I’ve written many times that my love of all things foreign, from language to cultures, has been with me since birth. Who knows why, but I have always had an innate wanderlust, accentuated only by a frustrating lack of travel as a kid. Everything I did was focused on my goal of learning as much about foreign cultures and international relations as possible, eventually earning two degrees in it. But there was an important step along the way that nearly derailed everything. It was a trip back in 1993 that could have dissuaded me from future travel, but a special moment changed my life forever.
In high school I took French and soon learned that I had a peculiar affinity for languages. Some people are good at math or science, for me it’s learning a new tongue. I raced through several years of French education in half the time and was excited with each new phrase learned or verb conjugated. (learning foreign verb structure is still a favorite hobby – fun I know) When I was a Junior, an exchange opportunity arose. My family hosted a French student for a month and the plan was for me to travel to France for a month to complete the exchange. We completed our obligation and my parents somehow scrounged up the money to put me on a plane to Paris, to fulfill a long held dream of mine. I was 17 years old and it was my first time leaving North America, my first time truly exploring a new country and my first individual travel experience.
Sure I was with other students, but outside of organized tours, I was mostly on my own to get to and from school and explore my neighborhood. Looking back now it’s hard for me to imagine, but for the first half of the trip I was fairly miserable. The family I stayed with was weird, there were clear communications barriers and I didn’t like Paris. No, that’s not quite right, I hated Paris.
I’m not sure why. I think my juvenile American self was overloaded with sensations; too much was different and with no familiar emotional anchors to keep me steady, I was floating away; I felt lost. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t another case of a spoiled American abroad. I enjoyed the organized activities, I liked seeing Notre Dame, visiting Versailles and even seeing U2 live in concert (with Velvet Underground as an opener). But when left to my own devices I found the city to be dirty, chaotic and abrasive.
Then one day I decided to venture out on my own for the afternoon, a departure from my daily routine. I had learned the layout of the city well enough and the metro finally made sense. I had spent 17 years living in cities no larger than 100,000 people, most of them much smaller and my small town self was finally getting used to life in the big city. I went to a poster store to buy a massive 6 foot by 4 foot image from a favorite French film of mine and then decided to find some lunch.
I loved the water even back then, and found myself walking alongside the Seine, the dark and brooding Notre Dame in clear view. I was starving and my options were limited, so even though it was early by French standards I plopped myself down in chair at a sidewalk cafe, and ordered lunch. Even though I spoke French pretty well, lesson plans rarely include information on how to order meat and I was in the mood for a steak. So, unsure what to say and my waiter looking plainly confused by my mock sign language for medium, I did the only thing I could think of. I ordered the steak burned, brûlé in French. I got a very strange look in return, but with signature aplomb he wrote it down and left.
I sat there on a beautiful summer’s day, drinking red wine (I ordered it because I thought it was appropriate for the scene and not a deep thirst for the varietal), eating my charcoal-black steak and watch the boats slip by on the Seine. Like a scene out of a movie, birds chirped, children laughed and lovers embraced. I had somehow fallen into a Romantic Comedy featuring the most romantic of cities, almost as if an alternate universe. Gone were the grey buildings, surly people and confusing streets. In their place was the Paris of the movies, a beautiful, romantic and cheerful place where life is reaffirmed and love consummated. A mental switch went off, and I fell into the scene, no longer an observer of what Paris should be, but a participant. That lunch on that afternoon changed forever my thoughts about Paris, it instilled in me a deep love for the city that persists still to this day.
At the beginning of this saccharine post I said that it was an important day, and it was. I was beginning to doubt if my long supposed love of travel and seeing the world had been incorrect. I was worried that like Don Quixote I was tilting at windmills, chasing a dream that was just that, a dream. That afternoon though saved the trip, and in the process saved me. It was a beacon, showing me the path I needed to follow in my life, telling me that my gut was right after all.
There is a slight chance that I’m reading a lot into that one day, but I don’t think so. I have a horrible memory and struggle to remember details of trips I took in 2012, much less in 1993. Yet that day stands out amongst all others in my life, it was a singular moment so important that it is forever etched on my oftentimes failing brain.
I shared this because I want you all to know that more than anything, what I do is inexorably linked to who I am as a person. It is my passion, it defines me and I absolutely live for it. We all need to find that passion in our lives and then do everything in our power to make it our life’s work. More than anything else, that is truly what makes for a meaningful life.