The Way I See It - Hoofing through France

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Wed, Sep 30, 2009, 9:00 am  //  Ham Hayes

Working Through a Lock
One good way to better understand our society and culture is to visit another country. Many questions and a little bit of trepidation can arise before and during a trip, even for seasoned travelers. Primal questions come first: will I be able to communicate, avoid being mugged, or find a toilet? In most cases, the answers are yes, yes and yes, especially with a little preparation and a can-do attitude. In fact, many countries have worked hard to develop traveler friendliness. Local economies are often dependent on travelers and information globalization has reduced many of the uncertainties experienced in the past.

Try learning some of the language. Even in the French countryside where English hasn’t been invented yet, endless mirth can result from sincere attempts to pronounce the local lingo. Hand and body gestures can often help. I even used folded elbows and flapping arms in an effective chicken imitation at a village restaurant. The smiles were big, the food excellent and the bonds established. In some cases, our hosts would speak only English so they could practice their skills. That kind of thwarted my strategy, but the game of connecting plays both ways.

Honor people. In our travels in France, we navigated through 67 separate canal locks. They were all free and were manually operated by lock keepers: men and women, old and young. Those folks worked hard. We know because we helped crank the lock gates open and shut alongside them. The keepers appreciated our effort. They also were wonderfully surprised by the unanticipated small gifts that we brought from the US, on good advice, for them. Quite a few conversations resulted that would not have happened otherwise. These were truly moments of grace. Many, if not most of us, go about our work each day, or see others going about theirs and don’t acknowledge the contributions made. Are we not more likely to find fault instead? We get what we choose, don’t we?

Want to learn something? Ask a question and then listen. It is best to keep the lips zipped and ears open. France has some fabulous, well known tourist sites, some of which we visited. And like many other countries I’ve been to, the real gems are the people. Now if you ask and listen, you are likely to find out a whole lot more about the interesting things to see and know, rather than if you just bought a tour or wanted to make YOUR point to a local. In our case, we learned about which restaurants to go to. We also “discovered” the incredible local produce markets, found the best wine merchants and extraordinary places to visit. And most importantly, we found new friends and had some laughs together.

Observe and adapt. One conclusion I came to on first arriving in Paris is that I could suffer severely at the hands of Paris drivers and traffic. In a word, impossible. We quickly learned to go underground to the Paris Metro. Paris is large and densely populated. It is essentially 6 stories high. Five stories of apartments on top of ground floor shops. Note: Bellingham should not use Paris as an infill model. The streets are mostly narrow and heavily, seemingly permanently, clogged with buses, cars and motorbikes. I think the most popular car is the Chloresterol and it runs on French butter. Some Parisians ride bicycles in that mess; they must believe in reincarnation. Paris streets have signs at intersections that tell how many pedestrians were dispatched in the last year for that intersection. In short, the Metro works.

Food. The French love food. I love their food as well. They are really good at it, starting with the almost universal availability of great produce and meat products, everywhere. We did not see a lot of processed food. Almost everyone we saw was thin. I suspect that’s because they have to walk due to the traffic.

Nothing’s perfect. Oh, and by the way, the French have problems, too: pollution, street people, religious intolerance, economic dislocation and I’m sure a few other things. Sounds a bit like us over here. One lesson of traveling is to see ourselves in a little kinder light. Whenever and wherever you are “working,” remember that “working” is actually serving. Now look at the other folks around you and remember that they are serving as well. Let’s try to honor that service. I’ll guarantee the food will be better, and you might just laugh a bit more.

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