Today is my fourth week in France, my fourth and final Monday in my French class at Stendhal University in a small city in the Rhone Alps region. My professor split our class into three groups and asked us to define the advantages and disadvantages of traveling or moving abroad. My head was swimming as I attempted to grasp the French words to describe the endless benefits that I’d experienced. I vocalized this in French to the two Americans I was sitting with: that I was overwhelmed with what this experience had taught me, with how it had inspired me.
I was alarmed to find that they disagreed. One made minor complaints about the endless amount of paperwork they had encountered, while both found the heat and the French’s lack of air conditioning use to be a near deal-breaker. They added to their complaints by citing the bizarre French business hours as a big detriment to living here.
After they said that, I glanced back at my work, at the two columns I had created, and found myself rereading the first statement I had written:
“La chance d’apprendre une nouvelle culture.” The chance to learn about a new culture.
Yes, the French close most of their businesses between the hours of noon and two for a lunch break. Yes, on Sundays and Mondays, especially in the month of August, the town is comparably ghostlike as everyone retreats for mini holidays. Yes, air conditioning is a luxury that most in France do not deem a necessity, unlike many North American counterparts who consider not using it outlandish.
But I’m astonished that those factors can be deemed as a disadvantage when they are markers of the French culture. The French do not live to work, and it is that way of life that I have attempted to embody in my time here. I think there is a common mistake that some can make while traveling abroad. They attempt to fit these foreign countries into the compartments of their own life: how they eat, sleep, take breaks, and go to school. Anything that does not fit can be considered a disadvantage. I think that ideology is contrary to the exact reasons we should travel: to expand our tiny, box-like definitions of the world, to challenge our views and opinions, to not only live in but to embrace a culture that is unlike our own.
I have met a huge variety of people in my time studying in France. A few have been fellow Canadians, others have been American, and some still have been from Brazil and Iraq and Ireland, and all of their motivations for coming here are inherently different. Each and every person in this program has a separate, unique motive for being here. In fact, that can be said about everyone who travels. No incentive is the same, just as no experience is.
I have made a point of asking people why or how they found themselves studying the French language in a country far from their homes for the summer. Maybe, as a journalism student, it is my unwavering curiosity that provoked this questioning. Nonetheless, each answer was vastly different from the next. Some came because they wanted an adventure, some as a program requirement, others through government funding, a few even out of spite.
At twenty-years-old, I am not an expert on traveling, nor am I entirely accomplished when it comes to adopting new cultures. There are days when I’m absolutely embarrassed by cultural ignorance on my own part, much like there are times when my thoughts revert to This would not happen in Canada… There are times when I am lonely and feel like nothing more than a stranger in a place that is not my home. Nonetheless, I have attempted to take everything in a stride of positivity.
I do believe there are disadvantages to traveling abroad, but I believe those stem from within us. They stem from our expectations, our norms, and our routines. They stem from the tangible security blankets we have at home, like our friends, our family and material possessions that we don’t necessarily have abroad. The disadvantages I have experienced have all been due to a lack of something that I normally have readily available. These disadvantages do not emerge from France or the French culture.
I believe the best abroad experiences derive from those that fully embrace the life and culture of the places they are visiting. It is far too easy to go somewhere as a Canadian traveling in France, or an American traveling in France, or whatever you may be in wherever you may find yourself. Instead, we should attempt to just be a person in a new place with a positive perspective – and through that, develop an experience of a lifetime.
Where have you traveled where you’ve immersed yourself in the culture and had a great time? Have you ever been disappointed by an abroad experience? Share with us in the comments!
Written by Nikki Gladstone
Follow her on Twitter, @nikkigladstone!