Monday night I returned to Tennessee from a 10-day stay in France, and while I had an amazing time (physical traveling including planes and trains – yikes!) I was very, very glad to be home. I was especially glad to return to Mt. Juliet: I missed my friends and co-workers, the people who surround and lift me daily, to whom I turn and confide.
I was startled and surprised to find that the people in France, especially in Paris, were very friendly and helpful: from the Delta employees at the Charles de Gaulle airport to waiters in Paris and people in Metro (subway) tunnels, almost everyone was willing to assist a fumbling American struggling with rushing crowds and a very tentative grasp on the French language. There is a stereotype, I think, that Americans have about the French: there were many “frog” and smelly Frenchmen jokes posted on Facebook and in emails to me, but the truth is (and thanks to the Eyewitness Travel France guidebook for the tip) if you smile, say “Bonjour!” and are friendly immediately when you approach someone, 90 percent of the time that person will smile and help. Or at least try. Because French doesn’t sound nearly so lovely (or coherent) when it’s tainted by a Tennessee twang.
One major thing I learned while in France is tolerance: not being able to communicate with everyone around you because you can’t speak their language (in their home country) is frustrating and at times quite scary. While I agree that if a person is going to move to a different country they should at least try to learn the native tongue, those visiting should be treated with patience and kindness. As a tired but persistent to see the sights, non-French speaking American who was treated almost consistently with patience and kindness, I now know that sort of karma can come back to you both ways.
Something else I learned while away is that it is self-indulgent and easy to take your friends and family for granted, especially those you see on a regular basis. I missed my family terribly, but I also missed my friends and coworkers. I was flung out into the world, away from my support system and comfort zone, and while it became less difficult every day I still struggled. I couldn’t think about my 4-year old son for more than a moment without my throat closing up, and I found myself constantly wanting to call or text my friends to describe the slant of light on the roses of Auvillar or the cute Parisian couple with no regards to the restraints of public displays of affection.
But most importantly, I learned that I am stronger than I thought. I traveled internationally (flying stand-by at that) by myself, and while it was definitely scary (the TGV European train system takes some study and swift feet) traipsing through airports and gasping at the Eiffel Tower sparkling like lit jewels in the black Parisian sky on my own was liberating and fulfilling. I am resilient and adaptable and calm in stressful situations. I learned a lot about travel and French culture (and wine and cheese and bread, oh my!), but I also learned a lot about myself. I learned to slow down, and listen, and breathe. I learned to linger with the sun in my hair instead of cursing that there aren’t enough hours in the day.
I learned to live, not just make it through each day.