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The Forrest Gump of Study Abroad

by AIFS Study Abroad
Jon at Cambridge in 1966

Jon Kline looks back on his time as an AIFS student abroad in France — after 50 years.

Imagine you travelled to France in 1966 to study abroad. Think about everything going on in the world at the time:

  • This is three years after JFK was assassinated and two years before RFK meets the same fate. Under pressure from Charles de Gaulle, the U.S. is ending its military presence in France — where U.S. troops have been stationed since the end of WWII.
  • The Vietnam War is escalating under the Johnson administration. The U.S. is caught up in the “British Invasion” and the United Kingdom is the center of music and fashion. Hippie subculture is evolving simultaneously with counterculture movements of the time — this is the summer before the “Summer of Love.”
  • The Civil Rights Movement is in full swing. It’s two years after Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and one since the Voting Rights Act. Two years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • Next year, Malcom X will be assassinated. The National Organization for Women is a few months from being founded, and the U.S. is one year away from appointing Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court.

With this in mind, you’ll be amazed at how many of these historic facts tie into Jon Kline’s recollections of being a junior in high school on an AIFS exchange program to France in the summer of 1966. The following Q&A with Jon sheds light on a remarkable time in recent history and the power of study abroad to transcend boundaries and expectations.  

What were your AIFS classmates like?

We were 16 and 17-year-old juniors in high school on a six-week study abroad adventure. The majority of kids on the trip were girls. Our number one goal for the trip was to have fun, no doubt about it. I went with my best friend at the time, and we’re still best friends.

I remember 12–15 groups of 4–10 students, from all around the country. Specifically, I recall groups from Palm Springs, Los Angeles and the Bay Area in California; Walla Walla, Washington; Detroit, Michigan (with 2 nuns as chaperones) and a New Jersey group. Each group had chaperones traveling with them (French teachers mostly). I remember the nuns chastising their girls for any dress code violations.

I remember so many great friendships being made on this trip. One of the groups was mostly African-American. This was my first experience in a mixed group of classmates; it was a first for many of us. I have to give AIFS a lot of credit — this program was totally integrated, and all of us got along fine. I remember our group being about 10–15% African-American.

What was your itinerary for AIFS Vichy 1966?

We gathered in New York City and flew together to London. We landed in London on July 3rd. After a couple of days of touring the London sights, we took a bus to Stonehenge and then a ferry from Southampton, England to Le Havre, France. After a few days of sightseeing on a drive through chateaux country, we arrived in Vichy, France.

We spent the next 4 and a half weeks as foreign exchange students at Lycée Presles in Vichy. This was a boarding school for high school students. We attended classes Monday through Friday mornings, and we were free to explore in the afternoons. Weekday evenings were spent studying and socializing.

Each weekend we enjoyed planned excursions. After that, we were let loose on Paris, France for four days before flying back to New York City on August 8th and on to our respective homes.

What was student life like?

I remember an open area dorm building for about sixty of us, and everyone ate in a big cafeteria. We shared a lounge area and had curfews with a check-in and check-out system to keep track of us. Also, girls couldn’t wear anything but dresses. They couldn’t wear shorts, pants or jeans at school. We were chaperoned during tours and school hours, but in the afternoons and weekends in Vichy, we could ride bikes into town and enjoy the recreation facilities at the Sporting Club.

We were forced to go to class, but it made our free time and weekends more fun. Classes were taught in French at 3 levels. We took tests to determine our placement. Each day we attended one hour of translation followed by two hours of vocabulary and grammar or literature and history. The Literature professor was great. He was a very animated teacher that loved sharing the joy of French literature.

AIFS arranged to have several French students stay with us in the dorms to help with our French and learn more about how French teenagers live and think.  Of course the result was the Americans teaching them many U.S. slang expressions — which they were eager to try out on their friends and the administrators.

At Lycée Presles, we requested a jukebox, and they brought one in for us during the second week. The music I remember from the time includes The Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreaming,” The Association’s “Cherish” and The Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black.” One of the guys from New Jersey had a portable record player. Between all of us, we had about 145 records to share. I clearly remember the most popular song during the days leading up to graduation and the trip to Paris being The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of this Place.”

What was Vichy like?

Vichy at the time was still struggling with its reputation as a center of Nazi-occupied France during WWII. Vichy had been the capital of German-occupied France, and they were eager to show us international students that they were moving on. The town had been lying low after the war; tourists didn’t want to go. A recreational resort and casino were built to attract tourists, and looking back, I get the sense that our being there was part of the effort to show that Vichy was open to new ideas and ready to move on.

We participated in activities with Vichy’s residents and community leaders under a publicized theme of International Cooperation. I remember meeting with mayors and regional politicians with the group of international students. At the end of our program, a big graduation ceremony was held in town for all of us.

What fun adventures do you remember?

London was the center of the music world at that time. We spent the 4th of July in London on our second day. We enjoyed planned tours and excursions to see historical sites, but we were excited to visit Carnaby Street and record stores. This was the epicenter of fashion and music in 1966, and we couldn’t wait to jump in.

Excursions every weekend included sightseeing and events like the Tour de France and the Chapel of Saint-Hubert. I remember touring the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. We also took a cog railway at Mont-Blanc. Fireworks over Lake Allier for Bastille Day was also memorable.

Paris was definitely the highlight of our adventures. We stayed in a 3-star hotel with good food. We were so happy to be done with school, and Paris was our fun reward. We’d made friends, and relationships were budding. As we drove up to Paris, the girls started screaming when the Eiffel Tower came into sight.

We stayed up to all hours of the night, getting only a few hours of sleep each night in Paris. We were determined to do and see everything. We visited all the sites. I took a ride on a Bateaux Mouches on the Seine at night. I attended an evening of three short existential plays on the left bank of the Seine. I don’t know that we understood it very well, but I remember it being very demonstrative.

Did you experience culture shock?

Yes, I experienced culture shock along with my American classmates. At the time, the Vietnam War was heating up and French students and teachers often asked us about it. They wanted to hear from us what we were doing there and why the U.S. was involved.

At the same time, Charles de Gaulle had kicked out the U.S. military, which had been stationed in France since WWII. We talked to exiting GIs in northern France. These GIs were the first soldiers I had ever met. They talked about what it was like for them to be leaving France. They were all very worried about the possibility of getting shipped to Vietnam.

Boys on this trip were a few years away from difficult decisions about college, the draft and enlisting. Meeting those GIs was a reality check for everyone on our trip. It’s something we’d think more about in the coming years.

On Bastille Day, we went to see a bull fight. It was shocking. Six bulls were fought & killed in the traditional manner. None of the students was expecting that. My friend and I remember telling each other that it was like we were in a different time… back to the 1920s in a Hemmingway novel… Death in the Afternoon or The Sun Also Rises. If you saw the movie Midnight in Paris, that was close to our experience.

 We stayed in an enormous youth hostel outside of Geneva in Annecy. It was pretty primitive, and I remember international students staying there from all over Europe.

What was the food like?

Food was hit or miss throughout the trip. It was terrible in England. Our best meal was at Le Havre after leaving England. We enjoyed thick steak fries, steak that wasn’t overcooked and Cokes.

We missed American food. At school, the cafeteria served 250 to 300 kids. Fresh breads and pastry with jams for breakfast was delicious; breakfast and lunch were generally good, but dinner was typical school cafeteria food.

What was it like to travel in 1966?

Girls wore suits on plane rides (tops and skirt); boys wore coats and ties. Back then, students had big suitcases without wheels. We didn’t travel with backpacks either. We brought our giant suitcases on excursions or sometimes improvised with paper bags.

We flew on chartered planes with Trans International Airlines. I think I flew by Constellation prop plane to New York, and we flew by jet overseas. This was decades before the Channel Tunnel opened, so we travelled by ferry from England to France. We spent a lot of time on buses. We chartered TPN buses for excursions in France, which stood for Tout Pour Nous (everything for us).

How did the study abroad experience impact you personally?

My study abroad experience opened my eyes to the bigger world. It opened my eyes to how people live in two other countries, mostly France and a little England. It made me want to travel. I had an opportunity to return to France for a month’s stay in Bordeaux and then for a backpacking trip with a friend soon after. I may not have jumped at these opportunities without my AIFS experience.

As high school students travelling abroad, we were treated as young adults. Although chaperoned, we had a lot of independence. The study abroad experience and independence we enjoyed helped us all grow up. We came back feeling more prepared to live in a bigger world.

I enjoyed my classes and went every day. My high school French grades improved, and I passed the proficiency exam at UC, so I didn’t need to take any language classes. I did though. I took French Literature actually.

Study abroad gets you out of an insulated, America-centric environment and way of thinking that contribute to international misunderstandings. Currently, I see a polarizing effect from social media and the prolific news media today, because people can listen to things that feed into / match existing beliefs and tune out alternatives. It’s too easy to miss opportunities to be challenged by other ways of thinking.

AIFS helps counter this and provides opportunities to expand world views, and this is so important. I was excited to see that AIFS is still in business and wonder if my classmates are aware of this — fifty years later! My high school study abroad experience gave me a love of travel, and I believe traveling and studying abroad is the best thing to do in your life.

AIFS exchange: The tour guide in London — they named her "Granny Poppins!"
The tour guide in London — they named her "Granny Poppins!"
Guard changing direction in front of #10 Downing Street, London.
Guard changing direction at #10 Downing Street, London.
AIFS exchange: Jon posing at Cambridge University on a day trip from London.
Jon posing at Cambridge University on a day trip from London.
Punting on the Cam River at Cambridge — right after this was taken, Jon's friend Steve lost the pole which got stuck in the riverbed, while his other friend Rick (in front) kept paddling! 
Punting on the Cam River at Cambridge — right after this was taken, Jon's friend Steve lost the pole which got stuck in the riverbed, while his other friend Rick (in front) kept paddling! 
AIFS exchange: A rainy-day visit to Stonehenge on the way from London to Southampton to take a Channel ferry to Le Havre — the nun in the foreground (with umbrella on left) was a chaperone for a "rather wild" group of kids from Detroit. 
A rainy-day visit to Stonehenge on the way from London to Southampton to take a Channel ferry to Le Havre — the nun in the foreground (with umbrella on left) was a chaperone for a "rather wild" group of kids from Detroit. 
A wonderful chaperone, Mme Hierstio — a French teacher from Woodside High School in Woodside, CA — on the slopes of Mont-Blanc during a weekend excursion from Vichy. 
A wonderful chaperone, Mme Hierstio — a French teacher from Woodside High School in Woodside, CA — on the slopes of Mont-Blanc during a weekend excursion from Vichy. 
Students walking from the dormitory to the dining hall at Lycée Presles.
Students walking from the dormitory to the dining hall at Lycée Presles.
AIFS exchange: Tour de France: Jon snapped a photo of spectators enjoying a couple minutes of frantic racing — after a lengthy bus ride from Vichy and long walk to the race site.
Tour de France: Jon snapped a photo of spectators enjoying a couple minutes of frantic racing — after a lengthy bus ride from Vichy and long walk to the race site.
Visiting the Chapel of Saint-Hubert at the Château d'Amboise (where Leonardo da Vinci is buried). Check out the two French boys mixing it up on the left!
Visiting the Chapel of Saint-Hubert at the Château d'Amboise (where Leonardo da Vinci is buried). Check out the two French boys mixing it up on the left!
Jon and Steve in 2016, fifty years after studying abroad together in Vichy!
Jon and Steve in 2016, fifty years after studying abroad together in Vichy!

 

Thank so much, Jon, for sharing your recollections of an amazing time in your life, with such an interesting historical juncture. What a thrill to hear from you after 50 years! Good luck on your mission to reconnect with your classmates from the trip! We’re happy to help spread the word.

If you or someone you know was a part of #AIFSVichy1966, please send an email, leave a comment or connect via social media to get in touch with Jon and the rest of your classmates.

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