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Thursday, January 7, 2016

France 2000: Lessons for a safer and better trip

I took many trips before I started this blog. Part of the joy of travel--perhaps the main joy--is looking back over the travels you've already been on, and reliving the pleasures and even the challenges. Writing them down at the time or shortly thereafter helps, of course. It's only a bonus to be able to go back and share those adventures with readers now.

My first trip to France was in 1992 but I want to share some anecdotes from my second visit, in February 2000. That's because it's a good snapshot of some of the bad, or at least hard, things that can happen during travel, and also why it's all worth it. What I learned in France in 2000 is a good summary for the rest of The Discreet Traveler's life.

The first thing that happened to me in Paris, after being greeted by my lover who was living there at the time, was that I got pickpocketed. In more than twenty years of international travel, this was the only bad thing that has ever happened to me (long flight delays and cancellations, while annoying, are First World problems that I don't consider as having caused me any harm). I want to emphasize that, because while I drew several lessons from the experience, it was highly exceptional. It also was not that "bad" in the way that an outright robbery, or violent crime would be bad. That's the most important thing I learned from the experience. Here are a few more:

1. It was avoidable. No, I don't by any stretch believe that criminals aren't responsible for their crimes, but that doesn't mean travelers shouldn't take sensible precautions. Me getting pickpocketed was an opportunistic theft. The thief could see that he had here a tired, jet-lagged foreigner who had never been on the train in from the airport before and was preoccupied with talking to my companion, looking at the signs, etc. If I hadn't been so tired and preoccupied, I would have noticed him moving in and gradually sliding open the zipper on my bag--movements I clearly recalled once I got off the train and realized my wallet was gone. Don't give lazy thieves easy opportunities like this.

2. It's hard to avoid jet lag or being distracted, but it's not hard to prepare properly. Wearing one of those "fanny packs" or "bum bags" was a really bad idea; I've never done it since and don't recommend you do either. They present your valuables on a shelf to any pickpocket happening by. Some people swear by money belts but I find them uncomfortable, and it's awkward to have to dig around under your shirt all the time.

3. Another thing I made sure never to do again was to have all my valuable stuff in one wallet! Cash (yes, Americans, most countries do use it; you'll need some) in one place. Cards in another. Not all cards together. And whatever you do, take only essential cards abroad that you are going to need. I could have done without having to replace my Social Security card, library card, and other things there was no reason for me to have in France anyway. Don't carry pictures or anything irreplaceable.

4. One thing I had read about doing in advance, and was really glad I'd done, was making photocopies of important things like my passport (which fortunately was not stolen), and the front and back of the cards I was carrying. Oh, and keeping those photocopies in a different place from my wallet! It made it so much easier to call the credit card company and cancel the card (everything was done by phone in those days) when I had the numbers right there.

5. Finally, I learned that while this was a bad start to my trip, it was not that bad. Believe it or not, I could carry on a passable conversation in French in person, but as anyone who's studied a language knows it's a lot harder on the telephone, when you have no facial expressions or gestures to guide you. I froze up with the stress and the woman on the phone assured me that it was OK, she spoke English. Don't stress yourself out. It took a detour to a Western Union office where I stood in line and filled out forms, but I got cash. Just like that, there were no problems at all bar a couple follow-up phone calls after I got home (and all but one of those could have been avoided if I hadn't had unnecessary cards with me--see #3).

The rest of the trip was one of the most amazing of my life. I explored Paris and successfully asked for directions in French (a language only comes alive when you stop studying and start using it in real life). We went to Normandy, where everywhere there were signs proclaiming "Welcome to our Liberators"; we visited the beaches where the D-Day landings took place, in a group that included descendants of troops from other nations. I successfully negotiated bus information to Mont Saint-Michel from a hotelier whose English was even shakier than my French (but who, like everyone else I met, was friendly and trying very hard to help us). We got to St-Malo as night was falling, without an advance reservation, and found a room with no problem (I had never tried that before). At the train station ticket office, a man who did speak English was tickled at how "good" my French was. My French was terrible, but the point was I was visiting his country and trying. You have no idea how far that will take you in non-English-speaking countries of the world.

I've been told that this has something to do with my Americanness, and that an English person would have a different experience. I can only say that my British companion had exactly the same experience throughout the trip--but then, she was living in Paris, so of course she was also trying. When confronted with a particularly obnoxious English-speaking couple in a restaurant, we actually tried speaking French with each other, just so nobody would think we were with them!

So, here was a trip with a bad start, but many highlights thereafter. We ate at a restaurant around the corner in the 9e arrondissement called Haynes--sadly, it is no more. It was founded by an American jazz musician who used to live in Paris, and served wonderful soul food. We had tourist experiences but also discovered things about the people and place we never would have, if we hadn't been traveling independently. And, as upset as I was at having been pickpocketed, I did not let it affect the rest of the visit. I got my money and moved on.

It would have been possible to have that initial experience and conclude something about the French, or people of possibly-Arab origin (I did see the guy), or even men in general. There are plenty of people, and women specifically, who are afraid to travel for this reason. But to me, those conclusions would be absurd. I had some of the best bread, wine, and personal interactions of my life on that trip to France. In fact, 2000 turned out to be the best year of my life up to that point.

I'm so glad I didn't stay home.

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