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Pigs didn’t fly, but swine flu (or How I spent my summer vacation)

By Samantha Shokin

Section: Arts

August 27, 2009

swine flu mania: Some of the girls from my tour group during our quarantine in Cannes. <br /><i>PHOTO COURTESY OF Natalya Sariashvilit</i>

swine flu mania: Some of the girls from my tour group during our quarantine in Cannes.
PHOTO COURTESY OF Natalya Sariashvilit

Salvation!

Or so I wanted to proclaim as I dashed out of my final-final last semester and into the crisp pre-summer air. I was experiencing that remarkable lightness only students feel at the end of a term, when all things fact-related are purged from our book bags, binders and brains, and we can enjoy blissful ignorance for an entire season (not counting you overachieving summer session people out there). I was ready to begin academic catharsis, which involves lots of intensive TV sessions and therapeutic napping, finished off with a food-coma induced by my grandmother’s homemade cooking. College life is good, I thought, but vacation life will be better. And yet, a mere two weeks after that thought, I was ready to scratch out my eyes at the sight of another television program and worried for the potentially damaging effects my family’s constant presence would have on my mental health. Naturally, I had to get out.

So the next thing I knew I was on a plane to Europe.

I had romanticized Western Europe in my head for many years and finally got the opportunity (and the parental permission) to experience it firsthand. Thus, after one fateful Google search, I giddily filled out an online application for a month-long tour of seven countries. I thought this would serve as a sufficient enough introduction to European travel. I viewed Europe as my giant unexplored cultural candy store, and I wanted to have a taste of every scrumptious city it would have to offer me.

Now the thing about Europe, or any kind of travel destination, for that matter— you can’t really appreciate it in one short burst of touristic fervor. This attitude is self-defeating, and ultimately it will wear you out, leaving you with lots of photographs and sore muscles but without a true feel for your destination. A new city should be explored in gradual increments of curiosity and wonderment.

One should think of tourism like sipping a glass of fine French wine, rather than chugging down a can of cheap American beer. I, unfortunately, figured this out the hard way.

Thirty of us college-aged travelers from all over the states arrived in London, ready and eager for the adventure ahead. Though our tour guide, David (pronounced Dah-veed for you less cultured folks), insisted that we pack lightly, much of our tour group—particularly of the female persuasion—managed to schlep along some monstrous pieces of luggage that were an especial joy to carry when we arrived at a quaint Swiss hotel that lacked elevators. Nonetheless we trudged along with enough enthusiasm to make clear to all onlookers that we were, indeed, a herd of tourists trekking our way through their continent, one souvenir shop at a time. (At one point our tour bus broke down a mere 1.3 kilometers away from our Barcelona hotel. Imagine thirty American college students dragging luggage down a major road. If the sight wasn’t mortifying enough, then the sound of all those luggage wheels being hauled over cobblestone certainly did the trick).

After enough running around, frantically chasing tourist attractions and snap-happily flashing away at anything foreign-looking, one starts to lose momentum and prefers to spend the better part of a day simply sitting at a café table to people-watch. Not surprisingly, you appreciate so much more of your surroundings when you actually stop to look at them with just your eyes and not through a viewfinder. About halfway through our trip, when I had just adapted this new touring strategy and was ready to test it out on our next destination, the French Riviera, our Italian bus driver Tony called in sick and we were provided with a substitute. Soon after, Tony called again to inform us that he caught his ailment from our tour group, and that his doctor confirmed it to be the H1N1 virus, commonly known as swine flu.

Understandably our first reaction was to flip out. Everyone immediately started pointing fingers: “I heard you sneezing yesterday—it was you!” “No, my roommate brought it—he ran a fever last week.” Of course all this talk was futile because in reality, all of us were experiencing mild flu symptoms. After a brief quarantine at our Cannes hotel, during which we were supplied with some very stylish surgical masks, the results of the hospital tests came in and it turned out that the H1N1 carrier was none other than my roommate. (Note: I had been sharing meals with this girl for nearly a week). But it all turned out to be fine, the symptoms were really not worse than any mild flu, and we all returned to the states able to say: “I went to Europe and all my tour group got was this lousy swine flu.”

So now that I am back in the states (and more of a patriot than ever, mind you), I am ready to embark on another journey. Maybe one less exotic, but certainly exciting and hectic in its own way: my sophomore year of college. Happy travels!

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