The city of love! The city of lights! Baguettes for breakfast, snails as a snack and cheese galore! Wine all the time, cigarettes all around, and berets abound! Sadly, this wildly stereotypical depiction of Paris, France was approximately what I had in mind when I first learned I was to visit this city with my friend and her family. Before this trip, I had never been outside the country besides one strange trip to Canada, which involved hairspray, playing cards, and a curious fear of mist on the behalf of my half-sister. As I chose Spanish as my foreign language in school, my French extended not far beyond the archaic expression “Zut alors!” gleaned from The Little Mermaid and “Bonjour!” ascertained from Beauty and the Beast. At that point, Disney was responsible for nearly all of my global awareness.
I desperately needed to expand my international cognizance beyond its limited Epcot scope. To remedy this paucity of knowledge, I did what any teenager would do: I surfed the Internet. I prayed to the Wikipedia gods to make me Paris proficient, but my prayer went unanswered. I learned about coq au vin, and aperitifs, but nothing about how it is to live in France. So, cheetah print duffel and newly acquired passport in hand, I boarded my first international flight woefully ignorant, though not for lack of trying. At around three in the morning Eastern Standard Time, a flight attendant accosted me with a croissant and orange juice. Immediately, I knew I would like France: the only time it is okay to wake me up that early is if you are holding a pastry item, or maybe a sack of money. Thankfully, both situations are rare or I might be overweight and/or in trouble with the IRS. In any case, our cab driver met us at the baggage claim, where I had my first French experience. A tourist, who could only be described as Ugly American #1 for his fanny pack alone, ran over the foot of our cab driver and received a loud “Merci Beaucoup!” for his offense. I decided I would love this man forever.
After a pit stop at our apartment, we promptly began our weeklong site seeing sojourn. Like any traveler’s odyssey, it entailed every single tourist attraction that could be squeezed into one week. Our list included but was not limited to Notre Dame and its regretfully inanimate gargoyles, the Eiffel Tower and its surprising lack of star-crossed lovers, what we presumed to be the Touileries Gardens, the actual Tuileries, and the catacombs in which it is more than likely that I inadvertently inhaled the dust of a dead French poet. Needless to say, I was exhausted. One seesaw ride and two omelets into the trip, I was punched in the face by an epiphany: at none of these places did I see anything enumerated by the French stereotype. True, most French people do eat baguettes (though not exclusively) and many of them do smoke, but not in the hyperbolic fashion so many assume. Just as the United States is not entirely composed of cowboys or businessmen, France is a diverse nation not unlike the United States. No one deserves to be judged prematurely as a result of the country from which they hail.
Thinking back to my irrational preconceived notions about Paris and its inhabitants, I was extremely embarrassed. This excursion taught me that to truly know another country, one must experience it. No book, website, or brochure can ever come close.
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