What Traveling Abroad Taught Me About Living a Fuller Life

I was blessed with the luxury of finding a new country to call home while studying abroad at the Sorbonne in Paris for a semester. The new atmosphere impacted my way of thinking in a myriad ways, from how I shop, to how I meet people, to how I view myself.

Running off to a foreign country to live and work is nothing if not an adventure, a luxury, and a time of discovery. I recently talked to a friend who spent six years living in London, only to return to the States about a year ago. She described the feeling of being caught between two places as wanting to pull the best of both her home country and her adopted one into herself and hold onto them. With that in mind, I found a few “bests” in France that I feel I can, and need, to bring back with me.

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1. You are not a machine

During my first week in Paris, on a Tuesday afternoon in mid-January, I found myself walking down a street full of restaurants. Every single establishment was packed to the brim and overflowing to the tables that lined the sidewalk; people sitting, chatting, having a drink with as much ease as if it were a Saturday night. I checked my watch, it was 3:30 p.m.–long past lunch hour and way before the end of the day. What could all these people possibly be doing at a restaurant in the middle of the workday? I was so perplexed, I asked someone at my orientation program if it were a holiday of some nature.

“No,” she said. “That’s just lunch here.”

While in the States, it became normal to throw myself so wholly into a single task that I lose sight of everything else–particularly when that task is related to school or a job. That kind of obsession seems much less common here. In all my experiences in Paris, what strikes me most is the deep-rooted cultural recognition that a person is made for more than work. You have a social life, a family, hobbies. These are expected, and there is no cultural expectation for an individual to focus on “the company” to the detriment of those other aspects of self.  

2. “Carpe Diem” is a perspective

A common French expression thrown around at students and travelers like myself is, “Profitez!” This roughly translates as “Go enjoy and get something out of your experience.”

I have taken this simple phrase and run with it–I work hard, but I also go to museums and cultural centers, shows and performances, concerts and dances. I go out with friends. I make a point of remembering that my adventure will end in five months time, and act accordingly. Two weeks into this experience, living with this perspective, I realized I was happier than I had ever been. Then, I realized that I could have been living this way all along.

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At home my motivation for trying those experiences was often perfunctory; I was driven by a sense of FOMO that left me exhausted and frankly, unwilling to do anything in the first place. On the other hand, getting up on a Sunday to go to a museum because I really wanted to see it, wanted to “profit” from the experience, was a treat, a delight, a gift. Seeking beauty and truly “profiting” from a place; turning your “I’ll-do-that-at-some-point”s into “I-am-doing-that-today”s, for the pure joy and enjoyment of it all has been enriching and restorative.

3. Keep a cake in the house

Or cookies, or chocolate, or your favorite little something. Keep it in the house.

When I arrived here, some family friends brought a “gâteau breton,” which I can only describe as a fig newton on steroids, though that definition lacks all the wonder and delight packed into this particular baked good. I was immediately in love.

Now, when I do my shopping for the week, I always buy a half gâteau breton. It’s nothing fancy, just a regular old grocery store cake, but it’s always around.

This way, there is always a little reward, something to put out for guests, or a midnight sweet-tooth fix, just waiting on the kitchen counter. That little gâteau holds the honored place of the good thing to which I treat not only myself but also those I love.

Having that one small comfort–that infinitely delicious, infinitely useful little pleasure–brightens my home and my day and my heart.

For you, that might be Sour Patch Kids, or Nutella, or fresh flowers, or a candle that you find particularly pleasing. Life is too short not to appreciate those little pleasures and share them.

There is a saying attributed to several different sources that reads “Live every day as if it were your last, and someday, you’ll be right.” Getting out of my comfort zone and immersing myself in the culture and life of another place has made me, more than anything, realize that it’s not where one lives, but rather, how one lives.

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