Four Days in France


IMG_2734IMG_4351IMG_9719This past weekend I had the wonderful fortune of stumbling into an unexpected weekend trip to Paris. This was my first trip to Europe, but I guarantee that it was not my last.

I was born and raised in Denton, TX. My father is Colombian and my mother is Bolivian and the two of them met at the University of North Texas. My home was Spanish speaking until I was three years old, after which English became the language of use (unfortunately for me).

That being said, I have always had to deal with a bit of an internal identity crisis. “Who am I? What am I? Colombian? White? Texan?” This issue has helped to shape me for both the better and the worse.

Growing up I was surrounded by a mixed culture of both North American and Latin American traditions and practices. I felt completely comfortable inside of both environments. My Spanish was never perfect growing up, but Spanish was never a “foreign” language to me. It was a native language that I was just not able to fully utilize.

In middle school I began an annual 8-day trip to Mexico every spring break. My experiences there were what I considered “natural”. I have always considered my “soul/blood/heart/leanings” to be equally Latin as they are American. My Mexico experiences were just a more full manifestation of the Latin half of my being.

In college I was able to study in Costa Rica for about 5 weeks, followed by a trip to visit my family in Colombia for 3 weeks, and another trip to Panamá for 2 weeks. Like my earlier trips to Mexico, I felt at “home” in Latin America and in an existential thought process it felt like a more full remembrance of who I have always been.

This trip to Paris was my first clear and unarguable trip to a foreign land and foreign language. Prior to landing I had a strong confidence that I had traveled a fair amount before and that Paris would be only a little different from previous experiences. I had assumed that I could start most conversations with locals in Spanish (assuming that most Europeans spoke Spanish as well as French).

I stepped off of the plane by myself with known instructions to meet a group of strangers outside of the airport after I got through customs and baggage claim. Instantly I was paralyzed upon reading the French signage and hearing all sorts of “foreign” languages: French, German, Chinese, and many more.

For so many years I have discussed this very occurrence to my students and explained how to handle the situation. I explain that with a genuine effort you can communicate with anyone in the world. I have explained that most people around the world are willing to help foreigners and that with humility and lots of “pointing” and “miming” you can convey most messages. In a moment of truth I forgot the lesson that I have taught so many times. I truly became a frozen foreigner in an unknown land.

After two days of being “frozen” and unable to even attempt to communicate with local Parisians I found myself isolated and away from my group of tour-guides and I needed to eat lunch. I went inside of a little café and awkwardly ordered my lunch. After about 5 minutes of sitting quietly, my curiosity got the best of me and I tried to communicate with of the workers and we ended up have a wonderful “conversation” of five minutes. I understood maybe 25% of what he was saying and I believe that he might say the same about me.

Our conversation had absolutely no value in and of itself, but internally it was ground shattering. I lived out the same lesson that I have taught so many countless times. I laid aside my pride and I humbly and genuinely tried to interact with another human of another “world.” It was so much fun!

I didn’t feel any of the pressure that I have felt in my life concerning how much language I should or shouldn’t know. In the past (and still presently) I have felt so much internal pressure that I should know more Spanish than I do and should be able to communicate as a native speaker. This conversation was AMAZING, I felt as if millions of pounds of weight were lifted from my shoulders.

The rest of my trip I found myself continually walking up to locals and doing my best to communicate and interact. Each attempt I learned more vocabulary and became more confident and excited to learn more and more French as fast as I could. I am so excited to return to Paris and return to France. I am happy to have experienced my first “foreign travel” experience and I can’t wait for more to come in the future.

I encourage everyone to travel abroad – to travel to places completely foreign to your consciousness – and to expose yourself to things beyond yourself.  Don’t be afraid. Don’t be nervous. Don’t be embarrassed of who you are or where you are from. Learn and grow! Learn and experience! Share yourself with others and receive what others have to share with you.

I have said this many times before my trip to Paris and today I believe it more than ever, “Travel makes us better humans.” Things are different from place to place. Different doesn’t mean better/worse, but rather, different means different.

I have thousands of more thoughts that are still growing and coming to consciousness, but my final thought that I desire to share is this, “Travel without fear or expectation. Travel with humility and a desire to learn and experience the lives that others around our world live. Examine yourself and strive toward improvement and growth. Appreciate where you are from while enjoying the differences in others.”