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January 19, 2012

Expat expectations

Though transformative in the movies, traveling abroad does not alone bring personal growth.

Study abroad is not “party abroad,” right, Dean Boyer? It is an all-inclusive, immersive educational experience—like the Club Med of a cosmopolitan liberal arts education. I can speak only for the civilization studies program in saying that it is not particularly demanding, at least not compared to the typical course load a student faces back in Hyde Park. But that’s okay; there are many other facets to your education here, most of which can be found outside the classroom.

You are in class for 2.5 to 3.5 hours a day, with maybe an hour of reading assigned for the next day. So that leaves the majority of the day for…what? The lion’s share of that education, I guess, is the “transformative experience” that we have all come to expect from not only a U of C–sponsored study abroad program, but from travel in general.

That should be easy. I’m in Paris after all. I can eat lunch next to Chopin’s heartless grave and drink absinthe where Oscar Wilde spent his dying days. I can match the beat of my footsteps across the decades with Proust and Matisse. I can do my reading in the Église Saint-Eustache and grab a vin chaud in the café across the park. I think the walls in Montmartre still tremble with the vibrato from Edith Piaf’s first performance. This will be a piece of cake.

So the other day I decided to fulfill two obligations at once—one to my studies, the other to my pursuit of that transformative experience. I went to the café Le Select on the Boulevard du Montparnasse, a café that, as the front page of the menu says a bit too reassuringly, was once the haunt of Hemingway, Picasso, and Henry Miller. I would grab a ham sandwich and a typically Parisian too-small cup of coffee and finish my reading for the next day.

I waltzed in confidently and sat at a table in a quiet corner. There was not the typical smoking section attached like a plastic bubble to the front of most cafés so I opted instead for a booth of stained, dark wood without a tablecloth. After ordering in my paltry French and getting the waiter’s reply with a knowing smirk, I settled into my reading. As my coffee arrived in its miniature glory, my heart sunk. I forgot my wallet. I had only a few euros jangling in my pocket. I immediately turned the darkest shade of rouge as I tried to scheme my way out of it. But the more I thought about it, I found it somewhat appropriate that I would show up near penniless to the café of Hemingway and Miller—as long as I didn’t think too hard. Transformation? Not yet, but maybe it’s coming?

I left all my change on the table, just enough for the coffee, tracked the waiter down and cancelled my order for the sandwich—in English. I asked him for les toilettes, walked past the cedar and bronze bar where wise old Phillipe turned over a half century’s worth of patron’s stories in his mind (his sole occupation, according to the menu), and descended into the basement to the door marked Monsieurs. As I stood in the bathroom, attending to my business, I realized: Hemingway and Miller once stood in this exact same place and were doing this exact same thing.

But, you see, when they were standing there they were probably thinking about the meridian of truth. I, on the other hand, just found myself wondering whether or not two dead white guys were well endowed.

My mistake was—and still is for that matter—thinking that a place is enough to have any transformative effect on me. It is a grave error to think that traveling itself is able to provide any answers. At best, it’s the solitude granted by an extended period of travel or the occasional insightful glance into another way of life that acts as a foil of sorts to the way you lead your own.

But at the end of the day, it’s winter here in Paris and I’m just trying to keep warm by rubbing coins together in my pocket. And that’s all. I’ll learn some French, I’ll learn to appreciate a two-euro bottle of wine, but the mere act of being in a foreign place will not be enough to help me learn about myself. There’s more to it than that. I’m not saying it’s hopeless; I’m not being pessimistic. I just feel I have to warn against the expectation that travel brings change. It does not. It comes from either sustained introspection or some serious external shock. Using multi-colored money instead of that familiar pale green constitutes neither of those.

But I still find myself wandering the streets like a shadow, vaguely looking for some clue in the façade of Shakespeare and Company, or the ripples on the Seine that will give me what I expected before coming here. And meanwhile, I say sit in your cafés, Paris, with your lips and your secrets. Sit there and raise a glass to those of us who are oppressed by the hidden poetry of the walls.

Colin Bradley is a second-year in the College majoring in Law, Letters, and Society.

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