Growing up I rarely traveled. Part due to my parents working 70 hours a week with out PTO, and also because they are naturally homebodies, we just never really traveled. The only traveling I did was short trips to do charity work through church, or college organizations, never been to Disneyland/world/cruise/etc.
It wasn’t until college I started to travel. I toured with a band, went to Cambodia, China, and an impulsive trip to Ireland 5 years ago, which is still one of the best memories I have of my fast paced and blurry 20’s. That trip was the perfect mix of good company and spontaneity. I’ve never laughed so hard about something that you-had-to-be-there-for. And I still have nightmares driving through the Irish countryside as I tried not to crash us while driving on the opposite side of everything.
Since then, these past few weeks have been the first time I went back to Europe. We went to Nice with my brother and his family, and then Becky and I went to Paris for a few days. Yes, Paris is beautiful. As a friend put it, it’s as if you’re in a movie; a movie made up of the most romantic and beautiful parts of every scene ever.
A few observations that are at the top of my mind:
- It seems like everyone smokes there. Constantly.
- Traffic lights and street crossing rules are chaotic.
- You can’t ever over hype the food there.
- It’s as dirty as it is romantic.
- Walk around as much as you can. We walked around 45 miles for the four days we were there. It’s like NYC that way and one of my favorite things about the city.
Boys to Men
But what really stands out is the gravitas of being in a country with thousands of years of history behind it. I realized how young and immature the culture and arts are here in United States compared to France (and probably the rest of the world). We’re the strongest, wealthiest, and most innovative country in the world, but also the most childish in that way.
Because as someone who understands art rather than science, stepping into France I realized we just have echoes of what they take for granted everyday. That fancy new brunch place in Soho that sells $20 avocado toasts took a slice out of the French Bistro on Rue Taylor. The cobblestone streets that we prize around the city? It’s there in every alleyway and street in Paris.
And the architecture! I was obsessed with them while I was there; the buildings, the streets, the way the light danced around the neighborhood. Each fence had a different design, the colors of the buildings were imaginative and tasteful, and every restaurant had outside seating where the chairs closest to the street were faced ouside so that you can take your time to observe, think, and enjoy (and smoke).
Then there’s the everyday, more subtle rituals, that I really appreciated. For example, each restaurant we went to placed our check on a small plate, and presented it in a way where we had to unfold the paper to see the total amount. It’s as if they were saying, “thank you for your patronage, we hope what you will pay in a few minutes is worth what you’ve experienced here and much more.” 1 I heard Alton Brown say in an interview that going to a restaurant can be this beautiful expression of hospitality and craft. French brasseries have that built into their DNA.
When I went to Seoul (my motherland) and Tokyo, I didn’t feel this way about a country. But in France, even though the language is so foreign 2 and we looked at maps all day to get around, I really want to go back as soon as I can.
Judging a Book by its French Covers
But really none of that may be true about France, or any country I visit. I’m describing how beautiful and tasteful the cover of this book is, but when I actually read it, the book might be entirely different. I may end up not liking the book at all.
That’s the beauty and lie about travel. How much can you really know about a country when you only spend a few days there. How much can you research, read, and know before you get there? Not much at all, especially if it’s a place that’s been around since the Iron Age.
I know understand the adage that the real benefit of travel isn’t for us to get to know the world, but to get to know ourselves better through the world. It’s hubris to think that we understand the world better by traveling. Just like thinking spending two weeks building home, is changing the world. We learn more about ourselves and change in the process than anything we could do for them.
We get to walk away with selfies and stories, while the country accommodates and tries its hardest to not be too inconvenienced. How selfish of us.
France was amazing but that’s because it was amazing on my terms. Coming back with these observations I want to be a more thoughtful and hospitable person. I need to make an effort to slow down and not let my 30’s be a blur.
Always face the chair towards the street.
Always give more value than you receive.
And even when you are building the 1000th fence, build it with care and creativity.
- After being in France and Japan where tipping isn’t the norm. I’m a bigger proponent of it. The idea that the patron has the power to rate someone’s service through money takes away the soul of dining out: hospitality. Pay your workers a decent sustainable wage so that they are free to be as hospitable as they can be. I’ll pay more for the food, don’t skirt the responsibility to me. ↩︎
- I wish I learned French when I was in school. It just seemed so impractical back then. I learned Greek in junior high school because Astoria, NY has the largest Greek population outside of Athens. And I learned Spanish in high school because we live in NYC. But I wish I learned a language for the sake of learning it, and to tap into it’s culture and beauty even sooner. ↩︎