Travel is the Headmaster of education that teaches us far beyond the walls of a classroom. Beyond the construct of formal education, with it’s pre-set boundaries for learning, and structured methods of approach. It’s focus isn’t in favour of minds that engage and learn according to a measurable and quantifiable curriculum. Rather, travel is the facilitator for learning through an enquiry model, of learning via ‘doing’ and ‘discovery’. It teaches us things about life, about people and about places. Most importantly, travel teaches us about ourselves. As a conduit for revelation, moments of clarity and purposeful introspection, perceptions shift and enlightenment often occurs. (I should know, I once quit my job on the first day back after only having visited Queensland. Imagine the possibility of International travel, lol).
Reflecting upon my recent visit to Paris, I recall these moments with the rose colored glasses of new love. However, I am well aware that the Paris that welcomed me with such charm and hospitality does not do so for everybody. So what is it that goes wrong?
My limited knowledge of the French language certainly added additional challenges, along with the usual obstacles that come hand in hand with travelling. But, the one thing that developed in increasing measure was an appreciation for the significance and power of communication beyond words. Of tone, gestures, body language and facial expressions to name a few. It was through my Parisian escapades that I learnt the power of a smile.
Having purchased a selection of decadent sweet condiments from the famous chef Christophe Adam’s store, L’Eclair de Genie, I continued on to the Eiffel Tower. With metal lids and glass jar condiments in my handbag I proceeded to the front entrance of the Tower, and happily (if not slightly smug) sauntered passed the two hour long queue of people that had not managed to pre-buy their tickets.
As I was about to enter, two intimidating French men with a brusque manner motioned for me to empty the contents of my handbag and place all my belongings through the security screening process. Fearing nothing, (after all I hadn’t done anything wrong), I proceeded to do so, naïve in knowledge that glass and metal items were prohibited.
Much to my embarrassment and shock, security began jabbering in broken English interlaced with French, and somehow I managed to decipher that I was not permitted entry into the Tower. Extremely stressed about the possibility of missing out on enjoying this experience (not to mention my pre-bought tickets), I frantically held my position in the line, unmoving and began apologising in French profusely. “Je suis desole Monsieur, Je suis desole Madame”, ( I am sorry Sir, I am sorry Madam), I said. Like a broken record, I kept repeating this with a smile. Gesturing like an Italian, with hands flapping wildly I signalled the need for a rubbish bin, at which point they must have taken pity on me. (Either that, or they had reached their patience threshold).
Motioning for me to follow them, the two security officials, escorted me to another two more senior looking security members. Now, all four of them stood, frantically speaking in French, and perforating the air with their index finger, punctuating goodness knows what. Their voices crescendoing heatedly whilst pointing at me. Argh!?! Panic (sort of, internally at least just a bit).
So, I began to mumble every skerrick of my secondary school French that I could muster from my memory. Never having used it until this moment, with apologetic hand gestures all I could do was offer genuine smiles of appeal. I’m not to sure what happened next, but they all began to laugh. Were they laughing at me? I have no idea. Was it something I said, or did, your guess is as good as mine.
They gestured once more, with index finger to their lips in a “Shhh” don’t say a word signal, mimed for me to unzip my bag, handed me back the confiscated items and motioned for me to stuff them deep with the bottom of my bag. From ‘Nay’ to ‘Yay’, and that’s that, kind of a moment. The rest of the story was fairly non eventful, as they lead me back to the skip-the-line- entrance, politely ushering me inside to wait for the lift to the Tower’s summit. As I walked passed the lines of waiting tourists, some having their items confiscated, others looking at me perplexed. Faces a mask of confusion, I felt immeasurably blessed.
Acutely aware that I had been extended grace, and that an exception had been made in my circumstance. So why me? Why not all those others who were having their items scrutinised, and then refused entry?
Well, truthfully I can’t answer this. I have no idea why. However, this one thing I do know. I was a guest in their country. And as a guest, be it accidental or deliberate, there are rules, and whether I am aware of them of them or not, that is irrelevant. Defensiveness and indignation would not have helped my case, and yet it is such a natural and instinctive response when we as humans feel threatened or under attack. Perhaps I may have responded this way on any other given day, if it weren’t for a conscious choice I’d made prior to departing Australia. I had resolved to travel with an attitude of, “When in Rome…”.
So, when in Rome, “SMILE”. Often and readily, it is the universal language of peace and unity when words fail us.
A genuine smile covers a multitude of faux pas, as does the humility to say I’m sorry. So what if your well intentioned smile is received with a withering icy reception? Don’t be discouraged, it mattes not. Do it anyway! For I resolved this, that I am an ambassador for the country that I’m a citizen of, and the way in which we conduct ourselves overseas speaks volumes about where we come from and what we stand for.
Although, in saying that , it is my experience that a smile is rarely ill received, and will diffuse many a situation. Time and time again it opens doors both overseas and in Life for me, that ordinarily would not have. Taking the time to learn and make the effort to speak basic words and phrases prior to travelling will prove to be invaluable, particularly amongst the French.
Travel has also taught me that it is best to leave pride at home. Be humble, and ask for help when unsure. It’s ok to be vulnerable and open to learning. In a world where success is often measured by what we know, an admission of asking for help seems like a weakness. Why are we so reluctant to do it? To stop the stranger in the street and ask for help? To stop and ask the next person, “excuse me, am I doing this right?”. To accept the offer of help.
Sadly, we inhibit ourselves unknowingly, burdened by the weight of maintaining a façade and upholding an expectation to “do it” our way.
Quoted often, we provide lip service to the truth that, “Laughter is the best medicine,” but in reality it proves itself true time and time again. I suspect that my attempts to speak French were spoken with an unmistakable Aussie Twang, that we’re so notorious for. That nasal accent, as though we’re holding our noses whilst speaking, and more than likely my mispronunciation was what had the security guards laughing at me. Was I offended? Absolutely not! I probably did sound funny, and simply put, I was just so relieved to no longer be in trouble.
Their laughter diffused the moment, and swallowing pride, I chose to laugh with them, saying, “Am I saying that wrong? I sound funny right?” The ability to not take yourself seriously, and have a good laugh at your own expense, well, bluntly put, it’s just damn good for your soul.
Travelling has certainly illustrated just how effective happiness, joy and the simplicity of a SMILE can be. So now (as always), I refuse to travel without it. After all, how else will I continue to gain access with contra-banned items like crème caramel spread?