look before you leap

In travel as in writing, it pays to be observant. I have always said that was my greatest weakness as a writer. A new book, The Invisible Gorilla, discusses a study in which people watching a video failed to notice a gorilla walking across the screen among the people. It is quite possible I would be the one person who would not see it if a gorilla actually crossed a room I occupied, not just a video. Of course, it is also possible I would be the one investigating an interesting bug on the opposite wall, so maybe my observance just flows in other directions.

Here in Europe, observance is a survival skill. There are the small things, like the Barcelona train station where I failed to observe that the toilet paper was distributed on a roll outside of the stall by the entrance. That would have been good information to have had.

Then the more important ones. Three times in the last two days, we have boarded the wrong train. Twice it was on the right track, just a few minutes earlier than the one we expected. Once it would have been a missed attraction if we had stayed on the wrong train. Once, four of us did end up stuck on it when the doors closed and my husband was stranded on the other side. He took the correct train, and as ours was going the same way, we met part way.

The final time, it would have been much more serious. The four of us (without said husband) jumped on the train we assumed he was already upon, rushed up the stairs, and looked for seats. I paused just to ascertain from the bartender that we were on the correct train. “A Marsailles?” “Marsailles? O non. A Paris!” “Non Non Non!!!” We all wailed as we ran to get off the train before the doors closed. Once train doors close in France, there is no getting off or on. Believe me. Even if the train is on the right track at approximately the right time, check the window, the arrival board, and anything else to make sure. Difficult to do when you’re afraid of missing yet another one and your husband is alone without his Eurail Pass.

Then there was observance in the metro station. Our last night in Barcelona, I noticed a young man rushing through the station. Something about him looked wrong. I could not have said precisely what, just something. He was dressed like a bad American tourist, but he did not otherwise fit the profile. He was too young and too Spanish looking. He jerked awkwardly through the crowd, looking at people yet rushing through them in an odd sort of dance. He was also checking out my daughters’ derrieres, which happens not infrequently at home and very frequently in Spain. So I was watching him. As it happens, he was checking them out not for the usual reasons but for wallets, as a few yards ahead of us I saw him pickpocket another woman’s purse and veer off quickly. It was so fast I was not even sure of what I saw. But noticing that there was something not quite right made me more vigilant around him, which kept us safer (though we had been well versed in the ways of avoiding being pickpocketed).

So, I am hoping that travel this summer will improve my writing by improving my observance. At least, I am hoping for no more wrong trains.

to pee or not to pee?

Thirty years ago, on my first visit to Paris, I fell in love with the Montemartre District, the artist area around Sacre Couer Basilica. I had read that it has turned into a giant Parisian Wisconsin Dells (without the thrill rides and with considerably more adult interest). Nevertheless, one must go. With hundreds of people around, we needed a meeting place, and I suggested a kiosk to the right of the basilica. Little did I know.

Shortly after leaving child #3 and my husband there, they noticed an odd smell in the area. I noticed an odd liquid on the stairs nearby. Quite soon, sure enough, we watched as one young man went behind the kiosk, presumably did his business, and nonchalantly left, pulling up as he went. Then another. And another. And several more. Who says only women go in pairs? This, in spite of the fact that a public bathroom was right down those wet, smelly stairs. Some old world traditions die hard. Being the careful, shielding mother I am, I told the girls they should sneak around the corner and yell ‘Boo!’ at an opportune moment.

Though I certainly witnessed this thirty years ago, I was saddened by the way the are has been treated through the years. The basilica is as wondrous as ever and the street musicians as engaging, but the obnoxious bracelet hawkers combined with the broken glass and the smell of beer and urine almost destroy the finest view in Paris. Is it because this tourist attraction makes no money that is is forgotten in the caretaking department? Other cities take note—tourists don’t really care for this type of atmosphere.

In fact, as a video we saw before we left home told us, Parisian police are attempting to crack down on public peeing. They issue ticket if they catch you, ah, issuing. But not, apparently, on Montmartre, as the kiosk was clearly a well known peepee palace and no one cared. So, clearly, there are places in Paris to pee or not to pee.

the kindness of strangers

I have found that there is a difference between being polite and being kind. I discovered this, of all places, at the Eiffel Tower. Yes, we have spent the past week in Paris, and as it is difficult to write about American national holidays when I am nowhere near America, I’m taking a break.

But back to the tower. A poor soul was attempting to take her beloved’s picture on top of the Eiffel Tower, as beloved’s everywhere are wont to do, but she could not keep the hordes of people from walking between her camera and her man. Seeing her predicament, I told her, “I’ll block, you shoot,” and I stood in the way of the throng for a few seconds. She responded, “It’s always the Americans who are the nice ones.” I thought that was amusing, coming in a country notorious for thinking Americans rude and vice versa.

But the reason behind Parisians thinking Americans rude is that Americans too often lack politeness, manners, and offend the Parisian sense of what is “simply not done.” Like talking loudly on the subway, eating on the run, or not greeting a shopkeeper. Or possibly wearing sequined tight T-shirts with “I Heart New York” emblazoned on them. And the reason Americans think Parisians rude is that they put this premium on manners, while we tend to place it on friendliness; more of a “help a brother out” sort of attitude that notices what someone needs and tries to fill that need.

Better, worse, just different, who’s to say? There are pros and cons to both. I’m partial to friendliness because it’s what I know. And, I guess I have to say, Jesus did command us to love one another, not be polite to one another. But that’s another sermon. Rather than call one another rude, I find it more interesting and productive to determine why we feel that way and what the misunderstanding probably is.

In any case, I have not found the French rude at all, despite the rumors. I do attempt to speak their language, however woefully, and I think that helps. Sometimes I’ve had quite an amazing Franglish thing going on. Sometimes, to be truly confusing, I lapse into Spanenchlish. It’s truly frightening. But at least they know I’m trying That earns points.

in honor of oceans day–who’d have thought?

Some years ago, I glanced through a gardening book on the bookstore shelves on one of my husband’s and my cheap dates–going to Borders for chai lattes and paging through books. The author first subjected her readers to one of those personality tests to determine what kind of an “outdoor space” person she was. A meadow lover? Too many bees. A cave dweller? Too claustrophobic. A forest dryad? Too dark, and too many things ready and able to jump out from behind (or within) a tree. A point person? Oh, yes. That was me. Absolutely, solidly, no quibbling. My ideal outdoor space, as she described it and I completely concur, consists of me, a spit of land facing the ocean, closed eyes, breeze and spray just enough to be invigorating but not enough for a complete soaking.

Now this, if you had known me as a child, you would find rather odd. Some of my deepest childhood terrors involved other people attempting to get me to like water. My mother insisting I go down the slide at Cedar Lake. I swear that thing was 40 feet long and high and in at least that depth of water, too. At least, it seemed so to me. Same mother dragging me down a pier on Lake Michigan, bending down and tugging me toward that terrifying blueness. (OK, it was Chicago in the early 70’s. More likely it was blackness, and the most terrifying part was what was in that water.) Nevertheless, I was sure as I peered into it at such close range that I would soon be in it and lost to this world forever.

Then, there was the swim test at Girl Scout camp, wherein I swallowed at least two gallons of lake water and probably some small fish. What was this about having to put my actual face in the water to swim? Wasn’t a dry-eyed, barely breast stroke good enough? I’m not Australian. I do not have to crawl. I got a pity pass and barely missed the social stigma of the dreaded redcap–the landlubbing not-allowed-beyond-three-feet-of-water failures. We will not even mention here my older brother’s fondness for dunking my head in the toilet. That is most likely where all this got started, you know. So what could possibly explain my grownup love of a rocky coast and open sea?

I think, maybe, it’s not in spite of those fears but because of them. Maybe, for a fearful being, the ocean is the only place big enough to dwarf them all and make you think: my worries and terrors and, yes, even my me, are so tiny in the whole big sailboat of life. Maybe I forget me there. Maybe an ocean is as close to the freeness of eternity as I’ll get in this life.

Alas, I will probably never have a garden that features an ocean view, so it was of no use to buy the book. I have to settle for a taste of glory when I can get it. In my very imperfect place on my very imperfect journey, I’m glad for at least a taste of eternity to remind me–the perfect place is out there. I’m just not there yet.

my cancer survivor friends

I’ve never felt like a cancer survivor. Maybe it’s because I never underwent chemotherapy or radiation. Anyone who hasn’t earned her stripes with those heavy hitters, I figure, can’t really count, right? You almost don’t feel you deserve the title if you haven ‘t endured the triumvirate of nausea, exhaustion, and new hairstyle.

Or, I think, it’s because I still don’t quite believe it happened. See, I knew the chance of kidney disease eventually getting me was pretty positive (100 percent), and the fact that all of my dad’s side died of emphysema offered pretty good chances on that front as well, though I have failed miserably at the smoking like a chimney thing they all did so well. With those champions vying to bump me off early, who even considered cancer as a contender?

Honestly, when the doctor told me after surgery ten years ago that she had found thyroid cancer, my first reaction was more of surprise than fear. It was like having some lady jump in front of you in the deli line at the grocery store–I just looked at it and politely said, “Excuse me, I think this other thing was in line first to get me. You cut.”

Regardless of whether or not I feel like a survivor, I am a ten-year cancer survivor, and Sunday was Cancer Survivor Day. If you are one as well, God bless you. You’ve fought hard, and I know you’re grateful for every one of your days. I know a number of you, and you are blessings in my life. May others be a blessing to you today, and please, tell us your story if you wish.

but what does it mean?

What does ursprache to that mean? I have no idea. I also have no idea how to spell it. But someone does, notably Kerry Close, the Scripps National Spelling Bee champion of 2006. I posted that list last week in honor of National Scripps Spelling Bee Day. After researching the winning words for the last 75 years or so, the good news is that, despite the title of a book I read in Borders recently, The Dumbest Generation, the Scripps offers some hope that the author of that book may be incorrect. Some members of this generation are far from moronic, imbecilic, witless, dense, duncical, doltish, obtuse, or puerile. However you spell any of those.

The list I posted last week was the list of winning words since 2ooo. I don’t know about you, but with the exception of the last one, I do not know how to spell any of these words or have the slightest idea what they mean. And I am a former English teacher with lots of cool sounding latin words in my degrees. The funny thing is, all those “smarter” generations of years gone by seem to have had it much easier. I mean, in 1940, the victor had to spell therapy. They couldn’t give that word to kids now–all of them can spell it. If they’re not in therapy their friends are. I guess it was more of an alien concept in 1940. Gladiolus? Knack? Cerise? Luxuriance? And my favorite from 1984–luge. It was an Olympic year, after all.

But honestly, up until the mid-nineties, I could spell most of the winning words. Then something happened. Like everything else, I suppose, spelling must have become a blood sport. Like everything else our kids do, the competition got kicked up, and those who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, devote every breathing moment to it got left in the dust. Yes, like Olympic skaters and violin prodigies, competitive spellers spend hours a day at it and hire personal coaches. Something I’m guessing kids of other generations could not do, since they had to do silly things like work for the family or wanted to do silly things like play.

I suppose given a choice I’d prefer my child spend hours learning to spell than learning to play Sims 3, but perhaps neither one is the best possible option. So, this generation can spell words no other has managed. And they have a right to be proud of that. They need not stand for listening to how “in my day we really knew how to learn things.” They have gained a great deal of discipline, training, and problem-solving tools. But do you think maybe we’ve all lost something, too?