Lifestyle & Culture

365 days in France: Expat Stephen Heiner on building a life you don’t need to escape

(Editor’s note: This post about France-based expat Stephen Heiner’s pause in international travel a originally appeared on The American in Paris blog. It’s reposted here with permission.)

In December 2020 I took a business trip to Eindhoven to check in with the editors of Dispatches Europe, which syndicates some of our content here at TAIP. In November 2021 I took a two-week business trip to Hungary. That means I hit 365 days in France out of the last 380 or so days, a feat I haven’t come remotely close to touching in my near-decade living in France.

Stephen Heiner and Dispatches co-CEO Cheryl Boyd check out the Veuve Clicquot display at de Bijenkorf department store in Eindhoven, December 2020 (Photo by Terry Boyd)

As this milestone loomed, an uninterrupted period of time in France with almost no international travel, I was struck by a surprising idea: I didn’t miss it.

Let me give a bit of context first

I am not a newshound. I cultivate deliberate ignorance about current events and I do not seek to be “informed” about the “news.” I have plenty to keep track of with my businesses and my own passions and pursuits without being told about issues that have nothing to do with me and which I can do nothing about. I’ve only doubled down on that since March 2020. That has allowed me to use the last two years to focus on what truly mattered to me, and one of those happened to be reading. Last year I got to read around 150 books. This year I’ll hit 200.

With that many books comes a flood of inspiration for personal and professional projects, none of which have required me to travel. So, there’s been nothing to miss on that front. A lot of time I used to spend traveling went right into reading.

I also did a lot of traveling here in Europe, from the very first month I landed in Paris. I took my first international trip (to London, my favorite European city outside Paris) within two weeks of moving to Paris and my travels only expanded from there. The 12 months leading up to March 2020 was the busiest travel period of my entire life, which included trips to Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and the United States. I have not been idle with the opportunity to travel in the past decade. I’ve even used that experience to create a course teaching others how to travel cheaper, better, and longer.

Travel means many things to many people, but for me travel is first and foremost an opportunity to learn: about cultures, other people, and myself.  I’ve taken the time I used to spend traveling and spent it working on personal projects, one of which has been a four year project to read and discuss every Shakespeare play with a group in Paris. I have been “traveling” with this group since January 2020, and we’ve learned so much together.

A life I don’t have to take a vacation from

So why don’t I miss international travel?  Because I’ve got a lot of great stuff going on in my life, and I’m happy with who I am and where I am going.

A quote I often share is that you should “build the kind of life you don’t need to take a vacation from.” Unfortunately, for a lot of people, travel represents what they imagine as their “real lives.” While traveling they get to be who they want to be, do what they want to do, live where they want to live. After this burst of exhilaration, they return to a life they don’t want, and start planning their next escape.

But if you are living the life you want to live and living where you want to live, what’s the rush to leave it?

Do I miss the opportunity to learn more about other cultures, other peoples, and about myself? Sure. But international travel is only one means to obtain those ends, and for most of my time here in Europe has been a very easy way to do so.

But the last two years have reminded me that there are many others such ways to learn, almost none of which involve scanning governmental and news websites for ever-changing rules or lining up to, for perhaps the only time in your life, get medically tested for something you are almost 100-percent certain that you don’t have.

The world will be waiting when you’re ready

Time to explore France (Photo by Pedro Lastra on Unsplash)

That isn’t to say I didn’t continue to discover France this year. I finally made it down to Montpellier after hearing people rave about it for years. I was not disappointed. I also got to explore Brittany more, including Vannes, the Gulf of Morbihan, and the dramatic seascape at Le Yaudet, just to name a few places I got to see for the first time.

Remember that wherever you travel to in the world, you’ll be bringing yourself, and if you’re not at peace with the person you are and are becoming, that should be the first order of business, not the wonderful sights and sounds that this world has to offer. They’ll all be there waiting for you when you’re ready.

My best wishes for the next 365 days, wherever you are.

About the author:

Singaporean-born American Stephen Heiner lived in Paris from 2013 to 2021 after living in Asia and the United States for most of his life. While he has an undergraduate degree in literature, he also has an MBA, and he’s very much the man who enjoys studying financial statements as much as he enjoys reading essays by G.K. Chesterton or James Howard Kunstler.

He visits his family in the U.S. and Singapore each year, but in the meantime enjoys his dream city, which he finally had a chance to move to after selling a company he built over a number of years. 

You can find him on twitter and instagram @stephenheiner.

You can also follow his immigration journey on The American in Paris blog, where Stephen also offers consulting to those interested in relocating to, and/or making a life in, France.

See more of Stephen’s Dispatches posts here.

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