Remember to build in off-plan moments every time you travel. You never know what will happen...
A quarter of a century has passed since I sat in a classroom trying to learn French. However, the flame of interest in learning the language was never really extinguished. Now, with the use of my trusty iPhone, I am a devotee to podcasts and language learning apps. Little did I know that a short time later I would have an opportunity to put those tools into practice.
I was introduced to Paris on a lovely summer day, taking in the grand architecture and graceful, flying buttresses of Notre Dame Cathedral. The picturesque setting of the majestic, stone cathedral next to the River Seine with its tailored gardens and tree-lined promenade of park benches beckoned me and my significant other for a chance to take a breather and observe. Soaking in the beauty surrounding us, I was unaware that this was destined to be the first of many interesting, interactive and random cultural experiences I would have.
The sound of a young woman earnestly attempting to create a whole French sentence was met with an equal attempt by an elderly French man assisting in broken English. Much to my surprise, I could detect a Chinese accent surfacing from the woman’s efforts. English was Susie’s second language, yet she was resolved to add French as well. With the patience of a caring grandfather, Monsieur Jacques was gently correcting and encouraging her. I couldn’t help but smile as I listened. And I couldn’t hold myself back, either. This was a slice of cultural pie that shouldn’t be declined. So, I did the one thing that I know to be a part of any experienced traveler’s mantra: Weaving yourself into the culture by interacting with the people. Imagine the scene that day in Paris with three people of different backgrounds and cultures, enthusiastically attempting to bridge countries and continents through language.
Susie, whose Chinese given name is Yjuan, spoke English very well, and her patience and enthusiasm were tempered with a touch of caution. Jacques, however, was a retired man, and had all the time in the world to meander through Parisian streets and lounge in its gardens. Yet, he seemed enthralled to spend his time with us as our honorary “professor” of linguistics. With every attempt at English, his soft blue eyes revealed his sincerity. His version of a summer’s day attire included a dress shirt and khaki pants with a pinstriped blazer and casual summer necktie, affirming his dignified French gentleman status. Monsieur Jacques was fully committed to his newfound “students”, and Susie and I were happy for the language aperitif.
The gentleman graciously offered to lead us all on a leisurely walk through Parisian neighborhoods towards the famous Luxembourg Gardens. Jacques expertly maneuvered and sashayed his way around the endless outdoor cafes lining the streets. Rounding a corner, he quickly grabbed my arm, and pointed. Here is where my knowledge of specific French exclamations paid off as he proclaimed, “At--ten—see-ohn!!” (Attention! Caution!) Just in time for me to avoid stepping in some French doggie-doo.
Undaunted, we strolled on towards the gardens. Walking out of the shaded, gray and concrete color scheme of Parisian streets, we could see a glorious view up ahead. Bright sunlight streamed through the perfectly proportioned trees, surrounding the pièce de résistence. A glistening, circular reflecting pool was enveloped by a pristine, rolling green lawn. A few elegant palm trees provided exotic umbrellas of shade to its visitors. Profusions of flowers showed off their rainbow of colors, while statuary of all sorts of whimsy played hide and seek with visitors. Here was the refuge and oasis many were seeking from the inner trappings of the city. Rejuvenated and refreshed, we continued our language foray where we left off. We laughed and joked at our disarticulations and other grammatical mistakes, but through it all we still felt our human connection. I asked Jacques if he felt the disdain towards Americans that many French seemed to share at present. He became very solemn, and looked at me with all the sincerity he could emanate. His heart seemed to overflow as he expressed his overwhelming gratitude to America for liberating his country during the Second World War. The shared ideals of freedom and liberty, along with their costs and sacrifices, were very personal and meant the world to him. As a social studies teacher, his words struck a deep chord of empathy within me. I hope that someday future generations of liberty-loving Americans will benefit from his words and perspective.
At that moment, though, I was the student. This type of experience is just as valuable as gazing at treasured art in the world’s best museums. Here in this vast and diverse international metropolis, a gray-haired, elderly French stranger was sharing years of wisdom and confiding personal thoughts encapsulated in a few, brief sentences of candor and fervor. What a lesson.
Unfortunately, we parted ways a bit abruptly, as the primeval urging for food took precedence over everything else. While it is true that I have a photograph to remind me of the honor I had meeting this lovely individual, I deeply regret not asking for his address. Keep this in mind when you meet special people.
Monsieur Jacques, c’était une joie!
I can only hope that he walked away with as big a smile in his heart as I had in mine...