From Tourist to Traveler

Before our departure, I had been most anxious about our stay in Paris. I was convinced that a distinct language gap existed between Americans and French, which would reveal the repressed tourist in me. I was convinced that my inability to speak French would cause locals to berate or ignore me. I was convinced that Paris would swallow me and that I would be unable to communicate. Despite my initial presumptions, I arrived in Paris with an open mind. I sought to explore the city as thoroughly as I could in my short time there.

While the most frequented tourist spots had plenty of English speaking officials and people to assist the group, the restaurants and attractions off the beaten path proved a little more difficult. Venturing on foot from our hotel, we stumbled upon a small, cheap Chinese restaurant on the corner and decided to give our wallets a break for the night. The waiter only spoke bits of English with a heavy accent and we only knew limited French, which made for an interesting evening of pointing at the menu to order, switching meals once they arrived, and comical hand gestures to convey our desire to split the check. It seemed that this one meal would confirm all of my original fears.

The meal was initially difficult and frustrating, but eventually became enjoyable and lighthearted. I realized that the language gap, while being an inhibitor, also gave us unique experiences. Each meal became its own adventure as well as an opportunity for us to immerse ourselves in local culture and to practice our own French skills. Time and time again in Paris, our lunches and dinners allowed us to not only discover new dishes (which mostly involved bread and cheese), but also to integrate into a culture we had spent so much time studying the past semester.

Fully adjusting to the different culture takes more time than the few short days we have here. Language plays an integral role in assimilating, and I have noticed that as I learn French and basic norms of the city, I separate myself from other tourists. In Starbucks by Notre Dame, a place flooded with Americans and other foreigners speaking English, I placed my order in broken French. The cashier smiled and complimented my effort. I was ecstatic with this small but satisfying accomplishment (even more so when my order came out correctly).

For me, Paris served as a catalyst, allowing me to evolve from a simple tourist to an experienced traveler. While the city was undeniably filled with tourists, I tried to detach myself from acting as the stereotypical American student abroad. By actively learning and employing the language, I felt more connected with Paris and the city’s culture than I had with any of our previous stops. In London, the official language was English. In Bayeux, English was spoken widely enough that it desensitized me to culture shock in a new country. Yet in Paris, I found myself forced to adapt to the language gap in order to thrive.

Moving now to Berlin, I hope to continue to grow my connection with each city and with Europe as a whole. I am excited to experience a large city that is far less inundated with tourists and see if that changes my perspective at all.

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