I recently did something I’d fantasized about for a long time: I got on a plane and went to London and Paris. It was only for a week, but I immediately wrestled with the pressure of going so far away for so little time—how would we strike the perfect balance of chilling and seeing all the shit we were supposed to?

This is not such an easy question to answer, particularly when you’re navigating these issues with companions. In my case, two girlfriends, both of whom had spent considerable time overseas already. I was the giant n00b here, and they wanted me to have the “experience.” Only I didn’t know what the “experience” was yet, having never been there, and what’s more, that’s the sort of opinion best formed in real time.

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And so we set off trying to find that perfect balance between doing and hanging. We mostly got it right, achieving a satisfying mixture of sitting around drinking and walking around absorbing, though it was not without an absurd amount of clomping to the tune of over 10 actual miles of walking a day—and the occasional cry to sit the fuck down and have some wine.

I had a vague idea of what I thought I wanted to get out of the trip. I wanted to feel what it was like to be 6,000 miles away. Would the light really be different in Paris? (Yes.) Would British accents be impossibly charming? (Yes.) Would Parisians be dicks to us? (No.) Would it be easy to get around on public transportation (Yes.) Would I see some really old shit? (Yes!) Would I get my period a week early halfway through the trip from clomping around so goddamn much on a different time zone? (You know it.)

As we skipped through the hot, stuffy Louvre or traipsed through eery cool of the Tower of London, I started to sort out what it means to be in a place, what the essence of anything really is, all said. I concluded that it’s an ineffable slurry.

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What we typically talk about when we talk about travel is, it turns out, food and buildings. Did you eat the thing the place is known for, and did you see the buildings that stand there, thereby bearing witness to this place’s cultural essence? Going off the beaten path is often encouraged, but that’s really an exercise in obscurity, trudging into the lesser trudged. That felt advanced to a travel novice like myself, who was only just handling different money for the first time.

So I had an English breakfast and saw Big Ben. I ate a croissant and glimpsed the Mona Lisa. (I was, as I understand it, supposed to be underwhelmed, and I complied.) Of course, I understand why the food and the buildings are the easiest entry point to any city. It’s the perfect shorthand. I lived for a decade in Nashville, and I would still dutifully tell anyone who asked to try the famed hot chicken and see some honky tonks. But how would I go about telling someone to really experience a place?

I think you have to dive into the mix. It should be challenging and feel off-kilter. What I most appreciated were the little interactions that tested my ability to navigate simple cultural differences: Reading a tube map. Figuring out how to make change in British pounds. Understanding the various preferences I would be asked to indicate when ordering various things. When asking for the check, servers looked quizzical until they realized we meant the bill. Figuring out that we’d never even receive the bill without asking for it first.

A recurring amusement was entering a bathroom and having to quickly figure out where the flush was. On the wall? On the top? Why were there two little thingies in the thingy? Why do none of the faucets in these pubs have the ability to blend hot and cold to create something called WARM WATER? When, for the love of God, am I supposed to tip? Travel books make other countries seem like magical escapes, but they are really an endless stream of little puzzles of adaptability.

But as a primarily sitting, talking person, I have to say the things that felt the most Parisian or the most British were not evidence of a great cultural past, but rather the very quotidian present: Hanging out in pubs and restaurants talking with locals. Eating, drinking, general merriment against a new backdrop can be wonderfully disorienting. Talking politics, comparing notes on healthcare, job prospects, living expenses, nice neighborhoods — these are the things that give you the best sense of what it’s really like to be in a place.

One night at a pub we met a British couple who had spent a little time in the Southern U.S. but longed to spend more. We dished on the good and bad of being where were were from, and concluded sheepishly after trading stories that we were both, after all, from regions with lovely people who had their fair share of bad ideas. It is making a simple connection like this with the exact right buzz that surpasses everything you could ever stand in line to look at.

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A girlfriend on the trip admitted she and her husband are totally different travelers. She comes from a family of clompers — they go to a new place, throw their shit in a hotel room and hit the town to see the sights until they drop. Her husband comes from a family of chillers. To them, the whole point of going somewhere is to do absolutely nothing; how could any other approach still be called a vacation?

I was happy to discover that I prefer the middle, the porridge that Goldilocks chose. I am, rather happy to say, half-clomp, half-chill, and not a monument more or less.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby.


Flygirl is Jezebel’s travel blog dedicated to adventures big and small, tips and tricks for navigation, and exploring the world at large. Have a story or an idea? We’re always taking submissions; email us with “Flygirl” AND your topic in the subject line. No pitches in the comments, please.

Contact the author at tracy.moore@jezebel.com.