Thirteenth Century Bridges and Squirrels: What immersion travel teaches you about ordinary vs. extraordinary

Trail running in Conques, France in the Aveyron

I wonder if Europeans take these 13th century bridges for granted like we take squirrels in Boston Common for granted.

I’ve known Katell since I was 16, the summer I did an exchange in France and was lucky enough to land with her family. That winter, I rejoined them for a ski trip in the Alps. The following summer, Katell came to visit us in the States. We were walking through the Boston Common one day when she freaked out as if she had just seen Ray Davies from the Kinks (it was the 80s after all, or am I the only one who was in love with him?). Pulling out her camera she ran over to capture the “spectacle.” It was a squirrel. Being at that age where I still cared about what others thought of our behavior, I looked around in embarrassment, almost apologetically.

Thirty some-odd years later, as I walk around my little adopted French village with the 13th century cathedral towering over it, and sit on the bank of a river with my baguette under my arm, and watch the people who live here walking around doing their business, running their errands, walking their dogs, it’s my turn to run around and snap photos of everything. Their every day life is my wonder. I’m not saying they take it for granted. I’m sure they think it’s beautiful as anyone would. But it’s their ordinary. Like the squirrels in Boston Common are to us.

Of course “ordinary” is subjective. That’s what makes being in a totally foreign environment so adventurous. Seeing how things are done here; being exposed to new ways of doing things. Realizing that the way we think things should be done, or the way we are used to having them done is not always the best way. That willingness to accept that very fact often makes the difference between having a good or bad experience.

Let’s take towel rack heaters as a micro-example. Why is this not something we have in all our bathrooms at home? Why is everyone doing bathrooms better than the Americans? (see Japanese bathrooms, too). Imagine the luxury of wrapping yourself in a WARM towel upon stepping out of the shower. Simple.

Who knew gas stations didn’t have to take up a few acres of space? You can just insert a gas pump on the side of the road like this one. This is especially convenient in the cities where everything was built long before cars and trucks were discovered and couldn’t accommodate the sheer size of American vehicles, thus their smaller cars, trucks and even campers.

an actual rest stop at lunch time in France

You know what else? Picnic tables at rest stops on highways actually get used. Drive-thrus don’t exist in France because the idea of eating while you drive is simply, well, foreign. You won’t see the French walking down the street with to-go coffee cups in their hands. People stop what they are doing to enjoy their food and drink. They close their store, even if it’s a big grocery store; they stop their cars, they stop working on the roads and utilities. And they sit down (or stand at the bar) and enjoy their meal and/or their coffee.

International travel simply requires an open-ness to doing things differently than we are used to. This very statement, or lack of willingness to accept this statement, is likely what gives us Americans the worse reputation when we travel. We are used to things being done our way, and as it turns out, our way isn’t always the best way.

It’s our lack of acceptance of others beliefs and ways of life that leads to biggest disagreements and frankly, perhaps why we as Americans are tempted to walk around with a Canadian flag on our backpacks — to escape that stereotype of the brash, narrow-minded American.

We tend to get upset when things aren’t the way we are used to, or the way they “should be,” by our definition.

What do you mean I can’t go grocery shopping at will regardless of the hour? what do you mean our internet has been out of service for two weeks — how does that even happen unless the apocalypse had arrived?

We tend to think that just because this is the way we are used to things, it is the best idea. But here are some new ideas for you:

Sure, you can’t get a fresh baguette on demand, you have to plan in advance. But how about having an extended lunch with your family instead of keeping the “store” open?

With travel comes a degree of uncertainty and therefore an open-ness to not only change, but also serendipity and adventure. We decided to take a day trip to the Gorge of the River Tarn in the National Park de Cevennes. I had read about it but wasn’t sure what to expect. I also wasn’t completely clear on where we should go once we got there. Patrick suggested we stop at the Office de Tourisme, which I considered to be an odd (yet perhaps good) idea coming from a dude. I thought dudes just go and figure it out on their own.

I explained to the woman behind the counter we were looking for a “petite rando” between here and the town we were driving to. She showed me her map on her counter and suggested two. The first one, followed a river (the TARN!) and she said you can take it as far as you like and turn around and come back. We decided on that one. She said it is “très jolie.” (very pretty) Well, walking around Green Lake in Seattle on a sunny day is très jolie and my expectations were managed accordingly. But “très jolie” is pretty subjective. We ended up on a spectacular trail that hugged the wall of the Gorge, with the River Tarn below and calcified rock towers high above, which on occasion had ancient ruins built into them. The trail meandered through abandoned stone farm houses, and into a refugio type retreat where people were quietly relaxing and dining in a shady and flowery setting with terraced stone buildings set into the steep hillside.

I have a hard time leaving things to chance. I want every single minute to be successful. But that sucks the life out of everything. by leaving a thing or two to chance, by not planning every single step of the way through something, we leave ourselves open to opportunity and to saying yes.

In episode 19 of The Gear Show podcast, I spend more time talking about immersion travel, trail running in France and:

  • It’s kind of a financial commitment. so how did we do it?
  • How did we pull it off and make this trip happen?
  • How a month in France.
  • Planning vs. serendipity.
  • Technology and apps — resources did we use for our trip planning.
  • Being an American in a foreign country.

You can find the episode here: Download and play.

I would love to know your favorite tips, hacks and apps for traveling.