Approaching my first two weeks abroad, I already feel that I have had substantial time to reflect on my adventure in Paris. As expected, I have learned a great deal about the French language and culture while in class, living with my host family, visiting tourist sites, and exploring the city. More significantly, though, I have learned about myself and how I can apply my Parisian mindset to my daily life. Below I have captured some of the key lessons that have enlightened me while living abroad in Paris.
- Eat to enjoy, not to indulge. Many Parisians eat bread and cheese at every meal, and chocolates or pastries after every lunch and dinner. Most of our waistlines are saying “no fair! How is that possible?” This seems contrary to all diet rules we have heard. I eat sweets almost every day now, including crepes with Nutella, creme brulee filled chocolate, coconut cookies, and chocolate waffles. One significant observation is that the portions are a quarter of the size of those in the United States. The smaller portions are encouraging me to enjoy each morsel, rather than feel full after eating sweets. My host sister told me that the average French woman’s BMI is 19, which is on the verge of being underweight. This reminds me that portion control is key. Rather than restraining ourselves and then indulging too much, we should allow ourselves to enjoy small portions and satisfy our cravings.
- Look to appreciate, not to just see. Notice differences between your new destination and your home, and learn from them! Tourists are often better at looking to appreciate than locals, especially because tourists experience a series of “firsts” when traveling: “first time seeing the Eiffel Tower,” “first time cruising on the Seine River,” etc. For those living abroad, it becomes easy to overlook our surroundings. We may walk past monuments without appreciating their history. Or we may drive home from work when the sun is setting without noticing the beautiful sky. With the opportunity to visit Paris a second time, and now fully engage with the city as a student, I am focused on appreciating all of my surroundings. I am taking several photos to capture memories. I am reading every sign and researching the significance of the buildings, monuments, and streets around me (centuries of history I should mention). This appreciative outlook is helping me become more understanding of the French culture. I also feel more grateful for the small things that bring me joy and empowered to face adversity in my daily life.
- Listen to understand, not to judge. While traveling and especially while living abroad, we are constantly encountering new people, which means new perspectives. In various conversations, we will likely hear things that enlighten us, surprise us, or even enrage us when living abroad. I’m surprised by home many expats in Paris I’ve met who have said, “You’re American, why do you need to learn French?” Or “Why are you traveling in Europe? I thought Americans only stayed in the U.S.” I have chosen to listen to their questions respectfully and respond with my genuine interests and goals about learning French. I realized that according to this stereotype about Americans, I might be rare for having the travel bug, eager to learn new languages, and explore new cultures. Rather than judging their assumptions, I am working to be an American ambassador, demonstrating that many Americans do in fact enjoy learning about other languages and cultures.
On a separate but similar note, traveling often forces us to take the role of listener. Particularly when we are learning a new language, we are still learning how to formulate words to contribute (confidently) to a conversation. This intensive listening is a good exercise particularly for those of us who often voice our opinions. Without having to (or being able to) speak, we become more understanding and less apt to make quick judgments in a conversation.
- Speak to communicate, not to fight. The world is full of hateful words, and it is easy for us to engage in a fight. We can be more effective by having the objective to communicate and foster understanding in a conversation. This became more apparent to me when I visited the Place Republique in Paris, which has a monument with a memorial for the terrorist attacks in January and November 2015. The memorial speaks volumes about the pain the French felt when attacked over the past year. Hundreds of candles, photos, poems, and letters surround the monument, voicing the Parisian’s sadness, values, and dreams for the future. The memorial has a way of communicating powerful words that inspire the world, rather than engaging in a fight. If we truly want to end the war on terrorism, we need to disengage from the “dirty fight,” respect each other, and not fall victim to the endless fear that terrorists are hoping to provoke. I have faith that goodness will prevail, especially if we can effectively communicate with eachother throughout the world.
- Live to experience, not to achieve. Every year, I have come closer to the realization that life is a series of experiences, and not necessarily achievement milestones. With the expectation that we will have a series of experiences (and not just accomplishments), we will no longer fear failure. One of my favorite quotes that I recently read was by Nikola Tesla: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” We will go through ups and downs, all of which combine to create the experience of life. My time in Paris has been a great example of this “experience” mindset. My first weekend in Paris I went the wrong way on the metro a few times, but it made me learn the “ins and outs” of the metro before beginning school. My phone died a few times and I didn’t have a charger, but it reminded me to pause and look with my own eyes rather than the eyes of my iPhone camera and social media pages. Despite all the changes and new beginnings in 2016, I have a sense of calm within me, solely because I am enjoying considering both positive and negative moments as life experiences.
I hope these inspirNational lessons I have learned while living in Paris can inspire you too. What other enlightenment have you experienced while living abroad?