A few years ago, while living in Hawaii, Niki and I decided to celebrate Christmas in Paris. Before we could take off, we first had to visit the local library. You see, Niki is a master planner and a rabid researcher, but not me. I avoid libraries like an overdue book. This time, she was insistent. “We have books to browse, periodicals to peruse, maps to memorize, and language lessons to learn!”
“Whoa! Stop the Metro! Language lessons? What language?” Apparently, Paris is in France, and the French prefer to speak, well, French. My friends often accuse me of speaking English as if it were my own foreign tongue, so French was now the official language in the Land of Never Going to Happen.
Each day, Niki added voluminously to her vocabulary. Meanwhile, I did what I always do. I procrastinated. Surely, I thought, she’s learning enough French for the both of us. By the time we left Hawaii, Niki possessed a Rosetta Stone’s repertoire of French words and phrases. Personally, I prefer to pack a little lighter.
I landed in Paris with all of two words.
My first French word was “sans.” Sans means “no” or “without.” Sans allowed me to parade through the streets of Paris repeating over and over again, “Sans French. Sans French,” then turn all transactions over to my beautiful, charming, and fanatically prepared wife.
My second word was “Merci,” meaning “Thank you.” Like “sans,” it is a good, safe, and purposeful word. I believe in expressing gratitude. I believe it is important to say “Thank you” as often as possible. The challenge is that when I say “Merci,” I end up pronouncing it “mercy.” Translation? Every conversation I attempted ended with “Have mercy on me; I speak no French.”
Paris is famous for the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, and a host of other world-class tourist attractions. But guess where we first went?
We soon stood on Main Street, U.S.A., in the middle of France, simultaneously comforted and disconcerted. How could something so similar also feel so strange?
The first answer is weather. Disney has proven that you can mass produce Magic Kingdoms in multiple locations. Each comes complete with its own castle, mountain range, flying elephant, etc. What you cannot export from the authentic Anaheim original, however, is climate.
We shivered at sunrise that December day in below-freezing temperatures. Our sense took in the traffic that fills Main Street each morning. We saw the horses. We saw the omnibuses. We saw the fire wagons.
Then we spotted it.
Niki and I snuggled in a little closer. Two Hawaiian Eskimos lost in a fantasyland of the familiar.
The weather in Paris is different. So are the people. As we walked toward the castle, we found ourselves enveloped by a cosmopolitan collection of cultures and countries. At Disneyland in California, people come primarily from different states. In Europe, they come from different continents.
The day divided itself between a war to stay warm and endless exposure to the warm people of the world who packed the park. We experienced every available attraction, and by the end of the evening, we found ourselves right back at the beginning—- on Main Street, U.S.A.
Niki and I paused for one last parting picture. We reversed our camera and attempted to snap a shot of ourselves with the castle (Le Château de la Belle au Bois Dormant) illuminated in the background. We fought to get the angle just right, to no avail. Eventually, an Asian family took pity on us and the father offered to assist. I guided him through the camera’s controls, and then Niki and I stood in place for the perfect picture.
That’s when I remembered.
That’s when my preparation paid off.
That’s when my research reaped its rewards.
In planning for the trip, I did manage to read a quick tip article on how to take better photographs. One short suggestion said to turn the flash off when attempting a picture at night in a well-lit environment, e.g., Main Street, U.S.A.
“Sans flash!” I yelled. “Sans flash!”
The man, knowing neither French nor English, snapped the shot. Frustrated, I began screaming, in my most awesome Asian accent, “Sans flash! Sans Flash!”
The frightened faces on Main Street all possessed the same quizzical look. Who is this guy? When did loud become an international language?
Niki, convinced more than ever that I must have grown up with deaf people, quieted me with a hush. “The problem, dear, isn’t that he can’t hear you. The problem is he doesn’t understand you.”
I like to live life loud. Words.
Us simpletons who are “sans understanding” simply pump up the volume and expect the people dialed in around us to adjust. We all need that special someone who understands us better than we could ever understand ourselves. A friend who is fearless with perspective. A partner whose heartbeat is so loud it deafens the noise of our own narcissism.
Love is the most difficult language of all. Over the years, Niki has taught me a few words and a couple of phrases. Every now and then, I even get the pronunciation right.
“Merci, Niki.” “Merci.”
“All at once everything is different, now that I see you.”