It has been a long time since I’ve worn the shoes of a novice traveler. After years of traveling back and forth between France and the US a certain travel savvy smugness has settled in. Long gone are the anxieties of not being able to communicate in complete sentences, the fear of not knowing how to navigate transportation systems, or the incapacitating idea that the locals would judge me for not fitting in. Or so I thought.
This past month I found myself organizing a trip to Germany, and all my superior sense of traveling smarts went out the window. Suddenly I remembered that it is not easy placing your mind and body into a place that it has not experienced before. One’s first reaction is to think, “Oh maybe we just shouldn’t go.... let’s just stay home in our comfortable little bubble”. My imagination plunged into the uncertainty of what might lay ahead in this new adventure.
I repent of all the times I had smirked at my friends’ fears about how to get around here in France. We were heading off into the unknown. Our co-pilots were fear and uncertainty. I found myself asking all the same questions that others had asked: what to wear, what was the weather going to be like, would I like the food, how would I ask for what I needed, could I even achieve the simple politeness of being able to say hello or good bye. I’d be happier about going if only I could just know exactly what was going to be in store.
On boarding the train for Germany we encountered our first concrete clues that things would be a bit different for the next few days. We started off on the French TGV, train. TGV stands forTrain a Grande Vitesse-- a flowery, flowing, evocative name. We transferred to the German train: ICE, InterCityExpress-- crisp, cold, efficient. Announcements were made in three languages, but none were comprehensible as they there were spoken with such a heavy accent. All I could think was, “Oh no, how were we going to know when to get off the train? What if there is an emergency?!”
Finally I could just make out that the next stop was Frankfurt. But outside the window there was only empty forest with an occasional wood shed. What had I done, I had shipped us off to the wrong place?! Why did we leave home, how could I have gotten us into this....
And just like that a sparkling skyline appeared. We were going to be in civilization after all. At least in outward appearance there were going to be things that we recognized. It was time to let go of the anxiety and enjoy the feeling of exhilaration of a new adventure. There was nothing to do but stop needing to control everything, watch for clues, just go along with the flow. There were some challenging thrills in the voyage, (our biggest one was staying in a hotel behind security gates in the red light district).
There were a few times when a smile was the only way to communicate, a dish or two where I had no idea what I was eating, but thoroughly enjoyed the new tastes, a few traffic intersections where I longed to understand the system for pedestrian crossing and a few times when I wished I was dressed all in urban all-black instead of looking like a country bumpkin.
This experience of being a fish out of water was a good reminder of the apprehensions of first time travelers and the exhilaration of plowing through those fears. It was fun to picture myself in their shoes and think what would I like to know that would make an adventure to France comfortable and exciting. Or maybe it would be fun to not know too much and just be prepared to be open to mother nature, good food and warm smiles.
Smiles are even warmer in a city that has standing room only in outdoor bars in the middle of a frosty German winter!