Dépaysement is a French word that roughly translates as “being out of one’s element.” It’s a feeling one can have anywhere but travel enhances this desirable sense of disorientation like a drug.
I often feel like a tourist in my own hometown, but alienation is not dépaysement. It may stem from being different, but for me the odd and magical feeling arises from being at once aware of and oblivious to my otherness. I know I don’t really belong here, but the universe is telling me to enjoy the ride.
Dépaysement may arise from taking a risk but it’s not about subjecting oneself to intentional danger. The sense of escape, fear or freedom you might feel while skydiving or the adrenaline rush of running with the bulls in Pamplona may be thrilling, but it’s not dépaysement.
Nor is it that sense of complete incompetence you might feel when trying to navigate in a place where you have few if any touchstones. (No need to travel for this experience. I felt this way each time I changed jobs.) It’s a sense of feeling simultaneously lost and found.
The most analogous experience I can think of is déjà vu, that suspended moment when the camera in one of your eyes catches up with the other, that sense of stepping out of time if only for a second. It’s that instant of duality where you are both participant and observer.
For me, dépaysement is the sensation of drifting beyond my cultural comfort zone, but not to the point of no return. It’s that moment when I find myself dancing in step to an unfamiliar rhythm, out of my element but exactly where I am meant to be. It’s the liberation I feel the moment after I stop judging people, places or events that are different. It’s the warm rush of witnessing something greater and deeper, more ancient than just me. The weird familiarity of discovering and tapping into a previously unknown, suddenly universal archetype and going with an unfamiliar flow.