Thursday, April 19, 2007

Logbook: Culture Shock

Cultureshock1My train from Barcelona to the French border was a pretty straightforward affair -- a “regional” commuter train with no air conditioning, uncomfortable seats and packed with people. By the time it stopped in the French border town of Cerbere two and a half hours later, however, there were only a few of us left and we got off in an otherwise empty station. Really, the station was empty except for the half-dozen of us passengers, all of whom -- including myself -- took a moment to look around somewhat bewildered. Within moments, a small cabal of French police emerged from the station building, inspected our papers and ushered us inside where not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. A video screen listed a number of trains and I was able to figure out that mine was one of them, due to depart in an hour or so. With that recon complete, I found a little cafe tucked into a corner of the station building where I was able to get a sandwich and a bottle of water. The clerk spoke no English -- and as you know by now I speak no French -- so we got by in Spanish. Funny!

With a little more time on my hands, I exited the building and looked around for a bit. Although the landscape was similar to where I had just been, the architecture was different enough to give me a clue that I had changed cultures. The absence of any signs that I could read was a clincher: I was in France, truly back to “square zero” in the language department, and in for a true culture shock. (Let’s face it, when I crossed into Mexico I did so with at least a little Spanish and some previous experience in the country. Here, I have absolutely nothing in my skill set.)

In due course, my train arrived and I boarded a very comfortable, air conditioned car then settled in for the two and a half hour ride to Montpellier. Mindful of my unnecessary cab ride to my hotel in Cadiz, I had researched the location of my hotel in Montpellier and found it would only be a few blocks’ walk from the train station. Armed with a map I had downloaded to my Palm T5 -- another of my very useful little pieces of Mac-integrated technology -- I exited the station and proceeded on my way. What I didn’t realize in my research was that the walk was all uphill, but the wheels on my gear bag served me well and I made the trek in a little over a quarter of an hour. Seeing no cars on the pedestrian-only route, I realized that a cab ride would have been impossible anyway. Chalk one up for me!

Cultureshock2I easily checked into my little two-star hotel -- Hotel de la Comedie, right off Place de la Comedie -- and took the lift up to my fourth floor room. I had a good laugh when I opened the door and found the room to be of a very odd polygonal shape and barely big enough for a single twin bed, a two-foot square patio table and a single chair. It also had, however, a fairly large window that opened onto a very old, very French courtyard and a small but perfectly serviceable bathroom. It was also very clean and tidy, so I happily dumped my gear, had my dram and hit the streets for a quick look around. I wandered around the Place de la Comedie for a while, eventually sitting down at one of the many, many open air cafes to negotiate getting something to eat. Not even bothering to try using French -- have I mentioned that I don’t know any -- I pointed to pictures of a delicious looking little pizza and a small carafe of red wine. Sure enough, my strategy worked and I was soon happily full and refreshed. Back in my little hotel room I called it an early night and slept very, very well.

The past two days have been pretty fully occupied by inefficient but successful activity -- inefficient because my lack of language has made everything difficult and time consuming, but successful because I have accomplished quite a bit. For example, I have acquired maps of the area, gotten a France Telecom chip for my phone, picked up a couple of “learn French” books and found a way to eat at mealtimes -- no easy feat, I can assure your. I have also spent a lot of time online using the hotel’s lightning fast internet connection to correspond with my “guide” Jean, catch up on a mountain of emails, Skype everybody everywhere, update this website, download all of my iTunes stuff and reserve a car. Yes, that’s right, reserve a car!

You see, my plan for the immediate future -- starting tomorrow -- is to drive myself out of Montpellier and make my way to the tiny French village of Les Plantiers -- you can find it on Google Earth -- where I will settle into a little cottage for at least a couple of weeks. During my time there, I intend to immerse myself in “South of France” culture, learn some French, broadly explore the area, do some thinking and writing, make adjustments to my gear, catch up on some iLife and even take some time to just relax. I’ve been on a helluva roll for eight months now and I’m ready for a little down time. I’m sure some of you may think The Voyage has just been one long vacation, but I can assure you it has not. Even at times when I have had the benefit of relatively easy logistics -- like being on board ship -- I have still had to “live by my wits” in a lot of ways. Just keeping this website up to date for you requires a lot more time and effort than you would have any reason to imagine.

So, I’m heading to the mountains to adjust to my present culture shock, to chill out and really catch up with myself. I have been informed that the village has no internet, but that there is some in the nearby town where I will have to do my shopping anyway. Thus, you can expect to find updates here from time to time, including -- I hope -- a series of Musings that I have been kicking around in my head for a while, waiting for some quiet time to give them their due. It often occurred to me as I traveled through Mexico, Central and South America that I would have been well served to spend some time up front learning Spanish. I didn’t do so partly because I had some pre-existing scheduling that required me to keep moving, but also because I thought I had enough sense of the language and culture to just wing it. I was wrong. I would have benefitted from some “immersion” at the beginning of my travels there. I’m not going to make that mistake again. I plan to be in France for about two and a half months, and I want to make the most of it. I may not succeed, but I’m going to give it my best shot. Three days of difficult, inefficient “culture shock” in Montpellier has convinced me: There’s more to “living by my wits” than “just getting by” on The Voyage of Macgellan!

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