Guest Post by @candicewalsh
My work days are filled with tedious documentation and loads of research. Sometimes I’m so absorbed in my work, an entire day passes before I realize I haven’t spoken a word to anyone. But then some days my boss announces the company is sending me to France for two weeks.
Those days feel pretty great.
Unfortunately, when I started out on my first ever solo travel journey in May 2009, I was not at all connected to the online travel world like I am today. Not only was I visiting a country where I couldn’t speak the language, but I had to find my way to Brittany and into one of the most remote little towns I have ever visited.
And since I routinely find myself in ridiculous situations regardless of country or language, this trip had all the ingredients for humiliation. Lucky you. Here are some surprises I should have known before-hand.
1. The cheek kiss.
Imagine this: It’s the first day on the job in your company’s overseas office. You’re being introduced to everyone, colleagues you’ve only ever associated with through email. You’re discovering that most of the men are incredibly attractive. A pretty blonde boy with big brown eyes leans in extremely close to your face. You leap back like a scalded cat.
The cheek kiss. Dear god how did I not expect the cheek kiss? It caught me entirely by surprise, yet I had known about it for years. The invasion of space was so surreal, I didn’t know how to react.
But after a few days, I absolutely loved it. The personal relationships shared between my colleagues was the exact opposite of those shared in Canada. Every morning they came into work and greeted one another with the kiss. I found myself looking forward to it once I got over my “space” issues.
2. Deceptive food labels.
I know “milk” en francais is “lait”, seriously. I do. But for some reason I hauled a carton off the shelf automatically assuming it was milk because it resembled the cartons in Canada. A day or two later, I cracked open the seal, poured a glass, and took a huge gulp.
Sour cream. Thick-ass, sour, sour cream. I can still taste it.
Read food label. Carefully.
3. Local advice is not always the best (or any advice, really).
The town I was staying in, Lorient, was practically impossible to research in English. The only information I could find basically warned me to stay away. Even my coworkers shrugged their shoulders and said, “Meh, there’s really not much to do here. Small town.”
Then one day, the office ladies took me for ice-cream in the center city. The whole town opened up into a freaking shopper’s paradise, huge plazas and sidewalk shops and clothing lines unheard of in my part of the world. Cafes on the sidewalks and gelato booths everywhere.
What appears to be dull to some people is fresh and exciting to others.
4. Language ignorance.
I studied French for over 10 years in school, but not in an immersion school. While I have a good solid grasp of conversational basics, I was completely unprepared for the difficulty of applying my knowledge to everyday life. Basically, I got lost in the train station immediately upon arrival in Lorient, wandered around for an hour crying, and began mentally seeking the best bench to sleep on.
The whole experience discouraged me so much, I actively avoided trying to speak French for the remainder of the trip. Most of my time was spent in my little apartment being bored and lonely.
Do not do this. Throw yourself into conversation even if you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. Pamplemousse, s’il vous plait. Oui oui.
Did I learn anything from all this? Perhaps. I’ll be heading back to France this year for a few weeks, we’ll see how I fare in round two.
Candice Walsh, of Candice Does The World, is a technical writer for a deep sea technology company and an associate editor at Matador Network. When she isn’t writing about sonar equipment, she’s shooting whiskey and hitting on men, or eating nachos and dreaming about travel. She’s currently stationed in St. John’s, Newfoundland.