Heather Markel, an Experimenter to France in 1986, shares her story in memory of her host mother, Simone. Simone passed away on September 25 of this year.
I never imagined that one summer would have such a profound impact on my life and my work. Much of that impact was due to my Experiment host mom Simone. She passed away in late September. To honor her memory, I have spent time reflecting on my experiences with her and the influence she had on my life.
The summer of 1986 was the ﬁrst time I didn’t go to summer camp. Despite always being teased and unhappy at camp, it became a reliable, and therefore comfortable, experience. But in June of that year, I became an Experimenter.
Before my trip, I was a shy and introverted only child from Manhattan who just spoke high-school French. In France, I lived with a farm family in Normandy. Instantly, I went from having no siblings to having seven sisters and one brother.
Flying to France to live with a host family I didn’t know was a huge step outside my comfort zone. Because I dared to do it, I’ve been able to challenge the boundaries of my comfort zone many times since, leading me to a range of adventures and connections throughout my life.
One of the scariest but most valuable things that Simone did for me was to constantly push me into the center of things. She taught me to live life instead of watching from the sidelines. While in Bayeux for a festival, there was a troupe of dancers who wanted volunteers from the audience. Simone pushed me over to one, and there was no escaping a dance. So I danced!
It’s because of her that I have my zest for life and willingness to jump in and try new things even if they make me uncomfortable. I’ve tried tripe, blood sausage, sheep’s brain, and rabbit—and I even like two of them! I tried ziplining in Costa Rica, and while I don’t plan to do it again, I am proud to say I did it once. By volunteering to try new experiences and food, I continue to honor Simone’s spirit.
“Because I dared to do it, I’ve been able to challenge the boundaries of my comfort zone many times since, leading me to a range of adventures and connections throughout my life.”
Simone truly helped me to adapt, and embrace, a new life. I grew up in Manhattan, “the city that never sleeps.” The biggest fear my Experiment peers and I shared before going to France was being assigned a family in the middle of nowhere. I drew (what I thought) was the short straw when I learned I was to live in the village of Louvieres. Even today, Louvieres only boasts 77 inhabitants, some houses, and a couple of farms. There are no stores, no post oﬃces, no bodegas. If that wasn’t terrifying enough, my host family had a herd of cows and put me to work milking them the ﬁrst day.
During my overwhelming adaptation to life in Louvieres, one of the cows, Amazonie, took a liking to me. She would follow me and lick me like a giant puppy dog. To this day, I love cows because of her, and as I travel the world, I have made it a mission to photograph cows everywhere I go.
I have no doubt that adapting to this radically different lifestyle inspired my passion for travel. I am constantly changing countries and living in hostels, family homes, Airbnbs, and hotels. And I always find a way to feel at home everywhere I go.
“As I travel the world today, I always try to learn basic phrases in the local language, which allows me to make much richer connections around the world.”
Simone was also passionate that I speak French properly. She constantly corrected my pronunciation, the use of “le” and “la,” and my vocabulary. While a few of my host siblings spoke a little English, she forbade them from using it while I was there. In her eyes, the purpose of my visit was to learn their language and customs. I was upset at the time but now I know I was the luckiest Experimenter that summer. I learned not to be a traveler who waits for others to speak English. I left Louvieres ﬂuent in French—and left college speaking six languages.
Simone continued to better my French on every annual visit I made to see her. This includes on my most recent visit just a few weeks before her death. As I travel the world today, I always try to learn basic phrases in the local language, which allows me to make much richer connections around the world, creating friendships I still enjoy years later.
“So many of my life’s choices, experiences, and memories are the result of the courage and zest for life she taught me.”
Perhaps the biggest gift I got from Simone was a second family. She had eight children, 31 grandchildren, and 32 great-grandkids (with number 33 on the way!) I was lovingly referred to as Simone’s adopted ninth child. When I started to cry at her funeral, one of my host sisters embraced me and said, “We’re here.” She held me and didn’t let go, and throughout the day, there were several more embraces from my other host sisters. Though we are not related by blood, we think of each other as real sisters.
“From now on, when you come to France, instead of going to one house, you’ll just go to eight,” one sister said. Even with Simone gone, I know we are still family.
While I ﬁnd the prospect of life without Simone very upsetting, she gave me the gift of courage that summer. This courage has allowed me to embrace numerous experiences in my life and in 2017, it allowed me to quit my job and travel the world full-time. Six years later, I am still on the go. My amazing lifestyle is the result of my first experience in France when I immersed myself in a foreign culture and deepened my relationship with its people. I have even done a TEDx talk on the benefits of living nomadically!
I am so grateful for all that Simone instilled in me. So many of my life’s choices, experiences, and memories are the result of the courage and zest for life she taught me.