I was never the person who had this unquenched sense of adventure. When I was little, I loved leaving my home for something different. Sleepovers at friends’ and relatives’ homes, day trips to Amish country, or the actual country to pick cherries and get fruit from the farmers with my parents and sister –but nothing was ever truly far outside the norm. Europe changed all that. My husband and I had the opportunity to spend time in Paris with his family for a week. We decided that since we were already there, we would take an additional week to explore other areas. During the course of that trip, we took the Chunnel to London, holed up in a little village called Gimmelwald in the Swiss Alps near the Piz Gloria and filming location of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, took a boat ride on Lake Como, toured the wine caves in the Burgundy region of Beaune France and ate copious amounts of gelato and prosciutto in Parma, Italy.
For the sake of this story, we’re going to focus on Paris.
I had unfair notions of what I thought Paris was like and what I thought the people that lived there were like. People I knew described the French as rude, unwilling to help American tourists, purposely speaking in French when they knew English, etc. and these folks had never even traveled there. But how do you truly know what people are like when you don’t personally know them and you haven’t had first-hand experience of their culture? What if all those notions were wrong? Surely I was going to take this trip to truly find out, but I wanted to do it in the most organic way possible.
Number one, I tried not to stand out in anywhere I traveled to, and that means adopting fashion, studying social cues and norms, and it also means trying your best to communicate. I was going to blend in as much as I could and learn from the frontline what this culture was like. So, I learned a bit of French – enough to get by very, very basically. I could order wine, I could be polite in salutation and ending of conversation, I could politely say “I do not speak French,” and I could count only to three (which made ordering the entire case of macarons difficult). I felt that the respectful thing to do going into someone else’s culture and country is to assimilate the best I could and have the most organic experience and truly get to know what it’s like as a local. The whole “you’re in America, speak English” thing infuriates me because we as Americans are not better than anyone else. And if we’re really going to hold that as the standard, why aren’t Americans learning each language of the country they visit, because the “you’re in [insert country here], speak [insert language here]” would completely apply.
And you know what? Every single interaction I had with a local was pleasant. They were patient and kind with my non proficient language skills. Some allowed me to continue trying to converse in French because they knew that I was making an effort. Others switched to my native tongue and met me in the middle. No one was rude or unkind or better than. Only once did I experience a local who rushed me along in English in annoyance, and the only reason was because it was a busy bakery on a weekday morning, while the rest of the neighborhood was trying to get their morning nourishment and hurry off to work. But still, I chalked that up as a normal instance because it would have just as easily happened in New York while frantic bakery workers try to get all of Wall Street served before heading out to a busy day on the Stock Exchange Floor.
My favorite interaction was in a wine bar down the block from our apartment. My husband and I went out for a quiet glass of wine, and my entire, though utterly brief, conversation with the waiter was in French. We belonged. We fit in. We were not looked at as outsiders, nor did we look at these folks that we could barely communicate with as different from us. We sipped our wine mostly in silence and enjoyed the surroundings and the bustling restaurant filled with conversations that we knew nothing about, but we were happy and content. The same was true when we found a hidden cafe for lunch off in an alleyway, sitting quietly and observing all that was around. After placing our order, we sat quietly to ourselves sipping the accidental half carafe of wine that was supposed to be two glasses (we really weren’t complaining by the way), when a French woman one table over started speaking to us. I politely told her (in my limited French) that we didn’t speak French. She (in her limited English) politely asked if we would mind if she smoked. Neither party was annoyed at the other for not knowing their language. We were just fellow citizens enjoying the same lunch spot, who worked with what we had to communicate with each other.
As someone who, prior to this travel awakening in my life, hadn’t gone many places and hadn’t met many other people, this trip changed my life. It changed my initial view, and every other trip I have had the opportunity to take continues to shape and mold how I think about others, the world, and myself. All I want to do is to go experience other people and cultures and eat delicious food while doing so. The Europe trip (with other countries visited besides France), awakened a desire to go far and try hard and dig into the culture other people and places. Because it changes you. It enlightens you. It teaches you. It calms you and stirs an unquenchable thirst for adventure at the very same time.
The bottom line and the lesson I learned on this trip – respect. People fear what they do not know and they judge that which is different from them. But everyone wants to be respected. And I’ve found that respect and love and joy in interaction with those who are different from (and yet, shockingly, the same as) you go a long way and usher you into some amazing interactions and experiences. My final appeal: go and live life. Live through the experience, learn from those that are different than you, and travel whenever you get the chance – it could surprise you.