Saturday, January 12, 2013

Collected Lessons Learned from a Trip to France

Last week I made my way back into Spain from a week-and-a-half journey into the French Republic. It was the first time I had left the country since arriving in Madrid back in September, and I really enjoyed the change of scenery, language, and culture I had grown accustomed to here in southern Spain. Due to time (and wallet) constraints, my travels focused mainly on Paris and northern France, but I also spent half a week in the Spanish Basque provinces and La Mancha before returning home to Úbeda.

It was my first experience traveling non-stop for more than a week out of a backpack in a country whose language I could barely speak, but it was an experience in which I grew and learned a lot. Below I’m going to talk about what I learned about the country of France, travel in general, and myself while on the road.

Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris
Midnight Mass, Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris

Champs-Élysées from the Arc de Triomphe, Paris
Champs Élysées, Paris

What I learned about France

* The French rarely, if ever, lived up to the “rude French” stereotype, and were often actually quite friendly and kind to me. Lots of people were patient with my present-tense, five-verb French, and I was never attacked simply for being American.

* Many, many people in the tourism industry could speak English, from ticket cashiers to train station attendants to hotel concierges. Although I knew enough French to survive, it made getting around very convenient.

* Spoken French can sometimes sound just like Arabic.

* The French rail system is truly world class, so much so that inter-city bus services don’t exist. Speedy trains connected even the most isolated towns, and high-speed trains let me have breakfast in Barcelona and dinner in Paris.

* France wasn’t as .~*aMaZiNg*~. as I thought it would be and was really expensive, especially in Paris. Because of this, I returned to Spain earlier than I had expected I would.

What I learned about travel

Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris
Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris
* Traveling really does a doozy on my BMs. I don’t know if it’s the movement or the abrupt jump in carb consumption, but whenever I’m a tourist (at the risk of giving TMI) I’m perpetually trying to find a bathroom or some Pepto-Bismol. For the record, my favorite porcelain experience was the bathrooms in Versailles. Okay, moving on...

* Challenges will pop up and you will have to act FAST. For example: I missed the night train from Barcelona to Paris by five minutes, and was afraid that my whole trip would be thrown into the trash can. However, I managed to get a 50% refund on my now-worthless night train tickets, replacing them with a ride on the high-speed train to Paris leaving the next morning. And I got a bed in a seven-euro hostel close to the train station. All of this in the span of half an hour!

* Booking.com, Hostel World, and Hostelling International are my holy trinity of hostel-booking websites. It was so much easier to take my time browsing listings and making a reservation online instead of wandering aimlessly through towns in the dark or struggling through confusing French conversations.

Macarons from Ladurée, Paris
Macarons from Ladurée
* A backpack’s hipbelt is there for a reason. I learned how to use the hipbelt on probably the last day of the trip, and my back and shoulders will be forever grateful. I wish I had made this realization while sweating and running around like a chicken with its head cut off in Barcelona, but better late than never.

* You will have lots of all-carb diet days. But on the other hand, all the walking you’ll do probably cancels out all the bad stuff. Croissants at breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, quiche at dinner, and macarons for dessert made me long for some fresh spinach and tomatoes, but at the same time, French pastries were so very yummy.

* Since the TIE (foreigner’s identification card) I have for working in Spain says STUDENT all over it, I was able to get discounted, and sometimes free, admissions to castles and museums in both France and Spain. I’m definitely milking this “student” status for all its worth in future travels across Europe.

What I learned about myself

Château de Azay-le-Rideau
Château de Azay-le-Rideau
* Bad moods will come and go. This trip was a big rollercoaster of emotions: I had a blast exploring the Barri Gòtic (old town) of Barcelona, but then I missed my night train to Paris. I endured the miserable, windy cold of Brittany but got to eat a pot of freshly-caught mussels for lunch. I spent a sucky New Years in the French Basque Country but it was love at first sight in San Sebastián just across the Spanish border.

* I know a lot more French that I thought I did. I was also amazed at just how much I was able to communicate with so little French, from weaseling my way into student discounts to making a fuss about a train strike and bad information. It really encouraged me to continue studying French informally and to learn perhaps a few more words or even the past tense.

* I missed Spain a lot, which I wasn’t expecting to do at all. I had no idea that traveling to France—this most romantic country of culture and history par excellence, a luxurious cuisine, and a sexy language to boot—would make me long to return to oh-so-imperfect Spain. It really caught me by surprise how much I missed Spain even one week into France and how happy I was while touring the Spanish side of the Basque Country. I’m not sure what this means for the next few years of my life, but I do know that I feel pretty comfortable right now living in Spain and speaking Spanish.

Country road, Azay-le-Rideau
Country road in Azay-le-Rideau
* My travel style falls in the backpacker/budget traveler category. Give me a 20 €-a-night hostel bed and I’m a happy man; similarly, a 10 € set menu at a restaurant will have my business at dinner. It pained me to pay 40 € a night for the cheapest hotel in Chinon, or 16 € for supper at the cheapest place open near the Eiffel Tower. In the future I know I will be Couchsurfing and cooking some of my meals to save cash and extend my travels.

If you’ve ever been to France, what did you learn about the country, traveling, or yourself while there? Comment below!
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