Friday, October 2, 2009

What Are You So Afraid Of? (or, Four Itineraries)

On Monday, I will drive myself to a train station, along roads I know, to a small city I’ve visited before.  This is Aups to Paris, itinerary #1: just the facts.  I will pick up a ticket I have reserved in advance, I will sit on a train for three hours, get off in another city I have visited several times, then take a cab to meet up with one of my oldest friends in a neighborhood where I have stayed before.  No big whoop.

But I could describe Monday’s trip in another way, Aups to Paris, itinerary #2: independent woman on a voyage of romance and luxury. In this version, I will drive my sleek new European car to the ancient town of Aix-en-Provence, then take one of the world’s fastest trains first class to Paris. (Yeah, that’s Paris, FRANCE.  That Paris.  The only city in the world that New Yorkers like better than New York.)  On board the train I will drink café au lait and read a David Foster Wallace novel when I am not enjoying a government-issued 20-minute reverie.  I will dress all in black with a stylish drapey sweater, and will not smile unnecessarily.  I’ll alight from the train and take a cab to a beautiful rented apartment in the Marais, then have dinner with one of my oldest and dearest friends and her charming family. Did I mention Tuesday’s incredible lunch reservation at Guy Savoy?  Pinch me, somebody, wouldja?

Written thus, the trip sounds romantic and luxurious and oh-my-god is this my real-life???!!  Even the most sophisticated travelers of the world don’t take Aix, Paris, the TGV or the Marais entirely lightly.  Even Eloise was simply loves Paris.

But here’s the truth, the awful truth about Monday.  This will be my first solo jaunt in Europe, aside from a few trips to Casino and the Intermarché.  Since I won’t have my family there to distract me, I’m actually borderline terrified.

So far, the four of us have acted as a little bubble as we have navigated the challenges we have set before ourselves.  Bill and I serve as a tag team to conquer the little parts of the world we visit, and we can rely on each other to turn to when things get confusing.  (We can also rely on each other to have someone to blame when we need to, but that’s another story.  In our family, when the going gets tough, the tough get unreasonably petulant.)

We also have the girls to hold us back enough so that we never do anything actually that challenging or particularly dangerous.  Even if your pair of children travel as well as ours do, travel with kids just isn’t about living close to the edge.  For example, you are less likely to find yourself in a seedy karaoke bar at 4 A.M. when you have kids to care for.  You have to keep everybody hydrated, and think about getting to bed on time, and make sure that you all eat regular meals.  Since you have to keep them out of trouble, you stay out of trouble.  Kids are ballast:  they slow you down, but they also keep you away from unnecessary forms of risk, however you personally define that.

As you might have divined by spending five or ten minutes with me, I tend to define risk rather broadly.  Which means that the real trip I am going to take will be neither the straightforward sally I described first, nor the romantic and fancy occasion I described second. 

Rather, it’s likely to be Aups to Paris itinerary #3: awfully worrisome for no good reason.  I’ve already worried that my bag will be too heavy and I will take too much stuff (I always do.)  Then I worry that I will get there and have only the wrong clothes, and will look neither chic nor sophisticated.  My drapey black sweater will have schmutz on it, and I will only notice when I’m halfway there.  I will panic at the tollbooth on the A8, worried that I don’t have the right change, even though I now know the exact amount of that toll, and have also been reassured that they take credit cards.   I will get to the station way too early, worried that I won’t find parking/be able to buy the ticket I reserved/find the right train.  When I find that I absolutely have to ask somebody something, I will worry over the right words.

When I am finally on the train, I will settle into my seat and worry about who is going to sit next to me.  Then I will self-consciously compose my face into that cheerlessly sophisticated new stare that I have mastered (the one that requires that I suck in my cheeks ever so slightly and make my eyes go limp and bored.)  When the train starts moving faster than a normal train, I will worry about that.  A lot.  I am of course choosing to take the Train Grand Vitesse – train of great speed – so that I get to Paris in four hours rather than eight, but the fact that I chose this fate will not prevent me from my mighty second thoughts when we work up to 200 miles per hour.  My stomach will lurch and I won’t be able to read, so I will feign a reverie. 

I’ll want to get a beverage, but before I let myself go, I will worry about how to find the café au lait car, and worry about leaving my bag in my seat.  The W.C. won’t work the way I’m used to, and they might be out of paper towels and then I will wipe my hands on my skirt and then worry about the skirt being all wet.  The whole trip on the train, I will worry about finding a cab.  While the cab is driving me to the apartment, I will be afraid that the driver is going to hit another car, or possibly kidnap me. 

It won’t be until I’m actually at the door of the apartment that I will be proud of myself and exhilarated by my achievement of successful solo travel.

But really, Launa, achievement?  This is when I must remind myself that some people take real risks when they travel.  Some people camel-trek through the Sahara, or smoke hookahs on the Orient express, or learn to ask for the W.C. in a land full of people who speak only in clicks. When they take a year off, Southern France just won’t do.  They go someplace like Cambodia or Somalia and teach people to dig latrines. 

Then again, some people never even really leave the familiar at all.  They stay in their paths, won’t try out a new idea or a new food or say hello to anyone who moved to town after they were born. 

If you line all of us upon a continuum, from the agorophobics to the astronauts, we all can think of somebody more adventurous and foolish and somebody else more steady and stodgy.

Bill likes to say that Abigail and I live “on a knife’s edge.”  We have powerful desires for stability and control, and equally powerful desires for novelty and stimulation. Getting the balance just right is hard, since there are times when we want to be cozy and crazy at the very same time.   To put it another way, I don’t always need the other three members of my family to pull me in different directions – sometimes I can make myself nuts all by my lonesome.

Or perhaps I can call myself lucky, in that I can get the thrill of the new so easily and that I occasionally still put myself in situations where I can let myself scramble and learn and feel.

When I first arrived here in France, everything felt so new.  The sky was an entirely new sort of blue.  The little snails that hung on to the grasses were new and endlessly fascinating.  I hadn’t ever seen the moon like I saw my way through that first cycle of wax and wane in Sillans-la-Cascade in late August.  Even the shopping carts were different, with the little slot that allowed you to essentially rent one for a euro, and then get the Euro back as a reward for being a responsible cart-returning member of the supermarket society.

So much of that newness was exciting, but because I am me, so much of it was just scary.  Asking for the W.C.:  scary.  Figuring out how to use the tollbooth:  scary.  First day of hunting season:  very, very scary.   Even though I was travelling with a trusty partner and lots of child-ballast, I could work up to low-level panic over a little stroll to buy baguettes.

So I am the kind of person who can work up a rush of fear and then the release of exhilaration over a shopping cart or a dining table faux-pas or possibly making a mistake at the butcher’s.  Perhaps this sort of intense and baseless fear is really my own personal brand of crazy.  I should patent it.

But I have to say that my fear of harmless things has made for a month and a half of really great living.  The anxiety somehow took everything simple to a new level, helping me to really pay attention to my surroundings in a new way.  But without the actual reality of dengue fever or camel-inflicted injuries.  Nothing like a little unreasonable fear to motivate you to learn something new and to put you face to face with the simple things of the world exactly as they are.

UPDATE: Dateline October 2nd, 2009, 10:05 a..m.

Lest you think I’m totally exaggerating my own spazziness, I will tell you that even as I was writing this post, I made my own worst travel fears come true.  In my efforts to be a sophisticated traveler by using the French website for purchasing TGV tickets, I managed to buy a ticket on a TGV that is actually speeding to Paris at 400 km/hour right now, while I sit here in Aups going zero km per hour as usual.  I put in the right date on my first time through the website, but then backed up a screen to pick a better seat, and the computer forgot I was talking about lundi rather than vendredi.   So maybe I’ll just worry through today’s imaginary trip (I did, after all, buy a ticket, so I have a right to my sixty euros worth of anxiety this morning.)  Maybe that will meant that by Monday, when I actually board the train, (Aups to Paris itinerary #4) I might actually relax and enjoy the ride.  


  1. I was supposed to take a TGV back to Beaujolais a couple weeks back. I booked the tickets online, and then when I got the station and got the ticket, I couldn't find my train number anywhere on the screen. Then I realized that my ticket was actually for a wednesday a month later, in October! The train was leaving in about 5 minutes. I rushed upstairs to the train that was leaving right then and asked them if I could use the ticket I had. They said no. The next one wasn't for another 4 hours. Then I realized I was getting sick. So I went home and sniffled and coughed for the next 6 days and never did make it back to Beaujolais.

  2. To quote the world-traveler Homer Simpson, "DOH!"