One of my professors told us that it would be awkward when our family came to visit.
He was right. My dad and his girlfriend, Betty, along with my Uncle Charles and his wife, Laura, arrived in Paris about ten days ago. When I met up with them for the first time, we hugged, a clear sign that we weren’t Parisians, though I doubt anyone had mistaken us for natives in the first place. I was immediately self-conscious about it, as I’d spent the last eight weeks learning how to fit in.
The first realization for me was a simple one: I’d come a long way in learning to adapt to living in Paris. I was pretty comfortable. I’d learned how to navigate the city both on Metro and on foot, how and when to use my basic language skills, altered my wardrobe to favor dark colors and favoring pants over shorts and brights, and made the adjustment to stop smiling at strangers. I’d adapted to the pace of the city, its culture and started to understand some of its inner-workings.
So when they weren’t fitting in with how things were supposed to be, I got uncomfortable. I could see the tourist alarm going off, and I was embarrassed by it. I wanted them to walk faster, to stand on the far right side of the escalator, to say “Bonjour,” “Au revoir,” and “S’il vous plait,” to stop looking at the map in the middle of the sidewalk, to not get up and leave the restaurant we’d just been seated in.
Over time, they got better, but more so, I did. They are tourists in a foreign city with a foreign approach to the world. While Parisians may not understand or appreciate that, it didn’t mean I couldn’t. I bet (no, I know) that I committed brutal tourist infractions and cultural faux pas during my first weeks here, despite the hours of orientation, conversation, and reading (not to mention my four years of studying French in school) that I’d been exposed to in hopes of being more prepared. My dad had been through none of this. It was ridiculous to expect him — and them — to adapt in such a short time. It took me six weeks to start really feeling comfortable. It was a trip away from Paris that helped me understand all of this.
I, along with my dad and Betty, took a trip to Brussels, Belgium — a foreign place for all of us. It had a more laid back vibe, and I was reminded of that childlike innocence and uncertainty that comes along with visiting a new place. Visiting a city as a tourist reminded me what it’s like to be uncomfortable. It reminded me to be patient, understanding, and less demanding — but also less worried and embarrassed by touristy gaffes— when those tourists come to visit me.
They say you need to walk a mile in someone’s shoes before you judge someone, and my experiences travelling have done nothing but affirm that message to the millionth degree. But sometimes, we forget that tourists have shoes too, and we need to keep that in mind when family comes to visit.
Riley Duncan is the Fall 2014 MOJO in Paris, France. He is currently a junior at the University of Tennessee.
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