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I'm not at all the woman of the world I thought I was.
I came to this disappointing conclusion last week at the end of a 10-day trip to France. My husband and I went there to visit friends and spend some time in the countryside on our own.
Although my French is just about non-existent beyond a few short phrases of pleasantry and menu reading, I've never felt too cut off or frustrated by that in the past. No matter where I am, I have thought I could manage quite well, blend in and feel almost at home.
Several recurring events during this trip force me to reassess my perception of myself as a seasoned world traveler.
For one, I am not the driver I thought I was. On the auto route in France, the equivalent of a tollway in the United States, I simply could not keep up with traffic. I did not hang in the right lane with the trucks, but I couldn't spend much time in the middle lane, let alone the left lane at the posted speed limit of 130 kilometers per hour (80.6 mph) for good weather.
Despite the posted speed limits, the European drivers were careening down the auto route at speeds far faster than 130 kilometers per hour. And they would climb right up to our rear bumper at those tremendous speeds before passing, and then cut right back in front of us as soon as their rear wheels passed our front bumper. They didn't single us out for that treatment; it's just a different approach to driving than in the United States.
Also, we found ourselves lost more than once. It was quite frustrating to realize that it would be useless, even in our broken French, to ask for directions, because we would not understand the answer. We eventually found our way to our desired destinations without trying to ask anyone, but drove in circles for half an hour trying to find the rental car return facility at the train station in Lyon. Our frustration growing and the time running out to catch our train, I agreed to ask for directions, but in English so as not to suggest I could understand the answer in French. A lovely man helped, in his limited English, and we finally returned the car properly, just in time to make our train to Paris.
But the most revealing experience for me was my reaction to warnings about the danger of having our luggage lifted at the Paris train station and our wallets lifted at Charles de Gaulle Airport.
We were making plans to leave Lyon for Paris via the TGV, the fast train, when fellow American travelers heard our request for information from the concierge at the hotel. They volunteered that we should be very careful in the Paris train station because they had been relieved of one of their suitcases there just the day before.
All the way to Paris I envisioned bands of people trying to steal my luggage upon arrival.
Of course, no one tried, at least as far I could tell. I was still very grateful and relieved to see the smiling face of a friend from Paris who met us as we walked off the train.
The next day, upon departing the cab at the airport, the driver suggested that we carefully watch our wallets because, while there is little crime in Paris, "there are pickpockets."
For the 30 minutes it took to check in, get to our gate and board the plane, I held onto my purse and bags for dear life.
I finally relaxed when we were aboard the flight.
With relaxation, I reflected upon how foolish I had been to be upset at all, especially by the warnings of potential theft. Yes, I was right to listen carefully and heed warnings. But for goodness sake, I live in downtown Chicago and fly in and out of the world's busiest airport without such nervous concern for my safety or that of my purse and luggage.
I also have had my wallet lifted in New York and have fought off a pickpocket just blocks between my office and home in Chicago. I got over those incidents quickly enough not to see a robber at every corner.
Clearly, I overreacted to the kind warnings in France because I am not as comfortable in a country I don't know as well as my own, in addition to the fact that I foolishly studied Latin instead of French.
No, sadly, I am not a citizen of the world -- yet.
Publisher and Editorial Director Kathryn J. McIntyre and Editor Paul D. Winston publish columns on alternate weeks.