Paris reinvigorated my passion for travel; my first and only trip abroad was nearly a decade ago (I didn't think it had been so long until I saw my passport photo...yikes). My college choir toured Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Venice. We sang the most beautiful music in some of the world's most beautiful spaces. The experience was life-changing, but 10 years is a long time between international travel.
The trip itself was incredible; the city of Paris is every bit as enchanting as one would imagine, and I learned so much about the city's history, the beautiful and rich culture of Paris, the interconnectedness of humanity and the vital importance travel plays in education and our development as compassionate, whole human beings. Travel isn’t a luxury; it is a necessity and--dare I say it?--a right for everyone.
My mind has been on overdrive ever since, reliving and reminiscing the experiences, contemplating ways to bring this to the classroom and dreaming of ways to get all our students overseas to immerse themselves--even if just for a short while--in a new culture. Below are a few of these thoughts:
On experiencing new cultures:
For me, experiencing the Parisian culture happened best during our free time. I struck off on my own (or with a colleague in the same area) and just meandered the streets. Some stops were obvious tourist traps, but perhaps my favorite part of the entire trip was being alone on the streets of Paris and finding hidden gems that the locals frequent. I found a small artist hovel where a man sold his paintings. I found a small cafe and ordered coffee and sat and watched the people come and go.
I saw so much French kissing. Seriously, there’s a reason kissing with tongue is named after France...wow.
Away from the hordes of tour groups, I was surrounded by actual Parisians. Simply existing in Paris, like I do when I’m in downtown Lincoln with my wife, is where the real culture of a city exists. Only here can one truly see the unique aspects of a different country. Noticing the aspects that were true to the French way of life caused me to reflect on and critique my own American culture; the American normal isn’t the global normal (and thank God for that in so many cases).
The specific examples aren’t as important as the fact that I wouldn’t have had the ability to examine my own culture had I not been in a new one.
Once I adapted a bit to their culture, I better understood (but never mastered, of course) why they valued the things they valued and behaved the way they did. This is how empathy grows.
On navigating new terrain, transportation norms:
Be it subway/underground/metro or busses, navigating public transportation can be terrifying. However, with very minimal effort, even a navigationally-challenged man from Podunk*, Nebraska (*a town with a population that hovers around 300) was able to get from one side of Paris to the other. It was empowering to learn and master the Paris Metro system. I felt like true man about town.
As is with most major cities, personal vehicles are the exception to the rule. People take the metro, ride the bus, rent or own a bicycle or (horror of horrors) walk to their destinations. Ten blocks in Lincoln is cause enough for most of us to say, “Let’s drive there” whereas ten blocks for a Parisian is a light walking day. Some of this is due to the small, medieval streets of the city. Some if this is because--just like nearly every metropolitan city--the infrastructure won’t support every citizen (or even every family) to own a vehicle.
There’s a reason most countries don’t suffer the obesity epidemic Americans face. We never walk...and that’s a shame.
On cultural lifestyle:
When I walk in downtown Lincoln, people look me in the eye and say, “Hello.” In Paris, pedestrians avoided eye contact. I got odd looks when I said, “bonjour” to the random passerby. It’s not rude, as some of my travel partners thought; it’s just not their culture. That doesn’t make them wrong or us right, it’s just different. I had to get outside my own mindset and adapt to their cultural norm, and it didn’t hurt me one bit.
This is just one example of dozens I could share. In all cases, the ability to adapt was not only easy, but also enlightening.
On food & drink:
OH MY STARS IN HEAVEN ABOVE, THE FOOD AND DRINK...
Croissants, Nutella, cheese, coffee...all of it. AMAZING.
I had multiple opportunities to eat at McDonalds or get my favorite Starbucks drink, but I forced myself to only go to local eateries and cafes. Our food culture in America is a travesty. It makes me appreciate the local restaurants in our own cities and makes the thought of another McMeal a nauseating one.
On language acquisition:
First of all, we should be ashamed as a nation that we don’t prioritize learning a second language. Kindergarteners should be learning a second language--any language! I didn’t interact with a single Parisian who didn’t speak moderate-to-fluent English.
Secondly, it’s so doable to learn enough of a foreign language to get by in any country. My goal was to spend a month learning French on my own, but life made it a bit difficult (we had a show right before I left...I didn’t have time to eat, let alone learn a new language). While on the trip, though, I was able to pick up enough to get directions, make purchases, greet and thank people. I didn’t have any life-altering conversations, but I made it!
On traveling & living lightly (or, Experience > Things):
It’s embarrassing how much I pack for a few days at my parents’ home compared to what I packed for Paris. Usually, I carry a backpack stuffed with junk I could possible use, but never do.
This trip, I only had clothes for each day (and I wore pants more than once) and only carried my phone, wallet and a small notebook. Not only was I less of a “tourist target” for pickpockets, I was able to get about so easily.
Traveling lightly got me thinking about living lightly, too. I had a few travel companions who loaded themselves down with knick knacks and trinkets and baubles and other fun words. They admitted it was crap, but it was something to “remember the trip by”. I preferred to spend my money on more experiential things instead. I paid extra to ride a ferry down the Seine so I could see some of the major attractions at a leisurely pace. I walked back to Notre Dame after a quick guided tower and sat outside on a bench and sketched the edifice, drinking in the beauty and power of the structure. I walked through a more residential suburb of Paris with a number of the group and saw the day-to-day life of a Parisian. I chose to spend my valuable resources--both my limited money and limited time--to simply be in the presence of the city and its people.
By extension, I feel it is important to carry this mentality of living lightly and favoring the experience over the accumulation of things into everyday life. I’d rather a few functional, meaningful items (like the hand-painted landscape I purchased from a local) than a suitcase full of miniature Eiffel Towers (full disclosure: I did buy two mini Eiffel Towers...that doesn’t constitute a buttload, though).
On understanding history & making connections to the present:
History was never a subject I much cared for until college. I had a professor who taught world history as a series of interconnected stories; historical figures were characters with conflict and plot twists that would set your mind a-wonder. My love affair with history was reignited on this trip.
I knew little of France’s history. Versaille has a hall of mirrors, Napoleone Bonaparte was a shorty with an inferiority complex and Marie Antoinette lost her head after she said, “Let them eat cake” in reference to a starving population. Come to find Versaille has a sordid history all its own and was so expensive that France is still in debt from its construction, Napoleone is a bit more complex as a heroic or villainous figure and poor Marie was a much more sympathetic figure than pop culture has made her out to be (for one: she never said, “Let them eat cake”...history has not been kind to ol’ Marie).
The history of this country had a few recurring themes: nearly every historical (and contemporary) figure we know of isn’t as good or bad as they are made out to be (indeed, we are all a little dark with a little light); we must fight for our rights; the people’s voice is strong when it’s united; preserving and remembering the past accurately is vital to succeeding in the future.
On the art, beauty & expression of different cultures:
One of the many unifying factors of any culture is its art. From the prairie-inspired paintings for midwestern artists to the grand love stories told in Italian operas and everything in between, every culture expresses itself in a variety of artforms that helps one internalize and feel that culture’s ins and outs.
Even the graffiti had a unique flavor from American graffiti.
The art, fashion, construction, museums, music, television, movies, cuisine and advertising were all extensions of the unique history, culture and heart of Paris. Any travel should include exposure to that country’s art.
On the inherent beauty in the world:
The difference between western Nebraska, where I’m from, and eastern Nebraska is noticeable. Both are beautiful in its own way if only one were to appreciate it for what it is. Imagine, then, how much more beauty and awe-inspiring wonders exist across the planet. This alone makes travel worth the effort.
On the preservation of history & infrastructure:
Parisians are passionate about their history. As time progressed, government leaders had opportunities to update the look and feel of their city--razing buildings and widening streets and modernizing facades. But the Parisians fought to maintain its history. No matter where you go in Paris, you’re looking at the same buildings and cobbled streets that were built centuries ago. This is a stark contrast to the throwaway mentality in America, where we opt to build a new building instead of maintaining the one we have.
On the commonalities that span all cultures:
Our tour guide has spent a majority of his life traveling. I’ll never forget what he said our last night in Paris: “We have more in common than we are different.” It is so true. There are universals across the globe that every culture values. We all value beauty and art even though our art looks different. We all value relationships. We build our lives around food (seriously...every culture). We all value the freedom to love and live and find fulfillment. And what’s more, these commonalities are strong enough to overcome the differences. We can live together and coexist in spite of our differences.
On travel as a lifestyle:
I find the friends I have who travel regularly oftentimes live better lives than those who don’t. They aren’t as stressed as those who have lived in the same bubble their entire lives. They appreciate and embrace other people and cultures more readily. They fear others less. They value experience and quality time with people over objects. Their imprint is light but their experience and impact is deep. They are concerned and compassionate for people unlike them to a degree that is rarely--if ever--matched by homebodies.
On basic common courtesy:
Our group was quickly introduced to our selfish, arrogant American elitism fairly quickly in Paris. From blocking entire walkways with our group to holding up lines on the Metro, I was surprised at how discourteous most tourists are. Yes, the new location is exciting, but cripes! A quick look around at the locals clued me in quickly as to how ridiculous we were behaving. Being in a new city is incredible, but my individual excitement and experience should not come at the expense and inconvenience of those around me.
I was humbled; I thought myself a pretty savvy, global-minded traveler, but it’s important to remember to always be aware of and courteous to the people around us.
On the basic good in all humanity:
Stereotypes abound in every major region and city. New Yorkers are mean. Parisians are snooty. Midwesterners are hicks. While there are always people who embody the stereotypes that are prescribed to them, I’ve found that a vast majority of stereotypes are either flat out untrue or stem from misunderstanding.
A fellow theatre teacher and I got lost looking for the restaurant F. Scott Fitzgerald met his wife Zelda in. We stopped in a floral shop looking for directions, and when the employees took us around the corner to a newsstand because they didn’t know where it was and chose to take us to someone who did. Our waiter could tell we were both a little starstruck with the history of the place (and lacking in our reading of French), so he swapped tables with a fellow waiter more fluent in English to make our experience better.
On my conclusions:
Travel is life changing. Travel is a necessity for students while they are growing up and forming their view of the world. Travel is a right of passage we should fight to protect and encourage.