I am always shocked when I meet a full-grown adult who has never left the United States, a person who -- out of choice, not economic constraint -- willingly never leaves their national soil to step onto foreign land. Some even go so far as to call travelling and the desire to understand other cultures "un-American." I kindly disagree.
I believe that, if one has the economic opportunity to do so, travelling is in fact the most American thing you can do. Every tourist is an ambassador, getting a brief glimpse into the tableau of a nation's character. This kind of travelling includes maintaining an American identity while winning the favor, respect and understanding of non-Americans. And in turn, we better understand others, and therefore have more respect.
Bend the Baguette
When you travel, something else happens. You may come to believe that countries that had seemed very different, well, aren't really.
I've lived in Paris on and off for a total of two years and have bought and devoured many baguettes in that time. But it was only yesterday that I learned the "bent-baguette" trick. However, the simple phrase "Shall I cut it in two?" blew my mind at the bakery the other day. Of course I wasn't going to cut it half! I was going to eat the whole fricking thing, why would I cut it in half now, here, at the bakery?
It wasn't until my friend bent the baguette in half, stuffing both halves into its paper bag as if it was the most obvious thing in the world that I realized the folly of my ways. Before that bend, I had thought baguettes lasted only one or two days, exposed to the harsh outside-the-bag elements (though brief, those days were glorious). Now I know to cut the baguette in half.
The Little Things
At the outset, France actually looks like a pretty similar country to the USA. After all, they both have Wi-Fi hot spots, abundant iPhones, virulent political parties and a powerful executive branch. Despite what some US presidential candidates say, the "European" way isn't really that different from the American way: The two have in fact built upon each other's common history since the USA's inception.
But there are some things, just some little things, which make all the difference. They sift the two countries apart like sand from water, one with pasteurized and the other with unpasteurized cheese. Instead of stopping by one store to get my breakfast this morning (at the Safeway equivalent, Franprix), I had to frequent three (the butcher's, the baker's and then Franprix). Instead of buying bread at the supermarket, I buy at the bakery. And then bend the baguette.
These are often intangible things, like what the French call l'Art de la Table. This, I have recently found out, basically means using different sized cups. After having lived with an Italian for a year, I soon grasped the European notion of having cups for every occasion. A mini curved glass for the perfect amount of milk for two cookies. A beer pint marked "Stella Artois" for when you drink Stella Artois. A tea mug but an espresso cup. And so on. This apparently makes the table more artistic and probably makes the beer more refreshing.
These differences might also describe the peculiar urban quirk in which Parisian Christmas trees are strewn about the sidewalks with no regard for milling passersby. One friend even threw a party exclusively to consecrate his throwing-the-tree out the window ceremony.
In response to this arboreal madness, Paris has constructed wide, overflowing Christmas tree recycling/compost piles dotting its famous parks after the New Year.
Even the Ugly
But France also has its ugly side. There are the ugly politics, which represent extreme beliefs that, like in the USA, are bolstered during hard economic times. There is the virulent, blatant anti-immigration sentiment. There is the increasing obesity. There are the bizarre, disproportionate secularism laws.
There is also crime. Outside my building in the center of Paris, a gang of youths from former French colonial North African countries smoke, drink, scream until all hours and shatter my building's glass doors with bottles. They have an assigned lookout for police cruisers and a penchant for allowing crack-addled homeless men into the building.
The building's concierge, Mrs. Horse (when translated into English), has repeatedly approached me in fear of this crime and these youths. She lives on the bottom floor of the building, suffers every shouted curse throughout the night and is as traditional as an old French lady can get. Every so often she asks me if I'd heard the Arabes outside. Sometimes French people need to travel more, too.