-Derrien in Brittany came to England to stay with my family for three weeks and then he went home and I went with him to stay with his family for three weeks. Nobody who lived there spoke English. I, however, was an exceptional French speaker after two years of French lessons in school. My abiding memory of that period was that – after a brief conversation with a 4-year old who had a vastly superior accent, a far bigger vocabulary, and a better grasp of tense and other nuances of the language – I really didn’t know French very well at all.
Undeterred, I continued to learn French in school (actually it was obligatory). My second trip (at age 15) was something I doubt I would have approved of for my own kids. Again to France, with my best friend from school, travel by boat (Southend to Calais) on the ‘Royal Daffodil‘ – a floating gin palace for day shoppers to buy exotic stuff from France. Because it was for day shoppers, the trip didn’t require a passport (even for people who were going for more than a day) and a nod to H.M. Customs on the return was enough.
Then we set off for the grand bicycle adventure. A thousand mile ride in three weeks – west to Brittany, south through Carnac (much more impressive neolithic stone constructions than exist at Stonehenge) to ???, then followed the Loire River stopping at a chateau or two each day until we reached Paris. We stayed in Youth Hostels – very cheap and you had to do some light house-keeping chore on top of a very minimal fee for somewhere to roll out a sleeping bag and get a breakfast. Pro tip for cycling tourists: following river valley routes downstream is a much easier ride than following them upstream and always cycling uphill.