How many countries have you ‘done’? Like, really done? We all like ticking places off our to-visit list; collecting the passport stamp, taking some photos, bringing home the hand-crafted souvenirs to show how ‘authentic’ our trip was. We feel like you’ve been there, and got the metaphorical t-shirt.
But have you really been there? How much of it did you actually experience? I can think of lots of holidays and even parts of backpacking trips where I passed through countries and spoke to locals, but never really connected with anything remotely authentic. I got a taste of the place, but never stopped long enough to enjoy the whole meal. That’s another metaphor for you.
My point is that as travellers we can occasionally be guilty of having done somewhere without really doing it; without understanding it. Did you appreciate the socio-political dynamics? Learn to communicate well in the local language? Did you ever really get to know someone who wasn’t there to serve you? Even for experienced backpackers the answer, all too often, is no.
This isn’t something to get down about. It just means that the way to properly immerse yourself in a culture and ‘get’ a place is to live there. Even though I’ve been to loads of countries on various trips, there’s probably only one that place that I’ve even come close to doing: South Africa.
That was on a volunteering trip, living and working at a school, though. More recently I’ve looked at the idea of moving to Europe; it’s closer to home, yes, but far away enough to feel like you’re living in another culture. Because you are.
Holland seems pretty cool. Spain would be awesome. But right now France looks like the best bet. Why? Well, France is still arguably top of the world culture league table. Invariably, of course, the people arguing this are French. But still, they’ve got a point. France remains a world leader when it comes to food and wine, with amazing Bordeaux, Burgundy and Beaujolais, and more Michelin stars than you can throw a baguette at. No, I’m not sure that makes sense either, but you get the idea.
Compared to when I was a volunteer in South Africa, I’ve got a proper job and some cash saved up, but my budget won’t be massive. So I’ll still need to find a cheap property in France, as opposed to a Chateaux (although we can all dream). My initial impulse is find a romantically run-down apartment on the outskirts of Paris and become some kind of coffee-sipping, novel-reading cool cat hanging around bohemian cafes. Sure, it would have been better to do this in the 1920s, but we can’t all be time-travelling dreamboat Owen Wilson from Midnight in Paris.
I’m confident this can be done, and done without having to live on pain et de l’eau. In fact, I’ll be looking to avoid pain in general. I think this is a great step to be taking. As I said, I genuinely believe that the only way to really understand a country is to be a resident, not a tourist. You need to live and work among the locals. Eat like them. Drink like them. Then, eventually, you’ll become one of them. There’s something beautiful about absorbing into another culture, like human osmosis. And that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to become an Osmonaut.
So if you’ve ever arrived home after a holiday trip or travelling stint and felt that twinge of disappointment that you ended your relationship with a destination as strangers rather than friends, it might be time to think about mixing things up and looking for a chance to go back and properly live there for a while. Because ultimately, the best way to experience a country is to, well, actually experience it.
Right, I’m off to start taking French lessons. Being able to confidently utter “Je vais prendre un café au lait et un sandwich, s’il vous plait” will, realistically, only get me so far…