Today I was asked to post some of my travel articles on a travel website. Hip, hip, hooray! It got me thinking about my time abroad, since that is where I crammed a lifetime of travel in three short years. But that time meant more to me— it gave me an intellectual life without being in a university. And it had a profound effect on me. I often talk about the positive that came from the experience but I also learned unexpected things such as— that racism was not confined to Los Angeles. That it was an international phenomenon; and foreigners are often brought in as guest workers due to a labor shortage and benefit the host country with cheap labor. I found that the Germans were racist toward the Turks. It opened up all sorts of analysis, the Irish not liking the English, the English not liking the French, the French not liking the Algerians, etc. So in some ways it gave me a broad non-parochial perspective on issues of race.
I found that Paris was then and I believe still remains the world capital of literature. I had so many thoughts of Paris before I went there the first time as a student in 1980. I imagined myself as a European when I was a child. My imagination wasn’t any European. I imagined myself as a Parisian. The fascination began in the fifth grade when I read about Marie Curie at school. In my teens I looked the part by wearing a black velvet ribbon tied around my neck with an attached brooch. On other days my main staple was a scarf and beret. Later in college I read Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre and was an existentialist while living in the hills of Los Feliz. In my early twenties I was influenced by reading Camus and the poetic lyricism of Marguerite Duras.
One of the most refreshing things about being away is I could go for months without talking to anyone back home, my mother included. This is almost inconceivable to us, now. But I would go for months and be out of touch, there’s something healthy about it. Going to a new country, being away, not being in the expectations of the American way of life or whatever anyone expected, gave me the wings to try out new ways of being and that was very freeing.
One of the reasons I wanted to go abroad is that I was eager to learn something from the rest of the world. Learning another language filters into that equation. It’s giving yourself up to another system of thought and another way of doing things; a very valuable and humbling experience, indeed. Like a child, you rely on non-verbal communication, and your voyeurism skills heighten as you observe and study the people around you.
But now there’s less difference now between Europe and the U.S. That’s a pity. France as the rest of Europe has been Americanized in many ways. Not in all ways. The other thing that’s happened is a remarkable form of connection among countries because of the Internet and social media. I’ve even had fun myself on Facebook in French. It’s the closest thing I’ve come from the days when I’d letter write to be able to stay in touch with European friends. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0g4NiHef4Ks
People go to Europe for different reasons but I would say that my story is poignant because I didn’t have enough money to live there indefinitely. In fact, I didn’t analyze time. No one organized my activities or put me in touch with people living and working in Berlin or arranged for me to take courses. I would listen to French radio, and mostly would sit in the grand cafes of old Berlin, wearing a coat, hat, gloves, and my lace-up vintage boots surrounded by other Europeans. I didn’t have American friends. I would walk all over the city, sit in cafes, attend art openings, or hop on a train and open a notebook and listen and make a list of German words. I gave myself the beauty of a self-made study abroad program. And I created my own opportunities.