Thursday, February 2, 2023

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Joe's Neighborhood

Why travel?

1/4/2023

“It’s not opening,” my wife says with just a tinge of panic as the glass doors allowing us to leave the Paris train station stay firmly closed.

That’s not the advertised deal. You are supposed to put your train ticket in the slot just like you did 10 miles earlier when the glass doors slid open and you got on the train. Now you are supposed to put that same ticket in this slot and the doors open to let you leave. 

I try my ticket in the slot. The machine grabs it and shoots it out a different slot on top. Nothing opens. 

“Yikes,” I say profoundly.

We look at each other as the few remaining passengers who got off the train put their tickets in the slot, the glass doors open, and they walk through to freedom. Not us. We are trapped. Trapped on the train tracks of Paris, France. Backpacks on our backs, heads heavy with jet lag, and feeling just a wee bit old.

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I should say I’m feeling old. Not so much my spry wife. I frequently try to pretend I’m not old, but then I attempt to slip on my pants in the morning. Yup, that’s me dancing around the room with one leg in my pants and one leg doing the Macarena. But what the heck. Life is short.

So my wife and I fly to Paris . . .

Twelve hours later, the bright lights of Paris shine under the wings of the plane in the early morning dark. We unpretzel our too-big bodies from our too-little economy seats and flip our backpacks over our shoulders. Time to jump head first into traveling.

And that’s really the issue. Why in the world would a person ever do this?  Why go through the aggravation?

The Checklist Traveler

Some people travel so as to fill in their bingo card. Ah, there’s the Picasso Museum. Check, B35. And over there is a Rodin statute. N22. Two butter crepes from a street vendor. G12. Yahoo, we’ve almost won. Look, there’s a Parisian woman tap, tap, tapping with high heels on a cobblestone street while wearing a wide-brimmed, red hat. BINGO!

This is not a silly way to spend your life. Sometimes, not always, you’re lying in the dark on the grass with your sweetie, a glass of wine perched next to you, bread still hot in the paper from the boulangerie, and soft cheese tasting like dairy butter on a warm July day in Iowa. Suddenly, the Eiffel Tower lights flash and blink and dazzle . . . and you are transported. Bingo indeed.

But back to our present problem. Charles de Gaulle Airport is not Des Moines International Airport. We bend our heads back to take in the large space. Now how the heck do we get out of this airport? So we walk and walk and walk to find the metro into Paris. 

At last we are on the metro as it rumbles to Paris. The stops are a blur of motion and whooshing brakes and stale air. It’s early morning rush hour. Our metro car fills quickly. 

Is this really worth it?

The Travel Junkie

Travel beckons some because it upsets the predictability of the apple cart. Sure, at 7 a.m. you can get up in Des Moines, wash your face, let the dog out and make coffee; or, at 7 a.m. you can be on the fast train to Paris where you don’t understand a lick of French, have never eaten pâté, and aren’t really sure whether you can fit in the tiny elevator at the hotel. It’s an adrenaline high because you are alive and awake. And you no longer have to be Old Man Joe buying toilet paper at Hy-Vee, but you can be the dashing Monsieur Joseph buying lingerie for his wife at a Paris boutique.

Back on the metro, we are pushed toward the door with the surge of people getting out at Gare du Nord. But before we make the door, we are pushed back by the tide of people getting on the metro at Gare du Nord. Stalemate. Fortunately, I am a big Iowa boy who has pushed my way into Target at Merle Hay Mall on Black Friday, so out the door we go. 

The Student Traveler

Some people travel to learn. About a culture, about a language, about a work of art. It can be anything.

We are on a walking food tour in Paris. In the group is a young French couple. They are a bit hesitant to speak English, but they eventually are willing to answer our pesky questions about the French people. I ask if it is considered bad manners to eat while walking on the street in Paris. They assure me that it is not bad manners, it’s just not done. Why?

“Because eating is about ‘un moment,’ ” the young man says, as if it is obvious.

Really?

In other words, you cannot be in the moment if you are not focused on the bread or the wine or whatever is going on right then and right there. You aren’t focused if you are walking and eating at the same time. Ask yourself how many times today you have not been in “un moment.” Yup, me, too. 

So why travel? You might learn a better way to be you.

. . . Back in the bowels of Paris, my wife and I give up. There are no train attendants. No one around to give directions or take any bribe money. The only language heard is not ours, and we can barely hear the French above the sound of trains coming and going. We haven’t slept for 24 hours, and now I have to pee. 

Sadly, we will now live out our lives below ground in a sort of shadow existence, one step ahead of despair. “C’est la vie,” as the French say with a shrug of the shoulders and a mournful look. Lordy, “c’est la vie” it is.

And then a French man comes through the glass doors using his ticket, sees our dilemma, and, without a word, uses his ticket to pay for my wife, and then for me, to get through the doors. He smiles at us, turns and rushes to his train.

Thank youuuuuuuuuu . . . . . . .

Hmmm, why else to travel? To be reminded that the world can be kind. ♦

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.

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