Like a Fish Out of Water

I am on the hook like a fish out of water.

It is very uncomfortable to be on the hook, but it is a tremendous opportunity to learn. This fish out of water feeling comes when everyday activities feel strange, and new adventures could feel scary. I am in Apt, a small town in Provence in the south of France near Avignon. I am here spending time with friends for about three months. Traveling for three months is very different from going abroad for three weeks. When you are in a new place for three months or more, you start you understand the area in a way that you could not in three weeks. You see the seasons change.  You get to know your local grocer. You enjoy the weekly farmers market with its music and expensive shoes. You have a beer and a chat at the local watering hole. You watch the summer tourists come and go. You watch the older Fall travelers arrive with their grey beards and white hair. But, there is something very inspiring about them. They are still doing it after all those years. I am left feeling that there is hope for me. I will be out there, seeing the world when I can barely walk. There is nothing like it. Even though, every time I return home, I am comforted by the familiarity of my place, my bed, and my car.  But, each time I leave home, I am always excited, nervous, and inspired by the strange feeling of being on the hook. 


One reason I feel uncomfortable when I am on the hook is the difference in the way people drive. The roads around Apt are tiny, with no dividing line in the middle. Drivers are encouraged to keep as far to right as is humanly possible.  The French drivers seem very comfortable with this custom, but it was very uncomfortable for me for two reasons. I could never tell if there would be enough space for an approaching car, truck, or bus to pass without hitting me.  This concern is no joke because a colleague of mine had her side mirror broken by a passing vehicle. During my first few weeks, I would slow down significantly when I saw approaching a truck or bus because I did not know if both cars could pass safely without collision. The French drivers do not seem to have this concern because they come barreling forward with no doubt or compromise.  I am always surprised when we pass safely.   Another matter is the irrigation ditches that run along the roads where I would typically expect a shoulder. My uninformed fear told me that if I drive too much in the middle, I could hit oncoming vehicles, but if I push too far to the right, I could run into a ditch. I tend to choose the center, but that choice got me in trouble with the police during my first week.    


As I drove on one of Apt's little roads, I noticed a police vehicle behind me. I was driving very slowly and feared that I might be impeding them. I sped up, but as I increased my speed, I drift more to the middle of the road because I worried that I might miss the edge and slip into the ditch.  As I sped up, the police sped up. They were right in my back. The sirens went off, accompanied by flashing lights.  I pulled over, and a policewoman walked over to my car. "You are a bad driver," she screamed. "You are driving in the middle of the road." As she cursed me, I was answering in my thoughts, "Tell me something I don't know." "I know I am a terrible driver, especially on this tiny road with ditches on the side." She continued, "You are driving in the middle of the road." Telling me that I was driving in the middle of the road was like a flight attendant telling me to bring my seat upright when a plane is about to land. I moved my chair a half-inch, but I never understood how that half-inch added to my safety.  These roads are so narrow that it is impossible to avoid the middle. Was she accusing me of not driving two inches more to the right?  However, I told her that I was a tourist, and that seemed to help. And after passing a breath analyzer test, I was on my way without a ticket.

 Later in the month, I had another crazy experience on the road late at night. I was driving home, and I noticed a car right behind me, flashing its lights and blowing its horn.  I was surprised and pulled off the road as soon as I had a chance. I expected the car to go around me and continue on his journey. I was stunned when I realized the car had stopped in the middle of the road, blocking my progress forward.  It was dark, and I could not see who I was driving the vehicle; so, I decided to go around him. As I accelerated down the road in the dark, the car was again in my back with flashing lights and blaring horns. I pulled off the way again, and the vehicle pulled off too and sat in the dark behind me. I began to think that this could be a dangerous situation. I decided to drive directly to the police station in the center of town. I took off. The car took off too with blaring horns and flashing lights. I moved quickly to the center of the city. But just before I could get to the station, the car turned off and disappeared in the dark.


I had to figure out a way to drive on the small roads in France without attracting too much attention to myself. Even when I drive on larger roads that traverse the countryside, I realize that I was a nuisance to the average French driver because I drive too slowly.  When I look behind me, there is usually a long line of cars looking for an opportunity to pass me. I felt a lot of pressure to drive faster. Sometimes I would speed up, but I was never comfortable driving at high speeds, and so I had to figure out a solution for this dilemma. Ahh.  I found the answer. Traffic circles cover French roads.  So, I decided that whenever I reached a traffic circle, I would drive around a couple of times and allow the traffic to pass me. This solution kept me out of trouble most of the time, but to my surprise, when I returned to the USA, I got a speeding ticket.  I, the slowest driver in France, received a speeding ticket for traveling 35 kilometers an hour in a 30 kilometer per hour zone as I moved from Cavalion to Apt on the main road. Go figure. 


 Another crazy discovery I made was that you could run into problems when you use the GPS to guide you as travel in foreign countries. GPS is a fantastic tool, but you have to use it carefully. The first problem I found was that if you did not select the correct destination, you could end up very far from your goal. I can hear you thinking, "Da. What do you expect? Garbage in garbage out." However, it is not that simple.  Many of the destinations in the GPS looks similar, and if you select the wrong one, you could easily find yourself in the wrong part of the city or a strange town. Being lost with a GPS happened to me several times. I arrived in the wrong part of Nice when I wanted to go to the old town. I caught myself headed to Italy when I tried to go to Cavalion in France.  And since I was not familiar with my environment, it took me a while to realize that I was going in the wrong direction. Even when my direction was right, I did not like the route it selected until I was too far on the journey for turning back. GPS does not seem to analyze the quality of the roads that you will be driving on before it selects the route. It takes you over mountains, along a very narrow path or even through someone back yard.  Driving from Saint Tropez to Marseilles at 2 AM in the morning was a nerve-wrenching experience for me.  I was up in the mountains for hours driving on these dark roads without knowing how much longer I would need to go and feeling my fear of heights set in. I kept driving slower and slower because the edge of the cliff was close by, and my confidence at an all-time low point.  The good news is that I made it and it is now a good story.

Every once in awhile the GPS led me to somewhere exciting that I might not have found on my own. My GPS took me to a hilltop town called Gordes on my seventy-first birthday.  I wanted to spend the evening in Gordes, but where the GPS took me far exceeded my expectations.  As I said before, the GPS has a habit of going on small roads to the destination. This road was so narrow and steep that when I tried to turn on some parts of the way, I would have to reverse before I could turn. Finally, I decided to park the car and walk the rest of the top of the hill. As I walked, I heard people talking up above me. I followed the voices, and I arrived at the back of a building with a group of people having dinner. I apologized for interrupting them and asked how I get up to the town. They told me to walk through the building, and I would find the city of Gordes a few meters ahead. I took their advice, and as I left the building, I realized that I was in an outdoor theater on the side of the hill. The stage was all set with drums and guitars for a summer concert later that evening.  Just outside, a crowd was drinking wine, eating finger foods, and waiting for the start of the show. I joined the group, got myself a glass of wine, and bought a ticket for the concert. My GPS had given me a birthday gift of a pop concert on the side of a hill in Gordes.