Know Before You Go: How learning about a country can lead to a much richer travel experience

Know Before You Go: How learning about a country can lead to a much richer travel experience

As the saying goes, knowledge is power.

It’s true for travel as well, especially in the post-pandemic world, where travelers and would-be expats need to consider even more variables than before, such as entry requirements and health protocols that may differ from country to country.

It won’t be a piece of cake. Travel will require more research and planning, which is bad news for those of us who like to get away on a whim to explore a new destination.

The good news? Learning about a country’s people, language, and culture before traveling can lead to a much richer experience when you get there.

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People sometimes ask if I have experienced the “Paris syndrome” after moving here in 2016. No, I have never felt disillusioned. I knew what to expect and I owe it to an extended stay I did before the big move. I wanted to test-drive being a local and living the everyday life in Paris (crowded metro and all), to make sure I was making the right choice.

Good decision, as I don’t have any horror stories to share. Quite the contrary.

The extended stay allowed me to find a neighborhood I wanted to live in: one that is affordable and suits my lifestyle. I’m still here after five years.

Later I discovered a co-working café that became my freelance office after the move, a cozy home away from home. I gradually got to know the expat community, which eventually led to my first job in Paris and other professional opportunities.

I started practicing French outside the classroom, having taken lessons back in Chicago – and let me tell you, everyday language is nothing like in the textbook. Even if you can get away with not speaking French in Paris, a multicultural capital city, you will need it to land a salaried job with five weeks of paid vacation, private health insurance, and other perks like restaurant tickets or reimbursement for your monthly metro pass.

During the stay, I began learning about the ins-and-outs of the French bureaucracy, which would come in handy for things like renting an apartment and opening a bank account. I didn’t learn everything about relocating overseas & life in France, but it was a good start.

It was also at that time that I met people who have since become close friends. When I arrived in Paris, one of them invited me to dinner in *our* neighborhood, another offered to help me unpack. And when I was down with the flu, unable to get out of bed, a third friend took the metro across Paris to bring me food, water, and medicine.

Thanks to those friends I didn’t feel alone or experience the “expat blues” too often, which is a normal feeling, but can lead you to question your decision. Knowing them helped me feel at home in Paris rather quickly, despite being away from family and old friends.

The same goes for attending Paris Saint-Germain football matches, which I started doing during the extended stay. Getting season tickets (prior to signing an apartment lease, but that’s another story) also helped me feel like I belong.

For an expat, there’s no better feeling than that.

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Even if you don’t plan to relocate abroad, researching a country and its culture before traveling is a good idea. I haven’t always been this way. When my spontaneous, adventurous side took over, I would hop on a train or flight and figure things out later.

Sometimes it worked out great, other times I would waste time doing research in my hotel room, and missing out on activities. Such was the case when I first went to Avignon in the south of France. Had I known about their summer theater festival, I would have attended.

While I still like last-minute travel, I have become more of a planner. I check event listings before I go (learned my lesson well). I plan activities around the weather forecast and new pandemic rules. Visiting an exhibit? With museums operating at a reduced capacity, you may need to buy tickets in advance for a specific time slot. No more popping in.

To better understand a country, I read about its history and current politics – out of curiosity and in certain cases for safety. When it comes to landmarks, I feel it’s not enough to visit them and take pictures. I want to know why they were built and what they mean for the place. Maybe there are some stories or related trivia.

Did you know that the Eiffel Tower was slammed by critics and called a “tragic street lamp” when completed? It wasn’t until it became popular with visitors that the attitudes had changed. Europe’s first skyscraper? That’s the Art Nouveau Witte Huis (White House) in Rotterdam, which somehow survived a 1940 bombing that nearly erased the city. And the bridge in Lisbon that looks like the Golden Gate in San Francisco? Despite their similarities, Ponte 25 de Abril was constructed by the same company who had built the San Francisco- Oakland Bay Bridge, but not the Golden Gate. I’m a sucker for such details.

Speaking of Lisbon, learning about the city ahead of traveling allowed me to make the most of the four-day trip. I knew that I wanted to focus on three things: fado music, architecture (in particular azulejo tiles on historic buildings), and Portuguese wine.

I ended up booking a small-group tour that combined food with culture. I got to see the neighborhood when fado was born, attend a live show that didn’t feel touristy, taste traditional and modern Portuguese cuisine, learn about vinho verde and other wines of Portugal, visit hidden courtyards, back alleys, and the best viewpoints to catch the sunset.

I didn’t feel like I had missed out on anything, even if I skipped a few museums. I went to Lisbon knowing how much time I had and what would interest me the most, which resulted in a meaningful experience. Having picked up a few phrases in Portuguese made it easier to connect with locals and learn even more about their home.

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Unless it’s a beach getaway, I travel to eat and learn. Researching a country ahead of time gives me a head start and sometimes leads to repeat visits. I’ve been back to Portugal twice – in Lisbon and Porto – and I’m not done yet… It’s become my new favorite place.

For Apto by Pola Henderson
Jetting Around Media
pola@jettingaround.com  
Pola Henderson is a Paris-based writer and communications manager. 

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