Life is not a Shopping Trip
America is obsessed with materialism.
So much so that going to the mall is what passes for a cultural activity for kids, teenagers, and adults alike.
Back when I was working as a tour director in Europe with American groups, I was always surprised our tours included built-in shopping time and not just a cursory 10 minutes in the museum gift shop.
I even had passengers whose sole purpose during a Paris trip was to go to the Champs-Élysées and melt some plastic. They showed little to no interest in culture, and their attitude wasn’t even location specific. Whether in Paris, London, Rome, Amsterdam, or Athens, some folks were only traveling to collect things they could show off upon returning home.
Bragging is central to some people’s sense of self, like those who can’t stop flashing their cash and gloating about what they can afford, as if money made them a worthier human somehow.
What I came to think of as ‘the American affliction’ wasn’t common to all groups, thankfully. Many of my passengers wanted to soak up as much culture as possible and binge on knowledge and I was delighted to oblige, even after hours.
On one occasion, we walked so many miles around Paris taking in all the sights that the sole of my boot split into two and I flip flopped all the way back to the hotel amid general hilarity. Such guests were a gift; seeing European culture through their eyes full of wonder meant I’d fall in love with it all over again, day in, day out. And notice things I had never noticed before as I kept on learning about places I’d known my whole life.
All the shoppers wanted, meanwhile, was for me to circle métro stations or Tube stops on a map and send them on their merry way. It made for soul-crushing trips when I could feel my brain atrophy in disbelief.
On such tours, I became a glorified shopping directory, which was dispiriting.
But I made sure they went home happy regardless; this was my job.
Travel is a privilege that has the power to broaden our horizons and build bridges between humans.
I had passengers for whom an educational tour during their high school career would likely be the only time they’d ever cross the Atlantic. Those of lesser means had scrimped and saved for a couple of years, organized fundraisers, and planned endlessly.
Under the guidance of extraordinary educators who turned every single day into a live classroom, they made the most of their trip.
But other educators led the shopping expeditions and disconnected from their job the minute they landed, which made mine a lot harder. You can’t motivate anyone about visiting a World War 2 memorial in Normandy when all they want to know is whether we’ll be back in Paris before the shops close.
In such circumstances, forget about unpacking European history, how the EU came to exist, or trying to make anyone understand why it matters so very much because they simply don’t care.
Instead, you commit retail outlets located near monuments and museums to memory. And then you send your passengers there, hoping they might catch some culture by osmosis when they walk past.
It’s a stealthy approach but it does work on occasion.
For example, few are the people who can walk past the singular looking Centre Pompidou (which I used to call the ‘house of pipes’ when I was a kid) in Paris and not wonder about what’s inside.
Impervious to fashion though I may be, I still had to try and relate to all my passengers, no matter what their priorities and interests were. Even when those differed from my remit, I was there to make their trip as enjoyable as possible while delivering the program they had signed up for. Plus anything else they might want, within the realm of the possible.
During the space of a few days, minds stretched, opened, and changed, a transformation process that went both ways. Rare are the trips when I didn’t learn anything from the people I shared my daily reality with for however long we were together.
Epiphanies were our common currency and my stock-in-trade.
Little did I know at the time I’d immigrate to the US and eventually become an American.
Immigration can fail.
In my case, I reacted to it by losing five years of my life to major depressive disorder, the genesis of which I’m still trying to parse.
Being constantly at odds with the culture in which you live does not make for a smooth acclimation process and I’ve never not struggled.
I encountered some of the same issues I had with my least curious groups. None of the cultural and linguistic assets that make up my identity were of any interest so I started dematerializing as my life shrank.
When museum trips are a torture for the person you go with, your heart sinks. When you travel to a dream destination in the South Pacific and end up visiting one local mall after another instead of making the most of the stunning natural surroundings, your heart breaks.
Mine did, time and again, until I ended up rarely leaving my home. My writing voice had already left me by then so I had no way to support myself nor access vital therapy that might have helped me overcome difficulties. Instead, the situation got progressively worse until I became convinced my life was over and done with.
Writing this today at my parents’ in Paris listening to some Portuguese music makes me well up but those are happy, grateful, heartfelt tears, not tears of excruciating psychic pain anymore.
I came back to Europe at the end of 2018 because my stepmom is gravely ill and my elderly parents need a hand navigating an ever-changing, complex, and unpredictable reality. While our daily life is a rollercoaster of emotions, challenges, and fears, we’re all defiantly alive.
The constant death threat hovering over my beloved stepmom’s head is making us all take stock of what matters most. For us, it’s one another, the love that binds us, experiences we can share, be it sitting around the dinner table at home, on a rooftop terrace in Paris, or watching animal documentaries in the evening.
Or indeed walking into to the oncologist’s office as a family.
In short, togetherness.
Filling empty lives with things can never make up for the absence of deep, meaningful connections, fellow feeling, and human warmth.
This isn’t an exclusively European truth but a universal one, even if America often rejects it.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.