A Trip to France Brings Understanding 

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I have just returned from a week-long visit to Paris, France, made in the company of my two grown daughters, one of whom had never been abroad at all, while the other had previously been limited to a single instance of foreign travel — to  Italy, where she had a summer scholarship at the University of Bologna.

The point of my taking them both to the City of Light was to provide the kind of timely exposure to parts of the outer world that I myself had largely had to forgo until my dotage. While working as a congressional aide in the 1980s, I had spent some fact-finding time in several Central American hotspots, and, nearly a quarter of a century ago, I had fellow-traveled on a Memphis in May tour of the Ivory Coast in west Africa, courtesy of my then and current employer, Contemporary Media, Inc.

But that was it. And, like most people everywhere who are confined to their own immediate circumstances, my notions of people in other climes and cultures were second- or third-hand, based on other people's accounts. But even the most scrupulous and elaborate depictions of life elsewhere — in news articles, scholarly accounts, travelers' reports, or even the living color of artful video — amounted, finally, to a kind of hearsay.

In the words of the well-worn catchphrase, you had to be there.

So I have, in recent years, made it a point — and a financial priority, at the expense of other undertakings — to be there, to see for myself. Since my first trip to Europe in 2015, when I ponied up enough poor man's funding to attach myself to  a tour of Western European sites organized mainly for his clients by local wealth adviser David Pickler, I have at least scratched the surface of an understanding that I would not have had otherwise.

Since that trip, I have made solitary jaunts of my own abroad — a week in Berlin in 2016, a week in Moscow earlier this year — and then the journey en famille to Paris. Each occasion was, as they say, a learning experience.  

To start with the most recent trip, both my daughters and I were able to debunk to our satisfaction the strangely persistent myth of The Rude Frenchman. Despite our sputtering attempts to communicate in pidgin French — largely forgone as the week went on — we encountered helpfulness everywhere.

Oh, there was the cab-driver who (as we later realized) padded the fare for the ride in from the airport, but even he did so to the tune of a friendly chatter in pidgin-English that put us at ease. More typical was the faithfully honest Uber driver who spoke no English at all but proudly managed, upon our arrival for a brunch at Le Café des Chats, where rescued felines prance among the patrons, "Here it ees — ze Coffee of ze Cats!" A mistranslation, but an endearing one.

This kind of vin ordinaire is as instructive to the visitor as a pilgrimage to the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower. A pride of place should not be mistaken for haughtiness, and, in any case, we experienced none of the latter.

I have previously written ("Russia: Riddles and Realities" June 8th issue) of the unexpected abundance of familiar American commercial enterprises in Moscow, including the ever-busy McDonald's at the very gates of the Kremlin, and of such cognate phenomena there as the superfluity of jeans-wearing millennials glued to iPhones. Nothing confirms basic human kinship like encountering it first-hand.

And, if travel is clearly one highly effective way of learning this, it isn't the only way for us in Memphis, a tourist magnet in its own right. The visitors from abroad who come here — for Elvis, for Beale Street, for barbecue, or whatever — are, we end up discovering, slightly different versions of ourselves.

As it happens, our city maintains several organized programs that maintain a pipeline to the outer world. One is the Friendship Force of Memphis, which, in conjunction with the Convention Visitors Bureau, recently played host to a group of civil servants from Central Asia. The life of that party was a highly companionable gent from Uzbekistan, the very week that a co-national of his was receiving wide publicity as a perpetrator of terror in New York.

I may be naive, but I prefer to think of the guy I joked with at the Little Tea Shop as more typical of Uzbekis. And of humanity.

Jackson Baker is a Flyer senior editor.

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