I wrote in my last blogpost about how adventure travel can be life-changing. In that instance the adventure was close to home, when I lived on Kodiak Island in Alaska. My outdoor experiences there set me on the path to understanding what I wanted from life.
My first meaningful travel to another country happened in 1980 when I returned with my parents to China. I detail this trip in the early chapters of my book, Whispers from the Valley of the Yak. As a child I’d wanted nothing to do with China and was surprised to feel a growing affinity as we traveled. Part of that related to meeting my parents’ friends and experiencing firsthand some of the country’s culture and traditions. But I also was moved by the grandeur of the Chinese landscapes, whether terraced fields or soaring mountains. My years living in Alaska opened my eyes to the beauty and details of large-scale landscapes.
I returned to China several more times, at first making friends through my parents’ connections. Later, through these new friendships, I discovered my own special places. These experiences are recounted in the last section of my book.
I was lucky in the early 1990s to visit England several times as part of my job. While there, I stayed an extra week or two, traveling by bus or train. The UK has a terrific, readily available trail system. I’d walk for a week or more, staying in B&Bs and eating in pubs. It was a wonderful way to travel with minimal luggage, meet people, and see the picturesque countryside.
Later, I spent parts of two summers aboard a friend’s boat on the canals and rivers of the Netherlands and France. Before traveling in France, I took a six-week conversational French course. The instructor focused on vocabulary and pronunciation, with only minimal attention to grammar and sentence construction. Carrying a French-English dictionary with excellent pronunciation tips, I was able to carry on simple conversations as my confidence grew.
In France one of my earliest attempts at conversation was memorable. We’d motored into a riverside marina and the couple in the next boat invited us for a glass of wine. Taking my dictionary with me, I asked a simple question in French. I’m fairly good at pronunciation, but I didn’t understand a word of the man’s rambling answer. I learned a valuable lesson: only ask questions requiring yes or no answers!
We traveled through parts of France that don’t often see tourists, especially for travelers on guided tours. I continued my attempts to communicate in French and was rewarded by people often offering some English, even in Paris. Unlike their reputation, I found even the Parisians friendly.
Over several months, my pronunciation improved. I especially remember a conversation with a friendly lockkeeper as we traveled north of the city of Nancy toward Luxembourg. He was assigned to us for the day, riding a motor scooter between locks. I hopped off the boat at the first lock and as he opened the gate on his side, I cranked the other. Realizing his friendliness, I composed a sentence of introduction as we motored to the second lock.
At the lock, I said, “Je m’appelle Jackie,” and extended my hand to shake his.
Smiling broadly, he shook my hand, exclaiming “Moi aussi! Je m’appelle Jacques!”
We had a simple exchange over the rest of our time together as we moved up the flight of locks. Between stops I put together a response or composed a new question to ask. I remember only generalities – mostly we discussed family and where we lived – but I remember it being a delightful conversation.
When I hear people say how unfriendly the French people are, it makes me sad. I’ve found that a sincere, respectful attempt to speak the language – in France or anywhere – elicits a positive response. Similarly, exploring the local culture with curiosity and an open mind brings a greater understanding of each country’s uniqueness.