Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Who Me? Weird?

"People are strange when you're a stranger."  -- The Doors

One of my favorite things about travel is people-watching.  Living on this island, it's gotten to be a fine art, knowing who the tourists are before they even whip out a phone to take a selfie.  Because one of the things I've learned in all my travels is that, no matter how hard you might try to blend in, traveling means that you're not just watching the other people; they're watching you.  And the very humbling (humiliating?) truth is that a lot the time, you're providing the day's entertainment.

Like the first time we went to Paris.  There was the hotel we stayed in while overnighting in London en route.  I guess we got a good price because they were doing renovation on it -- oh, and there was no attached bathroom.  Bygones.  We were horribly jet-lagged, were up roaming the streets at 4 a.m. and ready for a nap by 7.  A couple hours later, we were woken up by a very loud, persistently-ringing bell.  

We stumbled around the little room, trying to figure out what the heck was going on.  Matt read the sign posted on the back of the door. "It means... Fire!"  Being the poor, newlywed college/ grad students we were, we couldn't afford to lose any clothing.  We threw everything back in our suitcases and zipped them up in a blink before racing down the hall.

And then came the really weird part.  

The housekeepers were just standing around, nonchalantly chatting, like it was no big deal that the building was about to burn down!!  Huh?

Matt and I noticed them as we sped by, and both of us came to the conclusion that they were much more comfortable with their impending doom.  We clattered down the stairs, and then all of a sudden, the ringing stopped.  Just... stopped. Then, looking around, we realized we were the only ones trying to escape the building.  Suddenly it made sense.  This was an everyday, maybe a couple times a day, occurrence!  In short: no big deal.

We tried to look cool as we made a u-turn to walk sedately back to our room, which is easier said than done when just seconds before you've been running like your life depends on it, hair askew and clothes haphazardly put on.

Lucky for me, I married a smart one.  Matt stopped at the vending machine in the hall, procured a snack from it and handed it to me, saying loud enough for all those around us to hear, "Here, babe, that chocolate bar you wanted so bad."

Then there was Paris -- getting totally lost at the Louvre, trying to navigate the Metro all the way out to the suburbs where we were staying (cheap! cheap!).  Near our hotel was a Morroccan restaurant where we ate dinner one night.  We were the only ones in the restaurant, so the kind wait staff was hyper attentive.  

I had taken five years of French by then, so I felt pretty confident.  As I opened the menu that night, though, there were a few words I didn't recognize but figured it was because they were Morroccan.  I ordered something that had potatoes, peas, onions, and mushrooms.  Sounded hearty and filling.

It was hearty all right.  

The waiter removed the silver lid of my dish with dramatic sweep, and my jaw fell open.  There in front of me -- a vegetarian for five years at that point -- was a giant leg of lamb, surrounded by a little (very little) of what I thought I'd ordered. I had never paid much attention to words for meat in French because why would a vegetarian need that? Oh yeah!!  So you don't end up wondering what to do with a chunk of lamb the size of your head, complete with a bone sticking out the top!

A few years later, we moved to Spain.  I'd been teaching myself Spanish, but I didn't know I was using a program that was for Latin American Spanish.  I figured it was all the same.  But it turned out that, as in British English versus American English, there were a few important differences.  

The first time we ventured out for dinner, Matt wanted to know if the tip was included in the bill.  No problem, I said, and asked the waitress (as prescribed), "Esta el servicio incluido?"

The waitress leaned forward, her face alarmed like she had just realized my skin was green and I had horns on my head, and asked (too loud, I thought), "Perdon!??"  I repeated myself carefully, making sure I said it just right.

"El servicio?" she repeated.  "Si! Si, tambien!"  Her whole demeanor seemed strange, and unnecessarily passionate, but this was Spain and maybe they were just passionate people.  As she walked away, I translated for Matt, "She said yes, of course."

And we went off to find new ways to be confused, terrified, and hilarious to the locals.  

Four months later, I was traveling with Jayna and my parents while Matt was away and Jayna needed a bathroom.  I saw the universal blue-and-white sign for a women's restroom, and headed toward it when I read the two I words above the picture: "El Servicio."  

Wait... El servicio?!  Suddenly that scene in the cafe the previous summer looked very different replaying in my memory with its newfound English subtitles.

Waitress: Can I get you anything else?
Me: No thanks, just the bill.
Waitress: Okay, here you go.
Me: (very seriously) And... Is the toilet included?
Waitress: (alarmed) (confused) (appropriately) WHAT?!? 
Me: (still serious, speaking more clearly and leaning forward so she doesn't miss one crazy word) Is the toilet included in the bill?
Waitress: Yes!  Yes, of course! (Hurries away lest she catch my condition)

So honestly, maybe the people-watching is the fun part of travel, but the me-watching in new and different environments?  That's where a lot of learning takes place.  I like to think that I'm the normal one and everyone else is weird, but traveling reminds me that the world is big and complicated, and I'm small and sometimes silly.  In other words, the weird one.

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