Why We Travel: 8 Great Movies of Americans Abroad

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in ‘Before Midnight’/Image © Sony Pictures Classics

Editor's Note: Ellen Sussman is the nationally bestselling author of The Paradise Guest House, French Lessons, and On a Night Like This, as well as the recently published novel A Wedding in Provence. She has two daughters and lives with her husband in Northern California. Signature asked Ellen to talk to us about her favorite movies that feature Americans abroad. Here's what she had to say.

When I travel abroad I expect to be surprised. Life shouldn't be the same in a foreign country. I want to shake up my world, to expose myself to new tastes and sounds and smells and voices. I want to see things that are so novel, so startling, that my eyes open wider. That experience - of expanding my horizons while traipsing across a new horizon - should not only transform me while I'm gone, but it should deliver me home again in some new, improved way.

High demands for a little vacation.

My sister travels to the same resort in Florida every year. She doesn't want what I'm looking for. She wants food she's familiar with, experiences that don't challenge her, sheets with the same thread count as the sheets in her own house. I don't think she's alone. There are so many resorts around the world that look the same as each other - one could forget that one is in Mexico or Thailand or Italy. It will be easy to get a hamburger at that hotel and everyone will speak English and the gates are locked at night.

But for those of us who want a foreign world that is, well, foreign, we head off in different directions.

About a month ago I saw the last of the Richard Linklater "Before Sunrise" series. In those movies the foreign settings keep the characters on edge, alert, aware. They're having a love fest with all their senses in Vienna, Paris, and Greece. And it's as if the locations make a demand on the characters: feel more, want more. That's my kind of travel.

I came up with a list of favorite movies that take their American heroes abroad. In addition to the "Before" series, I'll add these:

"Midnight in Paris"

"Vicky Christina Barcelona"

"Lost in Translation"

"French Kiss"

"Stealing Beauty"

"The Dreamers"

"Eat Pray Love"

In each one the foreign setting works to throw the character into a brave new world - and to promise that after these Americans spend their time in Barcelona or Paris or Bali they'll be forever changed. I like both the romance of that and the truth of it. We do come home transformed - by beauty or strangeness or love or loneliness. We travel to see the world and yet when we return it's our view of ourselves that is ultimately brought into clearer focus.

Three of my own novels, French Lessons, The Paradise Guest House, and A Wedding in Provence, are set abroad - in Paris, Bali and Cassis. My American heroes discover that once they've traveled to a foreign country their worlds tilt on their axes, that nothing is as they thought it was. It's great material for fiction because a new world presents conflict as it rubs up against the status quo. And I have a grand time making my Americans fumble their way through unfamiliar places and cultures.

It's no surprise that I love these films that send Americans abroad and shake them to their core. If I can't travel, I can watch films and read books that take me far, far away.