I’m Taryn, I’m 18, and I’m interested in photography, songwriting, and activism, focusing on gender equality and climate action. Travel is something that’s close to my heart – my experiences being away from home, particularly as a solo traveller, have been what have shaped me the most significantly. I’m more independent, confident and I know myself so much better as a result of spending this time by myself, in an unfamiliar place and with unfamiliar people.

My interest in international experience really began in childhood, when I was introduced to French. I fell in love right away, picking up words and phrases that I would insist on using with anyone that I came into contact with while on family camping holidays in France. I’m lucky that I come from a family where travel abroad is something that’s valued, and although my mum wasn’t in the position to take us on holiday, my grandparents could, and because of them, my brother and I had the chance to visit France, Belgium, Holland, Norway, and Australia. At the time, I didn’t really realise how much of an impact these trips had on me, but looking back, it’s clear that those holidays are part of the reason that I’m so excited by travel.

While on holiday camping in the centre of France, I made a friendship which led to one of the best experiences of my life. I was 15, she was 10, and she was patient with me, helping me to communicate in French, explaining things where she could – despite studying the language at GCSE, I still found that I had a lot of difficulty expressing myself. We spent a week playing together, and at the end of it, her mum had a chat with me and said that I’d be welcome to go stay with them at their house in Normandy to continue learning French. I was given their address and their phone number and then they left.

It took two years to convince my mum to let me go.

But after spending a year going on short trips around the UK to attend conferences and summer schools and training courses, with no real disaster along the way, I finally booked my tickets to France at the end of December.

The journey was an adventure in itself! I was on the ferry overnight, arriving in Dieppe at 4.30am, with a train booked at 5.30am. After two changes and a conversation with a nice French guy called Ali, I rocked up in Cherbourg, where the family was waiting for me at the end of the platform. They took me up to the top of a hill to see all of Cherbourg. It was beautiful. I felt welcome.

For two weeks, I spoke only in French. We ate together, went on walks together, and met their friends and family – the grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles. I come from a family that’s pretty small, and we don’t tend to do much together – for those two weeks, I was pretty much adopted by them, experiencing what it was like to live as part of a bigger unit. I got to go to a French house party, meeting French teenagers, counting down to the New Year in French, running outside on the lawn while fireworks exploded over our heads. We cooked together, and I introduced them to vegan food, serving dahl one day and curry the next – in return, they told me stories in French and shared their home and their lives with me. Over those two weeks, I was the happy recipient of more cheek kisses than I’d had in the rest of my (then) seventeen years.

This trip showed me how kind and generous strangers can be, and how quickly you can form bonds with people that transcends language. Despite having studied French to A’ Level standard, I still struggled with making myself understood in the way I wanted and this experience made me realise how it must feel for people who are displaced, living in countries that are unfamiliar and not their own. During this time, I learned to love the unfamiliar, to embrace the feeling of displacement, and it was this feeling that helped me better understand things about myself. Returning home, I found a new love for everything familiar and comforting, and I was more aware of the things I take for granted – like my own personal space.

I’m still in touch with the whole family, and plan to go back while I’m off on my gap year! It was a truly incredible experience – being immersed in a different culture is life-changing, and the distance from my own world allowed me to gain a better sense of perspective on myself and my identity. For anyone looking to do something similar, I’d totally recommend applying for Erasmus+ or the European Solidarity Corps programmes – there’s lots more information about applying to these on the EuroPeers website.