“Normal” Isn’t in the Travel Dictionary

2013 was the summer of England and France. My husband, Brent, and I hit seven cities in three weeks, taking in a mix of city and country. This is part of a series of blog posts recounting our adventures over July of 2013.

When I was sixteen, I begged my parents to let me go on exchange to France.

Okay, I started begging when I was fifteen. And by begging I mean researching non-reciprocal exchange organizations and creating meticulous lists of reasons why my parents should let me go.

Actually, looking back on it, it may have been more like arguing a case than begging. I was planning to be a lawyer at that time, after all.

Evidence. Precedent. Emotion. I used it all. And I won.

In July of 2000, I spent four weeks with a host family in a town of 1000 people. French people. Then, two weeks living in a Dijon dorm, taking language classes. It was my first adventure outside of Canada, my first really adult move, and my first experience with res life, all in a whirlwind six and a bit weeks.

And it was amazing.

But I’d done it alone. Over a decade ago. So, when the hubs and I were planning our trip to Europe last summer, we added France to our list. Brent had never been, and I had only been to such a small part of it. I hadn’t even seen Paris.

Now, I tell you all this because when I was deciding which picture to use on this site’s homepage, I had it narrowed down to two images: Avebury (England) and St. Malo (France). I went with Avebury.

In England, I’m in the moment. I’m living every second. I’m not even feeling the sunburn yet.

In France, well…

St Malo

See that contemplation on my face? That’s me asking my sixteen year-old self “WTF?”

Little cultural differences that were hilarious when I was a teenager were more irksome as an adult. Dammit.

I’ve frequently told the story of my host family opening a bottle of homemade wine and finding it full of flies. They just scooped them out with a spoon each time they poured a glass and kept on going. And, no, they weren’t drunk (when they started, at least). They just weren’t concerned about the bugs. The flies were a minor annoyance, not gross. And teenaged me was so impressed by their nonchalance.

But our apartment, in the heart of St. Malo, steps from the city’s walls? That was just dirty. Thinking about it now, I can’t remember what was so dirty. I know that we had to re-wash dishes, and that the floors needed a good mop. I think there may have been fingerprints on the toilet door (though not the bathroom door, strangely). There wasn’t anything capital W Wrong with it. But it was unsettling in a way that the flies never were.

And, when I was a teenager, I remember adjusting to a much more relaxed attitude about the body and its functions. I’m not just talking about sex, either. I mean, most of North America could do with some shedding of our Puritan mentality, but the topless postcards at family tourist attractions didn’t shock me as a teenager. The co-ed restrooms at the university in Dijon did. As did the no seats on toilets thing. I had to wonder if French women were born with a hovering gene that I lacked.

But, even knowing all of this, even having lived all of this, I still managed to be surprised by the comfort with public urination that I saw last summer.

“Tu dois faire pipi?” the grandma asked.

The little boy’s whimper and Quebecois sounding whine of a “Ouaaaiiii” said that yes, he did in fact need to pee. So she led him to the wall. The painstakingly rebuilt city wall that was restored after an unfortunate WWII destruction. And he peed. On the stones beneath the bronze plaques commemorating historic figures and war heroes.

He peed, and my brain screamed. He was pissing on history!  It was disrespectful. Distasteful. Disgusting.

Disappointing.

But it wasn’t disappointing for the little boy, who really just had to go. It was disappointing for me, who had, in the thirteen years since my last stay, acquired a self-righteousness that I hadn’t even noticed.

Maybe it’s because I was so unsure of myself as a teenager that it was easier to embrace cultural traits unlike my own norm, thinking that maybe this was the “right” way of doing things and that my own norms were “wrong.” As a teenager still trying to figure out who I was and what I stood for, I took in everything I could, trying it on for size, keeping what fit and chucking out what didn’t sit right.

But, last summer, I wasn’t a teenager anymore. I was an adult. Confident. Secure in who I was. I didn’t feel like I needed to see who I could be, because I liked who I was.

Though I like myself better now. Now that I saw a little boy heading off to pee on a wall – once I remembered that to him, he wasn’t defiling history. He wasn’t urinating on the memory of Jacques Cartier and New France. Because it wasn’t history to him. It was just home. And I was a visitor there. A visitor who, at that time, finally remembered why the French words for “strange” and “abroad” are so similar.

Because we don’t travel for normalcy. We travel for challenge.