One of my favorite lifestyle bloggers recently took a weeklong trip to Paris. I felt almost as excited for her trip as if I were the one going. She has outstanding taste, and her blog is so full of beautiful things and great ideas; it seems like every weekend is full of stylish brunches outside and strolls through picturesque farmer’s markets. She has a great camera, narrative flair, and the budget of my wildest dreams–I couldn’t wait to vacation vicariously through her posts and pics.
I was so. thoroughly. disappointed.
Her first couple of days were packed with sightseeing–she sort of skimmed over those days, which gave me the impression that she didn’t enjoy the museums and churches too much. That was when she and her husband decided to ignore their touristy plans and “just chill.” Her favorite day of the trip consisted of ordering room service, hanging out in the hotel in robes until mid-afternoon, and then going out shopping while her husband watched TV. They went out for a quick dinner that evening, but made sure to get back to the hotel in time to watch The Bachelorette while eating Haribo gummy bears (apparently, France has a much better Haribo selection than L.A.).
I’m sorry, she flew aaaaaallllllllll the way to Paris….to order room service? And her favorite day consisted entirely of things she could have easily done–and probably would have enjoyed more–in America? And she bought a bunch of stuff that she could have ordered off the Internet? And then she watched bad American TV while eating gummy bears? There were pastries out there: creamy, decadent, artistic, delicately flavored, life-changing PASTRIES that are as superior to gummy bears as a Monet painting is to dog crap on a sidewalk. If she needed to relax, there were gardens in full bloom, where every hour is magic hour in the late July sun. There were hour-long cruises down the Seine. There was the Rodin museum, where she wouldn’t have needed to elbow tourists for a spot: she could have sat (at an outdoor cafe, even) and looked at the sky and water and the soul-piercing beauty of Rodin’s sculptures. Instead, she did what too many Americans do when they go overseas for the first time: revert to the familiar, mind-numbing comforts of excess consumerism and vapid entertainment.
I know that everybody has a different idea of what makes a fun vacation. And I know there’s a need to balance high-octane tourism with low-key moments of reflection (and I recognize that I lean too heavily toward the “high-octane” side). I’m glad she was able to enjoy her trip, although I’m not convinced that she had as good a time as she tried to make it sound.
But travel is meant to lift you out of life as you know it. It’s meant to feel dissonant, strange, even uncomfortable. In that space, you can learn new things about yourself and the world. There is no point in staying cocoooned in hotel rooms, no matter how pretty, when you’ve traveled halfway around the world. What frustrates me the most is when I see people who were “so excited” to visit a new place trying to import as much of their home life into their experience as they possibly can. I used to take high school students on trips overseas, and it baffled me how some of them would stay glued to their phones, whine for McDonald’s (um, you don’t even like McDonald’s at home?), arrogantly observe how everything was “so much better” in America, and talk about how they couldn’t wait to go home. They really only wanted to shop and go to the beach, which they could have done in Florida, much more cheaply. I felt sad for them.
What most people don’t know is that fully experiencing the benefits of overseas travel requires physical and mental work. You have to push through the language barrier and adapt to different cultural customs. You have to get lost, stand in long lines, and occasionally confront some of the uglier sides of your host culture. This makes most people want to retreat.
But if you refuse to retreat, if you accept each difficult circumstance as an occasion to learn about a new culture and reflect on your own, if you keep reminding yourself that all too soon you’ll be re-immersed in the comforts of home, if you embrace where you are, you will experience the fullest riches that travel affords. You’ll come home changed: mind expanded, heart full. You’ll be so starry-eyed with beautiful memories that you’ll start planning the next trip on the plane ride home.
It really doesn’t matter if you’re a millionaire staying at a five-star hotel or a student staying in a hostel: it’s all about your attitude. You’ll never really see Paris–or anywhere else for that matter–if you never take off your American glasses.