Now that we’re well into the month of August, I’m beginning to hear the oft-asked question “Have you gone on vacation yet?” It feels a bit strange to answer that I actually went on vacation in March, but then I remember how it was not only a singular experience, but also a special occasion that led me to travel so early in the year to a not-so warm climate. When I respond how I celebrated my birthday abroad in Paris, the reaction is typically one of understanding and respect.
Despite allowing the reputation of Paris to fill in the blanks as to why I chose to visit the City of Lights, I do worry if I’m misrepresenting my time there. I spoke to my rationale for traveling to tourists’ favorite holiday spot in a previous blog post, and I shared a little bit about how it didn’t quite measure up to my expectations. Yes, I visited the Eiffel Tower, the Musée Rodin, took a walking tour of Montmartre, shopped the shelves of Shakespeare & Co., and enjoyed chocolat chaud on the deuxième étage of Café de Flore. I was a tourist and proud. But I was also searching for inspiration on what to do next on my journey and direction on what to pursue next in my career. And in this, I was disappointed.
Or was I?
You see, I knew I would be mulling the memories of my trip to Paris for months to come (if not longer). So it was no shock at all when I realized recently that although I didn’t get to spend hours exploring the 4th and 5th floors of the Centre Georges Pompidou, walk along the Champs Élysées, or visit the grave of author Alexandre Dumas, I had experienced smaller moments of every day life in a city that draws 80 million people to its streets every year. In those moments, I was more than a tourist.
Part of the reason for that is I deliberately chose to stay at a hostel away from the usual tourist sites because I wanted the experience of traveling among the residents of Paris whom, just like New Yorkers, have grown accustomed to her face. And in doing so, I was able to pack away quite a few experiences I never intended to have:
- Enjoying a breakfast date with the persistent, yet handsome Haitian night manager of my hostel at a nearby resto. We said we would keep in touch, but I suspect otherwise.
- Quietly observing the attitudes and interactions of daily commuters as I took the Metro every day, attempting to look as if I belonged waiting along the platform, watching passengers do Sudoku, and buskers play for money.
- Muddling through my “best” French on my last night in Paris as I dined on duck confit and drank vin chaud in a small bistro in Belleville. If I ever return, I hope to eat here again.
- Getting into a vicious argument with a British tourist at the hostel who spent an entire hour attacking my country under the guise of being a worldly sophisticate, instead of a pompous, condescending jackass who’s used to people treating him like he’s the king of the world. Seriously, he never once told me his name, but he mentioned he was an investment banker on sabbatical 3 times.
- Delighting in my first taste of absinthe (classic French style), and discovering that not only do I really like it, but I hope to find a New York location that serves it in the same method.
- Sharing a lively conversation over what was supposed to be brunch, but was really just breakfast with too-kind-for-this-world Sumedha, an Indian student doing research in France for her degree in Dance at a university in Norway. Take a look at her amazing photography skills on her website, kathagraphy.com. I surprised her when she saw I knew what Kathak dancing was, and she complimented me on my French pronunciation, even though I’m awful at it conversationally. She also gave me the idea to consider Indian university literary fellowships if I plan to pursue a graduate degree in the future.
Even though I could’ve done without my first case of jet lag that left me feeling as if I had been on the verge of exhaustion for the majority of my day or the catty French women stereotyping me based on my order in a restaurant (we were in a French restaurant in France, but somehow my order was “typically American.” Um, OK.), I appreciate all the experiences I had in Paris. Maybe I didn’t get the direction I had been hoping for on where to go in my career, but I certainly received an endless source of inspiration if I change my perspective just so.
And that in of itself is a lesson. Sure, I went outside of my comfort zone in hopes of finding a sign on what I should do next for the latter half of my journey on this blue marble, but that isn’t enough. Millions of people go outside of their comfort zones, but few truly bother to change their perspective. Instead they brag about seeing the world differently while only hoping to impress people with the number of stamps on their passports. For these people, it’s about the declaring how they know the correct way to eat tapas or hopping the rail across the continent and ticking off each city like it’s a obligatory scavenger hunt.
I may have been a tourist — which I never understood why that’s necessarily a bad thing — but I allowed the city to teach me in ways I hadn’t expected. No one noticed me. I wasn’t significant in any way. But I was moved to be a part of something far more grand than I was used to. And that is an experience more valuable than anything you can get by simply going outside your comfort zone.