Live There, Or Travel There?

Guest post by Alexander Goodman (www.bigfishsquad.com)

Whether you travel somewhere or live there, I don’t think it makes the experience any more valuable, one way or the other.  It is just different.

For me, it is a “calling” of sorts to experience new parts of world, and acquire appreciation for diversity; it gives meaning to my life.  You could even say it’s my religion, as trite as that sounds, I realize.

While you walk away from travel with both positive and negative impressions of the place you visited, it is that greater understanding of the place that makes it so rewarding.  Every place is good and bad for different reasons, but you respect that, because these people are simply different from you.

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Travel also forces you to experience various levels of adversity, so that when you return home to your “comfort zone”, you are, in my opinion, better equipped to handle the stresses of everyday life.

I live in France, and living abroad here has involved much of the aforementioned definition of travel, but in a much deeper, more multi-layered, and, at times, confusing way.

For instance, when you’re visiting Paris, you’re curious about the cultural differences.  But when you live here, those cultural differences arise in every relationship you have, both personal and professional, and it’s easy to question whether you chalk something up to the person, or the fact that they’re French.

That said, I can’t sit here and decree something like, “If you haven’t spent xx amount of time in a place, you haven’t really experienced it.”  That’s bullshit.  And you’re talking to someone who has done a lot of both.

Really, you’ve just experienced it differently visiting there than if you had lived there.  The point is to experience it somehow.

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But one thing is certain: I believe everyone who has the means should make an effort to get out of their comfort zone, and see the world, whether it be by traveling or living abroad.  Millions of people cannot afford to do either one of these; it is an untouchable luxury.

So to all those who have the means and the flexibility to do it, I urge you trade in that Caribbean beach vacay, and go somewhere truly exotic, truly different from what you know.  And once you travel there, who knows, maybe you’ll live there one day.  But in either case, the reward is precious and, unequivocally, invaluable.

Vive La Différence! (Long Live Diversity!)

Guest post by Alexander Goodman (www.bigfishsquad.com)

Until 2009, I was an American.  More specifically, I was a self-avowed New Yorker.  I’d traveled all my life; my parents are zealous travelers, and instilled that in my sister and me from an early age.  So while I had seen much of the world by the time I hit my mid-twenties, I had never lived abroad.

Sure, I did my four-month study abroad stint in Florence — that was mainly a lot of pasta-eating and wine-drinking.  But I didn’t necessarily sink into the Italian culture enough to feel like I had truly lived there.

After being in New York City for 7 years, opportunity knocked.  A friend of mine invited me to go live at his uncle’s apartment in Paris while his uncle was away in Egypt managing business.

Without hesitation, I said yes.  Fast-forward eight months, and I was arriving at Charles de Gaulle airport with three massive suitcases, my pack, my daypack, my messenger bag…my life in bags.

I hoped to stay a year in France, but I realistically knew that it would probably only be a few months before my money ran out, what with French class, wine, cheese, bread, cigarettes; the (French) works.

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But, alas, as all great authors write about, love happened.  Yep, I met a girl.  From that first drink at a café in Madeleine in the center of Paris, I was hooked.  A gorgeous, worldly, chic, blonde, half-English, half-French girl, but born and raised in Paris?  Yes, please.  I’ll have seconds.

And I did.  Seconds, thirds, fourths…from that point on, life was about figuring out how we would make our relationship work.  We went from living in Paris, to planning to move to London (which didn’t work out due to visa issues), to staying in Paris, getting married, living, working, all planning to, one day, move to New York.

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That takes us right up to the present, with elapsed time to date being just over three years.  And as a byproduct of my only wanting to be in the same place as the girl I am in love with, I became — Frenchisized.  Frenchified?  Frenchied?  In any case, it has happened.

I am no longer just an American; I sort of now straddle a cultural line between America and France.  This manifests in a lot of different ways, from language, to humor, to basic social interactions, to problem solving.

I find myself quieter, more behaved and well mannered, less into TV, and more into talking to people, more out in the world, so to speak.  I consume less than I did in New York; I’m less wasteful.  I’m more into conserving, in every facet of my life.  This is all, believe it or not, quintessentially French; it’s not all decadence as we Americans are brought up to think about French culture.  Life here is just more simple, not all about consumption.

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That said, Americans have a unique warmth in our character that I try to preserve while living here.  Meeting Frenchies can be tough – there is, indeed, at times, a standard “cold” French exterior to break through.  And efficiency-wise?  Let’s just say Americans have the French beat when it comes to solving a problem…

Now, this didn’t all happen during one particular period of time; the process of truly assimilating to a foreign culture is perpetual.  It never stops.  You constantly, month by month, learn new things about your new country, your old one, yourself, your friends and family from home…and, ultimately, the world as a global community, one solid mass of human beings, co-existing in an ocean of diversity.

It is a fluid process.  You may feel one way in winter, and by summer you’ve learned something new, or had experiences, that make you realize that the initial impression you had wasn’t necessarily right.

This is particularly the case with the language.  Some months, I’m owning it – the conversations at the dinner table with French friends flows like a river, and I find myself surprised at how much French lives in my brain.  But other times, I struggle with it, constantly choking on my words, not being able to find them.  And sure enough, it all comes back eventually.  Learning a language takes time.  So it’s important to remember you will have some “down periods”.  Don’t get discouraged, and know that, probably next week, you’ll surprise yourself again.

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As the French saying goes, “vive la différence” – long live diversity!  Living abroad, in my opinion, only adds to the depth of your character, by diversifying it.  It’s important to embrace that, even if it means overcoming some adversity in the process.

Living Abroad: Travel or Life?

I just read “Paris I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” by Rosecrans Baldwin, and have been really wondering: if you are somewhere for an extended stay, when does your status change from traveling abroad to living abroad?

Baldwin’s book is fantastic.  Having worked and lived in foreign countries, I could completely relate to his excitement, pain, disappointment, and joy.  And his writing is a pleasure to read; I found myself laughing and cringing alongside him and his 18-month adventure living and working in Paris.

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Beyond a doubt, Baldwin lived in Paris.  I’m just trying to figure out what the milestones are that made his stay there living, and not an extended business trip.

Is it going to the doctor?  I’ve had to seek out medical care for myself and others in foreign locals, none of which I’ve lived in.  So, it can’t be that.

It is having a flat of his own?  I’ve done the extended stay in houses and flats.  But those trips were definitely vacations.

Every milestone I think of, I can think of a time I did that activity somewhere that I wasn’t remotely considering a home.

So, what is it?

I’m starting to think it’s intangible.  It’s a state of mind.  If you think of someplace as home, then it is.  Can it really be that simple?

In my heart, I believe I have lived in two foreign cities: Prague and Buenos Aires.

I did a study abroad in Prague for the final semester of my senior year of college.  And, my time there really felt like living, not traveling.  I studied the language.  I made a bunch of friends.  I fell in love.  I traveled away from Prague, and felt like I was returning “home” when I returned to the city.  I found local gems in hidden nooks and crannies where I bought pastries in the mornings and beer in the evenings.  I mapped out my favorite running paths.  And, maybe most telling, I spent a lot of time not doing much at all; just being.

I went to Buenos Aires for a couple months for work, and also felt like I was living there, not visiting.  I had a metro card, learned to speak Spanish, locals became good friends, and again, after traveling around the region, always felt like I was coming back “home” to Buenos Aires after the trip.  I danced the tango, drank gallons of wine and coffee, went to fútbol matches, and bought an amazing collection of Prune purses.  And my god did I eat: empañadas, pizza, lamb, steak, pasta, cheese, dulce de leche…

I felt like home while I was living in both cities, and now, when I go back and visit, I feel like I am visiting an old friend.  In fact, I have taken friends to both cities, and excitedly tried to show them “My” Prague and “My” Buenos Aires.

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But, one of the truths about living somewhere and not vacationing there, is that your version of the city may not be so exciting to a tourist.

It’s not about the bells and the whistles when you live somewhere.  It’s about the core.  The rhythm of your morning coffee at your favorite café, figuring out just where to stand to get into the metro the fastest, finding the little club that hosts your favorite local bands. It’s about the heartbeat of everyday life.