Holly Swafford is an ACIS Group Leader from Alabama who traveled with ACIS for the first time in summer 2023. She shares her experience being on an a ACIS Global Conference in January 2024 and how the magic of travel reinvigorated her as an educator.
Our bus of travelers winds through a maze of narrow French streets as shoppers make their way home from the saturday marché. It’s mid-morning, a particularly cold morning, especially for an Alabamian who is accustomed to sweltering heat. As our bus rounds the corner, it finally comes into view: the breathtaking spire and bell towers of Notre Dame de Reims, the iconic cathedral that witnessed dozens of French kings’ coronations over the centuries.
Seasoned and novice travelers alike can agree that there’s no better feeling than finally seeing a place, a monument, or a city come to life for the first time. Some spend months planning and preparing, while looking at a photo on the computer screen and longing to experience it in real life. And when you do— the silly grin takes over and you feel like a little kid all over again.
This was exactly how I felt as we exited the bus and stood in front of the towering Reims cathedral. I had added “Reims” to an ever-growing bucket list of places about a decade ago, but with little expectation that I would have the time or resources for such a particular city.
How I Found Myself in Paris
Fast forward to 2023, and the dreamiest summer of leading 35 travelers through France on a whirlwind ACIS itinerary. Once we were back stateside, I didn’t want to sit still. I was ready to see and experience more— and thankfully, ACIS was ready, too.
My program consultant Beth reminded me about my World Traveler Rewards points that I had earned from the previous summer. To my surprise, there were dozens of destination choices among their Global Conferences, from Italy to Taiwan, Columbia to Norway. But as a French teacher and lifelong Francophile, my heart skipped a beat to see Paris and Reims as a conference option. Even better, the conference would be over MLK weekend, a perfect time for educators to enjoy some quick travel without using up precious vacation days.
I’m not sure I really believed it was happening until I stepped off the plane at Charles de Gaulle at seven in the morning, the promise and anticipation of a full day in Paris (on my own!) ahead of me.
Please don’t misunderstand— traveling with students is one of the most rewarding experiences for an educator. We get to witness our students thrive and learn as our classroom instruction leaps off the page and into reality. But we, as educators, can’t pour from an empty cup– and that’s why this morning in Paris, alone, was the best kind of gift.
A Wonderful Day of Solo Travel
After a train ride into the city and a quick bag drop at the hotel, I didn’t waste any time getting straight to the exploration. Paris is a curated labyrinth of discovery, a city you dream of entangling yourself in. Even though I have visited the City of Light half a dozen times before, it never fails to entrance and inspire. I took on the role of a Parisian flâneuse – the French word for an aimless wanderer, who can drift away from the constraints of time and get lost in a place; as Baudelaire put it, “to be away from home yet feel entirely at home.”
Canary-yellow mimosa flowers dotted the sidewalks in front of the fleuristes. I ducked into a patisserie to grab a galette des rois, savoring its flaky almond texture while crossing over the Seine. The cold felt biting yet welcoming on my face as I sat down for the most luxuriously rich chocolat chaud before continuing my adventures. By late afternoon, my body felt weary but my heart was bursting with the excitement and energy that perhaps only Paris can give.
Thankfully, our itinerary was carefully planned with the perfect measures of excitement, nourishment, and rest. That evening, our bus took us straight to a welcome dinner at a beautifully authentic French restaurant on the Champs-Elysées, the Arc de Triomphe in splendid view. It was the perfect night of conversing with like-minded educators amid bites of terrine and sips of cabernet sauvignon.
An ACIS Weekend of Joy and Bucket List Visits
The weekend continued to overflow with conversation as we shared our common experiences as educators, and many of us as French teachers. While we had arrived in Paris as strangers, our love of travel and exploration became the common thread that tied us together. I learned so much from these lovely, like-minded teachers— such as Denise, a veteran teacher who now leads groups of adults on curated tours, or Laurie, a fellow Francophile who talked and laughed for hours with me over dishes of escargot and dorade with ratatouille.
And the next morning, Reims— beautiful Reims that I had waited years to see, and now experiencing it with new friends and a wealth of knowledge from Libby, our exceedingly kind and hospitable ACIS Tour Manager. From the kaleidoscopic stained-glass windows of the cathedral to the fascinating history of champagne at a local champagne house, the day trip was well-worth the drive out of Paris.
Perhaps the aspect that I’m most grateful for is the flexibility that ACIS afforded its travelers at the conference. Our time in France was short and precious— but I was able to make the most of it through the perfect mix of group activities and individual free time. While I loved getting to know fellow educators from across the country, I equally enjoyed exploring the city on my own and taking the opportunity to check a few more items off my personal bucket list.
The last day was the perfect moment for more individual discoveries. After enjoying coffee with a grad school friend who recently moved to Paris, I headed over to Musée de l’Orangerie, and finally witnessed the breathtaking beauty of Monet’s water lilies. This was once again an activity that I had dreamed of for years, but never found the time with busy itineraries. But that’s exactly what this conference was designed for— to make time, time for adventures in cities that may have existed only on paper before.
And as our conference drew to a close on our last night, I became overwhelmed with gratitude at the scene before me. Teachers and group leaders, now friends, full bellies from an amazing dinner and echoes of laughter while we finished dessert. Out of our window, the most impressive view of the glittering Eiffel Tower from our private room at the top of Tour Montparnasse. That sparkle never gets old, no matter how many times I see it.
Where do I want to travel next? At the top of my list are Istanbul and Egypt, both upcoming options for global conferences. While I’m currently back in the classroom, you’ll find me keeping my suitcase ready and my passport on hand; as Philippe Bouvard once said, “adventure is at the next corner, providing you’re willing to take the turn.”