Laughter Transcends Language

The following is an essay I wrote for World Nomads Travel Writing Scholarship 2017. This is not my final submission. As a matter of fact, I misread the requirements and wrote roughly 2,000 words more than was required or allowed. In the interest of enjoying the fruits of labor, I am sharing the essay in its entirety here.

Bicycling touring, in itself, is perhaps the best way to embed yourself in a place. I found myself thinking, mile and after mile, that the only way I could explore the streets and breathe the air of France any longer would be by crawling. But as we bumped over cobblestone “centre villes” and medieval hard-packed dirt, the thought of scratched, bruised knees came to be an undesirable option. Instead, I relished the time on my bicycle and brief walking tours in towns around the country. From the vantage point my seat afforded me, it was an experience that I’ll never forget. And happy memories, of exploring thousands of miles and happy connections with strangers, transcend the language barriers and expiration date on our great adventure.

Almost two years before our story takes place, I was sitting on my living room floor working on a visioning board. Cutting images and text out of magazines and catalogues, one sentence became the board’s focal point: make any of these dream vacations a reality. I had been daydreaming about a particular experience for the better part of my living years: visiting France. France had imprinted itself in my brain – my grandfather told me stories of his youth in the country and introduced me to crepes. I was approaching a time in my life where it felt like action was needed. In order to make this trip a reality, I needed to commit.

At the time of my visioning session, I was daydreaming fiercely about a vacation to Paris after stumbling upon some inexpensive fares from Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage, Alaska to Charles DeGaulle Airport. My boyfriend, Adam was sitting on the couch as I crafted and asked: what dream vacation are you going to bring to life? And I whimsically told him, Paris, 10 days, this fall. He challenged my daydream: he couldn’t join in the fall, as a teacher. And anyway, he thought we could do “better”. What could be better than a lifetime dream come true, I asked? And he laid out his response: more than just a 10 day trip. A 10 week trip on bicycle, navigating the country on established bike routes, immersing ourselves in the culture, food and wine and embracing all that France has to offer.

I’ll never forget my response: “If you hold me back from my dream, and we don’t take this trip, I’ll break up with you and never look back.”

That was the conversation that launched months of planning, learning, more planning, and ultimately executing our first bicycle tour. Adam spent hours and hours pouring over websites and blogs, researching routes, best practices, and must-see sights. We ordered the “Lonely Planet: Cycling France” guidebook, and developed our budget for the trip and time we’d be out state. We booked flights, studied French, and started making longer rides around Southcentral Alaska. We joke now that Adam was the administrator of this trip, and me the executor. He was ultimately responsible for getting us the resources we needed to begin our trip, and I was happy to lay out a map and begin translating directions in French once we reached the countryside. Finally, in May 2015, only two days after the Anchorage School District let out for summer vacation, we were en route to Frankfurt International Airport to start our grand adventure.

Between May and June 2015, we’d had a lifetime of experiences – and it was only the first four weeks. We pedaled from Frankfurt to Strasbourg, utilizing the Rhine Route bicycle trail and marveling at the history and architecture of tiny Franco-German villages in Alsace-Lorraine. There were kinks in our bicycle setups that had to be dialed in: my seat was too low for such long miles and I had a bad flare-up of tendinitis. I’ll never forget the experience of visiting the Apothecary, trying to get medical care. Attempting to say J’ai les mal genoux (my knees hurt), in my harsh American accent was greeted with blank stares from the elder pharmacist. Thankfully there was a younger pharmacist on staff as well, who spoke enough English to point me to the Saint Bernard creme, the equivalent of BenGay in the US.

Of course, it wasn’t all aches and pains, not by a long shot. We crossed the Franco-German border at lunchtime and pulled off in Mothern, France – our first French village and our first authentic French meal. A l’Agneau was a wonderful introduction to French cuisine, culture, and hospitality. It was also our first opportunity to practice some of the critical French we had learned. Specifically, il ne peu pas mange les noix. Il pourrait mourir (he can’t eat nuts. He could die).

And here enters a crucial detail of our story and a major impediment to carefree indulgence in France: Adam’s fatal nut allergy. For his entire life, Adam has been allergic to tree nuts, and has unfortunate hospital visits on record to back up the severity. Before our departure a good friend and fellow Francophile helped me with my basic phrases, the ones that could get us the furthest with goodwill, if not in any other way. Unfortunately, in a country whose signature cookie is made with almond flour, we couldn’t leave risk a reaction because of poor communication. After our silly attempt to get help for achey knees, navigating a hospital visit in French was frightfully intimidating.

Back to Mothern and our cherished first meal in France. We made it through introductions, water and wine in short, broken French with a kind young woman. Our server was patient and as accommodating as possible with these giggly foreigners, until it came time to order entrees. We were able to read the menu at a high-level, identifying the key words in each plate to narrow down our choices (Thai Fish Soup pour moi, a roast chicken pour l’homme). Certain words escaped our vocabulary and in an effort to be safe, we posed the question (in French) to our server: are there nuts in his meal? Her head cocked, our question didn’t amen sense. We repeated ourselves once or twice to no change, before our server indicated she would return and stepped inside.

Shortly after, she returned with the owner of the restaurant, the wife of the head chef. She spoke fluent English, the result of civilian work for the United States Army in Europe and Texas. It was a charming interaction, full of warmth and welcome. She reassured us that our food, especially Adam’s, was nut-free and it was delivered with a special air, one that made us feel immediately at home and comfortable in the country, the restaurant and the service of those around us. We were energized for the rest of our journey. Kindly, she let me practice choppy French with her until we left.

By late June, we had cycled far beyond Mothern: from Alsace-Lorraine to the Mediterranean Sea, through heat waves, thunderstorms and lightening, three colorful nights in Lyon exploring traboules with locals, and an unfortunate and spooky encounter with a fellow tourist’s bike theft. From the Mediterranean, we cut west to Bordeaux, cycling single-track to pavement along the UNSESCO Canal di Midi, sampling cassoulet in Carcassone, breaking bread with a sweet British camper, and passing pilgrims on the Camino de Santigao. In Bordeaux, we did as one must do – touring vineyards, where we sampled wine and foies gras (fattened goose liver). I can tell you with certainty that the wine was far better than the gras. In Bordeaux, connecting trains on the SCF line brought us through Paris to a tiny town in Normandy to begin the second half of our adventure.

As we took in the sights and sounds of France, other parts of French culture started sticking with us as well. Mostly, the daily routine of une (ou deux) bouteille de vin rouge ou blanc when we made camp. Some campgrounds had tiny markets within the main office, making it easy to snag libations during check in. Others did not and we would bike through towns to find the Lidl or other tiny markets where we could replenish our supplies and stock up for dinner. Every evening, we would drink wine slowly as the nights passed, enjoying each other’s company, meeting our neighbors and reading our guidebooks.

Our other daily routine was just as indulgent, and just as pleasurable: visiting the local patisserie once, sometimes twice a day. Every morning we would walk or bike to the bakery to purchase breakfast, lunch and snacks for the day. It was a fantastic opportunity to practice our key French phrases while blending in with the locals, although I’m confident we never quite achieved the latter. Adam and I took turns ordering with the staff: une baguette, deux ou trois pain au chocolat, une petite suisse, une eclair chocolat, and perhaps a sandwich or two for lunch that day. For far less than ten euro usually, we had rich breakfast pastries, mid-morning snacks, lunch fixings, and bread for dinner. These morning routines, paired with coffee we made ourselves and the sounds of a town coming to life in a summer morning, are some of my most idyllic and happy memories from our bicycle tour.

By now, I had dialed in the most basic phrases to ease us through our trip, while my conversational French was still a work in progress. We camped throughout the country, and had adapted to the flow of questioning when checking into sites. First, avez-vous l’espace pour un tent, deux personnes, deux velos pour un nuit? From there, it was routine: yes or no, passports, directions to our site, payment for our site, and our other habitual indulgence: ice cream bars to nibble while we pushed our bicycles to camp for the night.

It was in Bénouville, Normandy that I finally felt a genuine connection with another French person. It was an interaction that transcended language, and found communication on another soulful level.  After exploring historic Caen for a day, Adam and I were making our way back to our site at Camping Les Hautes Courtures, a posh campground on the Canal de Caen à la Mer. We were cycling slowly through town when we spotted a patisserie tucked back on the other side of the street that was still open. Sensing an opportunity for decadent dessert, we peeled back and parked our bikes.

Opting to stay outside with our bicycles, Adam requested something chocolate and a baguette to accompany our dinner. The inside of the shop was empty of people, including service. Fortunately, the pastry case was still well-stocked with various options and the baguettes looked relatively fresh, too. I browsed for a moment, until serendipitously, the shopkeeper and another customer came through opposite doors and into the bakery.

There is a level of performance anxiety that comes with speaking a foreign language, particularly when you’re not confident you’ll understand the responses. The anxiety only grows when there is an audience and this occasion was no different.

The transaction started as most of them did for us. Using the key phrases my good friend taught me in spring, I laid the groundwork for what was going to be a slow conversation: Je parle un peu de francais. Merci beaucoup pour votre comprehension. In english: I speak a little French. Thank you for understanding. An older man, with completely white hair and thin wire glasses, who, if he did speak any english, didn’t let on or give me an inch in the conversation. He smiled kindly and allowed me to continue. I pointed to a small chocolate cake in the case, asking the well-rehearsed question: are there nuts in this cake? I gestured to Adam through the window, he can die if there are nuts. Through some back and forth, the elderly man assured me, non, pas des noix. He boxed the cake and set it on the counter.

And here, the elderly man went off script. Asking me about our bicycle tour, where were we from, what were we doing in Bénouville – questions I repeated, and carefully and slowly responded to. Periodically, he looked confused at my answers and the gentleman behind me repeated what I said in better, clearer french. Satisfied, he smiled and turned back to the pastries. Pour l’homme, le gateau chocolat, he tapped the box, et pour vous, pour vous le gateau Paris Brest.

As he said this, he leaned behind the glass counter and started tapping on the glass to indicate what he was talking about. I leaned over to look through the glass, behind the giant cake he was pointing at, and right into his eyes. They were sparkling with laughter and he had a grin on his face that was infectious. I belly-laughed right back and stood up, shaking my head. He said something else to me, that I could only translate by theme: I must be hungry and I should eat more. We stood there, laughing with each other for what felt like minutes. The tension I was carrying about not understanding the language went away with the rise and fall of my shoulders. We sighed and collected ourselves as he pulled out a smaller Paris Brest cake – the individual serving size. Pour vous, les noix?, he asked and I nodded. The cake was boxed and put next to Adam’s dessert.

To this day I remember the corners of that bakery, the glass case, the face of the elderly shopkeeper and even the kind local behind me. I remember the feeling of joy, of laughing with a stranger. Here, in this small French town, this elderly shopkeeper took a minute to talk with me, and make a joke with me. There’s one interpretation of the word ‘namaste’ that is, the light in me recognizes the light in you. I believe that in this moment, the elderly shopkeeper recognized a light we shared.

As I was ending my transaction, I did my best to thank the man. His response was simple: nous comprenons, c’est bon. We understand each other, and it’s good. I left the shop feeling lighthearted, happy, and grounded in our adventure.

Adam and I pedaled on, exploring more of Normandy, Brittany, the EuroVelo 1, and eventually the Loire Valley to Paris. We met more cyclists along the way and made friendships that have lasted beyond our bicycle adventure. I think elderly shopkeeper often, as well as the invisible bonds we form through adventure with the people closest to us and complete strangers. I relish finding that understanding and dream of achieving similar connections again. Like the shopkeeper said: it will be good.

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