I'd lived in and traveled throughout France for close to six months before I really understood it. And by "it" I don't mean that I finally understood that staring at people in the metro is commonplace, or that scarves solve every wardrobe dilemma, or that you need to ask for a carafe d’eau if you want water with your meal (although those were useful lessons).
What I finally came to grasp was much more intangible and ineffable than a golden rule or useful phrase I picked up. What I got instead was the sudden, clear moment of comprehension that comes from observing life in France through the eyes of a French person.
It was simple, really. A French teacher I worked with, Odile, invited me to her home for dinner. She said I’d meet her two children and we’d cook a French meal together—apéros, wine, and dessert included—then spend the evening together playing games and music. Before long, we had a Monday night ritual that consisted of us chatting about the week as we sliced radishes for a spinach salad or coated the frying pan in butter for crepes, or cut the goat cheese into little cubes to be eaten on toothpicks with fresh cherry tomatoes. We’d laugh throughout the night, and always finish the evening with a card game or a singalong to an acoustic version of “Mad World,” strummed softly on the guitar by Odile’s eleven-year-old daughter, Lise.
I learned a great deal about French culture, food, politics, lifestyle, health care, the education system, and even which French rap artists are the best (Stromae was the clear favorite in that household). But the thing I learned the most, the thing that sticks with me today, is how easy it can be to be make friends in other parts of the world.
When I stepped into Odile’s warm apartment every Monday evening—her son Lucas taking my coat and offering me a pair of slippers as we padded down the narrow hallway toward the kitchen—I felt like I was moving past some invisible, indefinable barrier I’d always sought to cross.
It is these moments of recognition when we travel, the moments of moving beyond what we can merely see and entering into a new realm of knowledge and understanding, that propel us forward and shape our views of ourselves and the world around us.
Maybe it’s the moment when the Italian you’ve been studying for four months finally clicks and you have your first fluid, relaxed conversation with a stranger. Maybe it’s the moment when you start noticing the cracks in the picture you created about a place—you see the trash in the streets or a man curled up on a piece of cardboard beneath a closed storefront—and you realize that it isn’t perfect.
Maybe it’s the moment your surf instructor in Mexico invites you to eat the fish he caught that morning, and when you tear fleshy pieces of fresh dorado with your fingers and stuff them into steaming tortillas with scoops of guacamole, you know this is why you were meant to come here.
Maybe it’s when you start to question your volunteer trip to Bali to build houses, when you start to ask yourself what good you’re doing, what purpose your efforts are serving.
Maybe it’s when you kiss the person you’ve been wanting to kiss. Maybe it’s when you see the Himalayas for the first time and your breath catches with wonder. Maybe it’s when you witness your first tragedy on the road.
Whether you experience bliss, clarity, joy, disappointment, or anger in those moments doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’ve crossed into new territory now. You’re equipped with new knowledge, you’ve seen and heard things you can’t forget, you met someone you never knew existed before.
You are either imperceptibly or gravely changed—for better or worse.
In this issue we take you from a township in South Africa to the streets of India, from a food bank in Washington to a small coastal town in Ireland, and to many more places.
In these stories and photos, we share and celebrate these moments of revelation and growth, of change, shock, loss, and peace that come with peeling back the curtain.
Please join us as we step across the threshold of experience and move beyond what we know to be true in order to discover what is, in fact, just behind the wall.
I hope you enjoy!
Photo by Richard Bruschi.
Paige Smith is a freelance writer and editor from Southern California who specializes in travel, lifestyle and wellness topics. When she's not writing stories and articles, she's planning her next trip. See more of her here.