A-broad, broadening my horizons

By Dora

This may come as a surprise to some of you, but I’m in Paris right now. Yes, at this very moment. Just came home from a concert of Vivaldi and Mozart at the Eglise Madeline, to find a nice little reminder that it’s my turn to post. Today. As in, as soon as possible. Oops …

Anyway, I’m in Paris for four weeks to learn French, explore the city, and squeeze in a little dancing. It’s the first time that I’ve taken such an extended vacation to one place, and it’s been a bit of an adjustment. Not only am I a virtual stranger here, I know next to no French, and have no prior experience with French culture. To say the least, it’s been a steep learning curve, mostly on the laughable side.

So why go to Paris, you might be asking. Well, I decided that in order to broaden my travelling horizons, I needed to learn French. This realization came to me in Morocco, which was the most foreign place I’d ever visited. Everything was strange. The food, the djellabas, the Moroccan Arabic and French languages, and all the other American people on my tour. Okay, maybe my co-tourists were a stranger than the Moroccans, but I’m trying to forget 90% of the Americans I met on that trip, so let’s not even go there.

Really, what I want most is understanding … of different people and places and cultures. And the best way I know how to do this is to experience it. And so it is that I am now in France.

Some of the things I have learned about France that I did not know before:

1) The 1st floor of an apartment building is equivalent to the second US floor. Luckily, the people in the apartment below mine didn’t have me arrested because I was trying to break into their apartment for twenty minutes before I half-remembered a passage from a childhood book that talked about a similar incident … except the children actually got into the house, and ate up all the food that the inhabitants had prepared for their own dinner. I did eventually get into the correct apartment, but I’ll spare you the next twenty minutes it took me to figure out how to use the keys.

2) It is customary to (air?) kiss someone once on both cheeks when meeting, greeting, and leave-taking. I like it. It takes a little getting used to, but no more than when I was in Italy during high school. So, if the next time I see you I plant one on both your cheeks, don’t be too surprised.

3) One is considered extremely rude if one does not greet a shop owner with a “Bon jour,” and take leave with an “Au revoir.” I just learned this today. Sadly, there are already about ten shopkeepers in Paris who have a horrible first impression of me. I’ve already decided to boycott these stores out of shame.

4) Before using familiar language, one should ask permission. This is not entirely new, since there is the same guideline in Italian and Spanish, but it takes relationships to a whole new level if one has to ask if one can be familiar. It just doesn’t sound the same in English … “Can I be familiar with you?”

So, these are just a few of my mini-adventures. And I’m learning. Learning about another Western culture that is not too different in many aspects from US culture, but distinct enough to keep me on my toes. Learning more about myself and what my expectations and assumptions are, and how I would like to modify them. And taking time to relax from my hectic everyday life to just get to know myself … how I’ve changed over the years, and how I want to direct my future.

I’d love to hear some of your stories. From what you’ve learned from being in a different space, be it in another country, state, neighborhood or state of mind. What have you learned that you wish you’d known before? What did you gain from this new understanding? How has your life changed because of your journey? What would you tell other travellers along the way?


Dora is a pediatric critical care nurse. Therapy to alleviate the stress in her professional life include traveling around the world, reading, partner dancing and hosting dinner parties.

You may also like...

No Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Dora! You’re in France! I’m jealous.

    It’s good you figured out that air kiss thing. When I was in Europe, I didn’t realize that it was only supposed to be air, so I was planting wet ones on the cheeks of every European I met. Whoops.

    I think one thing I’ve learned from travel is to appreciate how wonderful people’s lives are all over the world. I think I probably came into various countries kind of feeling sorry for the natives who didn’t have single family homes, or cars, or college education, or whatever like I did in the U.S. Now I’m better able to take a step back and realize that other countries have a lot of great things to offer, maybe just different than what we typically expect in the U.S.

  2. Navin Sharma says:

    Hi Dora
    I am an indian and we in my blog are trying to discuss the CULTURE difference we have between eastern and western, it will be a pleasure to have you in the discussion as we all will get to know more about different cultures

    if you are willing to join in do visit my blog that is

  3. jana says:

    Dora, I am so excited for you and your adventures! I love Paris. Love it, love it, love it!

    Some things you must do there: enjoy the bridges, take a cruise on the Seine (yes, they can be touristy, but oh well!), hang at Shakespeare & co bookstore, eat a meal at the Musee d’Orsay cafeteria (E says “Don’t eat at the Louvre”), try as many different cheeses as possible, sit in the parks at lunchtime and enjoy watching the lovers in the grass (and, oh, people watching is such sport in Paris–it’s not considered rude at all), and there’s this small street called Rue Cler (near the Hotel des Invalides) with a small Belgian chocolate shop whose name escapes me. They sell amazing chocolate and a “Poet’s Tea” that will inspire the muse within you.

    If you ever find yourself in the Latin Quarter on Rue de la Harpe, do wink at the dusty kitty that sleeps on top of the cars outside of the Hotel du Levant. He is a family favorite 🙂

    Above all, have fun and take lots of pictures to share with all of us!! 🙂

  4. FoxyJ says:

    When I got home from my mission (in Spain) I spent a month or so invading people’s personal space trying to give them “besos” on the cheek. I didn’t really realize it while I was there in Europe, but the difference in public/personal space is really different. Here in America we hardly look people in the eye on the bus or in stores and we drive everywhere in our own cars. There everyone is much more open and more interested in other people.

  5. bluewaveted says:

    The worst part of staying in another country for a while is forgetting to un-learn those customs when you go back home.

  6. Dora says:

    Caroline ~ Yes, I love to see and experience how other people live. Small example: My family was never very physicially affectionate when I was growing up. When I started going to junior high school, I was amazed at how my friends and their families were constantly hugging and touching. It was something that was culturally absent from my east Asian family. Now, I regularly hug and and sometimes kiss my family, and it’s been a really positive change over the years.

    Navin ~ Thanks for the invitation. I hope to see more develop from your postings!

    Jana ~ Yes, I am in the 5eme arrondisement, just a block away from the bookstore. They have a couple of Monday night events that I’m planning on attending. Yesterday, prior to the concert, I wandered down the Champs Elysee and through the Tuilleries. I just love the trees … the boxy-cut ones AND the natural ones. We’ve had the most beautiful blossoming trees, but they are started to green over as well. I hope enough stay flowery so that my mother and aunt can appreciate them as well next week. And although I have always loved cheese, I am now a certifiable baguette-a-holic. I never knew bread could be so good.

    FoxyJ ~ I feel surrounded by people, and I love it. People everywhere. Walking down the street, brushing against each other in the aisles of a store, walking past each other in an open market, together in the metro, etc. No, Parisians don’t typically look at me and smile, but I feel surrounded by a swirl of humanity, and it makes me feel less of a stranger. My French teacher says that although Parisians aren’t generally initially friendly, they tend to be more sincere and deep with their regard. We’ll see …

    Bluewaveted ~ But then one has the option of keeping or losing those customs!

  7. disillusioned says:

    I learned to never eat ice cream in Central or South America, and that I didn’t want to back to Guadalajara (although other places in Mexico were great!) Unfortunately, I haven’t been beyond North and South America–although I’ve traveled reasonably extensively through the U.S. Someday I’ll take on Europe–I just hope to have a tour guide who speaks the language! 🙂

  8. ryan says:

    A great Post Dora. As far as learning from travel you are a poster child for it and must have additional great insights.

    I think traveling makes you appreciate where your at more. The mission, a few trips in the South Pacific, and moving around in the states makes me look at travel books and activities when I hit an area that I cant do once I move on. Even when I go back to where I grew up, I see it more as a cultural experience and unique things to do and appreciate in addition to seeing friends and family. Traveling makes you appreciate where you are in a distinct way. This Saturday I’m heading to a recreation of the largest surrender of the Civil War and am getting into Chicken biscuits, BBQ, and appreciating the local dialect.

  9. Kiri Close says:

    FABULOUS that ur on the road!!!

    Isn’t is so, so, cool and spiritual to be in another unfamiliar space? Friggin’ awesome.

    My first personal step in ‘getting to know a place’ beyond the basic touristimo is to be quiet, and watch.

    Then copy the locals–language, movement, what to wear, etc.–without looking like you’re trying that hard.

    Keep any cultural criticism @ home, and enjoy, enjoy, enjoy the place!

  10. Kiri Close says:

    PS–And totally enjoy the food and aromas! girl, just do it up continually careful how locally it should be done.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.