Along with the rest of our baggage, we tend to bring along knee-jerk assumptions about what we expect to encounter abroad. Sometimes these can be helpful (remember to drive on the left in Britain). Other times, they can interfere with our ability to fully engage with the culture on its own terms.
People tell me that they enjoy my TV shows and my guidebooks because I seem like just a normal guy. I'll take that as a compliment. What can I say? I'm simple. I was raised thinking cheese is orange and the shape of the bread. Slap it on and — voilà!…cheese sandwich.
But in Europe, I quickly learned that cheese is not orange nor the shape of the bread. In France alone, you could eat a different cheese every day of the year. And it wouldn't surprise me if people did. The French are passionate about their cheese.
I used to be put off by sophisticates in Europe. Those snobs were so enamored with their fine wine and stinky cheese, and even the terroir that created it all. But now I see that, rather than showing off, they're simply proud and eager to share. By stowing my preconceptions and opening myself up to new experiences, I've achieved a new appreciation for all sorts of highbrow stuff I thought I'd never really "get." Thankfully, people are sophisticated about different things, and I relish the opportunity to meet and learn from an expert while traveling. I'm the wide-eyed bumpkin…and it's a cultural show-and-tell.
For example, I love it when my favorite restaurateur in Paris, Marie-Alice, takes me shopping in the morning and shows me what's going to shape her menu that night. We enter her favorite cheese shop — a fragrant festival of mold. Picking up the moldiest, gooiest wad, Marie-Alice takes a deep whiff, and whispers, "Oh, Rick, smell zees cheese. It smells like zee feet of angels."