30 October 2014

An Old Story

I'm applying to study in Costa Rica during Spring Break next year.  The application asks a number of questions, among them the following:

The nature of study abroad programs often entails unexpected changes in schedules and activities as well as changes due to unfamiliar cultural norms. As such, an individual studying abroad should possess patience, the ability to be flexible, and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Thinking about patience, flexibility, and adaptability, describe an example in your life where you demonstrated these qualities and discuss how it might relate to your experience abroad.

I'm sure they were looking for something short and sweet.  I wrote this.  Then, of course, I forgot to finish the application and the deadline closed and I was all upset, and then, glory of glories, yesterday I got an email that they'd extended the application.  Yaay!  So now I can apply and maybe have an awesome time in Costa Rica next March.  Anyway.  I reread this little ditty and it reminded me of a very wonderful trip I took long ago.  I thought it was a charming enough story, so here it is:

I was visiting Carnac, France, and had spent an afternoon walking amongst the stones, and was due to catch a bus back to the train station in Auray, about 20 km up the road.  I stood at the stop where I had gotten off the bus that morning...but of course the bus was northbound, now, and thus on the other side of the road, and though there was no bus stop sign over there the bus did not stop for me.  It didn't stop at all, in fact, just drove on by, since no one was waiting by the road.  This could be a serious problem; I had very limited French language skills, no personal contacts at all, and no idea how I was supposed to get where I was going--I was expecting to spend the night in the Quimper, a two-hour train ride away.  What to do?

I hadn't been by the center of town, but I assumed there might be a tourist information center, so I started walking.  I walked back through the standing stones and around the north side of town, because I had no idea which direction to go.  Finally I saw a street sign indicating the center of town, and I headed that way.  On my way I passed by a sign in someone's front yard: taxi.  I didn't stop.  I went into town and saw the museum dedicated to the stones (closed, as it was an off-season weekday), and the tourist bureau, which was also closed.  The sign said it would re-open in a couple of hours, but by that time my train was going to have left.  I was starting to think I needed to find a place to stay the night, and then I remembered the taxi sign.

I walked back up the road.  I didn't speak French and didn't know this person and couldn't have been farther outside my comfort zone, but I knocked on the front door.  In halting French I explained that I missed my bus and needed a ride to the train in Auray.  I'm sure it came out like "no bus I was missing Auray train station.  Please."  The gentleman looked at me, then put up a finger, telling me to wait.  He reappeared after a moment with a young girl, maybe 12 years old.  "English?" she said.  I explained what had happened. Then I stopped myself and explained it again more slowly.  She smiled and translated for us.  Her father would take me, it would be 40 francs (this was in the pre-Euro days, when a franc was worth about 1/7 of a dollar), but he would need two minutes.  Then he disappeared.  His daughter stood in the doorway and looked at me.  "Did you lose your way?" she asked.  I smiled nervously. "I just didn't make it to the bus on time."  "I won't be able to ride to Auray with you," she said, and then disappeared, leaving me standing at an open front door.  Was I supposed to go in?  Stay out?  Close the door either way?

Soon enough her father reappeared and with a great deal of gesturing and smiling pointed me toward the car, which said TAXI on it in foot-high letters; evidently, assuming that anyone who doesn't speak your language is a bit slow is a trait that crosses cultural barriers.  We got in; he said grandly "Le gare d'Auray!" with a fluttering hand motion like a plane taking off, and we departed.  He talked much of the way, and eventually I started trying to respond, with gestures and flourishes mostly.  He would repeat things if I didn't seem to understand, and I would respond in English, and he would look at me instead of the road and really examine me like he would find the meaning of the words written on my face.  Then he'd look back at the road, swerve suddenly to avoid whatever was in the way (something always was), and laugh uproariously.  It was without question the best cab ride I've ever had.  I still don't know what we talked about, but we made great sport of the traffic and agreed that McDonald's (McDo) is not so good.  We made it to Auray with about 10 minutes to spare; I gave the man 100 francs and we were each on our separate ways.

So, what is the point of this whole story?  Only this: keep an open mind and be willing to do uncomfortable things.  Travel requires as much.