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 learning opportunity. This fish-out-of-water feeling comes when everyday activities feel strange, and new adventures can feel scary. I am in Apt, a small town in Provence near Avignon in the south of France. I have been 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 to understand the area in a way 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, bed, and 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 how people drive. The roads around Apt are tiny, with no dividing line in the middle. Drivers are encouraged to keep as far to the right as possible. The French drivers seemed very comfortable with this custom, but it was uncomfortable for me. 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 my colleague 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 concerned about this 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 typically expect a shoulder. My uninformed fear told me that if I drove too much in the middle, I could hit oncoming vehicles, but I could run into a ditch if I pushed too far to the right. I tended to choose the center, but that 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 moving very slowly and feared that I might be impeding them. I sped up, but as I increased my speed, I drifted more to the middle of the road because I worried 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 answered 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 was 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 I was a tourist, which 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 noticed a car 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 its 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 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 town center. 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 attention. Even when I go on larger roads to traverse the countryside, I realize I am a nuisance to the average French driver because I drive too slowly. There is usually a long line of cars looking for an opportunity to pass me when I look behind me. I felt a lot of pressure to drive faster. Sometimes I would speed up, but I was never comfortable driving at high speeds, so I had to solve 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. The slowest driver in France, I 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 using GPS to guide you as you travel in foreign countries. GPS is a fantastic tool, but you have to use it carefully. The first problem I found was that you could end up very far from your goal if you did not select the correct destination. 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 look similar, and if you select the wrong one, you could easily find yourself in the bad 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 city. 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 path was right, I wouldn't say I liked the selected route until I was too far on the journey to turn back. GPS does not seem to analyze the quality of the roads you will be driving on before selecting 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 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. I kept driving slower because the cliff's edge was close by, and my confidence was at an all-time low. The good news is that I made it, and it is now a good story.

Every once in a while, the GPS led me somewhere exciting that I might not have found on my own. ON MY SEVENTY-FIRST BIRTHDAY, my GPS took me to a hilltop town called Gordes. I wanted to spend the evening in Gordes, but where the GPS took me far exceeded my expectations. As I said, the GPS has a habit of going on minor 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 arrived at the back of a building with a group of people having dinner. I apologized for interrupting them and asked how I got 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 I was in an outdoor theater on the side of the hill. The stage was set with drums and guitars for a summer concert later that evening. Outside, a crowd was drinking wine, eating finger foods, and waiting for the show's start. 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.