I am fond of saying, “We learn many things in life by doing them wrong the first time.” Nowhere is that more true than when traveling in a foreign country.
My father and I returned last week from a dream trip to France. It was his idea, and his treat—he wanted to take me to a place I really wanted to visit. So we spent some time in Paris seeing the museums and cathedrals and monuments, and then we traveled to Normandy to visit the D-day landing sites and the amazing island of Mont Saint-Michel.
When you visit a country where English is not the primary language, you feel like a stranger in a strange land. I studied French back in high school, but the language had become just a bit rusty for me since then. It seemed like everything was an adventure—ordering food, purchasing subway tickets, even crossing the street.
Dad and I didn’t know how many things worked, and we learned the hard way. We got lost, for example, driving to and from our train station in Normandy. The first time we took the subway, we arrived at our destination and stood there, expecting the doors to automatically open like they do in New York or Washington, D.C. A fellow passenger saved us from missing the stop completely by showing us the latch required to open the door.
Traveling by train to Paris, we didn’t know we had assigned seats until someone came to our row and made it clear we were in the wrong place. I looked at our tickets and figured we were supposed to be in seats 81 and 83, so we moved there. But at the next stop a woman claimed those were her seats. I was mystified, and we couldn’t speak to each other, so she just sat elsewhere. Then someone saw she was in the wrong seat, so that person grabbed another … and the problem compounded at each stop. Eventually I looked at my ticket again and realized my father and I had caused the confusion because we were in the wrong car! I had an English-French phrase book, but I couldn’t find the translation for, “I am an ignorant American who doesn’t know your beautiful language, and it’s all my fault!”
Another problem my dad and I had was communicating with our wives—and this is where I put myself into the doghouse with my wife, Merry. This loving, understanding woman—who dreams of visiting France herself, yet was happy I was able to go there with my father—went nearly five days without hearing anything from her deadbeat husband.
When we arrived in France, I tried to use a hotel phone to call and let her know that Dad and I made it okay, but it wouldn’t work for me. I paid to use the Internet at my hotel, but I couldn’t call up my e-mail account. I wanted to purchase an international phone card, but the instructions were in French. Finally, on our second day, we found an Internet café and I connected with my e-mail, but I entered the wrong e-mail address and Merry didn’t receive my message … which I didn’t discover until two days later.
I do have to say that Merry was rarely out of my thoughts during the trip. But I should have remembered the words of Philippians 2:4, which tells us, “…do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” While I kept thinking, “Merry would love to see this!” she was at home telling friends, “I suppose if something has happened to Dave, I would have heard from the authorities.”
Happily, Merry let me out of the doghouse once she understood my comedy of errors. Next time, I will know how to get in touch with her more quickly. This deadbeat learned his lesson.
But then, if I do have the opportunity to see France again, she goes with me!