I actually thought it would be different this time. I actually thought that on the afternoon before I left on a trip out of the country I would be packed and ready to go, armed with travel tips and historical perspective on the place I was headed for, and ready to engage the locals in their language, in conversations about their day-to-day lives, aspirations, and political beliefs.
I actually thought that I wouldn't be sitting here late at night, on deadline, with clothes in the laundry, a list of errands to try to run on the way to the airport, a heap of tossed-aside projects, and months of regret over the language not studied, the books not read, the plans not made.
I'm going to France in the morning ready or not. It was just three days ago that somebody asked if I needed an international driver's license since I was planning on renting a car over there. It had never even occurred to me, arrogant and ignorant American that I am, that a U.S. driver's license wouldn't work in another country. Thank goodness AAA cranks those things out in less than 20 minutes.
Every time I leave the country, I swear this won't happen again, because every time I leave, I am stressed out until the moment I get on the plane and then come back wishing I had at least learned some of the language. So every time, I swear that I'm going to progress beyond the infantile level of "where is" and "how much" and "do you have."
At one point a few months ago, I actually held in my hands a catalog from a community college and opened to the pages listing the French classes. Several weeks after that, I bought a CD-ROM and was very proud of myself when I went right home and started using it. Several weeks later, I used it for the second time. That was about a week ago.
I'm going to France with my parents, and it was my job to learn the language and drive the car a small price for a trip to France. As a result of my extensive CD-based study of the French language, I have informed my parents that if we see any boys or girls running, standing, walking, or jumping, I will boldly announce such. If one of them gets on or under a table, I've got that covered too. My problems will start if any of them decide to speak to us.
I'm pretty sure I can get us fed, because I once got myself fed all alone in a back-alley Hong Kong restaurant. I simply had the waiter follow me until I saw something appealing on somebody else's plate then pointed at it and rubbed my stomach. I figure if all else fails, my folks and I can fan out across a bistro, pointing and rubbing. If nothing else, we'll add considerably to Americans' reputation in Paris.
I actually have two advantages working for me in this. One is that, after years of experience, I don't really have a problem making an ass of myself in front of strangers. So if I mean to ask someone for directions to a museum and instead say something like "Where is art," that'll be fine. Some lucky Parisian will get a chance to verbally abuse me, and eventually we'll find some art. It's like finding barbecue in Memphis, after all.
My other advantage is the basic human compassion which I assume all people, even Parisians, possess that and the vastly superior linguistic education people in Europe receive. Over there, many people speak more than one language, an odd concept for graduates of American schools. So when I utter the French equivalent of "Excuse my, who is museum," they'll take pity on me and show me where the museum is. Either that or another lucky Parisian will get a chance to verbally abuse me, and eventually, we'll find the museum.
The way I see it, traveling in another country is a lot like working. If you just show up clean, behave in a civil way, make a slight effort at doing the right thing, and remain open to assistance, you'll do just fine. Come to think of it, working and being in a foreign country are both a lot like dating: It doesn't seem that hard to surpass the efforts of most people.
I try to tell myself that I'll change, that I'll prepare for my trips and somehow get more out of them, but I'm 35 now, and I've never done it any other way. I'm the same with deadlines. Somebody asked me once if I work better under the pressure of a looming deadline, and I said I really couldn't say, because I've never tried it the other way.
I guess I should just get some sleep oh, and pack and resign myself to walking off the plane sometime day after tomorrow and into Paris, into the "I'm there" peace of mind that only exists on the road, and into complete ignorance of my surroundings. It does come naturally.