A metaphor

My kids and I spent a lovely few days in the southwest part of France last week, but it certainly didn’t have much to do with the weather. We arrived at six o’clock Tuesday morning in Foix to cold, gray, foggy skies. The weather didn’t improve much over the next few days, but as I told the relatives we were visiting, We came for the people, not the weather.

We had a great time anyway, and the crummy weather even helped me learn a few related vocab words (e.g. brouillard = fog). And even though the climate might have been a tad disappointing, somehow the misty gray skies added to the fairytale enchantment of the ancient villages.

On the last evening of our visit, the skies began to clear enough for the cloud ceiling to lift–just a bit. From my cousin’s house, we could see the ruins of Montségur, its perch on a 3000-foot summit of rock previously shrouded in the ever-present brouillard. Somewhat satisfied, I assumed the show was over.

Imagine my surprise when I awoke the next morning to brilliant sunshine, bright blue skies, and…snow-capped mountains. I felt as if the heavens had opened and unwrapped a gift for me. Montségur, which had seemed to be the highest point in the distance, was dwarfed by the Pyrenees peaks behind it.

Those peaks had been there all along, but circumstances had blinded me to them. What else have I missed?


My head is spinning after a fabulous, action-packed week in France. Jet lag, language barriers, cancelled flights, night train, sightseeing, monuments, mountains, subways, snails, bad coffee, good wine, stinky cheese, long-lost family, laughter, lack of sleep–I’m still sorting it all out.

We thoroughly enjoyed every minute. I didn’t even think about writing (too much); I just soaked it all in. As I sit at my keyboard now and sift through the memories, I keep coming back to one particular lesson I learned, albeit for the zillionth time: sometimes, you don’t need words to communicate.

Before my trip, I found the thought of spending a few days with family who didn’t share a common language somewhat daunting. They really don’t speak English, and other than counting and a few vocab words, I don’t speak French. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how we were going to navigate through the awkward silences I imagined stretching between us.

As so often happens, I was wrong about that. Thinking back on the three days my kids and I spent in the L’Ariege region of southwestern France, I don’t remember awkward silence. What I remember most is the laughter. We ate and drank and smiled and somehow got to know each other. With hands and feet, smartphone translators and pidgin Frenglish, hugs and gestures, we got to know each other. We saw local sights, went shopping, shot baskets, and just hung out at the dining room table. We teased each other a lot. Above all, we had fun, and I left really feeling as if I knew my uncle and cousins better.

We didn’t have words to get in the way, so without thinking, we learned each other’s hearts. The part of the trip that I had found most apprehensive ended up being the most pleasant surprise. Where I expected awkwardness, I discovered bonheur.

Holding hands

Remember when you were a kid and holding hands felt natural? When it didn’t hold significance beyond “something about you appeals to me and it feels natural to touch you?” Or when you sought protection through this gesture, regardless of what person was at the other end of that arm, as long as that person made you feel safe? When you just naturally reached without thinking? Those were the days.              ~~~

I fly a lot, so most of what happens during the logistics phase of my trips has become old hat to me. Yesterday, though, I had a new experience. The woman seated next to me seemed somewhat harried when she arrived. Her movements were jerky and slightly frantic, but I attributed that to the accelerated boarding process brought about by our late-arriving aircraft.

I had pegged this woman as early twenties, possibly a college student, and that was confirmed when she started tweaking her resume shortly after take-off. (It’s hard not to notice with seats that close together and a large laptop display.) Her typing seemed off, too–short bursts of frenetic key-pounding followed by several rounds of correction and an occasional expletive under her breath. Even so, it took me by surprise when she ordered a shot of straight whiskey from the flight attendant. I couldn’t get a bead on this woman whose actions didn’t seem to fit her demographic.

When we hit some rough air, it all came together for me. My seatmate’s hands flew up and she swallowed a scream. I looked at her and saw that she was shaking.

“Not a flyer?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” she said. “I hate this.”

I talked to her for a few minutes hoping that the interaction would calm her down, then went back to reading my iBook. The turbulence wasn’t extreme, but it continued. When the flight attendant announced a few minutes later that the rest of the flight would probably be bumpy, I could see my seatmate’s anxiety rise even higher. As I talked to the woman, her right hand inched toward mine more than once, but she pulled it back each time. Finally, in a panic, she asked if she could hold my hand.

Surprising myself, I said yes without hesitation. I felt privileged that my human touch could be counted as comfort to a complete stranger. It made me think back to my November post, I’m only human, when I admitted turning into an airport monster, someone who turns bares her teeth when her travel space is invaded. I was glad that this time I had done the right thing.

As I get older, I believe more firmly that our culture suffers from a dearth of casual contact. Anytime someone inadvertently brushes against us, we assume the worst and check our pockets for our valuables. While I’m as diligent about self-preservation as anyone, part of me laments the lack of warmth this brings. I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that I’m glad I let go of the airport monster yesterday.

I also know that holding that woman’s hand felt pretty darned good to me, too. Natural, even.