Travel is the insane desire to become lost. Lost in a culture, a language, lost in ourselves. And when I decided to study abroad for a year, I was completely unaware of how my world would change, of how the experience was as much about understanding humanity, as it was discovering France.
When terrorists targeted several restaurants, bars, and a concert in the iconic city of Paris, I was rudely awoken to a reality I had only heard of in passing. Scrambling to dial phones and insure the safety of fellow classmates, my class was shocked, shaken to the core. The air became heavy with a shared mourning; we were grieving for those who died a death that could have easily been any of us.
We underwent a collective loss of innocence, and we grieved, unsure of what to do next, unsure of how a year of dreams could be shaken by a massacre in the city of light.
The glamor of travel has been officially muted as we sink into the politics of a country that is scared. And as a group of foreigners we find ourselves stuck between perspectives: we are no longer fully Americans, yet not French, and we float between both universes, unsure of how we relate to our world and the events that darkened it. Having a South American family, my own perspective is even more complicated and nuanced.
In the midst of the shock and terror, we began to clearly see both sides of events play out: the U.S. seeks out methods to stop future terrorism, contemplates the threat that incoming refugees pose to our safety, some even suggesting Muslims are a potential danger. France secures boarders, compares the situation to the past war in Algeria, and extends the state of emergency. We start to see the mindset of each nation: one looks to the future for guidance, one looks to the past. We see this on the surface of every day life: the daily rush, competition, and the coffee to-go, versus three hour meals, the tranquil café culture, the mandatory time spent with the family– the cultural orientation is different in all aspects of life abroad.
More differences began to surface in the environment of crisis: how both cultures deal with tragedy; the U.S. with sympathy and action, France with a contemplative, cold front. Then seeing these characteristics play out in the day to day dinner table conversations, I compare this to South American culture: passionate, our emotions readable like an open book; while the French are reserved and relationships build over time. The list continues endlessly: Brazil, France, U.S.A, blending into a multicolored flag that barely represents myself. And as I further discover what separates us as people, apart from the ocean between us, I am struck by similarities: The way in which we united after the attacks, the displays of solidarity, the mourning and memorials of flowers and flickering candles all over the globe—the world became one nation, united in sadness and in love.
In the end, we learn that what made Paris so iconic was its beauty, but what allows it to continue to thrive is its people, community, and diversity. Travel is not the mere visiting of a physical location or landmark: it is plunging our consciousness into a pool of perspectives and allowing ourselves to be changed by it. As long as we travel, we open our minds to other places, and it is through crisis that we discover the very heart of our culture, our people, and ourselves.
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