Travel in another country can often make one feel strange and out of sorts. There are so many new things to interpret: customs, signs, gestures, mindsets, not to mention vocabulary and pronunciation even in English-speaking areas of the world. Recently though, I’ve come to realize that there are moments when one can feel as disconnected within one’s native land as in a foreign country.
Just last week at the pharmacy counter in our hometown grocery store, a man named Dominick waiting in line began a conversation with my husband and me. We’ll long remember the exchange we had with him because of his cynical attitude. For starters, according to him all government officials are corrupt—from Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Governor Andrew Cuomo to the lowliest local official. A former state worker himself, he felt “the government” was even to blame for the incompetence of the drug store employees at Price Chopper! How he figured that I haven’t a clue! But that wasn’t all. He believes that everyone should carry a gun…that we would all feel a lot safer right there in the supermarket if that were the case. He suggested that by the time we reach his age—he was about 7 years older—we might mature and come around to his point of view. Lord, spare me from that! He told us that we are the type of people who welcome illegal immigrants from Mexico. When we mentioned our plans for a semester in Paris to try to change the subject, he replied that the French capital should be destroyed because of its government’s decision not to let U.S. planes fly over their country at the beginning of the war in Iraq. Everything out of his mouth was negative; how sorry I felt for his wife and family! It was impossible to discuss anything with him or simply to present one’s own side of the issues. While we laughed at the so-called “conversation,” it really left us with an empty, alienated feeling.
By contrast, our initial contacts with the French and other Europeans on this trip are going swimmingly. Of course, it’s not our first opportunity to live abroad and being fluent in the language helps enormously. Americans often ask me if French people are arrogant, impolite, and treat us poorly; the answer is hardly ever. The night we arrived, for example, we had dinner in a nearby couscous restaurant. We discussed Algeria and the Berber culture with the owner and his son the waiter. A client from Anjou about to leave for Agriculture Sans Frontières in Haiti talked about his experiences all over the world. A Dutch couple, who spoke English, not French, encouraged us to come see windmills in their town, Zevenbergen.
Naturally, that is not to say that there aren’t any Dominiques around who are just as negative as the guy in Price Chopper. It’s just that when confronted with such a person, we shouldn’t generalize that all of the French are like that, just as we wouldn’t want to be put in the same category as Dominick. Europeans that we’ve met on this and previous trips mostly have an open attitude toward us, including an important ability to separate individuals from governments; not all Americans are so open-minded. Once again, attitude on both sides makes a difference. We don’t expect them to act American or to speak English. My basic advice is always the same: approach others with a smile, greet them in their language, and learn to say a few phrases wherever you might be traveling.