Una bota igual a la otra / Une botte paraille à l’autre / A boot not unlike the other
When Rhône and I first got to France, within the first week of being in Bordeaux, Rhône said to me “It’s weird being in another country, it’s like being in a parallel universe,” and I found that to be a very accurate description of our condition traveling. It was true, everything that was familiar to us back home was essentially the same here in France, yet there was no denying that we were actually somewhere entirely new to us; we were in a place that couldn’t possibly be confused for where we came from. Stranger still was the thought that France and our life in France existed side by side to the life of our loved ones in the Pacific Northwest; neither place negated the other and traveling from one didn’t erase the existence of the other.
Here’s an interesting example of this paralleling: during my first few months in France MacDonald’s became my own personal Corporate-America temple. Back home I go MacDonald’s maybe once every year, usually as a culmination of weird events I generally regret recalling. But my first couple months in France, I was going to MacDonald’s, or as french people say MacDo, like once a week.
There’s a lot of good reasons I can come up with for why I did that, most of them are pretty obvious but some of them are not. Obviously, there was comfort in that I could order any assortment of classic items I remember being advertised on my TV as a kid. There was also the comfort of knowing I could order in English because in France every MacDo has a number of kiosks from where to order from. Less obvious were the times I looked for a MacDo while I was in a new part of town or a new place in general only because I knew they would have a bathroom. Or the times I found myself in a MacDo because they were the only place where I could buy a meal outside of strict French meal times. In reality, I would find myself in MacDo anytime I needed a reprieve from being foreign because in France MacDonald’s motto is Venez comme vous êtes which translates to Come as you are which for me meant it’s ok that you’re lost.
What was most unsettling to me about this experience was that I was now living a life where I simultaneously disliked going to MacDonald’s and also loved going to MacDo. And here’s the thing: it’s easy to hate MacDonald’s in the U.S. and likewise it’s easy to love MacDo in France. In the U.S. MacDonald’s is a corporate titan, that among many atrocities, exploits the misfortune of families who live below the poverty line by feeding them diabetic poison for a dollar off their infamous dollar menu. In France, MacDo is ‘green’ and regulated by French government food standards, and most confusingly is filled with teenagers who make MacDonald’s hip because they see it as unabashedly American.
Traveling and living abroad is like getting to hold a mirror up to your truths and question them in their reflection.
In daily life, I catch glimpses of these moments too, but when traveling these moments extend into longer, almost hallucinatory periods. I could be looking out the window and all of a sudden it’s as though the plot of my life unfolds in front of me in a most bizarre and interesting play while I sit and watch from the audience.
What I find the most surprising in those moments is that no matter the place, no matter the surroundings, I am still myself and I am still living my habitual life. Nothing about where I am in a singular moment, changes who I am or the history of my life (Even if I did believe that the solitary act of being somewhere new could somehow instantaneously change me to my core). These moments are impressive because alone they are only reflections but in their summation are in fact what make up the history of a life; more importantly, these moments are elastic enough for one to move freely between the role of player and audience of their own life.
Traveling is like putting your left boot on your right foot: it’s uncomfortable and maybe the opposite of what you had expected but not entirely wrong. It’s an opportunity to reflect on why we believe the things we believe and how those beliefs shape who we are.