This was written for my post-travel presentation for my Explore the World scholarship with Hosteling International – USA.
1. A lot of things are more efficient, but a lot of things are also inaccessible.
No wheelchair ramp here.
Anti-homeless spikes, and a very confused, able-bodied me in Paris.
When I came to Europe, I had a lot of notions of how things were better than the US. Like better public transportation, better healthcare and welfare, and even better government. Yes and no. While some things are more functional than the US (the high speed trains for example,) not everything is more efficient per se. Some simple things are surprisingly inaccessible, and it’s a lot easier to grin and bear it when you understand why that is. France has its own way of doing things. Most businesses are closed on Sundays because France is a Catholic country, despite many people being agnostic today. Lyon prides itself on food — most of which are small businesses, and with less working hours in the week, and just tradition, most restaurants are also only open from 12 to 2 and then 7 to 10. Coming back from a trip to Paris where I realized there was sometimes no handicap lift, I asked two french citizens over drinks what could handicapped people do in Lyon. And they looked at me with surprise and said people in wheelchairs couldn’t live in Lyon, they would have to live in country. Imagine my expression, coming from post-ADA United States! In actuality, while it is still possible to get around, this is still a frontier for France and while part of it has to do with buildings in France being very old, another part may just be that France has not had the same disabilities revolution as the US has had. At my French university, most of the toilets didn’t have toilet covers, were often out of toilet paper, and the doors didn’t have working locks. At my university in the US, there is a giant, well-kept park in the middle of the school. The buildings are new and immaculate, and everything works. Schools have their own zipcodes and modes of transportations but my university in France was smaller than my junior high school. Yet tuition for my university is $12,000, and with in-state room and board, a middle class family can expect to pay up to $30,000 a year. In France, university is almost free. In exchange, there is no air-conditioning, rooms look like prison cells, and people bark at you if you sit at the only cafeteria in the school to hang out after you’ve eaten your food. Speaking of air-conditioning, that was the number one complaint I heard from other American students in my program. My French friend summed it up perfectly when she said, “but that’s so expensive and bad for the environment!” The perspective towards renewable resources and sustainability is much different than in the US and if you understand (and appreciate that) it’ll be easier to enjoy yourself when you’re hot and sweaty with 30 other people in a classroom in September. Once I considered how little my fellow classmates were paying for their educations, I appreciated the French system a lot more.
2. Traveling as a person of color and marginalized community member is real abroad, but in different ways.
Racist graffiti found in Lyon.
Anti-Muslim sentiment in France and Switzerland.
According to a survey, that I’ve cited in my documentary, 100% of French women receive sexual harassment on the metro. Based off the interviews I had with my documentary subjects, this is pretty accurate. Many of my LGBTQ friends in France had experienced some kind of homophobic comments on the streets or by acquaintances at some point in their lives. My friend who is discriminated for her race in the US was also followed by strangers and called racial slurs in France. Police brutality, while rarely fatal, does exist in France and often falls upon darker-skinned people of color. But discrimination and racism is nuanced and different countries also have their own set of stereotypes along with their perceptions of who is a minority and who is a foreigner. In the US, people often ask me where I’m from, and then ask me “where I’m really from,” when I say Los Angeles, which is ridiculous when I’m wearing American-branded shoes, jeans, glasses, and even a sweatshirt from an American university, not to mention the obvious West Coast accent. But in France, while I did get the question literally once every four days (yes I kept track,) once I said “the US,” people rarely pursued the question further. Origin is a different question in France – while in the US, most of us are immigrants from somewhere, French people see a stronger distinction between citizenship and ethnicity. If you’re French, you’re French and if you’re American, you’re American. On another note, some of my best cultural exchanges have been at Asian restaurants. Several times, I walked into a restaurant to greet in French, asked a question in English, and said goodbye in Chinese. After a meal, I often talked with the Chinese and Vietnamese employees in a combination of these three languages. This exchange would never exist in the US and the pride of being multilingual with strangers, bonded together by language and a foreign upbringing, was something that affected me strongly in all of my travels.
3. We hate our politics, but so does everyone else.
Political posters in Berlin, Germany. Notice the satirical ones.
I was not happy with the results of the Presidential election while abroad and because I was visibly American a lot of people asked for my opinion on this. (Really, the question was kind of inescapable.) While I am definitely strong in what I believe in, being abroad post-election made me realize that people dislike their governments everywhere. People are fed up with politics everywhere. My French friends expressed fear for the upcoming primary, due to unpopular candidates and the rise of the Nationalist anti-immigration front. When I was in Czech Republic, the group of Polish travelers I met and my Czech hostel receptionist also expressed discontent for their leaders and governments. A Brazilian salesman I met in Portugal told me about the corruption and violence he’s seen firsthand in Brazil, having personally lost friends to drive-by shootings by gang members. And while safe in France, while people worried for my safety because of the past bombings in France, I felt like my heart was torn apart seeing the news in Aleppo. On my travels, I met people from different parts of the globe – India, Singapore, Guatemala, Chile, Turkey, and Cote D’Ivoire, and for the most part their thoughts were focused on passions and problems just like mine – their studies, their work, their families and spouses, traveling, having fun, hanging out with friends. Talking to people from all sorts of backgrounds made me realize that we often have similar problems, desires, and dreams, and there is very little difference between you and a person from another country that lies on a different tier of GDP or other superficial measurement. It also made me realize the value of having won the roll of the dice to where I live in a country with a stable government that has not seen a revolution or civil war for hundreds of years. It definitely put the election and my place in the world in perspective.
4. You will inevitably rely on the kindness of others. Let it be.
My American classmate with the two French girls who showed us a lot of love coming into our creative writing class.
Gwenn who not only starred in my documentary but gifted me rosemary, and Naella who saved me from Geneva.
When I came to France, I had an intermediate understanding of French, but I wasn’t fluent. This meant I ran into problems from time to time – from the beginning when I tried to buy a SIM card at the Lyon airport but the cashier didn’t understand my description of the product or speak English. Or when I gave wrong change at supermarkets because I was too embarrassed to ask them to repeat the numbers again. Or all semester, when I struggled to understand difficult lectures in French. Again, and again, I had to rely on the help of others. And time and time again, I felt blessed by the unconditional kindness that people would show me.
One of the first trips I took was to Geneva, where on the way back, there was a rail problem and suddenly we were all dumped near the French border while announcements blared in French. I couldn’t understand most of the words, so a woman who spoke perfect English translated for me and the other anglophone speakers. On the ride back, we found out we had many similarities and we became friends from then on.
Another time, I asked a student to share his notes with me for an especially challenging 16th to 18th Century Literature class. Alexandre not only sent his notes promptly to me after every lesson but also let me know updates of each class when I missed memos spoken quickly in French. He later helped me on a translation I did for my documentary project and we became good friends.
The amount of kindness shown to me in my classes was incredible, nothing like the cutthroat American academic culture that I was used to. One girl in my Horror Film class realized that my other international classmates and I were struggling, so she offered to send me her notes without us asking. Another student in a different film class even offered to translate her notes in English for me!
Another student, Celia, not only invited me into her circle of love, where I would have casual crepe and beer parties with her very loving friends, but helped me find a last-minute candidate for my documentary in the last week that I was in Lyon, after another candidate dropped out on me. She did this even when she was facing an upcoming surgery and always made time for me especially if she knew I was feeling down. I only wish I could have given to her as much as she had given to me.
When you travel and become a foreigner in a different country, you will experience some things that will be unusual and jarring for me, but the kindness you receive and cannot always give back is something that will always stay with you forever. Accept this kindness and aspire to be someone who can give it back at your home country, or wherever else you go.
5. Traveling didn’t make a better person. Making personal connections with people did.
The whole gang in Prague, of solo woman travelers united – taking a fun group picture!
Fika break in Sweden, with Avi, who gave me tips on the best coffee spots in Stockholm!
Haillee from North Carolina and Elliot from New Zealand, just two of the vibrant souls I met on my travels.
As I mentioned earlier, travel requires to rely on others and the traveling community is fueled by respect, sharing, and open-mindedness. I think people always talk about traveling broadening horizons in terms of places, culture, and history, but the most important aspect of traveling for me was the other travelers and people I met along the way, whether they were a local or not. These connections opened my eyes to how big the world was – and my heart to all the different ways I could give back.
When I went to Prague, I met Augustina and a lot of other solo woman travelers from all over the world. When I arrived in Prague, I was depressed. I had missed a plane to Krakow, and had to pay more for a one-way flight to Prague. Augustina and the women cheered me up, and we all became very close. In the end, we all exchanged information and promised each other, if we were to ever go to Singapore, Buenas Aires, or Los Angeles, that we would all drive each other around and show us all our cities.
That’s the magic of travel, when you leave, you gain more than just a welcome to the city you come to. In Lisbon, I asked a man for directions for a bus – I found out he was an Italian abroad student and he ended up going to a museum together with me and grabbing breakfast with me the next day. He was thinking about doing his masters in Uppsala and having fallen in love with Sweden, we agreed to definitely meet up again if he did. In a small German town, I met Elliot, an engineering student from New Zealand. After one hostel breakfast together, I offered to explore the town with him. We ended up going to the next city together, where we climbed up a giant castle and ate a delicious traditional German meal. We remained in good contact, and upon returning to the US, he shot me another message once he traveled into France.
With all of the kindness I received, one of the best things I did while abroad was give back. When the rest of my apartment was gone, I offered my room to a couchsurfer from Chile. Couchsurfing is a great community online where you can stay with hosts and exchange culture without having to pay for a room. Since I had benefited from it in the past, I thought now would be a good time to try being a host. Juan was not only kind and giving but I met him again when he invited me to a party he threw at his now-permanent residence in Lyon. I invited my friends, and even though they mostly spoke French, and Juan only spoke English and Spanish, they became friends and exchanged contacts as well.
Becoming friends with an Australian and a Guatemalan in Lisbon.
With these stories, I leave two final messages and tips for those who look forward to going abroad. Kindness is the lifeblood of travel but remember that you are always a visitor in someone else’s home or neighborhood, so respect the space you occupy. Always be friendly, (even if the person you are greeting at first does not seem to be so, and sometimes there is reason for that,) smile, and try to speak a little of the language of where you are at. It will go a long way. Help people whenever you can, and when you meet other travelers that speak your language, don’t be afraid to reach out. You never know when you will make a new friend for life.
Second, look for ways you can give back. A lot of my French friends had never been to the US before and had aspirations to see places like Los Angeles or New York. I never hesistated to answer questions people had about my country or my hometown. Even silly questions, I didn’t seek to get offended, especially knowing my privilege and knowing how arbitrary citizenship can be. Learn to laugh at yourself and see how the rest of the world sees you. Practice the language of your abroad country because your effort equals respect, and help others practice their English if they want to as well. Share something new if you can, whether it’s a traditional dish, a gift, your photography or drawing skills, or even a silly viral video that’ll make them laugh. And don’t forget that the journey doesn’t end when you come back home. Try to educate other people’s views of foreigners that may be based in stereotypes or misunderstandings. Go to your local international student center and offer to be an American friend at your university for someone else that could use the friendship. And don’t forget, now that you’ve broadened your horizons, if you settle elsewhere and become a local, you can help out a flustered traveler, too.