Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Time Out of Joint

In mid July I put all rational thinking aside and flew to France for my mother's 80th birthday reunion. That I could do this- leave my poor village schools where not a single student or teacher has ventured beyond Southeast Asia - jet a quarter of the way around the globe on Friday night and be back in my classroom teaching alphabet sounds 10 days later at 9 am (after taking the 12 hour night bus from Bangkok and arriving at my house at 7am)- seems so perversely miraculous I should be on the cover of National Geographic as Traveler of the Year. But of course the planes I took were chock full of fellow travelers, as were the buses, trains, and subways; the highways were crowded. My exploits, though as bizarre as a three headed goat to my Thai friends, remain utterly ho hum to a select population in the 21st century world.  By the way, here is an interesting graphic on the percentage, by state, of passports held :
Passports            Notice any correlation to the voting habits? Hmmmm...

As I traveled I read one of Patrick O'Brian's wonderful Aubrey novels set in the Napoleonic wars; While I made my 10 hour traverse over vast stretches of Asia and Eastern Europe, Captain Aubrey and his sidekick Maturin were enduring the seas and oceans, out of touch for months, in the end covering less ground than I. Me? I went to sleep in Bangkok and woke up in Paris.
 This is from our village visit where we walked with the students and went to many of their homes. This is Oo and Gop (Frog) in front of their home. 
This is the farmhouse complex where most of my family stayed in Brittany.

Here is a photo I took in Bangkok:

And here is the city of Quimper, near where we stayed:
Those highlight the extremes perhaps, but somewhere tumbling around in my brain were those two realities. In so many other ways the experience was both a delight and jarring. For one, I could speak the local language successfully if not completely fluently. Enough so that when I gave a small speech at my mother's birthday I was able to simultaneously rough it out in French. I wasn't suddenly just eating bread and cheese- I was suddenly eating the best bread and cheese ( and cookies and butter and croissants and salami and cornichons and mustard and crepes and let's not even TALK about wines) available on planet earth. By contrast I was no longer eating the best fruit and peppers and rice and noodles and bamboo shoots... My poor digestive tract. It soldiered on quite admirably as a matter of fact, though it is impossible to ignore the enormous change in the sights and smells each cultures' diet produces at 'the other end'.

There are commonalities- both countries have farming down and both love eating and conviviality. Here is a French farm plot outside my uncle's house:

Not quite the hand planted rice fields back home...

To be with family, most I'd hadn't seen for 17 years, conferred such a sense of satisfaction and joy, I had hardly a breath to pause or reflect. Seeing Conor and every single other relation (including Sabine!) was an immeasurable blessing beyond wealth or status or anything else I can imagine.
I love France, French culture, French history, my French family. Naturally, the French can be unbelievably haughty, especially the shop keepers. I had to laugh at the air of blase world weariness some waiters and chefs displayed. The customer is definitely not always right in France. More as if they are doing you an immense favor letting your sorry ass in the door in the first place. The prices of everything may have been the biggest shock. Any given meal cost the equivalent of a week's worth of eating out in Thailand- even in Bangkok. People in Thailand believe we in the West are all rich, and we are, truly, with so many nice conveniences, but they do not realize the price of living such a life, the treadmill one hops on, traveling always just a little faster than one's legs are fit to run. Overall, France felt immensely civilized and tidy after Isaan,  somehow oddly both wonderful and slightly constrictive.

If it was simply a choice of France or the US, I would choose the former, since I do believe in things like eating well and slowly, in a citizen's right to health care, in reading and philosophy (the bookstores in France are worth beholding). If I were 25 or 30 I would claw and dig until I found a way to live there for at least a few years. But at this stage of my life I feel pressed to move beyond, to places that are more raggedy and tumbledown. It is probably my inescapable hobo calling. Whenever the sidewalks are just right and the weeds are all plucked, I find myself wanting to "light out for the Territory". So lugging my bag through the grimy, ridiculously humid and hot, alleyways of Bangkok to the bus station and back to Isaan felt darn good Monday afternoon.
Here is a map of where I went:

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