Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Seatmates and Signs

“Maps won’t show us where we’re going.
All they are is just the boring facts. Relax.”
-“Dear Confessor,” Immaculate Machine

I am very good at meeting people on airplanes. I think of talking to someone on an airplane as a conversational one-night stand. In the intimacy of a shared armrest and questions about which seatbelt belongs to whom, in the unspoken fear that the sad salad and limp lasagne you’re dining on could be your last meal, in the moments in the sky, ungrounded, unattached to any place, you are apt to share things you wouldn’t normally. It’s a private and particular exchange, often followed by side-by-side sleep, and the knowledge that you will never see one another again.

Most recently, on a plane ride to San Francisco, I met one of my favorite seatmates, a 40ish composer of music for a series of very popular video games. I mention his age because he had just turned a higher number and happily told me of a New Orleans birthday tradition. You pin a dollar to your chest and everyone who passes you in the street (the one named after the last French dynasty, not the brown liquor) congratulates you and awards your hard-won years with another dollar. It proved to be a great system, and allowed him to learn all the positive connotations of the word “Hurricane.”
I didn’t know his name, but he was the kind of person with a ready-made answer for the question that has always had the potential to make me feel immediately boring: “What do you do for fun?”

It’s the kind of inquiry that supposes a quirky hobby or adventure sport. The truthful answers seem insufficient . . . I read for hours every day. I make color-coded flashcards for Spanish words I’d like to learn then tape them up around my house. I watch American television shows from the nineties dubbed in other languages because I love how much more suave Doogie Howser (“Docteur Doogie”) sounds in French. Sometimes, by accident, I spend an hour on Facebook looking at the photos of friends of friends whom I may not even like . . . So when he asked me some variety of this question, it let me know, even before he told me, that for fun he rode his motorcycle along the California coast.

That’s when we hit turbulence. My Earl Grey spilled. I mopped it with a wrinkled napkin fished from the seat pocket. We both kept talking, but he kept it up longer. That’s how I knew he really did have dangerous hobbies. Because as soon as we hit the first bump, I was already wondering if I’d ever see the person waiting for me at the airport. And a couple minutes later, when my seatmate was still telling me about the twisting terrain between Los Angeles and San Francisco, I was praying with my eyes open, attempting to mimic the signs of active listening while saying quiet goodbyes and thanks yous. He eventually noticed, then grew quiet until the air smoothed out and he announced, “Good! Looks like we’re not going to die, afterall!”

A few weeks ago, as I prepared for another plane ride, I was reminded of another seatmate when rummaging through a desk drawer in search of my passport. I came across a business card, a little madeleine de Proust that actually prompted me to exclaim, alone in my room, “Mr. Chris!”

As a side note, it is probably useful to explain that in the South, people for whom we have a combination of familiarity and veneration are addressed in what is a compromise between being on a first or last name basis. My dance teacher growing up went by “Miss Terry.” As a child in North Carolina, this seemed normal to me. When I moved to Louisiana, I noticed that even adults used this form of address for other adults. The maintenance man at my apartment was “Mr. Leigh,” my landlady, “Miss Ruby.”
My French students, at the university where I taught beginning language classes, often refused to call me by my first name, as I instructed them after a few mistakenly promoted me to “Dr.” Instead, they persisted in calling me “Miss Tara.” I knew it was their way of showing respect, but it made me feel like a slave owner, some lost extra out of Gone With the Wind.

“How about “Madame Tara?” I suggested, thinking that even if I still sounded like a human trafficker, maybe a bordel owner in Pigalle, this appellation was at least more French.

Detour concluded. Back on track. Je ferme la parenthèse, as the French say.

Mr. Chris was a boy scout leader, in the best possible way. Upstanding. Loyal. A born counselor. Something about him made you want to tell him everything bothering you because you trusted that he would have an answer. So somehow, I ended up confiding that I’d just visited the place I was supposed to be moving and how it felt as if I had taken a wrong turn. I was trying to decide between doing a graduate program in Paris and doing one in Baton Rouge. I chose Louisiana. And now that I was about to tranquilize my cat and drive a U-Haul across the country, I wasn’t sure if this was where I was supposed to be.

“Paris,” he said, shaking his head. “That would have been awesome.” I didn’t argue. And we both honored the thought with a little silence. The kind that causes French people to remark, “Un ange passe.”

“But there must have been something that made you choose Louisiana.”

He was right. There were many things. And now that I’ve lived there a year, they’re even clearer in my mind: screaming for beads at Mardi Gras, watching brown pelicans gather on the lakes, being elbow-deep in écrevisses piled high in a pirougue at the first crawfish boil in May, learning from professors I genuinely liked in a bayou décor that mixed North America with Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean, teaching students who wanted to learn French because their grandparents spoke it but their parents didn’t, discovering new words like maringouin and lagniappe.

It was a place where my redneck roots and French soul could mingle, a crossroads that wasn’t cursed. But at the time, I had a lot of experience moving to and from France and no experience uprooting to another state.

“I’m going to tell you a story about my troop” Mr. Chris said. “Every year we go on a camping trip. One day, after we’d been walking a very long time, we stopped and sat down to rest and I asked the boys, “What would you do if you were walking in the woods and you got separated from the group? What if you lost your path?”

“We’d call out for you, Mr. Chris.”
“What if I couldn’t hear you?”

It was an excellent question, but I could imagine the boys growing uncomfortable, thinking vaguely that Mr. Chris was being mean, that he was only pretending not to hear. That he would never let them stray so far.

I smiled. Having grown up in Sunday school, I had heard many parables about losing the path, wandering in the desert, being the prodigal son. And I knew that, unlike in horror films, wandering off the path rarely proved irreversible or fatal.

“I guess maybe we’d try to retrace our steps, think about the landmarks and how to get back to where we needed to be.”

“That’s right. You still have the tools and the lessons. You have your compass. You have your knowledge of the woods. You already have everything you need. The path is always there, waiting for you, even if you wander off of it.”

By the end of the story, I wanted to be a boy scout in Mr. Chris’s troop. I loved Mr. Chris’s parable. It comforted me, the way a story can.

Yet, I wonder, “Do I believe in the Path?” Or rather, “Aren't those moments in the woods, when it seems like all the other kids are back at the campsite roasting marshmallows while you shiver and rifle through your backpack for a compass, part of it?” As for my path, somehow, I ended up in Paris anyway, by way of Baton Rouge. And though each may be a layover rather than a destination, they both feel important.

I am noticing that the seatmates are important, too. When you move often, you have two kinds of seatmates, the Mr. Chris kind, and the other kind, that you tell things to and then do see again.

My friend Ben, whom I’ve known since age seven is one of the second sort. Like me, he’s on the long journey that began sometime before Ms. Burton’s second-grade class and has led to “Ph. D. School.” Having friends that you’ve known and who have known you for so long makes it feel like you do have roots, even if they’re what Madeleine Kay calls “portable roots.” I told Ben about Mr. Chris and the next day, Ben called me, laughing hysterically into my voicemail.

“So, this kid comes into office hours to ask me about this rough draft he’d written, saying he’d gotten kinda off topic and before I realized what I was doing, I start talking about how even if he got off track the path was always there and he had the tools to get back on it. IT’S LIKE I CHANNELLED MR. CHRIS!”

Maybe even the first kind of seatmate can stay with us for a while. Maybe there’s not so much of a line between one kind of seatmate and another. Maybe the detours are part of the path. Maybe maps can’t show us where we’re going, but seatmates can remind us.

To all my seatmates, near and far . . . thanks.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Cursed Be Crossroads?

“Maudits soient les carrefours. C’est le diable qui les a faits à l’image de sa fourche!”
–Victor Hugo, Notre Dame de Paris

As a traveler and Francophile and person who has pinballed between two countries for most of her adult life, I’ve developed an appreciation for the French road system, which, like its railway system, has the kind of tidy uniformity unimaginable in a country as vast and rebellious as the United States.

In France, bike lanes often line perfectly paved streets, unlike my most recent city of residence where pock-marked pavement and jagged cracks zigzagging across streets and sidewalks seem to evidence some low-scale natural disaster. Last summer, in an effort to make the capital more bikable, the city undertook the not-so-grand gesture of painting stenciled bright white bikes periodically along the middle of the main thoroughfares, as if to say, “See, bikes belong on the road, too!” The effect suggested something more sinister—an overturned, flattened bike, mid-street, overrun by the passing cars.

“At least there’s no chalk-outline painted around the bike,” offered my ex-crime reporter then-boyfriend, cheerily, as I puzzled over what the bike meant, knowing that cycling would be my main form of transportation in my new city. There could have been a chalk outline, I later learned, since the cycling fatality rate placed Louisiana as the second most dangerous state for biking in the nation.

French speed limits also attest to a kind of uniformity, reminding you to be more cautious en ville and more aggressive on the autoroute, while never suggesting for a second that you reach the kind of face-blown-back velocity you might in Montana in the pre-speed limit days. Establishments such as the drive-through daiquiri bars that dot the southern-Louisiana landscape, or ranges in legal blood-alcohol limits do not muddle the message about drunk driving. There are rules for the road.

French people learn to maneuver a car in driving school. Because the age for obtaining a license is eighteen and many people wait until later due to the extensive and efficient public transit systems, French auto-école students theoretically have more maturity than their fifteen-year-old Driver’s Ed American counterparts. It costs close to a thousand dollars to take the classes, and if you fail the tests (which many people do) you have to repeat the process and pay the fee again. And despite a real propensity for rule-breaking, as evidenced daily by sights like cars zooming backwards down sidewalks, most French drivers I know seem to possess a thorough knowledge of a reference manual called Le code de la route, which they can cite like the Bible. 

More than once, I’ve been scolded by Gallic passengers for blatantly ignoring key tenets of le code by passing on the right, not leaving enough following room, or otherwise doing something pas prudent.

Once, back home, a policeman named Darryl asked me and a friend, both small-town, southern girls and native North Carolinians what we would do if we arrived at an intersection at the same time as another car:

I answered honestly: “I’d look at the other driver and gesture for him to go ahead or see if he was signaling for me to do the same.”

“Ha!” my friend said triumphantly, “That’s what I said, too.”

“And if you couldn’t see his face?” Darryl pursued.

“I’d flash my lights. Or beep, lightly. You know, in a friendly way.”

Darryl rolled his eyes. “There are right-of-way rules that clarify this sort of thing.”

But I don’t remember them. I learned to drive over a few weeks at seven A.M. free classes offered at the high school. Most of my classmates were probably only semi-awake or stoned. Our teacher was a retired, white-haired, blue-eyed coach who referred to everyone as Nadine, sometimes even the boys, as a playful acknowledgement that having taught both you and your parents and everyone they knew there was no real way for him to retain the names of an entire community.

One of my favorite things about the French road system is the abundance of roundabouts, or ronds-points. I had heard of roundabouts, once, in a Beatles song. There was a shelter there, in the middle. But I never encountered one until I studied abroad. I loved that you could hop on and spin around a few times, as if you really had to spiral into the center of something before knowing which direction to take.

Roundabouts struck me as superior to simple intersections, which demanded a decision as soon as you arrived, and where sitting in the middle (where there was no shelter) unlike circling a rond-point, was a good way to get smashed. Maudits soient les carrefours, (“Cursed be crossroads.”) pronounced Pierre Gringoire, a struggling writer in Hugo’s Hunchback, lost in Paris’s labyrinthine cityscape, a locale that is, itself, more circular than gridded.

A very instructive sign precedes most roundabouts in France. Several meters before you arrive, you see a diagram of the traffic circle indicating which way to turn off if you want to head to a particular place. Nîmes this way. Sète that way. Chamonix further still and by another path. Sometimes, if you’re lucky and find yourself in the embarras du choix, you’re offered what has become my all-time favorite French sign: one that simply announces Toutes Directions, or “All Directions.”

The sign seems to whisper something hopeful and expansive. “You’re not sure if what you’re looking for is in Nîmes or Sète or Chamonix? Feel a little limited by a straight and single path? Then travel in Toutes Directions. Everywhere you want to go is this way.

At first it seems confusing. Really? Paris and Cairo, New York and Dakar, San José and Québec, New Orleans and Santiago and Casablanca all in this all-encompassing direction? Foreign and familiar, home and away, they’re all this way?

Joy surges up. Maybe there’s a logic not so circular in this. Maybe all directions are the same direction. The one all of us are choosing. Forward.