by Elise Seyfried
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “like a fish out of water” to describe people out of their environment, out of their comfort zone, out of their depth. Well, that was my husband Steve and I for two weeks last month in Spain and France: we were two fish definitely out of water. We (well, let’s be honest — I) approached this whole adventure with much trepidation. We tried to pack clothes that would make us appear more like locals (albeit locals who stash their cash in hidden bags and belts) than tourists.
We speak one language with small, not particularly helpful, smatterings of a few others. While my memorized “una cerveza, por favor” did indeed get me a beer, my sole other Spanish (a nonsense song about the months of the year I learned in first grade) did us no good whatsoever. In Paris, I could order dinner just fine, but otherwise?
My brain helpfully recalled stretches of Stendhal’s novel, “Le Rouge et Le Noir,” which we had to read in Madame Kohn’s French 4 class. I can assure you, it’s not a great conversation starter in the City of Lights. We are also very unused to long international flights, foreign transit systems (the Lansdale Doylestown SEPTA line is about our speed) and the ubiquitous euro.
What we don’t know about being cosmopolitan Europeans could fill a book. (And it did; I kept a journal.) At first, it didn’t even seem like we were cosmopolitan Americans. We had a heck of a time just figuring out the subway from Penn Station in New York to JFK. From trying vainly to scan our passports at the airport’s self-serve kiosks to repeatedly inserting our Metro cards upside down, it was starting out as a National Lampoon Vacation (right down to the “funny” scene where we accidentally knocked over the rope delineating the queue for security).
Once we landed, the Seyfried Follies continued. We got turned around countless times on Barcelona’s narrow, winding streets, as well as Paris’ wide boulevards, despite guidebooks, maps and iPhone apps. We tipped when we didn’t need to (it’s almost always included in the bill) and didn’t when we probably should have. We ordered Café Americano every morning expecting — well, American coffee — and instead got teensy cups of watered down espresso. (I took to ordering two cups at a time just for me and still felt under-caffeinated.) There were moments, since we were clearly and purposefully striding in the opposite direction from our intended destination (indecision would make us targets for theft, we had heard), when I wondered just why we thought we could handle a trip like this.
But as the days went on, we began to feel a bit more comfortable. Our son Evan’s presence in Barcelona (he is living there this year and studying for his Master’s degree) helped hugely. Not only did Evan have a great place for us to stay, but he was really knowledgeable about the nuts and bolts of transportation, the must-see sights, the best tapas bars. The other huge help? The warmth and kindness of the people (yes, even the Parisians!).
No one laughed at our pronunciation of “gracias” or “s’il vous plâit.” We were served fabulous food and drink with genuine smiles; patient passersby gave us directions to this museum or that cathedral. Though we’d been warned about pickpockets, we emerged with all possessions intact (and frankly never saw any suspicious behavior). While the street signs were sometimes missing or hard to see (not unlike, ahem, Philadelphia), I have to say both cities were pretty darned user-friendly. Or maybe we just became better “users” over time.
I recently read about a species of fish that live in Thailand known as walking fish, who have developed the ability to spend large amounts of time on land. (They can even climb rocks!) They have somehow biologically adapted to allow them to survive and thrive. So maybe, just maybe, Steve and I might have been “walking fish” as well: out of water, perhaps, but gradually learning to successfully navigate a completely different — and wonderful — environment. Climbing to new heights of experience and understanding. So very thankful for this chance to see another part of our amazing world.
Elise Seyfried is Director of Spiritual Formation at Christ’s Lutheran Church in Oreland. She is also an actress, wife, mother of five and co-author (with husband, Steve) of 15 plays for children as well as of her self-published book, “Unhaling: On God, Grace and a Perfectly Imperfect Life,” a collection of essays, humorous but with a spiritual focus, based on her life as a mom and church worker. The book can be purchased for $15 plus shipping through www.eliseseyfried.com. (Also from Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble bn.com, although they add an extra charge.)