Sunday, January 14, 2007

¿Usted habla español? Parlez-vous français ?

You don't? Me neither.

Outdoor Cafe by Vincent Van Gogh

I’m sitting in Starbucks this morning. Er, this afternoon for everyone else. For me it’s my morning. I don’t usually go to Starbucks in the mor...this early in the day, it’s more of a night time thing for me, but I woke up with an overwhelming urge to write and there were no quiet rooms at home to write in. Not that Starbucks is quiet. But the noise isn’t my noise. I don’t need to respond to it.

Although, that said, I have been paying attention to it. I’m sitting here at a small table by the wall of windows that make up the front of the coffee house. The windows are completely steamed over. The windows are steamed over most of the winter and I love that about them, although I’m sure it’s a lot of work for the employees and I noticed just now, glancing at them, that the sills have all become warped and are pulling up because of it. But it’s so inviting, walking up to those steamy windows with the feeling that once you pass through the door in the center of them, you’ll be entering a different world and the real world outside will fade away for just a little while.

I’ve been sitting here watching the customers come and go. Our Starbucks sits at the edge of a long supermarket anchored strip mall at the very edge of town before the highway shoots out across open high desert. So at any given time the customers are a mix of both locals and out-of-towners. It’s usually easy to tell which is which. For one thing, this is a small enough town for me to recognize the faces of many locals even if I don’t know all of them personally. But even if the face is unknown, the clothing, the mannerisms, the nods to other familiar people usually give someone away as a local. Flannel shirts are a dead give away that someone lives in the mountains and isn't just passing through. I wonder what the travelers think of our little town? Sometimes I pretend I’m traveling through and I see this area through new and unfamiliar eyes. Mostly I think I’d wonder what people do for a living out here in the middle of nowhere!

I didn’t come here to people watch though. I came here to to write, and to pretend that I’m sitting somewhere undefined, ambiguous, somehere that could be anywhere. Maybe I’m in Susanville, maybe I’m in San Diego just down the road from where the kids live, maybe I’m in London just off Leceister Square. That’s one good thing about chain establishments - when you enter them, you could be at one of thousands of different pinpoints on a map. It’s a way to get that sense of free floating that sometimes comes with travel, without having to pay for the gas mileage.

Specifically I came to write not about sitting here at Starbucks, but about sitting at our local Mexican restaurant the other day. A few days ago I stopped there between the lunch and dinner hour and spent an hour or so eating tortillas and pico de gallo, and reading. There were only a couple other customers, so most of the time the owners/waiters lounged over by the counter chatting quietly in Spanish. In the background a Hispanic radio station played Mexican music. Probably because the book I was reading was set in Paris, sitting there surrounded by the sounds of an unfamiliar language (well, mostly unfamiliar, I know enough Spanish to pick out words here and there), I was suddenly reminded of sitting outside at a Starbucks in Paris.

And no, I didn’t go all the way to Paris just to go to Starbucks. It was sort of a necessary stop - William was using their restroom and to be polite and have something to do while I was waiting, I ordered a drink and sat down on one of the cafe chairs scattered along the sidewalk. I remember sitting there, relaxed, surrounded by people speaking French. A New York Times lay spread across the table next to me. A few minutes actually went by before I thought.... New York Times?..... that’s written in English! I grabbed the newspaper and spent a happy fifteen minutes reading it just for the sheer pleasure of being able to understand the words on the page. I’d been doing amazingly well for someone who didn’t know any French at all, figuring out signs, menus, and metro maps but, still, it was comforting to find a tiny bit of familiarity in an unfamiliar place.

But that’s not the point I was going to make either. What I wanted to say is how comfortable I felt sitting there on that French sidewalk, listening to the sounds of an unfamiliar language spoken all around me. And how happy I felt the other day, sitting in that Mexican restaurant with the only voices again an unfamiliar language. It made me realize how much I enjoy new situations and people. How easy it is for me to “When in Rome....”

Now my husband's response is completely different. New situations make him nervous and uncomfortable. He’s afraid of not understanding the rules, not being understood, being lost. He’s happiest when he’s got a big map and a well detailed itinerary and even better if he’s in a place or environment that he’s visited a dozen times beforehand. Although he might enjoy a new experience later, when he was reminiscing, in the moment he’d more likely feel as much nervous as excited. On the other hand I might be initially nervous in a new situation, but usually it doesn't take long for me to relaxed.

I wonder why this is. I know there are two types of people in the way we respond chemically/hormonally to risks. People who are thrill seekers feel heightened happiness in dangerous situations. People who dislike risk taking feel fear and anxiety in the same situations. I’ve always thought of myself as the latter. Skydiving? No thank you. Fast driving? I don't think so. Maybe there’s a difference between a person's physical response to danger and their response to something simply unfamiliar.

It’s not like I’m completely fearless. When we went overseas, we only planned to visit the UK and I decided to wait and see if we would go to Paris as well once we got our feet wet in England (which, of course, I did both figuratively and literally). Partly because just before we left on our trip,the news was full of rioting in the streets of Paris. Partly because the idea of going to to a country where I spoke or read not a word was a paralyzing, overwhelming thought. If it hadn’t been for the lure of the Louvre for me and the Eiffel Tower for William, I probably wouldn’t have considered it at all. As it was, it wasn’t until we’d managed to make our way around London that I finally felt we had graduated to the level where we could take on a brand new culture.

It turns out that one can communicate quite a bit without sharing a language. As reassuring as that is, I think part of the pleasure of sitting in a restaurant, even better, a restaurant where no one speaks a familiar word, is that it allows one to be inside a scene but separate from it at the same time. It’s like watching a movie but with the bonus of actually being the protaganist. You don’t just see and hear the scene, you also taste it, smell it, feel it. But you’re set outside of it just enough to enjoy it not as part of yourself but almost as an entity in and of itself. It’s the same thing as when you see through the eyes of a child as they see or discover something for the first time, or when you realize another person has suddenly had a reality shift and suddenly sees something from a new point of view. It's as if life pops into 3-D when you didn’t even realize you were viewing it on a flat screen.

It might seem like I'm contradicting myself when I say that new experiences are both relaxing and exciting at the same time. There's a term used a lot relating to infants - quiet alertness. It's the state at which a baby or small child is calm but conscious of the world about them. It's the best state of being for them to interact with other people and learn new skills. Perhaps when adults who have benefited from this type of emotional state in their past find themselves in a place that's unthreatening but unfamiliar,they can access this state of "quiet alertness" again. In any case, whether I can make sense of the experience or not, it doesn't stop me from enjoying the ambience of someplace full of new sounds, new sights, and hopefully good food and drink.


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