therestlessnest

where life's not empty, it's restless.

Archive for the tag “France”

In Real Time

IMG_0188 - Version 2Home. I’m home. The #TravelBinge2017 Tourist has Halted. However: she lives on inside me, and she has given my brain a much-needed adjustment.

I don’t much like the word “tourist.” “Traveler” is the word I’ve always preferred, with its hints of Martha Gellhorn and Graham Greene. But in the eyes of the Chinese, Korean, French, English and Icelandic people who tolerated me tromping through their countries this past month, I was not fancy or special. I was a tourist. And that’s OK. No one would mistake me for a native in any of these nations, except perhaps Iceland. And being a tourist is not what it used to be. Or it doesn’t have to be what it used to be. You can break free of the pack, even in China, even without speaking Chinese. IMG_0372People are ridiculously busy in China these days, but if you flag them down, they’ll help you buy train tickets, or get off at the right stop, or order dumplings.

And sometimes, if they want to practice their English, they’ll flag you down.

IMG_0352      Outside Guangzhou–a city of 12 million in southern China that appears to be adding a skyscraper a day–my friend Lindsay and I were hiking up Baiyun Mountain when two young law students, Carry and Pelly (their “English names”) asked if they could walk and talk with us. It was a national holiday: Tomb Sweeping Day, when Chinese families gather to clean and decorate the graves of their ancestors. Carry and Pelly, both 21, came from a town three hours away and couldn’t afford to go home to their families, so they had joined the throngs hiking Baiyun. We ended up spending much of the day together, including a trip to their favorite tea and dumpling restaurant, which we never would have found without them.  IMG_0245

Their questions for us ranged far and wide: “Do you like ice cream?” (They told us that many Chinese people believe that chilled foods, like ice cream, are bad for young women, especially if they’re pregnant.) “Do you practice a religion?” (They don’t, but assumed that we, being American, might.) And, inevitably, “What is Donald Trump like?”

You can’t travel the world right now without talking politics in general, and Trump in particular. But here’s the larger truth: people outside the United States have a lot on their minds besides Donald Trump.

For example, when I asked Carry whether she worried about global warming, her cheerful face turned somber. She told me about China’s terrible rains and sandstorms in 2009. “It was the alarm of nature,” she said, “that tells us to protect the planet.”

IMG_0185         Where had I gotten the idea that Chinese people were too busy building their economy to care about protecting the planet? The earth’s troubled health is literally in their face, every day: donning a mask is something they’re already used to doing. Climate change is not far off in the future; it is happening in real time.

This morning, that phrase–“in real time”–popped up three times in thirty minutes of reading. Is it suddenly so popular because we experience so much of our lives virtually? Vicariously? Abstractly?

IMG_0137            I know this much: travel happens in real time. And though I’m happy to be home, reflecting back on my trip in nostalgic, not-real time, I already miss that bracing immediacy. I miss talking climate change in China, elections in France, Brexit in Britain. I miss seeing, right in front of me, the speed and scale of China’s urban growth, political posters all over Paris, and the global pageant that is London, where Brexit was rejected as resoundingly as it was embraced elsewhere in England.

IMG_0530            To be a tourist is to be constantly humbled, in real time, as your preconceptions are smashed and the limits of your knowledge become painfully obvious. To love being a tourist, you have to love that tourist learning curve. And on this quirky trip—which started with Lindsay asking me to visit China with her and grew to include an invitation to a small film festival in Paris, visits with friends in Korea and England, and that final, somehow irresistible “free” stopover in Iceland—there were learning moments aplenty.

IMG_0087            In a recent column, Condé Nast Traveler editor-in-chief Pilar Guzmán said this: “Travel confidence—and cultural fluency—come by way of humility.” Yes. And having to talk about Trump is this year’s blue-plate special serving of humble pie.

I don’t want to minimize the damage I believe Trump is capable of doing to the planet and to our fragile relationships with its nearly 7.4 billion inhabitants. But perspective helps. In China, in France, in the United Kingdom, he is but one of many looming challenges. I understand that better now, after my month of being a humble tourist, traveling the world in real time.

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Imperfection

I’m having an imperfect moment. My coffee’s lukewarm. It’s a cloudy day. My go-to classical station is playing a composer I’ve never heard of.

But wait: this tune is hauntingly beautiful. Balakirev, whoever you are, your Spanish Melody in D Flat is soothing me into seeing this morning differently. I now see that this gray sky is hiding some brightness; look at the way the fifty different greens of the trees are popping against it!

Imperfection: It’s a great way to go.

I just came home from a gloriously imperfect trip to France and Finland. Our budget was middle-brow: a dollhouse-size room in Paris; 3 to a room in Finland. But I love traveling this way. I love knowing that imperfection is going to abound, because it removes all pressure to achieve that nonexistent, vacation-ruining goal of Perfection with a capital P.

We Americans don’t take enough time off. Expedia’s annual survey rates us as one of the most vacation-deprived nations in the developed world. That puts enormous pressure on the time we do take. We want every moment of our trip to be perfect. If we don’t get perfection, we feel let down. If we’ve sprung for a big plane ticket to another continent, the pressure on our precious vacation moments is especially intense.

Nearly 25 years ago, my husband and I started our marriage by quitting our good jobs at a Seattle TV station, pooling our modest stash of cash and buying round-the-world plane tickets. We traveled for ten months and came home flat broke. There were people who thought we’d lost our minds and others who thought we were simply foolish and irresponsible. But it was a deliberate decision. We wanted to seize this brief window before we had children, before we set ourselves to the 20-year task of trying to achieve work-life balance, and instead learn a very different, but no less important, skill: how to partake of the banquet of the world. How to savor the imperfect moment: the picnic on a stalled Spanish train, the cold papaya on a sweltering Bangkok street.

Paris is particularly challenging for perfection-seekers. It offers some of the world’s most stunning cultural treasures, most delightful strolling and people-watching, most renowned food and romantic vistas. But unless you’re in the top oh-one percent, you will likely stay in a room that redefines the word “small.” Unless you’re a celebrity, you will stand in line to see the treasures of the Musee d’Orsay and the Louvre. And unless you speak fluent menu-French, you will not always get what you want at the charming bistro or café you were so sure would be perfect.

All of which makes Paris the perfect place to embrace imperfection.

It rained while we were there. Quelle dommage! So we crowded into the nearest café, which happened to be the plastic-tented patio of the historic Florence Kahn Bakery in the Marais district. We sipped our tiny coffees and ate pastries we never would have tried—Parisian versions of samosas and rugelah—had it not rained.

In fact, it rained several times on our trip. And each time, we wound up somewhere we might not have on a sunny day: an arthouse cinema showing old Marlene Dietrich films; a massive museum exhibition devoted to Bob Dylan.

This summer, I’ll be staying closer to home. But I’ll be seeking and reveling in the imperfect moments. Because here’s the good news: they are always right here in front of us, rain or shine, in Paris or Seattle.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

Immigrant Nations

By the time you hear this, I’ll be in one of the world’s great immigrant nations: France. One in five people in France were either born in another country, or their parents were.

In the United States, we count differently: “foreign-born” does not include children born here to immigrant parents, who are granted US citizenship at birth.

So it’s hard to make a direct comparison. But the US Census says 12.7% of us are foreign-born, as of 2010, which is close to where we were 100 years ago, when immigration was at its peak.

And yet former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice had this to say in a recent speech: “I don’t know when immigrants became the enemy.”  She said one of the greatest disappointments of her career was the Bush administration’s failure to achieve comprehensive immigration reform.

I know there’s a lot of anti-immigrant backlash in France, too, and I’m sure I’ll hear more about it on my trip. But it makes me sad to think that our country’s self-image of open arms and opportunity, of the Statue of Liberty lighting the way for newcomers to our shores, has slipped so far that effective immigration reform now seems further away than ever.

Condi Rice went on to say our immigrant culture is, quote, “at the core of our strength.” She’s right.  And we forget, at our peril, that nearly all of us have immigrant roots.

After France, I’m headed for the first time in my life to the country my own ancestors came from: Finland.

I’ll be retracing the steps of my great-grandmother, who traveled from Finland to Wyoming in 1899. Her name and destination were pinned to her coat because she didn’t speak a word of English.

When I stumbled across Iceland Air’s unbeatable deal, my first impulse was to close that window, fast. But Finland haunts me.  My great-grandmother haunts  me.

By the time she and her husband staked a homestead claim in Montana in 1910, they were both 40. But they’d bought into the optimism of the West. They were a new generation of settlers, wholly unlike the early Oregon trailers. They were Americans now, though they spoke Finnish at home and taught it to their six children.

I don’t know what I expect to find in Finland, so poor when my ancestors left; now one of the most affluent, progressive countries in the world.  Remember that 2010 Gallup Happiness poll? Finland came in second, after Denmark.  For the record, the US was 14th and France was 44th, but maybe that’s because the French just don’t like to admit to anything as bland as satisfaction.

In Finland, I’ll do what Americans do: hunt up distant relatives; find the towns whose names I’ve heard all my life: Kaustinen, Raavi, Oolu. Call it a pilgrimage; call it a search for the prequel to a story I’m still writing: my own.  Call it a shout out to immigration.  I don’t always find myself agreeing with Condi Rice. But  I’m with her on this one.

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