I thought I prepared for Paris. I was so excited and so nervous, I wanted to be ready for anything. So I watched lots of videos on packing a suitcase efficiently, made all kinds of lists, and bookmarked pages online. I even walked through my commute to school on Google street view, to make sure I had it down.
None of that was useful. So for others who would go through the same kind of preparation, I’m hoping to stop you, and to tell you that you can do a lot better.
I wish I had prepared intellectually by reading more books in the early summer. And here’s why I’d encourage any traveler to do the same:
Perhaps one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned here is that studying abroad is not a bucket list experience. It’s so, so easy to go to a historic site and just look around and check it off of a list. But to really learn from it is a much richer experience, and one that I highly recommend.
I’ve realized that intellectual preparation is the key to time well-spent. For example, the Louvre is the most visited museum in the world. It’s absolutely stunning and totally overwhelming. In preparation for Paris, I decided I would go there. I even bought a book; but I didn’t read it. So when I went to the museum I wandered through halls of paintings and statues that didn’t interest me very much, and I ran out of time before anything really amazed me. Had I done more preparation, I could have had a better time.
Paris has an incredible and long history, and in my first few weeks I saw many things of historic value and thought to myself “Hm. Okay… Now what?” Since I’m now reading more about the city’s history, I see much of it in a different light. It’s amazing, reading a chapter of my book and then going out the next day to see the very places where the events unfolded not just hundreds, but thousands of years ago.
To be honest, history doesn’t often excite me; but because I’m here, and because these landmarks and locations are becoming a part of my life, their stories are more interesting to me than ever before. But it took until the fourth week of my time here to find that readable history book, and that’s a lot of time I could have spent with a greater appreciation.
Even if you’re really not into reading, watch movies! My classmates often talk about their favorite French movies, and I think “Wow, I should’ve kept watching movies beyond just Amélie.” Listen to podcasts, or music. Whatever you enjoy.
Frankly, what bums me out at this moment is that I had zero excuses not to read, or watch movies, or listen to French radio. I was sitting at home, counting down the days and preparing in all the wrong ways. In reflection, it’s pretty rare to not only spend 6 weeks in a foreign country, but to have about as much time beforehand to prepare. So if you ever find that you are so lucky, I would encourage you to use that time wisely.
What I’m hoping to communicate is, you do not have to wait until you get to your host country to be exposed to the culture. Start early–I know you won’t regret it. It’s a much more enjoyable form of preparation than lists, anyway!
So while it is still important to remember such crucial items as socks, toothpaste, and your passport, don’t neglect to pack your brain as well as your suitcase.