Why 'depaysement' is the one foreign word every traveller should know
It's hard to put your finger on the feeling. You're away from home, in a foreign land, surrounded by foreign faces. You're apprehensive, but excited. You're nervous, but alive.
Every synapse feels like it's firing when you first set foot in a strange place, when you have to figure out the lay of the land, try to decide if you're safe or in danger, if you should be elated or afraid. Every part of you is in overdrive.
What do you call that? "Culture shock" doesn't cut it. "Excitement" doesn't do it justice either, given that undercurrent of fear. We don't have a single term that sums all those feelings up.
But the French do.
Until now, my favourite foreign word with no English translation had been "lagom". That's the Swedish term for "just enough", or "a fair share", or "a sufficient amount".
It's as much a way of life in Sweden as it is a single word, an attitude that you don't need too much in life, you don't need to be hugely rich or get extremely drunk or eat so much that you're really, really full – you just need "lagom".
Lagom was always my favourite. That is, until a few weeks ago when I heard about "depaysement". It's French, and it has, of course, a certain "je ne sais quoi". Derived from the word "pays", meaning country, its most literal translation is "to be without country". Its effective use, however, goes further.
Depaysement is all of the feelings that hit you when you're away from home, when you're visiting a strange place for the first time.
For some people, that experience is horrific. For the millions of people who are currently displaced from their homes due to war or oppression, depaysement is most definitely a bad thing, something we should all be trying to help mitigate. It's pure sadness and fear.
For others, however, particularly travellers, depaysement is something we bring upon ourselves consciously – and even then it's not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing.
Depaysement is shocking, but it's also exciting. It's intimidating, but also electrifying. It sums up what you go through when you travel. In fact, it sums up what you become addicted to.
That is what's so great about this word. Depaysement is not just a fleeting feeling; it's something travellers secretly crave.
Anyone who says they have the "travel bug" – they crave depaysement. Anyone who chafes at the feeling of sitting at a desk all day going through the same boring routine – they crave depaysement. Anyone who actively misses the feeling of not knowing where they are or what's going on around them – they crave depaysement.
That's the feeling that makes travel great. That's the everyday thrill you miss when you're at home doing normal things.
I love being a foreigner in a foreign land. Life feels so much bigger and fuller when you have to work to achieve the smallest things, like ordering a coffee or catching a bus. Everything is a process that has to be figured out. It's an ordeal that has to be experienced.
Your whole world is a challenge when you're going through depaysement. What you eat for breakfast, what you say to greet a friend, where you go, what you do and how you get there all become a trial when you're away from the comfort of home.
That might sound difficult, and in some ways it is. Some days it drives you crazy and you just want to be back in a place where everything is easy and it all makes sense. Some days when you're in India or Morocco or Vietnam or Russia you just want a lazy, easy day where the simplest chore isn't a challenge, and everyone just smiles at you or leaves you alone.
It's also, let's not forget, a supreme privilege to be able to choose to go through this feeling, and to treat it as a joy rather than an ordeal.
But that is what travel for the adventurous is all about. You get hooked on the challenge of being somewhere different, of having to battle to achieve even the smallest thing.
Days spent at home tend to blur into each other, to flat-line with pure routine. Days spent travelling don't do that. They force you to open your eyes and take notice. There is no routine. There is no familiarity. Everything is bizarre and different and new. It's a time to embrace things you've never tried before, and to whoop with joy when you do it.
For every traveller, to be "without country" is to be without rules, without expectations, and without fear. That's something that deserves its own word.